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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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?

The power of compost

Compost is wonderful. I can think of almost no other tool I’d rather have around my homestead. It beats wheelbarrows, hammers, even my favorite cooking pot.

If I did not have compost, I would have a more expensive garbage bill. If I did not have compost, I would have a more expensive chicken feed bill. If I did not have compost, I would have to use more plastic bags (to contain yard waste for pickup). If I did not have compost, I would be contributing more to landfills.

But I *DO* have compost! And it’s wonderful.

Properly placed and used piles of compost are lovely things.

I have more birds in my yard than all my neighbors put together, because compost with a good amount of fresh vegetable parts is more attractive to many birds than a birdfeeder. Seeds from green peppers, peels of carrots, halves of wormy apples. It’s a buffet for the vegetarian birds. And all the worms and grubs attracted to the pile are a feast for the carnivorous birds.

The grass around my compost pile is lush and green. Yes, even in January. The nutrients leeching out of the pile even without help are sooo good for it! So are the earthworms that the compost attracts. Some gardeners pay money for earthworms to put in their yards – mine arrive on their own.

I can take rabbit and chicken manure – that smelly, ugly stuff – and place it in a compost pile with layers of straw and vegetables … and suddenly there is no more smell and no objectionable sight. Certainly beats bagging it up in plastic and paying someone to remove it. And when you live in close proximity to your neighbors and even sight is an issue, compost looks a lot better than plain rabbit and chicken manure, even if it is safe to put directly on the plants.

And all of those benefits are even before it’s reached the point where it can be used. When everything in the pile is has been composted long enough, it is the richest, darkest, best fertilizer you can use. It looks good, just like expensive mulched topsoil from an expensive garden place. It smells good – musky and earthy and fresh – much better than any chemical fertilizer from the store.

Not to mention you get all these benefits for free! I live in Oregon, so the water it needs falls from the sky, but even in Colorado the water was the only cost. You do have to have a barn fork for turning and aerating the pile, but I use the same one I already had for moving rabbit manure and cleaning out the chicken coop. Sure, you can get fancy and build a compost bin, or get a tumbler, but those aren’t strictly necessary. Mine is a freestanding pile on the side of the yard.

Kitchen scraps and smelly manure disappear into its depths. Birds, worms, and my chickens feast from it. It greens my grass and fertilizes my garden.

Compost is powerful.

A day in my life

A friend of mine recently said that reading my blog makes her tired because of all the things I do. So today, I think I’ll give her a good reason to go to bed early! Here is what today is like in my life…

When I got up this morning, my dear husband had already fed the pets – the dog and three cats that live indoors with us. Supremely sweet of him, and it left only the outdoor livestock for me to handle. So I dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, slipped on my grubby chore shoes, and went outside. Filled up the feed container for the chickens, and turned on the hose.

First up was to open up the chicken coop for the day, so the chickens can use their run. I enter the run and immediately see something weird. I don’t know what *it* is, but *it* is near the far side of the run, so I go look. Great (with sarcasm), it’s the opossum. Haven’t seen him in a couple months. He’s small, I don’t think he’s a danger to my chickens when they’re awake, and he’s locked out of their coop at night. But he’s playing dead, and I’m not going to let my chickens loose on purpose when he’s around, so I leave the chicken run to handle the rabbits instead, hoping that’s far enough away that he’ll get up and leave while I’m gone.

I check on all the rabbits, and everyone is fine. So I fill up water dishes, remove spider webs, and water the grass around the hutches. I don’t mind spiders near the rabbits, but I do object to the dry and hollow flies and other pests they drop around when they’re finished with them – just don’t think having hundreds of those in the hutches is a good idea. So the spiders need to make their webs elsewhere. I water the grass around the hutches because green grass keeps the area cool, and dry baked ground does not. I finish all that and go back to the chicken run.

Opossum on pitchfork

The opossum, laying on the pitchfork.
Is it dead, or just “playing possum”?

The opossum is still laying there. OK, according to Wikipedia, if it is “playing possum” the eyes will be closed at least partially – but they’re not. It also says that if it is “playing possum” it will be drooling/foaming at the mouth – but it isn’t. No smell either, and they usually excrete a smell when playing possum that makes a would-be predator think they’re already in the process of decaying. Hmmm. I think it’s an ACTUALLY dead opossum! So I use a pitchfork to pick it up (it’s stiff, but that is no indication of truly dead vs playing possum) and take it to the compost heap. Threw some compost over top of it to keep any smell away from the neighborhood stray cats. If it’s dead, it’ll stay there. If it’s not there tonight then I was taken in by a REALLY good player of “playing possum”!

