Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mailbox chicken

Meet the chicken that keeps watch over the community mailbox where our mail is delivered. I like living in a neighbourhood with a sense of humour.

Speaking of a sense of humour, we're having to work to keep ours every night about 8:30 as we try to convince ten chickens it's time to go to bed. We're getting marginally better at it, but it still takes both of us, each wielding a piece of board as a traffic control device, to get those independent-minded chickies into the coop. They probably think that now they're almost eight weeks old, they merit a later bedtime.

We have tried shaking some grit (which is like candy to chickens) in a pan inside the coop to coax them in, but that only worked once, sort of. Does anyone have any other suggestions for us?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ginger cookies

If you come to Mucky Boots Farm for tea, the chances are pretty good you'll be served gingersnaps. At least that's what the recipe calls them. They're actually not snappy at all, but chewy and moist, which is how I like them. The recipe comes from here, and, by popular demand, here it is.


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (you can also substitute your favourite gluten-free blend)
2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground cloves
1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground nutmeg
3/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/3 cup granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

2. Sift the flour, baking soda and spices together and set aside.

3. Put the oil, molasses, brown sugar and egg in the large bowl of an electric mixer and beat on medium speed until smoothly blended together, about 30 seconds. On low speed add the flour mixture and mix until incorporated.

4. Put the granulated sugar in a small bowl. Roll the dough by level tablespoons between the palms of your hands into balls. Roll each ball in the sugar to coat. Place the cookie balls 2 inches apart on the prepared sheets.

5. Bake for 8 minutes, reversing the baking sheets after 4 minutes, front to back and top to bottom. The cookies will be evenly brown and have large cracks across the top, and will flatten towards the end of their baking time. Cool them on the baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer them to wire racks to cool.

Equally good with ice tea in the shade, or with hot tea by the fire.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Workshop progress

We've been working steadily on our outbuildings this summer: chicken coop and run, tool shed and workshop. And although we've known pretty much what needed doing, and have been working reasonably steadily, nothing has been linear.

We started by painting the workshop and the chicken coop. Then we began installing shakes on the gable ends of the workshop, but we didn't get far before Kim decided we needed to install the trim first. But before we could install the trim, we had to paint it. Then the chickens were ready to move from the house to the coop, so renovations to the chicken run took precedence. Then we had visitors. Yesterday we got back to the workshop, did some touch-up painting and discovered about 57 wasps' nests in the eaves. So while I and my wasp allergy waited at a safe distance, Kim did battle with the wasps and emerged victorious and unstung. Then we discovered we needed some extra trim for around the windows and had to make a trip to Home Depot. Then it just got too darn hot to work anymore.

See what I mean about non-linear? It can be hard to feel like we're making any progress. So in an attempt to boost my morale, here is a record of what we've accomplished so far with the workshop.

This is what it looked like the day we viewed the property for the first time. It's a 24 by 24 foot building, solidly constructed but never finished - it needed siding, trim, soffits, fascia and gutters.

Our first step was to install the tar paper and siding, which we did last November, finishing it just as the winter rains started. At the time, it felt like the hardest job we'd done - come to think of it, it still is.

This summer we painted...

...and then tackled the problem of creating some sort of scaffolding to enable Kim to get up to gable height to install the cedar shakes. At our local tarp 'n tool shop, Kim found these braces that fit over the rungs of an extension ladder. We used two braces, two ladders, and three full-size 2x6 pieces of lumber and voila - a very sturdy scaffold! Kim even screwed some 2x4 pieces to the underside of the planks to make them even more solid. I was extremely skeptical about tackling this job because of my concern about Kim working at such a height (notice there was never any question about me working up high!) but even I am satisfied by how sturdy this set-up is.

(We're doing the gable end on the back of the shed first, so we can make all our beginner mistakes where nobody can see them.)

