Wednesday, March 28, 2012

slow growing

We'll be much better friends if you can pretend like you immediately identified this as a sleepy asparagus lady yawning and stretching.  (What? You couldn't tell? Now this is an angry asparagus queen ordering your head cut off.) (These are the benefits of being a terrible artist.)

Lately I've been wanting an asparagus bed.

Like having a trustworthy reputation or good character, the trouble with growing asparagus is that you have to start working on it long before you want it if you're going to have it by the time you need it.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Taste and see

I saw a recipe online for pizza with crust made from riced cauliflower.  I wilted greens from the garden and made sauce with tomatoes that I canned last fall.  I planned to make a healthy supper.

Turns out that the cauliflower crust is 50% grated mozzarella.

And soooooo good.

Make it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

sleeping with the windows open

I felt overwhelming excitement when we first bought our house and I woke up to bird sounds outside. Those songs and these chilly spring mornings are still two of my favorite things about our tiny urban farm.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stop and reconnect.

What else could I do when I saw this sign on my way to work? 

I love this picture - it captures my spring fever and reminds me to take the time to enjoy it.

Homesteading is about so much more than transplanting seedlings and cleaning out the chicken coop. To me, it's about a life focused on meeting our natural needs and infused with meaning by its connectedness with the natural world.

It's human nature to need shelter, sustenance, nourishment, fulfillment. The other things we worry about - getting a promotion, buying a nice car, having stylish clothing - are just that: things.  I choose time to spend producing the stuff that I need over time spent earning a wage to pay for things I could make.

These days when people talk about "connectivity," they're usually talking about the internet.  I'm working toward an urban homestead because I want to plug back in to something real: the breathing, growing, beautiful world.

Get chickens. A poultry perspective.

Get chickens. Part Two, part two: Think outside the coop.

I amazed even myself by how much I could possibly find to say about preparing a chicken coop, so welcome to part two of Part Two.  I rewrote a classic children's song while on my break to get you jazzed about another chicken post.

Farmer Abe built a home
where our pullets can roam
where our rabbits used to dig and play
Where seldom is heard
Anything but a bird
And they're sheltered
From all of the rain.*

(See the rabbit ghost?  Originally Abe put this together as a home for the rabbits we raised. You'd be haunting your hutch, too, if you were fattened up, killed for food, and stuffed in someone's freezer.)

Even a tiny urban farm is an overwhelming amount of work, so we do things the lazy way whenever we can.  To make this enclosure for our Very Important Pullets, we stapled chicken fencing to door frames that were discarded by a local homeowners association. We covered the whole area with netting to keep out the hawks and owls, and covered part of the run with a tarp to keep out the rain. (This is why we couldn't ever live in a neighborhood with an HOA. HOA's: collecting fees to ensure your neighbors aren't as ghetto as we are.)

There's another run bordering the pullet's - so back fence here also serves as a front fence for our grown hens. (I told you: the lazy way).  Letting the two flocks see and smell each other helps all the birds get to know one another, which can help reduce aggression and bullying later.

* Ten points to the reader who can identify the song I ripped off here.  Points are not transferable. Minimum of fifty points required for prizes.  Prizes redeemable only in the year they are earned.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Get chickens. Part Two, part one

There were two garden sheds in the yard when we purchased our home.  One of them houses the lawnmower (I won't tell you which one, so if you're aiming to break in to steal it, there's a 50% chance it will take you twice as long. This will give our lazy hound dog time enough to wake up and start barking, and Abe time enough to hear and come after you with our b.b. gun.).  The other is now our chicken coop.

contemplating chicken coop conversion

The first step was emptying out the shed, which was full of random things, like a brand new Swiffer mop, 15 years of cobwebs, dust, and spiders, a humane animal trap, and a kerosene heater, along with a complete set of dishes we now eat off of every day. (We washed off the spiders.)

The next step was to build nesting boxes (where the chickens lay their eggs) and roosts (where the chickens sleep).  See?

The garden shed turned out to be a lot bigger than we needed for our new flock, so Abe put up a wall dividing the front third of the shed from the back two-thirds. 

Behind the pullet and the shovel in this next picture, you can sort of see the divider.  The top of the wall is the metal fencing you can see behind the chicken; the bottom of the wall is OSB and has a door cut from the center (human size, for egg collection).  This keeps the chickens out of the feed and other junk we store in the front portion.

Being a talentless photographer with an aging point-and-shoot digital camera, I can't seem to get decent photos that show the whole inside. I decided to draw you a diagram instead, never mind that I'm also a talentless artist.

We cut two windows in the back of the coop, because even chickens love natural light.  Abe used old picture frames to "frame" them - that way the glass is already pre-cut just the right size.

