Friday, April 27, 2012

The New Coop

So here's a project that's taken up far more of our spring time than I would have imagined.  It's our spankin' new chicken coop.  As you can see, it's an A-frame and a rather large one.  The seed ideas for the design were mostly mine, but in the course of constructing it with the help of our WWOOF volunteer, design became very much a collaborative effort.

Our previous coop-and-pen system was our first attempt at providing mobile housing for our laying hens.  It served reasonably well for four years, but we built in plenty of flaws because we didn't really know what we were doing.  We had to build chicken housing before we'd ever kept chickens.  Some of these flaws were remediable, and we fixed what we could; others not so much.  My two biggest complaints were that the coop wasn't easy to clean out and that both the coop and the pen were quite heavy, making it hard for me to move them by myself sometimes.  A lesser issue was that we had no way of providing a dust bath for our hens in a mobile system.  So they tore into our grass to cool themselves down in summer, thus leaving significant divots in the lawn.  I didn't care so much about the aesthetics, but rolling a heavy coop and pen around was hard enough to begin with.  When the wheels fell into some of these divots, it became really difficult.

So the new design had to eliminate the difficulty of cleaning, shed excessive weight, and offer dustbathing possibilities for the birds.  I also wanted easier access to the interior, and room for at least two nest boxes.  We started with one nesting box for four hens, which was reasonable, especially since the box could hold two hens at a time if need be.  But over the years the number of hens we've had at one time has varied considerably, with nine being the upper limit.  This resulted in the occasional queue for the nesting box, and the occasional egg laid outside the nest.

Here you can see the elevated dust box in the back.  Since it's raised up this way it doesn't take away any area of the lawn.  This also shows the articulated door, which folds down so I can access the feeder and waterer, or throw treats to the girls without giving them too much temptation to escape.  When I need access to the inside of the pen, I can open the entire door and get inside without much crouching or discomfort.

The nesting boxes are situated towards the peak of the new coop.  The girls don't seem to have any aversion to laying their eggs so far off the ground.  Since they have to make three jumps from the ground to the nests, their feet seem to be cleaner.  The eggs I've been getting have been mostly pristine.

Here are a couple of pictures of the wheels and the slight advantage we gained by not placing them at the very back edge of the bottom frame.  You'll notice that they're on a lever bar that can be propped into place when it's time to move the coop.  The rest of the time the frame rests almost in contact with the ground.  By moving the wheel slightly towards the front of the coop, the weight of small portion of the coop behind the wheel acts as a counter balance to the rest of the weight.  This makes it easier for me to move.  I don't quite have the technical vocabulary to describe this, but the idea was described in an excellent article about the Chinese wheelbarrow in the Energy Bulletin a short while ago.  The article will fill you in on the principle, if you're interested.

Here you can see the lever bar positioned to raise the coop off the ground to make it easier to move.  We're still tinkering with this a bit since our smallest hen scooted right under the coop while I was moving it one morning.  We have a few ideas on how we might fine tune the system.

Here's a shot taken after the main construction was done that shows most elements of the interior.  We have diagonal bracing in a few areas to strengthen the wooden framing.  After painting was finished, the whole thing was sheathed in chicken wire.  Then an old billboard was used to cover the sides/roof and most areas of the gable ends.

I've already been asked, "Why purple?"  My standard response is, "Why not?"  My tendency to splash bright colors around my garden is already on record.  It helps curb the impulse to paint something loud on the walls of our home.  Deep purple was one color not yet represented in the garden.  It all looked so pretty until it was time to put that used billboard on as roofing material.  I'm hoping that I can find an artistic soul who might paint something attractive on it.  After all, it looks like nothing so much as a blank canvas to me, just waiting to be filled up with something whimsical or chicken-related.

I will say this for the ugly billboard.  It is very sturdy stuff, designed to be out in all weathers.  The white backing of the advertisement should help keep the coop from heating up too much in full summer sun.  Oh, and it was free, by the way.  The billboard companies give them away for nothing once they're taken down.  I know a man who used this material in lieu of roof liner when he built his own home.  I expect the billboard to hold up extremely well, and thus protect this coop from the elements for several years at least.

