Sunday, June 28, 2020

June 2020 - We have chickens!

Another piece of the farmstead has fallen into place with the arrival of our hens. We had a coop, but I was having a hard time finding chicks because of the pandemic. Being new to this I assumed that was the way I had to go. Not so! I put out a query on our community google group, and got several great suggestions (there are many, many chicken owners in La Honda). 

Since we are getting a late start and had no particular attachment to the "babies under lights" phase of chicken parenthood, we were glad to be reminded that ready-for-the-coop pullets (teenage chickens) was an option. So we could actually be chicken parents by Solstice weekend!

First, we needed to get the coop ready. I leveled the area and put down a double layer of greenhouse barrier and several inches of gravel. Getting everything level, square and solid is tricky, as the whole coop structure is rather flexible, but so far this is working well. 

Ready for residents! It feels solid and it looks pretty. The lavender and rosemary continue our garden theme (and are well-suited for this area). The planned chicken yard will secure it further. 

Before getting our girls we visited Peninsula Feed Store in Redwood City to get a waterer, a feeder, feed and bedding. They were super nice and very knowledgeable, and helped us find exactly what we needed. 

So, FINALLY we could go get the chickens! We decided to, once again, shop "hyper local" and get our pullets from Twisted Fields Farm in nearby San Gregorio.

Twisted Fields has been in operation since 2016, and is in the process of revitalizing a small gem of a farm, tucked in one of the coastal redwood valleys we can see from our porch. They sell organic eggs and goat-milk products to local stores, and their chicken/goat yard is enormous. It also has the most charming pair of guard dogs! 

We had our pick from a large flock of youngsters; we just waded in and let chance decide who would be the lucky new residents at Uphill House. Then, after chatting with the owners and grazing on fresh strawberries, we took four chickens and a carton of wild plums back up the hill. 

The girls did NOT think much of the car ride.

We got home late afternoon, just in time for a long, warm sunset. Our little flock huddled in the corner for quite some time. They had lived mostly in a barn, and I'm sure the bright, airy coop was quite a shock. I liked that they protected the smallest one, who is still in the "peeping" stage. I'm not an expert on ages, but the two largest are weeks to months older than the two youngest. I'll know more as they grow. I covered the run with some shade cloth, put our Steely Dan mix on Pandora and sat back to observe them.

Pretty soon they were doing chicken-y things, found their food dish, scratched around in the straw, drank water. Instant chickens! But still with a lot of growing to do. It's interesting to watch their personalities emerge - I'll introduce each at the end. I have friends who sit with their chickens in the evening, now I understand why.

Solstice sunset! This is as far north as the sun will go. Now we will start to swing back again. Gee, I wonder what the rest of the year will bring? So thankful to have a comforting thing like chickens to occupy part of my mind, to balance everything else. It is a nice addition to our days.

The finishing touch! After many hours pondering exactly what I wanted for a chicken yard, yesterday was the day. Seriously, the particulars have changed so many times. The basics were easy: a protected place for the hens to do what they like best; scratch around in the dirt. It did not have to be tall or have a roof, but shade and shelter would be good. 

That being established, this is what I chose: a sturdy, black plastic version of classic chicken wire, 3' tall, and 4' steel u-posts. And I am VERY pleased with the choice. Since I'm building this myself, I'm using the strongest AND most economical materials I can find. Total cost for 50 feet of fence was $128. I'll be building 3 simple gates, including a double one here. 

Oh, and you can also dig on my no-waste PVC pipe feeder and waterer from Rugged Ranch. Even thought I still put some feed in their floor dish, it's nice to know they have a steady, clean supply at all times. They were kind of a pain to install, but once in they seem rock solid.

Yes, I'm obsessed with lining things up, but just look at how nice it looks when you do. And YET AGAIN the transparency theme prevails! I thought for sure the chicken fence would have a heavier vibe, but it just doesn't. 

I was pleased at how quickly it came together. I had worried that the rock-hard ground would make setting the posts difficult, but a system of small starter holes filled with water worked like a dream, and I was able to set all 14 with a rubber mallet and live to tell about it. The fence posts, with their built-in hooks were great - I could assemble the whole thing before committing to a single zip-tie.

By early afternoon the perimeter was secured, one gate was in place, and I used that old stake truck panel I found to make a shelter, propping it up with cinderblocks. It was time to let the girls check it out!

