Monday, June 21, 2010

Introducing Samantha

Getting two eggs a day from one's backyard is nice, but three is even better. On a recent trip to my friend Leland's farm in Cambelford we made sure to stop in at their weekly livestock auction. This place was a real scene. Inside a large barn, off the side of the highway, an auctioneer was gathering bids as calves were pushed in and out of small doors. My three vegetarian accomplices didn't much care for this part of the livestock auction so we went outside where the smaller livestock were being sold. This is where chickens, turkeys, pigeons, and rabbits were sold. The man I wanted to see was Chicken Charlie, who is known around Cambelford for having the best selection of heritage breed birds. Chicken Charlie had more than just chickens, he had cats, dogs, bantams, and turkey's. He also had meat bunnies and pet bunnies, which Kayla quickly learned the difference between, meat bunnies are five dollars and pet bunnies are ten. While Kayla ran around trying to get enough money to buy all the meat bunnies and set them free, I started to look at all of Chicken Charlie's heritage breeds.

Chicken Charlie had Silkies, Barred Plymouth Rocks, crazy looking Polands, and your standard Rhode Island Reds. The one that I decided would be best suited for us was a beautifully feathered and docile Speckled Sussex. The standard manner of purchasing heritage breed birds is to get both a rooster and a hen in a package deal. This makes sense for anybody in the country as you'll want your eggs to be incubated so you can replenish your flock with chicks rather than buying new birds. But in the city roosters are not the greatest idea. Roosters make loud cocka-doodle-doo's all day long and, while I might find it charming, I am sure would eventually irritate the neighbors resulting in a call to Toronto's bylaw enforcement offices. In fact the neighbor who borders the west side of our backyard had his chickens taken away several years ago after he had bought and begun to house a boisterous rooster.

Chicken Charlie wasn't entirely on board with selling me just a hen, and couldn't quite comprehend why my neighbors would have a problem. He even pondered what this country is coming too if the government can tell you not to have chickens. After a little haggling and five dollars added on to the price of the hen he agreed to sell me Samantha for a wopping 25$. This is a fancy chicken when you consider Baylik and Hepzebah were only 7 bucks a pop. As Chicken Charlie handed Samantha over to me he didn't treat her as the fancy expensive chicken she is as he pulled her out of her cage by a wing and shoved her into my chest. With wings flapping and a few loud squawks I placed her into a box for the ride home, which always seems to instantly calm a hen.

I have always heard that introducing a new hen to a flock can be difficult. It can result in pecking, defeathering, and even death. All sources that I have read, and even Chicken Charlie, suggest that new hens should be introduced at night while the original hens are asleep. In the early hours of their first morning together this seemed to have worked. The three of them all peacefully pecked at the grass together, and so with a big smile on my face I went back to bed. When I returned to the yard a couple of hours later Franka, who had been watching from her backyard into ours, warned me that "they are going to kill that poor chicken". I suppose Baylik and Hepzebah hadn't realized that a new hen was pecking along side them until after I had gone back to bed. Once they did realize, they did not appreciate her presence.

We decided to wait it out for a few days and see if the pecking would subside. After three days of pecking, several warnings from Franka, and a growing pile of Samantha's removed feathers I decided to build a separate coop for Sam. I decided to go with a triangular coop design. The triangular design allows for a coop with a smaller foot print because the roost area is built above the run. This was important as I didn't want to clutter the backyard with another structure. I also wanted the coop to stay small and light so that it can be moved around the yard, and maybe to the front yard so that the hens can mow the lawn.

Now that Samantha has her own coop she is getting along much better with the other two ladies. They even peck along side each other with out much incident. Samantha has also put on a little weight and become a little more bold, and with her sharp beak and flying capabilities may even become top hen someday. From this experience I also realized that I am pretty good at building coops and so, If anyone is interested in raising their own backyard hens they may want to check out this craigslist ad .

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Experimenting with Watering Techniques

Despite the first week of Junes rainy weather, this summer is supposed to be a particularly long and dry one. According to the Stop Community Food Centre's gardening tip of the month this means you want to do sporadic deep waterings. This encourages the roots to grow deep to find moisture, allowing the plant to survive during periods of drought. It also means you don't have to wake up to do your early morning waterings many days of the week. While I think that this method of long deep watering will be sufficient to keep our plants healthy, I still want to experiment with some different watering techniques.

