I miss my backyard

I realized today just how long it has been since I have spent any time in my backyard – two months. Yep. That’s WAY TOO LONG. But what’s a mother to do? My priorities are just different at the moment.

But I still miss it. I miss the smell of the grass. I miss the cluck of the hens. And even though I sold the last of my Angora rabbits a few months ago, I’m missing them today too. They went to a great home that will be able to utilize their fiber better than I could.

I’ve hired someone to do some of the maintenance that I have let slip. He’s power-washing the rabbit cages for storage, chopping down the new blackberry vines that keep appearing, and doing some general cleanup. Although I was really happy to notice that last month’s storm did not drop a single tree branch in any part of our yard! That was really nice to discover, given the number of downed branches and entire trees in the rest of the town.

I admired my yard through the window this afternoon as I went back and forth between dealing with laundry and dealing with preschooler tantrums. I will have to make some time to get out there soon. It is so rejuvenating to get into nature of any kind, and nature I can dig my hands into is especially invigorating.

The preschoolers and I planted some seeds last weekend. We had gone to a propagation fair – basically a seed swap with some professional talks. Free admission, free local/organic seeds, free talks, it was great! I picked out some seeds I want to try in my garden this year, and then let the boys each pick out some flower seeds. I got some peat pots and soil that day, and we planted the seeds and placed the pots on the front porch so the boys can see “their plants” every morning on the way to the car. I hope some sprout before the boys lose interest!  I know we’re playing roulette with the weather but the seeds had the boys’ interest so I struck while the iron was hot, so to speak. It’s so rare to get them interested in much of anything.

We still have the chickens, and added a fifth hen to them before Christmas. An opossum or raccoon had decimated a friend’s flock, leaving him with a single  hen. Rather than bring more hens into a coop that needed additional predator protection, he gave her to us. I was pleased with how quickly she was accepted. We placed her on the roost at night in the dark, and she spent about three days being ignored and run off by the others, then everything was fine. No fights, no blood, it was pretty tame as far as introductions go. A beautiful, large, shiny, blue/green-black hen that lays large medium brown eggs.

And about the eggs – I’m glad its winter and the chickens are molting, because I haven’t even been to the chicken coop in those two months! I could have eggs out there and I wouldn’t know about it, but this time of year that is unlikely so at least I’m not wasting eggs. When the preschoolers arrived we realized just how hard everything was going to be for a while, so we opened the coop and run and let the chickens have the run of the backyard. Feeding them now takes 10 seconds in the morning – open the back door to let the dog outside, toss out the day’s ration of chicken feed and call “chick, chick, chick!”. They all come running – five chickens, two legs and wings apiece, no new feathers missing, call it good. Whistle for the dog and close the door.

Although I did get to go in my neighbor’s backyard once! One of the chickens got over the fence. I tossed out the food and only four chickens came running, but I could hear the fifth. Stuck my head out the door and I could see her, running up and down the fenceline. Thankfully I had a guest that morning, someone from the boys’ therapy office, and she was willing to supervise them while I ran next door to catch the recalcitrant hen. It didn’t take long. I opened the gate and shooed her back into our yard where she happily joined the others at eating breakfast, none the worse for wear.

This blog has really undergone some changes in the past two years, hasn’t it? Micro-farming, a crazy amount of pets in a crazy small amount of space, becoming a foster family, and now back to wanting to garden. About the only consistency is that I’m still ranting against the boxes we humans can get stuck in. There is always something else out there that we can see, that tempts us to be more than we currently are. I’m going to get out of my mommy-to-traumatized-kids box pretty soon and get back to nature. It doesn’t mean the kids are going away, it just means that they can no longer be the sole focus of this household, because such single focus isn’t healthy for anyone. Our horizons are going to expand and we will find life outside our current “box”. What box are you going to get out of?

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When did I become a male chicken?

 

“Chick, chick, chick, chick.”

Silence.

“CHICK, CHICK, CHICK, CHICK, CHICK!”

Little red hen heads pop up from the brush on the side of the yard, and fat hen bodies start waddling their way over to where I am. When I step forward, the hens turn in unison and head into the chicken run.

