Often at this time of year, I struggle with the “loss” of an early morning hour of light. But this year’s time change has been the worst that I remember. Maybe I am just getting old, crotchety, and inflexible. I really wish we could just cut out the “daylight savings” myth. Ben Franklin thought he had a clever idea. But not even a great inventor can be right 100% of the time.
Truth: we just cannotget more time by changing what time we say it is! We can’t save daylight – anymore than we can turn it off. Real time is fluid, constantly in flux as we rocket around our sun, in ever-changing yet predictable patterns. Predictable is good. If only, I tell myself, we would go to bed right at dusk, like the chickens, I tell myself, imagine how much better we ALL would feel (I tell myself, my kids, my husband). Stop projects, stop thinking, stop planning…and sleep. You can’t save daylight, and you can’t save sleep – you can just go get some more.
As long as we’re slinging mud at great Americans, Thomas Edison is another one who I have it in for lately. Without the light bulb –the TV screen – the computer screen – the cell phone screen – we would all go to bed like the chickens. Can you imagine trying to read a dark cell phone screen by candle light?? About the most highly intelligent thing that chickens do is file into the coop at dusk every day, for a full night’s rest. Get up with the sun, nature’s light bulb. Sleep more in winter, and don’t do anything you don’t have to do when heat and light are turned low.
But now it’s spring!! Tired or not, I have windows full of seedlings, yearning to breathe free, and garden beds to prepare for them. While these beds were not in use this winter and early spring, the chickens had free access. They did a super job of turning the soil, making it light and fluffy… also kicking a lot of soil out of beds… into the walkways…
Oh well, focus on the positives. From now on, seedlings planted in beds will need protection of wire walls and a roof. The first thing my raised beds need to be is chicken proofed – so that’s where I am headed next.
Turns out Edward and I are not in agreement on what comes first. Oh-oh…
The first thing the raised beds need, Edward says, is to be rebuilt, since they are rotting. I confess I would have ignored this, cheerfully planted up rotting beds, and moved on. The beauty of teamwork, and the frustration…
My garden partner is a far more speedy and efficient weeder than I, a remarkable green thumb, and an unexpected perfectionist about certain things that I am not. For instance he vies with the chickens in creating perfectly aerated, fluffy soil. Edward just loves to move dirt around. I am the better harvester, the seedling starter, the veggie preserver, and a perfectionist about certain things that he is not. It works out. Mostly. For now, the seedlings will have to lean into the window glass pining for sunshine another week – just as well, with last weekend’s temperatures. (One night 26 degrees…)
It works out. On we march, into April, aspiring to sleep like chickens. Dreaming of real spring…
Coming Soon: I have my Worm Consultant! But am I really ready for Vermi-Composting??
These are exiting and nerve-wracking times in the political landscape – doubtless many of us are tired of hearing about the latest shenanigans from the stump. But I couldn’t help making the connection last week to the presidential hopefuls as I passed by the table in our bedroom this morning that is loaded with greening trays and pots, and reminded myself that I MUST transplant the sprouts today.
We are all transplants in North America, depending how far back you go, considering Africa as the cradle of human civilization, and theorized emigration across the Bering Strait bringing humans to this continent(what made them do it? cold? war?…alas, history lesson forgotten). Every time I put the frail-looking seedlings into bigger spaces, watch them strengthen and rise, becoming producers of volumes of edible stuff, I am amazed. And deeply satisfied. True, transplants human or horticultural require some extra TLC – but once established they are tough contributors. But being as this is a horticultural more than a political post, I’ll leave that rumination there, and run for my potting soil.
In times of upheaval it’s a wonderful thing to slink away and spend time planting seed and seedlings for a summer of eating. Nature’s cycles of growth are a reassuring pulse, deeper, stronger, and longer-lived than the flapping of jaws on the podium. True that our climate lately has turned as chaotic as our political scene — last week temperatures varying from 30 degrees to 80s, very unsettling for Maryland in March. Hard to plan or guess what will come next?
