Circle of Life

May 25th, 2016

Yesterday started out in the worst way possible. Death is never very far away when you’re raising livestock.

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Poor little duckie. A female, too. Every time a predator kills, it provokes feelings of grief, impotent rage and violation. Guilt over not having protected those who depend on me and frustration and – most of all – despairing exhaustion at the constant fight against Nature.

Not wanting to test the strength of my coop repairs with the lives of my remaining birds, I moved all three duckies into the much more secure duck house with the two older ducks. You’d think any situation would be better than being eaten by a fox… but it’s straight up duck thunderdome in there. Today I caught the older male sort of brutally mounting the younger male – I’m hoping it was just a show of domination and not, you know, a would-be rape. I put a firm stop to it but I can’t monitor them all night. I hope I don’t come out to an injured (or worse) little duck in the morning.

Each time something like this happens, it makes me wish I had different passions. Raising livestock is hard. You can try as hard as you possibly can, but nature and its predators will find the one tiny mistake that you didn’t see, and things die because you made that mistake. Even just growing things is hard, when you have setbacks coming at you in the form of weather, animals, fungus, insects… It wasn’t the first time I thought about just giving up. It probably won’t be the last.

And yet there are other moments, too, on the other end of the spectrum. Moments that redeem my life choices; that set my soul to rights again.

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I shouldn’t have worried about the two broody hens and the disparity between then length of their brood cycles. When I peeked in the coop, I was full of trepidation that I’d be encountering at least a few dead baby chicks. A very real fear – usually broody mamas are separated because of this possibility.

But instead they are, miraculously, sharing mothering duties. The black hen abandoned her clutch of duck eggs (aw, oh well). I found her hovering over next to the gold hen, little fuzzy heads peeking out from under both of them and even toddling back and forth. This is very, very rare; usually mama hens are belligerent little dragons, attacking anything that so much as looks at their chicks. (Including roosters three times their size. And humans who soon learn to wear galoshes when entering the coop, to protect their ankles.)

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But here are these seven little chickies, happily meandering back and forth between two contentedly purring mamas. And the two hens have chosen a hidden corner of the coop to sit in together every night, snuggled up with their shared chickies. It’s beautiful.

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And chicks are funny.

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And sometimes it’s worth it.

Cuckoo

May 22nd, 2016

Of course now that I have way too many chicks, two of my hens go broody at the same time.

Almost the same time.

This hen sat on her eggs for 2 weeks or so ( more than 2/3 total incubation time)

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And then one night I opened the nest box to find this one in her place:

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And the black one sitting, bereft and belligerent, in another nest box on three brand-new eggs. Oh cool move, goldie. Just come in at the last minute and take all the credit. Because a couple nights later I opened the nest box to check on them and … surprise!

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Guess it’s too late to switch them. Oops.

No idea how many chicks there are yet – I know she was sitting on like 9 eggs, but they were all laid at different times. The little ones that I can see are all different colored – I love barnyard mutts! I can’t wait to see what they look like!

In the mean time, the black hen refuses to abandon her post. Since I really, really, REALLY don’t need any more chickens, I slipped 6-7 duck eggs under her. I can always use more duckies. And if a mama hen can raise them instead of me? Score. No changing poopy water three times a day for me.

Chickens raising ducks are supposed to be a match made in heaven: mama hens are constantly anxious because their little chicks run and scatter all over the place. Mama hens work themselves to the bone just trying to keep their dumb chicks from killing themselves. Meanwhile, duck mamas are notoriously negligent. They’ll just take off and abandon their ducklings, so ducklings are born with an innate instinct to stick as close to mama as possible at all times. So a nervous mama hen blessed with tiny fuzzies who always stay right next to her = happy mamas.

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Unfortunately, ducklings take 28 days to hatch instead of 21. So this determined little hen will be sitting for 6 weeks before she’s rewarded for her efforts, poor thing. I wish I’d managed to switch them in time.

Swarms

May 21st, 2016

So the bees have been weird lately.