Back to the chickens. Open up their coop, throw their food around the ground of the run to encourage scratching and pecking behaviors. Check coop for eggs (none). Clean out and fill their water bowl. Seriously, can my chickens EVER avoid pooping in their water bowl? I’m guessing not because mine always have done that.

Water the garden. See that there are a lot of blackberries ripe today, so I go get a container from the kitchen, turning off the water along the way, and bringing the feed containers back into the garage. (Slipping out of and then back into my chore shoes since those do not ever get worn past the back hall.) Pick the blackberries, and go back inside.

Whew! Morning chores complete, I now get breakfast. It’s blackberries and peanuts in the shell, while drinking water (and a Coke) on the couch, while seeing if there is anything I need to know posted on the various websites I visit.

Shirt, soon to become an apron

This is the shirt that will soon become an apron

Then I decide it’s time to work on an apron I’m making. I bought a super-cheap top at Goodwill that I think will make a really cute apron. It has a loose bodice and two inches of smocking at the top, just straps for sleeves, so it shouldn’t take long. I get the whole thing taken apart and then realize I don’t know where my sewing box is. I haven’t seen it in a while and it isn’t where it is SUPPOSED to be. So I can’t sew the ties onto the back and finish it. Grrrrr. Hubby is studying so I can’t interrupt him to ask if he knows where the sewing box is, so it’ll just have to wait until tonight to be finished.

I baked a cake for a neighbor (on an earlier day) and it’s now time to ice it.  It’s a lemon cake, so vanilla icing should work. I read an article a while ago that said most store-bought icings can be whipped with a mixer to add volume to them, making them easier to spread and reducing the calories in each piece (because the icing will now do two cakes instead of just one). I’m not going to lug out my machine mixer for such a small project, so I try the hand mixer I use for things like pancake mix. No go, the icing is too thick. So I put it in the microwave to warm it up a little, hoping that will help. Well, it’s runnier, but now won’t hold the air I’m whipping into it. Experiment FAIL. So I let the icing cool back into it’s original state while I cut a cardboard box into a flat, thick sheet and cover it with aluminum foil. (I am giving the cake to a neighbor, but don’t want to give away a plate with it.) Put the cake on the foil, and ice it. Looks good.

Walk down the street with the cake and ring the neighbor’s doorbell. No answer. Knock on the door. Still no answer. Seriously? His favorite team is on TV right now and he’s not home watching it??? Whatever, I now walk back home still carrying the cake and put it on the counter. Now I have to keep an eye on it to make sure none of the animals try to take a taste… I trade baked goods with my neighbor in exchange for him mowing my grass, so this cake is pretty valuable and I want it kept in one piece!

rabbit on nest

My doe rabbit sitting on the hay in her nestbox

I remember one of my doe rabbits was put in with the buck about a month ago, and should be put into a hutch alone to prepare for the (hopefully) impending kits. So I go out to rearrange everybody. (Opossum is still in the compost pile. Probably dead, right?) Put another doe in with a buck she’s not been with before, and watch to be sure nobody is going to get hurt. Nah, they’re just playing chase, so I go move the daddy buck to leave the momma-to-be doe in the cage alone. Then I go get the nestbox (and remove all the junk that has accumulated in it since the last time it was used… seriously, why does all this stuff not stay where it’s put? It always grows legs and moves onto whatever it is that I want at the time!) Then I fill the nestbox with hay, scattering hay all over the garage floor in the process. (It’s a new type of hay that’s seriously cheaper, but not baled nearly as well. I’ll have to keep track of how much is wasted to see if it really is cheaper or not. Better write that down or I’ll forget…)

rabbit with hay

Yes, I want hay to eat! You can’t give some to her and not to me!

