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!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Using it ALL

I have no problem with meat.  Really.  I'm an omnivore through and through.  But I'm starting to have a real problem with factory farming. Not that I won't, in a moment of weakness, scarf down an utterly-unsustainably-raised-but-delicious order of crispy deep-fried chicken strips from Jack In The Box.  I am human after all. 

But if I'm going to buy meat for my family, or prepare something for guests, I will go out of my way, and pay a premium, to get something that was sustainably raised.  Call me an idealist, but I want to buy chickens that ran around, kept their beaks, and grazed on grass.  I want to buy beef that didn't spend the last six weeks of its life hip-deep in its own excrement, trying to digest a grain for which its ruminant belly is clearly not evolved.  When I eat meat, I want my dollars to create demand for smarter, earth-and-animal friendly farming practices.  (And yes, I did read the Omnivore's Dilemma.  And yes, it got to me.  Which won't surprise anyone who reads this blog.)

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to roast a chicken. I researched recipes, sending out an appeal via facebook for my friends' favorite versions.  Once the recipe was selected,  I went to the Alameda Natural Grocery and bought a free-range, pasture raised, air-dried roaster. I rubbed her with salt and pepper and olive oil.  I stuffed her with a steaming lemon and some fresh herbs. I roasted her and her potato friends gently (as the recipe commanded) and then when she wasn't crisping up, I broiled her skin into tasty yumminess.  She wasn't the best roasted chicken I've ever had (there's no beating Zuni's wood-fired oven) but she was damned good. 

At the table, our little family did homage to the lovely bird.  Between the three of us, we ate almost all of the white meat (paired with a front-yard salad, naturally). Normally, I'm a dark meat girl, but the white meat on this thing was so moist and flavorful that there was no need to go for the higher-fat slices. I packed away much of the rest of the meat for Kalin's lunch the next day.  All that was left was the meaty carcass, the wings, some funky gristly bits, the underdone skin from below the bird, and the raw chicken neck.  

Given my recent reading, I was keenly aware of the fact that every animal that is slaughtered to provide a meal like this one has an environmental impact.  Even organic, humanely raised chicken, the waste of whom is composted into fertilizer, has an environmental cost... particualry when it is shipped in trucks that burn fossil fuels.  Given this, wasn't it my responsibility to get the absolute most from this animal?  To use it ALL?

So instead of tossing them, I plopped those leftover parts into my stock pot.  I tossed in a couple of bay leafs, a handful of garden cut rosemary, some pepper corns, some kosher salt, and some semi-fresh thyme that had been residing in my fridge for about two weeks too long. I cut a few limp carrots in half, quartered an onion, threw in the last rib of celery from the depths of the produce drawer, and covered it all with water. Total prep time?  Maybe 2 minutes. Absolutely clean veggie drawer?  A happy bonus. 

I brought the whole mess to a boil, turned it down and let it simmer all evening. Watched bad TV. Watched Rich tickle Kalin. Nibbled dark chocolate. Read another food book that will undoubtedly lead me deeper into the slow-food wilderness.  Never checked the stove. Just let the simmer do the work.  

Just before bed, I turned off the burner and poured the contents through a colander into another clean pot.  The disreputable-looking solids went in a bowl in the fridge.  The next morning, they'd go to my backyard coop.  My opportunistically omnivorous ladies would gleefuly devour every edible scrap, thus converting everything but the bones into future eggs. 

But the main result of my endless simmer was a fragrant, rich, golden liquid.  I poured most of it into empty yogurt containers (about six of them...I made a LOT of broth) and stored them in the freezer.  The rest? Kalin slurped it down.  My child, who has never enjoyed a soup in her life, not only drank a cup of broth fresh from the stove, but had me warm up more broth the next morning...for her breakfast. Apparently, she's a fan.

In the intervening weeks I've made several dishes with this stuff.  It's a marvel.  I needn't do anything fancy to make it tasty. Defrost, throw in some veg, and some noodles, and voila, something delicious that my daughter will actually eat. 

All the years I've been using Swanson's broth seem laughable now.  I'd always assumed that Swanson's was fine.  Sure I wouldn't want to warm it up and drink it. Nasty! But it tasted fine cooked into food.  Or so I thought.  How was I to know that homemade broth, which tastes good on its own, would make exponentially tastier food?  Now that I write these words, they feel obvious...but they weren't obvious to me.  And just in case they weren't obvious to you either, I'm sharing.  

So what are you waiting for? The holidays, with their stuffings, and gravies and casseroles are around the corner, crying out for good broth.  Next time you serve a chicken, or T-Bones, or a bone-in fish, boil up your leftovers. Believe me, it's culinary gold.  And you'll feel wonderfully virtuous when  you use it all!

As for the small mumified child that started this particular diatribe, my apologies. You guys get mad at me when I don't include a photo, and I didn't take a photo of my roasted-chicken carcass. So I improvised.

Remember, Kalin Tut says "Throw that carcass in the pot!"

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Look!  We have Lettuce!  

While the front part of our garden bed, the part that gets less light, is growing glacially, (I'm not sure we'll be eating beets until spring!) the full-sun part is in full swing.  We have lettuce. We have arugula. We have broccoli raab. The English peas didn't make it, but the snow peas are climbing, and blooming.  And we have the worlds smallest, cutest radishes.  My daughter, who wouldn't eat a radish to save her life, is happily pulling them up, and crunching them up, claiming "Mmmm....good."

