Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Goodbye Gump

We said a difficult goodbye to Gump yesterday. Gump was our two-year-old, hatched right here Buff Orpington rooster, and our hearts are heavy.

Gump was special right from the start, in an endearingly odd kind of way. He was part of a hatch that was predominantly cockerels, and even though he was the biggest of the bunch he was the lowest on the pecking order. He was never part of the flock - he would wander his own way, doing his own thing in a gentle, clumsy, semi-clued-out kind of way. The other chickens would come running for scratch at the end of the day but Gump would only look over, mildly curious, and wander off into the bushes. We worried about Gump.

Once Gump and three of his young flock mates refused to come into the coop for the night. We're not sure if something spooked them or if they just wanted a camp out, but they lodged themselves into a thick stand of prickly bushes that we couldn't get into. And then, once night fell, there was no budging them. In the morning we were minus one pullet and Gump was missing a few tail feathers, but no matter how nicely we asked to hear the story of their adventure, nobody was talking.

When it came time to pick the cockerel who would be given charge of the flock we chose Gump. By that time it was clear the hens in the flock loved him: where Gump went so did they. They liked his gentle, protective ways, and so did we, and Gump proved we made a good choice. He was a big, gentle, slightly uncoordinated giant, and he took his rooster duties seriously. He did a great "I'm the rooster" dance (if you've never seen it, the rooster drops one wing and dances around the hen in a circle), he showed the hens good places to get food and lay eggs, and he kept a watchful eye out for overhead predators.

In recent months, however, one roosterly duty proved difficult for him: sex. Always a bit clumsy, he became increasingly lame, which meant he wasn't so good at mounting the hens. As a consequence, the fertility of our eggs began to suffer, and since Kim does a brisk business with hatching eggs through the spring, this was a problem. We began to look for a replacement rooster, but we were clear that Gump would stay with us no matter what.

It didn't work out that way. Even though we could find no reason for his lameness, it became more and more difficult for Gump to get around, to the point where he spent most of his day sitting down. We didn't even want to visit him in the chicken yard, because when he saw one of us he would struggle painfully to his feet to do the rooster dance. And so we finally made the decision to put him down.

We're still not prepared to do this ourselves, and so we took him to our local slaughterhouse. And today Kim took his carcass to a local food kitchen, where one of the diners said "Oh good, chicken soup."

Gump was good from beginning to end. Goodbye, Gump.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Holy cable batman

No, I don't have a stomach ache - I'm just holding the sweater closed until a nice shawl pin finds its way into my life.

I went a little crazy after I finished my last sweater. I was so happy to have finally made up my mind about a pattern, and found a way to finish the steeked edges. So right away I plunged into another project...a ridiculously challenging one: Opposite Pole, created by Joji Locatelli. There were nine million things that made this a tough one for me: provisional cast ons, two complicated cable and braid charts with different numbers of rows, short rows galore, and learning how to graft stitches. 

I have never seen a sweater constructed in such a way. I won't bore you with all the details, except to say that is was by far the most complicated thing I have ever knit. Basically the rectangular panel in the centre of the photo is knit first, then the rest is knit in a big circle all the way around the outside, leaving holes for the arms which are then picked up and knit. Thinking methodically and not freaking out were what got me through.

It was the very last thing I had to do that I'm a little disappointed in: grafting a run of stitches, in this case a complicated run containing garter, stockinette and rib stitches. I watched about a dozen youtube videos on grafting, and learned that the procedure is different depending on not only what kind of stitch you have currently (knit or purl) but also which stitch comes next. On top of that, there was no way to get the cable and braid patterns to meet up exactly once I'd made my way around the circle - the pattern warned me not even to try. The end result is that there is an awkward looking line down the centre of the back collar that I'm not happy with. I tried! I picked it out and started again a few times, and this was the best I could make it look. Which is too bad, set off against the beautiful back panel.

I already have my next project picked out: a very simple cardigan for Kim, in a colour called Cilantro Heather. The whole thing is knit in stockinette stitch. What a relief.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Third child syndrome

You know how it is: the family photo albums are full of pictures of the first child. The second child not so much. And the third child? The third child is lucky even to be noticed.

