Still a Bad-Ass Chick

I just finished my last online class the other day when I heard a piteous squawk outside my window. I thought it might be Gold who, always starved for human affection, spends much of her day pecking at my office window. I was about to open the window and tell her she couldn’t come in when I noticed that she, along with the rest ladies, was still in the chicken run that we had relocated to a garden bed near the house for the winter.

I went back to my desk and heard the squawk again. Then there was a peck. I got up and actually opened the slider this time. 

Katy-the-Wonder-Dog was lollygagging in a sunny patch of snow (it was a balmy 35°), so I was pretty sure there weren’t any predators in the yard. One of the cats was sitting outside the chicken run gloating about his freedom. I looked the other way, and there was Joan Jett running back-and-forth in front of the house.

Back when we got the chickens, we named the Americaunas based on their personalities or distinguishing characteristics (The Reds, affectionate and incredibly productive, move as one and were harder to name). Fluffy had a silky mane.  Golda had appropriately colored feathers, and one ornery, independent little chick with a shock of black feathers on the top of her head is named Joan Jett.

Joan likes to investigate the woods, my greenhouse and garden, and, often, the inside of my car, so I knew her distress was not fear. She trotted past my window and back to the run, pecking at her sisters through the hardware cloth, clearly incensed that They had chosen the first sunny warm day to ignore her bold leadership in breaking out of the run.

She hopped up on the top of the coop, so I went out and unceremoniously popped her back into the coop, checking to make sure she couldn’t sneak right back out again. She gave an outraged squawk as I closed door and scooted down the ramp to the enclosed run so she could, I’m certain, berate her sisters for ruining such a good escape plan. 

When she got to the bottom of the ramp, however, she appeared to discover the perfect little sunny spot that must not have been there when she first decided to escape. I headed back to my office. She settled into her new spot, squawking at me and then her sisters one last time to make sure I knew that staying put was her idea and that she’s still one bad-ass chick, reminding me that just because you’re doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, doesn’t mean you’re actually going along with it.

Garden Surprise

One of things I love about having two kids who are getting older (one is almost 20 the other is almost 14) is that, as their different strengths emerge, I am ending up with two very different and wonderful partners in crime.

Thing1 one is my builder. I contract more and more construction projects out to him these days.

Thing2 is my idea man, my co-dreamer. When I have an idea for a backyard project that might make Thing1 or the Big Guy gasp in horror, Thing2 is ready to hop on that flight of ideas with me which that’s how I ended up with today’s menu specialty, Garden Surprise.

Last summer the two of us were shopping and stopped at the food court for mango smoothies. We both decided they were so good we had to have seconds, and just before total brain freeze started to take hold we uttered, at the same time, “we should get a blender so we can make our own.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. There should’ve been a responsible adult there to put the kibosh on this idea, but five minutes later we were headed over to the kitchen store to pick out a blender. We bought a bunch of frozen fruit at the grocery store and did a little experimenting. Almost as soon as we stocked the freezer and perfected a few blends, however, cold weather set in, and the blender didn’t see much action for the next nine months.

We’ve had a few barnburners recently, and the frozen fruit and blender have re-emerged but with a twist this year. The last few days, as the garden really starts to produce, I’ve developed a new recipe, Garden Surprise, which consists of water, protein powder, a little bit of frozen fruit or banana, and anything that happens to be ready to pick. It’s yielding wildly different drinks from day to day–today included kale and cilantro and peas, but, just as i’ve learned from my two very different boys, sometimes the things that take you most by surprise also offer the most joy.

The Chickens and The Eggs

By the time I got back from the garden with my daily blueberry harvest, something had discovered the wild black raspberries by the woodshed, stripping the lower canes of every last bit of treasure. I picked the last half cup of berries by the shed and then did a quick lap around the yard for an informal inventory. At every point, the lower canes had been henpecked out of their bounty. I had almost completed the lap when I bumped int the culprits and an age old question – which comes first, the chickens or the eggs?

We don’t cultivate black raspberries or blackberries. They cultivate themselves — usually in the most invconvenient spots – but we do try to harvest enough for a small batch of jam or berry pancakes each year. They’re one of a few crops we don’t have to work for.

Eggs are the other crop we do very little to nurture. New chicks get a starter feed and, as soon as they’re old enough, a coop on the range. Advocates of letting chickens be chickens, we’ve been letting the Ladies of the Coop dictate what they want to eat, and, until the berries ripened, that worked out pretty well. They seemed to go mostly for bugs and weeds and, aside from “aerating” the carrot bed a little too enthusiastically, left most of the garden plants alone.

Letting chicks be chicks has, historically, given us delicious eggs with rich dark yolks. Blackberries are just starting to form and ripen. I suspect the Ladies of the Coop will be aiming for that crop as well. Part of me wants to try to fence off the canes to save it for the humans. The other part of me is coming to terms with the fact that getting great eggs may mean letting the chickens come first. 

Salad Days

The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.

I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.

Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.

I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.

Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.

Not Weed

This time last year, I would have regarded this fluffy clump as a sign that summer was officially here. This year, I’m thanking it for the hard work it’s done helping our bee population.

I think we have the dandelions to thank for it.

We’ve had apple trees since we moved here. Our plum and pear trees are old enough to flower each year, and the flowering bushes are not new. What is new this year is the profuse flowers that have appeared on every plant, attracting symphonies of laboring bees.

The dandelions seemed to arrive first in all of this miracle. I’m not sure if they brought the bees who brought the flowers or if the late snows brought the flowers who brought the bees, but the dandelions were there first.