My broccoli hasn't flowered yet; Brassicas are notoriously slow in winter.  But really, who cares?! The leaves are selectively making their way into our salad bowl, lending a lovely texture to what we eat.  If we don't get flowers, we'll still have gotten our happy money's worth from them. 

We are eating a salad from the garden practically every day now: our own mesclun made of lettuces, kholrabi leaves, even the tender greens from nasturtiums. We harvest every day with no appreciable dent being made in what is still out there.  It's good, it's fresh. It's worth every effort that went into its growth.

The other day, I made a winter soup out of some homemade chicken stock, (more on that next post!) some mirepoix, some shiitake mushrooms and a handful of barley.  I tasted it.  The homemade stock was so good that it needed nothing else. Well, almost nothing else. It was brown. Very brown. Unappetizingly brown.  So out to the garden I went, and came back with a big handful of broccolli raab. The soup was much improved.  Not only did the greens improve the look of the soup, but they added a freshness to the rich, earthy mix.  

And better still, using the greens made the soup mine.  I planted the seeds.  I transplanted the seedlings.  I watered them.  I worried over them. I threw them into my soup.  And I ate them.  I can't eat anything from my garden without feeling that blooming sense of prideful ownership.  It's a strange, but a welcome feeling.

Next step?  Sharing my bounty with other people.  

Friday, October 23, 2009

Oh, the Rot!

I'm sure all of you will be grateful for the lack of photo in this issue when you find that the topic of this treatise is compost. 

You may know that chickens poop. Self-evident, right?  But saying that chickens poop is a little like saying there's some water in Venice.  My feathered friends poop constantly. It's like a performance art form.  "Le Poop." The girls shake their booties, squawk,  and create their "self expression" with startling regularity. And now that they are getting older we're not taking little runny bird droppings. We're talking stinky, significant, recognizably turd-shaped poop. 

Gross?  Hell yeah.  But it's also garden gold. Or so I'm told.  Chickenpoop is supposed to be one hell of an organic fertilizer. It's packed with goodness! But there is a catch. Unlike bunny bowel-nuts, chickenpoop is so nutrient rich that one can't use it directly on one's garden.  The nitrogen will actually burn your plants. 

And so, one must let chicken poop mature a bit, like a fine wine.  In the right environment, one that is moist, dark and warm, the poo will mellow, it will morph, it will transform into wonderdirt

And so it was, several weeks after my chickens arrived, that I joined the compost revolution.

My Envirocycle Composter with Collection Base (for catching nutrient-rich juices) is an engineering marvel.  No need to pitchfork it,  no need to stir it.  Just give the barrel-shaped container an easy spin on its lovely casters once every couple of days.  Periodically, you can harvest the "tea" from the base, which can be diluted for use as a liquid fertilizer, and once every two months, you get your wonderdirt payoff from the barrel. 

Within a day of contributing the first load I could feel the increased warmth through the sides of the bin.  Within a week, the changes were visible. Things had begun to break down with astounding rapidity. Opening the bin to add in the latest bowl of pizza crusts and apple cores became ever more exciting. What would I find inside this time? 

A scant three weeks into the exercise, my used chicken bedding, with its glorious poop content, my table scraps, and my yard clippings are all beginning to look distinctly soil-like. It's a decompositional marvel. And I'm only halfway through the composting process.  It's all criminally easy.  No flies. No smell. No mess.  Just unlatch the door, toss in the scraps, latch, and spin. 

In case you can't tell, I'm starting to get emotional about it.  I now think of all the food scraps I used to throw away and I feel mildly ill.  What a lost opportunity!  How many loads of compost could even now be at work in my yard?  But yesterday is past. Today, I am on the right track. Today, I a more responsible citizen of our planet.  Today, I am greener than yesterday.  Today I am a composter. And I feel pretty damned good about it.   All hail the rotting poo! 

Who knew something so dirty could make me feel so virtuous?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Phase Two

Okay, so I haven't gotten eggs yet, but I think we can safely say that phase one of project food, namely acquiring and establishing a flock of chickens, is complete. They are cute, and plumping up by the day...a fact that has not escaped the notice of the neighborhood predators. Thankfully, the flock is snug in Chicken-Itza, which, like its namesake, is very sturdily made. The big black stray cat found this out the hard way when she charged, head-first into the hardware cloth.  She staggered around for a few seconds, but then reclaimed her dignity.  You could almost see the word bubble form over her head:  "I meant to do that." 

I'm told that one of the three Grove Street Cooper's Hawks also tried the fortifications today, alighting on top of the run despite the fact that our neighbor was less than four feet away at the time.  Adrian charged the bird, but not before the hungry hawk discovered that the tender, tasty morsels were beyond her raptor reach. 

Haven't seen any raccoons yet, but they will come, I have no doubt. 

So, while Wild Kingdom has been playing out in the back yard, phase two of project food has taken place in the front. 