The only thing missing from our new coop is a clever name.  My husband calls it the "land yacht."  I sometimes refer to it as the "purple menace."  Neither moniker seems to really capture the mixture of charm and clunkiness of our new coop.  So what say you, readers?  Got a clever name for this behemoth?  I have no prizes to give away and make this a contest, but I'd love a snazzy label for our newest piece of homestead infrastructure.  All suggestions will be gratefully received and considered.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Apologies for the long radio silence.  And thanks to those of you who sent kind inquiries about my absence.  All is well at the homestead.  While spring is always a busy season that gets in the way of writing, that's not my excuse this time.  The difference now is that my husband is more or less retired, and thus home all the time.  This is almost entirely a good thing.  The only exception to that is my habit of writing when I have the house entirely to myself.  The writing "mood," as it were, comes to me most easily in solitude.  I find it very hard to reach that state with distractions around me.  So, if this blog is to continue, I'll need to figure out a routine or a method that will provide verisimilitude for being alone at home.  This will probably be a challenge, but I'll work at it.  If I manage to find time to write, it'll probably mean I find a way to catch up with many of your blogs as well.  I've missed keeping tabs on what many of you are up.  There's so much inspiration and so many cool ideas in the gardening/homesteading blogosphere!

In the meantime I should provide some thumbnail sketches of where we're at and what we've been doing.  First off, my husband's "retirement" is really the loss of a job.  Since we've known this was coming for quite a while, we could plan for it, which I know is an advantage many people don't get.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  Our advance notice let us, just barely, pay off our mortgage entirely before his employment ended.  So we are now without an income, but also debt-free.  Mostly that's not scary at this point.  It feels pretty good, I have to tell you.  We've taken a few extra efforts here and there to shave expenses in an already pretty frugal existence. 

We've already hosted a number of WWOOF volunteers this year, and our first one brought with him an impressive amount of construction experience.  He helped us build a new mobile chicken coop to replace our clunky and deteriorating pen and coop system, which served honorably, if inelegantly, these past four years.  The new rig is an A-frame that provides a bit more area to the chickens and should require almost no cleaning, ever, since there's no floor. All the poop ends up directly on the lawn. The girls seem to have taken to it quite happily.  I think it's just about the most awesome chicken coop ever, if I say so myself.  I'll try to get a detailed post on this one up soon.  (Yes, I know my track record with "soon" is execrable.)

Other recent efforts have entailed a lot of digging and planting of rootstock.  The hedgerow project got moved way up the priority list by last year's Halloween snowstorm from hell.  The storm took out a major section of our fence in the backyard.  We're going with the strategy of leaving what remains of the old wooden fence where it is, and replacing what came down with livestock panels and the plants that will form the hedgerow.  Frankly, this looks ugly at the moment, and doesn't provide any of the privacy of the wooden fence.  But eventually, the livestock panels will be mostly hidden by the plants, which will give us privacy, and should look a lot better than the wooden fence.  Should we ever decide to use that space for dairy goats, the dual-element hedgerow will constitute a real barrier to the animals, while looking pretty and offering some browse.  So far our hedgerow plantings include rugosa roses, Siberian peashrub, cornelian cherry, a dwarf willow tree, and a golden elderberry.  It's likely that our black raspberry patch, which sort of backs into the property line, will become a hedgerow element too.  I have three tiny hazels and a ginseng plant that will be coddled for another year or two in containers before being added to the hedgerow.  We lucked out with the goat panels, finding them used for a small fraction of the price for new ones, which is considerable.  Right now a picture of the hedge project wouldn't really show much.  I'm hoping that by late summer or fall a second picture will provide an impressive contrast.  We'll see how it goes.

