The Veggie Garden is Planted!
By April I am usually too impatient to wait any longer for night temperatures to warm up to 50 degrees, so I usually just go ahead and plant the garden on the first warm sunny weekend in mid-April. This year it seemed like we had a colder than usual stretch of below 40 degree nights, but by last weekend it appeared to be over so I decided it was finally time to plant the warm season vegetables. I started most of my veggies from seed this year, and transferred them to the greenhouse about a month ago. Last weekend I planted tomatoes, eggplant, anaheim chilies, red and orange bell peppers, cucumbers, and squash. I’m growing 8 varieties of tomatoes this year – a couple of early varieties (Manitoba and Moskvich), a large Brandywine-like heirloom from our neighbor Clancy, a variety called Longkeeper that is supposed to store for up to 3 months(!), Black Plum, Taxi, Orange Blossom, and Tigerlike. I haven’t grown eggplant in quite a few years, and the last time I grew it I don’t think I ended up with a single eggplant to harvest. This year I am growing an extra early variety called Millionaire, and I am hoping for better luck than I’ve had in the past. I also have not had much luck with bell peppers, so those are being grown in the greenhouse, and since it easily gets up to 90 degrees inside I am feeling confident that I’ll have success growing bell peppers this year. I’m growing three varieties of cucumber – my favorite lemon cucumber, and also a green bush variety and a miniature white skinned variety. The squash were planted in the new planting bed near the greenhouse. The varieties I planted include yellow crookneck, zucchini, acorn, butternut, delicata, hubbard (green, baby blue, and Anna Swartz – an excellent storage variety), spaghetti, gourds, and pumpkins.
The cool season veggies including spinach, lettuce, broccoli, kale, onions, and potatoes were planted a few weeks ago. I was a little slow to get the seeds started for the swiss chard and the bok choy, but those should be ready to plant out in a couple of weeks. This year I am growing the potatoes in boxes – well actually stackable wood frames that you fill with straw or mulch as the potato plants grow and add additional frames and layers of straw as the potatoes grow higher and higher. The strawberries, blueberries and raspberries all have tons of flower blossoms, and now that we have hung a bird scare out of repurposed CDs we should get a bumper berry crop this year. Last year the birds ate 99% of our blueberries and raspberries, and I am not exaggerating! The other garden chore I’ve been hard at work at for the last couple of months is hauling wood shavings up to the garden and spreading them on the paths between all the beds. I have to say the garden is really looking great this year!
Chicken Farm in the Sky
That’s where my little Sweet Pea is now. She left us this evening after a few weeks of us trying our best to nurse her back to health. I first took our poor little Sweet Pea to the vet two and a half weeks ago, and at that time the vet prescribed 5 days of antibiotics. I took her back to the vet a week ago after she finished the course of antibiotics and wasn’t showing any sign of improvement. This time the vet took a blood sample which revealed she was severely anemic, which explains her very pale pink comb. The vet said that a normal red blood cell count for a bird is 40 and perhaps down to 30. The lowest she had ever seen was 10, and Sweet Pea’s was only 8. The vet said she was surprised that Sweet Pea was even alive. After running a few more tests with her bloodwork, the vet came back into the exam room and said that Sweet Pea had her stumped. Sweet Pea’s symptoms suggested a possible kidney disorder, and the condition of her red blood cells suggested some other possible disorders, but she was uncertain about the diagnosis because the other tests she ran were inconclusive. Further complicating the diagnosis was the fact that there is not all that much information to assist in diagnosing symptoms in live chickens. In the commercial poultry industry when a chicken falls ill it is quickly dispatched of, and apparently there is a lot of literature about post-mortem diagnosis of chicken diseases, but that’s not all that helpful when trying to diagnose illness in a living chicken.
The vet gave Sweet Pea a shot of cortisone which she said would give her a boost for 4 to 5 days and perhaps help her recover a bit from whatever the cause of her anemia was. We noticed an improvement in Sweet Pea’s appetite and energy level for the next 5 days. Every morning I would prepare various tasty treats for Sweet Pea and feed them to her while sitting on the kitchen floor with her and drinking my morning coffee. She ate lots of live meal worms during this time, and I kept hoping to see an improvement in the color of her comb but it remained an unhealthy pale pink. We took her to the farm last weekend, and she seemed to do okay being back with the flock and even pecked about and ate some grass. On Sunday we decided to take her back with us to Portland since that was day 5 after her cortisone shot, and I was worried that the boost in energy and appetite she was enjoying wouldn’t last too much longer.