Let me back up. Remember when I hired and subsequently fired the backyardfood project to transform my ornamental yard into a food mecca?  Well, in August I found another outfit that did backyard food consulting.  But unlike the first outfit, they had a tangible web presence; you can check them out yourself on 

Anyway, after my initial consult with Dana and Michael, I was optimistic. Dana is a chef-turned-farmer, and Michael is a general contractor-turned-farm-creator. Seems like a great marriage of skills to me. As they were booked solid, I reserved the first available slot, which was almost two months away.  And why, you may ask, given my verbosity, is this the first you've heard about this?  Well, to tell you the truth, I didn't tell you guys about Dana and Michael because I'm still chagrined by the backyard food project debacle. I hated the idea that the same thing might happen, with myurbanfarm and I might have to fire them too. Far better, I decided to tell you guys about the fait accompli!

And so now you know. While I've been toiling away, serving my community on a criminal jury, Dana and Michael have been toiling away in my yard.  The first thing that they did, back at our initial consultation, was redirect my winter planting focus away from my backyard, to the front. This makes sense. Even in summer the backyard is part-to-full shade.  The front yard, by contrast, is full-to-part sun.  So if I have any hope of a winter crop, it has to be in front. 

I was a little nervous, because the front yard is so public...but I took a chance anyway.  And this time, the chance paid off.  

I made a diagram of which plants I loved and had to keep, and which ones were eligible for removal.  On Tuesday, while I listened to testimony, my two agents of transformation tore down part of my rotting redwood retaining wall, replacing it with beautiful stone drystack. They installed stair access, and stepping stones so that one could access all planting areas without needing to step on the soil for any reason.  On Wednesday, they tilled my soil, amended it, and set up my irrigation so that every spot got adequate water, but nothing got drowned.

When I arrived home at 4 o'clock yesterday, they were just finishing the hard parts. The structure of the yard was beautiful, prepared, and ready to plant.  Together, we planted the seedlings I'd been nurturing, and direct-sowed several new crops.  So they did all the intensive labor, and I got to do the fun part.  It was decadent, but so worth it!

In the spring, Dana and Michael will come back for phase 3.  They'll help me prepare for, and plant my summer crops.  They'll also plant the side of my house with easy producers, like raspberries, blackberries, and even blueberries, as well as build a couple of backyard raised beds for my summer greens.  

Next post, I promise pictures. Until then, send your good seed-sprouting juju my way!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

End of an era...

A funny thing happened this week...I spent less time with my chickens.  And the time I spent with them was less ecstatic. Yes, I still read up on them on I fretted far less.  Caring for them became less pleasure, more responsibility.  I found myself getting annoyed by how messy they were, frustrated by how much bedding they threw around in the process of eating, and unhappily amazed by how a single bird could produce SO MUCH POO. 

It wasn't until Friday, when I glanced at the calendar on our fridge that I babies aren't babies anymore.  They are past the one-month mark.  Fully feathered.  Fuzzless. Old enough, in fact, to move outside.

I think that, subconsciously, I've been preparing for the separation. Now, I don't want you to think I don't love the chickens anymore, because I do. They are still fascinating creatures. But the feeling is less intense, much more in line with how I feel about my cats. More like a normal human/pet interaction, rather than like a crazy chickenlady obsession interaction.   

Last week, I was worried that I'd be too sad to move the chickens out.  I went so far as to consider paying an exorbitant amount of money to get a couple of exotic Seramas, a miniature chicken breed that is a common house pet in Malaysia. The babies are roughly the size of a nine-volt battery; the adults only slightly larger than a can of coke.  I reasoned that at that size, I could keep them in my office year-round so that I wouldn't have to surrender all chickenlove once I moved the egg flock to the backyard.  

But this week, I have no such desire. Like a parent with a college-aged child, I'm now looking forward to reclaiming my office, getting my space back, not having to deal with the clutter and mess of my temporary adolescent residents.

Yes, the time has come to MOVE THE FLOCK OUT. Today Lady Yupa, Calcifer, Yakul, Totoro, and Kiki will relocate to Chicken Itza, the beautiful pastel-painted poultry palace in our backyard.  There they will stay, locked up, for at least 48 hours, so that they can imprint upon their new digs as "home."

And I'm okay with that.  

The season of obsessive chicken-love has come to an end. But I can't regret my month-long chickenmoon.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have garnered so much satisfaction from my time with the six little balls of fluff.  How often do we encounter something in life that gives us so much unexpected pleasure?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Crazy Chicken Lady

One might think from my lack of blogging, that I've lost interest in Project Food.  The truth is, I've been having a chickenmoon.  Why write about food, when I can be feeding chickens morsels of broccoli, and watching them attack the spears like the little velociraptors from which they are descended?  Why scribe about chickens when I can be experiencing the brush of warm feathery bodies, or watching their pecking-order antics?  Did you know that juvenile chickens do the chest bump?  Did you know that when their feathers come in, it pushes out their fuzz, leaving them homely in the very cutest way? Did you know? Did you? Did you?

These moments of ecstatic discovery have been somewhat offset by moments of piercing anxiety.  Like when, after 4 days of intense research, I decided my chicks needed a Marek's disease vaccine. And the window for getting said vaccine closes at the end of week three.  And my chickens were 2 weeks and 3 days old. (Thankfully, Rich rode in on his white hypodermic charger, and gave my girls their shots so that they wouldn't hate me. BIG husband points there...)  Or like yesterday, when a lengthy sojourn on engendered paranoia that maybe ALL my chickens are roos.   Even my sexlink.   Are those saddle feathers coming in pointed?  Is that chicken taking a taller stance than the rest? Is that comb getting darker?  The answer to all of those questions is thus far "No."  But a chickenmom can worry, right?

