Tag Archives: homesteading

Damnit Chickens, You Win

The mystery began with shards of egg shell in the arena. I pondered the source and had suspicious thoughts about the usual predators about the yard. The dog seemed most likely innocent as this scene lacked the limp corpse that usually marked her interactions with small animals. A racoon snack? The hens, you may recall, had been sleeping in the trees for months at this point so a night raid of the coop might only turn up eggs. Perhaps a very vigorous someone who enjoys both collecting eggs and performing daring acts of speed and agility dropped an egg on his way to the house?

The mystery was solved some days later when I spotted this thief winging his way off with his prize:

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This whole super-extra-free range chicken situation was going from mildly worrisome (What will they do when it rains? When will the racoons wise up and start picking off the lowest roosting ones?) to frankly irritating.

Enjoying the fresh air.

Good night, bad chicken.

After deciding they preferred open air sleeping, the chickens began fancying themselves entirely feral and began making nests willy nilly all over the paddock. They got terribly good at it and sometimes we wouldn’t discover the hidden clutches for days. The crows, however, were not so impressed by the chickens’ egg hiding prowess and, faced with such bounty, took to just pecking out and eating the eggs right at the nest. If we were really diligent with our egg collection we could beat them to it, but really diligent has never described my relationship with the chickens. Meanwhile, proceeds of our 36 dollar bags of organic layer pellets and lovingly tossed kitchen scraps were going directly into making the next generation of genius crows. I had to take action!

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So I did it. I locked them up. A few of them I could lure into captivity with treats, but I figured not all would go so gently. I purchased the long, metal, chicken-catcher hook that I had always looked at with curiosity/apprehension at the feed store and slunk around the yard after the last 2 stragglers until I could slip the hook onto a leg and drag each poor thing into my clutches. Our coop was once a duplex sort of a situation for chickens and rabbits, but has been all chicken space since our last Angora rabbit died several years ago. As such, it’s not perfectly designed to be an all-the-time space for chickens. It’s long and narrow and has a wire floor them keeps them off the ground. They hated it right from the start, pacing the cage most of the time, looking longingly at the two loose bantams (uncatchable, I didn’t even try) who were still able to roam. I had convinced myself that this was the practical thing to do. We have our chickens for eggs! We will eat all the eggs! I let this sadness persist for a few months.

Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Having unhappy animals just isn’t part of our deal, not worth it. For awhile I thought the answer was to build a fabulous new, larger coop that would showcase all the innovations I was discovering on line (a poop hammock under the perch! chicken-weight-operated rat-proof feeder!). Ben, however, thought this kind of job would realistically not happen until the Summer, which sounded approximately 50 years away.

Instead we just opened up the door. The ladies have never looked back.

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There has already been evidence of egg theft, but I have a new answer: more chickens! I figure with enough chickens we won’t miss the eggs too much. I also hope to soon have much of the detritus and hiding spots around the yard cleared out so that the nest box in the coop looks most inviting. I have some ceramic eggs in the nest which are supposed to help. And, sigh, I’m working on that diligence thing- collecting eggs more than once a day to stay ahead of my competition.

It’s all worth it when I pull into the driveway and see the gals loose in their Redwood habitat. I have always been enchanted by even the most banal of chicken behavior. I stop the car sometimes and just sit, taking in the awkward flailings of a dust bath or the precise, repetitive strike of a beak into a nook of bark. Great stuff.

 

 

First Sting Down!

When I was first contemplating beekeeping I was pretty scared about signing up for being stung with any kind of regularity. I read accounts of beekeepers acclimating to stings over time and figured I was of somewhere near average fortitude so I would probably be okay. But it still scared me. What a pleasant surprise to discover that stings are pretty avoidable, if you’re careful. I am lazy about smoking my bees to keep them calm, so I rely on their inherent gentleness and a good bee suit to keep me protected. My usual system involves wearing paddock boots, their ankle-high, thick leather shielding the only part of my body that isn’t covered in protective gear.