Go outside to put the nestbox full of hay in with the momma-to-be, and all the other rabbits race to the corner of their hutch that’s closest. Seriously? It’s hot and dry and you want HAY? Yep. So I go back to get the basket, fill it with hay, and bring it out to put some in each rabbit hutch. Momma is sitting in the nestbox on top of the hay, so hopefully she is bred. Most rabbits just sit beside the hay to eat it, not on top of it. Refill the water dish in the hutch of the new couple, in their game of chase they’ve knocked it over, but they’re both tired and thirsty now. Check on the opossum, it’s still in the compost. (Seriously, I am spending WAY too much time checking on this stupid animal that’s probably dead!)

peanuts for lunchGet back in the house, and realize I haven’t had lunch, and it’s way late. So I eat some more peanuts while checking my websites again. Write a touching and sweet status on my FB page for my friends (which of course means I have an excuse to check it more often today, right?)

Then I realize the only meat in the house is frozen whole chickens in my chest freezer, and they’re not going to be defrosted in time to cook one for dinner. Go outside to the freezer to get two of them anyway, reasoning that I can cook one for tomorrow instead. Realize that a rabbit I had to put down is still in that freezer. Whole. Uncovered because of the hurry with which I had to dispatch her before we left on our trip. I decide I don’t have time to deal with that today, but I also don’t want to simply throw the body away because it’s an Angora with all that beautiful fur, so I at least wrap the body in a bag and put it back in the freezer before grabbing two frozen chickens and heading back into the house.

Scrub the sink, fill it with water, and put one chicken in it to defrost tonight so I can crock-pot it in the morning. Put the other in the fridge, after rearranging it so it will fit.

Sdinnerit down to write this blog post, and realize I haven’t done anything for dinner TONIGHT yet. So I get back up, and raid the freezer. I have a package of chicken strips, a package of breaded jalapeno cheese and pepper nuggets, and a package of hashbrowns. That’s so not a healthy or balanced meal, but I’ve eaten nothing but peanuts and blackberries all day, and no way will hubby go out to eat when football is on tonight, and at least I buy the versions of things that are as little-processed as possible, so I say “what the heck, it’s just one meal” and start the oven for the chicken strips. Thankfully I remembered how much heat the oven throws out, and moved the iced cake so the icing wouldn’t melt.

Put chicken strips on the baking sheet, set timer for 10 minutes. Turn chicken, add pepper bits, set timer for 5 minutes. Turn pepper bits, set timer for 5 minutes. Hope everything turns out fine with the temperature on 425 since the chicken is supposed to cook at 400 and the pepper bites at 450. It usually works fine that way, but I’ve never tried these pepper bites before, I got them because they were a freebie. Cook hashbrowns on stovetop at the same time.

But, the hashbrowns aren’t cooking. Gah! Instructions told me to heat oil to medium heat in a skillet, then sprinkle hashbrowns into the skillet until they are half an inch deep. Let cook without disturbing them until the edges brown, then turn the hashbrowns, and continue cooking until done. I couldn’t do that – the sprinkling part, that is. The hashbrowns were frozen in a solid lump. So I microwaved them until they could be pulled apart with a fork, and added them by forkfuls to the skillet. Aparantly that isn’t close enough to work, because although the edges turned brown, they were also stuck tight to the bottom of the skillet and could NOT be turned. The ones that weren’t stuck were still uncooked. So, scrap the hashbrowns because the chicken and jalapeno bites were finished, so I just served them. (Note: I don’t care for the jalapeno bites, but hubby liked them, so that’s OK.) Hubby ate the chicken strips with ranch dressing, I ate mine with honey. Yum. It’s nice to sit and eat dinner.

Time to clean up. Can’t wash dishes yet because the chicken is still taking up half the sink. *Sigh*

Eggs, September 22, 2012

Today’s eggs. Two tan ones from the Rhode Island Reds, and one light green from the Americauna

So I go outside to do the animal chores for the evening before it gets dark. Put on chore shoes, and turn on the water hose. Opossum is still dead. That means it’s really truly dead, right? Maybe I can stop thinking about it now. I collect eggs from the coop – three of them today, very typical for four chickens in their first year of laying. I have three Rhode Island Reds which lay light brown eggs, and an Americauna which lays a light greenish egg. Very cute in the egg cartons together. (The camera makes the green egg look almost flourescent – weird. It isn’t that bright in real life.) When I show my green eggs to people, the first thing they all say is “Green eggs and ham!” Especially funny because that happens to be the book featured on the September page of my Dr. Seuss calendar. Makes me smile every time I see it.

rabbit with hay

Thank you for the dinner and water!