If we expected an immediate stampede once the doors were open, we didn't get one...but they were definitely curious! I'm super happy with the way this turned out. I might add some sort of screening fence along the front side; the wind off the ocean can come in pretty brisk sometimes, and it would be nice to protect the yard a bit. Maybe willow? 

This morning it was chilly and foggy (as it often is) but the girls were up at first light and ready to explore their new yard. And now, without further ado, meet the Uphill Flock.

This is Little Brown Betty. I have no idea what kind she is, but her feathers are already just beautiful. She's quite sweet and docile, but unfortunately is getting picked on a bit, and as a result Betty is rather a loner. She was the first to figure out the new feeder and waterer, and is probably the one who will bond with us most.

This is Pearl. She is one of the two older and larger pullets we chose. Her colors are beautiful too! She also likes her privacy, and was the first to find the coop. She might be a Blue Andalusian.

Finally, here are Lursa and Gracie, who have set themselves up as the leaders of the flock. It's hilarious. Gracie is the smallest and youngest, maybe 7 or 8 weeks old. Lursa is the largest and oldest. We both think she looks Klingon, and because we are proper Trekkies she is named for one. So far, it fits - she's fierce!

Gracie, who started as a fearful peeper is the one who is doing much of the bullying around here; the pecking order is being established. Hopefully they will work things out, now that they have more space.

I never knew dust baths were such a thing for chickens, but they are having a great time. Making space for creatures that works well for their needs is so satisfying. 

That's it for now. I need to go finish the gates. As always, thanks for following along. We've accomplished much since April, time to let it all settle in. Now more than ever it is important to care for self and others, stay centered, and observe with a clear eye. While looking for just the right way add some light. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

June 2020 - Seasonal Lessons

Back again for the veggie update! I think I mentioned in my first "reset" post that we will be learning some lessons this year, as we adapt from our previous sheltered gardens to a brisk coastal hillside. What I think we're learning now is how/when/if we can grow warm-season vegetables up here! 

When nighttime temps moved firmly into the fifties at the end of May, we thought we were home free. Memorial Day week was a great time to plant beans, squash and cucumbers; they all germinated quickly in that warm soil! Then the weather cooled again, and now any given week can be a mix of foggy days and sunny. Living within sight of the ocean, we should expect this. So here's the situation.

"Tendergreen" green beans look just pitiful. They get yellower by the day, and this week the leaves are actually starting to look burned. Is this what beans look like when they don't stay warm? I'm not sure. 

The three bags of shelling beans, planted 10 days later, have healthier looking leaves, but are looking yellow as well. And we have other variables to consider. Could the planting mix have a nutrient deficiency? It's the first soil mix I've bought in bulk (I usually buy in bags). Our well-water is very high in iron, I wonder if that could be an issue? But I keep coming back to temperature; everything in the garden seems to have paused during this June gloom.

Same situation with the squash - this is almost three weeks after germination for most of them...

And same with the cucumbers; a couple are making a valiant effort, but others are sulking. (Yes, I will be thinning them). The tomatoes are hanging in there, but they aren't growing very fast either.

On the other hand, the peas look wonderful and have just started blooming.

Parsnips are also progressing; almost time to thin again.

The carrots look lovely, and the thinnings tell me they are well-watered and sweet. We harvested the last of the spinach last week, and I planted Sugar Baby watermelon in that bag (which needs heat, so...we'll see how that goes!)

And finally, the cannabis is growing like a you-know-what, so not everyone is being fussy.

What do all these lovelies have in common? They prefer (or don't mind) cooler weather. Beans, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes DO mind. And they let you know.

So I'm guessing that the best timetable for this garden will be to shift to more cool-season varieties (like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.) planted earlier in the year, and start the heat-lovers later. Our growing season goes into November/December, so we'll have time. 

In other news; I found something cool buried in the grass behind the greenhouse! It looks like an old ranch gate. The wood is quite soft and fragile, but the heavy steel posts are good as new. Not sure what I'm going to do with it. [Update! My dad, who knows about such things, says this is a panel from a stake truck (possibly the tailgate). So there!]

Although, as often happens, the first place I put it after cleanup looks kind of cool. 