We also planted several new fruit trees, bushes and vines this month.  We're starting both table grapes and hardy kiwis on trellises, and experimenting with a new growing technique for several fruit trees.  The technique is called Backyard Orchard Culture.  The good folk at Root Simple blog wrote about it, and you can check out a summary at the website of the tree nursery which developed it.  Basically the idea is to cram normal fruit trees into places where they either won't have enough space to develop to their normal mature size, or where such full growth is undesirable.  Then you radically prune the tree as it grows to keep it very small.  Planting multiple fruit trees very close together is another part of BOC.  Doing so forces the trees to compete for resources, which helps keep them small.  While trees maintained in this manner will obviously never produce as much fruit as trees which realize their full growth, there are other advantages.  Having many small fruit trees means you can have a succession of harvests that are each just large enough to keep you in fresh fruit for a fortnight or so, without providing any pressure to preserve the bulk of an enormous harvest.   The six Asian pears and two extra apples we just planted in this way should (eventually) give us modest quantities of fresh fruit over a three-month span from mid-summer to early fall.  (We'd ordered two more apples which would have extended the season through mid-fall at least, but they were sold out.  We may add them next year.)  Since BOC trees are kept very small, maintenance and harvesting are very easy.  There's no need for ladders.  I expect that when I'm another twenty or thirty years older, the ability to do such work with both feet on the ground will be very appealing.

We've got a few broiler chickens going already this year.  My feeling is that last year we let our batch of six go far too long.  I wanted to use up the second bag of feed that I'd purchased for them, and that meant letting most of them live for ten weeks.  It gave us bigger birds, certainly.  But it also meant that by the end I had to move the birds three times per day just to keep them out of their own filth.  The Cornish cross breed that accounts for the vast majority of chicken meat in this country isn't genetically modified, but judging by how fast they grow, they may as well be.  At nine and ten weeks of age, even broilers that were kept on grass, not fed for 24 hours per day, and allowed plenty of space to move around, pretty much couldn't and didn't.  The speed at which these birds grow is an undeniable advantage for those who want to fly under the radar with backyard meat production.  You can finish the birds before anyone notices they're there.  But it's pretty much their only virtue.  This year I'll raise two batches of four birds each, and only until each batch finishes off an 80-pound bag of feed.  I expect that to mean slaughter at roughly seven weeks old.  Thus smaller birds, but more of them as compared with last year.

Finally, we've just started work on a tiny frog pond to be added to the center of our garden.  This is the only suitable spot we could find for it - one that's not on a footpath or directly under a large deciduous tree that will dump too many leaves into it in autumn.  Work sort of stalled with this after the hole was dug, as mild weather brought on many spring tasks very early.  But I want to get this done soonish, so that it can provide many benefits to our growing space this year.  I know for a certainty that adding a bit of water to the garden will bring a great deal of additional biodiversity, which can only be a good thing.  What I'm really hoping for though are some toads, which are supposed to be fantastic for slug control.  The lasagna mulching method I'm so fond of does tend to encourage slugs, though we've had such dry conditions the last couple years that it's sort of been a wash.  The plan is to stock the pond with duckweed for multiple uses, and probably a few goldfish for algae management.  If frogs or toads don't show up on their own, I may go looking for some tadpoles.  I know where to find some of these locally in the correct season, but I'm pretty sure that window has closed for the year. 

Hope spring is treating you all well.  Drop me a line and let me know what's new with you and your garden.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Repurposing Wool Fibers

Despite my interest in frugality, I'm relatively new to thrift stores.  Generally I don't enjoy shopping, but there are a couple of Goodwill stores on routes I travel regularly, so I've been stopping in there and browsing lately.  Naturally, there are some amazing deals to be had.  Probably one of the most surprising to me have been the 100% wool sweaters that sell for as little as $2, when they're on markdown.  It simply defies logic that these pure woolen items, some of them brought all the way from Scotland or Australia, end up being given away for a song. Of course, the vast majority of sweaters at the Goodwill are made from synthetic yarns.  But that only makes it a little more of a treasure hunt to seek out the wool.

I'm an occasional, largely seasonal, and not very gifted knitter.  One reason I haven't done more knitting is the incredible expense of the yarn.  It's always much, much cheaper to buy a sweater than to buy the yarn to make one yourself, even if you're paying the full retail price for the sweater.  But those occasional thrift store finds change that equation.   When woolen sweaters sell for so much less than the cost of the constituent materials, I've met my price point.  Mind you, it's not every sweater that can be taken apart by hand, so it pays to know what I'm looking for.  I learned what I needed to from this link

Taking apart a knitted item to recycle the yarn is a somewhat tedious task, well suited to wintertime, endless cups of tea, a BBC radio stream, and the company of a playful cat, brisking about the life.  It's amazing how much yarn comes out of a small sweater.  I cut a few cardboard pieces to wind the yarn around as I unravel the sweater.  Binding it in this way helps to stretch out some of the bends the yarn assumed when it was first knitted.  There are steps you can take to further relax the kinks in previously used yarn.  But they take time and effort, and my creations aren't so magnificent that I worry about minor issues such as slightly pre-kinked yarn.

