Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Last Saturday the weather in Alameda was just glorious. The sky was cloudless and blue, the sun was hot, but the air in the shade still had an edge of crispness. It was perfect weather to dig, to amend, and to plant. Inside, I had an entire room of junk that needed to be sorted, and boxed, and stored to facilitate a renovation project. Inside, I had piles of laundry to be folded and put away. Inside, I had a sink full of dishes, catboxes in need of changing, and an assortment of other chores and responsibilities. With my daughter away for the day with our beloved Abuyens, it was an opportunity to GET THINGS DONE.  I needed to get in and get started.


But the outside air was just too delicious to miss.  I would, I thought, just work outside for a little while. Half an hour at most. Really. I’d just get my herbs into the rocky little area that I had prepared for them the previous weekend.  In less than twenty minutes, it was done.   


Oh well, time to go inside.  On my way to the front door,  I paused to do a bit of involuntary weeding. (You know involuntary weeding, right? It’s the kind of weeding you do in heals and a cocktail gown, when you’re walking out on your way to the school gala, with your freshly painted nails… You really have no choice in the matter.  You spy that nasty Oxalis peaking out from your strawberry patch, and its very existence enrages you. It becomes a moral imperative that it be immediately ripped out, which causes you to notice the crab grass growing between the edging and the stone, which cannot be allowed to sink further tendrils in, and those tendrils lead you to one of those damned prickly balls which is attempting to sprout a tree in your garden…you know, THAT kind of weeding, the end result of which is you arrive half an hour late to the formal event looking flushed and happy, but with a quarter inch of good black soil under your nails.)


Anyway, this particular involuntary weeding led me to another little area I’d prepared two weeks ago, and which I hadn’t yet earmarked for a recipient. But in this gorgeous fresh air, the answer was right there, waiting for me. Hmmm…might be a good spot for red onions. Which I happen to have handy, right over there. I’ll just pop those in, and then go inside.  


Then, while collecting my onion starts, I notice that my lovely salad greens, particularly the delicate Amish deer tongue lettuces that I am so looking forward to trying, are wilting a bit in their little seed pots.  I should get those in the ground, I muse.


Onions safely tucked in to their nice new home, I amend the green bed. And plant my greens. And water them, and take pleasure in watching the perk up before my eyes. And of course, next to the green bed is my now-browning snow pea trellis…definitely on its last legs.  Can’t have that eyesore in the middle of my beautiful garden, now, can I? Time to uproot those babies, and throw them to the tortoises.


Then, while carrying the last pea plants to the tortoise house I notice last year’s tomato cages leaning against the wall.  I know you’re not supposed to plant tomatoes before May 1, but the weather is sooooo nice…surely I can get one in the ground?  Right? Right?


So I dig a nice deep hole in an already fertilized bed.  Lacking a big fish-head to tuck in there, I improvise, raiding my husband’s freezer for a hunk of silversides.  Then I add some humic acid, a couple of crushed eggshells, some organic fertilizer, some compost. I fret a bit over the whole list of other things I don’t have on-hand put in the hole (Cynthia from Love Apple Farm, my garden guru, keeps a whole laundry list of things that go in her tomato holes…resulting in 12 foot plants, and I’m not exaggerating.) But, considering that I’ve never added anything to a tomato hole before other than, well, a tomato plant, I figured “good enough.” And in went the plant.  I buried her up a few inches above the previous soil line. Which brought the now empty trellis into my line of sight. So I amend that area, and plant three variety of cukes where they can happily climb.  Then I sort of do a “random garden walk” tucking in a few extra seedlings here and there and everywhere.


Then, I looked at the unplanted greens that were leftover from the first greens patch. They are now looking even sadder than the original greens had. (Ok, I know I’m doing the plant-equivalent of anthropomorphism; all the greens needed was a bit of extra water.  But my deeper plant sense said they wanted to go in the ground ASAP.)  And one can never have too many salad greens when my daughter is around. So I prepare another bed. And plant it. And water deeply.


