Saturday, March 23, 2013

Save seeds—and have a garden like no one else

I loved this mammoth, pure yellow sunflower.
I have been busy attempting to fulfill one of my lifetime horticultural goals: saving and propagating my own seeds. The process is incredibly simple, and incredibly rewarding. First, I notice what plants thrive exceptionally well in my garden. Then, I cut off some mature flower heads—or let vegetables grow to seed maturity (i.e., past the point at which they would be delicious to eat). I hang flower heads upside down to let the seed dry; I rescue seeds from (almost rotting) vegetables, rinse clean, and place on a paper towel to dry. I keep seeds in a cool, dry place (no worries there—the back kitchen is roughly about forty degrees all winter) until spring planting time.

Sunflower heads drying in the back kitchen all winter-- kept company by some oregano.
            Saving—and replanting—our own seeds has myriad benefits. First of all, we can purposefully select the plant varieties that grow particularly well for us. By saving and replanting seeds from that same variety, we’re guaranteeing a successful crop. Secondly, seeds we harvested ourselves are wonderfully free of pesticides, chemicals, or other possible soil and plant contaminants. Thirdly, those plants that were successful have most likely built immunities to local bugs or pests—otherwise they wouldn’t have done so well—and so will be even less likely to be affected by said threats in the future. Fourth and last, let’s not forget that seed saving is FREE. For the amount of money I know I have spent on seed in the spring, with no guaranteed result, I’m pretty excited about that last part.

            Additionally, I find that seed saving really individualizes my garden. Plant success isn’t necessarily a regional or zonal rule—for example, many plants that do well in my local friends’ gardens do not do well in mine. Why? Well, many of those other gardens are in a more urban area; they are thus more sheltered, sustain warmer temperatures, and benefit from almost unlimited municipal water.  Or, they are in areas with different soil makeups and consistencies. On the other hand, I have great success with plants that do not seem to do well anywhere else. When we seed save, our gardens become unique: a visit to a friend’s garden becomes a trip to the exotic, and vice-versa. 

            At a farmers’ market in Rutland, Vermont last fall, I met a vendor who said she had been part of a local seed saving community for years.  The members of the community keep careful track of their plants, preserve and label them meticulously, and meet to discuss the plants’ merits. Then, they swap or buy as deemed appropriate. I was really inspired by that. What a wonderful—and attainable—local goal. 
I will have fields of sunflowers this spring! (At market prices, by the way, this is probably about $50 worth of seed.... well worth the work.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Getting Creative-- Part I

Getting Creative—Part I

In February, the wood pile seems to dimish as quickly as the canned food store. At this point in the winter, I find that we are out of my tomato basil sauce; we only have a few cans of rosemary garlic salsa left and only one can of green dill salsa; a few pickled ginger jars remain with a whole lot of sambal oelek (perhaps we don’t like hot food quite as much as I thought). In the freezer, we have plenty of venison and burger (we don’t’ eat much meat), but my stores of beans, peas, zucchini, summer squash, blackberries, strawberries, and asparagus are almost gone.

On the other hand, I still have plenty of corn, and enough fruit jam and bread to get us through zombie apocalypse…

I’m learning from this.

As I plan my garden for next year, I’m applying the lessons from this winter to future production and planning. Rather then haphazardly canning what I have (and being triumphant in having done so successfully) as in previous years, I’m taking stock of what my family eats and when. Moreover, I’m recording what preserves well and what does not.

Lesson #1: My Frankenstein produce:

Hoping to save on weight and space, I dehydrated and dry oven canned potatoes, spinach, and squash—soup fixings, I thought. This has worked okay in a crockpot with chicken broth to reanimate the dehydrated vegetables. Not sure I would repeat this process, however—not optimal.

Dehydrated fruit, on the other hand—I dehydrated and froze bananas and apples—works really well in hot breakfasts, like oatmeal or pancakes, However, reanimated bananas are actually really gross on their own. I will not do that again.

Lesson #2: Next year’s planting:

It just makes sense to gear the garden to what my family likes. This year, there will be tons of peas, spinach, and beans—they haven’t grown well in the big garden so my husband has built me planters near our house that can be closely monitored and replanted every thirty days—tomatoes as usual, more broccoli, and squash that will survive the winter intact (like Jarradale Pumpkins and Hubbard Squash). I have discontinued planning more exotic vegetables, like kohlrabi, which simply didn’t grow well in our plot and which, additionally, don’t preserve well.  Our asparagus—I planted three varieties: Martha Washington, Purple Passion and Green Giant—will produce this year, as it is their third year of growth, and should provide plenty of produce for the freezer. I began saving seeds last year from my favorite heirloom tomato strains and will start then next month.
In short, I have decided to focus on the possible: I will do well what I can do well.

I have already placed my orders for the spring (more on that later), but for now, the task at hand is creatively using what I have:

-Puff pastry becomes a pot pie shell for venison, apples, cumin,  and celery or beans;
-Corn chowder is easy with a frozen fish or two simmered down in olive oil and cumin, some hot sauce (sambal oelek?),  sautéed mushrooms and a carmelized onion or two;
-Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches—peach jam, kiwi jam, sweet jalapeno jam, hot mango jam, or plum jam with very sharp cheddar on my own whole wheat oatmeal bread; summer strawberry jam or elderberry with all-natural peanut butter. Food of champions.

If my goal is truly to make it through the winter on our produce alone, I obviously need to gear my thoughts towards our family consumption. With that in mind, I’ve begun plans for next year’s garden, a beehive, more orchard trees, mushrooms, and a farmers’ market circuit—more to follow. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Secret Garden Shame

Oh Guerney’s Seed Catalogue, how I hate to love thee.

You come in the mail, all shiny and new, with your promises of stronger plants, more exotic varieties, and cold-resistant strains. A few years ago, I believed you—I thought you had secrets that other gardeners must know and I did not.  I scanned and planned and meticulously ordered. I bought my seeds from you, and then discovered the same varieties at Lowe’s for half the price. Oh the shame, the shame.

Late season tomatoes-- ALL from plants originating in the local nursery.
Further humiliation ensued when your seedlings were outproduced by those from the local nursery; some of your root stocks had the nerve to die right in their carefully constructed soil environments. I broke up with you. I swore you off—never again would I succumb to your wiles.

But your catalogues keep visiting. And you promise new, different plants—you ask me, would I like kiwis hardy to Zone 3? A persimmon, perhaps? You say your strawberries produce from June to October, and these artichokes can survive even the toughest winter? Give those lilies room—they’ll spread—and our Chinese lilac will engulf any trellis in a season.

Plus, we’ll give you $25 off.

Damn you, Guerney’s; damn you all to hell. Because I can’t stay away.