I push the door open further to allow my much larger human body into the run with them, and I distribute whatever treat I brought for them. It might be leftover pizza crust, or some apple cores, or mac and cheese. In a fit of largesse, I may have picked some blackberries especially for them, or the heads of wild grass that are heavy with seed. Whatever I bring, they scarf up like they haven’t eaten in a week, despite the fact they’ve been loose all day pecking at anything that moved.

And then it hits me – I’m a male chicken.

My hens trust me. Like any good rooster, I call the hens when there is something especially good available to eat. I create a safe place for them to be. When they call out in distress, I come quickly to deal with whatever intruder is bothering them. If one is missing at evening, I walk around looking and calling until she is found and rounded up where it is safe with the others. When a falcon decided my yard was a good place to perch, I stood outside between it and my hens until it decided there was no free meal here and it left.

I have sharp eyes, quick feet, and a call my hens recognize and respond to. My “spurs” are a pitchfork, my powerful “wings” are the back of a shovel, and I have a long-lived dedication to my flock of hens.

No matter that I’m a female human, to them I am their very own rooster.

Plants in my straw bale garden – and what I don’t know.

Woo-hoo! I finally have over half my garden planted. That’s an exciting milestone for me, given that the seeds I started indoors all died. Sheesh! I started over with plant starts. Some organic, but not all. I did what I could to have an organic garden, but $1.49 per start vs $7.00 per start tipped the scale more toward conventional ones. At least the growing conditions will be organic for all of them, regardless of how they started.

row of tomatoes in my straw bale garden

Row of tomato plants in my straw bale garden

So far I have seven tomato plants – regular tomatoes (Better Boy and Early Girl), roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, purple tomatoes, and yellow tomatoes. I have NO idea if the different colors taste different from each other, but this is the year I get to find out! They are all still small, but one already has blossoms on it. No idea why, hopefully that is heralding a good growing season for tomatoes.

I have three green bell pepper plants, and one sweet yellow pepper plant. I only like the green ones in the bell pepper family, but my husband likes them all, so I include a few extra for him. I’m still looking for a healthy jalapeno pepper start, but have not found one yet. The green peppers I have are all California Wonder, I have no idea what it is about them that makes everyone around here carry that type and only that type.

I have six bunches of three onions apiece. Don’t know why they’re sold like that, but there was no way of separating the individual onions without tearing roots. So I left them that way. I want to be sure they have enough room to expand as they grow, so they are planted in the 3-inch space between the bales of straw. I just filled it with compost and topsoil, and used loose straw to hold it in place.

The tomatoes, peppers, and onions together will be made into a BUNCH of salsa. We eat salsa like it’s going out of style, and we love my homemade pico de gallo and salsa. So whatever we don’t eat fresh will likely be made into salsa and canned for storage. If there is anything left after that it will likely be dehydrated for later use in stews.

I have lots of green beans, specifically bush beans. I already have lost count, I think about 10 plants. I want to get more of those, because I have such lovely childhood memories of home canned green beans. The texture was difficult to get past, but once I did that the taste was so wonderful. This is what I would love to have so much of that I can preserve enough to eat all year.

I have one chunk of “volunteer” beans. They sprouted in my compost pile from large whiteish-colored beans. I have NO idea what kind of beans they are! But beans are beans, and they must be edible since they sprouted from a restaurant’s kitchen scraps. So the chunk of compost came out in one piece, and I put it into an empty spot in my garden. They’re beside the green beans so they can make use of the trellis with them if they need it. I’ll know what they are and how to prepare and eat them after they produce. A little mystery is nice to have in life, isn’t it?

One of my favorite vegetables is cauliflower. Drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic and rosemary, and baked in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes – YUM! So it’s no surprise that I have six cauliflower starts in my garden. I want more, but cauliflower isn’t my hubby’s favorite vegetable, so I’ll have to see how much room I have left when I get everything we’ve agreed on planted.