First, despite my best efforts (checkerboarding the brood frames, adding on multiple supers which they persist in completely ignoring) both Darjeeling and Lady Grey swarmed. In fact Lady Grey produced two swarms. Which both obligingly rested side by side on a smooth vinyl fence and made for the very easiest bee capture ever. Five minutes, tops.

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For a couple days they both looked like they were contentedly humming away side by side with Darjeeling’s new swarm. For a fleeting moment I had six colonies and was feeling like an actual beekeeper.

A disgruntled beekeeper who was pissed about probably not getting any honey for the 7th year in a row, but still. (Seriously though bees, what the hell.)

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But then one morning out of the blue the new middle colony just up and vanished after drawing a few frames of comb. With sugar syrup in top feeder and everything – I guess they just decided they didn’t like their new digs after all.

Then I found this outside Darjeeling:

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An enormous pile of dead bee bodies. Some still underdeveloped. Nearly all of them drones (I think). The colony seems fine, from what I can tell, so … your guess is as good as mine.

And now the other swarm looks just pathetically diminished as well. Like, so diminished that I’m thinking of just consolidating it with another hive.

Which would leave me with four colonies, two of which are fairly limping at the moment and which I should probably combine. So make it three… right back to where I was before. But with less actual bees, and no honey harvest.

Damnit, bees. I tried so hard.

Greenhouse by leaps and bounds

May 19th, 2016

Stuff is doing so well in the greenhouse that it’s making me wish I’d done this years ago. I have never grown peas this exuberant, never grown lettuce and spinach with such gorgeous, unblemished leaves.  Here’s how the main bed looked in there in early April:

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That red-and-yellow box is a worm compost bin. An old cat litter box I drilled into a sieve with 1″ holes all over the bottom and sides. I can lift the lid and dump in any kitchen scraps the chickens can’t have, plus the occasional wad of dryer lint or shredded paper. The worms can come in and dine, and then leave and poop elsewhere… all over my plants hopefully. :) Liquids will just run out the bottom, never pool and become anaerobic.

All my seedlings are looking happier than they ever, ever have under years of working with an intense fluorescent light setup. The filtered real sunlight through the greenhouse plastic makes much more robust plants, which allows me an earlier start and a faster takeoff once these guys are really planted.

Peas a month ago, climbing up the strings I had just hung (the strings are pulled taut to the bottom with long hooks made from bicycle spokes).

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I bought that dragonfly a couple years ago at a craft show from someone who makes sculptures out of old car parts. He had some amazing stuff. I’ve got a little birds’ nest too. Finally, somewhere to show them off!

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I took these pictures weeks ago and never got around to posting them. So if you can imagine, it’s a freaking jungle in there now.

Those pea vines are climbing 9′ strings. Now they have reached the top, doubled over and are growing back down, just loaded with blossoms and mini peas. I’ve never ever had a successful harvest of peas before, I’m really excited. And I’ve lost track of the number of salads we’ve had from the greens; having a greenhouse is helping us eat healthier, at least.

The only thing I haven’t been happy with is the parsley and cilantro; they are sort of wispy and wan. Which really sucks because I use those A LOT – like half a bunch to a bunch with every dinner not even counting juicing. I was really looking forward to not having bunches of cut herbs melt into slimy ichor in the fridge anymore. It might be something in the soil, right, except the spinach in the same bed but different position did awesome and yielded three salads’ harvest before bolting. Probably there’s not enough light in that corner. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the little nuances of growing in here.

I’ll try and remember to take a more recent picture – with planting season full underway, it seems I’m perennially behind in everything, but I have so many little things to share!

Fertilizer core

April 23rd, 2016

I have a friend in the Department of Natural Resources who hooked me up with the ultimate sustainable fertilizer:

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A particularly nasty invasive species, the Blueback Catfish is so good at killing off native species that the DNR periodically has to round them up and cull their numbers as best they can. Normally they’re just thrown away, but I requested “a few” and ended up with a brimming 60 gallon rubbermaid tub of disgustingness eco-friendly soil enrichment.

