Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chicks galore

That sounds like a good name for a rural drag queen...

But it's also an apt description for life at Mucky Boots these days. As well as the batch of Buff Orpington chicks hatched by the two Broody Hens out in the chicken coop, we have fifteen Australorp chicks hatched in the incubator, the youngest finally kicking free of its shell overnight. Some of them have been sold already and will be off to their new homes in the next day or two, some will be raised until they are ready to lay and then sold, and some will be used to improve Kim's breeding flock. But right now we are just enjoying them as the amazingly wondrous balls of fluff they are.

It has been so interesting for us to see how the Broody Hens have managed their chicks. Kim's chicken-raising mentors cautioned her that they might try to kill each other's babies, so we were on high alert for the first few hours. But contrary to expectation, what has developed instead is a lovely co-parenting arrangement: the chicks go freely from one mama to the other, and not only do the two hens care jointly for all the chicks, they are extending their maternal instincts to each other. One day I went into the coop to check on things and found the two hens nestled together, one tucked under the other's wing just like a chick would do, with all the chicks roaming happily around them. At other times we have found both hens and all the chicks snuggled into the same nest box. All in all it seems the arrangement is making everyone happy - at least until the chicks have to go to a new home. We're trying not to think about that too much.

The Australorp chicks in the house are a few days younger than their Buff cousins, and the last two to hatch are still fluffing up in the incubator. Once again our perpetually unfinished powder room is home to a peeping, pooping bunch.

It has been interesting to note the differences between the Broody Hen hatched chicks in the coop, and the incubator/brooder gang in the house. We noticed right away that the chicks in the coop are much calmer than any we have raised in a brooder. That's a good thing. On the other hand, the bunch in the house are more comfortable being handled by humans, which makes complete sense. And that's a good thing!

But the best thing is the return of our favourite program on Chicken TV: the chick channel.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Home

We said goodbye to Broken Feathers, Ginger and Marilyn this week. They have gone to a new home in Cowichan Bay, where they will be Queens and Layers in Residence, providing their new family with healthy and delicious eggs.

You might remember that Broken Feathers was the sorry-looking hen who lost most of the feathers on her back through the amorous attentions of first Pee Wee and then Gump. To make matters worse, she went through a heck of a molt, until she was practically naked. Poor Broken Feathers.

But the good thing about a molt is that after a hen loses all those feathers, she grows beautiful new ones. Just look at her now!

Happy New Home, girls - you're in good hands!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Yes, those out-of-focus fuzzy yellow pompoms are chicks - our first ever hatched by broody hens. We're old hands at the incubator business but had never let Mother Nature and her crew of Broody Hens handle the job, so when two of the Buffs became persistently broody a few weeks ago, Kim decided to give them a dozen eggs each to sit on, just to see what might happen.

Those hens deserve a medal for Dedication to Service. Although they would probably be just as happy for a chance to stretch their legs...

Monday, March 26, 2012


Spring, that is - finally sprung. We had a wonderful weekend full of sunshine, t-shirts, chicken chores, garden work and outdoor violin and banjo concerts courtesy of Kim and our talented young neighbours next door. It felt wonderful to be outside and working in the garden, even though, as could have been predicted, we overdid it a bit. I should have read the Annual Letter Full of Good Advice a bit earlier this year, I think...

Sore muscles aside, Mucky Boots Farm is a happy place these days. The perennial beds are full of snowdrops and aconite past their prime but still welcome, now joined by yellow and purple crocuses (croci?) and the first tulip and lily shoots. I am determined to make friends with the perennial garden this year, so I made good use of the sunshine to get started on the first of many projects that I hope will make the garden feel like mine. This weekend that involved planting the last of the shrubs we bought in fall sales, that spent the winter snuggled up in the greenhouse, and digging out the bricks that once neatly edged the beds but had been buried in successive years' worth of moss, grass and mulch.

(Before: left side of path. After: right side.)

Moss is one of the most beautiful and underrated crops we grow here at Mucky Boots, especially on the shady side of the pond. One of the bricks I dug out there was so beautifully adorned I saved it to share with you.

We've been busy in the vegetable garden, too, with the annual Rebuild Two Beds event. (It's so lovely to think that we've been here long enough to celebrate annual events!) We're getting better and better at this: our corners are now so neat and tight we think of them as miracles of engineering. The freshly milled cedar comes from a local lumber yard -they are full dimensioned 2x6 boards, nice and beefy, and they look and smell wonderful. It won't take them long to weather to the grey of the older beds, but for now they look as fresh and new as the season.