I have barley, too. I was feeding my chickens some barley and I wondered if it was alive enough to be sprouted, so I tried. Dumped a handful on a plate and added some water – and they sprouted! They grew so quickly that the roots quickly tangled, and I had to move them in one sheet to a planter of potting soil. When they had grown about 4 inches tall I dumped them out of the planter and into an empty triangular space in my garden where some bales leaned against each other. The picture didn’t turn out though, I’ll try again when it’s taller and looks a little less like a patch of grass between three straw bales.

I included on zucchini plant. It’s an experiment to see if I can grow plants in a straw bale that is stood up on end (instead of laying flat on the ground). I won’t mourn the zucchini if it doesn’t make it, but it can help suppliment the rabbits’ diets if it does grow. Again, NO idea if this will work, but it was worth a try and it would be great to know if standing bales on end would work for some areas with little square footage of ground.

And lastly are the herbs. Rosemary, dill, thyme, basil, and chives. I have never been good at growing herbs, not even the “easy” home kits of them they sell for children. But these haven’t died yet! I’m rather excited about that.

Still on my list to get and plant are peas (hopefully sugar snap), more beans, more green peppers and onions, and all the leafy greens that won’t go in until the cooler weather starts. Lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, swiss chard – ones like that.

Want to see more pictures? Here are the best ones so far:

row of herbs in my straw bale garden

Row of herbs

bell pepper plant in my straw bale garden

Bell pepper

Bush bean start in my straw bale garden

Bush beans

"Volunteer" beans in my straw bale garden

The “volunteer” beans

Cauliflower growing in straw bale garden

Cauliflower start – so tiny!

tomato with blossoms in my straw bale garden

Tomato plant, with blossoms

Zucchini in my straw bale garden

Zucchini plant – and yes, that’s a rabbit behind it.

What is straw bale gardening?

Several of my friends (and commentors on my blog) have asked questions about straw bale gardening – so here it is: straw bale gardening the Ranting About Rectangles way!

To start with, straw bale gardening is just a different kind of container gardening. It appeals to people who can not – or do not want to – have a traditional garden involving tilling up the soil. It is simply putting straw bales on the ground, and putting plants in the straw bales! There is a little more to it than that, but not much.

tomato in straw bale

A tomato growing in a bale of straw

There are two main reasons I can’t do the traditional garden method where I live. One is the water – there is simply too much of it. My soil does not drain well, and after most rains there are actual puddles in my yard for hours. They would drown any sensitive garden vegetable before they dried out. The other is the number of blackberry vines in my yard. They’re *everywhere* and I don’t have control of them yet. Tilling the soil here only gives them an easier place to grow, and it is difficult to garden when you are concerned with getting stuck with thorns you can’t even see yet. So, container gardening for me.

Next, I chose straw bale gardening because I have good access to the things that are needed for it. Regular container gardening requires containers, and large amounts of potting soil, neither of which I have convenient access to. But slightly differently – straw bale gardening is great for people who have access to large amounts of compost. I’ve been building my compost pile for more than a year now, and much of it is ready to use. Coffee grounds are *great* for straw bale gardening, and I have access to pounds and pounds of them each week. So, the straw bale version of container gardening for me.

I also enjoy the benefit of not having to weed my garden. The straw bales have no seeds in them, and only get the ones I put there, or the occasional grass seed or dandelion seed that’s easy to pluck out. (Unlike soil that has tons of seeds in it all the time just waiting for the right conditions to sprout.)

And straw bales are environmentally friendly; the straw bales last between one and three years before disintegrating. Perfect for someone who expects to live here just two more years, and who doesn’t want to pack up regular containers and put them in a moving truck! Used straw bales can be cut apart, and used as attractive mulch around existing trees and bushes. No waste, and nothing to transport.

And lastly, I like to garden without having to bend and stoop to reach my plants. Using straw bales as containers brings the plants up to a much easier height for me to reach.