One thread on that caught my eye last night was "You know you're a crazy chickenlady when..."  My answer? When your own father calls to ask how the chickens are doing, and what he means is, when do I get my fresh eggs, and what you reply with is a detailed report on each bird's personality quirks.  Or when your new friends at your daughter's school know to ask you about your chickens as soon as they see you, and then they follow up by sending you articles on other crazy chickenladies. Or when you begin to find the smell of the chicken brooder "soothing." Or when you invite your entire neighborhood over to watch you paint the trim on your coop.  Or when your husband, to make you happy, offers to install a webcam inside the brooder so that you can watch your chickens from work. (I said no, so I'm not too far gone...yet.)

I am a crazy chicken lady. It's official.  And I feel no shame. 

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Sounds of the Flock

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I was fretting that after all of this effort on the part of friends, family, and self that I might hate the chickens?  I needn't have worried.  I love them. 

In particular, I love the sounds of my flock.  The gentle, syncopated peeps that indicate chicken contentment.  The peck peck peck of little beaks on the sides of the brooder.  The pit-pat of chicken feet on hardwood, as the flock chases each other across my office. The rustle of wings as the little puffballs attempt to fly. 

I'm told that these sounds will change within the next several weeks.  Peeps will give way to clucks. Pitpats will give way to heavier feet.  So for now, I lie on my floor, eyes closed, feeling the occaisional brush of fluff against my skin, and savor.  I savor the peeps, and the pit-pats, and the rustles.  I savor the sounds of my flock. 

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Meet the Flock: Yubaba

I'm the only chicken named after a Miyazaki villain, Yubaba from the seminal work: Spirited Away. I'm a black sex link (aka, black star), and thus the only chicken who is certain to be a girl. 

Thus far, my personality is a big question mark. I'm the most "conventional" of the breeds in this flock, developed to be a good egg layer.  I probably won't be able to match the other breeds for looks, but I'll pay my way with large, pinkish brown eggs. 

Meet the Flock: Kiki

Hello. I'm Kiki, named after the itinerant adolescent witch from the Miyazaki movie.  I'm a Mille Fleur, a breed that translates as "A thousand flowers."  I may not look like much now, but I'll be a stunner as an adult, each feather edged in a contrasting color. I'll also be tiny, reaching only 2 pounds at adulthood, half the size of the next largest chicken in the flock.

Of course, I'm also a bantam, which means I'm not hope that I'm a girl!

Meet the Flock: Calcifer

Hello.  I'm Calcifer.  I'm also an Easter Egger.  I'm named after a fire demon...and I do have a firey nature with the flock.  I'm currently top chicken, much to Lord Yupa's chagrin. 

I'm also striking, with beautiful leopard spots on my back. I'm fearless, which makes me quite friendly with the humans.  I'm officially Libby's favorite today, and I plan on keeping it that way!

Meet the Flock: Yakul

Hello, I'm Yakul. I'm named after a smart, responsive red elk in a Miyazaki movie. I'm a full sized Easter Egger.  Some day, I'll lay eggs that are blue, green or pink in color. (But I'll only lay one of those three colors...I haven't decided which yet.)

I'm not as bossy as my sister, Calcifer, (you'll meet her next), so I'm in the middle of the pecking far. 

There's no telling what I'll look like when I grow up, since Easter Eggers come in every color. But without a doubt, I'll be a looker! 

Meet the Flock: Totoro

Hi, I'm Totoro. Do you like my fuzzy legs?  How about my extra toes?  You can't see them in this picture, but I have two extras on each leg.  This is normal for my breed.  I'm a black silkie; even when I get my grown up feathers, I'll be fuzzy. 

I was the most timid of the flock when I first arrived...but I've perked up, and am now in the mix with everyone else.  

Like Lord Yupa, I'm also a bantam, so I have a 50/50 chance of ending up in the pot.  I hope I'm a girl!

Meet the Flock: Lord Yupa

Hello, my name is Lord Yupa, and I am the cutest bird in the flock.  I'm named after a famous swordsman from a Miyazaki movie (10 points if you can guess which one). I'm trying to live up to that the early days I seem to be in the running for top bird in the pecking order.

I'm a Polish, which means that I'll have black feathers at maturity, with a white mop on my head. 

I like to eat before bed. On my first day at my new home, I got so sleepy that I fell asleep with my head dangling inside my feeder. Today, I fell asleep in a plate of food.   

Because I'm technically a bantam breed, I wasn't sexed at I have a 50/50 shot of being male, and thus ending up in the pot. My family is thus trying not to get too attached to me...good luck with that!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The chickens are here, the chickens are here!!!

I am deliriously happy.  At this very moment, my office is home to six adorable, healthy, hoppy, beautiful baby chickens. 

At this point, I'm going to have to admit that although I consider myself to be a thoroughly pragmatic person, I have succumbed to sentimentality about these animals. (Surprised?)  I didn't want them to suffer a cold, thirsty 48 hours in the US Postal system, so I purposefully ordered my chicks from a hatchery within "driving distance." Fresno. In the central valley. According to Googlemaps, a 3 hour drive away from my house. 

