Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Egg Watch 2016 - Raising Chickens

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no 
seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that 
you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

--Henry David Thoreau                          

I marvel every time a seed germinates. I will never get over that feeling of joyful incredulity when a seed sprouts and begins its journey to a full plant. Although I know that seeds want to germinate, I always worry that I will do something wrong and disrupt the natural order of things. This is why, when sowing new seeds, I keep a ridiculous watch on the soil surface day after day, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

I find myself in a similar situation with the chickens these days, albeit on a much larger scale. After having studied chicken books assiduously, I know that I'm supposed to start expecting eggs between weeks 18 and 24. Now that the chickens are 19 weeks old, Egg Watch 2016 has begun in earnest. 

Vanessa likes to be the first one out in the morning

In preparation for the blessed event, last week I took down the hardware cloth that has barred the girls from entering the nesting boxes. Then I lined them with a layer of hay to make the spaces a little more inviting. Turfman graciously donated a sleeve of golf balls to the effort, which are supposed to encourage the girls to lay their eggs in the right spot. Virginia inspected my work and seems to be the most interested in the space. The other day, when I opened the nesting box door, I found her peering out at me from the coop's lower roost. She's been hanging out in there longer than the others the last few days, which makes me wonder if she'll be the first. 

The training "egg"

Apparently, there are signs that may signal the time is getting closer. I inspect their wattles and combs each day, anxious for growth and a little more color. Last night I read that I should be looking for a submissive squat when I reach my hand out to them, so they'll be subjected to another bizarre form of inspection in the coming days. I still think we're a couple of weeks out, though.

Virginia is the furthest along (she's on the left)

Virginia's developing wattles and comb

I am prepared to expect wonders from them, but I do have quite a bit of the doubting Thomas in me. "Trust but verify" seems a perfectly reasonable motto. I'm not sure how I will respond when I see the first egg resting somewhere in the coop or run, but I suspect it will be very similar to the moment when I first see the curled neck of a seedling pushing out of the soil. It will be bathed in a heavenly light, and I'll hear some angelic choir singing. It may, in fact, seem like it's golden. Then I'll finally take a deep breath and relax in the reassurance that I haven't somehow screwed up the most natural of things. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

(Very Late) Potato Sowing

On Sunday, after the first frosts had come, after the potato leaves withered in the biting cold, after the stalks surrendered and fell on the dry soil, my mom and I walked up to the vegetable garden to excavate the potato beds.

Earlier in the year, I had ordered seed potatoes from Seed Savers. Apparently I had ordered too many, for no matter how closely I laid the tubers in the ground, I still could not fit half of the total order into two 8'x4' beds. In an attempt to preserve the remaining tubers, I placed them in the refrigerator. There they sat for months until I realized that it was probably too late to make a second sowing. In my defense, the summer was so ridiculously hot and dry that I thought it would be a waste to plant the remaining seed potatoes. Of course, keeping them in the refrigerator simply produced the same effect with the opposite approach.

In mid-September, it seemed at least worth a try to grow more potatoes with what remained. I really had nothing to lose, so I planted the rest and waited. Less robust plants grew, and then they got hit by an unexpected frost. I assumed the effort had been wasted.

This weekend, my mom, armed with my border fork, was too curious and had to investigate. So she sunk the tines deep into the soil and brought up a few wonderful fingerling potatoes. I sat on the gravel path and rescued the little gems from the soil. Again and again she sank the teeth of the border fork into the earth and delivered more unexpected potatoes. She began to chuckle every time I said, "Oooh!" and grabbed at the harvest.

The potatoes were mostly small, but they fed us for two nights. Maybe I waited too long for the second sowing. Maybe I'll get them in a little sooner next year. But sinking my teeth into those last creamy, tasty bites of the summer garden was a pleasure I may remember until the next batch of tubers finds a spot in the garden on the hill.