A couple of Wednesday’s ago the weather was approaching the mid sixties and I figured it would be wise to do a cursory inspection of my hives. The mother of the queen in my far hive swarmed a few months after installing her with just a package of bees, so I want to be careful to give that colony as much space as they need to avoid another swarm. That far hive has been looking very active and the three medium boxes are too heavy to lift with one hand (a quick measurement of food stores is to feel the weight of the hive), so I wanted to see if they were ready for another box to move into. I believe it’s a little early to have a nectar flow in Oakland, but the torrential rains we had in December after such a long drought mean all bets are off. After all this time without a sting I decided not to walk into the next room and find my boots, figuring that my jeans covered that gap between my bee suit pants and my clogs well enough.

There is a concept in beekeeping called “bee space.” If you leave the bees 1/4″ to 3/8″ of space they will treat this as a thoroughfare and generally not muck it up with comb. More space than that, however, and you are inviting them to fill it with comb for brood or honey. There are many things to love about the feeders I have but they do violate the concept of bee space and usually result in crazy comb being built up into the cavern that allows the bees to access the syrup I add from the top. When I opened the far hive I broke apart quite a bit of honey filled comb, leading the girls to believe, with fair logic, that their precious stores were under attack. One thing led to another and a particularly devoted guard bee located the tender, black argyle sock patterned weak spot of this massive intruder. The sting itself was pretty much how I expected it to be- unpleasant, but better than the times I was stung as a kid. I’m a beekeeper now, I thought, this sensation is a part of the bargain! I brushed off the stinger, hustled back to grab my boots, and finished inspecting both hives. I did end up adding a box to the far hive- those bees are going strong! The near hive is about where they were in November. One deep box pretty full, but not ready for any more space. The near hive’s queen is the daughter of a queen who performed so poorly last year I had to kill her myself in hopes of saving the hive. We’ll see if things pick up as they should, or if it was a mistake to keep the genetics of that first queen going.

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I was feeling fairly smug about the sting as I went about the rest of my day, tearing away at the thicket of weeds that used to be the garden and generally trying to tidy up the property. I had my first sting and it was no big deal! I thought. I am going to write a totally nonchalant blog post about being stung and everyone will recognize I have become a super tough beekeeper sort of a person! Yay, me!

That evening, however, the situation took an unfortunate turn. The swelling and itching had begun in earnest. The first step after sitting for a bit was sometimes an exciting stab of pain and each step was, in fact, pretty darn uncomfortable. By bedtime I was gimping around somewhat dramatically and contemplating whether or not this injury would keep me from work the next day. As a nurse working in inpatient psychiatry, I value my ability to move quickly and easily if the situation demands it. We are, according to the instructor of the annual training our staff gets in managing violent patients, the most assaulted profession. I also felt that a severe limp would be somewhat unprofessional. I imagined myself cheerfully telling a patient that I would be right back with that glass of water/medication/lunch tray/etc. and then limping extravagantly away. My position is unbenefitted, however, and I really couldn’t stomach the idea that one bee sting was going to forfeit an entire day’s pay.

So, it wasn’t a super fun work day but between some anti-inflammatories and a very sexy pair of knee-high compression hose I got it done. I think I kept the limping to a not-embarassing level most of the time. Here is the average ankle on the left and her sausagey friend on the right after a night of rest broken by horribly satisfying itching sessions.

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A few days more and I was good as new!

In the end I’m not sure what this experience means. I have my suspicions, though. Perhaps I’m just not super tough. Being sensitive has its upsides, right? And maybe I will never be that fearless beekeeper that inspects hives in flip-flops and cut off shorts. I bet the honey will taste the same!

Stress Antidote Tea!