Still, if we wish to eat food we must grow food – or else someone must grow it. This is a simple fact. So forward we go. And even though the weather patterns are uncertain it is still true that when you put a seed into moist warm soil, it grows. The process is primal and satisfying magic – and constant, at least a high percentage of the time.
Looking through the plastic sides of the berry boxes I use to get my seed started, I see some seedlings’ enormous web of root below, supporting those few baby leaves. Or, looking the other way, each set of tiny green leaves feeds a relatively enormous web of root – extracting from light and carbon what they need to make FOOD. The fact that carbon, problem of urban/sunurban living, is the food for plant life – what a remarkable system. It’s a privilege to partake in the process.
Partook in the process a LOT this weekend — flats of seedlings in berry boxes (my favorite method of for good germination of seeds)
become pots, and pots, and POTS (help!) of transplant seedlings –
filling every window – table – ledge, strengthening, growing, waiting for warmer weather to fill the garden beds outside.
Meanwhile, the Lettuce Boxes continue to add bulk to salads —
It’s a horrible day to be a chicken – rainy, 40 degrees, and two more days of rain predicted. I just slipped off the chicken house roof (thankfully cushioned by a 3 foot wide raised garden bed covered in leaves, and not skewered by the garden stake that I broke in half with my fall) trying to close up the hole in the screening there to the sparrows, who are ever ready to take food and leave parasites behind, to say thanks.
At least our run has metal roofing panels on it, and straw covers the run floor, so the girls can scratch out of the raindrops and off the mud. Chickens should never be left to stand in mud – nor should any animal of course. It breeds disease. I learned long ago from a chicken lady that to keep suburban chickens odor-free you keep them on mulch, which they keep on turning their poops into, in their endless quest for seed and buggy snacks.
Now that our chickens are ‘paddock method chickens” rather than free-range–and-destroy-the-backyard-chickens, our strategy has been to keep on throwing in more piles stuff for them to work through: straw (winter), or mown grass and weeds (spring/summer), or leaves (fall), or chip mulch if necessary. We shovel off the old composted stuff it when we need some dirt. I also have a compost pile for veggie scraps that I am not actively feeding to the chix that they can dig through – if they get bored.
But today they seemed happy to have me leave them in peace, after I hoisted a couple more panels up over their heads (rattle crash!!) to keep them dry, and after I fell off the roof I was happy to leave too, feeling stupid and lucky. And lucky to be warm.
Before I give you the baby chicken update – got to have that! – let me digress a minute to stand on my soap box . I know that given who is likely to be reading this, I am likely preaching pointlessly to the choir. But as I look into the nesting box on this dreary day to find six eggs in a swirl of straw, I am smitten again with amazement for these creatures who with so little attention from me or Edward, kick out day after day this nutrition- packed oval of deliciousness in its own porcelain carrying case.
How can it be that humans feel justified in buying eggs at rock-bottom prices, from hens kept in cages, out of sunlight, or clean air (imagine the ammonia), unable to engage in scratching? How can it be that humans, who couldn’t pull this trick of an-egg-a-day off if they tried, feel not only justified but smarter if they get the cheapest price a dozen, knowing that it is a blood price? Good eggs cost $4-5 to produce (with no profit to farmer). If you are paying less, someone is getting hurt – either the farmer, or the chicken. Or both.
Now, if you have lots of pasture to let your chickens really free range, you can get your eggs almost free, fed by what they can find for themselves. Chickens love to forage anyway. My sister’s farmer keeps his flock this way, providing some additional support in the form of cracked corn, in order to produce soy-free eggs for his customers. But this requires lots of space, preferably rotating pastures, per chicken. Not very possible in suburbia.
