Support the Safe Seed Pledge: no to GMOs!

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It's no secret that I am adamantly against all use of GMOs.  I have done a lot of reading and considering on this subject and have come to the conclusion that having food with systemic pesticides cannot be good for either people or the planet.  I am already against pesticides applied externally on crops.  The wind takes it aloft spreading it across everything, not just the targeted crops, so that we all breath it whether we choose to or not.  It pollutes our water through runoff.  Traces of it stay in the food people eat, even after washing. 

So why would I think it's a good idea to create a plant whose dna includes a pesticide?  It can't be washed off at all.  A pesticide in the genes can cross with clean plants giving it some of it's altered genes without you even knowing it and this is what's already happening: GMO crops contaminate other crops through their seed  being carried on the wind and by birds.  Even when we purposely choose to eat only non-GMO foods we still may be eating them because farmers planting GMO crops can't prevent contamination to other farms.

I am becoming increasingly angry and alarmed at the disregard my country shows towards my health and my ability to make what I consider to be good choices for my body.  There isn't a lot you or I can do to stop the GMO companies from spreading their seeds to industrial farmers and it feels hopeless sometimes but I would like to suggest that our income is still the best place we can assert our power.  Our income and our voice through voting and protesting.

Here are a few things we can all do to help fight against GMOs infiltrating our lives:

  • Do you purchase any packaged food?  Write letters, e-mails, or make phone calls to the producers of the food you buy to ask them if they use GMO produce in their products.  If they say they do, stop buying that product and find one that doesn't use GMOs.  I have actually done this once and plan to do this more.  If you make your preference and your concerns known to companies it puts pressure on them to respond.  They need your money.

  • Don't vote for any candidates who are known to support (in any way at all) the companies that produce and promote GMOs.  Read up on them and you can find out what corporations they are affiliated with.

  • Campaign for labeling.  Write letters to the government and also to the stores where you shop.  Labeling of all foods with GMO ingredients should be mandatory so that those of us who don't want to ingest or support them can choose not to.  Here is a link with suggestions on how to use guerrilla tactics to get your message across:  Do it Yourself GMO and Factory Farmed Foods

  • Plant open pollinated seeds from seed companies who have taken the safe seed pledge.  The corporations who are selling GMOs aren't targeting the civilian population any more (having failed to gain support) and are mostly targeting industrial farmers, but even so, supporting seed companies that have taken the safe seed pledge is important - these are the people preserving clean seeds and our future depends on our ability to save our own seeds (you can't save your own seeds if you plant GMOs, it's not only illegal, it is often not successful).

I buy most of my seeds from Territorial Seed Company because they have seeds that have been acclimated to my climate, they've taken the safe seed pledge, and they offer a good variety of open pollinated seeds which is about 90% of what I plant. 

If you would like to find out what other seed companies have taken the safe seed pledge you can look up "safe seed pledge" online or you can go to this link I found:

Safe Seed Resources

I also found this interesting article by Greenpeace on GMO seeds:

Facts and Figures About GMOs

(that will give you the link to download the article)
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Shelling Pea Harvest: 2010

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Nothing about my gardening tactics is ideal.  I frequently plant later than I'm supposed to (often in an effort not to plant too early which simply results in me losing track of when I'm actually supposed to plant), I have no drip system in (so everything is hand watered, or as is more often the case, I don't water at all), and I never seem to make time for weed control which, since I don't use herbicides to control them, means they grow taller than me.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that whenever I write down what yields I got for something, you can always remember that if I was a better gardener* those yields could be higher.  This should give hope to the less savvy people trying to grow their own food.

I was so sloppy this year that I'm not even certain which varieties of peas I planted.  I will need to dig through nefarious corners of my garden boxes and seed containers to see if I saved them.  I believe I used Alderman and Cascade, but I'll have to double check.  Assuming I'll remember to double check.