As this year comes to a close I’ve been reflecting on the time I spend on the computer, following blogs, Instagram and Facebook. I think there are certainly positives to these activities but it seems they have completely displaced blog writing for me and I miss it. I have been pondering the balance between producing and consuming in general lately. I would like to be the kind of person who produces more than I consume, a steep uphill struggle in these times when I can have my hearts desire in a mere 2 days from Amazon and get delicious little pings of dopamine from notifications on Facebook whenever the mood strikes me. Writing the blog feels less like a cheap thrill and more like actually making something. It’s still time sitting in front of a screen instead of having actual interactions with people or crossing things off the endless, endless, endless to do list but it consistently brings me happiness and gives me a bit more motivation to get things done around the tiny farm. One of my favorite parts of having dinner parties is the pre-party hustle, tossing the piles of yesterdays clothes (likely discarded during the bedtime routine wrestling match) behind closed bedroom doors and turning forts back into furniture a person might actually want to sit on. Having a blog is like having mini dinner parties all around the property. Little bits of cleaning up here and there so you don’t look like a crazy slob all over the internet lead to actually being less of a crazy slob! Delightful.

I’m also giving myself a pass if all I have is crappy pictures from my phone. See below. The perfect is too often the enemy of the good around this town.

All that was merely the preamble to the good stuff: Stress Antidote Tea!

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As I was sipping some delicious tea today it occurred to me that sharing this tea recipe might be appropriate this time of year. Perhaps I am not the only person for whom the holidays conjure mixed feelings? For this, my friends, there is Stress Antidote Tea. It is a sweet, minty, incredibly soothing elixir of goodness. So many herbal teas will let you down- they smell amazing and taste only so so. Not this one! If anything it tastes better than it smells. Super sweet! I learned about it from my chiropractor, Armene Lamson.  She recommended Five Flavors Herbs for buying the herbs and I can say from experience that the quality of the herbs makes a big difference. Grow your own or make a special trip and get the good stuff. It’s a simple recipe: equal parts peppermint, oat tops (oat straw would also do), nettles and licorice. You can play with the tea/water ratio to suit yourself. I go for a hefty amount and brew it twice. The first steep is almost syrupy, the second round is more refreshing.  The longer you steep it each time, the sweeter it gets.

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The sweeter it gets, the more likely it will be snatched and emptied by one of your children, beginning a delightful positive feedback loop in which you are simultaneously soothing yourself and a potential source of stress! Brilliant!

First Beehive Inpection: Nailed It.

Ok, really I have very little way of knowing how the inspection went in terms of actual beekeeping accomplishment. I can tell you that I loved it, I wasn’t scared and I can’t stop thinking about the whole experience. It’s a delightful thing to replay in my mind when I’m trying to fall back asleep after feeding Baby R in the middle of the night. I did indeed see proof that both of my queens are working hard making baby bees (brood in all stages of development) and there was no gross evidence of disease or massive problems of the magnitude that a brand new beekeeper like me might recognize.

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So, until the bees learn to type and correct me, I think that’s nailing it.

In both hives the girls had drawn comb on all the frames and had brood in most frames, so I went ahead and put another medium body on each. Using starter strips worked out well- no wonky comb building as of yet.

My resident photographer was out earning a living, so no photos from within the hive exist yet. However, I did stakeout the lavender bush.

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The folks at Beekind say that generally one should only inspect the hives every two weeks. Even this frequency of inspection for inspection’s sake can be hard on the bees, but apparently it’s a pretty good balance between the new beekeeper’s need to learn and the bees’ tolerance for invasions of the hive. This is a perfect fit for a new mom who has far more time to daydream and plan than to actually do anything productive. So far, so good!

The Bees Are In!

Three generations of our family helped get the homestead ready for our newest arrivals. Here they are completing one of the hive stands.

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This is what a box of 10,000 bees looks like! Within that mass lies the queen, protected by a small cage until the new colony becomes familiar with her. The silver disk is the top of a can of sugar syrup that sustains the bees until they are able to forage again.