Vastly inconvenient for me, of course.  But far preferable to subjecting the peeps to the indignities of packaged travel. 

My reputation as a hardass will be further in tatters when I reveal the following. On the ride home, I noticed that my passengers (traveling in comfort in a vented box on the floor of my passenger side) would peep with distress if the temperature in the car crossed below 90 degrees.  So I rode home, through the 105 degree central valley, without AC. Every now and then, when my face began to throb, I would allow myself a brief blast of 75 degree air.  Then the peeping would start, and I would resignedly turn off the AC...and step on the gas.

Not surprisingly, I made it home in 2.5 hours. No incentive like imminent heatstroke to inspire one to travel beyond the speed of sound. 

Anyway, chicks and I arrived home safely, despite my warp-speed travel.  Thanks to my tech-savy husband, the babies were installed in a cozy, temperature-controlled brooder (set for 95 degrees, donchaknow). My daughter, rescued from bedtime by our arrival, was beside herself with joy.  And I was filled with the satisfaction of having realized a dream that was months in the making. 

Have I mentioned I'm happy?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tale of Two Plants

At the beginning of summer, just as I was beginning this whole urban farming extravaganza, my daughter and I planted two heirloom tomato plants.  One was "Mr. Stripey" and the other has since been named "Mrs. Peach."  

From the moment these two plants touched their identical soil, Mrs. Peach has flourished, and Mr. Stripey has languished.  Too much water?  Tried fixing that to no result.   Pests?  Nope. Too little water?  Uh uh. Too much light?  Nein.

None of the usual fixes seemed to address whatever was bugging Mr. Stripey.  And while, inches away, Mrs. Peach grew, and flowered and set out dozens of fruit, Mr. Stripey made a single fruit, and then sat there, bad tempered, for the rest of the summer. Fed up with nursing him, I let Mr. Stripey stew in his own juices.  If he wanted to be a bad plant, nothing I was going to do was going to change that.

Then, two days ago, out of the blue, my daughter rushed in to the living room, bouncing with uncontainable joy.  "The 'mato on Mr. Stripey changed color!  Can we harvest it, Mama?"

I had no idea. What constitutes ripe on a "Mr. Stripey" tomato? I consulted the oracle named google.  My five minutes of research revealed that there are two cultivars that carry that name, one of which was ripe when orange, the other when red.  So...did I have the orange version? Or was my fruit orange only as a way station on the road to red ripeness?

I couldn't figure out a way to tell, but with KK buzzing around like an Africanized honeybee I decided to take a chance. With great ceremony, we harvested our first Mato of the season. Would it be a brilliant success? Or a dismal, unripe failure?  

I sliced it, cutting away the little black area where some bird or bug had made a little hole.  I put one pretty pink and orange slice on each plate, sprinkled it with salt, and, in unison, we each took a bite. We broke into identical grins. It was firm, but juicy, full of tomato flavor but with a faint citrus tang.  Deeelishus.

I felt almost guilty for how badly I had treated Mr. Stripey. Sure he had a bad attitude.  Sure he refused to grow, and produced yellow, diseased looking leaves.  But boy, could he make a tomato! One tomato. Just one. But it was a doozy.

I went outside to apologize to him.  He squatted there, ugly as ever.  But as I looked at him with new affection, what should I discover but two more baby stripeys, plum size, hiding among the unattractive greenery.  How I'd misjudged him!

Next door, Mrs. Peach preened, covered in flowers and small, unripe fruit.  I looked at her, and shrugged my shoulders.  As far as I'm concerned, the score is now Mr. Stripey one, Mrs. Peach, zero. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

We have a coop!

The eagle has landed!  Or rather, the eagle's nest has landed. 

Last night, Dru and Rich, with the help of our much-beloved next door neighbors, the Abuyen family, maneuvered my 1000 pound poultry palace into its picturesque place in my yard. (I'm not sure what the actual weight of the coop is, beyond the fact that it is heavy. Very Heavy. We'll use our artistic license and call it 1000 lbs.)

This was not as easy as it might seem. I mentioned that it's heavy, right?  And it's also 4ft by 4ft...if you don't count the nest box, which juts out and extra 18 inches from the side, making the actual width closer to six feet.  This made it way too wide to fit through any of our gates. So some intense preparation was involved. 

First, my husband, in a display of marital devotion, spent much of the day preparing the coop site.  He cut down a tree, moved rocks, and ripped up bushes.  I provided cold beverages, and ripped up weeds, but the major manliness was all Rich. 

Then, Rich and the Abuyens cleared a path for the coop through THEIR yard.  This involved moving furniture and boxes, and planters,  and even using a saws-all to cut through the remnants of an ancient dog run.

As all of these people labored to make my dream come true, I was hit by a wave of anxiety. What if I don't even like the chickens? What if I've made all these people go out of their way for my crazy pipe-dream and then I just want the chickens dead in a few months.  I confessed this to Rich and he laughed. "Well," he said, chuckling to himself, "If you don't end up liking them, at least it won't be because you didn't do your research!"

Preparations reached crescendo at 7:45 at night,  when Dru arrived with my coop in the back of his rented trailer.  (Small Photo One) Dru expertly backed the trailer down the Abuyen's narrow driveway.  Rich tossed back a red bull.  The Abuyens poured from their house, work gloves donned, to help out. I stood there like a movie heroine, nervously wringing my hands. 

