Category Archives: farming

Chickens 3; Vegetables 0

Happy New Year!

Now that it’s almost February . . .

I haven’t been posting much lately, and the reason is

that I’ve been in despair about our little farmette. Here’s the situation:

In December, and again in January, I laid out winter crops in seed flats. I covered them from cold weather, watered them, kept building the sheet mulch beds to receive them. And sure enough, up they sprouted: Detroit Red and Chioga beets, a few varieties of Nante carrots, swiss and red chard, laccinato kale, some varieties of Romaine lettuce.

Once they reached a good 2-3 inches, I planted them in the beds. Within a week, they were decimated. Destroyed. Eaten down to their roots. Each time, it was a month-long investment lost. The problem? The chickens flew over the two-foot fence we had up around the vegetables and ate it all.

I got discouraged enough to stop trying until I could come up with a plan for a higher fence that I could still get in and out of easily. In the meantime, we kept letting the chicks out into the backyard when we were home.

Yesterday, B (she of B.I.N.G. and O. fame) flew over a six-foot fence into our neighbor’s yard. Luckily, The Wife was home, noticed she was gone, and found her. (And equally luckily, that particular yard belongs to a deserted house, a victim of the recession — so there was no animal next door to eat our chicken).

But that did it. No more chickens in the backyard. This weekend, The Wife is going to extend the run about 10 feet in another direction, so that they can have as much space as possible, and still be contained. Hopefully then I can start planting without dreading future signs of destruction.

So. New Year, new plans, new food production. Here’s to growth!

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October Miracle

And no, I ain’t talkin’ baseball.

Today marks the first time since we got the chicks in March that we got 5, count ’em, 5 eggs in one day.












We’ve typically gotten 4: three brown, one blue (like the bigger blue one to the right). Then, once about a month or so ago, we got a teeny little blue egg like the one on the left. Over the past week, we’ve gotten two blues, and two browns. But today? All my lovely chickens gave it up.

Now The Wife will finally have to put her “that one’s a rooster — I just know it” theories to rest. That alone is worth what it took to get here.

Real Canning Looks Like This

I’m reading a book titled: Garden Spot: Lancaster Country, the Old Order Amish and the Selling of Rural America by David Walbert, in the hopes of finding material for the composition class I’m teaching next semester, focusing on sustainable food production. Here’s a quote that stopped me short. In 1950, Walbert says,

It was still not unusual for an Amish farmwife to can 500-700 quarts of fruits and vegetables, plus apple butter, jellies, and dried apples, beans and corn.But the economic argument for buying those products instead of producing them at home was starting to win out. The old idealizations of family farming persisted, but in the postwar years, changes in real-life agriculture would force it to adapt.

500-700 quarts. Every year.

That’s phenomenal. That’s a lot of hard work. I feel virtuous if I get 100 pints done by the end of a summer. And most of that is plum jam.

500 quarts every year is not a record I’m interested in achieving, but dang, my hat is off to the Amish farmwives who did (and perhaps do) all that work to keep their families and communities fed.



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Rainy Days and Sheet Mulch

Yesterday, our long and glorious hot spell ended with some misty rain. As soon as it started, I ran outside to start the sheet mulch bed I’m starting on the south side of the house for the tomatoes next spring.

There are few places in our planting area in which I have enough vertical space and sun to grow the amount of tomatoes we produce each year. Consequently, it is hard to rotate the crops. So in my hunt for all things plant-able, I decided to take over an unused stretch on the south side of our house, currently the home of a non-producing banana tree and some perennial vegetables (arugula, sorrel, and a sage plant).

It will be a pain to get that spot watered, as it is nowhere near a spigot, but I’ll figure that out later. Yesterday’s task was just to start the sheet mulch bed so that it would be broken-down and ready for planting by March of next year.





First, I laid down some cardboard boxes and newspaper I had saved up, and let the rain drench that layer.

newspaper on ground for sheet mulch bed

Then, saying a prayer of thanks to the sheet mulch gods, I laid down a layer of soiled straw from the chicken coop and run. It was about 4-5 inches high after I finished.

soiled hay for the second layer of sheet mulch bed

I’ll keep adding soiled straw and wetting it until it’s about 8 inches high. Then I’ll put down finished compost from our pile, supplemented with dirt, and pile clean straw on top of that. I’m sure there are much more specific ways to build a sheet mulch pile, but I tend to just use what I’ve got, and go from there.

I’m not a very precise farmin’ type o’gal.

If all goes well, I’ll have space and good, rich soil for 8-9 tomato vines in March.



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A Farming Neighbor!

Last Saturday, I met Esperanza, who lives just a few blocks away from us. Esperanza is networking with other urban farmers in the area. So cool to see an established urban farm right in our neighborhood! Check out her blog (and her services) at her website.

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October is Arriving

Well, technically, it’s already here. But that October-y kind of weather is approaching: kind of crisp, smelling faintly of leaf mold. The days are shorter.

And suffice it to say that this:

A basket of ripe tomatoes

is no longer a weekly event. The vines are yellowing, and next weekend will be the annual green-tomato-pickle-relish canning party.