Yes, I received your most recent pamphlet of perdition. And yes, I do already have the order form filled out. Lemon grass? Witch hazel? No-dig gladiolas? Cold-hardy avocados? Heirloom pear varietals? Seriously? My will power has been destroyed in a single glossy blow.

Time to look in the mirror and know myself—and also to make friends with the UPS person.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Salsa Time!

Cue the music: it’s the most... wonderful time... of the year.... That’s right. It’s salsa making time. In my garden, there is about a day’s space between “ugh, nothing’s ready” and “my goodness, I’d better get cooking!” The latter has finally happened. 

An August day's garden haul
A few years ago, my husband told me that if I could make sure he had a jar of delicious salsa for every day of the year, he would be a happy man. I took on that challenge, and as I’m stocking the very high shelves with this year’s canned deliciousness, I see that, despite my husband’s daily salsa habit, we still have salsa left from last summer. I think it’s fairly safe to say I met-- and exceeded-- that challenge. 

Many people-- and cookbooks-- insist that one should only use Roma tomatoes to make canned goods., This is allegedly because Romas have fewer and smaller seeds and less water than bigger tomatoes, and therefore make better canned goods. I wholeheartedly disagree. While I appreciate Romas, some of my most delicious salsas and sauces have been made from heirloom tomatoes, golden tomatoes, or simply Beefsteaks. The key in any salsa or sauce is to make sure that there is very little water content in your finished product. This could mean simmering the salsa or sauce down on the stove top. Or you could use the following method, which I much prefer.

Rather than chopping and boiling the ingredients, I prefer to make salsa and sauce by oven roasting. Preheat the oven to 400F, simply halve or quarter your tomatoes (depending on the size of your fruit), and scatter them on a baking sheet. Scatter over the tomatoes the other ingredients (garlic, hot peppers, onions, etc.) and drizzle generously in extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle some coarse salt over the top. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to brown. Remove and transfer to a food processor or bender. Roughly chop with about a quarter cup of white vinegar, and can. This method greatly reduces preparation time, as well as the chance that one might can watery salsa (yuck). Plus, the salsa has this lovely roasted flavor. Following are a few of my favorite original recipes:
Destined for salsa

Roasted Rosemary Garlic Salsa
1 lb tomatoes (any kind), halved or quartered
3 big cloves garlic, crushed
1 large white onion, sliced
2 jalapeno or other hot pepper (to taste), whole
4 medium sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves removed from stems
1generous tbs coarse salt
1/4 cup white vinegar
plenty of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Scatter the halved or quartered tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and rosemary leaves onto a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Salt. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes start to brown. Place in a food processor with the vinegar and roughly chop; hot pack. 

Green Tomato Sweet Dills
About to go into the oven
1 lb green, soft tomatoes, thickly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large white onion, sliced
1 big handful fresh dill
1 generous tbs coarse salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp brown sugar
1/4 cup white vinegar
plenty of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Scatter tomatoes, garlic, and onion onto a baking sheet. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Sprinkle over salt, cumin, and sugar. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until tomatoes begin to brown. Place in a food processor with the dill and vinegar. Hot pack. 

Simple Tomato Basil Sauce
1 lb tomatoes (any color, ripe), sliced or quartered
generous handful fresh basil
1 tbs coarse salt
1/4 cup vinegar
plenty of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400F. Sprinkle tomatoes over a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and salt. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until tomatoes are slightly charred. Pour into a food processor and add the basil and vinegar. Hot pack.

You have probably noticed a pattern. Any tomato assembly, drizzled in olive oil and roasted at about 400F with some salt, and then canned with some vinegar, will be unbelievably delicious. Experiment. 

A few tips:
-Delicate herbs like dill, basil, or cilantro do not do well under heat. They will char into ash. They are best added at the food processing stage for optimal flavor.
-Hardier herbs, i.e. those growing from a woody stem (like rosemary or bay), benefit from a little roasting. It brings out the flavors. 
-Always make sure your tomato slices are the same size. Your sauce or salsa will taste a little funky if some tomato pieces are done more than others. 
-Vinegar and salt are key for the canning process. Don’t ever omit them. If the vinegar is too harsh for you, use lemon juice instead.
-Roasted garlic makes everything taste like heaven.

I think I might be needing some extra shelf space.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

If you like it then you'd better put a ring on it

Yes, I heard the forecasts of late blight. And no, I didn’t do much about it. But on my trip to the garden today to pick tomatoes for my husband’s birthday dinner—bless him, he said all he wanted for his birthday dinner was a freshly-picked tomato and basil pasta salad—I had a terrible discovery. Many of the early heirloom tomatoes had been infected with blight.

Insert necessary obscenities not fit to print.

Late blight on Romas: Courtesy of Cornell Cooperative Ext.
So I looked around. I weeded out the heirloom fruit that had clearly been infected and threw them far, far away. It seems that only my early heirlooms have suffered (knock on proverbial wood); the Celebrity variety, my Romas, Beefsteak, Early Girl, and questionable half-breed volunteers don’t seem to be, as yet, infected. I picked the heirlooms that were ready, as well as those that were almost ready, and those that were green but soft. One can, by the way, eat a soft green tomato—many heirloom varieties are bred that way, and they are quite tasty. The pasta salad including the heirloom green fruit was delicious.

I am quite worried, however, about my garden situation. I remember when late blight swept through in the summer of 2009—after many efforts to save my crops, and then finally my soil, in any way I could, I ended up uprooting my tomato, eggplant, pepper, and potato plants; piling them; and burning them. Blight is a fungus, and spreads through its airborne spores. It is insidious and devastating. Some have hypothesized (hopefully) that one can avoid blight through row covers, yet this doesn’t seem to be net enough against the spores; others have turned to specifically timed planting to prevent rot. Cornell Cooperative Extension suggests that one should plant a seed that is genetically immune to such diseases, or to treat your crops with targeted anti-fungal sprays and pesticides.  This is very effective for the large-scale commercial gardener.

See earlier posts for my view on this approach for the family garden.

If you too are finding yourself in this situation, or you live in a place that is expecting a blight, my advice is to use those green tomatoes. You can do so fresh— I would just lightly fry green tomato slices in olive oil, coat them in battered egg whites (three should do for a few large tomatoes) and then dip them in whole wheat bread crumbs, fry them again until crispy brown, and have them for breakfast.

However, if your green tomato harvest would consist of more fresh veg than you could eat—or if you like your produce all year round—it’s time to take Beyonce’s advice and put a ring on it.

A canning ring.

Even if your tomatoes are not ripe, there are several delicious ways to prepare—and can—green tomatoes. A simple google search will give lots of ideas.  Outside of that, here is one from antiquity—from my favorite cookbook , the Fannie Farmer:

Green Tomato Relish
2 quarts chopped green tomatoes
¾ salt
Cover, let stand 24 hours, and drain.