Sure enough, Monday morning there was a noticeable decrease in her appetite and energy level, and she began breathing heavily. We still sat together in the mornings, me on the kitchen floor and she in my lap while I drank my coffee, although she no longer ate anything except for a few pecks at cucumber slices. When I got home from work tonight we spent a little time sitting on the back deck in the sun which she seemed to enjoy. Then she got up from my lap, and it soon became obvious the end was near. We went inside and I held her again in my lap. She began having more trouble breathing and convulsed several times, and I wished that I’d had her euthanized rather than see her suffer. It was a more traumatic end than I would have wished for my little Sweet Pea, but I know it was a better end for her with us in the kitchen than she would have had being pestered by a bunch of hens and roosters at the farm during her last moments. Sweet Pea is the third chicken we’ve lost in the last year, but I think she was the hardest since I had an extra special place in my heart for her and I was with her during her last breath. I sure hope this is the last of the chickens we lose for a while. I may regret saying this, but I’m looking forward to our girls growing old and and having to set up a retirement coop for the old biddies. Right now it seems that would be much better than losing any more of our ladies too early.
Poor Little Sweet Pea
I had thought about calling this post “Crazy Chicken Lady” because I’m about to divulge the lengths I will go to for one of my favorite hens, little Sweet Pea. This is the same Sweet Pea that I wrote about back in September 2012 after she suffered from a reproductive disorder (prolapsed vent). Sweet Pea recovered from that condition, and she’s been living happily at the farm until last week when we brought her back to the chicken infirmary in our kitchen in Portland. One of the indicators of a chicken’s health is the condition of their comb and wattles. When the comb and wattles are full and bright red it indicates a healthy, laying chicken. When they are a pale bubble gum pink, it indicates either a sick chicken or that the chicken is undergoing a normal annual molt during during which they do not lay eggs. Sweet Pea’s comb turned a very pale pink a few weeks ago, which was a noticeable difference from the rest of the flock, most of whom have full bright red combs and have started laying eggs again after their winter break. I tried not too worry too much at first, and I hoped that it was just a sign that perhaps she was about to molt. After a couple weeks of her not looking well, isolating herself from the flock, sleeping a lot, and not eating much, I decided to take her to the vet. There are a few vets who see chickens in the Portland and St. Helens area; however, I have not been too impressed with their knowledge of chickens when I have visited them in the past. I decided to take Sweet Pea to the avian vet in Lake Oswego who is well-respected in the Portland chicken community and who is herself a chicken owner of over 15 years.
Here’s where the crazy chicken lady part of the story comes in. The vet suspected Sweet Pea had injured her liver, possibly by bumping or flying into something, and that she may have an infection, so she prescribed antibiotics. Okay, fine I thought, I have administered various treatments to the chickens before but they’ve always been in liquid form and easily added to their drinking water. This prescription, however, was for pills! For a chicken! Not to worry the vet said, I’ll show you how it’s done, as she opened Sweet Pea’s beak with one hand and slid the pill down her throat with the other hand in about 2 seconds. The prescription was one tablet twice a day for five days. The first couple of days went fine, in part due to the fact that I recently discovered Sweet Pea’s fondness for grapes, and I was able to stick half a pill in half a grape and get her to swallow it down after a few tries. Then about halfway through the treatment she caught on to the grape trick and wasn’t having any more of that. So the search began for other foods I could camouflage her pills in. I tried blueberries, scrambled eggs, and cooked squash with little luck. She loves cheddar cheese, so I tried wrapping grated cheese around the pills, to no avail. All that was left to do was to try it the way the vet showed me. Sean held Sweet Pea, and by some miracle and with minimal struggle, victory was mine! I actually managed to stick a pill down her throat. It’s a good thing too because we’re going to have to do it a couple more times to get her through her prescription. I wish I could say that the antibiotics appeared to be helping her, but she doesn’t seem to be improving.