Phew! Time to go inside.  Of course, on the walk in, my eye is drawn to the offensive prickly balls (seeds from the lovely liquid amber maple that grows from our median strip) that were literally littering my entire garden.  And the grass that was springing up in and around my ornamentals.  And the morning glory sprouts with whom I fight an ongoing, bitter, and unrelenting war. 


After all my excellent efforts, I couldn’t leave my garden looking so…untended. It just wasn’t right! I’d spent so much energy and love upon it, it deserved to look spiffy! I’m pretty sure that at this point, I just surrendered to the inevitable. I spent the next two hours cleaning and tugging and pulling and raking and sweeping.  And when it was all done, I looked at my garden.  The last beets were waving their large, green leaves in the breeze. The tall prickly iris were making their annual obstreperous show.  The diminutive Johnny jump-ups were lending late season color here and there.  The new plantings were happily tucked into their enriched, organic soil.  The remaining seedlings were consolidated into two neat flats.  The soil bags and tools were tucked away. The sidewalk was swept clean of the evidence.  All of it was resplendent in the late afternoon light. And I?  I was happy down to my toes.


I never did get to that laundry. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Somebody...Save me from myself!

Well, it sure is Spring, isn't it? 

Totoro, my sweet, silly, black silkie chicken, has gone broody.  This is no surprise. Silkies are fantastic little mothers, and love nothing more than to raise chicks after chicks after chicks. 

It all started early in the morning last weekend.  Rich noticed Totoro wasn't in the yard with the other chickens. I thought at first she was just laying. But she was still in the nest around noon. And still there in the afternoon. And still there at night, even after the rest of the flock was roosting.  You see, rather than abandoning the egg she'd just laid, like most modern hatchery birds do, Totoro had decided to become a mom.  You can see her here, sitting on her egg, as well as everyone else's eggs, keeping them all nice and toasty warm.

Of course, since my chickens' closest experience with being serviced by a real rooster is having me grab their tails and ruff up their feathers a bit (What?! It makes them happy, okay!) Totoro can sit on that nest until my non-existent cows come home (I'm not that far gone yet, people!) and she won't get any chicks. 

That is, unless I slip some fertile eggs under her.  And I could. Yes, I could. And that would make her happy. Yes. Very Happy.  I could use the interwebz, and contact a breeder.  For about $25 that breeder could bubble-wrap and double-box and then overnight a handful of  "hatching eggs."  And then Totoro could hatch them. 

And yes, I've already looked.  And I've found several breeders with eggs I'd like to try.  Breeds I've only ever dreamed of owning. Like little miniature chickens that look proud and aggressive, but are the size of a coke can at full growth.  Or puffy lavender colored chickens with fuzzy feet. Or big giant chickens twice the size of my current largest.  Or chickens who lay olive green, or chocolate-colored eggs. 

But I'm only allowed 6 chickens in Alameda.  And I already have 6 chickens. And I love them all. But I want to hatch some eggs.  Somebody, stop me! Don't let me run afowl (!) of the law!  I must resist the anthropomorphic bittersweetness of this bird vainly trying to hatch a wooden egg. Please! Talk me out of assisting this attempt at procreation.  

Or... Better yet, become my accomplice! Who among you wants chickens? Some of you must! Cause if you'll let me, I'll help you order eggs, and we'll let Totoro hatch them out for you.  And then I'll send the adorable little fuzzballs home with you, promise.  Or I'll keep them until they are teenagers, and handraise them so they are tame and social when they move into their new home in your backyard coop. 

Come on. It's Spring!  You know you want to...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Departure from Reasonableness

So, as I am bringing in the last of my winter crop, it's time to review what I learned in my first foray into food growing:
1. If your soil is good, your plants practically raise themselves. Seriously. Just stay on aphid patrol, and your winter veg will flourish. 
2. In the winter garden, some things go dormant, (my beets, spinach) showing no growth during the dark months. Don't panic; you'll harvest in spring.
3. One flat of veggies, grown out well, provides a LOT of produce.
4. In the cool damp of a bay area winter, additional irrigation is not necessary.
5. And, finally, if you fall in love with how beautiful your garden looks, you won't harvest your crops at their peak. Remember that the beauty of a veggie garden is transitory, and don't be precious about it...GET YOUR CROPS IN AND HARVESTED.