1 tsp pepper
1 ½ tsp mustard
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
1 ½ tsp ground cloves
¼ cup white mustard seed
1 quart mild cider vinegar
2 red or green peppers, sliced
1 chopped onion

Bring to a boil and cook 15 min. Hot pack into quarts.

Or, I would simply finely dice a few tomatoes. Measure them in a cup measure, and put them in a saucepan. Pour water into the saucepan until it covers the fruit with about an inch to spare. Add twice as much sugar in cups as there was fruit (or substitute fresh honey, and quarter the amount). Throw in some pineapple or apples if you feel creative (minced!).  Boil it down (stirring pretty often) until there is almost no liquid left, and hot pack it.  

(Sidenote: if anyone does not know what hot packing is, please do not be intimidated, it is incredibly easy. It simply means putting a boiling, sterilized substance into a sterilized jar that has been boiled. To hot pack:

Bring a big pot of water (like 10 quarts) to boil and submerge all the jars and lids you will use, as well as the business part of a stainless steel ladle. Let this jar-water-mix achieve a boil and then turn the heat off—they will continue to boil for quite a few minutes. Retrieve your materials from the water with long metal tongs and place them on a sterile surface.

In another pot, bring the mixture you plan on canning to a boil (this is almost always already done in the cooking process). Using that sterilized ladle (and a couple of oven mitts), ladle your mixture into the jars leaving about ½ space between the top of the mixture and the top of the jar, on average. Screw the sterilized top on. (Keep using those oven mitts.)

Once you are done with all of the jars, drop them back into that 10 quart pot, making sure the jars are vertically standing, aren’t touching and that there is at least one inch of water above the top of each jar. Turn the water back on and boil for about five minutes. Turn the burner off. When water is still steaming, retrieve (VERY CAREFULLY!) the jars with oven mitts and metal tongs. Set them on a flat cool surface. When you hear a pop! you know the jar has sealed. Just to make sure, press down on the center of the jar. If it gives at all, it has not sealed. If it is solid, feel safe to label it with a sharpie and store it in your pantry.)

However, if your fruit does not yet show signs of blight, cross your fingers and feel temporarily safe. One can, however, take preventative measures: in addition to crossing one’s fingers, staking tomato plants seems to be effective as it allows air flow to better circulate. Additionally, constant monitoring helps: if you see blight, get it the hell outta there.

On the bright side, whenever I have spotted a delectable fruit with only a small spot of blight on it, I have no compunction about carving it out and eating the rest. Delicious. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In the weeds: how to instantly feel better about your garden

     As July rolls around, I always feel like I just finished settling my garden—meticulously grooming beds, planting seeds and seedlings, and shaping borders—to turn around and see the weeds taking over. Though I feel accomplished this does not seem like a time to rest on my laurels. After so much time in the garden, yes, my house is dusty; I have roughly 105 loads of laundry waiting (okay, maybe not quite that many, but it feels like it); my hammock has remained unvisited; I haven’t even started that stack of paperbacks I had set away as my summer reading; and my son has found that he needs to yell  “Moooom-mmmmy!” more than I feel should be necessary.

     We can’t do it all, and life is short. Additionally, my father always reminds me that the garden should be FUN, not a stressor. Thus, I have decided to take a more zen-like approach to my garden weeds. Instead of stressing about them and spending all my time culling them, I am going to do—well—nothing of the sort. Furthermore, in my pursuit of higher garden awareness, I have come to realize that some garden weeds can actually be beneficial. Frankly, I’ve decided to embrace my garden jungle.

     If you too are teetering on garden insanity, read on to feel good about doing absolutely nothing.

     Last year, I sowed leek seeds. My wonderful husband, in his infinite and extraordinary willingness to help, offered to hoe and weed-whack the area around the garden, in order to make a proper border. He unwittingly butchered my row of leek seeds. I had given them up as a bad job when suddenly, ninety days later, a plentiful leek crop arose in a bordering hayfield. Traumatic redistribution and competing plant life seemingly had very little effect.

Basil does just fine with a surrounding carpet of crab grass. 
     As a rule, I assiduously obey the rules of companion planting. My brassicas are clearly separated from my nightshades with alliums, and my three sisters camp well together. One day, I went down to discover volunteer (heirloom!) tomatoes had popped up everywhere—in the broccoli and the onions; in the melons and on the paths. I transplanted about fifteen of them into their own bed, but as they continued to crop up I’ve just about given up. Thus, despite my careful scheming, my cauliflower plot is intertwined with tomato. I look forward to observing whether or not either will impede the other’s growth, but as of now, both are thriving and blooming.

            Incidents like this remind me of the well-worn cliché that nature finds a way. Plants are engineered to outcompete rivals and find a way to survive. When we domesticate them we dull their edge a little, but even so, how much do they really need us? How important is it to keep a weed-free garden?

            The most popular method of keeping a tidy garden in the United States is to spray that garden with chemicals. Those chemicals then join the ground water to seep down into the water table. My family drinks from a well located on our property, about a hundred feet from the garden. Those chemicals are also then present on the leaves and fruit of garden plants. My two-year-old son—to my great delight—loves to pick berries and beans and eat them right off their stems.  Thus, it is obvious why I will not be using chemicals in the garden. In making that decision, however, I am faced with a very weedy problem.

            Weeds are unpreventable. If you use composted manure, the very best of fertilizers, you are signing on for germination of all the seeds within that manure (which are plenty). Get used to it.  This is simply reality—plants of all kinds instinctively grow in good soil. Ironically, the more weeds you have, the more fertile you know your soil is.  To suggest another cliché, weeds, like that euphemistic excrement, will happen.

            My step-grandmother, who actively transplants creeping charley and lamb's ears into her garden as groundcover, always reminds me that "weeds" are simply flowers in the wrong place. And in fact, I've allowed a patch of yarrow (which developed beautiful purple blossoms that I harvested for tea) to grow up in my perennial garden. "Weeds",  therefore, are not entirely bad.  They may deflect those ominous looking insects you may have originally seen; I noticed my eggplant was getting munched on quite a bit and then, less out of purpose than of simply busy-ness, I saw some weeds grow up in the eggplant patch and—guess what—the insects preferred the weeds over the eggplants. I think I’ll be letting some of those weeds stand.

            Furthermore, in a raised-bed layout such as mine, small weeds prevent erosion on the sides of my raised beds and provide a groundcover through which other weeds cannot penetrate. I am a big fan of crab grass. I know this sounds crazy, but I love it when I see crab grass growing through my garden because I know it (a) holds up the soil walls of my raised beds; (b) prevents other weeds from growing; and (c) is nutritious when it decomposes back into the soil.