The rabbits are happy to see me. Each gets a filled water bowl, and a scoop of pellets. I would reduce the amount of pellets if they had eaten something like apples or greens, but I don’t reduce it for hay. Gotta remember to count the rabbits in each hutch since I moved several around earlier, and I don’t want to put the wrong amount of feed in any hutch. They appreciate the attention, coming to the hutch openings to say “hello”. The friendliest ones get head scratches before they hop off to eat their dinners.

Chickens want out

My chickens waiting at the door of their run, hoping to be turned loose in the yard

Dusk is almost here, so I decide to let the chickens have this last half-hour of the day loose in the yard. They love it loose, but I’m not sure of their potential to escape, so I always stay outside when they’re loose. I take a book and sit on the deck while the chickens scratch the yard, finding lots of little treats to munch. I’m reading Janet Evanovich’s “One for the Money” series – I just started book eight. Sitting with the chickens lets me get to page 34. When the chickens start making their way back to the run I put the failed hashbrowns and peanut shells in the run for them to pick at before they completely put themselves to bed in the coop. (Peanut shells are great for traction when the weather makes the ground in the chicken run slippery, which it does often in Oregon.) I’ll go back out when it’s full dark and lock the door to the coop, safely securing the chickens for the night.

Grated Fels Naptha soap

Grated Fels Naptha soap looks like grated cheese – but tastes much different!

I go back inside, and grate the soap I need for a load of laundry. Not doing the laundry until tomorrow, but if I wait until tomorrow to grate the soap, you just know something will happen. Better to be prepared, so I grate the soap. The other ingredients are Borax and Washing Soda, which I have already, so no problem there.

The chicken has not vanished from the sink yet, so I go take it out of the sink, put it in a plastic bag, and store it in the fridge. It will make a good after-church lunch tomorrow. Yum!

And now I sit down at 8:30 to finish this blog post, and then tackle a computer game that I want to win. A very busy, but productive day. Hubby will do the dishes later, I don’t have to worry about those.

So, dear friend, have I tired you out yet? Like we discussed earlier, I definately couldn’t do this lifestyle if I had a 40 hour a week office job. But as busy as it is, I love this better. If you get to bed before I do, have a nice dream for me! Mine tend to have chickens and rabbits in them, lately.

We’re home! Update on animals, sunburn, sea snakes, and more

It feels soooo good to be home. I really enjoyed the Philippines, and expect to go back at some point. But home is home. We left Manila at 9:30 am on Tuesday, and landed at San Francisco at 9:30 am on Tuesday. Weird. Had a 4 hour layover, so one of my husband’s relatives who lives nearby came to spend it with us. That was nice! Then we flew the rest of the way back to Oregon. By the time we got to bed that night, we’d been awake for 29+ hours. Phew!

Because of the wonderful housesitter, everything was in order. Whew! It was great to see all the animals well cared for.

Eggs from my chickens

Eggs! 37 eggs from my chickens.

Chickens:  When I left, I expected the chickens to be laying before I got back. They were hatched in March, so they should have started laying at the end of July or beginning of August, but the housesitter said she hadn’t gotten any eggs at all! So I went hunting, and eventually turned up their hidden nest – with 37 eggs in it! I did a float test and all were still good. I’m taking the housesitter a dozen eggs when I see her this weekend, and it looks like omelettes for breakfast (and lunch) for a while until we get through this backlog. Good thing we like eggs! For those who are wondering, the float test with eggs is to put each into a bowl of water. If the egg floats, it’s bad or almost bad and I throw those out. If it sinks and lays on its side, its good. In between are those that bob a bit, or stand on one end. I tend to feed those to animals after cooking them very thoroughly. The idea is that as the edible part of the egg starts to get older and decompose, it also loses some size, and the air cell inside the shell gets larger. The larger the air cell, the better it floats. It has to be well past floating to have that rotten egg smell to it, but better safe than sorry with food.

Female kits

Some of the female kits

Rabbits: The “baby” rabbits aren’t so baby anymore! I use them for meat, so I was happy to see the size they are. I do have a line on selling a couple as breeders to someone else, so they have a stay of execution until that person decides. They’re 13 weeks old now.