Starting a straw bale garden is easy, too. I’ve reduced it down to four steps:

1 – Get straw bales. At my local feed store, straw bales are $5.99 each. I got 20 delivered for an additional $20.
2 – Put the bales where you want them. Make sure the strings that hold each bale together are on the sides of each bale as you put it down, not over the top and bottom. Leave the strings intact.
3 – Condition the straw bales. At a minimum, this means get them wet. You want the insides of the bales to start to compost themselves. This creates nutrients right inside each straw bale. If you have fertilizer or compost or coffee grounds, put some on top of each bale and water it in. This adds additional nutrients and gives a kickstart to the composting inside the bale.
4 – Plant your garden in the straw bales. This is literally as simple as removing some of the straw from each bale, and putting soil or compost in the resulting hole. Then place your plant start on the soil, and fill in around it with more soil.

After that, water it and treat it as a normal garden. A straw bale garden IS a garden, it’s just planted in straw bales.

compost on straw bales

Conditioning the straw bales for the garden

It’s important to keep the straw bales wet. Damp is enough as long as the water is throughout the bale. The water you put on each day carries the nutrients from the soil and compost and composting straw through the bale and to the developing roots of the plants.

There is no (or very, very little) weeding to do. If you happen to get a weed sprout or two, they’re easy to pull out. This means your plants are easy to pull out, too, so be careful about that!

You will need the same support system for tall plants that you would use in a traditional garden. So stakes for vining beans, cages for tomatoes, things like that. And if you are planting something where the edibles are a large part of the root system, you will want to snip the twine holding the bales together so the edibles have room to grow to their full size. This applies to things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, large onions, beets, or other roots of similar size. Not to carrots, radishes, or other thin or small roots.

And now you know pretty much all I know about growing a straw bale garden. Stay tuned to this blog – I’m getting my garden planted and will soon be able to post pictures of more plants than just tomatoes growing in my straw bale garden!

The beginnings of my straw bale garden

I got my straw bales! Yippee! This year I’m trying a straw bale garden, and the first ingredient of that is – obviously – bales of straw. Here they are sitting in a stack in my back yard.

straw bales for my straw bale garden

There are 20 bales there. Added to the four I had already, I will soon have a garden of two dozen straw bales! I had a nearby feed store deliver them, and they are neatly stacked in my yard waiting for me to pull and tug them into position on the ground. This is my first year doing a straw bale garden. It’s a large learning curve to undertake, but it seems to be the best solution to my yard that is overgrown with tiny blackberry shoots. The amount of rain we get here in Oregon ought to be awesome for keeping the bales from drying out.

I’ve had the starts going in my house for several weeks now. The beans are about to outgrow their pots, and the rest are about 3 inches tall. Beets, sunflowers, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, radishes, squash, gourds, watermelon, cucumbers, and many others that I can’t remember right now. And I have purchased starts, too – tomatoes and herbs especially. I don’t know anyone who has started tomatoes successfully from seed. (Although they must exist, or there would be no plant starts in the stores!)

When I can, I choose organic seeds. I know, the organicness of the seed has nothing to do with the organicness of the eventual fruit. But that isn’t my point in choosing organic seeds. What I am looking for is plants that grow well in organic conditions. Ones that don’t need artificial fertilizer to grow, and don’t need artificial sprays to resist bugs. And the best way to get plants like that is to grow the second (or third or fourth) generation of plants that successfully flourished in those conditions.

My garden can not be certified organic. To do that requires that the area not have non-organic amendments used on it for the three years preceeding the certification. Since I have lived here only 1.5 years, I can not know how the grass and soil was kept before I arrived. And since I will spend only four years here, it didn’t seem worth the bother (and expense) to get certified just for one year of being able to sell veggies as organic. So when (if) I sell any from this year’s crop, I must explain that while I grow with organic methods, the vegetables are not certified.

Which do you think is most important – purchasing certified organic vegetables, or knowing your farmer and knowing they grow vegetables organically even if they have not completed the paperwork to become certified?

Regardless of your individual answer, I know that I can only do what I can do.

I read a very inspirational quote the other day, perfect for my very first foray into straw bale gardening. It said that no matter how many mistakes you make, and no matter how slowly you go, you are already miles ahead of the person who did not even try.