My chickens used to have my whole yard, (sometimes my neighbors’ yards, with eyes on our whole development, and it’s woods) to roam. We tried that, and it means I don’t get to have much of a “gardens and people yard.” Plus the neighbors were not into chickens roaming their lawns, and were worried about dogs hurting them. Domestic animals make the trade of freedom for safety. Last summer the hens who insisted on freedom in our back yard trees to enjoy their summer nights fed the fox. I lost ten last summer, and ten the summer before that. The fox has been hungry since…but the chickens get restless. Life is compromise.
The thought of better supporting my chickens leads me on a quest this blustery rainy day. In order to find out more about feed, I called Nick’s Organic Farm in Potomac Maryland – find him here www.nicksorganicfarm.com/. I used to buy my chicken feed from Nick, and would love to again, but I don’t love making that drive around the Beltway to Potomac to get it. The young woman who answered the phone told me that the soy Nick grows is organic and GMO free, he grinds it himself, and it forms the protein base for his chicken feed. Soy-free feed exists, she said. Can chickens digest soybeans, though? I queried. Is it natural for them? Well, chickens are from Asia, and so are soybeans, she responded. In this mix they may encounter more of it, but it is something early chickens would have eaten. Obviously a well-prepared employee.
My searching lead me next to Geoffrey and Sally Fallon Morrell’s website for their farm in Brandywine, MD (not too far from me) where I read that they give soy-free feed to their poultry. But – where do they get it? When a representative later called me back, I learned that they create their own feed, but so far do not sell it. The woman I spoke to also reassured me that soy isn’t bad for chickens, but can be bad for soy-sensitive people who eat their eggs (or meat). Find Morrell’s farm here – http://pabowenfarmstead.com/farm/
All this brings me back to the soapbox I stepped up on today, that giving our chickens good nutrition so that they are healthier and happier, so they can pass good nutrition on to the people they feed, is not a walk in the park. Does it matter? I have to say yes. The closer we can come to imitating what nature does and what animals do in nature, the better things will work out for growers and eaters of vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, and meat.
But you have been patiently waiting — the baby chicken report!
Our late October babies are young ladies now, not quite to point of lay. The young flock and the old still have not incorporated into a one – they tend to hang out and feed separately. But I plan to mix them up at night, on the roost, to help that process toward one flock along.
We introduced our old hens to the new chicks slowly. They shared a henhouse and run dived in half by chicken wire, for a long time before they were allowed access to each other by day – and then by night. The key is to create places where the little ones can escape the big ones, who have to prove dominance at the feeder and the water bowl. I’ve been adding simple visual barriers in the run with cardboard — good for chickens all the time, not only when introducing two flocks to each other.
Making the barriers of cardboard is lazy – of course it would be better to make them from wood, or metal, so I don’t have to do it again. But what in life is perfect? Maybe watching chickens root through straw or fresh dirt happily in the sunshine? That’s pretty close to perfect.
PS: Inspired by my rainy day reading about the value of grass/pasture to chickens, I went back outside and let the chickens out on the grass. Somehow, some way, we will keep improving what we can offer to our little flock in our suburban growing landscape.
Or…maybe not. Not everything we humans try is a success. This is just a truth. But it’s the one that got away – the experiment that flopped – that fascinates me most. So I am likely to keep trying.
Gardens of lettuce and spinach are growing inside at our house! That’s the good news. But this tub (above) was started about 2 months ago.
This about one month ago…
This one 2 weeks ago…
At this rate we’d get to eat a couple of salad per winter. Shucks! – it seemed like such a great plan.
Edward and I embarked on “Banting” – a South African diet that focuses on veggies first and mainly, fat second, meat next, cheese only if you can do it, then very little fruit. No grains, no flours, so no bread, pasta, etc. The recipes in the cookbook look and taste delicious, focusing on high fat (butter, olive oil, bacon), moderate proteins, lots of vegetables, and very, very low carb. The Banting Diet says good fats silence those incessant sugar cravings. Sugar, even natural forms of it, confuses your appestat, the part of the brain that tells you when you’re full – so eating carbs makes a person (especially some people) constantly hungry. Edward has found it very helpful – removing the carbohydrates from his diet has ended the sugar cravings that dominated his taste experiences before. He has begun (after some tweaking) to drop weight. He says he plans to eat this way from now on.