Dru, Rich, Hector, Ryan and Adrien set the legs of the house onto twin dollies, and rolled it down two planks from the trailer onto the driveway.  Then, they rolled it all the way through the Abuyen's back yard.  (Small Photo Two) While the menfolk toiled, I offered moral support, devotion, and photo documentation. 

Then, using the saws-all once again,  Rich cut through the fence separating our two properties. (Did I mention we have the best neighbors in the freaking world?) The men then lifted the coop up on a set of long bamboo polls, and carefully, steadily, gently, walked it into its position in the yard.  

Look at it. (Large Photo) Doesn't it look like it was meant? Tucked into its little pocket of greenery,  I almost expect to find fairies hovering around it.  

As this stage of project chicken comes to a close, I wish to offer some thanks to the Abuyens: Stephanie, Hector, Ryan, Adrien, Gabriel and Isaac, for always going above and beyond the call of neighborliness.   To my husband, for supporting in me in this, just as he does in every other crazy endeavor in my life.  And to every single one of you who has had to listen to me blather about chickens for the past four months...Many thanks to you all. In a few more months, there will be fresh eggs for everyone!!!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Even odds...

I placed my chicken order yesterday. For realz! Project chicken makes progress! 

I placed my order with a feed store down in Fresno. They, in turn, will order my chicks from the Belt Hatchery down the street from them.  I will collect the fuzzballs on the glorious day of September 3rd.  By driving the two hours down there I will not only satisfy my craving for instant gratification, but I will also save my pullets the trauma of being boxed up and spending 2-3 days at the whim of the US postal service. 

The good news is, the ordering went off without a hitch. The feed store was happy to take my credit card in exchange for the future delivery of 2 Easter Eggers (also called Americaunas), a black silkie, a Polish, a black star (also called a black sex-link), and a Mille Fleur pullet.

(Let me pause here and point out that this simple list of 5 breeds, up from the original 3, was comprised after hours...yes, hours of research.  I compared temperaments, egg-laying abilities, egg appearance, kid friendliness, and weirdness quotient on at least 20 breeds.  Then I cross referenced this data on at least 3 sites each to get a consensus.  Then I looked for availablity, which caused me to go back and redo the list because some breeds, like the dear Faverolle-of-the-fuzzy-feet are virtually impossible to get this time of year. In total, I would guess at least a dozen hours went into designing my chicken dream team.  Pathetic, maybe. But it kept me humming happily for weeks!)

The bad news is, while the first four breeds will be sexed, (an imperfect science, but I have a 95% chance of getting the females I want) the last breed, the beauteous Mille Fleur,  is straight-run only.  For those of you who don't speak chicken, that means that I have no way of knowing if I'm getting a boy or a girl.  We have to love it, and keep it, and hope it doesn't start crowing 5 months down the line. It's a 50/50 shot on ending up with a rooster...anyone want to take bets?

My friend Jessica, who bravely sat through a good 20 minutes of chicken babble tonight,  asked me what happens if the little Miss Mille turns out to be a Mr. Mille. I said, with bravado, "He goes in the pot!"

Brave words from someone who has never committed a food act more brutal than boiling crayfish. Brave words indeed... 

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hunt for craftsmanship

After a few days of mourning the loss of planting justice, I returned to project chicken this week with renewed vigor.  Item the first: a coop to keep my girls in.   

After multiple journeys through google and craigslist for local coops and coopmakers, I determined that the coops at stood out as being particularly well made. To be certain, I wanted to see the goods before I bought in. And so I dragged my essentially disinterested-but-willing husband along on an hour-long drive to check out the coop's craftsmanship. 

We arrived at Dru's house on a warm Friday morning. It was hilarious to watch Rich and Dru together. Their eyes met across the crowded work area. They stood for a second, frozen in platonic man love. Then they crossed the field of scrap wood and power tools and fell, laughing, into each other's arms.  

Okay, it didn't go down exactly like that. But it was close.  Dru's fine craftsmanship, his knowledge of chicken husbandry, and his slick solutions to a variety of chicken needs made Rich swoon, and Rich's job at the Academy made Dru's heart go pitter pat. It was very cute.   I just sat by the chickens while Rich and his new buddy made up secret handshakes. 

So, the coop is now on order. We're getting the 4x4 coup de grande.  The coup de view is cuter, but the grand has more floor space, which our flock of 6 will need.

Oh, and Rich has arranged for Dru to deliver the finished product to our house.  This saves us the trouble of renting a trailer (it's too big and heavy for a truck), and it also ensures that the two of them will see each other again. Convenient!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board!

So I had my meeting with The Backyard Food Project/Planting Justice.  And I loved it.  Gavin was full of great ideas about how to transform my back yard into a food-producing mecca. Things I hadn't considered.  Things of which I had never dreamed my yard was capable.   I was impressed. I was enthusiastic. I couldn't wait to get started.  

Phase one would be coop construction, scheduled to begin this Friday.  Gavin had suggested that my coop be located on the back fence of our property, which would make it extremely visible,  both from my living room and my backyard.  I wasn't thrilled with the idea, so I told Gavin that the coop needed to be cute. Nay, really cute. My backyard is my favorite part of my nest; I need it to be pretty. "No problem" said he. 