The green in our yard can hardly be called a lawn. It gets cut once a week, but we let Mother Nature do the watering and fertilizing, so, to thank these puffs for their contribution, I decided to let them be until they’re ready to fly around the yard, setting us up for another year of miracles.

Cliquety Cluck

Well it was bound to happen sooner or later. Apparently you can’t assemble more than three chickens without a clique starting to click because that’s what our Rhode Island Reds have started to do. 

There are four Reds and three Americaunas.  The chicks are very sweet to us, but they’ve discovered that the tiny white flowers that are growing outside (and inside) the chicken tractor are infinitely more delicious when they are fed to you by humans on their knees (I think the Jim-Bob may have been reading to them from his soon to be published How to Have Your Human Serve You). The Americauna’s take turns yanking the flowers from our hands, but three of the Red’s, whom I am now calling the Plastics, butt in front of their smallest sister every single time.

The boys came up with a strategy of distracting the Plastics with the fluffy flowers on one side of the tractor while I feed Baby Sister her share from the other. It’s worked once or twice, but the Plastics are not your average bird brains. They seem to be catching on, and we’re scratching new ground as we start our field research into Social Emotional Learning for Chickens so our ladies can keep the peace.

Partners in Crime

Thing2 has been experimenting with the digital projector I use for presentations at school. He’s been projecting video games and Avengers movies on the ceiling and underneath the TV. here’s an idea man, so it should’ve been too much of a surprise when the two of us looked at each other and said, “let’s have an outdoor movie night.“

The other family members were out of the house when the idea got started, and, by the time everyone else got back we had collected a makeshift screen and two plant hangers from which to hang a curtain rod.

Immediately we agreed that we should all watch the original Star Wars. The kids have never seen it on “the“ big screen, but I think this one will be just as good. We just have to rig up THX in the yard before we screen Empire.

Common Creativity

When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.

Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude. 

His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”

Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it. 

When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible).  He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket. 

Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.

Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest.  They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.

Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.  

The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.  

Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.

Walking to Paradise

Where There Are Bees

it’s not a sign of spring. The leaves on the trees have mostly popped already anyway, but it was the ultimate sign of hope.

I went out to the garden to check the progress of the sun in an area I want to prep for later in the summer. The buzzing next to the garden Was so loud I wondered if flies might have been attracted to some poor chipmunk that had attempted to steal squash leaves in the presence of Princess Jane. As I walked toward the apple tree on the west side of the garden, however, I saw hundreds of tiny worker bees toiling among the apple blossoms.

i’ll go back to try to capture them with a better camera, but they were patient as I tried to snap a few pictures as long as I didn’t interrupt your work. I greeted and welcomed them, knowing the returning bees are more than just a sign of spring. They are a chorus of hope.

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Poem: Murder Most Foul

I’m thinning basil seedlings.
Eggplant, you’re next.
I’ve killed dozens of pepper shoots,
mourning the products of
seeds that worked so hard,
tossing them out the door.
Only the very best survive.
The cat runs by with a chipmunk who may escape her maul
but will more likely end up in the middle of the yard,
his entrails split over the new-cut grass while she,
without a trace of blood on her mouth
or guilt on her head,
returns to perch on her chair,
and watch me commit murder most foul.

Katie’s Chicks

Katie settles in from a comfortable distance to watch the chicks. She makes a practice of checking on them whenever they move from their indoor house to the outdoor home. She lolls in the grass as Jim tries and talk the chickens into squeezing through the holes in the wire.

The chicks love to visit with Jim, chirping that they’d be only too happy to show him their feathers up close if only they could get through. Visibly cursing the physics of chicken wire, Jim pretends to be distracted by a chipmunk under the car and left.

Jane watches for a while and then decides it’s time for the pro from Dover to put the fear of the Warrior Princess into the chicks. This is when, Katie, recognizing a true huntress, gets to her feet, shadowing her Royal Highness before she gets within 6 feet of the coop.

Karie takes a fair amount of teasing for being a bit of a wimp. It’s safe to say chicks are usually less afraid of the cats than the she is. Ultimately, though, she lives by one overriding philosophy of ”Don’t mess with my chicks.”

I can sympathize.

Score One for Straw Bale

One of the quirks of Strawbale gardening is that, even though you don’t have to contend with perennial weeds that are real PIA to pull, conditioning bales of straw (made from cut grass) will generate weeds in your planting medium. You can smother it before it starts, but you will have to do some pulling as I did yesterday.

I’m trying to mulch as I pull so that it’s a one time deal, but since I’ve been sick most of the spring, bending at the waist to pull even a few blades of grass was mindbending I’m not in a good way. That’s how I discovered one of the other more beneficial quirks of this gardening method.

The basic steps of a straw bale garden our place, condition, and plant the bales. Some types of plants need soil on top of the bale before planting; others can go right into the conditioned straw. This year I had the kids do most of the placing – bales can be at least 35 or 40 pounds stone dry, but weeding is less glamorous. I made it even less so yesterday by having Thing1 bring a chair up to the garden after the weeding first bale literally benched me.

After stooping over gardens for the last two decades, sitting in a chair, weeding and mulching the second onion bed that was just the right size and height was not only not strenuous, it was downright enjoyable. Sitting, you get to talk with the cats and dog about what you’re doing (the cats still think you’re nuts), you get to take a look at what’s almost ready to be picked, and you even get to do a little meditating. Sure you get to meditate doing it the old-fashioned way, but being able to sit and do it it’s a big checkmark in the win column for Strawbale gardening this year.

P. S. I still highly recommend a nap when you’re done.