Chicken Math and the Story of How I Ended Up With 18 Chickens

A little over a year ago I was given a pair of bantams by a friend who couldn’t keep the cockerel. They were a beautiful pair of Mille Fleur D’Uccle bantams. We used to have chickens when I was a kid, but the coop was pretty run down. These bantams were never going to lay much and we had gotten hooked on the idea that maybe we could raise chickens for eggs. With me working at a feed store, that seemed the natural next step. So I signed up to get three chicks in the next order. Three layers seemed perfect for a four person household that didnt go through a lot of eggs.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

On chick day I went in and discovered that there were two more chicks that hadn’t been claimed so I went home with 5 instead of three. No big deal. Especially since one of the turned out to be a rooster a few months later. Before we even knew he was a roo, he had been dubbed with the prophetic name, Dinner. That’s just what became of him since we already had a rooster we loved.

Shortly thereafter, a friend had to give up his elderly hens because he was moving. Thus 6 became 10 because free chickens don’t count, right?

Lilo

Of those four new ones, two were bullies to my bantams so they went right back out! but it turned out soon after that I had been mistaken and it was actually two other ones that were bullying my little ones. Meanwhile my mother had discovered the existence of black orpingtons and was totally in love so as I reduced my flock yet again, I started a search and found someone who had one, along with some other special breeds I was in love with. We intended to get three birds from her, but there was a discount if we get four! So four it was. Back to 10 birds again.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Life was grand and the flock was noisey. We got complaints about the rooster crowing so we were finally and tragically forced to get rid of the little man who started off our grand chicken adventure. We were heartbroken and to salve our wounded hearts, we put fertile eggs into an incubator in hopes that his progeny would live on in our flock. We decided to make room for them and culled our flock down to 4 again, but 21 days is a long time to wait and in that time I arranged for 4 pullets from a friend who is a show bantam breeder. Two cochins and two silkies to keep my one bullied bantam company.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

7 little ones hatched! Hurrah! A couple weeks later my pullets are ready for pickup and I head out to his coop-yard. I fall in love left and right and 4 becomes 7.

 

So heres the math:

2 free birds + 3 chicks= 7

7 – 1 rooster=10

10 -2 bullies= 6

6 + 1 orpington= 10

10 – 1 rooster= 11

11 + 4 bantams= 18 chickens in my flock!

 

I think that makes me officially chicken crazy.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma's, Georgie's,  back.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma’s, Georgie’s, back, and Georgie loves my lap!

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Shrooms in Bloom

Almost a year ago, I took a class from the Mushroom Maestros, Patty and Ray, in which we learned all about cultivating edible mushrooms at home. The class focused on simple to grow everyday edibles including oyster mushrooms and king stropharia. It was actually the third time I had taken a workshop from them because they proved to include new info each time and I always got to go home with a kit to grow something. This workshop focused on not just the growing of the mushrooms themselves, but also on the propagation of mycelia and production of inoculation spawn.20140813-135410-50050075.jpg

The first two times, my kits proved prolific, often producing three or four full flushes of fruit before petering out. The third class took a different focus, so instead of coming home with a straw-based kit for fruiting out on (like the one pictured above), I headed home with several jars of fresh mycelial spawn and rye pucks for propagating mycelium on my own time.

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I few weeks later, when my spawn had fully grown out, it happened to rain, soaking the strawbale we were supposed to use as chicken bedding. Without much thought, I used a pick-axe to gouge a couple holes in the bale and stuffed it with oyster mushroom spawn. It being the late fall, I had assumed it would rain again, giving the mycelium the moisture it needed to run, but to my chagrin, we saw instead the driest winter California has had in over 150 years. Nothing ever came of that inoculated bale and being well into the summer I just assumed it had dried out too much for the mycelium and that other more drought tolerant molds had outcompeted it.