I’m going to picking all my peppers, roasting some, and drying others (to make dried pepper flakes for pizza during the winter).

The cucumber vines will have to go also, since the mildew is coming on in full force.

So What’s Going IN?

Time to start my greens seeds: kale, lettuces, chard and arugula. I’ve already put in some baby kale plants, just to get a jump on different harvest times. I’m going to try some more bean plants, and keep watering the strawberries since they keep producing those red miracles my family to eat.

Eek! A Mouse

I have discovered that a rodent of some sort (largish mouse/smallish rat) likes to hang out in our compost heap. It comes leaping out, terrified, when I stick a hose into the pile and water it. So I’ve taped up every hole I can see with duct tape. We’ll see if that helps.

We also found a dead rat outside our chicken run with teeth marks in its head. The good news is — one less rat. The bad news — some other larger animal is out there near the chickens.

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The 2010 Potato Harvest

Here it is, folks — the grand finale, the proof that, well, we’re not quite ready to give up on produce shopping yet. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Potato Harvest of July 2010:

23 potatoes. I planted around 9, so that makes a grand total of 14, net.

And yes, I know that’s pathetic, but I must admit that I love those potatoes. I love the smell of them and the feel of them, and can’t wait to go out and plant some more. A lot more, if I would actually like to eat some of them in more than one meal, it seems.

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Where the Heck Did That Month Go?

Yes, it’s been a long time between posts!

We’ve been busy finishing up our first child’s school year, and The Wife has been dealing with some minor health issues. Meanwhile, the garden-with-delusions-of-grandeur has been going through some changes.

Compost is happening!

I am such a farm geek. I am just thrilled to pieces that the compost is developing! I’ve been faithfully piling in the soiled straw (soiled with chicken manure), cut grass, kitchen scraps — watering and turning until my back screams at me. But the results are divine. Wormy, earthy, black compost.

Chickens are transforming into hens! (And maybe some roosters?)

B, I, N, G, and O are now 3 1/2 months old, and getting huge. I give them lots of table scraps — grains, vegetable matter, fruit peelings, chewed up in the food processor — mixed with laying feed. They run at the gate when they see me coming, and love to forage in the backyard when let out of their run.

The chihuahua doesn’t go after them at all, and luckily for them, the rottweiler’s rather obsessive interest in them has died down.

Here’s the problem: I can’t tell if any of them are roosters are not. I’ll take pictures tomorrow and post them. First one to predict accurately means some kind of prize — jam? Eternal gratitude?

Tomato cuttings

In training my tomato vines to grow vertically, I have pinched off quite a few runners at the bottom of the plant. I put them in water and kept them in a sunny spot of my office. Through that process, I have been able to grow three more tomato plants, which I have put in big olive cans snatched from the Monday night garbage cans left out the Boot and Shoe Pizzeria on Lake Shore Ave.

Other Plant News . . .

The potatoes are growing beautifully in their washer-tub containers. My two little containers of beans are also starting to produce.

The arugula has come and gone — the heat wave last week was the last straw for my favorite salad green. The chard from last Fall also took its last gasp, and the tired stalks were thrown mercilessly to the chickens.

Beets and carrots are coming up like crazy. We just ate another round of Detroit Reds last night in our salad.

I realized that all the lettuce and basil seeds I have been planting since March must be too old, as none of them have germinated. So I gave up and got plants. Now I’ve got enough basil to make pesto for the winter as well as the summer. And I just put in an entire bed of different kinds of romaine lettuce seeds, as well as more carrots and beets.

I have seven tomato plants going at once — some vine, some bush. I don’t remember the varieties, to be honest. But since they’re from Kassenhoff growers, they are sure to be great.

The red peppers and ancho chilis are starting to flower. The heat wave that killed the arugula pushed them into a growth spurt.

The strawberries (in beds) are producing big beautiful berries and the raspberries (in a big container so as to contain the rampant growth) are starting to produce also.

The elderberry, which I had just about given up on, has grown about a foot and is now quite satisfactorily bushy. And the elecampagne came back out of nowhere.

The yarrow is threatening to take over under the big apple tree.

And last but not at all least, the fruit trees are full of fruit at various stages of growth. The peach tree seems to have fought off the peach leaf curl quite successfully. I am going to be chin-deep in plums in a few months. Both apple trees are producing and haven’t had their June drop yet. And the pineapple guava is flowering in preparation for the fall harvest.

That’s the update back there in wonderland. Next up, the new path in my farming adventures . . . stay tuned!


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I Have Questions

1. Organic ways to treat peach leaf curl?

Our poor little runty peach tree is already exhibiting leaves that look like this:

Peach leaf curl

Peach leaf curl

Daniel Cooley of UMass writes: “Probably the most irritating thing about seeing the characteristic warty red leaves of peach leaf curl is realizing that it’s already too late to do anything about the disease.”

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, this fruit-tree business is new to me. When we bought our house here in Oakland, it was winter. We saw the bare trees in the back and thought they were all dead. Imagine our surprise when March came and they all burst into bloom and then grew actual fruit! So I’m learning as I go.

Ok, so it’s too late to help the poor tree now that it’s making fruit. Any ideas about how to minimize the damage during the summer, and what to treat it with in the fall that isn’t entirely toxic?

