Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chicken Update 5/30/13 Sick Baby

    9 months is a pretty good run, I think, to not have any issues or losses with our flock.  But nature can be cruel, and the streak had to end sometime.

     Yesterday evening, Nikki noticed that one of the babies couldn't use it's legs.  We are totally stumped as to what is happening here.  The eyes are bright and clear.  The head and neck move ok and the little guy is chirping regularly.  It's as if it's legs are paralyzed and it's wings are very weak.  It can't balance very well, or maybe it is turning itself over trying to stand.  Several times though, I have found it on it's back with it's head at an extremely awkward angle.  It will eat and drink if it can reach the dish and the poops look ok.  We do need to clean it's vent regularly since it can't stand or preen.

     I'm pretty confident that the dark bump on it's foot in the pic above is just dirt and not bumblefoot.  The toes are all sticking out straight in a contorted spasm.  I really hope that this is not a case of Marek's disease, a rather nasty sounding virus I just learned about.  Or if so that at least we got him isolated in time.  My research in this matter has been fruitless so far, so if anyone out there in internetland has any ideas, please leave a comment or shoot me an email.

     We moved the brooder into the paddock with the big birds about 2 weeks ago so they could get acquainted through the wire mesh.   The other big change we have made recently is to give all the birds fermented feed.  We are fermenting the layer pellets and giving it to both groups of birds along with their dry feed.  Oh my god, as I am typing this I am realizing that that could be the problem.  One of the issues I read about was growing too fast causing leg problems.  Perhaps the excess calcium in the layer feed is the culprit.  I am going to feel really terrible if this is the case.  We started out fermenting the chick feed separately, but it didn't smell right, and I figured it was because it was medicated.  So we scrapped the small bucket and just started giving the adult mix to both groups in addition to their dry food.  Never stopped to think that it is formulated differently.  I am going to remove the fermented feed from the babies immediately just in case.  Now we discover the true value in keeping this blog, as it forces me to put my thoughts into words and to think things through.

     There is a lot more to write about, but now I want to go remove the feed.  Also I should really be building the new hoop coop instead of blogging, so I'll just leave you with a couple of funny cock shots.

Ever have an itch you just can't scratch?


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Garden Notes 5/23/13

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     Things move so fast this time of year.  A round of rain followed by warm weather has stimulated a lot of growth everywhere, from the trees down to the grass.  We are finally seeing some pollinators buzzing about, though they seem pretty sparse so far.  Mason bees and bumble bees mostly, though I have seen at least one honey bee, some wasps, and  some flies.

     After a few weeks of leaving our seedlings outside for incrementally longer periods each halfway decent day we had, we have managed to harden them off.  They stay on the porch in the shelter of the railing all day and night now.  A little bit of sunburn on the pepper plants but other wise looking pretty good.

      Our wood filled swale with lasagne on top rain garden is doing quite nicely.  It has barely sunk at all.  The hens and chicks along the rocks came back and then some.  We are starting to get it planted with some Amish Paste tomatoes, Liatris, daffodils, lavender, spinach, garlic, and strawberry spinach.  I had seeded the entire thing with white clover last fall.  Interestingly it all washed off and germinated on the other side of the rock border at the edge of the driveway.  It makes a nice lush green carpet, I kind of like it even though it wasn't intended.

     The new hugel-swale thingy is planted with Amish Paste tomatoes (SSE), Orange Bell Peppers (SSE), lettuce, celosia, parsley, basil, along the South side(above); and goji berries, strawberries, cilantro, borage, liatris, comfrey, and celosia along the East side.  We have been watering this new bed in as we have not had a lot of rain up until yesterday. 

     The big box on the porch is just starting to go.  I planted peas, lettuce, and spinach but apparently ma nature did some planting too.  I'm not sure what is what quite yet but there will need to be some thinning done on this bed.

     The three square foot gardens we installed two years ago are still in good shape other than a little greying of the wood, even the one made from untreated pine 2x6.  We are going to remove that one at some point, hopefully this year, and replace it with an herb spiral, so we will get to see how much rot is on the inside of the box.  The other two we will use for now until we re-do the entire area into a series of keyhole beds.  The bed shown above has peas, sage, and kale.  I guess I missed some garlic last year, because it came back unexpectedly.  