I am definitely going to make mistakes with this garden. I might even be setting it out too early – local gurus seem divided on that. I might be using the wrong soil. I might not have balanced my compost 100% correctly and be feeding too much nitrogen or phosphorus or something. I might have grown my beans inside too long and have weedy stems instead of lush bushes. Heck, the neighborhood squirrels might discover the garden and eat it all. My own chickens might escape their coop and help! But no matter the result, I am learning. A straw bale garden is simply the next step on my path to being able to feed my family without relying on commercial groceries. Next year’s garden will be grown at least somewhat from seeds I save from this year’s crop!

Can you tell I’m excited??

So do you have a garden? What type? And do you have a specific goal for it (or your learning curve) this year?

Defining success

I found this image the other day, and was struck by how true it is.

define success

Success is defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.  So in addition to having to decide if you have accomplished your aim or purpose – you have to know exactly what that aim or purpose is!

In my old rectangular life, I was a business analyst. We did all the paperwork, tables, lists, and graphs that would show what was needed in order to accomplish our client’s goals. Then we tracked what was done, compared it to what should have been done, and ultimately decided whether what we had done was good enough to present to the client. And of course in order to even START any of that we had to understand, in detail, to the n-th degree, what it was that our customer was actually trying to accomplish.

Defining what they wanted done often took WAY more time than the client expected. For instance, a client might want to sell more widgets. (It’s always widgets, isn’t it?) That sounds great! So how many do you sell now? They often didn’t know. Too many would be in production, or ready to ship but not sold, or out on consignment, or purchased on credit, or something else not cut and dried. And that makes it complicated to even try to figure out how many they sell now. But you have to know what TODAY is like, and have a way to MEASURE today, before you can begin to figure out how to make it better.

And once the client figured out how many widgets they are selling currently, we’d ask how many more they wanted to sell. They often didn’t know. So we’d say – is selling one more per month enough? Of course the answer is NO. If they’re paying for experts to help them sell more, they want to sell significantly more. But they don’t know what that means to them. Some have a nice, round number in their head, like 20% more. OK – can your manufacturing facilities handle producing 20% more? Do you have enough space? Do you have enough employees? Do you have enough raw materials?

Just the path to figure out what someone wants to accomplish is harder than it seems. Even when that “someone” is you.

And so it is with self-sufficiency. Or homesteading. Or farming. Or whatever it is you call what you are doing that makes reading this blog interesting to you.

What is it you want to accomplish? I wanted to spend less money, use and eat healthier things, and be less dependent on mass consumer products. But have I accomplished that? I certainly hope so! But I have no facts or figures to back that up – yet.

The path to success isn’t linear. My rabbits did well for a while, then didn’t. I feel I have learned all I can from rabbits, and will be dissolving my rabbitry. Is learning all I can a success? Or is choosing to stop a failure? That depends on how I define my goal, doesn’t it? I started a large garden last year with high hopes, but then ended up in the Philippines with my husband instead. My garden died, except for the swiss chard and brussels sprouts. I love swiss chard and brussels sprouts, and got them with no work whatsoever, so is that a success? Or because all the other veggies died, is that a failure? Or maybe my family is my largest goal and so spending 5 weeks with my hubby instead of being separated from him was the largest success possible? This year’s garden is going to be huge, and I might literally run out of room before I run out of seedlings to transplant – again, is that a success because of the size or a failure because I may have overbought?

It all depends on your goals. And an acceptance that the path to ultimate success in anything – farming, self-sufficiency, and even family – is not a linear progression. Ups and downs are to be expected. Shooting off the graph into 3D land can happen at a moment’s notice. Your path won’t look like anyone else’s. It will be unique to you, your current state, your goals, and your road to getting there – and will depend completely on how you personally define each of them.

How not to build a bridge

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body.  But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming …. WOW what a ride!”  — Unknown

Today I added several new cuts and bruises to my already extensive list of accidental bodily injuries. But I had a blast doing so, and don’t regret any of them!

Sheep and lambs

Sheep and lambs

Hubby and I went to a friend’s farm today to spend the afternoon. We ooh-ed and aaah-ed over the newborn lambs, offered fresh grass stems to the month-old calves, and tried to sneak up on the wild ducks to get pictures of them on the pond. It was great fun! The lambs are simply adorable, especially the ones that were only a week old. They’re still clumsy in their movements, like they don’t always know where their legs are or what they’re supposed to be doing. So cute! The calves are startled by everything, kicking up their heels and running back to their mothers.