Once the scaffold was up we finished tar papering the peak and installed the lathes the shakes will get nailed to. (I feel like I need to explain, somewhat defensively, my use of the word we. Even though it's Kim who works up high, it's me who cuts things to Kim's specifications, fetches and carries, helps problem-solve, and most importantly, picks up every item that gets dropped. So there.) At that point Kim decided the vertical trim at each corner of the building should really be installed before the shakes, to make sure they meet nicely, so we took a big detour from installing the shakes and focused on the trim instead. We painted (and painted and painted) and finally, today, we got to start installing the trim.

It's a bit complicated, because the windows and existing trim appear to have been installed with the plan of just painting the original plywood, and not doing anything else. So when we installed the siding, we changed the picture enough we had to add an extra layer of cedar trim inside the painted trim, to make sure there were no exposed edges. We were worried about the cost of buying 120 feet of millwork, but we stumbled on the solution of buying really inexpensive 1x2 cedar and ripping it on the table saw to make roughly square trim that matches the existing trim quite nicely.

This morning we got two windows and a door done before we had to go into town for an appointment - enough to make me feel like we're making progress. I guess it's like most jobs: the prep work takes forever, but once it's done things move along quite quickly.

What do you think...a red door?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's a party...

...a disco dance party! The fishing line and holographic tape are up, criss-crossing the chicken yard, fluttering in the lightest of breezes and looking like a party.

If they actually work to keep the chickies safe from eagles, it will be a nice solution to protecting a yard studded with trees and with fences only 6 feet high. The previous owner tried to piece together lengths of bird netting from fence to fence, around the trees, but it sagged in the middle, which meant we had to crouch to move around in the yard, and when the leaves fell on top of the netting in the autumn it was a big mess to clean up. And then the whole thing just collapsed in the snow.

We started with lines strung Maypole style from the biggest central tree out to the perimeter. Then we criss-crossed lines, making sure there are no gaps as big as an eagle's wingspan, tying on the holographic tape as we went. It's tall enough for us to move freely underneath, and leaves and snow will be able to fall through to the ground. We have our fingers crossed and our eyes peeled.

The chickies are taking it all in stride. When they're not pecking and scratching and eating and pooping, they're waiting for Kim at the Chicken TV viewing chair.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anti-ouch ointment finished!

A few weeks ago I began infusing oil with some of the plants growing here at Mucky Boots, as the first step in making a skin-healing salve. Today I decided the brew had been steeping for long enough and made the ointment. Here's what I did.

As you might remember, I began with about 2 cups of sweet almond oil (you can also use cold-pressed olive oil) and 1 ounce each of calendula petals, lavender flowers and comfrey leaves, all smushed together in a jar and set outside to gently warm in the sun. That lasted a day before Frankie decided it smelled promising and knocked it to the deck of the verandah. Kim was there in a flash, but not before half the oil had leaked out, leaving a messy (but quite nice smelling) oil stain on the wood planks. Rats. So I topped up the oil, capped the jar firmly, and set it on my seedling table behind the fence in the orchard, out of Frankie's reach.

Today, almost three weeks later, I strained out the vegetable matter, squeezing out as much of the oil as I could. Then I melted 4 ounces of beeswax in a double boiler on the stove (I used a bar of natural beeswax, rather than the white wax beads you can buy) and gently warmed the infused oil in another pan. When the beeswax was melted and the oil was about the same temperature, I gently poured the wax into the oil, whisking as I went, and then added an ounce of vegetable glycerin (to make the salve a bit creamier) and a few drops of lavender and rose geranium essential oil. Then I poured the mixture into the assortment of containers I had assembled and left them to cool and solidify. Easy as pie!

The resulting salve is rich and creamy, and feels very nice on my skin. I can't speak yet for its healing properties, but I've smoothed it into a couple of insect bites and a healing blister, and will see how it does.

I enjoyed doing this - it was easy to do, and I liked that it was such a gentle process: no mashing and bashing the plants, just a warm oil bath to coax them into releasing their scents and healing compounds. I like the end product: it's a gorgeous colour (like a cafe latte) and very silky in feel. I like the thought of making something good for me, instead of what I usually make (brownies, which aren't so good for me). And it has made me curious about the other non-food plants growing here, and what I might do with them. Most of the other herbs are already flowering, which means I have missed the optimal time for harvesting, but it's nice to think about what I might do next year.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Just another day

It was just another day at Mucky Boots. The sun rose. The plants grew. The birds sang. Frankie barked. We drove into Victoria so I could see the physio for my sore back (now definitely on the mend) and so we could buy a few things, including a new B-A-L-L for Frankie and a new Lee Valley garden apron for me.