A little research led me to the blog of Scott and Kendra’s A Sonoma Garden blog, in which they discussed the peach leaf curl menace. It’s a great site, so I’d recommend giving it a visit.

2. What is this bug and why is it fond of my plum tree?

Yesterday afternoon, we noticed a bunch of flying insects in our plum tree. They are thin, small, fly and look kind of wasp-y, with brown bodies and red heads. They look like these

Adult Western Flower Thrips

only as I said, with red heads.

There’s a flowering tree in the neighbor’s yard right behind our plum tree, that produces clusters of white flowers, and the insects seem to like those a lot. But still. Should I worry? What the heck are they? And what do I do if they’re harmful to the plums?

3. At what point do I stop hilling up the potato plants?

Every week or so I pile up dirt and/or straw around the growing potato plants. Do I do that until the plant dies, or do I stop at some point and assume the tubers have been produced?

Ugh. There’s so much I don’t know!

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End-of April-Planting (and the bed that kills tomato plants)

I had Big Plans for this spring’s planting schedule. I was going to put in new seeds and/or plants every weekend from the last frost date (end of Feb) on through May. I started planting lettuce, carrots, and beets and waited for nature to take its course.

and then, it rained.

Not just light spring showers. Continuous downpour. It turned my beds into compacted rock in which no seed could germinate.

I started over. Beets, carrots, arugula. Even the tomato plants. Then, a mystery I call “The Deadly Second Box” occurred.

I plant my tomato plants in four adjacent beds. Beds one, three and four are doing fine. Bed two seems to be the tomato killing field though it consists of the exact same soil as the other three. I have now put three separate tomato plants in there and all three have died. What’s in there? Some kind of evil Loch Ness tomato-eating monster? I can’t figure it out.

In the meantime, I fumbled through March, with the successive plantings, and then last weekend, I did my final early-Spring push. The last beds of beets (Chioga, Detroit Red), carrots (Oxhearts) and arugula went in. I put in basil plants and three beds of basil seeds, along with green and white Cos Romaine. I gave Bed Two its last Momotaro tomato plant victim, and put in Ancho and Sweet Bell pepper plants.

I’ve decided this year to put bush-type tomato plants in separate pots, leaving the beds for vine varieties that I can train vertically up the old wire gate we use as a trellis. So I planted one of those, and then two sunflower plants, for the seeds (chicks love ’em).

It’s raining again today, but at least it’s a softer rain, not nature’s version of Doc Martens trampling on the seeds. Or so I hope. In a week or so, I’ll see if I was right about that.


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Little Farm? Farm-ette? Farm-ish?

Here’s the big confession: I feel like an ass calling our work a “farm”. The entire yard is all of 1600 square feet, and a good chunk of that is occupied by various non-food-producing structures.

The land on which our actual food is growing consists of four raised beds, divided up into VERY approximate versions of square foot-ish grids. Size-wise, and production-wise, it could just as well be called the G word. A garden.

But somehow, that doesn’t fit. The “farm” label, as inaccurate as it may be, has more to do with what we’re aiming for than with the acreage (or lack thereof). Our family isn’t aiming to create food for purchase by others, or to make a living off the land we own. We aren’t going to raise and kill livestock. We aren’t planning our crops with the conscious goal of aiming to feed others in our community, though we do feed others a good deal with what we grow.

What we are aiming for is to eat as much as possible from what we produce ourselves, through year-round planting, as well as canning, freezing, and pickling. That’s the simple part.

The more nuanced parts are a consequence of that decision. For example, ever since I made two cups of homemade ricotta cheese last summer (and realized it took around 2 gallons of milk to do so), I have a renewed appreciation for local cheese making. And a greater sense of connection to what the true costs are of just picking up a container of cheese at the grocery store. What conditions create my convenience?

Ever since I have started making crackers for my kids, and have realized that they go stale in about five milliseconds, I question what it is that prevents even so-called “natural” packaged crackers from getting stale for so long. What the heck is in there? It might be simple — but I sure as heck don’t know how that process is prevented. And I want to.

Both my wife and I work full-time, and have a lot of responsibilities — to the family we have created, the families we come from, and to our friends. It’s not like we are planning to start carving dolls from our kids from corn husks, and knit by candlelight. We are firmly and gratefully grounded in the conveniences we surround ourselves with.

I am, however, on a journey of questioning things I have taken for granted, especially how my choices connect me to corporations and agricultural practices I would rather not support, as much as that is possible within the constraints of our life.

In that light, what I am doing is much more farm-y than garden-y. I feed my chickens; my chickens feed me and my children and my wife and my in-laws and my mother and my sisters and my friends and neighbors. I compost what we can’t use, and our ground gives us what we need to grow fruits and vegetables throughout the year. I can/pickle/freeze our own produce and that I get from local growers, and I extend our decreased dependency on agri-business a little further each year. Our children are learning to anticipate what fruit comes at what point in our garden, and how long it takes before a hen can lay an egg.

I’m not living in overalls, and I’m not in the country (nor do I want to be, at this point in my life). But I guess I am, in a certain way, farming.

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