And then I fell through a makeshift bridge over a 3-foot deep and 6-foot wide drainage ditch. Twice. No, I’m not THAT heavy. We apparently are just that lousy at bridge building. Want to read the details?

We walked through the cow pasture to see the creek. Last time we did this, it was high summer and the creek was little more than a trickle of water moving from one muddy cow footprint to another. But today we could hear it burbling and gushing before we even got there.

The first obstacles included climbing over three fences, so we could reach the cow pasture without entering the enclosure that held the bull. (I’m learning that a lot of farm life involves going where the bull isn’t.) Then follow the tractor path to the broken bridge. Once there, our host suggested we carry some of the beams with us, so we could cross the drainage ditch easier. They weren’t able to hold a tractor anymore, but a person’s weight should be no problem. So that’s what we did.

Crossing the drainage ditch

Crossing the drainage ditch

We reached the drainage ditch, which turned out to be a three-foot deep, six-foot wide, quarter-mile long pool of stagnant water.  Our host went first, and crossed on the newly-installed beams without a problem, except she said the second beam had developed a deep crack running lengthwise while she was walking on it, so we should be careful. I went second, and was a step from the opposite bank when the crack became a bona-fide split, the beam rolled over, and my foot was dumped into the water-filled ditch. I am grateful my other foot landed on dry ground and I could pull myself up quickly. I wetted nothing but my foot up to the ankle. Hubby was still able to follow us with judicious use of the branches of a nearby tree.

The creek was lovely. One great thing about Oregon is that everything is always green! Green grass, green trees, green moss on rocks.

On the way back we picked up a large felled tree limb to replace the broken beam. We put it in place, and again our host crossed easily, noting that the limb bent in the middle but didn’t sound like it was going to break. Again, I crossed second, but this time the limb broke without even bending, dumping me into the water past my knees as I dangled from the branch of the tree I was using to keep my balance. With help from my hubby I pulled myself back up to the bank we had started from. This time, covered in bumps and bruises.

But now what? Our host was on one side of the water, and we were on the other. Our attempts at bridging it had failed twice, and I was in no mood to try again. So we walked. And walked. A quarter-mile into the cow pasture so we could go around the drainage ditch. So we could walk down the tractor path, so we could climb three fences, so we could get back to the sheep.

The result is approximately seven inches of cuts on my arms and legs, five square inches of new bruises in the same areas, and a lump the size of a dollar bill beside my knee. But a story to tell and a day to remember!

The troubles with winter

Brrrr! It’s cold here today! There is a storm warning, and the sheen of white on the ground isn’t frost, it’s ice! Of course, it’s winter and all to be expected.

But winter brings more trouble to a farm than just a low thermometer.

Bedding for animals becomes necessary. Rabbits live on wire floors which become ice cold when the temperature drops. So hutches get a layer of straw for bedding to give the animals somewhere to stand that doesn’t suck the heat out of their bodies.   Of course, that adds to the chore list because the rabbits tend to soil it. And wet bedding doesn’t help them stay warm at all. So it must be removed and replaced on a regular basis.

Freezing temperatures freeze hoses. So the setup that works so well in summer – running long hose lines out to the animals – doesn’t work most days of the winter. The hose freezes solid and doesn’t defrost until at least two days of above-40 temperatures. So water must be toted out to the animals in gallon (or larger) containers. Now, there IS an easy way to fill a five-gallon bucket when the hose doesn’t work. But it’s still harder work than just using a hose.