One of these is to dig a figure eight pattern around the base of your plants with an elevation at one end. This allows for the water that is poured at one end of the pattern to work its way throughout the garden arriving at the bottom of each plant. It also forces the roots to go deep because the plants are placed up on mounds, which prevents the roots from going outwards. Water is also confined to the root zones making sure that it is not wasted by soaking into areas without plants.

The watering technique that I am finding most interesting uses recycled tomato cans. I punched holes into the cans using a hammer and nail and then dug them into the ground beside the root systems of the desired plants. These cans are then filled with water which will slowly trickle out and into the root system of the plants. I figure that this is going to be a good technique for potted plants because they have limited depth for the root system to dive and the soil is more susceptible to drying out. I also like this watering technique because it gives me an excuse to go gleaning through peoples garbage bins for old tin cans.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Family Dinner

"Family dinner" has become a bit of an early week tradition 'round these parts.  We all have nights off from our respective restaurants - and what better way to celebrate, than to enjoy the fruits of your labour with good company, good food, and a healthy dose of home-brew.
Pan-roast rainbow trout, with fingerling potato, sea-asparagus, beurre blanc, and various radishes.

Interested in joining us?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Natural Remedies for Garden Pests

In urban vegetable gardening, as with in large scale farming, insect infestations can wipe out your entire crop. In most of the conventional large scale farming operations pesticides are used to address these infestations. In more recent years even large agribusiness has moved towards using organic pesticides in order to tap into the profitable organic produce market. While many of these organic pesticides have now become available to home gardeners, I thought it would be more interesting to use old fashioned techniques and household remedies for any pest problems that arise. These are remedies that I have learned from the older generation Italians in the neighborhood, as well as from my Mum and Grandma.

The first important thing to figure out is which bugs are pests and which are beneficial to your garden. Worms are beneficial, that is obvious, we all know that worms help to aerate the soil and provide waste to keep the soil healthy. Ants are a trickier insect to determine as beneficial or harmful to the garden. They worry me with their scurrying up and down the stocks of my tomato, sunchoke, squash, and cucumber plants. But apparently, they are merely helping to open the buds, and performing general investigation of their landscape and doing no harm to the plant. Ants are also helpful in destroying aphid and fly larvae, as well as aerating the soil. Although if your garden is overrun with ants it can become an issue. One insect that gave me a fright was the alarming amount of earwigs that were on a recently harvested crop of spinach. To be fair the "alarming amount" was only 5 or 6 earwigs, but they creep me out, and so I was alarmed. Earwigs are of no concern, except for the occasional sting that a gardeners hand may receive, and are actually helpful in similar ways to ants.

The major pests that I have been told to look out for are slugs and aphids. One way to address these pests is through using the preventative measure of planting protective botanicals. I incorporated this into the planning of the garden and planted marigolds and cilantro along the boarders.

Despite the use of these protective botanicals I found some slugs creeping through the garden while weeding the other day. Instantly I called in the big guns, asking Franka, our next door Nona, what should be done to eradicate this problem. Her first bit of advice was to use the egg shells from our three lovely hens. She advised me to crush the shells into smaller pieces and spread them throughout the garden. Apparently the egg shells will cut the soft flesh of the slugs which will dehydrate them to death. Franka's other weapon of choice is spent coffee grinds. Caffeine is a deterrent for slugs and if scattered around the base of your plants will keep slugs from destroying them. My Mum and Grandma's arsenal for warding of slugs has always been using a small container of beer placed strategically in the garden. The slugs, attracted by yeast, will venture into beer for a drink and be killed by the alcohol.

I do find it amusing that the three items in my armoury against slugs are three of my favourite things, coffee, beer and our backyard eggs. If I were a slug I would be in heaven. What I don't find amusing is that the biggest threat to our garden has been our three hens, who we had originally hoped would eat the pests. One of whom, Baylik, ate an entire F@#%$* cabbage the other day.