In principle, you could take apart a knitted item made from any sort of fiber.  For my time and money, only wool or other animal fibers would make it worth my while.  I did scoop up an alpaca sweater from the thrift store, and it's waiting to be taken apart.  It's white but slightly stained.  I may decide to dye the yarn if I can't get the stain out. The beauty of acquiring these materials so cheaply is that it gives me free rein to experiment with them and learn from mistakes if I must.

I've knitted one pair of my chunky fingerless gloves, and am currently working on a second pair, both to be donated to the fundraising auction at the PASA conference, which is only days away.  These gloves are knitted with double strands of yarn, which makes them extra warm.  For both pairs of gloves I'm using the repurposed yarn as one strand.  It's satisfying to salvage and re-use this material.  The color of the sweater is such that I wouldn't choose to wear it myself, but in a double stranded item, I think it turns out quite pretty.

I'm off to the conference on Wednesday, presenting on Thursday, and enjoying myself thoroughly on Friday and Saturday.  After I'm home, I'll give my usual summary of the conference highlights, and with a little luck, relocate my writing mojo, which has been scarce of late.  Hope winter is treating you all well.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Harvest Meal: Roasted Parsnips

This winter we have a surfeit of parsnips to harvest, which is wonderful because they are one of my favorite vegetables.  But parsnips can be tricky to cook well, because they aren't very dense.  So when you roast them (one of the very best cooking methods for this vegetable) with other root crops, they tend to cook through much faster than carrots, potatoes, or turnips.  Add to this the abundant sugars in a winter-harvested parsnip, and you have a recipe for burned, or mushy parsnips, or worst of all, both conditions at once.

So I like to roast parsnips on their own, and I recently hit on a fabulous way of doing that.  It's a bit more fussy than other methods, but it produces such deliciousness that I'm willing to go to the extra effort.  The nicest thing about this dish is that all the major ingredients are either homegrown, or homemade.

I start by cutting up several slices of my home cured guanciale.  I'm sure bacon or pancetta would work fine as well, but the extra seasonings that I add to my guanciale give the dish a little something special.  If you use bacon or pancetta, one or two slices should do it.  My guanciale is small, and my slices short; I used about seven slices for two full pans of roasted parsnips.  A little bit of fatty cured pork goes a long way in the flavor department.  So the slices are cut into bite-sized pieces and gently heated in a skillet just enough for some of the fat to render out into a liquid state.  Some of the guanciale pieces begin to brown a little, but I'm not aiming to crisp them up at this point.

While the fat renders I go to the trouble of peeling several parsnips and cutting them also into bite sized pieces.  I check my quantities by spreading out the chopped parsnips on a sheet pan.  I don't want it overcrowded, but neither do I want too much open space on the pan.  The vegetables should all fit in a single layer with a bit of space around the pieces.  To each sheet pan of parsnips I add several peeled cloves of garlic, left whole, a good amount of finely chopped rosemary, and freshly ground white pepper.  I gather up the ingredients to the center of the pan, pour over the rendered guanciale fat and the guanciale pieces, and add just a bit of olive oil to the pile.  Then I mix everything by hand so that the vegetables are well coated with oil and fat.  These get spread back out to an even layer, and sprinkled with kosher salt just before going into a 375 F oven.

A single pan of these parsnips will take about 25-30 minutes to roast.  If you make two or more pans of these goodies at once, it'll take longer.  It's a good idea to rotate pans between shelves, as well as turning them 180 degrees if you're making a lot.  I didn't need to stir the parsnips around from time to time as they cooked.  With larger pieces of root vegetables I've noticed that doing so encourages more even cooking.  The smaller pieces don't seem to need it.  When the parsnips and guanciale develop a lovely browned appearance, you'll know they're done.

