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?