            All this being said, it is important to make sure weeds are not directly impeding seedling growth. Definitely pull weeds in the immediate area of seedlings, and make sure no weed is impeding their water or sun receipt. 

There are things more important than weeding the garden. 
            When you do have to pull weeds, however, the best thing to do is to simply leave them there. That’s right. Don’t make piles for discard. Don’t throw them out of the garden. We are conditioned to purge what we perceive as harmful, and habitually eject our garden debris. The most labor saving and organically nutritional thing you can do is to leave the pulled weeds in the beds. As they decompose, they will (a) block out the sunlight for up and coming weeds, and (b) add nutrients to your garden. You could actually have a garden-wide mulch of pulled weeds. Glorious, nutritive, and easy.

            So chill the champagne. Cue the Coltrane. Shake out your favorite blanket.  With this outlook, today will certainly involve a novel—and perhaps an afternoon nap.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Leningen Versus the.... Deer?

           In recently comparing our respective garden progress, my friend Lisa told me she has four large gardens: three for their family and one for the deer.
            “What do you do?” she asked me. “Do you have a fence?”
            “Oh, no.” I waved the question away. “I haven’t really had problems with deer. I think it’s because I live in the midst of corn and alfalfa fields—they have much tastier things to munch on.”

            Apparently my nonchalant and foolish statement was the kiss of death. The next morning, my brassicas—my cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli—showed definite signs of nibbling. Three entire plants were gone—ripped right out of the soil, roots and all.

            I’m not comfortable repeating in print my words following that revelation.

            Time to spring into action. In a blast of brilliance, I found a spare two-by-two board in the garage and used the circular saw to cut the end into a point. I went upstairs into our family dress-up closet and got out a pair of my father’s old veterinary coveralls. I stuffed the suit with rags and straw, and remembered that I had kept the control top area of a pair of nylons, the legs of which I had used to bag elderberries for winemaking. I knotted the legs, stuffed it with straw, knotted the waist, and tied an old floppy gardening hat on the top with craft twine. I pounded the stake into the ground right in the middle of the brassicas, tied the dummy to it with spare clothesline, and tied the nylon and hat head onto the stake and onto the dummy. Additionally, I found the parts of a large wind chime that had been ruined in a storm, took of some of the larger chime parts, and attached them to a stake in the far corner of the garden. They don’t chime all the time, but make the occasional loud and disconcerting clang that I hope will scare whatever fauna is considering plundering my garden. As the light diminished and it became too dark to garden, I wiped my hands on my filthy jeans and took a final survey of my kingdom—hopefully, this would work.
Meet Murray.

            I haven’t seen any new nibbling in a week, though the scarecrow startles me sometimes when I am alone working in the garden and catch him out of the corner of my eye. I have named him Murray.

            I have, however, discovered a new problem: something (an insect) is eating my kohlrabi seedlings as fast as they can sprout. I know that the conventional go-to response is to spray the seedlings with an anti-pest chemical; however I really feel like the whole purpose of personal farming is that one can feed one’s family confidently and healthfully, without worrying about contamination from industrial chemicals. I know that when I feed my baby son, I have fostered his food from seed to harvest, and he is getting the very best.

            That being said, something must be done if that kohlrabi is to make it onto his plate at all.

            This is one of the many instances in which I turn to my older, wiser, master gardeners. My mother, for example, swears by spraying the plants with a solution of Ivory Liquid dish soap and water. My step-grandmother, an avid lifelong gardener, says that a crushed garlic and water solution has always worked for her. Both seem to make sense, and I have tried both. Last year, I sprayed the garlic solution on my beetle-bitten roses, and it seemed to work somewhat (I still noticed some arthropod snacking, but not as much). My application of the Ivory Liquid solution scorched one plant, but I also applied it in the late morning on a hot day (not smart). This time, I tried something different.
Kohlrabi in trouble

            Since my son became (a) mobile enough to follow me everywhere, (b) super-“helpful” and interested in helping Mommy clean and (c) overly willing to put everything in his mouth, I have switched from industrial cleaners to a simple white vinegar, water, and lemon juice mix for daily surface cleaning. I simply took this mixture in its spray bottle down to the garden and sprayed the seedlings. Will this be effective? Stay tuned.

Another danger: Giant slugs. A quarter in the middle for scale. 
            I do sometimes feel like the protagonist in that Stephenson short story “Leningen Versus the Ants.” For those unfamiliar, the upshot is that an overly confident white land baron buys a Brazilian plantation and pooh-poohs the natives’ warnings about the ants. When the ants come in killing swarms, he is sure he can triumph easily. He tries all sorts of schemes, only to be bested by Mother Nature, and ultimately barely escapes with his life. The takeaway: in our human effort to control our natural environment, only so much is wise and possible.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Urban Gardening Part II: From Grocery to Garden

A beautiful herb garden can be grown from grocery store produce.
The serious problem for the true urban gardener is the total lack of nearby seedling farms or greenhouses. Even if one was perfectly set up to rooftop or balcony garden, where would one get those healthy garden-ready seedlings? What is available however is high quality, gourmet or organic small grocery marts that tend to cater to the upper-middle class busy career-person who grabs dinner ingredients on the way home. Produce at those stores is often fresh and presented in a way that reminds the consumer of the natural environment, lulling (and selling) them into believing they’ve plucked it right off the farm.

Take advantage. Much of this produce still has roots. Most fresh herbs, like basil, cilantro, oregano, or chives can be potted and placed in a sunny spot for much more than one dinner’s worth of seasoning. The same can be done with leeks and spring onions; fennel, kohlrabi, and dill can also be bought with roots.  Anything looking young and fresh and still retains roots could be viable… try it out.  (I would, however, let anything that looks a little wilty rest in a glass of water for twenty-four hours before planting, and always make sure to drench the plant after potting—that’s how the roots get settled. Afterward, water normally.)

Paradoxically, old plants can be equally valuable. If those potatoes you bought for a dinner party a month ago are sprouting eyes, or if you see some for sale on the cheap, cube them—making sure each cube has at least one growing sprout—and leaving enough potato meat (remember that is the sprout’s food)—and plant them. If you left the garlic on top of the fridge and completely forgot about it, only to rediscover it with a green shoot, plant it (making sure to separate cloves and planting each one individually) and see what happens. Again, urban gardeners have the advantage of climate control: when planting garlic outside, one must be careful to plant softneck or hardneck garlic appropriately (softneck garlic doesn’t do well in northern climates)—however if planting indoors, all sprouting garlic bulbs are fair game.