So, of course it was to my delighted surprise that I was greeted by a big flush of fresh oysters growing out around my corn and kale when I went to water the bed the other day! I had used the bale to create a small hugelkultur bed by digging a bale shaped hole, dropping it in, and covering it with the native clay soil and a few bags of freecycled chicken manure compost.

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I’m an enthusiast, but certainly no mycology expert so I’m only guessing here, but I think the boost of nutrients from the manure must have given the mycelium what it needed to finally fruit out. I know that many mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms like to grow off manure, but generally oysters prefer wood. One of the flushes came out around a stake that had been supporting bird netting, and I made sure to leave the moldering wood in the ground when I cut out the mushrooms. One of the others encapsulated a robust little kale plant while the some appeared to fruit simply from exposed straw.

Suffice to say I’m thrilled to have such a bounty come from what I thought was a dead end project repurposed for veggies. I’m hoping to add some wood chips or logs to this bed in the fall in order to encourage the continuation of mycelial growth in my garden.

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5 Garden Favorites

My garden is overflowing with greenery, and everything I planted this year serves a purpose. Some are food for me, some are food for my dogs and some are food for my bees. Some a pest deterrents, some are trap crops. Each one is uniquely useful, but there are definitely a couple plants that seem to be in my kitchen or on my mind almost daily.

1. Variegated Collards
20140718-140856-50936173.jpg Collards are a staple of southern cuisine and also extremely easy to grow. Most collards take 80 days to mature but the strain propogated by Fedco Seeds takes only 60, nearly three weeks less and we happen to sell them at Biofuel Oasis, where I work. It produces massive 12-18in long leaves whose waxy coating makes them both mildew and aphid resistant.

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They are juicy and tender and very flavorful but the ribs are tough and needs to be removed before cooking. I’ve been cooking these as a side  dish for almost every meal and added them to a quiche with excellent results. They add color and texture as well as a huge dose of vitamins K, A, and C and I also love dehydrating them in place of kale for chips for a crunchy snack that satisfies.

 

2. Yarrow

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Yarrow is a spectacularly undervalued herb in most gardens. It is often planted as an ornamental in its yellow or red blooming form. The colorful blooms are a beautiful contrast against its silvery green leaves, but the white variety is the most medicinally potent. For this reason, I planted two varieties, one for looks and one for use, though even the colorful variety is still an wonderful aromatic.Yarrow prefers well drained soil, and full sun, but can survive in partial shade. It handles our acidic clay soil in the East Bay quite well and can thrive in nutrient-poor conditions.

One of the most effective uses of Yarrow is for halting bleeding by applying crushed green leaves to the wound. The root is also an effective analgesic that can be chewed to alleviate toothache and reduce gum inflammation. A tea made from the leaves and/or flowers will open pores and raise body temperature and is said to air in breaking fevers. Dilute tea is also effective in regulating menses.

20140718-140444-50684714.jpg Of course Yarrow has a whole other usefulness too. It’s an excellent pollinator attractant and one bloom will often play host to numerous bees at once. The blooms are long lasting and numerous, and can provide nectar and pollen even during dry times as the plant is extremely hardy and drought tolerant. This plant is also very easy to propagate from small root segments which is exactly what I did by pulling up small shoots in neighbors’ yards to plant it in my own. I also use Yarrow in my herbal infused bee food which I make fresh every couple weeks.

 

3. Scarlet Runner Bean

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This one is pretty straight forward. Scarlet runner beans are highly productive and will continue to bloom if beans are harvested continuously. The blooms attract all manner of pollinators including honeybees, native bees, butterflies, and humming birds. Vines grow up to 20ft with bright red blooms and lush green leaves along the entire length.

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When pods are picked young, before they begin thickening, the entire pod is edible like any green bean. Later, when beans mature, they can be left on the vine or picked to dry and storage beans. At this point, the pod walls become hard,  fibrous and undigestible, but the beans are large and flavorful when cooked in soup or chili, or as a dish on their own.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetable, runner beans can overwinter in climates that remain above 23 degrees Fahrenheit, however I don’t know anyone who has tried to do this. I plan to try it once these beans have spent themselves out by mulching them over for the winter to keep them cozy and warm.