The photo isn't great, but the potatoes were

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Putting the Garden to Bed

Late this afternoon, as the sun sat just above the horizon and cast a golden glow over the farm, Turfman and I took part in what has become an annual ritual. The temperature is expected to drop overnight and bring frost with it. We have wrapped the sugar snap and shelling peas in a frost protection blanket, anchoring it against the blustery winds. The radish, lettuce, cabbage, and kale seedlings are nestled under old sheets. But everything else that has, perhaps, overstayed its weather welcome, remains exposed to the elements and will likely blacken and wither in response. In the coming days, I will make my way around the garden and begin adding the damaged plants to the compost pile.

It's always a little sad to gather one last harvest before winter sets in. I hate leaving behind so many vegetables that are so full of potential but appeared on the scene far too late to reach it. I'll still be able to grow plenty of things underneath the protection of poly tunnels, and next year's summer growing season will (hopefully) be better than this year's disappointing results after too many days of brutal, withering heat.

But it was still hard to close the gate behind me today.

The last haul of summer 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Raising Chickens

This is just one of those brief weekday posts to send all of you a little bit of cheer.

I have been falling in love with my hens, and so has a certain little dog in the house. Zoey cannot allow me to go up to the coop without her. She stands with her head resting on the top of the coop ramp and greets the girls as they descend. The chickens run to see her when we visit during the day, and at night, Zoey always needs to be with me as I tuck back them into the coop.

We're both besotted.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Fall Vegetable Garden

I got a late start on the fall vegetable garden this year. I blame the chickens for that. Of course, I was the one who decided to get chickens before I had even begun building a coop or run, so maybe it's unfair to blame the girls. Maybe the blame should rest completely on me.

No matter who is at fault, the late start meant that I had to cut back on my plans. Starting a fall vegetable garden is not as easy as one might think, especially when I have to completely remove the summer vegetable garden in order to focus on the fall. In the end, I planted some lettuce and spinach, then followed two weeks later with another sowing. Of those two sowings, I have a grand total of two lettuce plants and two spinach plants. Only one of my Chinese Slow Bolt cabbage seeds germinated, as well. I'm not sure why I'm having such trouble. It's either that the seeds are bad or the soil is. Even though the drip irrigation is working fine, I think the complete lack of rain for two months now has really caused some problems.

It's not all bad news up there, though. I also started my two favorite types of radishes--lovely and mild French Breakfast and the wonderfully spicy Watermelon, and they're coming along nicely. I also planted sugar snaps and regular shelling peas, and those are growing really well. And now loads of Dwarf Blue Curly Kale seedlings are peeking out of the soil.

The peas are now scrambling up their
trellis supports

Some elements of the summer vegetables are still in place, largely because they have been producing heavy yields in the cooler weather. I can't keep up with Asian eggplants, and the peppers of all varieties are going crazy. But they likely won't last much longer unless I start protecting them. We woke up to 31 degrees on Friday morning, and the first kiss of deadly frost has damaged parts of the plants.

These eggplants like the cooler weather

Some leaves are browning and curling

The upper portions of the pepper plants have suffered, too

I'll likely try the lettuce and spinach again in another bed to see if I can get a better germination rate in different soil, but even if they don't produce, we'll still have a good showing from everything else.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Growing Peppers in the Garden (Still!)

[Note: I'm going to try and provide mini dispatches from the garden during the week in case anyone sitting in an office needs a little pick-me up. Here's the first. I'll still aim for the longer reports on the weekends.]

I'm so glad I decided to leave my pepper plants alone when I started clearing the summer garden in preparation for fall. They really seem to love the cooler temperatures at night because they are producing profusely and looking lovely. (How's that for a little alliteration?)

The little golden ones came from an unmarked plant, but I love finding all of those little babies hiding among the green leaves. It seems that the slender light green peppers are now unmarked, too, but they are delicious. And the Iko Iko sweet peppers (the purple ones) are beautiful to watch ripen. Summer was a little harsh in the garden, but the peppers are making fall pretty sweet.

A rainbow of organic peppers

Friday, November 4, 2016

Garden Demolition Team--Deer Damage Edition

When we lived in Orlando, the squirrels and I were almost always at war. The battles never ended in any casualties (unless I count my pride), but we were always trying to outsmart each other. Those squirrels were downright cunning, and though I thought I was, too, I had to wave the white flag of surrender in the end.

