Monthly Archives: May 2012

Birthday Gardening

Today is Kelly’s birthday. Our garden themed celebrations included:

  • Giving the teenage chickens a new branch to roost on and spending time watching them be adorable.
  • Drinking what will be one of this year’s last batches of fresh squeezed orange juice.
  • Noticing a suspiciously loud buzzing coming from our newest hive (yes, we finally managed to move the swarm that stung me). Kelly thinks they may have swarmed again this afternoon, but she couldn’t find them anywhere.
  • Receiving a visit from a beekeeping friend who gave us “follower boards” to add to one of our hives to help with ventilation.
  • Adding said follower boards to April, one of our package hives, and attempting to remove copious amounts of burr comb without killing bees and brood (a horrible, stressful, thankless task that invariably ends in heartbreak).
  • Visiting the chickens again at dusk and having Petunia fly up to perch on first Kelly’s shoulder, and then mine. We put them to bed for their second full night in the coop, and they hardly complained at all.
  • Next up: baking shortbread to be topped with (garden) lemon curd and raspberries.

Disclaimer: this picture is not from today. I neglected to chronicle the day's adventures visually. This gorgeous yellow thing is a volunteer Black-eyed Susan that graced our garden all summer last year. There's a native bee perched atop--a male Melissodes robustior, to be exact. (You'll get a much better view if you click to enlarge.)

When One Coop Door Closes…

The roosters say goodbye.

A lot has happened in our world of chickens this past week. The boys moved to a country home a week ago tomorrow, where our positively saintly friends have agreed to adopt one and board the other until we can find an appropriate home.

Kelly’s brother Steven visited us last weekend, and helped us put the finishing touches on the coop. We introduced the girls to their new outdoor home on Monday afternoon, and they have been spending their days outside. We’ve continued to bring them in at night to allow them to transition slowly, though I’m not entirely convinced this has been necessary.

On Thursday, we thought we’d give them a taste of nighttime in the coop. The only trouble is that they are terrified of their coop/nest box area. They run around frantically inside the box looking for an escape each time we put them in.  We stuffed them in, murmuring to them and making what we hoped were reassuring noises as we closed the double doors.

Steven and Kelly share some sibling bonding time in the coop as they suspend the water dispenser.

It was a gusty night with ferocious, ripping wind. Inside the warm house, we couldn’t help but imagine them in the unfamiliar, drafty darkness. At 9:30, we relented and went out into the wind with headlamps to retrieve them. The girls had snuggled up together in one of the nest boxes, and appeared to have been sleeping soundly. They didn’t seem particularly distressed, but we carted them in and put them to bed in their cardboard box.

The teenage hens are friendly, and engaged enough in their environment, but I think they miss the roosters. They move around the chicken run in a twosome, stretching out their necks to take in the surroundings and scratching in the straw for food. They come up to greet us through the avian wire when they hear us making our rounds in the garden.

Petunia, enjoying her new roost for the first time.

Pudy (Kelly’s utterly lovable, if bird-hungry, black cat) eyes them from a distance, crouching and predatory. I carried her over to say hello close-up the other afternoon, and the chickens came right over, tilting their heads and blinking at her while she meowed at them.

I have to say that, having finally completed the coop-building project, it gives me immense pleasure to walk through the garden and discover a couple of beautifully speckled young hens living in the structure we toiled over. We have chickens, and they actually live in our backyard!

Luma, investigating near the ramp to the dreaded coop.

The Inaugural Honey Bee Sting

Our ridiculous beekeeping outfits.

At this time yesterday, I could have told you honestly that I had never been stung by a honey bee. Yep, despite working in gardens for years and keeping 14 different hives over the past year, I was sting free.

Kelly and I certainly don’t underdress when we go out to work the hives. Our getup includes full bee suits replete with Velcro, zippers, and nylon mesh, as well as gloves with elastic cuffs that reach past our elbows. We have been told more than a few times that we look like fencers or astronauts.

But aside from our protective bee gear, the honeys are also generally quite mellow, and we move slowly with them. The aggressive insects many people call “bees” are really yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps. Humans offer little of interest to the vegetarian honey bee, and bees are focused on their jobs in the world, not (usually) intent on hunting you down. When a honey bee stings, she dies.

Last night, Kelly and I headed out to a site where we have been collecting swarms this spring. It’s a popular spot with the bees, and about 10 colonies have chosen it so far this spring, only to be whisked away by beekeepers like ourselves. Bees can’t see well at night, and they generally retire to the inside of the hive. Thus, evening is a perfect time to block off the entrance to the hive and move it to a permanent location.

Unfortunately, the bees had other plans last night. We arrived at dusk and climbed the 10-foot ladder to the generator rooftop where the bee lures are located. We were disappointed to find a large number of bees milling around outside the hive entrance.

Without suiting up, we sat and watched them from a distance for a while, and it was then, minding my very own business a good five feet away, that a bee approached me. She seemed a bit testy from the start, landing on my arm and running around. I sat quietly and did my best psychic bee communication attempt to let her know that I meant no harm and would love to be left alone. To no avail. Apparently her job was to protect the colony.

She moved to my neck, then up into my hair, and the tone of her buzzing changed as she grew more agitated. I have to admit it: I freaked out at that point and attempted to swat her away. This is a big no-no, but I felt I had nothing to lose. I swatted violently a few more times, managing to bruise my finger on the metal roof before she sunk her stinger.

I hate pain and have no tolerance for it, but I still have to say that bee stings really hurt.  It’s a fiery, focused, deep pain. It reached into my skull and landed me with a dull headache around the forehead.