So, winter over, it's time for the spring season. I'm trying to be reasonable about spring and not bite off more than I can chew. Hmmmm....So far, the whole reasonable thing? Epic Fail. 

Operation "More than You can Chew"  is already well underway.   Seedlings? I have three flats currently sprouting like gangbusters.  I have a further 20 packets of seeds or so that are direct sow.  Obviously, if I filled my winter garden with 3 direct sows and 1 flat of seedlings, then this quantity of plant matter exceeds the capacity of my current garden space. 

So this weekend, I began to prepare more space by digging up more ornamentals. Funny how much less I care about my flowers now than I did in Fall. I'm quickly coming to the opinion that if it doesn't feed me, or feed my animals, or do something beneficial for my garden, then it's a freeloader, and must be removed. Okay, not entirely. I'm still keeping the Irises that remind me of Mom.  But everything else? It's either gone, or going, if not this season then next.  A well tended veggie garden is easily as beautiful as a perennial flower bed. 

I'm also converting Kalin's old sandbox into my lettuce/greens garden. Oh, and then I'm planting raspberries and blueberries in the backyard. And a loquat tree...But really, I'm being reasonable. Sort of...

Monday, February 15, 2010


It happened! It happened!

So the timing of initial egg laying is an individual thing.  Some breeds mature earlier than others, but even within a single breed there is often a 6-8 week variation in the start of egg-laying. Two chicks can be from the same brood, the same breed, the same hatching day, and there can still be MONTHS between when each decides to start making eggs.  

According to my calculations, my first chicken (Yubaba, the black star sex-link) could, optimistically have started egg laying as early as February 6. Or, it could be another month. But I AM an optimist. Thus, I've been on a frantic egg watch for the last week. 

And I had reasons for optimism. Yubaba looked like she was ready to start popping out eggs at any moment. Her wattles and her comb were bright red. Her chicken butt was all fluffy. And she was squatting enticingly at me. The squat is the chicken equivalent of a come-on. Like "Hey, you big sexy rooster, come and geeeeettttt it!" So anyway, I knew the day would be soon. But when?

Then, on Friday afternoon, it finally happened. I was at home taking care of my sick daughter, who thankfully did NOT have appendicitis.  I took a break to check on my chickens.  And what did I find in the previously ignored egg box but a small, perfect brown egg? I could barely breathe I was so excited. 

The best part of the whole thing was the next day. We couldn't reasonably expect another egg on Saturday. Chickens take a while to warm up to everyday laying. But Kalin was excited, so she checked anyway. And found a beautiful BLUE egg. So freaking pretty. Seriously. It was like a giant robin had snuck into the coop and left a little present. 

So while all eyes were on Yubaba, with her wattles, and her fluffy butt and her shameless squatting, little Calcifer, the Easter Egger, was sneaking up behind her in the maturation process. And once Yubaba demonstrated the how, she decided to get in on the action herself. 

Who will be next? Yakul, easter egger number 2? She's not hip to the squatting yet. But her butt is fluffing. Or maybe it will be everybody's favorite, Lady Yupa. Her wattles are nice and red.  Or Kiki. She's tiny but she's got the red going on. Who knows. But in the meantime, it's an extravegganza in the backyard. Woo Hoo!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Chickens and the Giant Squid

Those of you who know me in real life know that in addition to my fetish for poultry, I'm also a devotee of bizarre housepets.  Our most noteworthy pets at the current moment are a trio of hairless cats: Kemo, the old lady (14), Clarabelle, the petite pink beauty, and Architeuthis, the big black-and-white, overweight, loving bruiser of a male. He's a wrecking ball cat: always in your lap, purring like a frieght train, except of course, when he's knocking things over just to see them fall.  (My husband named him after the scientific name for one of the giant squid species. It's a mouthful, but it fits.)

As you can imagine, this trio of predators have been, since day one, VERY interested in project chicken.  For a good month they were banished from my office while my babies brooded inside. It was amusing to stand inside the office, and watch the little kittynoses attempt to squeeze under the door. No matter how long I stayed in chickenland, they would keep watch. I'd find all three of them sitting like feline statues waiting for me whenever I left the room.  