It's like that with batches of chicks. I'm not even sure which batch we're on now - I have lost count - but the third child syndrome is full blown because I haven't even mentioned the current brood, let alone made them the subject of their own post. So here they are, the most recent additions to the Mucky Boots Flock: sixteen healthy, pooping, scratching, cheeping, almost-seven-week-old Black Australorps.

Right now they sleep in two brooder boxes (that's one of them in the photo at the top of the post) in the workshop, but during the day Kim and I ferry them out to the chicken tractor which is set up right now in the orchard. They're learning to eat bugs and grass, and experiencing sunshine, bird calls and even a bit of rain (although they have plenty of protection). The orchard is where the grown up Australorps pasture, and they have all been getting acquainted through the chicken wire of the tractor. Hector, the patriarch, is particularly interested in the little ones, as is the smallest hen, who would rather keep an eye on the youngsters than head back to the coop for an afternoon treat of scratch.

One of the funniest moments of every day is when the chicks get released from the brooder box into the chicken tractor. They required an awful lot of coaxing the first time, but now they can't wait to be set loose.

I think that's the chickie equivalent of "Wheeeeee!"

Monday, June 17, 2013

It's about those poppies

You know how much I love the poppies growing here at Mucky Boots. I love them so much I have written at least a dozen posts about them. I have taken photos, and collected seeds to send to all my friends. I have given them names: the Creamsicle, the San Pellegrino, the Ballet Tutu, and the Bordello. I have even declared that when it comes to volunteers, poppies get a free ride, no matter where they pop up.

I think the poppies must have read that post and taken it as permission to embark on a campaign for world domination, because this year the poppies are everywhere.

Here are some examples. First we have poppies with cilantro, in the photo above, and then poppies with concord grape...

... poppies with artichoke...

...poppies with blueberry...

...and finally poppies with raspberry.


If all those photos just look like a mass of green foliage, that's exactly my point. Everything else is being buried. Compounding the problem is the fact that I didn't get around to staking and tying up the big heavy poppies this spring, so they are sprawling over everything in their vicinity.

I have come to the conclusion that it may be possible, in fact, to have too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hostas: a non-gardener's best friend

Continuing on with the theme of gardening without actually gardening, I have decided my best friend in the perennial beds is the humble hosta.

I admit to having moved to Mucky Boots with a prejudice against hostas in tow. It dates back to the first house Kim and I had, a little place in Toronto with a postage-stamp backyard filled with hostas. I remember them as being slimy and slug infested, and as my introduction to gardening they creeped me out.

So when we got here and I saw all the hostas in the perennial beds I was disappointed. How stupid could I be? Because not only do hostas come in a huge variety of colours and sizes, and fill out a bed in a mounding, lush way, they require nothing of me except a few minutes to clean them up at the end of the fall. They're supposed to be shade lovers, but the ones we've got here seem to tolerate part sun, full sun, moist soil, dry soil, and everything in between.

Just look at that bed: variegated hostas and finer-leaved yellow hostas in the foreground, and an enormous green hosta in the background.  If you hunkered down and looked underneath you would find some of my arch-nemesis the creeping bellflower, but the hostas do such a good job of staking their territory the bellflower never seems to get past the ground cover stage.

And although I hesitate to put this in writing (because as soon as I do I'll be proved wrong) we don't seem to have a problem with slugs. And it's not like we don't have slugs here - look at this sucker, for instance. 

But they don't seem to trouble with the hostas. In fact the only thing that does any damage is an occasional deer that comes to chomp off the flower spikes.

And here's another good thing: hostas give you more hostas. Not only do they tolerate being divided, they like it. Last fall Kim and I went on a hosta-dividing spree and now we have even more hostas doing their lovely thing without a bit of input from me. 

That's a bit of a lopsided friendship: I badmouth the plant and it responds by giving me things. I'm trying not to feel too bad. I'm just trying to mend my ways.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

How to garden without gardening

I have been laid up with a sore knee all spring. For a while I was limping along, but for the last month it's been bad enough I've been on crutches or using a cane but mostly parked on my butt. The vegetable garden has been my priority on the days when I can get around a little, so the perennial gardens have mostly been fending for themselves. It's my annual spring arthritis flare-up, and while it has been something of a pain, it could certainly be a lot worse.

But this isn't about my knee, it's about my garden. Specifically, what happens in a garden when there's no gardener tending it, during the most fertile months of the year.