On our new property, squirrels aren't much of a problem. Of course, the property is massive in comparison to our small Orlando plot of land, so perhaps I simply don't see the impacts as much. Even though the larger property would seem to harbor far more critters capable of damaging things, the only trouble I had initially was with a certain chipmunk who seemed to have an affinity for Lily of the Valley bulbs. There's also been an armadillo problem, but since it was always rooting around the lawn, that was more of Turfman's aggravation.

In the last couple of months, however, things have taken an ugly turn. It all began with a seemingly ravenous rabbit (identified by certain "gifts" left behind) who treated my vegetable garden like it was his personal all-you-can-eat buffet. First he took every leaf off of my bean plants. Once those were completely destroyed, he was lucky enough to discover my sweet potato plants. Again, he removed every leaf and added the flowers to his diet. Annoyed but unimpressed, I covered the sweet potatoes with chicken wire. Goodbye, rabbit.

The last month has ushered in a new destructive force, and to identify it, dear readers, all you have to do is think of what rhymes with foe (but it's likely I'm not just dealing with the females).

I'm not sure why I haven't had too many issues with deer previously. They've always roamed our property in the mornings. The worst they've done up to now has been to prune one of my plum trees (and yes, the pun is most certainly intended). I stuck a pinwheel in the tree, and I haven't had a problem since. But now they are destroying my front garden, and along with it, my hopes and dreams for so many plants I've nurtured from seed.

First they stripped the leaves from two branches of my Philadelphus (mock orange). I reassured myself that it is virtually a weed and should easily recover. Then I saw they had ravaged my David Austin 'Olivia' rose. That's when I felt the first spark of hate ignite in my belly. Then came the hollyhock. Then (surprisingly), the Salvias. On they went, methodically working their way through Rudbeckia and the tree form Hydrangea, stoking my anger fire. I cut pieces of chicken wire to defend my precious, damaged plants.

Okay, they've left half of the Philadelphus
so far

I thought the Rudbeckia triloba was a goner, but it's sprouting
new leaves at the base

What's left of my 'Becky' daisy. Are you kidding me?!?

When I discovered this morning that they had actually removed the cage I had placed over one of my grown-from-seed Echinops (globe thistle) and completely removed it, let's just say little children's ears would have required covering.  And now it's war. I don't know exactly how I will defend my turf, but most options are on the table. The deer are soon to meet their match, I hope.

If anyone has suggestions for me, I sure would love to hear them. Please post your ideas!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The New Additions

I have wanted chickens since I started watching Alys Fowler's BBC series The Edible Garden on a fall day in 2011. When she brought two chickens, named Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, into her garden and sang their praises, I was hooked. There was only one problem--I lived in Orlando, and chickens weren't allowed there.

When we planned our move back to Georgia, chickens became part of the plan. A friend gave me a book on chicken keeping as a farewell gift. Neighbors asked me to send photos of the chickens as soon as we got them. When the reality set in that I could have them, though, I began to worry about whether I was making the right choice. So the chickens, oddly enough, became like the story of my tattoo. I had an initial desire, worried about the decision, and waited three years to finally get one. The only difference is that the chicken decision only took two years to make. Well, two years from when I could get them. Five years total.

Ultimately, I made the decision on a whim. I had been trolling a Facebook list for people selling livestock for more than a year. When a friend at work asked me in August why I just couldn't get the chickens already, I looked at the list that evening, saw a post for week old chicks, and picked three up the next day. The trick was that I hadn't made any preparations for them.

Virginia, Vita, and Vanessa on their first day
with their family

Enclosing the left bay on the barn and building a chicken coop had been on my list of projects for the summer, but the list was long and the coop at the end of it. As the summer wore on, I fretted about spending too much money on accomplishing all of my goals. The estimate on the coop design plans I had was $600, and with the other things I needed to enclose the run, I figured the total cost would be $1,000. I couldn't justify such a significant expense.