Here's a cost breakdown:
Garden shed:  FREE  (came with the house)
Wood for nesting boxes:  $12
Bamboo for roosting:  FREE (harvested from the side of the road)
Having a pet who makes you breakfast:  Priceless

With the hens restricted to the back of the coop, we found that there's just enough space in the front for MORE ANIMALS (exactly what every garden shed needs).  Abe framed in an area on the right side to hold our rabbits and cut a separate door on the exterior wall to they could hop around, dig tremendous tunnels, and ruin the yard outside. Now that the rabbits are in the freezer, that space is perfect for our young spring chickens.  They have warm space inside (with a brooding light that we've unplugged now that it's so warm), but they can also explore the rabbit tunnels on sunny afternoons.

quite possibly a rooster... and soon to be dinner

EDIT:  I forgot you were waiting on my advice re:  naming your chickens.  Here it is:
1.  Don't.  When Abe and I first got chicks, there was Winona. She was the tiniest but made up for it in spunk. She was sociable and darling, also the only one I named. Then a hawk ate her.
2.  Pick a theme.  To get you started, names of flowers (Daisy, Iris, Tansy) and kinds of cars (Buggy! Tacoma!), although now that I'm thinking of these awesome names, I'm going to need more chickens.  I'm also partial to old lady names (ahem, Winona,* Harriet, Gertie, Myrtle**)
*See also: names of celebrities
**See also: names of flowers 
3. Make sure you can tell your chickens apart.  Abe has one chicken he calls Friendly. (#4 - Don't put Abe in charge of naming your chickens; ruins the theme***). To me, she looks exactly like one of our other Rhode Island Reds, so now we have two chickens who both think they might be Friendly.  The real Friendly is bow-legged, so I only know which she is when she's on the run. It's no good to have a name for a chicken you can only remember while laughing at them. (You can call me Unkind.)
***exception: names like Snow White's dwarfs

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Get Chickens. Part One: How to get chickens

This is where our flock began.  My mom saved this snippet from the Charlotte Observer back when Abe and I were newlyweds living in a third story one-bedroom apartment. The fact that I still have the clipping in my planner tells us that I really need to clean out my purse, and that it was surprisingly difficult (at least then) to find out what kind of backyard farm is legal in Charlotte.

If you live in Charlotte too (holla!), this link will be useful.  If you aren't so lucky, Municode also has city codes for other places.  Just remember that if your neighborhood is governed by a homeowners association, they generally have additional policies you may have to  argue and protest abide by.

In the ideal world where you readers live in my imagination, you have a wonderful hardware store nearby where you can purchase your chicks. If not, check your local Craigslist, which is actually where Abe and I got our first chickens.  Or dress up like a fox, wait til midnight, and raid someone else's coop, if you don't mind the legs all dangling down-o.

You'll need a coop first, and the internet is full of ideas for constructing your own.  Next time, I'll talk about converting a regular old garden shed into a coop and provide helpful suggestions for naming your new pets.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Get chickens.

Since it's early spring and the hardware stores are still selling chicks, consider this the intro to my next two posts, which are all about what you need to know to get your own hens.

After I show you this picture, I shouldn't even have to tell you why every household should have chickens. They follow you around companionably (see them all gathered round?), they don't eat much in exchange for feeding you an awful lot of fresh eggs, and they are hilarious.

Look at these weirdos.

There are a few oddballs in every flock.  This one's longing to be as famous as Jennifer Aniston's chickens.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Argument for the urban homestead

In exchange for a bit of chalk art, Abe and I have enjoyed a CSA membership through the farm-to-table restaurant where I work. The vegetables are wonderful (best carrots ever!), and I can identify the farms they come from.

Even better are the vegetables we've been harvesting from our greenhouse - I know when they were planted, whether the seeds were heirloom or genetically modified, and what kinds of fertilizers were used.  I've likely even seen the same bugs that nibbled on their leaves.

To me, this is a rich life, but I've been struggling to articulate why.  Then I stumbled across this wonderful article, and decided to let Harvey Usery do it for me.

1.  There are serious problems with our conventional food system.  Some of the issues include:
  • Concerns about food safety.  CDC data shows that more than 25% of the U.S. population suffers from food-borne illness each year.
  • Concerns about food quality. We sacrifice flavor and nutritional value by consuming processed food. 
  • Lack of ingredient choices. From the abundance of different products on the supermarket shelf, if might appear that a trademark of the American food system is choice.  But the FDA decides what we need to know about the contents of the packages we buy at the supermarket, and many of the different products are just new combinations of the same highly processed ingredients.
  • Ignoring the hidden costs of our "cheap" food.  U.S. supermarket prices don't take into account the actual cost of our food system - the pollution, the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics because of their overuse in commercial meat farming, erosion/topsoil loss, and the toll on our health.
  • The price we pay for convenience: Ignorance.  We don't understand our food, where it comes from, or what it took to get it to our plate.  There's an opportunity cost here, in that we miss out on the satisfaction of wholesome, clean, fair food.
2.  There are signficant benefits (economic, social, physical, environmental, financial) to having a garden:
  • Safe food. Growing our own lets us opt out of a "totally anonymous system based on minimum-wage, exploited, often uneducated workers."
  • High quality food. There's no food fresher than what we harvest from our own backyards.  Not only that, but when you choose produce over packaged, convenience food, you get a more nutritious diet.
  • True food choice. Growing our own food allows us to decide if we want organic or not, are we for or against GMO's, and do we support the use of added antibiotics and hormones.
  • Food security. Even a brief look at our current food system reveals it is anything but sustainable.  Knowing how to produce food means knowing how to "sustain" yourself. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

you look radishing

Package of Seeds

They can't see their pictures,
they can't read the label --
the seeds in a package --
so how are they able
to know if they're daisies
or green for the table?

