Monday, January 31, 2011

Nest boxes

Spring is getting closer by the day, and that means babies of all kinds will not be far behind. Kim is quite keen to start raising chicks this year, which means collecting fertile eggs and incubating them. More on her incubator plans in a future post. But unless we're looking for some interesting cross-breeds, this means the Australorps and the Orpingtons need to be segregated for about a month before fertile egg collecting begins.

To that end, Kim has turned over two linked enclosures to the Australorps. But because they won't have free access to the coop during the day, she had to build a new set of boxes just for Gertie and Alice.

She started with the extra set of boxes we pulled from the coop when we got it ready last summer, replaced the panel at the front with a taller one to keep the wood shavings from spilling out, and added a rail for roosting and a metal roof with a generous overhang all around to keep off the rain. We raised it to a good height on cement blocks and then turned it over to the hens.

Kim wasn't sure how they would take to their new box, so she planted a fake egg in one of the boxes to give them the right idea. [The egg came with the antique egg scale I got her for Christmas, shown here with a real egg.]

We sadly underestimated Gertie and Alice's competence in all things egg-related: not only did they each lay a beautiful egg the very first day, they kicked the impostor out onto the ground. How did they know? Can you tell the difference?

Okay, so maybe it wasn't that difficult to tell. But still, we were impressed. And so were Pee Wee and the Orpingtons, who kept tabs on all the goings on from the other side of the fence.

All three Australorps are making good use of the boxes in other ways, too. On Saturday it rained all day, a soaking, persistent rain that made everyone miserable. The Orpingtons could let themselves into the coop to stay dry, but not Hector and the Hens. We needn't have worried: they snuggled under the overhang and stayed comfortably dry. One hen even bunked down underneath the whole structure, in between the two stacks of cement blocks.

What smart chickies.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Breakfasts are a problem for me. No...let me put that a different way: breakfasts are a minefield for me. Between needing to avoid gluten, dairy, eggs, nut butters and sugar, and just wanting something warm and comforting, I end up with depressingly few choices. Just think about it: what do you eat for breakfast that avoids all those things?

The obvious choice is oatmeal, maybe served with some fresh or stewed fruit. But I don't even want fruit in the morning, on a regular basis - I seem to do better if I can avoid any kind of sugar at the start of the day. For a few weeks I was stuck on toasted gluten-free bagels, topped with home-made veggie pate, but I was getting more bored - and even more congested - the longer that rut went on. My reliable, good-for-me standby is rice and steamed veggies, but after a few mornings even that lovely feeling of being virtuous starts to fade.

And then, through some kind of serendipity (or maybe it's just a food fad) I started seeing recipes for waffles everywhere. Gluten-free waffles. Waffles that can be made with egg-replacer instead of eggs, and soy milk instead of cow milk. Waffles that have virtually no sugar in them. Waffles that have vegetables in them. Waffles that are hot and comforting and easy to freeze and reheat.

So yesterday I bit the bullet and bought an inexpensive waffle iron. I thought about this hard for a week or so, because I have been carefully avoiding acquiring more kitchen appliances for the last couple of years . But I decided that the benefits outweighed the downside: a nutritious breakfast option, the convenience of being able to make a big batch and freeze them for instant re-toasting, and the fact that given the outrageous cost of gluten-free bagels, a waffle iron would pay for itself in about a month of breakfasts. Plus, I could make waffles with vegetables in them. (Have I said that already?)

This morning was the inauguration of the new waffle iron, and the recipe I chose came from Quinoa 365: The Everyday Superfood. It uses extra-nutritious quinoa flour as the base, with pumpkin puree and all the right spices: cinnamon, ginger and allspice. The waffles turned out tender and tasty, even without any maple syrup, and even though I made a big batch I'm not sure there will be any left by the end of the day to freeze.

I'm thinking that a different recipe, with more neutral or even savoury flavours, would give me a nice alternative to gluten-free bread. Because even though I've tried about every gluten-free bread on the market, I have yet to find one that has a decent texture and doesn't cost six or seven dollars a loaf. (Actually I did find one I liked enough to pay that much for, but then the company stopped making it.) I have tried baking my own, and found one or two recipes that are okay, but they are very starchy, and the texture is still not great.