Thanks for listening to me figure this out! 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

June 2020 - Big Thoughts About Little Projects

With the vegetable garden built and planted, the pace around here has slowed down a bit. I spend a lot of time thinking about what to do next, it seems. But slowly the rest of the pieces are starting to fall in place. I love getting to use one of my oldest garden skills: working with what I have on hand. For this garden that means 10 hefty railroad ties, a small heap of rocks (formerly a fire ring) and an enormous pile of gravel.

Riches indeed! The rough outline is there; now the details can be built.

But where do you begin, once you've thought things through? I like to start with something small. This little corner is a great example. It helped define the boundaries of the greenhouse area and gave me a new planting bed, which in turn allowed me to get some long-suffering plant purchases in the ground. 

Years of working with excellent builders (including my dad) have taught me the importance of "plumb" and "level" to discerning eyes. The railroad ties needed to be dug up and repositioned. Working with irregular objects and tricky slopes can be a maddening process, but when it finally locks in, you just see it. Very satisfying. The chunkiest rocks from the pile made a splendid impromptu wall.

With edges in place, we added the rest of our garden soil mix to the native soil between the  fence and the railroad ties and roughly leveled it with a rake. A second tie creates an instant seat wall that Haku will no doubt adore. 

Now I can FINALLY get to the best part - planting! The Trader Joe's rosemary will tie that whole corner together in the nicest way. Along with the borage behind it (which I hope will be happy and reseed, like borage does) and the dwarf lavender, this is a nice trio to have near the beehives. Now this "small" job has set the tone and style for this whole space forever more!

I've planted the rest of the bed with two long, staggered rows of tall sunflowers. I have such fond memories of my first sunflower patch nearly 50 years ago, and the birds will be in heaven. I hope I can pull those off outside the deer fence!

Heartened by this progress, I decided to build up to my big greenhouse project with a couple more small ones.

Next up: the scruffy clearing in the lantana under our lone faucet. I wanted a nice spot to store our hose and watering can. First I gathered up my tools and materials, including a likely-looking bunch of rocks from the heap. I love working with rocks. You can trust them to play nicely together and not change too much. A hand mattock and hori-hori have been my most trusted weeding and soil working hand-tools for decades. 

After a good session of weeding and clearing, the loose soil was scooped out and rocks arranged along the edge of the hole. I started with the largest rock at the top and worked down from the sides, finding the best rock to fit with the one before. Then I really settled them in. You never want rocks just sitting on top of the ground; they almost always look better buried up to their widest point. 

I like the convenient gopher hole; it will provide extra drainage! 

A couple of scoops of gravel from the pile, and we're done! Sharp gravel looks tidy and compacts well; I like the color contrast with the warm-colored rocks. See what I mean about burying them? Bury your rocks!!! Also keep the level of the gravel just below the walkway so it stays contained. 

Everything fits! Now, of course we need to tidy up the rest of the border, which includes...

...a flower break! 

It was time to cut back the fat hedge of french lavender that was taking over the back walk. It looked spent. Not surprising, since this beast has been blooming since we moved in last fall. I am terrible about not cutting things back when I should because there are still some blooms, so I bolstered my courage with YouTube videos on the subject and had at it with hedging shears. 

And it hardly hurt at all! Nice to be able to use the walk again too. I did leave a few fresh stems for the bees at the back; one actually landed on the desk bouquet (pictured above) while I was collecting, to reach that one last floret. Since every stem cut will send out a last two more, we'll be enjoying our lavender again soon. This task was worth it just for the aromatherapy, and now that I'm so relaxed, I need to lie down in a...

...hammock! I got this as a Father's Day gift for John, thinking he would really like it. This little redwood grove is literally the only natural shade we have near the house. We discovered its charms when the weather warmed and we started looking for cool spots rather than warm ones. After a bit of cleanup, it was obvious that a hammock belonged here. 

I'll write more about this lovely area in another post, but for now can I just say, sorry John, happy late Mother's Day to me? I LOVE this thing. It is so simple, and has become my new happy place. (And there is, actually, room for two!) It's a great vantage point for quietly observing our little chunk of native California woodland, and thinking about what to do next.

Now, because the little projects have set the stage, the bigger ones can finish. This silly thing pleases me no end. I have always wanted a greenhouse. With our breezy, coastal location, it will be nice to have a warm, protected spot for plants and tools. We didn't want anything fancy, so this really fit the bill! Inexpensive, easy to assemble, a nice size (6' x 12'), well ventilated and, most importantly, something I can build around. Now I know where the rest of the railroad ties should go, which tells me the position of the chicken coop, chicken run, everything.