It may seem strange that I'm elevating what most people would consider a side dish to the status of a proper meal.  All I can say is that I tried using these roasted parsnips as a topping for pasta, and while it worked just fine, I noticed that the pasta seemed more of a distraction from the vegetables than a help.  So I gave up and next time just ate a large bowlful of the roasted parsnips.  Not the most nutritionally balanced meal in the world, but I can't stop eating them.  I'm thrilled to have stumbled on a great recipe for parsnips that uses homegrown garlic and rosemary, which is doing well by the way under protection.  We've hardly needed much in the way of season extension infrastructure with the mild winter we're having, but that's another post.

I got the basic idea for this dish from Molly Stevens' All About Roasting cookbook.  She takes her dish in a sweeter direction than mine with the addition of brown sugar.  To my mind, a parsnip that is allowed to stay in the ground through a few frosts so that it sweetens up on its own is plenty sweet enough, so I leave the sugar out.  But I appreciate the attention to detail in Stevens' book.  Hitting on the best temperatures and cooking pans for roasting all sorts of different foods is not an intuitively obvious thing, but one arrived at through much trial and error.  So I'm grateful for the sheet pan and temperature recommendation on this recipe, and the topic of the book is well suited to the season.

Anyway, I hope some of you will try this parsnip recipe, especially if you've never been impressed with this humble treasure before.  It was once the main winter staple crop of Europe, before the potato was brought from the new world.  I do wish that I could retrieve some of the ways our ancestors prepared this vegetable.  I'm sure they had some very good ways with the parsnip.  If you have a favored recipe for parsnips or other root crops, please do share them in the comments!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Few Loose Ends

Happy New Year, everyone!  My conscience has been nagging at me to follow up with results from several things I've written about over the last year or so.  I'm not good about getting around to posting about things I say that I will.  So I figure I'll clear my backlog with the first post of the year and then I can get back to semi-regular posting.

Leek seedlings
Last spring I tried a somewhat fiddly method of starting leek seedlings, with the aim of encouraging them to grow long and tall before they were transplanted out.  The idea was that a long seedling, transplanted deeply, wouldn't need hilling to make the plant develop a nice long white section, which is the best part of the leek.  Well, it worked and it didn't.  The seedlings indeed grew long and tall.  I duly transplanted them with just a couple inches of their full length showing above the ground, and then ignored them for the whole growing season.  Disappointingly, when I dug up a few this fall, they had very minimal white parts.  It seemed to me as though the plant turned anything planted below the soil line into root.  So this was a bust.  Hilling seems to be required to grow beautifully long white leeks.  I'm still looking for the best way to do this in my long narrow garden rows. 

Tomato trellising
Remember my enthusiasm to try a new tomato growing technique that I learned about at last year's PASA conference?  I've got results.  The trellising system worked fairly well as the plants grew tall.  It took some diligence to keep up with pruning extra branches and clipping the remaining ones to the wires.  The problem came when the plants started setting fruit and bulking them up.  I had all my trellises in short rows, which meant that only two 7' stakes were holding up three tomato plants each.   Gradually the weight of the plants pulled the stakes in towards each other, making all the wires sag.  This could be only minimally remedied by adjusting the wires at the stakes.  Next year I plan to grow my tomatoes in longer rows, with stakes every ten feet or so.  Since all but the end stakes will be supporting plants to either side, the growing weight of the plants should exert equal pulling in both directions, so that the stakes remain upright.  I may try angling the stakes outward at either end of the rows to give them more resistance.  The sagging wasn't a disaster, but it looked kinda shabby and cut down on airflow around the plants, which might have been a very bad thing in a blight year.

I've become a fan of burdock, aka gobo, for its delicious flavor and its soil amending properties.  When I wrote about them more than a year ago, there was some question in the comment section as to whether or not the parts of the taproot left in the ground would regrow in the spring and form a new plant.  The results this spring were negative - in the sense that I saw no plants emerge above ground where we'd dug out the roots.  This is a positive as far as I'm concerned though, because it means we can have our soil amendment and eat it too.  Those portions of root that are too deep to dig out rot in place, adding organic content to the subsoil and greatly improving our clay soil in the process. So burdock is not forever once you plant it, provided you harvest the root.  Those roots we didn't harvest definitely came roaring back this spring, ready to set seed.  And this is not a plant whose seed I want to save for myself, thank you very much.  It took more than one severe cutting down to the ground to encourage the plants to call it quits.  Burdock produces a fair bit of biomass in the second year, and the greens are marginally of interest to the chickens.