Now as you all know, I've been doing quite a bit of research on "project chicken. " (One might say obsessive research about project chicken, if one were in a judgmental frame of mind) So in advance of our start date, I sent Gavin an email with some questions about the design of the coop. There were certain features that I knew from my research that I wanted in a coop, or at least wanted to discuss before we got started. (Opinions? Me? Never!)  To answer these questions, Gavin said that the design would be really cute, and a lot like his coop.  He attached photos for my reference.  I opened the photos with great excitement and anticipation.

I was flabbergasted. Not only was the coop in the photos not cute, it was shoddily done. Chicken wire sagged.  Wire stuck out from the cage, ready to rip at tender human flesh.  The doors didn't fit properly. The roof was warped. The run didn't even have a frame, it consisted merely of chicken wire stapled to upright posts with no cross pieces.  It was devoid of personality, AND it was poorly done. Sigh.

Even more disturbing was the fact my chicken-coop expert used chicken wire at all.  Many of the resources I consulted made special mention that a good coop uses nothing with holes larger than hardware cloth.  You see, chicken wire is not predator proof.  It's true that a predator like a raccoon can't get a chicken out through chicken wire...intact.  But they do try, and often succeed, in taking parts of the chicken out through the small holes. What a gruesome end to Cluckers! 

And so, with a heavy heart, I fired TBFP/PJ.  They are brand new, just figuring things out, and may one day do good work. But for now, I have to classify them as good intentions/poor execution, great theory/poor practice.  Sigh!

So, now, plan B.  My dearest husband helped me troll craigslist, and select a locally-made coop that we both like.  It's cute, well designed, (hardware cloth on every vent), reasonably priced, and appears to be very well made.  But I ain't buyin it till I see it in person!

We even found a good place to stash it in the garden...a dead space that gets plenty of shade, and will allow the girls a good bit of roaming room.  Incidentally, the new location is NOT on the back fence.  I can look at the coop from my living room if I want to, but it won't be the first thing I see every time I walk in! 

As for the rest of my food growing (Lettuce, oh, yes, lettuce!) well, that may take me a bit longer now that I don't have professional help.  But I am undaunted! I'm just going to have to take my urban farming challenges one at a time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Web Research

So, with my two-pronged objective in mind (eggs and lettuce) I set out to do my research. At the recommendation of  Jenny, and my online buddy, Pip, I went to Birdvana!


That weekend, instead of indulging in my usual vacation planning/armchair travel, I spent hours playing with the “Breed Selector tool” on mypetchicken. I didn’t just consult it, I wallowed in it. I changed variables, changed them again, cross referenced the results with breeder sites.  We’re talking a major chicken geek out.  


My objective: to somehow balance my desire for copious eggs (more than a dozen a week at least…I don’t just want eggs for my family, I want to be able to share!) with my daughter’s need for friendly, tolerant chickens, and my husband’s preference for freaky looking chickens with feathered feet. Plus, I wanted a diverse egg basket, with eggs of different shapes and colors.  With this tool, I was able accomplish all of our objectives with six chickens, (the legal limit in my municipality) two of each of the following:


Ameraucana (Cute, mellow, 3 blue/green eggs per week)

Faveroles (Tolerant, feathery-footed, 4 cream/tinted eggs per week)

Silkies (Great pets. Cute, but freaky looking, 1-2 pink/brown eggs per week)


Not to count my chickens before they hatch, but I figure this lot will give me an egg basket of  16-18 blue, cream, and pinkish brown eggs a week.  Allowing for the variations of individual personalities, they should all be fairly kid-tolerant. And several of them will have that sideshow look that makes my husband happy.


With that victorious decision-making process behind me, I did some serious husbandry reading, after which I began my search for a coop.  If this had all happened two years ago, I could have gotten my handy-manny husband to build my coop, no problem.  But since he got his fancy job (aquatic biologist at a famous aquarium, dontchaknow…I’m so proud!) his honey-do list has expanded to biblical proportions. Thus, I figure my chances of getting a free coop are pretty slim. Hence, I must buy one.


I started on Mypetchicken, moved on to google, and quickly got coop-head. Not only is the information on what is required (2 feet per chicken, 10 feet per chicken, indoor, no, outdoor, no both, warm, no, ventilated) contradictory, but even a lower-end coop seems disproportionately expensive. For something big enough to house 6 chickens, I’d need to shell out at least $1000, plus several hundred dollars in shipping.


Surely in this economy there must be someone local who can build a good, attractive coop for less money, right? Then I’d have the added bonus of a coop made to fit my particular space. According to the local paper, backyard chickens are gaining popularity, especially since the truly free-range eggs now sell for $8 a dozen at specialty stores. So someone must be building coops, right? And so I turned to craig’s list.


Bingo. There were several well-designed, attractive options, locally made, in the three digit price range. But I also saw a more intriguing option.


