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.

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.

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.

Garden Journal – Straw Bale Update

When we moved to Vermont, our ZIP Code sat in a solid zone four. Now it is comfortably into zone five, and we set out seedlings a week earlier on Memorial Day weekend. Our day and nighttime temps can still be a bit bipolar, so when it looks like the nighttime lows will be below 40, I cover the tender annuals. Yesterday morning, however, I learned that, with straw bale gardening, less protection can be more.

The straw bale method involves conditioning the bales with plant food and water almost two weeks ahead of planting. This causes the straw to break down, and you are, essentially, planting your veggies in a compost heap. Like most compost heaps, the decomposing bales Start to “cook”. This means if you cover your tender annuals, like I did with the cukes pictured below, you need to make sure that they are uncovered as soon as the sun hits your garden. As you can see, I slept in a bit yesterday, and at least one of my little cukes got fried.

It’s still early enough in the season and hot enough outside that I can direct seed it to replenish, but I hate to sacrifice a soldier that was trying to serve me well.

By contrast, I did not cover the summer and winter squash or the tomatoes. Those plants were slightly bigger, and I had only so much material for protection. It was down in the low 40s on Saturday night and Sunday night, and I knew I was gambling.

When I walked out to the garden in the morning, however, this was the sunshine that greeted me:

I took a little trip to the back of the garden to check on the tomatoes, and every single one of them was getting ready to salute the sun:

The tomatoes do have weed block around them, but the real heat is coming from the bales.

Later in the day I went back to visit the garden –– I visit to talk to the plants and the bees in the nearby apple trees a few times a day – and while I highly recommend talking to plants and bees regularly for your mental well-being, my straw bales blessed me at the end of the day with a little botanical happy pill in the form of newly sprouted bush beans that I had direct seeded less than 48 hours earlier.

If I were to do the straw bale garden over again, I might set some of the seedlings out earlier and cover them for the first couple of weeks. The one caveat I have for other would-be straw bale gardeners is that, while the claim that you can’t overwater them appears to be true, the reverse is also seems to hold. You do need to check the moisture around your plants as you do with any gardening method.

So far, however, my plants seem to be loving the heat and the decomposing bales, and, as mentioned previous post, you can still sit to do your gardening.