But one day, as I was walking the property, I thought about the many structures that the previous owner had built and I hated. Maybe instead of demolishing all of those things, I could reuse or repurpose them. That's when the hideous archery shack started to look a little more appealing to me.

That? Really?

The target inside (which was filled with old
clothes when we dismantled it...ick)

A side view of the hideousness

The measurements were perfect for a coop, and I figured that I could use the planks on our ugly covered bridge to enclose it. That would save me both money and time. It took me forever to get the target out, but once it was, I had a nice pile of wood and trim from it to use on the coop. The only issue left to deal with was that this enormous thing was cemented in. I attached temporary legs to it, and as Turfman braced it, I took the ripsaw to the 4x4 posts that it stood on. Then we removed the temporary front legs, climbed inside, carefully tilted it forward, and began to drag/carry it into the barn bay. I built a new base for it, and then we stood it up again and put it in its final position. We worked on the coop every free moment we had, and the chicks grew on in the large box in the garage as the weeks went by.

Friends came one Saturday in September to help install the framing for the run and hang the hardware cloth, which moved us a lot further along and made the work more enjoyable.

Here's our crew!
We buried the hardware cloth around the entire perimeter to discourage any critters from trying to get in, and we prepped and painted day after day until I thought I might break. But then we made it, and the girls got to move into their new home.

Nearly every part of the coop is repurposed from the archery target and the bridge. Even the ramp into the coop is built from the frame of the target. My dear friend Maureen (pictured in the center of my crew) gave me her old French patio doors that she replaced with sliding doors a few months ago (don't worry, she's getting eggs). We used white paint that the previous owners left behind, and the blue paint was left over from painting the doors to my vegetable garden. All of it saved me a lot of money. The big expense was the huge roll of hardware cloth and the lumber to enclose the run, but after all of that, my expenses came in under $400 for a very lovely coop and a 20'x30' run for the ladies. In the end, I think they love it, and I'm pretty chuffed at the result. Now the rest of you can judge for yourselves.

Welcome home!

Announcing the residents
(sign from reused bridge parts)

Not sure if I'll enclose the bottom for
storage. The girls like to hang out there.

The ramp that was an archery target

I had to buy plywood for the back and
nesting boxes.

The inside, which is dusty. I use a sand bed, and the
girls like to take dust baths in it.

Enjoying their jungle gym

Virginia on her throne

They seem pretty happy

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The State of the Pond, Fall 2016

Turfman loves watching the weather report. A hush must fall over the house so that he can hear every word uttered. He's most often listening for words like "rain" and "high chance." Most forecasts this summer have ended with him being dejected.

I, too, would love to hear those words, but I have come to loathe the weather report, not just for the lack of rain in the forecast but for a curious and disturbing narrative that the reporter invariably delivers. I don't know exactly who the local news stations consider their most important audience, but I'm guessing it's tourists who hope that we don't get rain while they're here. Otherwise, it's locals who have no idea or concern that we need rain in order to have--well, you know--water.

Here are the two basic forecasts one might hear (and I suspect this is true all over the country):

  1. "Well, folks, I have some bad news. We have a 40% chance of rain today, which will make the commute a soggy one."
  2. "It's going to be a great stretch of days. We have almost no chance of rain in the next 7 days, so get out there and enjoy the sunny weather."
Rain is the enemy.

For those who don't garden, it is likely pretty easy to become unaware of how much or how little rain has fallen in a given month. Sometimes a gardener, too, thanks to the aid of drip irrigation, might be less attuned to precipitation levels. But a pond is an unmistakable indicator of rain patterns. I'll demonstrate just how much by sharing a series of photos. 

On Christmas Eve, the pond and its series of draining canals had succumbed to four days of deluge. 

The canals are no longer to be seen

And neither is the driveway

Over the course of the winter, our driveway washed away four times.

The level settled a bit (and we had some pretty flurries)

And over it went again
We were hopeful for a summer of consistent rain, but it virtually disappeared by May. Although we occasionally had rain, it clearly wasn't enough in the face of far too many 90 degree days. It rained yesterday while I took the photo below, so the water level was a little higher than it has been, but the scene is shocking.

