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Organic Mechanics (plus). March 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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So far, today has been a banner day here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. First, our Buff Orpington hen, Stella, laid the first egg of the season. Our friend Ben heard the triumphant cackling from the greenhouse, and looking out, saw Stella doing the traditional victory lap around the henyard, announcing her triumph at top volume. Thanks, Stella! It’s a beautiful egg.

In case you’re wondering, after their first year—when they mature and start laying eggs in the late summer, then continue through the fall and winter—hens raised without artificial light and heat stop laying for the year when the days get short in fall, and don’t start again until the daylight lengthens in spring. During the cold months, they use every calorie to stay warm. And people say chickens are stupid! But I digress.

The second great thing was that we discovered a new-to-us potting soil, Organic Mechanics, that we’d purchased at James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers. We needed more potting soil (shock surprise), and couldn’t resist a bag that boasted great ingredients, no peat (a natural resource that’s rapidly being depleted), and “Mom Approved.” When we opened it, we were wowed by the rich, beautiful soil. We could almost hear the plants we were potting up breathing a huge collective sigh of relief as their roots sank into this gorgeous soil.

Returning indoors, our friend Ben checked out the Organic Mechanics website (www.organicmechanicsoil.com). Apparently Silence and I aren’t the only folks who were wowed by this potting soil: It’s used by three of the most prestigious gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, and the Scott Arboretum, not to mention the U.S. National Arboretum, the U.S. National Park Service, and the British Embassy. I don’t know what pleases me and Silence more, that we’re supporting an excellent local PA product, the anticipation as we wait to see what it does for our container plants, or the thought that all these important gardens and arboretums (and even the Park Service!) are using organic potting soil. Kudos to them, and to Mark Highland, Organic Mechanics’ founder.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live in the Mid-Atlantic region to find this outstanding organic potting soil. The Organic Mechanics website is excellent and informative, and you can order direct. Thier product line is short and sweet: Seed Starting Blend Potting Soil, Planting Mix (for raised beds), Premium Blend Potting Soil (for veggies and other food plants), Container Blend Potting Soil (for perennials and woodies), and Worm Castings.

We have our own earthworm composter, so we can attest to the incredible richness of earthworm castings as a soil conditioner and fertilizer. And of course, you can also use them to make earthworm “tea.” Here’s how Mark makes “tea” from castings: “Mix 1 pound of castings in 1 gallon of water. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, let castings settle to bottom, then pour off a fraction of the liquid solution. Stop before pouring out castings particles, and repeat until tea turns light brown in color, then pour out any remaining castings and use as mulch.” Of course, when he says “pour out,” he doesn’t mean “throw out.” Use the liquid you’re draining off as a foliar spray or soil drench.

The third great thing about today happened when our friend Ben called up our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, to post this, and saw that we now have over 400,000 total views. We promised when we hit 300,000 views that we wouldn’t go on about this again until we reached 500,000, so ’nuff said. But you can bet we’ll be inviting our friend and resident blog historian, Richard Saunders, and his girlfriend Bridget over for a celebratory supper!

Unfortunately, by tomorrow we may not be having so much to celebrate. After several weeks of daytime temperatures in the 70s (including several days that reached 78 degrees) and nighttime lows in the high 40s and low 50s, tonight the temperature is plunging down to 26. Brrrr!!! With apples, peaches, and pear trees in bud and our pluot in full flower—not to mention our bed of greens, just peeping up through the soil, our spinach, Swiss chard, and herb transplants, and our windowbox planters of violas—we are seriously concerned. Guess we’ll have to hope for the best and see what makes it through the night.

Meanwhile, happy gardening to you all. Thanks for visiting, and we hope you have things to celebrate today, too!

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Giving chickens a bad name. August 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Yesterday morning, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood had been delighted to see a “Crazy for Chickens!” decal on the window of a passing car, including an outline of a happy hen. We wished we could find one for our own car, the Red Rogue, where it could join our “No Farms, No Food” and “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” stickers. Go backyard chickens!!!

We have a small flock of heritage-breed hens, who provide us with fantastic organic eggs, entertainment, high-quality fertilizer for our garden beds (their high-nitrogen poop naturally composted with the straw of their chicken yard and the shredded paper in their nest boxes), feathers for our fly-tying friends, and a ready source of appreciative and ever-hungry diners for all our past-peak produce, bread, etc., plus any leftovers we’ve had enough of, pulled weeds that are too scary to compost, spent garden plants, and so on.

Chickens are nature’s garbage disposal. And unlike actual garbage disposals, they give you delicious eggs and free fertilizer, not to mention good company. Ours not only look different—we try to choose each of our six or seven from different heritage breeds—but have their own personalities and know their own names. They also know us and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and relate to all of us with varying degrees of affection and complacency.

Our chickens take up little space and require little in the way of care: a snug enclosure (coop) with nest boxes where they can get out of the elements and lay eggs, a chicken yard where they can wander around outside, enjoy the sunlight and fresh air, take a dust bath, revel in the feel of rain running through their feathers, forage for anything they might find, and enjoy a steady supply of fresh water and a diversity of foods, including fresh greens, an assortment of fruits and veggies, scratch grains, egglayer pellets, bread and other baked goods, pasta, rice, and milk or cheese that’s past its prime.  

We love our chickens. They’re colorful, personable, low-maintenance, and they reward us with the best eggs we or anyone we’ve given some to have ever eaten, with huge yolks like glaceed apricots and a rich, delicious flavor. So we’ve been thrilled to observe and read about the rise of the backyard chicken movement across America. In cities from Seattle, WA to Madison, WI to Pittsburgh, PA to New York, enthusiasts are raising a few (ordinances generally limit the number to between two and five) chickens and reaping the rewards. It’s one step closer to sustainability, a link to our ancestors, who couldn’t have imagined not raising chickens along with their veggies, herbs, flowers and fruits. Back to the future! Great eggs, no salmonella, no guilt over patronizing the hideous factory farms that remind us of the human “flesh farms” in “The Matrix.”