We will bring her back to the farm this weekend and see if being reunited with the flock perks her up a bit. I fear the worst, however, and in the back of my mind I can’t help but think that her past prolapse is an indication that she may suffer from additional reproductive issues. Her pale comb and lack of appetite are a reminder of our poor Ruby that we lost last year to a reproductive disorder. I sure hope that’s not what’s going on with Sweet Pea. If she’s not looking better over the weekend, I have another appointment at the vet scheduled for early next week. Only a fellow chicken lover could understand my devotion to this chicken. What can I say other than in this increasingly bizarre and sad world we live in, my chickens bring me happiness and peace, and it’s hard to put a price on that.
The Bees are Here!
This weekend was by far the most exciting weekend at the farm! On Saturday morning the bees I had ordered arrived at the bee store, and we picked them up and went right to the farm to install them into their hive. I purchased the bees in what they call a bee package, which is a small wood and mesh box that contains 3 lbs or approximately 10,000 bees. I preparation for the big event, I took a beekeeping class a couple of months ago from the store where I purchased the bees. The process of transferring the bees into the hive sounded easy enough in the class (there was only one slide in the Powerpoint presentation after all!), but there are lots of steps in the process and all the while you can’t help but think about all that could go wrong with 10,000 angry bees on the loose! Actually it went pretty well, although if I install another hive in the future I will definitely do a few things differently.
First off, I put on the protective bee gear, which worked great except for the slight decrease in finger dexterity due to the gloves (more on that later). While the bees are being transported from where they are bred to the bee store, they feed on a simple syrup mixture in a tin can that hangs in the middle of the wooden box. The first step in transferring the bees is to pry the tin can loose and quickly lift it out of the box, stick your hand in the box, and remove the tiny cage the queen bee is contained in that hangs from the top of the box. Then you have to quickly put the tin can back in the box to keep the bees from escaping. Since the queen bee meets her colony for the first time when they are packaged for shipment, the queen is confined in a very small cage, about the size of a lipstick tube, to allow her colony to be exposed to her pheromones and come to identify her as their queen before they actually interact with her because there is a possibility that they may kill her if they don’t recognize her as their queen. Before hanging the queen cage in the beehive, you remove a cork at the bottom of her cage and replace it with a marshmallow, then affix the queen cage with a thumbtack to the inside of the hive (did I mention you’re wearing gloves during all of this?!) Over the course of a couple of days, the queen and the other bees eat the marshmallow and she is released from her cage to join her colony. Doesn’t that just sound like a romantic fairytale of true love!
Okay, that first part was a bit nerve-wracking, but the next step was much more so. Working quickly, you bang the box containing the bees on the ground to knock the bees onto the bottom of the cage, then remove the can and pour the bees through the relatively small hole in the cage into the hive. It sounds easy, but let me tell you, as soon as I whacked the box on the ground and I heard the buzz of 10,000 bees I got a little freaked out! I was able to get the majority of the bees into the hive after several whacks and repeated pouring and shaking of bees into the hive. You don’t have to get every last bee into the hive, just most of them, and then you leave the cage propped in front of the hive entrance and they are supposed to find their way into the hive. I didn’t really find the bees to be all that interested in leaving their cage and going into the hive, so I came back a couple more times during the afternoon to whack and shake them into the hive and I’d say eventually all but probably 100 of them went into the hive.
So after all of the excitement of transferring the bees into the hive, I was more than a little ready to close the hive up and be done with it. I installed their pollen patty and placed an inverted jar of simple syrup in the top of the hive. These are both needed to feed the colony until more plants come into bloom later in the spring for them to feed on. I did forget to do one thing which I’m hoping doesn’t cause too much of a problem. What I forgot to do is to slide the frames where the bees make their comb closely up against the queen cage so she is surrounded on both sides by a frame. I went back to the hive today to check on their food supply of simple syrup and I thought maybe I would slide those frames together. This time I had my smoker with me to drive the bees deeper into the hive, but even with the smoker there was a little more bee activity than I was ready for, so I just left the frames as they were. I suppose it will take some time working with the bees and refining my technique before I feel more confident managing the bees and the hive. Next weekend I will have to muster up my courage and get all of the frames in their proper place. For now, I am going to celebrate the homecoming of the new members of 5R Farm.