And don’t forget that every vegetable you buy has a seed that can be planted. If you find a particular variety of vegetable delicious, save the seed and plant it. (Especially rare ones!) This is elementarily easy with squash, cucumber, and pumpkin, but tomatoes, okra and peppers can also be successful with a little care. I would wash the individual seeds carefully, then dry them out in a paper towel sandwich for a few weeks. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place for the winter months, and then plant them in potting soil as soon as your USDA zone dictates.  (Don’t know your zone? See my post on growing steady in moody weather for the link.)
Pits can also be fun. Don’t forget that within every avocado, fresh fig, date, peach, and mango is a glorious potential tree. These take tons and tons of patience, but are a point of pride if you can pull it off. For these, bore three holes in the pit with toothpicks at a forty-five degree angle. Leave the toothpicks in, and use them to suspend the pit over the lip of a glass (I use a mason jar). Fill the glass with water until the bottom half of the pit is covered. Make sure that the level of water in the glass in maintained. Set it aside and prepare to be very, very patient. Once it sprouts roots, bury it in potting soil.

Attempted avocado cultivation from pits: month four. 

For best results with all plants, adhere to seasonal rules. Plant garlic in the fall for next summer’s bounty.  Store dried seeds and plant them in pots in the spring, then make sure they get plenty of water and sunlight.  The most important virtue in gardening, urban or rural, is patience: Mother Earth marches to her own beat. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Progress Report

Progress Report

     In the academic world, it’s progress report time, when many students either rejoice or despair in the fact that this is “only a drill.” In that same spirit, I thought it useful to assess my own progress.  (In true teacher fashion, one always begins with the positive.)

     What I’ve done well:

     After about eight weeks, the chickens are still alive—and growing fast! Although it is still a tad too early, I peek hopefully into the coop every morning for those ethereal and edible artifacts of chicken achievement. Not yet.

     I’ve attributed this year’s continual chicken survival to a few factors: firstly, they (unfortunately) don’t free range. They do however have a roomy and open pen which they seem to enjoy. They have sunny spots, shady spots, and shelter when they want it, and are protected by a large cube of chicken wire (as I mentioned in a previous post, the bottom is buried so they have grass).  We also recently adopted a dog, Jude, an Australian shepherd mix who does a pretty good job of marking his territory. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of fox nor weasel since then. In fact, my husband has taken to redistributing our new friend’s doggie droppings to the perimeter of the chicken coop, and then our property, just in case. Though my dream of clucking followers (termed like this, I begin to think this dream was a tad megalomaniacal) may not come true, at least content chicken survival is, so far, possible.

     Secondly, after years of planting in flat beds and battling weeds and drought, I’ve decided to try a different method. In my 60’ x 60’ vegetable garden, I planned out different size oblong beds and, with a garden hoe, dug them into raised beds with paths in between. The beds range from 4’ x 4’ to 3’ x 6’, and are arranged with companion planting and crop rotation in mind. The idea is that with these “raised” beds I have specific paths on which I can walk, thus inhibiting weed growth, and from which I can easily harvest without worrying about damaging plants. Also, I wouldn’t have to rototill every year and damage the structure of the soil; instead, the paths would become compacted and I could gently work in manure and compost to only the bed areas as needed. Rotating crops would also become incredibly easy. I am aware that most conceptions of "raised beds" require some kind of solid perimeter,  but the whole permanency of that kind of experiment seems unwise-- Lewis Carroll would ask, "What if this doesn't work at all?" With a simply dirt-mounded structure, I feel like I can give it a whirl and plow it all under if I don't like it. 

     What needs improvement:

      I’ve done some experiments with hydroponics this spring with mixed results. After waiting until my easy-grow seedlings (i.e., peas and beans) were well-sprouted, I gently dug them out with my forefinger and transplanted them, soil still clinging to roots, into glass vases filled with plain filtered well water. I experimented a little bit: I put some of each kind of seedling into clear, red, and green glass vases and plunked them on an indoor shelf in the sunlight.  In my results, regardless of glass color, my bean seedlings are healthy (and one has even flowered) while my peas are wilting away. My lesson so far is that peas need more nutrition, not necessarily that they can’t be grown hydroponically. More work to be done on this. Perhaps not warm enough? Started too early?

     Also, I need a better garden water system. Right now, I run a hundred plus feet of hose from my house to my garden and water first thing every morning. Even with that length, the hose doesn’t properly reach all corners of the garden. This is pure laziness on my part. Must revise to a better system.

     What I’ve learned:

     Firstly, to my relief and excitement, I have learned that, apparently,  it is really difficult to kill asparagus. Last October my father, who owns a proper full-time farm, was “coming by” with the tractor and disker and offered to turn over my garden for me. I quickly and rashly accepted, thinking of the labor it would save on my part, only to want to smack myself fifteen minutes later. I had planted asparagus, a perennial, in the southwest corner of the garden, and he had disked over it.

Asparagus rise! Carrot and beet raised beds beyond.
     I was absolutely distraught all winter. I had painstakingly dug asparagus trenches, carefully planted them, and, with baited breath, watched them grow, knowing that it would be three years until I’d have my first asparagus crop. And I’d have to start again.

     However, this spring, that lovely tenacious asparagus reappeared. Not where I had planted it, of course (apparently the worst it had suffered at the mercy of the disks was displacement), but it reappeared nonetheless. I will not, however, be testing its tenacity again.

     Secondly, I have learned that no matter how much reading, planning, and debating I do over the winter, I will inevitably change my garden plan once I get IN the actual garden. I am on my fourth garden map right now, and am still in a process of revision. While I try to adhere to the rules of companion planting, my ideal garden changes depending on the varieties of vegetables available that year as well as the weather pattern of the planting season at hand. I thought I had constructed my final draft plan in February, but now find I am using that “final draft” as a reference to guide what I’m actually doing. So far, I have parsnips, carrots, and onions in the ground, so at least that part of the map is immutable.
200 Onions, red and white, in their own "raised" bed.

     What I have really learned from this? Thinking about the garden is fun year-round, even if it’s only a drill. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Bread and Jamnation!

As a rule, I make an effort to shop small, local businesses rather than the national chains. My favorite thing about my local family-owned grocery is that, rather than throw out day-old or bruised produce, they sell it in paper bags off a shelf in the back of the store for drastically reduced prices. You might get four pounds of week-old parsnips for a dollar, or a bushel of slightly bruised apples for the same price. It is fantastic. Not only am I a fan of avoiding waste (in many other countries of the world, not only would these beautiful fruits and vegetables be unavailable, but folks would argue over them); I am an inveterate bargain hunter and can make something delicious out of the most overlooked of nature’s bounty.
            Thus, I have recently become addicted to jam-making. At first, this process seemed incredibly intimidating. Not so. Making jam is perhaps one of the easiest culinary adventures out there. The necessary ingredients are few and easy to procure, and the space to creatively riff on your product is infinite. Jam is the waste-free, backyard-farming individual’s answer to windfall produce—whether you grew it or simply acquired it cheaply. Here is really the only rule: simmer it down for a long time. Until it’s ready. Jam-making needs patience. You don’t actually need extra pectin or sugar if you take the time to make sure the mixture is boiled to almost solid. Keep on low heat and stir often.