Oh, yeah, and a few rolls of holographic tape because this morning AN EAGLE LANDED RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CHICKEN YARD WHILE THE CHICKIES WERE OUT PLAYING!

Photo from here.

We knew this was a risk, since there are resident eagles nearby. But the yard is largely tree covered, and the holographic tape (which we are going to string on line in a kind of criss-cross Maypole roof above the chicken yard) was on our shopping list for today. But it seems we were just a bit too late.

Fortunately Kim was just on the other side of the fence filling the waterers. She didn't see the eagle land, but turned immediately when she heard an eruption of chickie-squawking, to see seven of the chicks running full-tilt into the coop, while the other three were trapped in a corner of the yard with a full grown eagle between them and the coop. Kim yelled and clapped and tried to get the gate to the yard open as fast as she could, and apparently caused enough of a fuss the eagle thought better of the whole thing and flew away.


So the chickies spent the day in the coop while we were in town, and will stay there until we get the lines up tomorrow.

They're probably wondering exactly what they graduated into...

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Thanks to mostly Kim's hard work (I have been taking it easy with a bit of a sore back) the chicken yard is now safe and secure, and the chickies have graduated to the big time: the chicken-sized door to their personal playground has been opened and the world awaits them!

All that is left to do is string some lines decorated with holographic tape over the yard to keep the eagles from swooping in and carrying one off.

Kim is having such fun with these birds. When she pulls up a chair for a session of Chicken TV, one of the roosters (we think) flaps up to her lap to be petted . We had no idea chickens had such personality!

We're having a lot of trouble telling them all apart - even the roosters from the hens, as you can tell from the ever-changing hen/rooster count. If we can't tell them apart, how can we give the hens names? How can we decide which rooster to keep? Natalie at the Chicken Blog doesn't have that problem - her chickens are exotic super models compared to our all-the-same-plain-Janes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Chicken renos part 2



What you can't see, behind the new paint job, is that we have also done more work on the inside of the coop: we moved the interior wall to make more room for the chickies, and cut the remaining space in two with another wall. So now we have two separate enclosures for chickens (which will come in handy when the roosters start picking on the hens) with some remaining space for storage.

We're also doing more work on the fencing, replacing some rotten bottom boards, shoring up three wobbly fence posts, and patching a few holes in the chicken wire. We've also had to sink a new post to mount a secondary gate. That means we not only have two separate interior areas for chickens, each half-flock can also have its own yard, if necessary.

Boy, this has been a lot of work, and we're not quite done yet. The current rooster/hen count is 5/5, so those five roast chicken dinners and all those lovely eggs come spring are going to feel well earned.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Poppy epilogue

This will be the last post on poppies this year, because after three months of glorious blooms they are finally finished for the season.


This lavender one was the last, and what a lovely way to finish.

And even when the petals have all fallen, these poppies manage to look splendid.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cultivating imperfection

I have an embarrassing story to tell: the first time my parents came to visit us here at Mucky Boots I spent an hour raking all the pine cones off the drive.


I really, really wanted things to be perfect for their first visit. But that's not just a bit overboard - that's diving over headfirst with all my clothes on.

It's not just visits from my mom and dad - I have this problem all the time. If I haven't dead headed the rhododendrons, or the peas are cascading all over the ground instead of climbing obediently up the trellis, or it's hard to see the perennials for all the weeds I feel awful, as if every deviation from a Home and Garden magazine photo spread is a sign that I'm not in control of my life. A sign that our decision to leave jobs and the city behind and try a different way of living was a big mistake.