Once the chickens moved out, the cats began to spend much of their day at the back windows, participating in my family's new favorite sport.  We call it "Chicken TV."  It involves sitting, sometimes for hours, watching the pecking, and fluffing, and flapping, and clucking, in short, the tiny dramas that make up a busy chicken's existence. All of us watch it, but none so much as Arkie.  You can just see the kitty-thought-bubble forming over his head. "YUM!"  

It's natural. I get it. My cats are, for all their highly bred, indoor cat hairlessnes, still predators. Those rubber snakes they drag around, and pounce on endlessly are an everpresent reminder of the call of the wild. And yet, despite this knowledge, and the obvious stalking behavior, I got complacent.  Cats are inside. Chickens are out. That's that.  I should have known that my cats, aesthetically challenged, but smart, would eventually figure out a way to meet the chickens "up close and personal."

And who was it that made the move? None other than our favorite squid boy, Architeuthis.  It's obvious to me now that Arkie had been planning his move for some time.  We'd been sitting in the living room on a Saturday, watching the chickens frolic in the yard, when, as I often do,  I got up to feed them a treat.  When I opened the door, Arkie appeared from out of nowhere, neatly slipped between my legs at a full gallop, and zoomed into the yard. It was an impressive display of stealth and cunning. I dropped both handfulls of broccoli, and raced after him, visions of bloody chickens in my head. 

I needn't have worried. Chickens are simultaneously very stupid about some things (Just look at the face of a chicken who has accidentally flown up into a tree. Priceless!) and very smart about others.  Apparently, Cat Management is one of the "smart areas."

When Arkie reached the yard, all the chickens immediately pivoted to face him.  They looked at him with blank, baleful gazes. Arkie blinked nervously and took a tentative step forward.  All the chickens, in unison, took a step forward too.  Arkie then immediately took a step backwards, glancing at me with panicked eyes as if to say "Help, Mom, help!" 

After another moment of mutual staring, Yubaba, the largest and most mature chicken, took another step forward towards the cat. It was just too much for the big predator...Arkie turned tail and ran back to the back door of the house.  I let him in, and didn't see him again for several hours.

I think he was hiding. 

Smart boy. As a witness, my money was on the Chickens.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Question Two: Any Crowing Yet?

It's very gratifying when my friends and associates get as "in" to my chickens as I do. My friend Kristin, in particular, has been a big chicken supporter.  Her favorite question, one that she asks with regularity is, "Any crowing yet?"

For those of you who are new to the blog, I'll add some color to explain the urgency of that question. You see, crowing may indicate the presence of boys in my flock...and boys end up in the pot.  If you've gotten attached to a particular bird, say, the one with the big white poof on her head, the prospect of beheading her, I mean, him, can be onerous, no matter how committed one might be to omnivory.  (Which Kristin is not, by the way.  An omnivore, I mean. Keep up, people!)

You see, chicken sexing is an imperfect science, and it's very breed-specific.  Here's my flock's breakdown.

  • Yubaba is what's called a sex-link; females are one color, and males another. Yubaba's black and gold feathers make her not only a tidy, attractive chicken, but also undeniably female. So we are 100% sure, at this point that she'll be a layer, not a crower.  
  • Yakul and Calcifer are Easter eggers. They were "sexed" by professional chicken sexers at the hatchery.  When they were a day old, a probe was shoved into their vent to look for the bump that would indicate a male.  (Fun job, eh?)  Anyway, neither Yakul, nor Calci had the bump, so we're 95% sure that they are of the female persuasion.  
  • So that leaves our smaller breeds: Kiki, the Mille Fleur (shown above), Lady Yupa, the Polish (shown below) and Totoro, the Silkie.  In reality, for these three, the only way to really know if they are male or female is to wait for eggs. (Crowing isn't even foolproof, as occasionally a dominant female, in the absence of a roo, will take it upon herself to keep her flock in line...crowing all the way.) With that said, a couple of months before laying, males and females tend to feather in differently. Feather sexing is uncertain at best, but it does seem 80-95% accurate, depending on the breed.  