The Greenhouse & Beehive
It was great to finally have good weather last weekend so that we could make progress on a couple of outdoor projects. Actually, most of our projects at the farm are outdoors so the recent rainy weather has been slowing us down quite a bit. The greenhouse has been in progress for the last couple of months, and now that the weather is warming up and the veggie seedlings are getting tall, we are anxious to get the greenhouse finished. This weekend Sean finished the roof and installed the skylights, so I’ll be able to move plants in next weekend. They’ll stay in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks to harden them off before planting in the garden once the danger of frost has passed. The other project that definitely needed to get finished this weekend was getting the beehive set up so that it’s ready to transfer the bees into when they arrive next Saturday. I picked a nice sunny southeasterly facing slope near the greenhouse to install the beehive. I removed sod, put down landscape fabric, hauled and compacted gravel, and made a level platform for the beehive. I also set up a concrete planter next to the beehive that will provide a nearby water source for the bees. All in all it was a productive weekend at the farm. Stay tuned for next week’s post – I’ll let you know how it goes when I move the bees, all 10,000 of them, into their hive. It’s sure to be an exciting day!
I have exciting news to report – our very own Millie hatched out some baby chicks! You may recall I had written about Millie wanting to be a momma for quite some time in a previous post, Momma Wanna-be. Well, after she started camping out in the nest box for extended periods this spring, we decided to grant her wish of motherhood. Millie has never met a rooster in her life, but her breed is well known for making excellent mothers so we put three fertile eggs from the farm under her a few weeks ago. It takes chicken eggs 21 days to hatch. We were away for most of the day on day 20, and wouldn’t you know that had to be the day that one chick hatched a day early. We don’t know what happened, but unfortunately the first chick to hatch didn’t make it and I found it dead on the floor of the run. We are speculating that it may have followed the other adult chicken, Coco Puff, down the ladder that leads from the coop to the run and then the chick didn’t know how to get back to the coop and the warmth of it’s momma and so it may have died from exposure. I was horrified to find that first dead chick, but I was soon relieved when I opened the coop door and found Millie sitting in the nest box with a live chick under her and one more egg left to hatch. The following morning she had two adorable peeping chicks.
Coco Puff has been sleeping in the nest box with Millie the entire time she was broody and then during the whole time she was incubating eggs, and now that the chicks have hatched we decided to give Millie some alone time with her new chicks. We installed a screen inside the coop to make separate quarters for Millie and the chicks and to also prevent the chicks from leaving the safety of the coop and their momma. Millie appears to have spent the entire first two days after the chicks hatched in the nest box with the chicks. Then on day 3 she moved the family from the nest box to the food and water station we set up for the chicks and began giving them lessons in eating and drinking. To teach the chicks where the food is and what it looks like she makes a series of quick clucking sounds while picking up pieces of food, dropping the food in front of the chicks, and then pecking at it. The chicks seem to have figured it out and have been pecking hungrily at the food I sprinkle on the threshold of the nest box to lure them out from under Millie. Millie is doing a great job as a momma, and we are going to let her raise the chicks in the coop rather than raising them in the kitchen as we have done when we bought chicks from the store. We will need to be attentive to socializing the chicks to people, as chickens that are hen-raised are known to not be as friendly toward humans as chicks that are regularly handled while they are growing up. Today was the first day of socialization, and it did not exactly go smoothly. I was able to slide my open hand under a chick and pick it up without much objection by the chick, but when I lifted the chick up off the coop floor, Millie flew at me in full attack mode. Luckily when a two pound fluffy bantam chicken goes into attack mode it’s really more cute than it is intimidating! I can tell that Millie is going to make a great mother hen, and I’m already looking forward to having her hatch out more eggs. Now let’s just hope we are lucky enough to have at least one of the baby chicks grow up to be a hen and that we don’t find ourselves with two more roosters on our hands. Besides, I’ve already picked out their names – Daisy and Daphne – which are not very well suited to roosters!