I've struggled with perfectionism for a long time. I feel as though there's something wrong if I don't have all the strings of my life not only firmly in hand, but woven into a lovely design of historical and cultural significance. I used to think that changing the circumstances of my life would fix the problem. But I've learned that I am truly excellent at transferring my perfectionist tendencies to any and all new pursuits. It's not the circumstances of my life that create the problem: it's me!

Just to have it on record, I am not perfect. My home is not perfect. My garden is not perfect. Neither my life nor my relationship are perfect. All those things are usually pretty great, and sometimes even wonderful, but not perfect. Why, oh why, do I have such a hard time with that?

Perfection, I am learning, is an impossible goal in the garden. There are just way too many things to get in the way, over which I have little or no control. I can't decree the weather, or the size of this year's mouse population. No matter how hard I try I can't always achieve a 100% germination rate. And I have learned that weeds always, always grow back, especially when my back is turned. In the face of all this, my perfectionist streak is taking something of a toll. So once again (for about the fifteenth time in my life) I am suiting up for a good wrestling match, to try to squash it back into submission. Here are the things I'm hoping will help:
  • Think of imperfection as a kindness to others. Perfection makes people uncomfortable. When our neighbours hosted a garden tour a couple of weeks ago, one visitor exclaimed in relief over seeing some weeds in their flower beds, saying it was the first garden she had visited that gave her permission to have weeds in her own garden. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's making people feel comfortable. So I'm going to think of those columbines waiting to be dead headed as a small contribution to a happier world.
  • Focus on my own pleasure in the garden, rather than always seeing it through critical eyes. I'm going to spend more time just being in the garden without picking up a trowel or a pair of clippers. We have a number of comfortable garden chairs and loungers and we never sit in them - I'm going to change that.
  • Think of the garden as a classroom of students. When I was a teacher I was really good at letting my students be individuals and giving them confidence that I didn't expect them to be perfect all the time. I never wanted a classroom of cookie-cutter students in orderly rows. I loved having classes of interesting individuals with funny hair and strange adolescent senses of humour. I tried to teach them not to be afraid of mistakes, but to view them as the most interesting parts of the learning journey. I'm going to try to look at the plants in the garden with the same appreciation of an interesting process, rather than trying to achieve a perfect end result. My students were glorious and fascinating in their messy imperfections - the plants in my garden are, too.
  • Cultivate imperfection. I've read enough self-help books to know that new behaviours and ways of thinking usually feel unnatural at first, and need to be practiced. So that's what I'm going to do. I have designated the back field behind the greenhouse my field of imperfection, and have decreed that it will not be mowed. It is a mess of dandelions and scrubby plants, and every time I look at it my hands just itch to get out the lawnmower, but I will resist. Instead I will stand in my field of imperfection and appreciate its many colours and textures.
Even as I write this I am aware of a trap: I am going to be so good at this imperfection business, I'm going to be perfect in my imperfection! Whoa, Nelly. I should remember what I wrote about being especially talented at manifesting my perfectionism in every new aspect of my life. So here's my last advice to myself:
  • Relax and enjoy the beautiful gift of this Mucky-Boots-time of my life.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The great rooster lottery

From the day we brought our ten chicks home we have been asking the eternal question: how many hens and how many roosters?

Some chicken breeds produce chicks whose sex can easily be determined. Our neighbour bought some Red Rock Cross chicks (a cross between Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock) and it was easy to pick only pullets because the male chicks have a white spot on their heads. With the breed of our chicks, Buff Orpington, there is no way to tell other than waiting 4 or 5 weeks for the physical and behavioural differences between the genders to start appearing.

That hasn't stopped Kim. It's easy to tell she used to be a Science teacher because every day she has performed an in-depth comparative analysis of the chicks. At first she distinguished the larger chicks from the smaller chicks. But could she conclude the larger ones were male? Not necessarily. Then she distinguished the birds that were developing their feathers more quickly from those that matured more slowly. Then the more curious chicks from the more timid, and the more aggressive feeders from the ones that allowed themselves to be pushed out of the way. The problem was, we didn't know what any of these meant or whether they were even linked to the chicks' gender. So every day the verdict changed, ranging from 9 roosters and 1 hen to 9 hens and 1 rooster, with everything in between.

