Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Life Changing Chicken Wrangling

When I moved back to California from Arizona eight years ago I moved into a cute neighborhood in Pleasant Hill called Poet's corner. I loved that little pocket of vintage homes, established trees, and curvy streets bearing the names of poets. In the fall I would take long walks as I admired the uniquely updated homes set on large, garden-filled lots. I could smell the smoke in the air filtering out of the fireplaces as the crisp fall leaves crunched under my feet. It was inspiring for my project-loving, non-conformist, writer's soul. Many tangled thoughts became clear on those walks. Many mental seeds took root. My favorite house was perched on a corner with a meandering yet controlled garden cushioning its edges. Across the street from that house sat a home with a lovely hand-built chicken coop planted in the front yard. And there it was; the beginning; the knowing that one day I too would be a keeper of chickens!
It has now been seven months since we inherited our first flock. I am a changed woman. Initially, I looked at my chicks as small fluffy alien-like life forms. They were cute little novelty items, akin to fish swimming in a tank. I was excited about the prospect of future home-laid eggs but I was also nervous about the work involved with maintaining the coop (specifically, the obscenely profuse production of poop). I was not prepared for the endearing quirks and unique personalities of each bird. I didn't expect the connection that I would feel to them individually. Beyond that, I couldn't have known that this experience of raising and caring for chickens would strengthen my sense of responsibility to "life" itself, as represented by animals, humanity, and the planet that supports it all.
How does chicken keeping translate into benevolence toward all living things? I'm not sure that it does; not for everyone (or for anyone other than me); not in the golden ticket kind of way. It may have just been what I needed. I can't say that I was hit with a bolt of altruism the very day that Klee and I drove our first batch of silkies home. It has been more of a quiet opening of my heart. It's in the minutia: the scooping of poop, clipping of wings, coop construction, food selection, free-range wrangling, sick chick nursing. In researching what to feed them, what kind of bedding to use, how much roaming and perch space they need, I found myself considering not just their needs but their happiness. As they grew I got excited about the new feathers they were sprouting and their adolescent transitions from peeps to b'gawks. I loved observing the bonds they developed with each other. The daily routine of letting the girls out to play in the chicken yard, cleaning the poop out from under their perches, and filling their food and water isn't so much a chore but a zen-like activity that calms my mind, replacing anxious thoughts with live chicken entertainment. As I tend to the garden around the chicken coop I am amused and soothed by the clucks, pips, and hums of the flock.
The truth is, I don't really know how the chickens did it. I'm sure they didn't work alone. What I do know is that I LOVE more since they've been here. I like that.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Milton, Myrthful, and Potager Cottage

I wrote this post about a year ago on my personal memoirs blog, My Groovy Entropy . I feel it is pertinent to our Potager Cottage story, so I've decided to post here as well. I hope you enjoy this snippet of my evolution:

My grandpa, Milton, was a watermelon farmer. 

He grew other melons too, but watermelons were his big crop. I remember loading up his truck to drive the melons into town to sell, just like they're doing in the photo below.

Grandpa Milton, Grandma Myrthful, and helper.

 When we were young, my brother and I would spend summers with my grandparents on their Arizona farm, and later, on their Idaho farm (pictured to the left). My grandparents (the Mundalls) were extremely conservative, hard-working folks. No TV; not a lot of toys; no shopping days or restaurants; no parties; no air conditioning; just farm.

On Saturdays they took us to a tiny church that smelled like old hymnals and dentures. And, during the week, if we worked enough rows of melons, grandpa would take us into the Weiser town pool to go swimming.

I remember missing my mom immensely during these long summer visits, but, I also remember all the smells, sounds, and feels of the farm. It was always hot, even at night. We left the windows open, turned on the loud square fans and stood in the cold shower with our pjs on just before bed in hopes that the wet clothes would keep us cool enough to fall asleep before they dried. Mornings came early and were cool enough to be tolerable, for a minute or two.

The house smelled like comfort, like fresh-baked wheat sticks. I don't ever remember going to a grocery store. Grandma, Myrthful, made everything we ate from scratch, mostly from ingredients grown in her gardens. She had a large deep freezer in the garage, the kind you had to use an ice-pick to dig the food out of, where she froze fruits and veggies for the winter; and a large canning pantry filled with jars of peaches, applesauce, apricots, green beans, and any other garden treasure you might imagine. She grew everything. And I had the privilege (not that I appreciated it) of working right along side her from dawn to dusk.