I’ve learned a lot about rooster love in the last year, a bit too much perhaps, and one thing I can say is that love hurts! We currently have 3 roosters living with our flock of 25 hens, which is at the high end of the recommended rooster to hen ratio. Now that spring is here the boys are getting increasingly amorous with the ladies, and several of the ladies are looking a bit tattered in the feather department. The black australorps are among the boys’ favorites, followed by the easter eggers and the speckled sussex, all of which are showing telltale signs of overmating including bare spots on their backs and bald spots on their heads from where the roosters grab onto the hens with their claws and beaks during mating. To be fair, there are times when a lady hen appears to be seeking some male companionship, but most of the time the roosters’ affections do not appear to be reciprocated by the hens. Another thing I’ve learned is that roosters can be quite sneaky when looking for love. Often times the roosters will call the hens over for something tasty to eat they’ve discovered in the pasture only to try to get a little something in return. Many times I’ve seen an unsuspecting hen pecking in the dirt with her fluffy bottom raised high in the air (apparently too much for a rooster to resist) get snuck up on from behind by a frisky rooster.
There is one measure I’ve read about which is supposed to protect hens from overmating and that is to put what is called a chicken saddle on them – which is not exactly what it sounds like. It’s a piece of cloth that covers a hen’s back where she is experiencing feather loss and which allows her feathers to grow back while being protected from further damage by the rooster. My sewing skills are rather limited, but for the sake of one of my favorite hens, Squeaky, I decided to undertake one of my first sewing projects in many years and make her a chicken saddle. The chicken saddle is secured to the chicken by elastic bands with snaps at the end which wrap around their wings at what equates to their shoulder and then snaps in place under their armpit. Luckily Squeaky is one of my friendliest hens, and she often runs over to me for some petting when I enter the chicken pasture so I figured she’d be a good candidate for the chicken saddle experiment. She let me put the saddle on her with minimal objection, but then proceeded to run around the pasture in large circles as if trying to run away from the saddle. It was quite comical, but I immediately realized that that was about as far as this experiment was going to go. I called her name, and to my surprise she came right over to me despite the fact that I was the one who had so recently subjected her to this uncomfortable garment. She let me pick her up and sat patiently on my lap while I removed the saddle. For now, the ladies will have to put up with a bit too much affection from the boys, and I may end up having to rehome another rooster to allow the ladies to return to their beautiful fully feathered selves.
Garden Season is Underway!
The star of this year’s garden is of course the new greenhouse. The framing is nearly complete so let’s hope the weather cooperates enough to start hanging windows this weekend. Even without the greenhouse finished, there is still plenty for me to do to get the garden started. I’ll be planting my warm season vegetable seeds indoors in a sunny southern window. By the time the seedlings are ready to transplant into larger pots, the greenhouse should be ready (or close enough) to move them in.
The soil in the raised garden beds is workable so I was able to direct seed some cool season vegetables this week. I planted lettuce and spinach seeds in the cold frame and planted peas and installed trellises in another raised bed. I’m also trying something new this year – growing onions from seed. Usually I buy onion sets from the nursery, but I was on a roll with my seed saving last year so I let some onions go to seed and saved some “Candy” sweet onions. Onions need a long growing season, so I have already planted the onion seeds indoors and placed them under a grow lamp. I’m hoping this experiment goes well and allows me to grow some bigger onions than I did last year. The onions I planted from sets last year did alright, but they only grew to be small to medium sized onions by harvest time, whereas one of our neighbors a few miles down the road grew onions the size of softballs which I eyed jealously every time I drove by his garden on the way to the farm.
This summer I’ll be expanding the size of the garden by adding a squash bed in front of the house in an old flower bed. I pulled the blackberry that had invaded the bed, put down landscape fabric to smother the grass and weeds, and covered it with yard debris. In a few months, when it’s time to put out the squash seedlings it should be all ready to go. With the new squash bed, maybe this year I’ll have enough space in the garden to plant everything far enough apart so that it doesn’t grow into one tangled mass of stems and leaves that I have to tiptoe around in order to harvest vegetables…but then again, probably not. When it comes to gardening (or chickens for that matter), my philosophy is there’s always room for a few more!