I think it fits right in. And yes, we'll be securing it in numerous ways so that it doesn't blow away next winter. I like that it continues the unexpected "transparency" theme that started with the deer fencing. I had been worried that I'd lose my view of the orange chair and the corona machine, but there they are. 

Next-day observations from inside the greenhouse.

It is a moody, gray day today, and I am pondering our world. So much change happening; I hope that most of it is, ultimately, for the good. But for now, all I can do to feel useful is work. At my job, to help others. In the garden, to create a sanctuary for myself and my family. It's what I've always done, but it feels much more important now. 

Today I'm also worried about the garden; beans, cucumbers and squash not thriving. Is it the new soil? The well water? Temperature fluctuations? Wind? Who can't grow green beans? Sigh. Oh well. This is meant to be the year we figure out what works. Onward.

I'll leave you with an early sunset to round things out. I'll share more about the vegetable garden in another post. Thanks for visiting...

Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 2020 - Taking Refuge

I woke up this morning thinking about refuge. Witnessing the suffering in our country from the relative safety of our mountaintop is quite the privilege. Every instinct we have has been telling us to become as food and energy independent as possible, and to create a place that offers comfort and diversion in uncertain times. 

This is now our whole life in one picture; the modest rented home from which we work, and the bit of land we are trying to fill with as much life as possible. It's a story of our times that feels right to tell. 

So thank you for reading, and here's what we've been up to in May...

May is one of my favorite months, the perfection of spring, the welcoming of the sun while everything is still green and before the hot, dry summer begins. It certainly is my favorite garden building time. It feels good to be back in the saddle, working in such a peaceful setting on a garden that will feed our family.

We don't have a lot of flowers around the place now; but what we do have we have a lot of! This huge clump of Salvia leucantha is tucked in a deep corner between the driveway and the front walk. It just needs to be cleaned up a bit in late winter and it blooms year-round. Same with the massive banks of lavender and lantana in the back - they must all have been here for years. I tucked praying mantis egg cases in several likely places earlier this spring - hopefully my favorite insect will be making an appearance later in the season!

So here is where May began - still in that frustrating "it looks great in my head" place where everything is just a mess. First priority was to get the poor strawberry starts planted (they've been waiting more than a week for us to get the bed gopher-proofed). Half the bed is "Quinalt" ever-bearing and half is "Evie-2" day-neutral. Next tasks: set up the second raised bed and fill the grow bags for the warm season vegetables. We'll have no shortage of sun, that's for sure. 

Speaking of sun, here's a sunset! It's interesting to watch its daily progress north; there's a different view every evening.

A week later and things are looking much better! I scored these beautiful chunky bamboo poles from a kind neighbor, and have been pondering what to do with them in the garden. The shortest one was used to span the gate, which was an immediate improvement! A second one will be suspended from the two tomato cages in the back, and will hold the cucumber netting. And the last four really wanted to be a bean teepee, so I said fine. 

I like adding height in the middle of a garden; it keeps things interesting and makes good use of your space. The metal raised bed gives the poles nice corners to lock into, and the whole arrangement is pretty darn sturdy.

I was going to have all my shelling beans grow up some sort of trellis along the south-facing side of the garden, but changed my mind for a couple of reasons. First, only one of the beans was actually a climber (oops!) Second, I now have a bean teepee! So I'll grow the one climber (Hidatsa Red Indian) on it, along with some heirloom Cannelini beans. The bush beans are neatly lined up behind, as they should be.

Flower break! This is the first bloom on my new Thunbergia "Rose Sensation" from Annie's Annuals. It is one of the most cheerful plants ever. I'm tucking vigorous vines in two opposite corners of the garden, hoping to enclose it a bit and provide shelter from wind. I have also popped a couple of moonflower seeds into the pot, I would love to get them growing on the fence as well. You can see little Rose peeping out in the lower left corner of the next photo.

I asked my generous neighbor if he had any more bamboo laying around, looking for something to do, and he did! I had been toying with the idea of reinforcing the top of the fence with bamboo, and the new pieces were perfect for that. Have I mentioned that zip-ties are the best invention ever? 

It's details like this that make the garden feel settled, complete and personal, no matter what you are working with. My design/build mantra is: finish your edges, hide your wires, mind your transitions and be generous with your materials. 