Given that every day starts with greens cooked in butter and eggs, we thought if we could grow our own in the window this winter, wouldn’t we be clever?
I met a friend in the grocery store last night, and over a box spinach from California and a handful of laocinta kale, I confided our growing woes. Her husband is also a grower and an innovator. They have red wiggler worms in their kitchen, which in my opinion makes them hard core.
She responded with a smile that confided both sympathy to me and also perhaps long-suffering patience, “There’s a reason we buy this stuff.”
True enough. But the Steve Ritz in me (last post) wants to know why?Why didn’t the spinach grow faster? Soil not deep enough? Soil not rich enough? Not enough water? Not enough light? Edward says he doubts the plants can be fooled by the grow lamp, nor the plate warmer I jerry-rigged under them. That winter sun is just too pitiful and too low on the horizon to help out, and they know it.
But every day – there is a little more sunlight. (There must be a way…)
Meanwhile…we still have eggs! And chickens old and new have been enjoying spreading straw and stirring up the earth in garden beds to come…
For so many months this blog has lain dormant. Those who follow my writing know that my other blog has taken the bulk of my attention during the past year (embracing chaos.net, stories about life with our special needs young adult son Owen). If there is a “bulk” of anything so stretched and scattered as my attention. I am a writer, when I am not a landlord, cook, mom, builder, or gardener.
But while suburbangrowing.com has lain fallow, the soil of the blog has rested. Time to seed it, and bring you a harvest of new ideas to use in your own gardens.
This year, in addition to writing about what Edward and I are growing around our property, how we struggle for maximum yield in suburban spaces, how we address the chickens-in-suburbia challenge (that constant tension between green scratch for them and unmolested gardens for us), I want to make a greater effort to learn how to bring garden spaces to un-gardened new places. And I want to take you along on that ride.
Gardens in my local school? Gardens for the DC soup kitchen we support? How about a community garden for homeless folks who panhandle along MLK Blvd in Baltimore? What about gardens for Owen’s Adult Day Care Program? What about being the connection between Owen’s day care program New Horizons Supported Services Inc, and Forested, the teaching garden up the road from me? Learning a skill like how to grow food could be life-changing. Being outside in sunshine is healing. Working the soil is satisfying. Eating quality food when you know how it grew and how to grow it, is the foundation of health. As you can see, my brain is teaming like a box of red wiggler worms.
Just some of the ideas percolating in my mind for 2016. You may say I’m a dreamer – but no one goes to jail for dreaming. Let’s see what we can get done.
I am passionate about eating good food, and growing good food, sustainably. I long for this to be something for as many people as possible – not just the few. By good food I mean fresh (locally sourced), non-chemically-contaminated-hence-organically-grown/or/raised-food. I want to see it affordable. I want to see it accessible. More suburban and urban people.
Fact is, toxic chemicals build up in soil, air and water, and so on our foods. This will affect our body function. Eventually it will cause illnesses. Good food grows a better brain. The brain you grow as a baby and child is the brain you get – how well kids are nourished could affect them for a very long time. So much hype about “healthy” foods – and SO little access to simple, fresh, organically grown veggie stuff. So little exposure to cooking it!
Enter Steve Ritz, my inspiration for the week!
Steve Ritz is really the reason I am sitting down typing to you now, waking up this blog. I heard Steve interviewed on NPR last week. As soon as I got home, I ran for the computer to Google him. Steve is a remarkable teacher who went from knowing nothing about gardening to energetically growing gardens in city classrooms – teaching kids how to grow, how to love veggies, and how to make city gardens as a job. You will love this guy —
I find something to post about nearly every day now, as spring is springing!