The litter is a Californian / American Chinchilla cross. I did not know what to expect in colors from a litter of that cross, but whatever I would have guessed, it wouldn’t have been what I got: From a litter of 8, half are the white with the black tips of a Californian, and half are solid black.

Male kit

The only male kit

Seven are females, only one is male (one of the Cali-looking ones) and I’m not 100% sure it really is male. I think the sex-change fairy is visiting, which is fairly common with little rabbits.

I ought to be able to tell easily at this age, but this male looks rather in-between. I’m calling it a male for safety because at this age they really need separated by gender to prevent an accidental between-siblings litter (in case any of them are precocious breeders). I will not sell that one unless the gender of it is unimportant to the buyer.

Aren’t they adorable? If you live in Oregon and want to buy one for a meat breeder yourself, let me know!

The cats are happy to have me home. My two went into a purring frenzy, and my half-a-cat looks very satisfied with himself, almost as if he’d brought me back himself!

And my Kira, the dog, is just so cute. She tried to ignore me, probably to punish me for being gone so long, but it lasted about 10 seconds before she gave in and started licking my hand. Awwww! She makes my heart melt. She’s the one I missed the most, all I could think about the last day before leaving for home was getting to see her. She’s 11 years old and gets more and more precious to me each day.

I think the garden is pretty much gone. Only one brussel sprout plant looks any good at all, and the sprouts on it are much tinier than they should be. The swiss chard and cabbage got eaten by wildlife. I can’t see where the onions and garlic are because that side of the plot got taken over by weeds. I can’t spend much time outside right now because of my sunburn, so I think I’ll just let them keep growing together and see what happens later.

Yeah, I got a sunburn. I got a BAD sunburn! On Saturday in the Philippines a bunch of us went to the beach. It was a goal of mine ever since I got there, to swim in the ocean! And then I did not put on sunscreen. I wear it at home for the cancer-reduction properties (which are debatable, I know), but I don’t burn even when I forget it. So when I forgot to bring it to the beach I didn’t worry about it. It was only 3 hours, and semi-cloudy.

My sunburn

My sunburn – you can see where the bathing suit strap was, and all the little shiny flecks are blisters. Ouch.

I kept checking my forehead, figuring I’d go into the full shade of the trees when it started feeling hot.It never did, so no worries, right? I enjoyed the ocean and swimming, and the beach and collecting shells. So much fun! Then I got back to where we were staying and showered, and THEN it hit.Bright red skin, hot to the touch, and oh so sore. My whole face, chest, and shoulders. My face healed pretty quickly, and was peeling three days later. My chest wasn’t far behind. But my shoulders kept getting worse and worse and finally today they broke out in hundreds of tiny blisters. Boo! The doctor can’t see me for two weeks, but the nurse says to keep moisturizing and not pop the blisters, but to let them know if a fever starts. On the way home, on the plane, I chose to buy and wear a strapless dress. It didn’t look the most flattering on me, but was much nicer than dealing with straps over those sore shoulders.

I think the only other health issue that has cropped up was some infected cuts on my feet. Probably from the beach day as well. One thing I realized was how difficult it is to clean cuts with water that isn’t clean enough to drink. No wonder the cuts got infected! I started rinsing them with drinking water after I realized an infection was setting in, but by then it was too late. And how in the world do you keep feet dry when you shower? I never did figure that one out. So they kept getting doused in river water. But now that I’ve been home a full day they’re already feeling better. The cuts are tiny, they ought to heal on their own just fine now that the water is clean.

Belcher's Sea Snake

Belcher’s Sea Snake

Speaking of the ocean, I saw sea snakes! Really cool looking. There were two, about four inches long apiece. Irridescent yellow/green and dark green/black. Watching them glide through the water like rippling ribbons was sooo awesome. I watched them until they dove deep enough that I couldn’t see them anymore. When I got home I googled to see what kind they were, and learned they were Belcher’s Sea Snakes. Yeah. Venomous. Extremely venomous! I am very glad that when I see snakes I just stand there and watch them, and that I have never been prone to poking them or picking them up!

It was fun getting outside today. I separated the baby rabbits and put some adult breeding pairs together. I float-tested the eggs, and got them in cartons and into the fridge (I usually let them stay unwashed and on the counter, but some of these are already 3-4 weeks old and already wet from the float test, so fridge it is). I picked blackberries. I watered the garden (or what is left of it). Not bad for not getting up until noon! Jet lag is weird. Hope it passes quickly, tomorrow is packed with stuff to do!