I took all the smallest ones and dipped them in woodash as if I were breading them with cornmeal, then wrapped them in little packets made of phone book pages and froze three grocery sacks’ worth. Each of these is going to be planted individually underneath a “hungry” seedling: tomatoes and corn for example. Or at least that was the plan. I may have gotten a bit generous and started giving them to all my cabbages and cole crops (hey, they like nitrogen too right?) and I only have one grocery sack left that I am hoarding for the summer crops. Melons and pumpkins and squash, oh my.

Of course before doing any of that I had to cut them right in half. Their front and dorsal fins have nasty barbed spines on them laced with neurotoxins. Wouldn’t want to accidentally prick yourself on that spindle, for sure. So basically, even more grossness, guts everywhere, extra stink. Ugh. My chicken shears got quite the workout that day.

I still had enough left to dig a 2-spades-deep trench down the middle of two 30-foot-beds and fill the bottoms with necklaces of dead, stinking fish. I sprinkled my remaining ashes on the fish, then piled in heaps of shredded leaves (in the hopes that they might help mask the smell from curious digging raccoons) and replaced the soil on top. I managed to do all the outdoor work in a single day – it was 80* that day and I had no wish to store a rubbermaid tub full of three-day-old fish in my garage. I was quite motivated, you might say. I finished up after dark, but I did get all the fish in the ground with not a thing wasted.

So I don’t know if I’ll have enough fish to do my plan of one small one under each seedling. I’m already feeling greedy for more – but holy crap that job is something I hope to never ever have to do more than once a year. Probably one of the most disgusting things I’ve done, and that’s saying a lot.

BUT! I’m so excited to see if it makes a difference in the plants’ growth this year. I think one of my chronic problems has been underfertilization, and perhaps this will provide that extra boost. I dream of cabbages bigger than watermelons.

Supers installed, colonies limping

April 22nd, 2016

Took advantage of the gorgeous weather this week to go out to the bee yard. Here in Maryland we have a very short, very intense honey flow from April 15th to May 15th, and that’s about it for the year. If honey is going to be made, it’s pretty much got to be made in that window. So I’m anxiously watching the colonies, crossing my fingers that we do get honey this year for the first time in several years.

Colony 1 Lady Grey is just booming and looks utterly fantastic. I’m really glad I “checkerboarded” the brood frames (inserted new, undrawn frames between every two full brood frames) when I was in there back in late March. At the time I was just kicking myself (right after I did it we had a horrible cold snap and I was worried we’d lose all that brood that they couldn’t keep warm because they were too spaced out.) I wrapped the hives in insulation and crossed my fingers, and everything seems to be fine. These frames have already been fully drawn out and are starting to be filled, just like every other frame, so it is possible that I averted swarm pressure there.

Colony 2 Darjeeling has a lot of drone… like frames and frames of it. My first thought when I saw that was “oh crap, a drone layer”... but then I found a few frames of worker brood as well, so that’s not it. Colony 3 Ceylon (last year’s swarm) keeps just barely put-putting along. They haven’t drawn out any more comb – they haven’t even finished drawing out the single deep they’ve been in since last July. I left the second box on top just in case they suddenly start booming, but I’m not betting on it. They’re not taking syrup and the queen seems to be barely laying. What she is laying is worker brood, in a good pattern, just not much of it.

I asked a bee mentor about the second two colonies, wondering if I needed to replace the queens.

  1. Is the excessive drone brood a sign that the queen is getting old and running out of sperm? It certainly isn’t going to help to have all those extra mouths to feed instead of workers during the nectar flow. It takes 21 days for a bee to grow from an egg to a baby bee; another 21 days before it is ready to forage leave the hive and forage for nectar. So in order to have a worker ready to forage by April 15, its egg has to be laid by March 4th. I didn’t see nearly enough capped worker brood in there. Maybe they already emerged (March 25th?) and this drone comb is merely what replaced them.
  2. Why hasn’t the other queen kicked her laying into high gear yet? She’s already missed the critical window for laying workers in time to be ready to work during our very short nectar flow. There will be no surplus honey from this hive this year.