It sounds like a fancy,
it sounds like a fable,
but you do the sowing,
the weeding, the hoeing,
and they'll do the knowing
of how to be growing.

(Aileen Fisher)

This weekend, Abe and I enjoyed the first fruits of the greenhouse (and by fruits, I mean vegetables).  The radishes amazed me.  About a month ago, Abe planted seeds - just tiny specks pushed into the dirt.  He gave them water, the sun gave light, the soil gave nutrients.  And somehow, look!  They became round and red, green and leafy, beautiful, healthy food!

Since I was a teenager, I have struggled to have faith.  But to me, the seeds Abe planted are a miracle.  They don't just grow vegetables - my tiny faith grows, too.

Friday, March 9, 2012

only the latest technology in seed-starting

Quit wasting money on seed-starting supplies immediately!  We have developed this amazing system that relies on plastic containers (much better used for dirt than storing other random crap you don't need) and cardboard boxes rescued from the recycling bin.

This system has threefold benefits, which I will be certain to advertise when I make a million dollars selling ABE AND KAREN'S EXCLUSIVE SEED STARTING SYSTEM™.  Start saving your nickels!  It's a three-fer!  ABE AND KAREN'S EXCLUSIVE SEED STARTING SYSTEM™ lets you:
Check it.

This is a basic plastic storage bin filled with dirt.  You probably have a bunch of similar containers in your attic, carefully protecting your redundant junk from dust.  Get rid of the junk, keep the dust, and it's a planter!  We used random old pieces of cardboard our fancy industrially prefabricated dividers to separate the seeds we planted, and kept track of what seeds were planted in which spaces on a piece of paper we found in the shed our trademarked Seed Starting Log().

This proof our system works, so you should immediately send me your first installment of $19.99, please.

ABE AND KAREN'S EXCLUSIVE SEED STARTING SYSTEM™ lets you grow the seeds you want in the comfort of your own living room.  Look how comfortable!

*Satisfaction is not guaranteed.  Is that what your mom told you?  No wonder you're so spoiled.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

why you should care about politics

I don't talk much about politics. This is partially because I don't like to argue, and partially because I see too many sides to too many issues and I get overwhelmed.

Shame on me.  Reading this article reminded me that we all need to get involved.

It's not enough for us to shop at Whole Foods and feel smug that we're "doing our part."  Our votes - or failure to vote - count for something, because whether or not we choose to exercise our voice, legislators are making decisions that directly effect our food system:  farm subsidies determine what's available at the stores where we shop, consumers are forbidden to buy raw milk for their own consumption, and the USDA buys meat products rejected by McDonald's for school lunches.

So start local. Find out who your representatives are in Congress and the Senate, and let them know how you'd like to be represented.  Our governments need to know what we want our foodscape (and communities) to look like.

Use resources like Follow the Money, a site that provides information about money in state politics.  Enter your address, and the site will tell you your house and senate district numbers. From there, you can find out who contributed to the political campaigns of your senator and congressperson.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

looking for nestlings

In Charlotte this time of year, any given day could be seventy degrees or thirty-five.  We've risked planting some lettuce unprotected outside, and so far it's growing nicely.  We've lost some of the baby tomatoes in the greenhouse, though - seems it just got too cold.

Flowers are coming up, though - daffodils and forsythia.  The blossoms remind me how much I love our neighborhood.  It was this time of year that we first met our house.  The air was chilly, but there was a sense of movement - warmer weather coming and new growth.  We moved in at the end of April 2010, and by then the whole neighborhood was blooming.

Abe and I took advantage of a warmer day last week to wander outside.  I thought I spied baby birds!  I convinced Abe to put me on his shoulders, but even then I couldn't get quite high enough to see inside the nest.  I raised my digital camera over my head, resulting in ridiculous pictures of the neighbor's house and the ultimate discovery that the nest was empty.  The flowers are lovely, though, and the birds will come.  Spring is definitely coming!  We started some squash seeds last week, and they're already enormous.

Friday, March 2, 2012

suggestion for remaking "The Birds"

At every opportunity, I encourage people to raise backyard chickens.  They're easy pets and unlike any of our other domesticated animals, they provide breakfast for you on a daily basis, instead of the other way around.  And so long as they aren't raising chicks or raised for cock fighting, they're quite docile and friendly.  But do you know what's terrifying?  A chicken tongue.  We might have never known this horror if I didn't have such a curious man-child husband.

It looks like it wants to stab you.

On the plus side, if you have coyotes in your neighborhood (as we do) and a chicken with a face like this, you don't have to worry... looks to me like the bird can handle herself.