     I had heard somewhere that garlic has is allelopathic towards the beneficial bacteria that support peas.  And indeed the plant that is growing right on top of a bulb is stunted.  But I find it interesting that the plants that are just a few inches away are doing just as well as the peas in the other bed with no garlic.  I may let this go for a while just to see what happens.

     We are going to keep the lasagna beds out of the chicken paddock/food forest development for this year as they are so doing so well.  That is despite the total lack of maintenance as  I have neglected to cut the edges or do any weeding.  It's hard to find the motivation when I know it will be a forest soon.  Still, there are some pretty cool thing going on.

     I think it is going to be a good year for strawberries.  We will need to put the netting up soon as the berries are just starting to form.  I have decided to let the dandelions live in peace as they have a deep tap root that doesn't compete with the shallow plants and indeed can help them by bringing Phosphorus, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Copper, Silicon to the surface that are deep out of reach for most plants. [source: Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway]

     We have pretty much stopped harvesting asparagus and let it leaf out.  We may need to thin out the hollyhocks if they get as large as the one plant we had here last year.

     The raspberries are looking good.  So is the wild mulberry that came up on it's own on the end.  We are letting it come up for now and it looks like we will see it's first fruit this year.

     Finally we are having some success with our bing cherry tree.  We got two of them as gifts from Nikki's dad and between not getting them in the ground soon enough, poor soil, and a really bad year for japanese beetles, neither one survived.  We managed to get one back in time for the warranty and stuck the replacement in the end of one of the lasagna beds.  Garlic on one side and lupines on the other with a spattering of dandelions all around make  the beginnings of a guild for this little guy.  Last year it was looking pretty sad, but after pruning off the dead wood this winter it is looking lush with new growth.

     Since cherries can't self pollinate, Nikki picked up a sour cherry that she noticed was flowering at the same time as our Bing.  We got it in just a day before what I hope was the last frost of the season knocked out all the blossoms.  Still, there are a few fruit forming around where the branches meet the trunk, so I guess they are compatible.   The Sour cherry is now part of the new walnut guild Nikki is working on up in the side yard.

     Rhubarb, peas, and gardener's delight cherry tomatoes make up the rest of the bed with the cherry tree so far.  The middle bed has onions, some self seeded lettuce, strawberry spinach, garlic, and a gooseberry on the end.

     The strawberry spinach and garlic seem to get along great.  Soft neck garlic on the left, hard neck on the right.

     In the large bed, the garlic I put in last fall is doing great.  Sadly most of the potato onions have died out.  I guess it isn't a very good idea for me to get seed from a seed company in a warmer  southern climate.  The middle has row yet to be planted.  The row on the other end is planted with broccoli, cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts from seed but either old seed or not enough moisture have given us only a few sprouts so far.  

     Up next to the barn where the chickens tore apart several bales from their winter coop I decided to try an experiment in straw bale gardening.  I'm not adding kelp meal and all that stuff.  This is simply a raked up pile of hay that likely has some small quantity of chicken poop and feathers mixed into it and topped off with a generous pile of mushroom compost.  So far I only have a couple of cherry tomatoes in it.  If nothing else it covers the bare ground where we had the chickens over winter.

First lupine of the season starting to bloom

Monday, May 20, 2013

What's in Bloom, April 2013

     My focus in our gardening efforts here has mostly been on food.  Trying to figure out ways to feed ourselves sustainably in a planet gripped by crisis on numerous fronts.  Sometimes I fail to see the forest for the trees when I get too wrapped up in worrying about the future.  It's funny to me now to think back to our first year here and how I got frustrated with Nikki for spending so much of her labors on ornamental plants and flowers.  As my knowledge base has grown so has my  understanding of the benefits those blooms and bushes bring to our home; not only for their beauty and having access to fresh cut flowers throughout the warm season for our pleasure, but for the support they offer to so many beneficial insects, whose presence is critical to our success at being able to harvest anything at all out of our haphazard gardens.