That's all the water left. The bridge is just beyond.

The soil is cracked, and sedge has taken over in most spots

Rain in one season does nothing for us in in the next, especially when we have a pond that we don't want to be a serious eyesore. And whatever we see happening above ground, we can be sure is going on below ground in really important areas like aquifers. I hope we all keep that in mind the next time we watch the local forecast and listen intently for a promise only of sunny days. Rain really is one of our dearest friends.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Surprised by Joy

I am, of course, not the first to use this phrase. Wordsworth used it as the title of a poem in which he describes being struck by something wonderful and turning to share it with his daughter, who unfortunately, had died long before. The rest of the poem is a lament on her loss.

C.S. Lewis, too, used it as a title. It was for his autobiography, primarily about his search for the moment at which longing has been satisfied. Curiously enough, after he published the manuscript he met and married a woman named Joy, and his friends claimed that he had, indeed, been surprised by Joy.

I have to borrow their words for what happened to me today on two separate occasions. I had been working in the vegetable garden, harvesting the last of my first potato sowing. As is my habit, I loaded them into a container that had drainage holes and headed back to the house to rinse them with the hose. I placed the colander on the back porch, and when I turned to reach for the hose, my eyes alighted on the rusty red daylilies blooming in a small bed at the family room chimney and then on to the Zebra grass and Japanese maple beyond. It may seem strange for people to read this, but I suddenly drew breath and felt like I might cry. The beauty of the scene was overwhelming. I thought about how strange it was, wondered if anyone else would feel the same way or merely ask what was so special about the view. But the feeling did not leave me. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I felt as if I had touched (or had been touched by) the miracle of existence. I felt privileged to have had some hand in the making of such a view.

Maybe it's not so overwhelming to anyone
else, but there it is

Once I had rinsed all of the dirt off of the potatoes, I headed to one of the front flower beds to deadhead. Again, in the midst of this, I was struck by another beautiful moment. A small moth was devouring the nectar provided by a Gaura 'Lindheimerei' flower.

He sat so patiently

As I tried to find the best perspective for the camera, I caught another amazing sight in the viewfinder. A ladybug was scrambling up a nearby shoot. Again, I was surprised by an overwhelming feeling of awe to have been witness to this.

There she is, just to the right of the moth

Some may call me altogether too easily impressed, but this is what happens when you tend a garden. You notice the little things that suggest you're part of something so much bigger and miraculous than you ever imagined.

And in case anyone is wondering, I do, indeed, walk around with my camera thrown across my torso. I never know when I might be surprised by joy.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pergola Garden Revival

Since we bought this property two years ago, I have wanted to give it a name. This all started with a trip to the Cotswolds in 2013. So many properties we visited or walked past had lovely wooden signs announcing their identity, and they had nothing having to do with the owners' names. They were descriptors of the places, and I thought they gave them additional character. 

Here's an example

For a while, I was lobbying for Dixter Grange because Great Dixter is my favorite garden, and the word grange seemed to describe our property quite well (a country house with farm buildings attached). We have buildings and structures aplenty around here. While I have always loved the barn, the rest of the structures have been a little less pleasing. They have potential, but they look so tired, largely from their grey wash stain. The pergola is one such structure that has bothered me a bit.

Here's the sad pergola sitting in an overgrown mess

Once we had cleared the lower tier of the garden next to the pergola last year, I started planting the area and creating a relaxing shade garden. Its tidied appearance drew me out on a few days this spring. I stretched out on the small bench to grade portfolios and enjoy the beautiful weather. That made me wish I had an even better, more comfortable space, so I set about creating one. That, my friends, proved to be a very slippery slope. 

It began with changing the color of the pergola stain. That made the pergola look better but the slab beneath all the more tired. So I stained the slab. Then the abandoned lanterns bothered me, so I scrubbed them clean, painted them copper, and moved them to the inside of the posts, along with two of my own lanterns that I cleaned and painted to match. Then I deemed the bench too small. So I built an enormous bench, 6.5 feet long by 2.5 feet wide. I modified a design by Ana White so that I could have more of a daybed, and I used 2x6s for the main frame so that I could put a lid on the seat and make a storage area for the cushions. It cost $170, which is $20 over my budget, but after much building, staining, and sewing, I really am pleased with the transformation. It's now a comfortable, inviting place to find some shade during the day.