Seeing the pro-chicken decal buoyed our spirits, but our delight was short-lived. Arriving home, Silence went online to see if any e-mails required a response and saw a “This Just In” e-mail from our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. One of the headlines was “Lower Saucon rooster repeat offender, attacks elderly woman.”

On the morning of August 5th, the rooster ran out of its yard and attacked a senior citizen as she took her morning constitutional. According to police, who cited the rooster’s owner with “violating the township ordinance of failing to keep his rooster on his property,” this was the third time the rooster had charged and injured a passerby, the other two instances occurring in May and June. In response, the rooster’s owner informed the officers that he was “aware of the attack.”

This is the kind of thing that gives chickens a bad name. Even roosters that are confined to a chicken yard are loud, disturbing the neighborhood with their early-morning cries. They are protective of their flock by nature, charging perceived intruders with beak and spurs, as the super-sharp claws on the backs of their legs are called. Their instinctive ferociousness, designed to defend their harems from predators whatever their size, is why the so-called “sport” of cockfighting came about, and their legendary fearlessness is why countries like France chose a rooster as their national emblem. Many’s the farm child who’s grown up with scarred legs from rooster attacks.

It’s insane to keep a rooster in an urban or suburban situation anyway, much less a free-roaming watchrooster. You don’t even need to keep a rooster to get eggs: Hens lay them anyway. The eggs of roosterless hens are sterile, just like the ones you buy in the store; they’re for eating, not hatching. The only possible excuse for keeping a rooster is if you want to produce your own chicks, not really an issue for city dwellers.

The owner of the attack rooster has clearly rusted out a few bolts in what passes for his brain. To allow one’s animals to attack elderly passersby, or children walking by, or anybody passing by, is criminal. Had the rooster escaped its enclosure and rushed someone once, it would still be inexcusable, though accidental. (Imagine the lawsuit if a dog had done that!) But clearly this rooster is, ahem, free-range.

The damage one owner and one bird like this can do to law-abiding, quiet, peaceful urban and suburban chicken owners is incalculable. Each time the rooster attacks, it makes the news. Not only has an unoffending neighbor been savagely attacked, but the owner’s comment is not, “Ohmigod, I’m SO sorry! I should never have tried keeping a rooster in a neighborhood setting! I’ll send it to a local farm at once, and of course I’ll pay all emergency-room fees.” Instead, what he says is “I was aware of the attack.” What a great guy! Just the kind of neighbor everyone dreams about.

What happens next is only too predictable. Next thing you know, a group of outraged citizens will demand that the township revoke any ordinances allowing chickens within city limits, or demand that an anti-chicken ordinance be instated if no laws regarding chicken-keeping are on the books. Because of one idiot, an entire city could be deprived of the delights of chicken-raising, the ability to learn useful husbandry skills, to enjoy the freshest possible eggs, and to savor the feeling of a little more self-sufficiency and control over their own food supply.

We think this is a shame, even a tragedy. Rather than banning chickens from the community, we’d like to see that stupid, uncaring bastard punished instead, and to make sure that his punishment fits his crime. We think it would be fitting to close him up, in only his underwear, in a very, very small space with his beloved rooster for a very, very long time…

RIP Grizz. December 11, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were very sorry to get an e-mail from our friends Delilah and Chaz letting us know that their beloved Barred Rock hen, Grizz, died this morning. If you’ve never raised chickens, or you raise them, then butcher them every year or two, you won’t be following this. So let me fill in the gaps.

First off, Grizz was ten years old. (Chickens can live to be twelve, and, if you don’t kill them off, will keep on laying eggs the whole time.) She’d had a real luxury lifestyle compared to most chickens, including ours: Delilah vacuumed her coop and chicken yard daily. Grizz had a heated coop and heated water dish. Like our own flock, she was given an extraordinary array of nutritious kitchen scraps every day in addition to her conventional scratch grains and egglayer pellets. She was one spoiled chicken.

Chickens are flock animals, preferring the company of others, and sure enough, Grizz was never lonely. Whether she was palling around with other chickens or mothering a clutch of baby ducks, she had plenty of company. She had a great life.

Like Delilah, we consider our chickens partners for life. True, they supposedly lay fewer eggs as they get older, but we’ve never actually experienced this. After their first year, our chickens wise up and stop laying when the days grow short in the winter, conserving their strength to keep themselves warm, then starting up again when the days start lengthening in spring. (Chicken farmers get around this by heating and lighting their coops over the winter, but we’re happy to give our hens a well-deserved break.) Yes, we do have to break down and buy eggs (from a local farmer who free-ranges his flock) until our hens start laying again, but it’s a deal we’re happy to make to prolong their lives and keep them happy. They give us so much—incredibly rich, delicious, organic eggs, companionship (chickens are very personable and affectionate), and fantastic high-nitrogen fertilizer from their droppings, not to mention feathers for fly-tying and crafts—surely we can give them a winter vacation in return.

We love our chickens. They give us so much and ask so little in return. Twelve years of phenomenal eggs for every chick seems like a great return on investment to us! We try to keep six hens at a time, which provide all the eggs we can use and plenty to give to our friends. We’d like to see people raising chickens in every backyard.

But yes, they do, eventually, die. And after so many years, you do indeed feel like you’re losing a good friend. RIP Grizz. Your family and friends will miss you!