Following are some of my favorite unique creations:

Pineapple Chipotle Jam
1 whole pineapple, finely chunked
1 cup brown sugar
4 cups water, plus extra
2 tbs crushed chipotle pepper

Boil the water; place the pineapple chunks and sugar in the water and reduce heat to medium low. Throw in hot pepper. Cook , stirring about every five minutes, until there is no water left and pineapple even burns a little bit on the bottom of the pan. Turn off heat and stir into a jam-like consistency.

Black Onion Jam
3-4 medium white onions, sliced very thinly
½  cup olive oil
½ cup maple sugar or molasses
2 cups water

Caramelize onions in olive oil. Add water and sugar; boil down until very thick.

Nectarine Brown Sugar Jam
2 lbs nectarines, pitted and diced
2 cups brown sugar
6 cups water
1tbs cinnamon
Bring water to a boil, then add nectarines, sugar, and cinnamon; reduce to a simmer. Simmer until a thick, jam-like consistency is achieved. This will take more than an hour (probably almost two).

Once you’ve mastered these, you can get a little fancy…

Smoked Vanilla Pear Jam
4 cups water
6 pears, any variety, chunked
4 medium apples, any variety, chunked
1 cup olive oil
2 tbs pure vanilla extract
1 tbs lemon juice
2 cups sugar

Rub a baking sheet with a little olive oil so the whole surface is coated. Spread fruit onto the sheet and drizzle with the rest of the olive oil. Bake at 400 F until soft and slightly browned (or even a little burned—this will only help the flavor). Bring the water to a boil and scrape in the fruit. Add the sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice; simmer until a jam consistency is achieved.

Sweet Jalapeno Jam
4 cups water
1 medium white onion, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 tsp cumin (or more to taste)
2 cups brown sugar
½ lb jalapenos, diced
1 tbs lemon juice

Rub some olive oil onto a baking sheet and scatter jalapenos and onions on it; sprinkle with cumin. Bake at 400 F until onions are caramelized and you see black smoky spots appearing on the jalapenos. Boil water and add jalapenos and onions. Add sugar and lemon juice. Reduce to a simmer and cook until jam is achieved.

As you can see, there is a pretty predictable pattern involved here: fruit, sugar, water, boil. Acid (lemon juice) if you want to can anything. So easy and fun to deviate from the normal.

Making my own jam also appeals to me in the sense that I’m controlling the sugar content. Now, when I’m post-maple season, I actually use maple sugar, which is rich in minerals and amino acids, instead of refined and barren white sugar for all my recipes. (About a tablespoon equals a cup if making this substitution.) There is of course also the omnipresent aspect that I know (only to a better extent, of course—but control the controllable, right?) what is in our food and where it is coming from. I know it is natural, chemical and preservative free, and good for my family.

            With the same mindset, I also began making my own bread regularly about two years ago. At the store (yes, our same small-town local grocery) I had a strange tipping point: I looked at the labels on all of the breads that were advertised as “whole wheat” or “whole grain” or “heart healthy” or “no additives” and found that they all had ingredients that were not whole grain, or healthy, or natural. I make two loaves of bread twice a week, and have found that not only does my family like it better, but I am so much happier feeding it to them. Here is my favorite recipe:

1 cup oatmeal
2 cups boiling water
2 1/4 tsp. bread yeast
1/3 (or so) cup warm water
2 tbs olive oil, plus more
1 tbs natural maple sugar (or molasses or honey if you don’t have access to natural sugar)
1 tsp salt
4 cups whole wheat flour

Put oatmeal in a large mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over it and let it stand an hour, until all the water is absorbed by the oatmeal. Make a yeast starter with the yeast and water and let stand 15-20 min. Drizzle olive oil over top, sprinkle sugar and salt, and mix thoroughly. Add yeast starter. Mix in flour one cup at a time, until saturated. Let rise over night. The next day, grease two loaf pans with olive oil. Divide the mixture and let rise again over night. Bake at 350F for an hour or more, until a knife comes out clean.

I write this as a fresh pear jam batch comes off the pot—looking forward to breakfast!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Growing steady in moody weather

T.S. Eliot was right: April IS the cruelest month. Two weeks ago it was sunny and seventy degrees; I tidied up flower beds, planted bushes and trees, and, most rashly, started beans, cucumbers, peas, artichokes, and cilantro. Kale, collards, and spinach were sprouting happily in the cold frame. Last Monday morning, I woke up to six inches of snow.

            Though the vegetables I had sown are technically “cold-weather crops” I have found that my assessment of cold spring temperatures and the seed companies’ varies quite a bit. Here in far Upstate New York, winter is over when ice stops crystallizing on your face (this is also known as the beginning of flip-flop season). Apparently, true “cold crops” are usually sown when the temperature is reliably sustained at around sixty-five degrees (up here we call that bikini weather). Considering our growing season is really only about four months long, different understandings of what it means to be "cold" or "warm" (which up here we actually never achieve for very long) really matters for one's harvest. 

            I could only think one thing: thank the gardening gods I container planted. In my earlier posts, I mentioned how much I admired my friend Julia’s container cucumbers. Determined to do the same thing, I started scarlet runner beans, pickling cukes (my favorite), and sugar snap peas in single-cell containers right after St. Patrick’s Day. As they started to grow (and they grow quickly!) I filled twelve-inch-deep containers with a bottom layer of composted cow manure and topped it with potting soil. I made a few very simple trellises from dry sticks (grape vines are also very helpful here, depending on how you want your vines to grow-- perhaps in fun shapes?) and stuck them in a triangular formation in the rear of the pot. I then planted each pot with combinations of beans and cucumbers, and planted hanging baskets with peas. I placed them all in front of a window in my back kitchen which is separated from the house and is maintains a constant fifty-five to sixty degrees.

            When the weather was still warm, I began the process of hardening seedlings that had developed at least two leaf sets (this is important—you don’t want to start them too early). I have learned from experience that planting indoor-sprouted seedlings directly into the great big wide world is seldom successful. Most expert gardeners say that leaving the seedlings outdoors, in their nursery cells, for a few hours a day (providing the day is a lovely one) helps them to harden and acclimate to garden life. Through this process, the seedlings can experience harsher climate factors—direct sunlight, winds, even temperature fluctuations—and get used to them gradually before being permanently placed in them.  Thus, I had first hardened my seedlings in their primary sprouting cells, and then had set out the containers entire when they were comfortably planted. When colder evening temperatures set in, I whisk them back into the house for shelter. Voila: a literal (potential) moveable feast. 