But what really hurt (and I laugh at myself as I write this) was how wounded I felt. Keeping bees entails disrupting them, manipulating them for human gain, inevitably squishing a few along the way, and making choices about where they will live and how. Still, on some level I view myself as a friend to each hive, a benefactor entitled to enter at will. To be stung as I watched the hive from a distance, even after all my clumsy fumbles and missteps over the past year, felt like a betrayal.

The bees never went in last night. We finally left them around 11:30 after a bee crawled up the leg of Kelly’s suit and stung her. We’re headed back for another go-around tonight and are adding a spray bottle of water, wood, and a roll of duct tape to our arsenal. Keeping bees is hard work, but being a bee might be harder.

What Not to Compost

The latest five-gallon bucket of compost trash.

Compost has four ingredients: oxygen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. Unfortunately for us, the previous occupants of our house had other ideas.

The chicken coop is built and our last remaining task is making it safe for the chickens. For the past week we have put aside time each day to dig through the top six inches of soil in the chicken run and remove trash.

We have been absolutely shocked by the amount and variety of trash buried in the soil. Each shovelful yields broken glass, nails, wire, plastic mesh, and a myriad of more unusual items. At this point, you may be asking yourself where on earth we live and why our garden is a veritable trash heap. Here’s the story.

Our house was a board and care home for people with mental illness for 35 years before we moved in. The caregiver was an avid gardener who loved to compost. We aren’t sure whether her residents used the compost piles as their trash bins, or if the caregiver herself mistakenly thought that plastic, glass, and metal were appropriate ingredients for compost. Either way, we find a strange and eclectic assortment of trash just about everywhere we sink a shovel in the garden.

But nowhere has been as bad as the orchard turned chicken coop where most of the original compost piles were situated. It’s sad and overwhelming, and it makes us very concerned for the chickens’ welfare. Incidentally, we are also both in dire need of chiropractic adjustments after hours spent kneeling in the dirt squinting at shards of glass and tinsel.

A partial list of the not-to-be-composted items unearthed thus far (alphabetized for your reading pleasure):

  • Band-Aids
  • Buttons
  • CDs
  • Ceramic pieces
  • Charcoal
  • Cigarettes
  • Coat hangers
  • Fake ivy
  • Glass
  • Legos
  • Nails, staples, stakes, screws, and other hardware
  • Pantyhose
  • Pill bottles
  • Plant tags
  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic soda bottles
  • Plastic netting
  • Shaving razor handles
  • Tin can lids
  • Tinsel
  • Plastic and metal bits of unidentifiable origins
  • A wrench

Needless to say, we’re bummed. It’s a good reminder that trash doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t turn into rich soil, and whether or not we have to look at it every day, it’s still sitting around somewhere. We only hope we’ve removed enough of it that our chickens won’t kill themselves eating a shard of glass or a nail. After we finish excavating, we will compact the soil as much as possible and then add layers of leaves and straw in hopes that they won’t dig too deeply into the dirt.

Roosters in Our Midst

Sexual dimorphism, anyone? Olive and Petunia are the same age and the same breed, but they sure look different!

We’ve had our suspicions about two of the Barred Leghorn chicks. Olive and Fiona began developing handsome red combs and wattles two months ago. They grew faster overall, fought more, and in recent weeks began crowing at god-awful hours of the morning. When I say, “crowing,” I don’t mean your classic “cock-a-doodle-doo.” At first I thought it was an immature version of the cries a hen makes when she lays an egg, but now even I have to admit there are too many syllables.

At first the “girls” were shy about their new noises. Kelly or I would try to sneak in to see who was making such a ruckus, and they would go demurely silent. Now, it seems, they can’t help themselves. Usually we find them atop their roost, stretching their necks out as they crow away. Last night, I detected some distinctly glossy neck feathers on the gray leghorns—another telltale sign of roosters.

When we picked out our tiny chicks back in February, a sign prominently displayed above their feed store cage assured us that 96.4% of the babies were female. We have only four birds. If our suspicions prove correct, we will have somehow managed to pick a batch of chickens with 50% roosters. Ack! It’s a different kind of lottery winning that we neither expected nor welcome.

But even if it turns out that Olive and Fiona are simply precocious hens with a little extra testosterone I don’t see how we can keep these birds. Surely the neighbors will object to a boisterous morning wakeup occurring like clockwork between 5:45 and 6:30 AM. And morning crowing isn’t the least of it. Parking my car on the street yesterday afternoon after work, I heard the unmistakable sound drifting from the chicken room window a good 30 feet off the street.

Kelly wrote the chicken vet yesterday asking if the behavior we’re seeing sounds like roosters and, if so, what our recourse is. Dr. Peak’s message was sobering: yes, these birds sound suspiciously male, and there is no good answer for what to do with unwanted roosters. She did mention an organization called Save the Cocks. They advocate the importance of including roosters in backyard flocks, pointing out that the boys play an important role in watching over hens, finding food sources, etc. Interestingly, they also argue that all of us would-be sustainable urban homestead types are in fact practicing unsustainable chicken-keeping when we exclude roosters from the flock.

I see their point, and if anything, my attachment to Olive and Fiona has increased now that I know they’re roosters. They are really quite dear, strutting around with their wattles wiggling and resting comfortably against my side when I scoop them up under one arm. Unfortunately, the reality remains that our little slice of garden heaven is sandwiched between an assortment of apartment and office buildings in a city that explicitly bans roosters. Oliver and Finbad will have to find greener pastures elsewhere.

Emma Mae Lydon: June 12, 1911—April 30, 2012

Grandma Mae--prune picker, jam maker, rose pruner, leaf raker, garden grandmother extraordinaire.