Remember when I said I'd figure something out for the gates in the deer fencing? Here's one solution. Another kind neighbor gave me some smaller bamboo poles, with top-knots still attached. I slit the deer fence right up the middle of the gate opening, and then wove a pole in and out along each edge and secured with zip ties.

At the top I trimmed the leaves to just above the edge of the fencing. Makes it look rather jaunty!

At the bottom I pounded a chunky piece of PVC into the ground. The bamboo ends drop in, bringing the fencing snug to the ground, and then I just secure the two poles together with a strong clamp to close up the garden at night. I like how the two sides gracefully fall open when I unclip them in the morning; I can also fold them back completely out of the way. 

Someday I'll have a nice gate here, but for now, this works fine. We really don't have deer nosing around this area of the property; it's off their normal browsing path, and there is SO MUCH else for them to eat that we haven't seem them expend extra effort for food. We close it up at night anyway (we've recently spotted chipmunks, rabbits and a sunflower-seed loving skunk, all of whom could cause mischief in a garden.) Time will tell what visitors we'll have, and how resourceful they will be - we really have no idea!

I've been flirting with this chair for ages, and decided I now have somewhere to put it. My daughter and I were talking recently about our mutual love of chairs. I think it's because I need to sit to really think and focus. When I'm planning a garden, I can sit motionless for an hour, just looking and thinking and planning and imagining. And once the garden is done, I like to sit and look at it! EVERY garden must have a chair or two, otherwise it's just a place to stand around in.

And who has time to stand around anyway, because the chicken coop has arrived! Bang on time as promised from Urban Northern Coops in Washington. It was beautifully made, reasonably priced and easy to put together. This is just part of our chicken housing arrangement though; with wild animals about we want to make sure the girls are safe, so we're designing a solid setting for it. 

Flower break! Hector is due to mow the meadow today (it has to be done for fire safety, and to prevent us from misplacing Milo). Viewed up close it's a very sweet collection of sturdy small field flowers (the yellow dandelion is about the size of a dime, for reference). It's been interesting to watch the succession of blooms.

But who has time for blooms when there is planting to be done? I will spare you the complete inventory; you'll no doubt meet the rest of the cast at some point. I will share a couple of highlights though; these exquisite pale-green zucchini come from Lebanon, and are very sweet and tender. 

Shelling beans are so cool looking! This mix includes several varieties, including these called Jacob's Cattle. I'm doing individual pots of each variety (don't YOU sort all your seed mixes?) These are beans that you leave on the plant all season until the pods turn leathery. Then you shell all of the beans at once, dry them a bit and then store them for the winter!

Another benefit to grow bags? They are a nice height for working at from a chair. Remember what I said about sitting? When I was a younger woman I thought nothing of plopping right on the ground (and I scratched my head at the "garden kneelers" I'd see in the gardening catalogs). Now I understand. My trusty camp chair has been great for this; I can prep soil, plant, thin, harvest and inspect for pests. And it will hold my beverage.

Carrots, beets and spinach are coming right along! We've been harvesting spinach leaves and beet greens for salads already. I don't harvest the whole spinach plant, by just removing the outer leaves you can keep it going a lot longer. This variety is called Bloomsdale and is so tender and tasty.

By Memorial Day weekend the sun has come out and night temperatures have topped 50 degrees, so you know what that means? We can plant all the tomato, pepper and cannabis seedlings and get our windowsills back!  

John's in his happy place in the back 420!

More fun with bamboo - now that the tomatoes are planted I can finish building the cucumber trellis. Kind of hard to see, isn't it? This is black vegetable netting suspended from the large bamboo pole, and anchored at the bottom with another piece of the slender bamboo. All firmly zip-tied to the tomato cages - this makes everything more stable. We have one grow-bag of pickling cucumbers (smaller and bumpy) and one of slicing cucumbers (smoother skin). 

As May draws to a close, my heart aches for the world. The solace of familiar garden rhythms has been comforting. Everything is in the ground and something new is sprouting every day. I even found the perfect spot for my small strand of prayer flags; you'd be surprised how much their gentle fluttering adds to the peaceful feel of the place. With bees settling in and the garden planted, our next project is to get our greenhouse and chicken area figured out. 

So now we're up to date, except for one more sunset! This is our view on a hot evening, with the high pressure holding all the fog down, and a knife-sharp horizon line.