Myrthful in her garden.  Notice the stick-made bean poles.

We took scraps to the hens and cleared the boxes of the fresh eggs. We milked the cows and carried the buckets to the mud room, where they sat to be skimmed (seems like there was always a bucket or two of milk in there). We climbed the ladders to collect fruit from her many fruit trees. She would send me into the towering tomato plants with a metal-handled bucket and a mission to pluck off every last pudgy green tomato worm. We sat on the porch and snapped beans, shucked peas, and husked corn (which I liked to make dolls out of). In the kitchen I had a stool in front of the sink where I would wash and halve apricots, carefully removing the worms form the center. I set the table, cleared the table, washed the dishes, and collapsed into a cozy chair when the day came to a close.

I don't ever remember hearing a radio, just the crickets, toads, mosquitos, train whistles, chicken clucks, cow moans, tires rolling on rugged dirt paths, and the whispery whistles my grandma would compose while sewing or crocheting in the evening.

Grandpa was a smallish man, I think about 5 foot 7 inches tall, but he was huge in my eyes. He always donned a woven cowboy hat that smelled of straw, sweat, and shampooed hair. When he came in for the night he scrubbed his hands with irish spring (or a soap that smelt of that). He laughed in bellows and told "true" stories of his many adventures with bears and lions and caves, that only seemed possible in the world of fiction. He worked his fields with fierce determination. If I was lucky, I got to ride in his tractor, or beside him in his farm trucks (known to be missing doors) over the dirt roads when he took his melons into town. He called milk, "cow juice" and soy sauce, "bug juice".  And he was my favorite. I would begrudge my brother who got to run off to do chores with grandpa while grandma made me stay in and learn to sew.

We got to play sometimes too. My brother and I would sit at the irrigation ditch and use the mud to make bricks for houses. We would spend hours there. To this day I love the smell of the irrigation ditches when I drive on old farm roads. I roll the windows down and inhale the cool air and childhood memories. We would climb the hay bales in the barn and jump from great heights to piles of hay below. We would put milk bowls out for the random farm kitties that were always skittering about. We would catch grasshoppers and toads. And, we always enjoyed spinning around in the tire swing hanging from the tree out front.

Those years were a gift. They rooted a love within me for playing in the dirt and living a simple, organic, sustainable life. I feel my heritage when I'm digging in our cottage garden now. I sense their  love for the farm and nature; a love that they passed on to their five daughters and beyond. This little corner house surrounded in untamed dirt and weeds feeds that love in me.

It has been 4 months since we moved into this cottage in Benicia. These have not been easy months. Our home has demanded patience, creative organization, and hard labor from us, nearly breaking us.  I have always named my homes, a practice I picked up from a short time at school in England. I love how English homes are named. Home is so personal to me that a name seems more appropriate than a sterile number. We have debated names for this home since before we moved in, but have struggled to settle on anything. We decided to just sit with it. Live in the house and wait for her name to present itself. At last, it has! As I was wandering through the land of Pinterest the other day I came across the name for a vegetable garden that sits just outside your door; it's called a potager. Perfect! We have vegetable gardens just outside our front and back doors. So we have dubbed our sweet little home 'Potager Cottage'. She's not a farm but she has revived my sweet memories from those summer days and the two beautiful souls who instilled this home-grown love in me.

Potager Cottage

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Planting From Seed... Like A Boss

Potager Cottage has come a long way these past months. Klee and I tore up the weed-infested backyard and added a garden gate that we found in the free section of craigslist.

Then we used the lasagna method to start our back potager. We laid down old cardboard and a lot of newspaper, which we collected from the trash bins behind the Benicia Herald. Then we laid down piles of dried leaves and truckloads of compost, followed by topsoil from a local organic supplier.

I was determined to grow from seed. I mean that's all my grandparents used, how hard could it be? Unfortunately, the top soil we added was water-repellent, making my valiant attempt to grow from seed nearly impossible.

After months of soil amending and reseeding, we finally have some plants growing. It has been a humbling learning experience for me. One does not merely plant seeds in the ground to grow plants.