I am not an expert. But I've been studying up. For example, I know that a female polish's poof will stay round, whereas a male will get "streamers", longer feathers that break the illusion of a powderpuff. The female silkie will have an upright pompadour, whereas the male will have a "blown back" look. Given these nuggets, as well as others, I  had formed the unspoken assumption that my flock looked all-female. But as I indicated, I am in no way an expert.

Thanks to the internet, I do, however, have access to experts. 50,000 of them, to be exact. is an online forum for chickenphiles around the world.  They have an entire board dedicated exclusively to helping people feather sex their flocks. Post your pictures, and within minutes, dozens of opinions will be posted about whether you have cockerels or pullets.  Two weeks ago, I finally got the gumption up to post photos of my "girls." The response of the experts? ALL GIRLS. And now, I'm sure, I have officially jinxed every single one of them!

It's too early to celebrate. I could still have a girly roo in the coop. (Particularly Totoro, as silkies are notoriously difficult to feather sex, and don't reach sexual maturity till 9 months of age anyway. All the others will be laying months before we know for sure on her.) So let's just say that I am "cautiously optimistic" at this point.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Your questions...

You've been I'll be answering. A different question every day until they are all done. 

Question from Gary: How's the composting going?

(Asking about my rotting poop? Now that's above-and-beyond the normal bonds of friendship. Thank you Gary.) 

Now that winter has arrived, my compost pile has slowed waaaaaay down. As in, stopped. Or at least stopped to the naked eye, which is what I'm using to make my inspection.  And this is despite the fact that one can hardly call our Bay Area winters cold. We haven't even had an overnight frost yet. But still, a slowdown in rotting is normal. But it leaves me with a problem:Where do I put my scraps now?  I've pretty much filled the bin, and since it will be a few more months until the compost inside it is ready for distribution, I have nowhere to put my daily non-chicken-friendly food scraps.  So I'm back to throwing away food, which feels...terrible. 

I could buy another composter, and fill it in anticipation of the spring rotting season.  But that doesn't really feel all that productive to my instant gratification needs. So, I've decided to step up my composting profile by adding a wriggly wranch (sic) to the equation. Worms. Lots of them.  Safe and snug in my laundry room, they will happily convert my organic materials into supersoil all winter long. I've done the research, of course. I can get a ranch at a discounted price through my county waste management authority.  And I can get worms from the local vermiculture supply house. (Ya gotta love the Bay Area, folks!)

It's the obvious next step, but I'm a little reluctant. To the uninitiated, vermiculture sounds really complicated.  There are worms, and there's bedding, and it all has to be damp but not wet, and then food and organics should cover the surface, and then there's a removal process that I still haven't gotten a handle upon.  It sounds a lot Shudder. 

An offset to this is the fact that worm castings (the polite term for worm poop) are considered even more beneficial to a garden than kitchen compost. Furthermore, generating castings is certainly a quicker process than composting. In all liklihood, my first batch of castings will be ready long before my first compost, despite the fact that my compost has a 2 month head start. 

So, what's the delay? Why haven't I ordered my ranch and my wrigglers, and shredded up a mess of old newspapers so that my worms can get working?  Well... personal revelation time. And don't hold it against me, but despite the fact that Christmas is still a month away I already have spender's fatigue. Yep, you guessed it, I just wrote my semi-annual property tax check. Festive! So little Libby is feeling like short-sightedly hoarding her diminishing pool of pennies rather than investing in long-term green solutions right now. How very... American of me.  Sad, but true. But don't fret too much, dear reader.  This fatigue happens every year at this time...and doesn't often slow me down for more than a week or two. Eventually, my guilt at throwing away food scraps will overcome my post-property -tax-pouting. And I'll be back to being as close to zero waste as I can be. 

Next Post: You've asked. And I've been reluctant to answer lest I jinx it all. But you deserve to know.  Next week, an update on the male/female ratio of my flock, complete with pictures of the mostest beautifulest of my girls. Stay tuned!