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Here is one of our hives just before the bee release. I am primarily using starter strips, small straight strips attached to the top of each frame to get the bees started building combs in the right place and orientation, but have included one full frame of foundation in order to have an easy place to attach the queen initially. Once you remove the queen from the package you use a rubber band to hold her cage onto the foundation and frame. Most methods of installing packages of bees involve dumping the bees out of the box after the queen is removed and placed in the hive. Yes, the first act of many a new beekeeper is shaking a roiling mass of stinging insects out of a box! Sorta nuts. After viewing many a YouTube video of this procedure and feeling less and less brave all the time, I was happy to find the technique taught by the brilliant folks at Beekind up in Sebastopol, California. You install the queen and then simply place the box of bees in the hive and let them crawl out to be with her in their own. At least it looked simple when I watched it done by the guy who had done thousands of package installations before. My own reenactment of the deed was far less graceful. Fortunately, it did get the job done.

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That’s me in a beesuit! I think I look super cool, very beekeeperly. If I was a real beekeeper, however, it seems I would do this procedure in something that displayed an aggressive level of nonchalance- perhaps cutoff jean shorts and a bikini top. This is what I have gleaned from my months of internet research on the art of beekeeping. These boxes of bees are without a home to defend and therefore very docile, I know. Knowing this is great, but I also needed to keep my hand shaking to a level where I still had some semblance of fine motor skills. The bee handler that drops the queen cage into the box of bees while attempting to remove the cage from the package must then insert her hand into the mass of bees to retrieve it. No thank you!

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When I went to remove the package boxes and reconfigure the hives after 3 days I felt a little more sure of myself. After opening the first hive and pulling out my first frame of bees most of the nerves dissolved into absolute wonder. The bees were busily engaged in the festooning (how fantastic is that word??) behavior that helps them to make honeycomb. The comb itself was barely visible beneath the moving surface of bees linked together by their tiny bee claws, but the glimpses I got were breathtaking. The comb was pure white and perfectly formed. Such a miraculous design!

Two weeks after installation I will check again to see if my queens are settled in and getting down to the business of building colonies. Knowing how easy it is to fail completely at this hobby, I am trying not to get too attached to the outcome of this first attempt. It’s tough, though. I am already so smitten.

Growing 50 Plants From a 6 Pack

Although I will certainly lose some of my street cred as an urban homesteader by revealing that I do not start all my edibles from seed, this info is important stuff for the newer gardeners among us. As a beginner veggie grower I assumed each cell in a 6 pack held one plant and should be plunked right into the dirt. My friend Claire Woods, who also happens to be a propagator at the beloved Annie’s Annuals Nursery and an all around expert plant lady, set me straight on this situation.

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In fact, each of these cells holds about 10 viable kale plants.

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If you put each cell right into the ground you’ll end up with 10 big plants trying to grow in 1 square inch of dirt- no good! The trick is to tease each seedling apart so they can be planted at a proper distance from one another and mature to normal size. I usually start by pulling out a cell and tapping the side against my palm to loosen the dirt and roots. In cells that are as congested as these, it is then usually necessary to make one drastic tear down the middle to get the untangling process started.

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After that, with more gentle tapping, shaking and teasing apart, you can pull out each individual seedling. Go slow and be gentle! Doing this with bare hands helps a lot. I was trying to keep my hands clean to take pictures, so I have gloves on here. Some seedlings will end up without enough roots to support themselves- compost those guys.

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Just be sure to pick starts that are not too old or the roots will be so tangled you won’t be able to separate them. These kale starts are about as tangled as I can handle. If you don’t have any choice and are facing a complete snarl of roots, just snip off all but one of the babies at soil level, gently loosen the outside of the snarl and plant. Plants like kale, broccoli and cabbage can be planted deeper than they were in the cells to help support those reachy little stems. I usually put them in so the soil level is just below the cluster of leaves.

This process is terribly satisfying. After a good amount of culling, I ended up with 50 kale plants from this particular 6 pack. Pretty good for a few dollars worth of starts. Doing this also makes me feel far less guilty about not having started my own seeds at the right time. Next year all will be on time and my garden will be perfect! Next year!

A word of caution: don’t do this to baby plants with roots that hate to be disturbed, like melons and squash. They will struggle and pout.