It barely resembles its former self

The fountain makes this a really relaxing space
And at night, it has a whole other atmosphere. I wrapped the sphere in the center with solar lights. Although I would prefer a warmer color to the lights, I do like what they add to the space. 

There's a little someone who clearly approves the changes,
probably because the cushions are so comfortable

Now all we have to do is clear the upper tier of the garden, which will take some doing since there's poison ivy running throughout, and we're both terribly allergic. It's a job that needs to be done this summer, though.

And we still need to come up with a good name for the property.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Three Days of Selective Harvesting

The heat is making me wilt these days. Luckily, things in the veg patch seem to be getting along just fine. Here's a brief pictorial update of what I'm starting to harvest. Looks like I'm having roasted root vegetables for dinner tonight.

Tuesday: The last of the garlic

Wednesday: First of the Purple Viking
and Rose Finn Apple fingerling potatoes

Thursday: Root Veg Melange (with one
carrot that must have hit a hard spot)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Teetering on the Edge

I have been worrying lately that I make gardening seem like it's all sunshine and butterflies. It often is that, but I don't want to give the impression that there aren't some disappointments and sacrifices. Beautiful low-maintenance gardens may exist, but I'm not personally aware of them. In fact, I tend to subscribe to the legendary Christopher Lloyd's maxim that "low maintenance is low braintenance." A garden needs attention--sometimes a great deal of attention. In the last few weeks, for example, we've been coping with yet another drought. While we watch the margins of the pond recede rapidly yet again, I carefully monitor how dry the soil is around the plants. I watch for signs that they are under stress as a means of minimizing any damage they might suffer. Pests and diseases most often attack plants that are struggling.

Even under all of my fussing and care, the garden has begun announcing that it is under siege, and I am now springing into action. The first worrying signs appeared on my purple verbena and my thyme. They seemed to be bleaching in the sun, their leaves lighter and spotty. Leaning in for a closer look, I discovered the culprit--spider mites. For the organic gardener, the only thing to do is reach for the Neem oil.

Study the leaves carefully, and you'll see that the one in the
center is showing the signs of spider mites

Luckily, the damage is not catastrophic just yet, and armed with my sprayer of Neem oil and water, I will be doing battle with those dreaded mites. 

The lower leaves may be damaged, but I'm encouraged by
the condition of the new leaves

The other pest that is attacking a wide array of plants is the loathsome Japanese beetle. When I first saw them on my David Austin rose 'Olivia,' I picked them off and stepped on them. This was when there were just a few. Now they are absolutely rampant. 

Here's 'Olivia' with her unwanted guests tucked away within
her petals

It's turned into a dirty Japanese beetle condo!

They, too, will get an evening spray of Neem oil, but as there are so many of them, I have to employ a two-pronged attack this year. In the mornings, I go out with a jar of soapy water, pick off the beetles, and drop them into their sudsy, watery grave...with great satisfaction.

One seems to be a little heavy...

Since I don't want to struggle for years to come, I will be spreading beneficial nematodes and an inoculation of milky spore. They proved very helpful when we had this problem before, which was when we lived in this area 10 years ago.

It's not all bad news this week, though. As I carefully comb over the garden for the unwanted pests, I have found so many other wonderful creatures.

A tiny frog rests amid the Hydrangea 'Limelight' foliage

I love watching the flowers of Gaura 'lindheimerei' bending and bouncing as a bumblebee grabs on for a taste of nectar.

These fellas are hard to capture on camera

Even though the garden is teetering on the edge of greatness or disaster at present, I'm feeling like we're still leaning toward greatness. The first blooms of Leucanthemum 'Becky' and the wonderful, showy heads of Allium sphaerocephalon are keeping my hopes up and encouraging me to fighting the good fight.

Hello, 'Becky'!

As soon as these opened, I ordered a
bunch more!