We lost one of the good ones this week. Henry was the pint-sized ambassador of 5R Farm. He was one of our two banty roosters, the bachelors as they became known, who spent most of their lives living separately from the rest of the chicken flock. Henry and Lil’ Red Rooster could often be found up by the fenced pasture for the chicken flock, gazing longingly at the ladies. Any time Henry would see me come out the back door and walk onto the porch he would run over to see if there might just be some treats to be had by such a charismatic little rooster. I had a soft spot for little Henry, so the answer to this question was usually yes. Although he wouldn’t let me pick him up, he would eat out of my hand, so the treats were on his terms. In fact, most of Henry’s life was on his terms. When we first moved the bachelors into their own coop and run, I had hoped that they would stay within its confines to give them some protection from predators. It wasn’t 10 minutes before Henry escaped from his new run (read about it in the Oh Henry! post). Henry was so cute strutting along the back deck and in the flower beds that I didn’t have the heart to confine him in a fenced run, although he would probably still be with us if I had. In the mornings he would stand on the roof of his coop, crowing for all he was worth in response to the crowing of the full sized roosters. I imagined he was saying “I’m a rooster too!” with every cock-a-doodle-doo.
As time went on, Henry expanded his daily roaming grounds, and he would often bring a smile to my face when I would come across him in various locations around the farm. I knew one day he was bound to become dinner for one of many potential predators, but I always thought it would be a hawk who would get him and carry him up and away. We think it was a cat that did poor Henry in, based on recent sightings of a cat prowling the deck where Henry could often be seen making his rounds. I buried Henry in his favorite grotto underneath the weeping cherry tree. He brought a lot of joy into our lives, and I’m pretty sure he enjoyed his life at 5R Farm too. In the end, I guess that’s pretty good for a pint-sized rooster.
So Long, Ringo
It’s been a long time coming, but I finally decided to rehome one of our roosters – Ringo, our silver gray dorking. Now that the roosters are eleven months old they’re all grown up, and although they’ve been raised as brothers since they were little chicks and have gotten along well until now, there’s been an increase in rooster showdowns lately that has me more than a bit concerned. Our alpha rooster, Reuben, is getting challenged by all the other roosters. Reuben is definitely a lover, not a fighter, and he’s been running away with his tail between his legs at the first sign of a challenge. Ramon and Ringo have been doing more than chasing however, and I’ve seen some fairly serious looking sparring between the two of them. It starts with a face off and flaring of the hackle feathers around the neck and lately it’s frequently followed by the roosters jumping in the air with talons outstretched toward each other. Although there have not been any serious injuries, Ringo has suffered a few minor injuries. A few weeks ago I noticed his comb and wattles were a bit bloody and his formerly pristine white hackle feathers were stained brown with dried blood. Ringo treats the ladies well, and is one of the more gentlemanly roosters in our flock, so I was sad to see him at the losing end of a fight. With spring and peak mating season right around the corner, I think it’s likely the sparring will increase so I decided last week the time had come to reduce the number of roosters in our flock.
Deciding which rooster to rehome was a tough decision. I’d like to raise our own chicks one day, and of the breeds we have now I’d like to breed the easter egger first, and likely also the black australorp. That means that Ringo is the one to go. I posted a notice on the chicken group I belong to (PDXBackyardChix) that I was looking for a new home for Ringo, and I found someone willing to take him. It sounds like a great new home for him where he would be the only rooster with a flock of seven ladies of his own. Then in one of life’s little ironies, two days before Ringo was to be picked up by his new owner, I was horrified to see that Ringo was bleeding from the tip of his broken beak! I have no idea what happened, and I can only guess that he was either injured in a fight with one of the other roosters or flew into something and broke his beak. Chickens do break off the tip of their beaks on occassion, and they do grow back, the concern is whether the break is far enough back that it affects their ability to eat. Unfortunately Ringo was having trouble eating his usual feed so I fed him soft food for a couple days, and he seems to be eating fairly well after a couple days of healing. His new owner said that she would still take him, and she came today to pick him up. I’m hoping that he will have a speedy recovery at his new home where there are no other roosters to compete with. Although I’ll be sad to see him go, I hope he’ll be happy at his new home with his very own group of ladies. I will certainly miss him as he is a handsome boy indeed, and he was very striking looking in the farmyard with his black and white feathers and very large red comb and wattles. As much as I enjoy having Ringo in our flock, I’d feel awful if he were to be injured more seriously while living with us, so I know it’s the right decision to say goodbye to Ringo.