The plants grow.
The flowers bloom.
The weeds multiply.
The world does not end.

During my enforced sit-on-my-butt days (which feel like they have gone on, and on, and on) I have been keeping myself occupied by knitting and listening to audio books. A few days ago there was a moment in the book when a character, reflecting on a war brewing in the book's imaginary world, mused that there might be nobody to see the peonies bloom the following year, but that they would still bloom.

Isn't that the truth, I thought, and if I needed proof all I had to do was look out the window.

Do the peonies care that I haven't been fussing over them? Nope.

Do the poppies mind that they haven't been staked and are sprawling with abandon over their neighbours? Apparently not.

And it seems I don't even have to plant things in order to have flowers, as evidenced by these volunteer foxglove.

Yes, there are weeds everywhere, and I'm going to pay at some point for letting the annual weeds go to seed, but in the meantime they're acting as a pretty good ground cover which is good because I haven't got around to watering, either. 

There is a humbling lesson in all of that: how much do I really matter? I don't mean that in a self-pitying way. I mean it in a reverential I-am-a-mere-mortal-looking-Mother-Nature-in-her-glorious-face kind of way. When it comes down to it, the idea that I can control what happens in my garden is sort of ridiculous, and I think Mother Nature is being very kind to let me try.

But at the end of the day I am still a gardener, and I'm itching to get in there and start cleaning things up. But even though my knee is slowly starting to feel better I know the worst thing I could do is overtax it. So I'm thinking tomorrow I might set the egg timer for 15 minutes, and see what I can get done. The next day, if all goes well, maybe 20.

But that still leaves me today, one more day, to watch the peonies bloom.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Home from the fair

I have always wanted to go to a Mother Earth News Fair, and finally, this year, I got a chance. Kim and I spent a long weekend in Puyallup, Washington, hanging out with lots and lots of homesteaders, gardeners, environmentalists and food activists, going to workshops and demonstrations, and cruising the vendor booths. 

Here are a few highlights.

Best workshop (Miriam's pick): "Growing Your Health Independence" by Dawn Combs of Mockingbird Meadows. Lots and lots of specific and practical information about stocking a largely home grown medicine cabinet for common family ailments.

Best workshop (Kim's pick): "Top Bar Hives: It's All About the Wax" by Christy Hemenway. (Here's a link to her TED talk about the importance of honey bees) I probably don't need to tell you that Kim has come home already planning her first hive.

Worst workshop. Ever. Hands Down: "The Half-Acre Homestead" by Lloyd Kahn. Despite its description, and despite the respected and long standing reputation of the presenter, this workshop was a series of photos of "homesteading tools" thought to be useful. Like a pitchfork. And a shovel. And nails hammered into a kitchen wall to hang cooking implements from. A cappuccino maker. And a spatula for scraping plates into a compost bucket. When the presenter started flashing photos of marijuana vaporizers (as a homesteading tool? Really? Is that because homesteading is so horrible?) I left. At the point so had half the audience.

Second worst workshop: "Homestead Healthcare" by Amy and Joseph Alton (aka "Nurse Amy and Doctor Bones").  I had my doubts about this one because the presenters are the owners of a company that sells medical supplies to doomsday preppers, but the workshop description was benign enough I thought there might be something there for me. Nope. Pretty quickly we were into isolation techniques for when the great pandemic hits, and how to keep "your women" from getting pregnant because then they wouldn't be able to contribute 110%. Who has women? Do men still own women? I left before they started talking about treating gunshot wounds and zombie bites.

Favourite signs that you're not at just any country fair: The candy apples? Organic. Those cinnamon-sugar mini donuts? Gluten-free. The pony cart rides?

Those ain't ponies...

Best Vendor Samples: First place goes to Bob's Red Mill, which was giving out gluten-free granola packets, nifty gizmos to keep open packages closed, and dough scrapers. The runner up is Mary's Crackers, which was giving out packets of, well, crackers.

Most Nerdy Fan Moment: Ed Begley Jr? Nah. Joel Salatin? Nope. Not even Barbara Damrosch. For me it was meeting Erica of Northwest Edible Life. I embarrassed myself. Read her wonderful post on the fair for a much more thoughtful take on the weekend than the one you're getting here.

Happiest Moment: Picking up Frankie at the kennel and being greeted by a happy dog instead of a stressed out one.
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