So I'm trying not to think that waffles are going to save my life, but can I be forgiven if I'm just a little bit excited about having a cheap, nutritious, bread-like option for breakfast?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I've decided I love our broom. For some reason, when the kitchen floor is littered with crumbs and flotsam and all those pine needles the animals track in I have never thought - until recently - of reaching for the broom. I've always hauled out the vacuum cleaner instead.

I love our vacuum cleaner, too. It's a great vacuum, and at the risk of sounding ridiculous, I can tell you that during our first dark days here when we were wondering if we'd made a terrible mistake, the one beacon of goodness and rightness was our new vacuum, that sucked up stuff like nobody's business.

But our broom is light and quick and agile...and quiet. It skims smoothly over the floor, restoring order and tidiness without fanfare, power cords or fuss. It lets me feel good about reducing floor pollution, noise pollution and my carbon footprint, all at the same time. It almost makes me feel like dancing...with my broom.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking stock

I have been wrestling with a tricky question: what, exactly, is the point of my vegetable garden?

There is an obvious answer: to grow vegetables. But it feels more complicated than that to me. Should I...
  • grow vegetables that are expensive to buy or difficult to find in stores? (such as heirloom tomatoes or purple potatoes)
  • grow vegetables that are good for me to eat? (such as kale)
  • grow vegetables that I like to eat? (such as anything except kale)
  • grow vegetables that will keep well? (such as winter squash and dried beans)
  • grow vegetables year round? (such as salad greens in the winter)
  • grow as many vegetables as I can, or just as many as I want?
  • grow vegetables in order to prepare for some kind of disaster, or simply to enrich my life now?
The last question is probably why this all feels so complicated to me. I have written before about the murky overlap between self-sufficiency and survivalism. I am one of those people who worries about disasters, so part of me wants to grow and squirrel away as many dried beans and potatoes as possible. But I also don't want to live in fear - I worry too much already about too many things.

The book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe has been mentioned on a few blogs I read, and the title struck a chord. I bought the book, read it, and believe that it has given me a way to find my footing in that murky overlap. I won't go into all the details, but the most important message for me is that gardens need to survive all kinds of problems from major crises (like earthquakes here on the West Coast, which could make food self-sufficiency important in the short term, and climate change, which will change the conditions under which our gardens grow) to minor crises (like an arthritis flare-up that can put me out of commission for a few weeks, causing my garden to have to fend for itself). The best kind of garden is one that can accommodate a variety of changing conditions - a resilient garden. And the best kind of gardener is one who learns the skills she may need to manage both kinds of crises during less demanding times, like right now.

Take dried beans, for example. I dabbled with them my first year, and harvested about a pound. They took a fair amount of effort to grow and harvest, and a whole lot of work to convert them into a pot of baked beans (boy, do I need a pressure cooker...). The payoff didn't seem worth the investment of time and labour, especially since I can buy relatively inexpensive organic dried beans at the grocery store. So last year I didn't bother with dried beans.

But I thought about it a lot through the growing season. Dried beans are practical, because they have a great nutritional punch, and they don't require freezing or canning for preservation. It didn't feel entirely right, not growing them. After reading The Resilient Gardener, my thinking has resolved itself: it may not be a sound investment of my time and effort in the short-term to grow dried beans, but it's a skill I would like to have if I need to count on it some day. So this year half my bean bed will be devoted to Vermont Cranberry and Kenearly Yellow Eye beans for a dried bean harvest.

The same could be said of seed saving. Spending a few dollars on seeds every spring isn't such a bad thing, compared with the work it takes to save your own, but that's another skill I would like to have in case I ever need it. Carol Deppe gives good instructions for properly fertilizing squash plants, to ensure the seeds you get actually produce the right kind of squash the following year instead of some weird hybrid, so I'm going to give that a try.

Speaking of squash, Carol Deppe is very big on squash as a nutritious source of food that stores well. So I am making squash a big priority when it comes to allocating bed space: the 34-foot-long bed of artichokes is going to be emptied to make room for squash. Lots and lots of squash: Sweet Meat, Burgess buttercup, Spaghetti, Waltham butternut, Honey Bear acorn, Sugarloaf delicata and Sunshine kabocha. We like squash anyway, and could always eat more of it, so I am comfortable focusing on growing squash to provide food for ourselves year round without feeling like I'm obsessing over disaster scenarios.