In my ongoing search for a way to combine suburban life and with chickens, I stumbled on Chicken Tunnels – chicken tunnels are hot!! Everyone’s posting about Chicken Tunnels! Or maybe that was last year, and I’m behind the curve. Here is a photo from Backyard Farming Connection.com last spring–
But my favorite source on this subject was the Chicken Tunnel Man,Bruce Morgan’s YouTube VIDEO. Bruce directs his “chooks” into one garden bed at a time via portable wire tunnels that he stores on top of his shed – a very inspirational guy from Down Under. https://youtu.be/GlyV8fA6R_Q
So far I haven’t built any chicken tunnels – but I ‘ve been thinking about something like them for a long time. I first heard about chicken tunnels when someone sent me photos last month. But I suspect for now paddocks are still the easiest for us on this cozy suburban 1/2 acre, since you rotate the chickens simply by closing one door and opening another, and have no tunnels to store.
Lately we are bringing all our piles of weed to the chickens in their run, as we try to get our gardens planted and can’t risk an escapee scratching her way through the baby plants. I have a lot of garden beds to secure. Dealing with wire is NOT my favorite job either.
It’s tempting though – if I can think of a way to store all that tunnel when not in use…
Flowers for Chickens? Why? This idea is totally stolen from an inspiring website I looked at and have not been able to relocate. But search “chicken garden” and you find this subject is on flockster’s minds. Because chickens benefit enormously from grass, yet this is what lawn looks like after a winter under the tender mercies of my 13 chickens:
(It took them about 2 weeks FYI.)
The lady whose great website I cannot find plants her chicken run with living forage, grass, but things beautiful as well as tasty to peck. What an inspiration! A run could be something other than a wasteland? She is constantly on the lookout for plants which co-exist happily such as ROSES(!) – given how prone to being buggy roses are, this could be a real source of nourishment. She sets large rocks or pavers to protect roots from scratching claws. Beware the long list of chicken toxic plants – http://www.backyardchickens.com/t/627282/comprehensive-list-of-poisonous-plants-and-trees – Also listed below). So, thank you lady!! wherever you exist in the blogospere. You have changed the way I am going to manage my chickens this summer.
Edward and I had already planned to add living forage into and around the run this year – and here’s what we have so far:
A Mulberry sapling – we are growing a mulberry bush into the run. The first step was to a convince Edward not to kill it, since he considers mulberries invasive, water-stealing, horrible plants. MULBERRIES are a very nutritious food, easy to grow and tough (yes dear) and voila! free food that our chickens can feed themselves. You can see that despite Edward’s dislike, this plant is very happy. Sadly, he says, it probably will thrive. I have the roots outside the run wire, so it’s roots are protected most of the time, and leaves outside the run roof get tons of sun.
Berries – one of the areas the chickens will be guided toward is under the brambles, to clean up the fallen fruit.
I have JUST hatched an idea to grow Black Raspberries (black caps), a plant that loves us, ACROSS a small wire paddock, so the chicks get fruit from under it and we can harvest from the top. I will post photos soon.
Less impressive at the moment is the beginning of our Vegetable Garden Tower beside the mulberry (yes, you unbelievers, I will prune the mulberry heavily! so that the tower is not shaded!). This is an idea I got from Ben Friton of Can Ya Love.
The fabric cloth will hold dirt in, and plants can be inserted to grow and hang out all the way up. Chickens can harvest their side, plus the lower regions of front when they are in Paddock 1. We can harvest the upper section. I’m going to try cukes up there. I threw this together using some old fencing and row covers from last summer. Learn more about Ben’s work from his website at www.canyalove.org. A grower friend of mine, Lincoln Smith of the teaching garden Forested (http://forested.us/), introduced me to Ben and his book Can Ya Love? which describes the creation of his vertical garden concept, and shows how he has used it to help hungry communities around the world grow their own greens.
Swiped from his website, Ben’s vegetable pillars:
Have fun in your gardens this weekend!!