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

Use a dustpan to fill a large bucket. Image courtesy of lifehacker.com

And not just hoses freeze in winter – water in bowls freezes too! Leaving animals with nothing to drink. In summer one bowl of water per day is enough, but some days in winter are cold enough that the water freezes before the animal can drink enough to sustain it for the day. So water must be toted more often the colder it gets. And don’t fall into the trap of trying to use hot water to make it stay wet longer. Did you know hot water freezes faster than just moderately warm water? It’s true! http://chemistry.about.com/od/waterchemistry/a/Can-Hot-Water-Freeze-Faster-Than-Cold-Water.htm

I even had eggs freeze once! In the shells, in the chicken coop. There is so much water in the egg white and yolk that freezing forces the shell to crack, making it unsafe to use the egg even after it thaws. When I get those, they get fed back to the chickens.

Then there are the cold-weather diseases. Cold weather reduces the body’s ability to fight disease, even in animals. So just like humans have cold and flu season in the winter, animals are often more susceptible to illness in the winter as well. I had a rabbit die just yesterday that was apparently healthy the day before. The main culprits in winter are the sheer cold, dehydration, or bacteria/viruses.  You can give your rabbits warm places to go, but you can’t make them stay there. You can give them water repeatedly, but you can not force them to drink. And you can maintain a closed herd, but you can not give 100% protection against bacteria and viruses. Animals are often just more susceptible to dying in cold weather than warm.

Shorter days make chickens stop laying. Their egg-laying cycle is affected by the length of the day. You can put lights in the chicken coop, but that has a fire risk attached to it. And then there is the thought that while you *can* make a chicken lay year-round, does that have an effect on how many years they can continue to lay? I’m not sure of that, but figure that nature is often correct when it wants to take breaks, so I do not light my chicken coop. And instead of four eggs per day, I get five per week in the winter. Oh well. They’ll lay more often when the longer days return.

Wintertime also interferes with breeding. Rabbits even slow down in winter! (Not that they “breed like rabbits” any other time – or at least any time you *want* them to breed.) Whether it is from instinctually knowing that kits have a lower chance of surviving in the cold temperatures, or from the fewer hours of sunlight making them lose interest in doing anything but eating and drinking in those few hours of sunlight, the result is many fewer litters born in the winter.

Winter even freezes compost piles! At least it can if they’re not built large enough or if they’re not working hot enough. Don’t try plunging your turning fork deep into a pile of compost, with your body weight behind it, without first testing to see if the pile is frozen. From experience, suddenly hitting a layer of ice when you expected the fork to keep moving can be painful! A few pots of boiling water poured on the pile is often enough to defrost the ice and get the pile working again.

There is no snow here (or rather, very little) so at least I don’t have to dig my way out to the animals before I can care for them. I had to do that in Colorado, and it adds an extra level of aggravation and danger to everything. Shoveling, not slipping, getting doors open in spite of layers of snow and ice – blech!

So – carry bedding, carry water,  collect eggs more often, check for disease, track water consumption to spot problems approaching, carefully monitor breeding instead of assuming they completed it, watch your footing, and tote pans of boiling water around without slopping it on the pathway … winter is full of chores one doesn’t have to do in the summer.

Nothing alters the rate at which the days become longer, but it’s always a pleasure when the warmer weather returns, even if it’s sporadically at first!

I am a dirt farmer

In high school a friend and I had a saying to help us remember something in English Literature class. It was “We be tillers of the soil, we be diggers of the earth. We be dirt farmers!” What it was intended to help us remember I have no idea – the phrase is stuck in my head though it’s meaning has long disappeared.

So I found it very ironic the other day to realize that the most successful part of my mini farm so far – has been the dirt! I am, officially, a dirt farmer.

The chickens are taking their winter break from laying eggs. Out of four chickens I am getting maybe five eggs a week. My rabbits are not breeding like rabbits – not that anybody’s ever do, unless they don’t want them to. Rabbits are contrary that way. And it’s dipping below freezing from time to time now, so gardening is out for this season.

Which leaves the dirt. Or compost, as it’s called in its pre-dirt phase.

The massive pile along the side of the  yard. As I mentioned in a previous post, compost is powerful. And one of its attractions is its ability to keep working even in winter!

I can add to it, I can balance it, I can turn it and aerate it, I can water it (well, here in Oregon the sky does that for me). I see the birds in it when I go outside, and I see the worms in it when I turn it. The bottom of the pile has become a beautiful, rich soil. It’s WORKING. Even in the middle of the cold, rainy season. It’s a nice break from the boringness of the other chores that feel rather – unproductive – in winter.