Total yield: 9 lbs 9 oz shelling peas

raised bed breakdown:
4x8 bed: 6 lbs 12 oz
1x3 bed: 2 lbs 13 oz

I never watered the peas.  They grew, bloomed, and fruited all during our prolific rainy season.  So that's some good value.  I used two packets of peas which cost me a little more than $5. 

Doing some tricky math (because I've forgotten how to do it the easy way) I calculate that my homegrown peas cost me about .53 cents per pound.

I don't know about where you live, but where I live you don't find fresh shelling peas for that price. 

In case anyone is curious, I didn't add any purchased fertilizer either.  We add straw with slightly aged chicken manure from our own hens.  BONUS.  So no money was spent for fertilization.  No effort besides planting the seeds was made by me.  No watering.  I got 9 lbs 9 oz fresh shelling peas for all that non-effort.  Who can complain about those economics?

What would have improved my yield:  weeding, planting earlier

*I'm actually an excellent gardener when I'm not working full time.  Or when I have the money to install things like drip irrigation.  In a previous life (when I lived in California) I had a much more productive garden and the weeds, though always plentiful, never reached full potential height.  But that was back when I was a housewife and stay at home mother.  That was when I realized that my passion, aside from writing, was urban homesteading.  Ah well, good memories!
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Bungie the rooster.  He's a handsome boy.  Too bad my picture is sub-par.  He wasn't cooperative and I didn't have time to coax a good shoot from him before taking him to the farm store to be sent to the farm, where it is to be hoped he'll have plenty of girls and no soup pot chasing him down.

Chickens are very difficult to sex when they hatch.  Experienced poultry people can tell the difference between the girls and the boys much better than most but no one is capable of being correct one hundred percent of the time.  If you live in a rural area where you're allowed to have roosters this isn't likely an issue you'll lose sleep over, however, for everyone raising a flock of chickens in their own back yards in suburban or urban  neighborhoods, it is almost a certainty that roosters won't be allowed. 

When you purchase chicks from the farm store they are sexed with the best accuracy possible, and yet, there is ALWAYS a risk that one or more of your chicks will turn out to be boy.  It's a good idea to find out, before you buy them, what your farm store's policy is on returning boy pullets.  Some won't take them back so if you end up with a rooster you'll need to be prepared to donate it to a farm or eat it for supper.  In my experience most farm stores selling chicks know that roosters are a problem for most of their customers and will take them back.  Some will even give you your money back. 

Bungie turned out to be a glossy preening gorgeous model of a boy.  Our farm store doesn't really take roosters back but John the chicken man took ours.  We were sad to have to give him up because he was gorgeous and we actually like roosters, but they aren't allowed, and he started practicing his crowing so we had to whisk him off.

Roosters don't start crowing for at least two months.  Depending on the breed and the individual they may not start crowing until they're three or four months old.  Bungie was a bit precocious in my opinion.  Little upstart!  Experienced poultry farmers like to tell you that until the bird crows you can't know if it's a rooster.  In our fist flock we had a hen that was acting like the boss of the whole group, herding the others around, posturing, and generally acting like a chest thumping boy and when I called the farm store they told me it was too early to tell.  I brought Lucy in and showed her to them and the chicken expert shook his head and told me she wasn't a rooster.  I told him of her decidedly masculine behaviors and he explained (somewhat patronizingly) that some hens will behave in a very dominant fashion and that that wasn't a sure way to tell a hen from a rooster before they've fully matured.

Two days later Lucy discovered his magnificent voice and began to practice his crow nonstop.  I brought him in to the farm store and they bought him back.  It wasn't kind of me but I was a little smug.  Maybe he didn't know for sure that Lucy was really Lucius, but WE did.

Our friends John and Jin were the first to tell us that Bungie might be a rooster.  They have a lot of experience with Ameraucanas and have noticed that the roosters always have a wider comb base which you can see even when they're very young.  We wouldn't have known by that indication but sure enough, there were other indications to make us suspect that John and Jin were correct.