It looks like all we needed to make a more accurate assessment was a bit of patience. The chicks are now more than 4 weeks old, and regardless of their maturity (which we are judging by the completeness of their feathering) differences are becoming apparent in their tail feathers and their combs. It looks like the cockerels (the roosters to be) are developing bigger and redder combs, and have tail feathers that at this point look like a fluffy bunny tail, while the pullets' tail feathers are straighter.

We think this is a hen. What big feet.

We think these are roosters.

Today's count: 6 roosters and 4 hens. And I am absolutely sure of one thing: that the count tomorrow will be different than the one today.

I have learned through this process how hard it is to take a picture of a chicken. They will just not stay still long enough to zoom, focus and shoot. And if they're not running away from the camera they're making for my toes, which apparently are tasty (or maybe look like worms...)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

It's hot - really hot

Was it last week I was complaining about the fact that summer had yet to appear, after a spring that was unbelievably cool and wet? Someone must have been listening, because the sun came out this week and now we're sweltering. It's 35 degrees in the shade on the verandah today.

Such hot weather has forced some changes in work routines around here. We have been painting our outbuildings this week (workshop, chicken coop and tool shed), something that is not generally advised in such sunny, hot weather because the paint dries too quickly. So we've been up-and-at-'em much earlier than usual, trying to get a coat of paint on while the air is still cool. Then I move to garden tasks dictated not by what's most urgent, but by which tasks can be done in the shade. One nice thing is that the spring flush of weed growth has slowed right down, and for the first time since March I feel almost on top the maintenance of the perennial beds - almost.

I pulled up our garlic today, and it was a moment to celebrate: our first Mucky Boots crop grown from Mucky Boots seed - or, in this case, bulb. I'm not sure how much seed saving I'm going to do in the next year or two - I feel like my hands are quite full already. But it's awfully nice to think that this garlic is ours, from top to bottom.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vegetable update (and some poppies)

You have kindly given me free rein to post as many blog entries about poppies as I want. To celebrate, here's another one. This gorgeous variety has looked just like this for a few days - I initially thought it was just on the verge of opening, but if that's the case, it's either stuck or has had second thoughts.

Some of the poppies I have shown you (like this one) are practically as big as dinner plates.

But Mother Nature is never dull or boring, because here's the poppy I discovered today in the middle of the herb bed.

And just in case the chamomile and lemon balm leaves don't give you enough of an idea of scale, here's a close-up.

Is that not the cutest thing?

I spotted that poppy while I was in the vegetable garden harvesting a few things for supper. Carrots, for one. At the risk of sounding insufferable (or jinxing next-year's carrots), my carrots are a masterpiece. Long, straight, blemish-free, tasty as anything. This has been a good year for carrots.

And a good year for lettuce, too. Day after day of cool and rainy weather may depress me, but the lettuce couldn't be happier.

This time last year I was having trouble keeping the lettuce from bolting, but this year it's still crisp and juicy and fresh.

Unfortunately it's not me who is finding my cabbages crisp and juicy and fresh. I haven't had a chance to, yet, because something else is getting there before me.

The heads are just starting to be formed, as you can see, but if you looked closer you'd see pretty gross larval kinds of blobs tucked in among the leaves. Now that I've noticed I've started flushing them out every day with water, but I'm not entirely confident I'm getting them all. There could well be little surprises waiting for us when we eat these cabbages...

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I haven't exactly been enamoured of our gooseberry bushes. We have six or seven of them and last year I was completely confused about when to pick them - they tasted awful when they were green and they tasted just as awful when they were red. Plus, as I wrote here, weeding around them was an occupational hazard. I wasn't sure these bushes had a future at Mucky Boots.

Well, I never did get around to taking them out, and last week I noticed the beautiful (if awful tasting) green berries hiding beneath the leaves and decided to give them one more chance. I went looking on the Internet and found Tigress in a Jam, who had a recipe just for me: Golden Jelly. It called for a couple of pounds of green gooseberries (which I learned are full of pectin) and some lavender sprigs, which are in plentiful supply around here these days. Perfect.