            Currently,  my beans are about eighteen inches high with a  healthy growth of leaves and my peas hang from their perches about the same (the cucumbers seem to be waiting for some warmer weather). They have been largely living in the back kitchen as the weather has been lousy this past week, but they got to see some outdoor sunshine today. While (as always) I’m a little nervous that I began too early, if all continues to go well, I’ll have a very early veg crop this year. 

Don't know your gardening zone? Check here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Eating Your Lawn Part II: the Awesomeness of Dandelions

I held Easter dinner at my house this year for about fifteen friends and family. In developing the menu, I wanted to stick to a spring theme: early vegetables, in-season game, and savory but light seasonings. For the first course, I planned a split pea soup with my own oatmeal wheat bread, herbed butter, and a light spring greens salad. Though I planted mesclun greens, spinach, and kale in the cold frame during a warm spell a few weeks ago, the seedlings were definitely not ready to be called anything near salad-ready. I had resigned myself to that great evil that cooking for a large group often necessitates—the trip to a bulk produce store (shudder)—when an epiphany occurred. 

Early Friday morning I puttered around the lawn with a can of salt, finishing off the last stubborn vestiges of my thistle invasion, and then decided to get a head start in weeding one of the flowerbeds. Even from a distance, I could see that young “weeds” were sprouting up more quickly than the Echinacea, gerbera, day lily, phlox, or honeysuckle I had planted.
I had pulled about a dozen young dandelion plants from the bed when I stopped dead.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before. Here I was, “weeding” young dandelion greens when I was planning a large salad only a day later!  What a waste!

Though the dandelion is a weed to most of us, this delectable and nutritious plant is actually quite a boon to have around. Each part of the plant is delicious in its own way, and can be used for different purposes. Pluck the young greens (before the plant has flowered) for high iron and vitamin C veggies that also have detoxifying properties. If you look closely, a greens floret will have a small bud nestled in the center. This is the jackpot. They are absolutely tender and full of vitamins. Toss them right into your salads. Once the dandelions bloom, pick the young yellow flowers and eat them raw or sauté them in olive oil and salt until slightly crunchy for the maximum delivery of liver assisting detoxifiers. The root, dried and ground, makes a great tea any time. If you aren’t ready to use your young dandelion greens, flower, or root at the time, dry them in the sun and crush them using a mortar and pestle. They are amazing added to a stir-fry, rubbed onto meat, or mixed in a soup.

This plant is undoubtedly as useful (and most likely more nutritious) as the industrially farmed and processed spices and herbs for which we pay a lot at the grocery store. Our unfortunate mentality tends to be that if we pay for something at a store, it must be of better quality and better for us. Often this is false, particularly so in the case of our dear friend, the dandelion. As we simultaneously seek food that is not chemically treated and does not leave a carbon footprint, yet is also nutritious, it seems that the dandelion is the ideal solution. With plentiful dandelion greens growing within our sight, no chemicals or trucking necessary, it would seem very nearly foolish to go to the store.

So I served dandelion greens and young buds to accompany my pea soup and homemade bread; if I can judge by the fact that none of the salad was left after dinner, it was a hit. I dressed it in olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, mustard and, since dandelion greens can be a tad bitter, a bit of honey. Delicious. Next time you’re hankering for a gratifying and green gourmet experience, look no further than your back yard.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Urban Gardening: Part I

Last fall we helped move our dear friends Colter and Julia from one rental to another. While Colter and my husband, Jeff, were focused on trying to fit as much furniture as possible into the U-Haul, I was (I am almost ashamed to say) focused on Julia’s magnificent pot-patio cucumbers.
            My cucumbers colossally failed last year. Even companion planted amongst beans, radishes, and turnips, and despite vigilant watering and de-bugging, their vines shriveled and were lost in the surrounding foliage. Was it too much sun? The pH of the soil? Some pest yet unknown to me that invisibly attacked? I racked my brain—I had planted these varieties before, under similar conditions, and they thrived—what was different?
            I had struggled with these questions all summer, and when I saw Julia’s cucumbers I realized my self-examination and reproach was—well—irrelevant. As the wise denizen of a rented space, yet avid gardener and supporter of self-sustainable living, Julia had grown her whole garden in pots. Her efforts were extremely successful. My efforts, in a permanent space, were not so; why was I torturing myself over soil pH when that was a factor I could control for success through potting rather than planting?
            When I was living in London and earning my graduate degree, I had a balcony garden consisting of a few herbs and bulbs in oblong boxes, through which I strung a laundry line. Not that impressive, I know, but it cheered me up while I hung up the whites and darks to dry. At that point in life, I was looking forward to the someday-garden; it occurs to me that I could have had the now-garden then if I had really thought about temporary planting.
            Julia’s model, for me, exposes not only what I could do with pot gardening in my farmhouse, but moreover the possibilities open to an urban gardener. Pot gardening actually opens up a world of opportunities for the city home grower: for one, unlike a permaculture gardener, the pot makes the gardening zone almost irrelevant. You can take your pot inside and out, for sunshine and rain or for warmth and shelter. The following are just a few ideas on how you could turn your city dwelling into a gardening paradise.
Preliminaries: If you’re going to have an urban garden, composting is really important. Make your own by poking holes in the lid of a big, dark colored (black if possible) coffee can and placing the can (lid on) in a sunny area where it will get hot. Hot compost decomposes fastest because the heat helps break down the organic matter. What goes in compost: any veg or fruit waste (carrot peels, apple cores, onion skins, etc.); eggshells; coffee grounds (these are AWESOME for plants. You can actually put them right in the pots with the plants), and wood ashes (like from a fireplace). What does NOT go in the compost: any kind of animal scrap: no bones, fat, skin, tablescraps—you get the picture.  Also, cigarette ashes are toxic (obviously). Shake it daily. This quickens the process. It’s ready when it looks like dirt. Mix roughly one part compost to six parts potting mix for plant nutrition. Don’t use it if you can still spot recognizable food remnants. Or, if you’re continually adding to it, use a tablespoon to spoon out soily parts. Occasionally in the meantime, and through the holes in the lid, you can pour the compost “tea” into potted plants as fertilizer. Not too much (it’s potent).
Container Gardening:  If you have a full sun area such as a balcony or space beneath a skylight, I recommend tomatoes. They really really need a lot of sun and are prolific if happy. Heirloom varieties are cool looking, prolific, delicious, and impress your friends. Buy seedlings unless you have a lot of time and patience (order these online from a local nursery). Cherry varieties don’t really produce a lot of food, but are pretty. Run-of-the-mill Beefsteak or Big Boy are fine, but nothing special. Only grow Roma if you plan on making sauce—not as tasty. Choose a good three to five gallon container and stake the plants up vertically with long sticks or dowels and tie them upright (using zipties works best). Plant the seedling in the center of the pot. Around the plant, sow (only a few) carrots or plant basil. They make each other healthier and tastier.
            Cucumbers also need full sun but almost no space if you provide it with something to climb on. (You have to deliberately train them to whatever that is.) And they can be a really attractive vine. Pickling varieties are crisp and grow fast. These can be grown pretty easily from seed. Or, plant beans (also can be started from seed) in your cucumber containers. The bean will use the cucumber for support and they benefit each other.
            Many think that more substantial winter veg, like squashes, pumpkins, and zucchinis, can’t be grown in an urban setting because they’re so space consumptive. Not true. Just prune them. Start them from seed, give them something to climb on (this could even be a kitchen wine rack or pot holder—just make sure there is sun), and prune the vine to the desired height. Only allow the plants to make two or three blossoms, and watch then to make sure they mature and pollinate, then wait until the following buds bloom, nip them off, and EAT THEM. Squash and pumpkin flowers are delicious battered in olive oil or stuffed with onions, rice, and peppers.  Then the plant will only put its energy into making two or three monster fruits and it won’t take over your space.
            Sweet potatoes are super easy to container garden and can tolerate partial shade. When the vine dies it’s time to harvest. If you give the plant enough room you can get half a dozen medium potatoes from one plant. (Only plant one per container.) Plant leeks around the plant from seed—you will know when they’re ready because they will start to look on top like what you might buy at the store.
            There is also an added perk to indoor gardening—climate control! This means you can grow plants that might ordinarily be out of your gardening zone. If your apartment is reliably warm (sixty five degrees or so all year) try a potted fig tree, or if you have more room, a dwarf stone fruit like a cherry, peach, or plum.
            Finally, we must address the practicality of the process: the perk to urban gardening is that you really don’t have to worry about insects. Thus pest control is not a headache. The problem, however, is correlative: no insect equals no pollination. You may have to self-pollinate some of these in the absence of beneficial insects. Think of this as artificial insemination for plants. Quick lesson: just make sure, at some point, that the pistil touches the stamen and that pollen is transferred. You’ll feel a bit icky, but just wash your hands afterwards and watch a Disney movie. You’ll be fine.