So here are a few tips I've learned about growing from seed:

  • SOIL MATTERS! Make sure the soil has been well blended with compost and will absorb and retain water. This is key. The soil we used originally (which I laid over a thick layer of compost) was so water-repellent that I could actually see the water beed up and roll off of the soil. * Seemingly obvious tip: Prepare your soil prior to planting your seeds, as it is very difficult to amend soil after seeds have been planted.
  • Soak the seeds. I read zillions of blogs about planting seeds but none mentioned this little trick. Thankfully, I am a farmer's daughter's daughter. So, my mother told me to soak the seeds overnight prior to planting. This made a big difference in my second attempt at seed planting.
  • Dig ditches between rows and troughs around mounds to capture the water run-off and to encourage the roots to reach deeper into the soil. I even made a divot in the center of the mounds, with seeds planted around it, to catch more water.
  • MULCH! Mulch helps the soil to retain moisture. Straw works really well, but I didn't have any on hand and I knew it was going to be a very hot day, so I surrounded each baby plant with wood chips.
  • WATER. This seems like a no-brainer, but I didn't realize that seeds need to be watered twice a day until established. They are considered established when the second set of leaves appear. For us Californians, who are currently in a severe drought, watering twice a day feels like an act of treason. Rest assured, the watering is light and temporary. Ultimately, less than the water required for lawn maintenance; and you're growing food! 
  • Seeds do what they want. You can plant with the best of intensions, placing each seed precisely as the packet instructed you, but seeds are wily and fickle little nuggets. They migrate with the help of birds, wind, water, to wherever they deem worthy to germinate. And then they mock you. Just go with it.
In my next seed attempt I plan to start my seeds indoors in eggshells or starter pods. I have failed miserably at starting indoors in the past; but that was with transplanting from a tray, in which I managed to destroy each and every baby root that I had painstakingly grown over the previous weeks. This time I will be able to place the whole vessel straight into the ground without disturbing the root. How hard can it be?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Living Art of Home

Attempting to contain a squirmy Vera
It's a foggy Sunday morning in Benicia. I'm sitting in the green room, scrolling through homesteading tips on Pinterest, munching on Klee's fresh-baked shortbread cookies, and listening to Elliott and Klee as they build Zoob mobiles and robots. I feel divinely content.

When I consider my happiest moments, I usually recall this feeling, a sensations which frequently equates to home. Home is comfort, familiar, warm. For me, home has always been more than a functional structure checking a box on some list of hierarchy of needs. It is an extension of my heart and mind, where I relinquish my guard and expose my vulnerabilities.

Home is my art.
The colors, textures, smells, sounds; the walls filled with stories; the books and magazines tucked on, in, under, behind the collections of tables and shelves; pinwheels and branches, jars of stones, sea-glass and shells, old postcards, peacock feathers, and dish collections; ALL are brushstrokes from my heart.

And home spills out into the dirt, pushing out toward the fences, and beyond. Potager Cottage is the first home I've lived in that has provided the opportunity to develop that beautiful dirt into whatever my creative spirit desires (within in the limits of the landlord's restrictions and our own funds).

I have visions of how our little homestead will evolve. An abundant and overflowing potager, with flowers all around, and drought resistant ground cover to run and play on, a rich compost heap, and CHICKENS (and bees... a goat?)! I imagine us sitting comfortably outside, on garden chairs, sipping Klee's kombucha and chatting with neighbors. On weekends we could open up our side yard as a farm stand to sell excess produce and Klee's jarred delectables.

We got a good start last summer. We rebuilt our front fence, built raised boxes, and excitedly seeded the front potager. I spent months diligently weeding, amending, and planting. It was starting to look like a real garden. Neighbors were stopping by to say what an improvement it was over the weed jungle that we had moved into only a few months before.

And then it rained. It rained for most of December. All Californians were celebrating the small relief from the years of drought. And, in just a few wet weeks, this happened...

WEEDS! And crabgrass, and mounds of fallen twigs and leaves! It was as if all those hours of careful grooming never even happened!

So, of course, I intensely personalized this rebellion of our soil to mean that I had failed as a homesteader and a human, and should go back to bed indefinitely. But, after several days of walking outside and staring at the organic mess with hands on hips, only to return to the warmth of the wall heater in defeat, I resolved to dig back in.

In a surprisingly short amount of time, the garden began to reveal herself again. As the weeds diminished, I could see that the ground cover of elfin thyme had spread beautifully in the rain. The artichoke plants were strong and reaching for the sky, promising deliciousness to come. The tomatoes gave a big last hurrah, enough to fill a small basket.
I even pulled a pot-full of beet greens, spinach and twisted up carrots and made a soul-warming soup.

I hadn't failed! I had merely experienced my first lesson in Fall.

Like everything else about home, homesteading is a process of education, self-discovery, and expression. It feeds my peaceful center.

It is Living Art.