Except that when I went out yesterday to pick the berries, I found the birds had been there before me, and the most I could scrounge was about 3/4 of a pound. The end result didn't even fill a jar (which is why you can see the foam on top - normally this would be skimmed off while it cooked, but I didn't want to lose a single drop). But oh, it is lovely! Soft and fragrant and not too sweet. I am now a convert. I may even plant more gooseberry bushes, just for this jelly.

On the way back to the house after taking the jelly photo I saw this: William and Petunia. Bookends.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Anti-ouch ointment

I've been cruising around the Internet looking for things to do with some of the herbs and flowers growing here at Mucky Boots - in particular, ideas for using calendula, which I grew from seed this year and which has just started to flower.

Calendula is good for helping skin irritations, abrasions and burns heal, so some kind of salve or ointment seemed a good bet. Comfrey is good for the same thing, and it's growing everywhere here. The recipe I eventually found used both, plus lavender.

The first step is to put an ounce each of calendula blossoms, lavender flowers and comfrey leaves in a jar and cover them with about two cups of sweet almond oil. That's what I did today. It's going to sit in the sun for about two weeks to infuse, after which I will strain out the vegetable matter. The infused oil will be gently heated with some beeswax and the result, when cool, should be a nice salve to use on all of the bites, scrapes and burns I seem to accumulate.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The big move and the pleasures of chicken TV

Yesterday we moved the chickies to their grown-up home: the chicken coop. This was not as simple as it sounds, because the coop needed significant work before it could be deemed habitable for our chicken family.

We began with a major cleaning. The previous owner had removed all the used bedding before she left, but the coop hadn't been scrubbed in a long, long time. So wearing masks and rubber gloves and long sleeves and pants, we spent the day with the power washer and scrub brushes, cleaning out all the petrified chicken poop stuck to the walls and floor.

The worst (if you have a sensitive constitution you may want to skip to the next paragraph) was cleaning behind the nest boxes: there was a gap between the boxes and the wall where the chickens would sit and shit, so there were about six inches worth of poop needing removal. Yuck. Kim being Kim, she fixed the problem by attaching an extra board (a nicely rustic one) to cover the gap. It looks so good you can hardly tell it's a recent addition.

The coop took about three days to dry out, at which point it was time to whitewash. Whitewash is the traditional way to paint the inside of animal enclosures: it's cheap, easy to make and apply, and when it dries it fills all the little holes insects live in. There are many recipes for traditional whitewash, some with 12 steps and many ingredients, and some with one step and two ingredients: hydrated lime (not the lime you would use in the garden) and water. We opted for the simple approach. It took us a bit of trial and error to get the proportions right - it ended up being thicker than water, but not as thick as paint, which made it very messy when we slapped and slopped it all over the inside of the coop. Goggles, hats and gloves were important, because it can be irritating to the skin. It didn't look so white when we applied it, but when we came back the next day it was practically blinding.

Yesterday Kim spent the day covering assorted knotholes with hardware cloth to keep out rodents that might be attracted by the chickies' food, fixing a few loose boards, replacing the rusted out hinges and latches on the people door and the chicken door, installing a full-size waterer and feeder, and stringing a 100 foot extension cord from the workshop to provide the power for heat lamps. About supper time we moved the chickies from the chicken tractor where they'd been hanging out for the day, into the coop. The photo at the top of the blog makes it look like they're huddled under the heat lamp for survival, but in reality they were just a little freaked out by us treading in their territory, trying to adjust the height of the waterer. When we checked on them at bedtime they were busy eating and pecking and scratching and pooping, just like little chickies should.

Now, this business of chicken TV. Not chickens on TV, but chickens being TV. When you pop by to see how the chickens are doing and then realize it's two hours later and you've done nothing but watch the little birds as they go about the business of being chickens, well, that's chicken TV. I didn't fully appreciate the phenomenon until two days ago when Kim spent most of the day in a Muskoka chair parked beside the chicken tractor...just watching.
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