 

4. Mullein

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Mullein has nearly three dozen names including Our Lady’s Flannel, Clown’s Lungwort, Shepherds Staff, and my favorite, Hare’s Beard. The leaves and flowers of the plant contain most of the medicinal potency, though some applications for the root are said to exist. Mullein is mainly used as an anti-spasmotic which works wonders to alleviate coughs and or gastrointestinal cramping. It is also a mild sedative, so it is best taken at bedtime, lest it leave you feeling drowsy. However, combined with catnip, mint, lemon verbena, sage, and lavender, it makes a soothing and delightful sleep tonic. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh, or hung to dry for later use.

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The plants can grow up to 3ft wide with a single flower spike up to 8ft tall, whose lemon-yellow flowers are appealing to hummingbirds and butterflies as well as honeybees. The leaves are large and velvety soft and, because they grow as weeds in many places, hikers and backpackers have often used them as trail-side toilet paper.

Mullein has a two-year growth cycle but isn’t a true perennial as it only blooms its second year, however it does reseed itself prolifically. Fear not, it is easy to weed out when it is young and is easily shaded out by faster growing plants which keeps it from being aggressively invasive. It grows best in full sun and is another plant which can thrive in nutrient-poor clay. It does however prefer moderate water, especially in its second year while blooming.

 

5. Zucchini

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Okay, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Zucchini is a big food-producer. It takes almost no effort to grow and is easy to cook in a wide variety of ways. Our plants are producing huge sweet zukes every day and we can’t keep up with harvesting them so some have gotten a bit bigger than intended. I recommend every beginning gardener plant a few because it is incredibly rewarding to produce such a bounty as one’s first experience and even as an experienced backyard farmer it is good to know you have one fool proof crop in the garden in case everything goes haywire. All they need is sun and rich soil. They don’t like their roots disturbed to place them in a area where they have plenty of room to spread.

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In my home zucchini is used in just about anything from quiches to curries, and dog-food to fritters. It freezes well for later use in zucchini bread or pasta sauce and also keeps whole for quite some time. It ripens in perfect time with grilling season and there is something almost magical about plucking a vegetable and taking to straight to the grill without ever touching a kitchen counter or pantry. Somehow home grown veggies will always taste sweeter.

 

Right now, these five are my big favorites, though there are certainly many others in the garden that I love having quick access to. I expect that there will be a whole different set of favorites as the seasons change. What are your favorite garden products?

 

 

Picking Up Chicks

Last fall we got chicks and now they are full blown hens and one lucky girl is trying to become a momma herself!
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Inky, our old lady australorpe (adopted from another flock) has been sitting on her nest for almost just over the 21 day incubation period. She actually stole the nest out from under Ginger, the Mille Fleur D’Uccle Bantam, and I added some eggs at that point so they might be hatching late. Ginger had 16 eggs under her tiny body and I think she just couldn’t keep them warm enough. I have been candling and periodically removing bad eggs and the 6 left are heavy and warm. Fingers crossed, and we shall see what hatches if anything at all.

Meanwhile, we are adding new birds to the mix that my Mama picked up from Just Struttin Farm in Novato, CA yesterday. The two that are mine have gotten their names already.

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Meet Georgie! She is a 12 week old Calico Cochin pullet who weighs next to nothing. She is a little shy, sweet and falls asleep in my lap once I’m holding her.

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Kiki is a Mille Fleur Leghorn cross hen. Her coloring isn’t spectacular, but I think she fits right in with our other two Milles. She’s a bit of an escape artists and quite curious. Last night she escaped her temporary run and roosted on the tin roof of the main chicken run about 9ft up. Today she is relishing exploring the run with the rest of our flock, already comfortable and settled in.