Lots more small-space gardening discussion to follow, but not enough time to write it down yet. Stay tuned. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Farming-- Take Two

I have a dream. In my dream, my free-ranging chickens roam about the yard, happily plucking insects from the grass, their soft clucking signaling their contentment as they follow me around. They greet my delighted son at the back door as he exits with a basket to collect their fresh eggs. At night, I shoo them into their cozy hay-lined coop where they nest safe and sound until morning.

Last summer’s attempt to attain this dream of pastoral perfection perished tragically.

In April, in accordance with my specifications, my husband built a beautiful sixty-four-square-foot chicken coop from bits of leftover lumber, complete with a flip-top roof for easy egg collection (protected properly with shingles left from our latest roofing project) and chicken wire floor so no predator could dig into it.  

In May, I bought six, six-week-old “pullets” (note skeptical quotation marks) from the local tractor supply store and asked when they would begin to lay: about twenty weeks was the answer I received. They lived in an open plastic bin lined with sawdust with a heat lamp overhead for six weeks or so until finally they were ready for the great outdoors.

In mid-June, they moved into the chicken coop (keep track of the math here; that would make them twelve weeks old). Every day at dawn, I fed and watered them and opened their door so they could get out and start picking those tasty insects off the lawn (soft contented clucking would surely follow); each evening at dusk I shooed them back into their coop and locked it up so they could indeed nest safe and sound.

In mid-July we had our first run in with the fox. Out to dinner one evening with friends, we came home a little after dusk (okay, it was firmly dark) to encounter a terrible turn of events had occurred.  We found four very scared chickens in the garage rafters; we found two very large piles of feathers on the lawn. Chickening fail.
We mourned, and then I bought ten more.

At first we would only see him skulking about in the evening, but as the corn grew higher and as August progressed, the fox grew braver. Finally, he was hiding just inside the first row in broad daylight. He started attacking and dragging them off, one by one. I started let the chickens out when I was out too, and shut them back in when I went inside. This was not the glorious free-ranging situation I had imagined.

Meanwhile, still no eggs. They were well past their twenty-week mark. Their combs however were quite developed. I became convinced we had a flock full of roosters.

And then there were two. These two were the perfect fowl-friends I had envisioned: I noticed the Japanese beetle problem I had had with my roses disappeared as they duly plucked and gobbled insects. They did indeed cluck contentedly while following me around. My twelve-month-old son would toddle after them declaring “Tchichtens!” If we could keep these alive, at least, I would be happy. We had planned to eat them in the late fall when it became too cold for them to comfortably roam, but I began to make plans to overwinter them, eggs or no eggs (though we were still in a no-egg state).

In mid-October tragedy struck. When I made the decision to run inside for just a minute, I left two contented birds happily picking at the front yard. When I emerged not three minutes later I found two pathetic piles of feathers. Hoping against hope that at least one of them had managed to run back into the coop, I raised the door and looked inside. I didn’t find chickens; I found three small white perfect eggs. It was a sad day in chicken farming.

This year will be different. Unfortunately, free-ranging is right out. My neighbor, who also raises her own fowl, has told me that if the fox doesn’t get them, the coyotes will and there really is no way to prevent the predators from coming. So my husband is building me a fortress: a huge box around the coop made of two-by-sixes and walled with chicken wire. The bottom frame is buried eight inches into the ground, and the chicken wire will wrap underneath the board and extend horizontally underneath the pen area. I am even thinking about electrifying it. Bring it on, fox.

My chicken purchase, like the spring, was early this year. Once again, I went to the local tractor supply store to buy my little hatchlings and asked specifically for hen chicks. The cashier looked at me blankly.

“Or I can look. How do you tell?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.
“Um… you can’t yet,” she told me, plainly confused.

So I picked my chicks (nothing wrong with a few roosters) and left. And then, of course, I started doing my research. Surely there must be some way to sex a chicken.

I talked to people who swore you could tell by the shape of the chick’s egg or the behavior of the chick. One experienced farmer cited body shape as an indicator. While there seemed to be no foolproof way to sex a chick (apply desired human sexual metaphor) there is apparently a best way: look at their cloacae.

This is the method, as I understand it: First take hold of the chick with its anus pointing toward you. Then, gently but firmly, squeeze it like a tube of toothpaste and get out of the way. Whatever feces it is holding on to will come out. Then quickly, before those intestines fill up again, repeat that motion with its anus right in your face. You will see places for three possible bumps. If the bump in the middle is pronounced, the chick is a male. But some male chicks don’t have pronounced bumps. And some females do. So if you’re confused you might want to let them grow a bit and try again. Alternatively, you can just wait for their secondary sex characteristics to emerge.

Yeah. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I think I’ll take that latter course.