In with the other coop builders was a fledgling NPO called The Backyard Food Project/ Planting Justice.  According to their brief description, they specialize in helping people like me turn their urban spaces into food production zones, complete with chickens, vegetables, herbs, composting, grey-water recycling, fruit trees, the works. They look at your space, analyze the sunlight, the soil, the microclimate.  They develop a plan. Then they help you build and install said plan. Furthermore, they do follow-up calls, so if some newbie (like me) can’t figure out why one plant is thriving and the other sickly, you have help.  Fantastic!  Money raised from the project is then redeployed in a school, public space, or low income backyard, so that more people can have access to fresh, home-grown food.  


I was immediately intrigued. My two-pronged project now seemed small potatoes. Why not go all the way? Why not get some help so I could do my project right? Tasty, fresh food, grown sustainably in my own yard. And to help someone else in the process? How much better could it get?


So I went back to google in order to research this new option.  And didn’t find much. After much digging, I found two mentions of significant projects in which they were involved, but their own website was still under construction and had no content.  ACK!  Was this a scam? Did this organization even exist? Perhaps it’s my own web-research-based bias, but a flimsy web presence is a big turnoff. I recognize these guys are new, and web-building hasn’t been a priority, but still… I checked the better business bureau and found no bad marks, but I was still nervous. 


After several days of hemming and hawing, I decided that I liked the concept so much that I should take a chance. At the very least I should meet with them, and see what they had to say.


Will my leap of faith pay off? Or will it be a disaster? Stay tuned to find out!


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lettuce Love

The purpose of this blog is to detail the transformation of my yard, and my life, from ornamental to food-producing. And I promise to get to that shortly. But since we haven't yet put shovel to soil, I thought I'd take advantage of this time before all hell breaks loose to fill in a bit more backstory for you.

So, after the fresh egg conversation with my father, I had an equally ecstatic incident regarding growing my own lettuce. My daughter and I went to Maine for a week's vacation.  We stayed with my friend Jenny's family in their wainscot-and-trim cottage. 

Behind their cottage was a little fairytale of a garden, all the misty greens and yellows bleeding together in the steady rain.  It was a magical place, even seen from beneath an umbrella. The chickens (yes she had chickens! :-) clucked contentedly. The squirrels watched imperiously from their tree-stump throne. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a leprechaun carousing among the hostas.

It was from here that Jenny procured the greens for our supper table, fresh from the garden. Given what else was on my plate, a boiled Maine lobster and an ear of early-summer corn, I had very little interest in the salad. I took a polite handful, and set to work on my lobster.

Mmmmmm....lobster. It was so good that I didn't even use the drawn butter. I ate methodically. First, the claws, then the meat in the body, then the silky tail. Using my teeth to crunch the shell, I sucked every last morsel out of every thin lobster leg.  Then I plucked every sweet kernel of corn off the cob. Summer on a stick. Finally, I was done. And full.  I had room, maybe, for one bite of salad. 

Dressed only with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, it was a simple salad. My favorite kind. I took one mouthful of mesclun into my mouth. 

Joy! Bright, tasty joy! This was no homogenous, store-bought spring mix. It was a mix of lettuces and cabbages and arugula, each with a distinct taste, a texture all its own. So fresh, so flavorful. Not only did I eat my own salad, but I commandeered the serving bowl. Jenny and her husband Keith watched with mounting amusement as I continued eating until every last leaf was gone. 

And in that moment, phase two of my project was born. I was going to have chickens, oh yes. There would be eggs.  But there would also be lettuce. Oh, yes, there would be lettuce. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I can answer THAT one...the Egg came first.

I love good food. For that, I must thank my father. 

We are never so in harmony as when we are hunched over some new or exciting food, our identical dark brown eyes meeting over a celery root,  a tiny tin of beluga, or a beautiful bite of fruit. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised then, that my decision to become an Urban Farmer began with a visit from my father.  

I'd just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver's account of her year-long experiment eating only local food.  (What the book detailed best was the feast/famine aspect of living off local produce.  An entire winter without fruit and then, suddenly, the ecstasy of cherries.  How, after gorging on them for weeks, and reaching the point where you felt you'd never want a cherry again, they would be suddenly gone, not to reappear for 11 long months. And then...Peaches! And the cycle starts over. ) 

At any rate, the book was rumbling in my head as I watched my father prowl around my yard, searching for the perfect lemon to squeeze into his tequilita.  I was proud that my yard had lemons that my father coveted, proud that despite my benign neglect, my yard was pretty and productive. That it could be prettier, I had no doubt.  That it could be more productive, I was certain.  And in that moment, watching my father grab his prize from a tall branch, I decided to make it so. Not that I had grand plans at that point.  Just a single plan. A single, productive, and tasty plan.

As a sounding board, you can't do better than my father. He's very pragmatic.  And though he bites his tongue, I can tell from the tone of his mildly accented voice when he thinks I'm going off the deep end with one of my crazy schemes. So I bounced the idea off of him.

"So, Dad," I asked, watching him slice into the lemon, "What do you think of me putting a chicken coop in my side yard?"

My father paused in his slicing, and turned those so-like-mine eyes in my direction.  "Fresh eggs?" He asked, making a vague moaning sound. I knew what he was picturing. A visit, some time in the not-too-distant future.  A simple meal. A blue plate holding a perfect soft-boiled egg, its orange yoke like a sun against the sky. Beside it, a small pile of sparkling kosher salt, and a wedge of crusty, buttery toast. He raised a knuckle to his mouth, and chewed.

I grinned and nodded. "Yep. Fresh eggs."