The second pullet we brought home is the one that instigated all the new additions. My mother and I had been searching for Black Orpingtons for months. Last fall we visited another urban homesteader’s property and my Mama fell in love with the breed. I practically had to pry our hosts hens from her embrace!

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The way she cradles this beautiful gal, I suspect it will be much the same in our own back yard. Though she doesn’t have a name yet, she has already proven herself a perfect fit for our microfarm. She comes up to me in the coop and is anything but skittish, almost asking to be picked up.

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This is the last of the new girls, a double blue laced barnevelder. I fell in love with the blue laced red plumage on wyandottes but because of my busy schedule I didn’t feel ready to raise them from chicks. Luckily, Deann had one hen the needed a home who has just the feathers I wanted and serene, people oriented personality to boot. This photo really does no justice to her sensational coloring.

The rest of our flock is of course our Mille Fleur D’Uccle Bantams in the middle of this photo, Cinnamon, and Ginger.

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These two are quite the troublemakers, occasionally upsetting our neighbors with 6am wake up calls and daytime squawking and honking as well as the loudest crow I’ve heard from such a tiny rooster. We like to joke that he is compensating for his size.

The Ameraucanas we raised from chicks, Hawk and Mary Kate.

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Though both the same breed, and from the same breeder, they look quite different and so do their eggs. It’s fun to have such variety in the egg basket!

Last but not least is the 3+year old matron of our flock, Pinky. She came to us along with Inky and two others that we decided to cull out (Blinky, and Dot).

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Despite her poor laying, we decided we really like her and she gets to stay by virtue of being our top hen an one of the friendliest. She too loves being held, a trait we obviously appreciate in our hens.

Hey there, Honey!

A couple days ago, I joined my friend Kitty Sharkey in extracting her honey. Last winter she lost her bees but was able to save the frames of honey in her freezer. If you’ve ever stored honey, you’ve probably noticed that it crystallizes if it gets cold. Interestingly though, it only does that between 40-32 degrees Fahrenheit. Below freezing however, the water crystalizes and leaves the sugar in suspension and when thawed it returns to its liquid golden state. That’s what Kitty did with her frames to store them for a time when extracting the honey was actually a possibility.

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One of the perks of my job at the Biofuel Oasis and Urban Farm Store is that I have access to the equipment needed to extract the honey from the comb, so I offered to help her out.

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Together, we uncapped the comb and used the extractor to spin out the liquid gold. The honey runs through a filter to remove all the stray wax, leaving only pure raw honey in the bucket.

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Unfortunately my recent back injury made me unable to finish the project with her and she was up til the wee hours of the morning before she was done, but overall, the haul was around 45lbs from about 20 frames. Not bad for a lost hive.

Of corse this called for celebration so we dipped glasses under the stream of unfiltered honey and filled up with bourbon. Cheers!

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Pomade for the Urban Agrarian

I recently got my hair cut very short. It’s a new experience for me. I usually have my hair rather short, but this is VERY short.

I wanted to have fun with styling the new do, but my skin is very sensitive to petrochemicals and sulfates  so finding a pomade that could hold up my hair without upsetting my scalp was no easy trick. Even Bumble & Bumble, one of the most highly recommended brands of hair care products, contained as its first Pomade ingredient something called Microcrystaline Wax. After a bit of snooping, I figured out that it is a processed paraffin which is of course a petroleum product.

Etsy brought up a few “soft hold” pomades and hair greases that were petro-chemical free, but they weren’t going to be thick enough to do what I was hoping for and weren’t cheap either.

When you can’t find what you want, MAKE IT YOURSELF! So I did.

I created Urban Agrarian Pomade from only natural organic ingredients. 2oz tins just went up on Etsy, and I’ll be adding 1oz blocks as well as a softer blend, Agrarian Slicker Pomade, in the next few weeks.