While we've been making use of the fine weather to get outdoor tasks done, the chickens have another idea entirely. Warm sunshine and dry weather can mean only one thing to a chicken tired of a wet and mucky winter...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Too much of a good thing

I have been going just a little bit overboard in the fermentation department. As soon as I started to get better from the horrible cold that knocked Kim and I flat, I craved anything and everything fermented, and the Mucky Boots Fermentation Factory kicked into high gear. While I waited for those efforts to bear fruit I made my first yogurt (so easy, once I realized I could use my dehydrator to keep it at 110 degrees for 7-10 hours) and bought some miso that I've been using to make soup almost every day.

Then a couple of days ago I tasted the sauerkraut I started at the beginning of the month, and realized it's spectacular, even though it could use a bit more time fermenting. Really flavourful, and way less salty than my first batch. So I've been eating a bowl of that every day. And today I drank my first home-brewed kombucha, and it was wonderful, too.

Clearly my body is looking for something, and I am happy to do my best to provide it. But I am learning that there can be too much of a good thing. Not that it's dampening my enthusiasm for all things fermented, but I have realized a certain period of acclimatization is probably in order...

Today the two crocks of kombucha that have been fermenting for a few days reached a nice balance between tart and gently sweet, and so I started the second step of the double-fermentation process.

I set aside the scoby from each crock, along with a couple of cups of kombucha that will be used to start the next batch, and ladled the rest into clean 600 ml canning jars, along with about an inch of pomegranate-blueberry juice in each jar. Lids were screwed on tightly and the jars were put back in the warm music room to ferment for two more days. This is the step that should give the kombucha a bit more fizz. Then the set-aside scobies and kombucha were used to begin all over again, this time with freshly brewed chai tea for one crock and green tea for the other. (Instructions for all of this can be found courtesy of Kristen at Food Renegade.)

In the photo above you can see one of the jars of kombucha, along with a glass of pure kombucha - which I drank right up as soon as the photo was taken, and it was delicious!

Wondering what the tulips have to do with anything? So many people were grossed out by the scoby I thought some nice tulips might lend a more positive association.

Is it working?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The Mucky Boots Farm Fermentation Factory is proud to announce the birth of its very first kombucha scoby. Have a closer look at that beautiful baby...

The two scobies I started almost two weeks ago have been quietly fermenting in Kim's music room, the only consistently heated room in the house. You might remember I was a little worried about whether either would work, since I mistakenly bought raw kombucha that had been adulterated with other things: ginger juice in one case, and spirulina in the other. The ginger juice scoby is developing v..e..r..y....s..l..o..w..l..y but the green one grew lickety split. The white rubbery layer on top is the scoby and it's very strange to handle. Kind of creepy.

I was worried enough that neither scoby would grow that I ordered one online, from a source in Ontario, and it arrived today, double bagged along with about a cup of the fermented kombucha it grew from.

So today I started brewing my first batches of kombucha, using the purchased scoby and my home-grown one.

To brew kombucha, start with about four litres of strong brewed tea, sweetened with a cup of sugar. The sources I have read don't hesitate to use regular white table sugar, since it's eaten by the friendly bacteria during the fermentation process. The sweetened tea is cooled to room temperature, and then the scoby is gently added, along with at least half a cup of the already fermented kombucha it came from. I put one batch in a ceramic water crock and the other in one of my fermenting crocks. The top of each crock is covered with a clean towel to let oxygen in and keep bugs out, and the crocks are put back into the warm music room to ferment for about a week.

I tasted a bit of the fermented spirulina kombucha before it got added to kick-start the newly started batch, and it was delicious: zingy and tart. I can't wait for a whole lip-smacking glass!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Great Divide

There's a new sight as you walk the road from the house to the back half of the property: double gates, attached to a fence that stretches from one side of our property to the other. Gates and a fence that mark the beginning of a new, peaceful entente between Miriam the Gardener and The Flock of Destroyer Chickens.

You might remember that way back in December Kim and I began construction on this fence. At that time I optimistically expected it would take a week or two to finish. I should know better by now - none of our construction projects, with the exception of the time we jacked up the chicken coop, ever goes according to schedule. Life intervenes: bad weather that makes it punishment to work outside, colds that lay us up for a while, other jobs with higher priority. Sometimes it's frustrating that it seems to take so long to get things done, but other times it's perfectly lovely to opt for a morning snuggled up reading a book instead. Balance, it's all about balance.

In any event, the last gates got hung this week. They were a bit of a challenge for Kim to build - they needed to be so big that she was worried they would eventually sag. One trip to the hardware store was all it took - it turns out they sell anti-sag kits just for that purpose. Which further convinces me, if I needed further convincing, that most problems in the world can be solved by a knowledgable hardware store employee.

So now the property is properly divided. There is a smaller gate at one end of the meandering fence line, and the larger double gates at the other.