My bee mentor says it’s still very early to decide to requeen. He advised that I wait another brood cycle (21 days) before checking again. I wonder if I should be using those 21 days to try and raise some queens of my own. I could take a frame of eggs and a frame of capped brood from the good colony. Sandwich it with 2 frames of honey/pollen and 1 of capped brood from the poor colony and put them in a little nuc. The nurse bees in the nuc would draw out the good eggs into a queen with better genetics, and once she started laying I would use that nuc to requeen the poor colony. I think I might try.

In the mean time, the supers the girls and I painted sure do look cheerful up there.

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A few days later the bees still aren’t using the top entrances at all, but perhaps it will take time for them to change their habits.

Food Forest in a box

April 20th, 2016

I scored an absolutely fantastic deal on a bundle of fruit trees. NewFarmSupply.com was advertising a special bundle through the Survival Podcast (a podcast with which I do not align politically but which is always interesting and has especially enlightening sections on homesteading and permaculture issues). Anyway, these fruit trees were all species I had already wanted, but at such a good price that I just couldn’t resist. So a few days ago…

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10 each: Anatovka apples, seedling (new, unnamed cultivars!) apples, pecan, chestnut, persimmon, pawpaw, redbud, and sweet cherry trees. Eighty trees. Oh, and they threw in a few extra just because they’re awesome like that. So did I go immediately plunge them in the ground?

…No, I did not. I am not remotely ready for that yet. I’m still topping the hugel beds with the enormous mound of topsoil I had brought in. I’m not even completely settled on the final spacing.

I’m going to tour a real, working food forest tomorrow night, which should give me a lot of insight. In the mean time I’ve discovered the fantastic nearmaps.com, which gives me a fantastically clear view and lets me do stuff like lay out circles of certain sizes, measure distances, etc.

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The biggest circles are the pecans and chestnuts, which have 40′ spans, and then the little 20′ circles all around their edges are the understory trees, apples and cherries etc. Sofía and I went out with little flags and a measuring tape and marked out the circumferences of all the circles. Now I have to take a step back and decide which of the existing trees need to get weeded out and replaced with new ones. I’m having a tree expert come help me decide some time this week and I am not looking forward to the permit process nor the final bill.

In the mean time I have all the dormant saplings heeled in in the cool, dark basement. They haven’t broken dormancy yet, but once they do I’ll have to pot them up. Hopefully I’ll have figured all this stuff out before I have to go find eighty pots!

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Super honey supers

April 7th, 2016

I got a sweet deal on a table saw last Fall – a brand-new, in-original-packaging Skilsaw model for $40. Sure, it’s dinky and light and not accurate enough for really fine woodworking, but it gives me so much more freedom to create larger projects. Especially ones from plywood.

With three hives overwintered, my new problem is that I’m running out of equipment. Some people put 6 honey supers on each of their hives – minimum! – in the Spring. I’ve only personally seen 2-4 though, so perhaps it’s different in Maryland.

But I had only enough for one super each. Since two of my hives look like they’re really raring to go, I don’t want them to run out of space by backfilling everything with honey and then decide to swarm away because of lack of space! Clearly, I needed more supers and I needed them fast.

But buying six boxes takes some serious money. Price-wise they’re only about $15 each, but then shipping something so heavy comes to like $75; all told six boxes were going to end up costing me nearly $200. That much money would buy a heck of a lot of honey.

I got some good thick plywood and, thanks to the table saw, easily made my own instead. Rabbets for the resting frames and everything.

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I wasn’t confident enough to try to route handles in them (and didn’t want to expose more of the inner surfaces of the plywood to the elements than I absolutely had to) so I nailed on handles instead.