Speaking of food year round, I haven't had a good track record when it comes to keeping the garden producing through the winter. The best I've been able to manage so far is to make sure I have rutabagas, leeks, beets and carrots in the ground when the cold weather hits. They last well through the winter - until they're eaten, that is. I've given half-hearted attempts at sturdy greens, like chard, mizuna and other Chinese greens, but my interest seems to flag about the time the water freezes in the outdoor hoses, making watering the plants in the greenhouse a real pain. I had the same problem my first year watering under the poly tunnels. Thinking about this, I've decided to try to do a better job with chard but stop bothering (at least for now) with salad greens. I just don't feel like eating salads in the winter; I want warm comfort food instead. Growing chard through the winter in the greenhouse will mean carting water from the house for watering, but once each week should do it. I can manage that.

It feels like I'm walking a bit of a thin line between taking pleasure in being even slightly self-sufficient when it comes to food, and obsessing over it because I'm worried about a catastrophe of one kind or another. I know I worry too much about lots of things, but Carol Deppe is helping me take a bigger, calmer, more practical view. Thanks, Carol.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I heard on the radio today that some mental health professional has determined that January 17 is the most depressing day of the year. It has something to do with the post-Christmas blahs, post-Christmas debt, not enough sunlight and the dawning realization that all those New Year's resolutions are going down the drain yet again.

Wasn't that a cheery news clip?

I don't think I'm in danger of depression, but Kim and I have been feeling a little whomped with weather. Last week's big dump of snow morphed this weekend into mud, mud and more mud, and we were reminded that it was under similar conditions that we named this place Mucky Boots Farm. And we've been plugging along painting railings and installing baseboards, both of which are fiddly and neither of which is giving us much satisfaction.

So I was in need of a little cheering up, some kind of reminder that spring is on its way. Lucky for me the sun came out today, I could see the mud puddles starting to dry, and best of all: green shoots in the garden.

There's no better prescription for January blahs than the first evidence of snowdrops poking through the mulch.

Of course Frankie's version of a green prescription is his green B-A-L-L. No sign of blahs there.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oh, brother

More snow.

This may not seem unusual to those of you in other parts of the world, because in most people's heads Canada = Snow, right? But we live on southern Vancouver Island, otherwise known as Lotus Land. We're supposed to be safe from the normal trials and tribulations of winter - yes, we get a fair amount of rain through the darker months, but that's not so bad.

When we first moved to Victoria from Toronto, it happened to snow in about November. Not much - a couple of inches. So we got out the snow shovel and tackled the long driveway, wondering why our neighbours weren't doing the same, but were looking at us with puzzled curiosity. About 6 hours later we found out why: the snow had all melted.

That has been our usual experience with snow here. We get a couple of snowfalls each winter, nothing to write home about by most people's standards, and it melts quick enough that the common approach to dealing with it is to sit by the fire with a cup of tea until it melts.

Well, someone changed the rules and forgot to tell us. Our first winter here at Mucky Boots saw record snowfalls - impressive amounts even by prairie standards. It was tough, because the guy installing our flooring kept getting stuck, and it made commuting a bit hairy. But we took some consolation in the fact that it was really, really unusual.

[The snow was this high that winter. We shovelled and shovelled and then we made friends with Bruce the Backhoe Guy.]

But here we are, two winters later, and we keep getting snow. Snow and more snow. It's not as bad as the first winter, because it warms up enough between dumps that it eventually melts and we get to start fresh with the next snowfall. But it's still a pain and I can't help feeling a little...cheated.

It snowed again last night, about 18 inches. Deep enough that this morning Frankie had to make bounding antelope leaps to get from Point A to Point B. Deep enough that it won't be melting anytime soon, so I spent a good long while trying to shovel out the driveway. Deep enough that I had to concede defeat and go inside to cancel all my tutoring sessions for the day. Deep enough Kim had to shovel out the normally protected chicken run just to get into the coop to take care of the chickies. Deep enough the chickies are sensibly opting for indoor recess today.

I have learned there is a snowfall hazard unique to living in the middle of a forest: the avalanches of snow that happen when a big tree sheds its snow load. I learned that lesson the hard way this morning. I'm still drying out.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


It snowed again last night. It's freezing outside. The fire's warm.

What's a Quality Control Advisor to do?