HERE’s the Evil For Chickens List:
Backyard Chicken’s Comprehensive List of Plants Toxic to Chickens:
I have a son who loves plastic pots with an love that is really obsession. To him only the pot is real, certainly not what is in the pot. And so when I found the transplanted tomato seedling dumped out upside down again this morning, I wasn’t actually surprised or even outraged., although I did fume and spit flew from my mouth in a pointless effort to communicate to him: “That tomato needs that pot!!That tomato is USING that pot!You cannot have that pot right now!!”
This is the second time for this poor seedling, which has had the misfortune to be transplanted into a very nice red pot. I wish I could know if the trauma it’s endured will make it stronger, in the way that our human bodies develop scar tissue where they heal.
I listened to a radio program on NPR (this winter I think) about the results of testing organic produce to see whether it had more health benefits than commercially grown produce. The testing found that organic treatment did not increase the vitamin and mineral content of a plant. The reporter went on to say that what the organic plant did offer was a greater number of antioxidants, those cancer fighting compounds that everyone in health food talks about.
Apparently plants raised without sprays to kill pests and fungi for them, have to fight harder to protect themselves. They have to build up defenses to do that, and when we eat the plant we consume these “defenses”ourselves, strengthening ourselves (it is theorized) against what attacks us.
As I tipped the transplant back over to get these photos (yes, I did. poor plant) I noticed that the newly replanted roots gripped the soil tightly, holding it in place as the pot went over. You’re not doing that to me again! I will have to mark this plant and keep track of its progress, to see if this one becomes extra healthy or produces extra fruit…
Maybe we’ve discovered something!
To read more about my special needs son and his obsessions, check out embracingchaos.net.
My neighbor Mrs. Q. has had her seeds planted since early February. Maybe January. Not that we are competing.
I did get mine in while it was still barely February. It’s easy to waste time looking backwards, wishing you had already done something, or done it better, so I congratulated myself on overcoming that hang-up and justgettingthoseseedsindirt!!
But I hate staring at those trays of dark blank soil, watering, waiting, feeling like all is lost. I actually have pretty good luck with germination, but I go through this every spring anyway. Like an old-fashioned father, anxiously pacing the hallways outside, removed from the process of birth, wondering when I will get to see the new-born life. It’s easy to be gloomy too soon. Some seeds need a loooong germination. Celery is one of those, but last year after I’d almost given up hope, I wound up with 10+ plants.
Every year I learn more about being the midwife, rather than the anguished excluded dad in this process. I have learned that I don’t need a heating pad (although it can help!), just a grow-light and/or sunny window, and patience. I have learned how important regular watering is. Last year I learned a trick for germination of difficult seeds (like flower seeds) is an old plastic salad or berry box, with the plastic snap down lids, but ventilated too. Keeps things the right amount moist, but not soggy.
Just 4 days later I feel silly for my gloom as the first seeds sprout. How exhilarating to see those seedlings fling themselves upward out of the soil!! My kids try to feign enthusiasm as I drag them in to rhapsodize over the flecks of green. How humbling! and how miraculous! – all that gravity bearing down on such a tiny organism – say a basil seed and sprout – expanding and pushing up through soil particles which are to it like boulders. And yet the sprout heaves them out of the way and leaps forth, given the right blend of moisture, warmth, and light.
Tonight I watched a show about growing food, big scale. Farmers brought to court by the American seed engineering corporation Monsanto, farmers encouraged to buy expensive newly developed seed, farmers no longer allowed to save their own seed — meanwhile, America eats on, blissfully ignorant of the struggles and politics involved in bringing their food to table. And mostly incurious apparently about the quality of the food they wind up with.
It’s a relief to step away from a sense of powerlessness, and turn my attention to the trays and pots of baby sprouts under the grow light. Those sprouts which, with care and a little luck, will provide a large part of our eating this summer.
I don’t control this miracle; I have no copyright. I simply rejoice that no one can prevent me from participating in a wonderful ritual of life – the getting of my food.