That hole and its pretty little landing pad are very important parts of a honey super, saith Rusty in this article from Honey Bee Suite. The idea is that bees will much more readily draw comb and store honey in supers that make it convenient to do so. That is, they’re more likely to use a honey super that isn’t perched on top of a tower of boxes with a single bottom entrance that forces them to climb all the way up and down the tower each time they want to deposit some nectar. I’ll give it a try.

Then I had my helper prime the boxes with me:

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She actually did help quite a bit!

Because I want more color in my bee yard, I invited the girls to help me make these boxes less boring. Using all the little dribs and drabs of paint from cans in the basement, I think we did a pretty darn good job!

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I think they’re beautiful and I can’t wait to use them. Just gotta do a clear coat on top and then wait for warmer weather before I open the hives.

Oh yeah hatchlings

April 5th, 2016

Oops! I forgot to tell you what happened with all those eggs!

Well, this:

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Despite a couple mishaps, everything went according to plan:

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First mistake: the thermometer I was using at first turned out to be 6 degrees too cool. I only found out about three days in (and then immediately Amazon Primed a replacement thermocouple that I adore!) so the hatching was delayed by a day or so (they develop more slowly when it’s cooler).

Second mistake: three or four days before the hatch I actually dropped one of the eggs, spiderwebbing the end and even drawing a tiny bit of blood from the membrane. Damnit, I thought, and then put it back into the incubator just in case. That chick hatched just fine!

Out of 22 eggs, only 5 didn’t make it. The only sad death was a chick that had fully developed, had even “zipped” a crack along the top of the egg, and then just lacked the strength to push its way out.

Those things happen. Never intervene, They say.  Never ever crack open the incubator on hatch day, They say. Well, They can go shove it.  After that pointless death I decided to trust my own instincts and helped a couple others with that one final push after they’d been struggling for hours. And look what we got:

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Fuzzies!

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Lots and lots of little fuzzies!

They’re in a huge 4′ long Rubbermaid tub right now, but they’re going to need a bigger brooder very soon. In the mean time, they are just loving their new digs. I’m giving them extra edible plants from the greenhouse to nom on, and a plate full of sand that they love to take dust baths in and peck at. They get so excited when I refill it and put it back in, it’s hilarious!

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About half of these will turn out to be dinners roosters; some, I’m raising for a friend; and the remaining 8-10 will become my new layers in about 6 months.

Overwintering sweet potatoes

April 3rd, 2016

Remember last year, how I got that absolutely massive couple of sweet potatoes from my new hugel bed?

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They turned out great, sweet and not fibrous at all like I’d feared.

So in case part of their massive growth was due to amazing genetics and not just the pond goop I’d topped the hugel with, I kept the top of the biggest. I decided to try and keep it alive over winter. It sprouted a short little forest from its top and then just sort of sat around politely over the winter months doing very little.

My calendar reminded me back in the middle of March that it was time to start sweet potato slips. Normally I just plunk a sweet potato (organic, so it’s not treated with a sprouting inhibitor) into some water and wait for it to root and start sprouting on its own. It takes a very long time. But since I’d overwintered the potato itself, I had already skipped both those steps. I decided to start one conventionally just for the sake of comparison. I set a sweet potato in a mason jar  with some water and started waiting.

And waiting.

This is what they looked like a week ago:

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The overwintered one was still patiently waiting with a head full of slips ready to go, while the standard one had just one measly little rootlet sticking out into the water and no slips at all. Overwintering saves so much time.

I went ahead and plucked off the ready slips from my saved potato and dropped them into the water of my little solar fountain. Each one will become its own separate sweet potato plant.

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Two days later they’re already rooting.

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I’ve always bemoaned how long it takes to sprout sweet potatoes, and how often I’m not ready by the time the planting window rolls around. Looks like I’ve found a solution, and one that lets me select for the genetics I want, too.

Plus, the sprouted sweet potato looks kind of like an ugly little bonsai, doesn’t it? Pretty cool for a houseplant. :)