Acorns sprouting and different oak species
This one is owing for quite a while.  In fall of 2010, I aggressively gleaned acorns from oaks in parks and off my own property to use as feed supplement for my laying hens.  I went for a certain oak species that produced beautiful, large, meaty acorns, and I managed to gather some 60 pounds of them.  Unfortunately, it was mostly wasted effort.  The acorns that looked so big and worthy to me did not pass muster with the hens. They pecked rather half-heartedly at them after I crushed them by hand.  It was my mistake.  Since they obviously enjoyed the taste of the small, poorly looking acorns produced by the oak tree at our property line, I assumed that the acorns that look so much better to my eye would please them just the same.  Not so.  There are more than five hundred species of oak in the world.  And there's enormous variation in the tannin content of the seed of different sorts of oak tree, and even between individual trees of the same species.   Tannins give a bitter flavor to foods.  These compounds can be leached out of acorns well enough to make them palatable to humans, but that's not a process I'm willing to go through for the chickens' sake.  Some acorns are naturally "sweeter" than others, and obviously the oak on the edge of our property produces tasty ones.  So I've gone back to only collecting these rather sad looking acorns, which the hens do appreciate.  My advice is to definitely run a test on any acorn available to you before you go to the trouble of collecting more than a handful.  See if your livestock will eat the acorns from any given tree, and don't rely on appearance as an indicator of feed quality.

A note too about storing the acorns you do collect.  Do not keep them in plastic bags or buckets, even if left open and uncovered.  The acorns give off enough moisture so that the ones on the bottom will start to sprout in just a week or two.  A canvas or burlap bag will breathe enough to prevent this, as will baskets made of wire or natural fibers.

If there's something else I promised to report back on and have forgotten about, please remind me.  I'll do my best to follow up!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PASA Conference Coming Up

Here's my annual publicity for PASA's Farming for the Future Conference.  I've been attending this conference for the last four years, and have always come away excited, energized, and having learned many useful things applicable to my homesteading endeavor.  The conference is held at the beginning of February each year in State College, Pennsylvania.  If you're interested in the sorts of topics I cover here on the blog and reasonably local to PA, I suggest you consider attending.

In the coming year I'll have the honor to be presenting with the man who first inspired me to start keeping a tiny flock of backyard chickens at the PASA conference four years ago.  Harvey Ussery will be leading an all-day pre-conference track on Integrated Homesteading.  I'll be playing backup.  Harvey is more than capable of presenting a knock-out presentation all by himself, as I have seen more than once.  He's concise, well-spoken, and his talks are carefully honed.  He does not waste the audience's time.  My hope as a novice speaker is to not look incompetent by comparison.  Frankly, I'd rather be learning than teaching, but it's hard to say no to an invitation from someone I admire so much.

From now until December 31st, you can receive an early bird registration discount, and additional family members receive discounted registration as well.  There are many ways to reduce the cost of conference registration if you want to attend but need to watch your pennies; everything from scholarships, to facilitated carpooling, to a WorkShare program.  So check it out even if you think it's not in the budget.  The next conference is going to be an even better deal than in previous years, because PASA has decided to pack an extra workshop slot into the two-day conference.  So I'll be able to attend six 80-minute talks instead of five.  I look forward to all the other wonderful extras of the conference as well: picking up free shipping coupons from Johnny's, checking out the free seed-swap table, the local cheese tasting, free live music in the evenings, a free seed packet or two from various seed vendors, the great quotation posters, a wonderful fund-raising auction with so many lovely and useful items, and all the unpredictable things I'll learn from formal presentations and conversations with other attendees.

I'd love to see some of you there, whether at the Integrated Homesteading track or the main conference.  If you plan to attend, please drop me a note.  If you can't attend, I'll most likely to a summary post after the conference, detailing some of the highlights and things I learned.