So, at least for this season, I proudly announce that I AM A DIRT FARMER!

Midnight adrenaline!

I read once that having livestock was publicly announcing your willingness to run outside, at any hour of the day or night, in any state of dress or undress, to deal with whatever emergency happened. I scoffed at that. Certainly there is time to put on pants or a jacket, right?

Nope.

Hubby and I were getting ready for bed tonight when he heard an animal scream. “Something’s wrong with the animals – they’re screaming” he shouted from the other room. And the adrenaline kicked in.

I dropped whatever it was I was doing, and headed for the back door. Thankfully my shoes were right there and I could step into them without slowing down. But no jacket. No time! The flashlight is *always* by the back door. I couldn’t get the back light on, it gets finicky in the cold weather, so I kept on going without it. Halfway through the yard the flashlight picked up the chicken coop – with the chickens outside in the run.

What? “It’s rabbits that scream, not chickens”, I thought. I had been headed for the rabbits and just happened to see the chickens on the way. But a quick flashlight beam across the hutches showed all rabbits in their cages and quiet. Whatever was going on, it was about the chickens. And with them outside their coop in the middle of the night, whatever was going on was INSIDE the chicken coop.

I opened the run and stood in the doorway. Without realizing how useful it was, we had built the chicken coop so one could see inside the pop door from the entrance to the run. I bent over and shone the flashlight beam inside.

Two small red eyes. My heart took an extra-hard thump before I saw the rest of the animal hiding behind part of the perch. An opossum!

I was simultaneously relieved and concerned. Possums aren’t known for attacking people, unless they’re truly cornered and terrified. At least it wasn’t a fox or similar quick-moving and more aggressive animal. But at the same time, I didn’t have room to swing a shovel in the close confines of the coop. I was going to have to persuade slow-moving, comfort-loving, not-afraid-of-humans opossum to leave the coop of his own free will.

Hubby had joined me only half a second behind, coming from a different room. Wearing his boxers. Because, being a good livestock owner, he hadn’t stopped to put on pants! So I had him grab the pitchfork for me, and then hold the flashlight while I opened the chicken coop. (In addition to the small pop door the chickens use, the entire front of the coop opens up like barn doors. I wanted it that way for ease of cleaning, never thinking how wonderful it would be in persuading a reluctant predator to depart!)

First I showed the turning fork to the possum, which hissed at it. Then I poked the possum with it, and it squealed in anger. Ah, finally the source of the “scream” hubby had heard! Maybe one of the chickens pecked it? Maybe it bumped an exposed nail? I poked it again, and the possum bit at the tines of the fork, realizing they weren’t going to move. It ran to the other side of the coop, where I followed it. It ran back to the original side, and into the nestbox. I threw forkfuls of bedding at it, which really annoyed it. Finally it went out the front of the coop and down to the ground, immediately darting behind the door support. I prodded it again and it went up the run fence, pausing at the top where I unceremoniously pushed it over into the brush on the other side. It walked away unharmed.

I want to say I saw the chickens applaud, but it must have been completely in my head because of course chicken wings don’t bend that way. But I closed up the coop, put the ramp back where it belonged, and watched the girls one by one return to the coop to roost for the night.

All but one. Not sure what’s going on with her. I picked her up and saw no blood, no injuries. But she acted a little shellshocked. I gently put her in the coop with her flock, figuring the normalcy of the surroundings might be best for her. Then we closed and locked the door.

We’ll be better now at locking the coop door when it gets dark, rather than when we go to bed. Lesson learned.

Second lesson learned – if you are short on eggs, look for an egg-eating predator. I probably could have caught that opossum several days ago if I had listened to my gut about all the eggs that I thought were being laid but that weren’t in the nestbox when I went to collect them.

Hopefully the short chicken memory will serve my flock well and they’ll be back to normal as soon as they got inside. On the other hand, you can see that I’m still awake typing this out, because the adrenaline needs a bit of time to leave my system.

But hubby did look cute outside in his boxer shorts!  😉