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Kim and I never seem to have just one project on the go at a time. Currently we're trying to make the last tile and fixture decisions for our bathroom renovation (tear-out starts in five weeks), we're still installing baseboard and trim in a bunch of different rooms in the house, and we're determined to get the powder room finished before our next house guests arrive in February. Oh, and I'm painting the railing of the staircase up to the top floor.

Forty-eight spindles and five posts. Three coats of paint. Enough said.

Petunia-Tooter-TunaHead-TooterMuffin is my Quality Control Advisor. So far, so good.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Broodiness 101

Our chickens are a happy and healthy bunch. But recently a little problem has emerged among the hens: they are going broody.

Broodiness has nothing to do with channeling one's inner Heathcliff. Instead, it describes a hen (like Orange Left in the photo above - and yes, we really do need a better name for her) when she gets into her head that she should be sitting on eggs in order to hatch them. You know your hen is broody when she stops laying, won't leave the nest box, and makes a sound like a mad cat when you get near. A hen can go broody without actually having any eggs underneath her, and her broodiness can be so unshakable that she won't even leave the nest to eat or drink and ends up wearing herself down. If you want chicks, having a broody hen can be wonderful, but this is definitely not the time of year to give it a try. As a result we have been researching ways of politely convincing a hen that her broodiness is not such a good thing.

Step #1: Take the hen off the nest. For some hens all it takes is forcibly removing them from the nest box and plunking them outside. They will shake their heads, have a really big dump (excuse me for the graphic nature of this post) and then go on their merry hen way. Other hens will refuse to even stand up. I've seen Kim holding a hen in the chicken yard saying "Snap out of it!" while the hen tucks her feet up and refuses to touch the ground. If that happens, we move on to ...

Step #2: Isolation in a nest-free environment. At night time this might mean bunking in with Hector and the Hens (the Australorp bunch), or for really hard cases, going solo in the entryway of the coop that has a roost but no nest box and not even any soft litter on the floor. During the day this means solitary confinement in part of the chicken yard with no access to the coop and its lovely nest boxes.

So far these steps have been sufficient to convince our broody girls they would be better off if they just got back to the business of laying eggs. But just to help them retain their improved attitude, we hung a reminder in the coop.

Pay attention, Orange Left!

(And thank you, Mary Engelbreit.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Pee-wee the protector

You might remember Pee-wee as the rooster that came with the flock of Buff Orpingtons we got from Ev last summer. Despite his enormous size he's quite gentle with the hens. But when it comes to his role as protector of the flock he's all business.

This role keeps him quite busy: with the chickens free to roam between the chicken yard and the orchard, thanks to Chicken Alley, Pee-wee spends a lot of time going back and forth, checking on the hens laying in the coop, supervising the feeding frenzy when Kim comes with some scratch for a treat, monitoring the fence lines, and watching for danger.

I've been thinking of this role as largely symbolic, because ever since we put up the disco dance streamers we haven't had any trouble with eagles. But Pee-wee proved his worth this week - twice.

The first time was when Frankie bolted through a momentarily opened gate into the orchard. He's never done that before, but he really wanted to bark at our neighbour Nick who was on the other side of the fence. So he charged in and barked for about 3 seconds until he realized the orchard was full of chickens and there was a much better game to be had: chicken chasing. So around and around the orchard he went, barking madly, having a great time and causing eruptions of squawking pandemonium everywhere he went. He wasn't interested in hurting the chickens, but he was a threat all the same - and in charged Pee-Wee, hackles up and making a beeline for our dog. What a hero! We were so surprised at Pee-wee's bravery that we momentarily forgot to chase Frankie, then we came to our senses and got our dog the heck out of the orchard before a real battle ensued.

Then the other day I was taking advantage of the nice weather to get a bit of garden clean-up done around the house, when I heard a repeated, insistent crowing coming from the back of the property. I knew it had to be Pee-wee, but I'd never heard him make such a trumpeting call before. So I put down my rake and headed back to see what was up. And what was up was that one of the hens had forced her way through the fence between the orchard and Nick's garden, and was wandering along the wrong side of the property line. Pee-wee clearly didn't like it, and was continuing to make that particular call. All the other chickens had clustered around him, and the misplaced hen was zigzagging back and forth along the fence, looking for a way to rejoin the flock. I fetched Kim from the house and we rescued the hen and Pee-wee looked as happy as a stern rooster can look to have his flock back together again.

Pee-wee earned his keep this week. Good Pee-wee!

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