Learning about garden pests – and how to make them into benefits

My husband (yes, bloggers can be married!) had one whole margarita and blamed it for his inability to hold his camera still an hour later. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about SNAILS. You can see a tiny fraction of the snails that hang out on my house if you go here: Saturday Night Hangover. (Post courtesy of my husband.)

I’m late to the ballgame on learning about garden pests in Oregon (we come from Colorado, which has a quite different climate and therefore different pests), but I learned today just how harmful those brown garden snails can be. But I also know from experience just how tasty snails are to chickens! But does that mean I can only gather a few at a time? And my chickens only get to eat snails at night when it’s raining? No! I also learned tonight that you can grow snails indoors, in plastic tubs. Who knew? Then you have a constantly breeding and growing colony of snails that stay put – so it’s easy to grab a handful to feed the chickens. Snails are a good source of protein, and the shells have calcium too.

So I went out in the drizzly rain tonight and collected all the snails I could find from the house. Porch light was burnt out, so I could only gather from some parts, but I still gathered 50 snails! Eeek! They now live in a plastic bin full of dirt and greens out on the back breezeway. When the chicks are a little older they’ll enjoy the treats. I love free food – even when it’s food for my food. One homestead problem turned into a benefit!

Here are the instructions I’m using to raise my snails:

1 – Have a container – something like an aquarium. Glass or plastic, with a lid the snails cannot dislodge. Put it somewhere out of the way where it will have cool temperatures and no sunlight.
2 – Fill the bottom 8 inches with good soil that is a little damp (but not soggy).
3 – Put edible greens on top of the soil. Anything you would eat in a salad is good – lettuce, cucumbers, etc – as is anything you know they were already eating.
4 – Add the snails. Preferably only healthy snails with undamaged shells. A mix of sizes and ages is fine, but try to stick to one breed for maximum numbers of offspring. The number of snails is up to you – but you want them all to have access to the food.
5 – Each day remove spoiling food, add new food and dampen the soil as needed. Other than that, ignore them.
6 – Adult snails will mate and lay eggs in the soil. New, tiny snails will emerge after a couple weeks. And the cycle begins again.

Poop!

If there is one thing you have to deal with on a mini-farm, it’s poop.

Dog poop needs to be picked up from the yard – if you don’t want to end up skating on your tush after stepping on it.
Cat poop needs to be scooped from boxes before the cats throw it out onto the floor on their own.
Rabbit poop needs to be collected and put in the compost pile (or you can be like me and just hang the rabbit cages over the compost pile and skip this collection step).
Chicken poop needs to be scraped out of the coop and run and put in the compost pile. (And then fresh shavings put down.)

That is a LOT of poop! Poop is everywhere unless I put the time in to gather it up and put it somewhere out of the way. It piles up quickly.

And then there’s the smell. Living where I do, in the middle of a neighborhood, controlling the smell is extremely important. Plain rabbit and chicken poop smells bad, but I’m glad that in a compost pile it doesn’t.

Gotta run – time for more poop patrol!  If only it were as easy to control other byproducts of mini-farm life.

Setting up the yard

(Originally posted Sept 2 2011)

Today I did not get outside until dusk. In the hour between then and dark I picked two pints of blackberries, and cleared about 2-3 cans of brush and weeds (the cans are the big 39 gallon trash cans). I also untangled a lot of vines. There are big beautiful blackberry vines that are so deep my arm doesn’t reach all the way in, tangled up with grapevines. I’d like to save all of them if I can, but get them to where they are all able to be harvested, so that means a lot of manual untangling and sorting. We’re making some arbors to go overhead so the grapes hang down instead of being hidden by all the blackberries. That will be nice for shade, too.

I also cleared the brush that was covering the door to the chicken run. It may have been used as a dog run by some previous owner, but the fact remains it is solid 4×4 construction with 2″x1″ welded wire covering it, and it’s 5 feet tall and at least 8’x8′ inside. I’ll have to add one more foot to that, and roof it over, but it’s nice to have such a nice start on the run already! In there I’m removing blackberry vine because of the size of the thorns and chance of injury to the chickens, but the rest can stay and the chickens will eat it.  I can ‘t quite see to the back of the run yet, I had to stop when it got too dark.