Half of the property for me, half for the chickens. Sounds good to me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

That's why they call 'em snowdrops

Monday, 6:00 p.m. Kim comes in from putting the chickens to bed after a beautiful sunny day that saw us working outside in our shirtsleeves.

Monday, 6:30 p.m. We leave the house for our choir/orchestra rehearsal only to find an inch of wet snow on the ground and more falling so thickly we have trouble seeing the road as we drive.

I think it was those fleeting thoughts I had as I edged the raspberry beds that afternoon, that maybe, just maybe, spring had finally arrived. I should know better than to tempt the Weather Goddess that way.

This morning the sun is shining again and the snow is melting as fast as it came. That's spring in the Cowichan Valley for you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fermentation Factory

We are definitely back in the land of the living here at Mucky Boots, after about ten days' worth of coughing and wheezing and feeling miserable. Kim ended up with pneumonia, and my asthmatic lungs were crackling so loudly my doctor didn't know what to call it, but today we are both feeling human again.

Maybe because of that emphatic reminder of how awful it is to be sick, or maybe because my cold-deadened taste buds needed reawakening, I woke yesterday morning convinced that there was nothing more important on my to-do list than gearing up production again in the Mucky Boots Fermentation Factory.

The health benefits of fermented foods are well known. By introducing probiotics into the digestive system they not only help us get the full nutritional benefits of the food we eat, they can help the immune system and play a role in fighting chronic diseases, among other things. Plus they taste great.

I've had some spectacular successes fermenting food (sauerkraut and deli pickles) and some spectacular failures (broken glass in the sauerkraut, and a batch of unintentional sauerkraut wine). Sure, the fermentation disasters bummed me out, but yesterday when I woke up craving the sour bite of home-brewed sauerkraut, I realized those unhappy memories had faded into oblivion and I was ready to try again.

Just a few hours and a lot of chopping later, the kitchen counter looked less like a place to make toast and tea, and more like the site of a science experiment, with three different fermentation projects on the go. A big crock of sauerkraut, of course. But also, for the first time, a smaller batch of kimchi, that potent mix of fermented vegetables my Korean students used to obsess over.

To make kimchi, add a few chopped carrots and radishes to a chopped head of Napa cabbage. (I also added some locally harvested kelp.) Cover with brine, weigh down with a plate and leave it overnight. The next day drain the vegetables, saving the brine. Make a paste of chopped onions and garlic, grated ginger, and some fresh or dried hot peppers (I did this in my food processor), add it to the drained cabbage mixture, and then tamp it all down in a jar or crock. Weigh down the top with a plate or jar and add as much of the reserved brine as needed to make sure the vegetables are all submerged. Cover with a clean cloth to keep the bugs out but let the bacteria in. Taste it every day until you're happy with the flavour - this could take as little as a week in warm weather - and then store it in the fridge.

The third project now fermenting away on the counter is kombucha - a fizzy, slightly-sweet-slightly-tart fermented tea that many people drink as a detoxifier. I can buy it in 16 ounce bottles at my local health food stores, but at $3.95 a pop, that adds up. With a "mother" (an established kombucha culture sometimes called a scoby) it's apparently as easy as pie to brew up a couple of gallons of the stuff in 10-12 days, for only the cost of a few tea bags and a little bit of sugar to feed the bacteria.

The hard part is finding a scoby in the first place. If you're lucky enough to know a fermentation master with their own scoby, bring them a batch of home baking and they will probably give you a daughter scoby from the next batch of kombucha they make.

I'm not so lucky. I'm not sure I even know anyone who knows what kombucha is. Enter one of my favourite new blogs, Food Renegade, where Kristin gives instructions for growing a scoby using a purchased bottle of raw, organic kombucha. Unfortunately I failed to read the instructions carefully enough, and came home with kombucha adulterated with other ingredients: ginger juice in the case of one bottle, and spirulina in the other. I decided to give it a go anyway - the worst that happens is the loss of two perfectly good bottles of a tasty, refreshing drink.

One of the issues with fermenting here at Mucky Boots is how cool our house is. This isn't a problem for many things - in fact, some people believe a slower, cooler ferment results in a more flavourful outcome. But the recommended temperature for growing a kombucha scoby is 25 - 30 degrees Celsius. Our kitchen is 15 degrees on a good day. So I brought in an unused heat mat from the greenhouse and put the kombucha jars on top. This could just end up cooking the whole mixture instead of helping it ferment, so between this and the adulterated kombucha I started with, I don't have high hopes for this experiment. But I already have Plan B in my back pocket: purchasing a scoby online (which convinces me all over again that you can find anything on the internet...)

And so here they are: two jars of kombucha and one of kimchi, all lined up on the counter.

Don't they look like the Three Wise Men from a school nativity play?
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