The First Crocuses poke up through the oak leaves  4/4/13

     Some beneficial insects, such as the very tiny wasps that prey on pesky caterpillars when they are larvae, need nectar from flowers as adults to thrive and reproduce.   Providing nectar, pollen, shelter, and access to moisture ensures that a variety of beneficials will be present in the garden. The monthly What's In Bloom series of posts is dedicated to observing the blossoming of all the plants that provide their nectar to attract and support our army of insect farm workers.  

     Early April offers only crocuses for color as few hardy wild plants shake off the frosts and show a hint of  green.


     Heavy Spring rains and finally some sunshine have coaxed a few more blossoms to open.  We are not sure what to call the one above, but it is quite pretty.

     And finally the hyacinth are out at the very end of the month.

     Trout Lily (Erythronium) bloom all along the north east side of the house, under the white oaks and black walnuts trees.



     Some daffodils and a couple of tulips came up on the south side of the house along with a small scattering of dandelions.  That's it for the early pollinators, next month things really get moving in our efforts to provide season long blooms to our beneficial insect friends.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Expanding Zone 1 - New Hugelkultur Bed

     One of the big things I am changing since finding out about permaculture, is to move our vegetable gardens closer to the kitchen.  It just makes sense, and I have already experienced the difference in how much more likely we are to use the garden in our cooking when it is close at hand.  In permaculture design, a property is divided up into zones based on how often an area needs to be accessed.  The living area is zone 0, and the gardens and other features that need to be accessed daily are nearby in zone 1.  There is an excellent explanation of zones on TC Permaculture, check it out if you want to understand the concept better.  Normally chickens are kept in zone 1, but since we are on just 1 acre, I am considering the food forest / chicken paddock area to be our zone 2.

     Last fall, we did our hugelkultur in a swale project just off of the porch (above).  This created a large bed that will be planted with a poly-culture of vegetables, herbs, and flowers along with some support species.  This Spring we were able to expand that to the other side of the sidewalk by creating a long hugelkultur all along the large rocks that separate the yard from the driveway (below).  If you are not familiar with hugelkultur, check out Paul Wheaton's awesome article on

     In the pic above you can see that I started out with 3 square foot gardens up close to the house.  Although they worked out ok, we will eventually transition that area into keyhole beds for their more interesting shape and increased edge space.  We are getting the layout started by creating a bed all along the rocks, where we can take advantage of the thermal mass of the rocks regulating the temeratures and the increased solar gain reflecting off the light colored gravel driveway to the South.

We started by cutting a line about 2' off the rocks and removing the sod along the one side.

     This was one of those rare days when we are both home and the weather is not too bad and we are able to work on the yard together.  Happy stuff!

This super high tech and complicated piece of equipment is called an A Frame Level.  Very effective for leveling a trench and it only took me about 10 minutes to build it.

The indicator is a snow stake duct taped to a washer and hanging on a screw.  Works pretty well, though it is tough to read if the wind is bad.


We left an island of undisturbed soil at the corner and trenched around the inside of it, then continued on toward the garage.

There was a height difference of almost 3' from one end of our trench to the other.  Once we got the garage side (above) down to where it would catch water instead of spilling onto the driveway, we started leveling our way back uphill.


Rather than dig out the entire side, we cut a narrower trench level with the other side so that water captured off the slope will hydrate the uphill side of the bed before overflowing onto the driveway.

The idea is that water flowing across the yard will get caught and fill the trench, getting a second chance to hydrate the higher side by the sidewalk and allowing the hugel bed to store as much as possible. 

With heavy rains the next day, we got to see it in action.  The overflow gently seeped onto the driveway through the rocks at several locations. 


We filled the trench completely, as tight as we could pack it, with all different types of wood.  All different varieties in different stages of rot.  Every size, from big logs to tiny twigs, where ever we could jam them in.



When we couldn't fit any more wood in, we covered it all with a couple layers of well rotted wood chips, then put the sod back on upside down.

And here it is finished and ready for planting.  We topped it off with some mushroom compost from River Valley Ranch.  This year it will be alternating tomatoes and peppers every few feet with carrots, lettuce, flowers, and herbs scattered throughout.  Eventually the young Chicago hardy fig I picked up last year will go on the corner, but it is producing so nicely in it's pot on the porch I think I am going to leave it be for now.

So far we only have a few sacrificial plants put in, but with no frost on the forecast it is starting to look more and more like planting time.