So how can you tell a hen from a rooster before they reach full maturity?  I'll include John and Jin's tip, the rest of them are my own observations.  The only two times we had a rooster in our flock we knew it before they crowed.  So here are some things to look for:

How to tell a hen from a rooster:

  • In Ameraucanas the male chicks will have a wider comb base than the females.

  • Roosters generally have longer feathers around their necks than hens do.  You may start to notice a difference between two and three months of age. 

  • They like to thrust their chests out.  It is exactly the same type of gesture as a man pounding his chest.  They look like they're puffing themselves up to look more manly. 

  • They will charge at the females (using their chest thrust) to herd them.

  • They may appear to fluff up their neck feathers and in addition to this some will have a distinct way of twitching their heads as they walk about importantly.  That one's easy to spot but difficult to describe. 

  • Pushy, bossy, important, preening, puffed up, strutting, herding... these are all things you will find yourself saying about a hen who is really a rooster.

Obviously the gold standard is the moment the dudes roll out the voice.  I happen to love the sound of roosters crowing but there's no getting around the fact that most people don't enjoy it, so I hope that all of you with new flocks this year have only hens!
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If you have (or are thinking about getting) a backyard flock of chickens you should consider the possibility of letting your flock free-range.  Chickens are foraging animals and thrive best when they can hunt for insects (and lizards!) and greens which no chicken run provides.  Being able to scavenge the lawn for worms, to pluck at grass and weeds, and to explore is deeply satisfying to them. 

We let our first flock of hens free-range a couple of hours a day (the last couple of hours of daylight) and they loved it.  It was wonderful to sit out in my garden and listen to the hens scratching, cooing, and scuffling.  If I was doing yard work they would follow behind me to see what interesting activity I was up to. 

By the time we got our second flock of hens we had a dog.  The dog went wild when she saw the birds in the coop the first time and Philip had to train her to not get excited around them.  Between that and the fact that the yard wasn't properly fenced, we never let this flock free-range.  Naturally I was scared of the dog killing the chickens because I've known quite a few chicken-killing dogs.

At our current house the fencing isn't an issue and we've been wondering for a long time whether or not our dog might be trained not to kill the hens if we let them out.  So we planned to do some experiments with the dog and the birds this summer but in the end the whole question of the dog versus the hens was effortlessly answered while Philip was working on building the new coop one evening.  He had to have the chicken run door open for some reason, the dog was close by, the access was there, and nothing happened.  The chickens ventured out and our dog continued to watch them with no more than casual interest. 

Just like that we are now able to let them free-range and I can tell you that they are very excited about the yard!

It worked for our flock this time, but will it work for yours?  There are some things you need to consider before letting your flock free-range in your yard:

  • Fencing: especially in a suburban environment, you need to make sure your fencing is secure.  It should be 6' tall (most hens won't fly such a tall fence, though it isn't impossible because chickens did start out as jungle birds who lived in the trees) and it should not have any gaps in it big enough for the chickens to get out through.  It is equally important that no neighborhood dogs can get in to your chickens.

  • Dogs:  if you have a dog you need to make sure of your dog's feelings about the chickens before you simply let them out.  A dog who wants to kill a chicken will accomplish the job so quickly you will not likely have time to save the situation.  If anyone has any tricks or tips on training dogs to be mellow about chickens please share! 

  • Mess:  Chickens poop, a lot.  They do it whenever they need to and don't care where it lands so your yard will be scattered with their droppings.  I have never minded this.  They tend to prefer being in the dirt, the lawn, or under foliage rather than on pathways and decks, so I don't mind a little mess from them.

  • Scratching:  Chickens forage by scratching at the ground with their strong clawed feet.  This is how they unearth seeds and grubs.  They will make holes in the garden.  They can be quite devastating to shallow rooted plants.  One of their favorite things to do in the warm weather when it's hot is to find a shady spot in the dirt and dig themselves a shallow hole to dust themselves up in.  I find this charming except when they unintentionally expose the roots of nearby plants. 

  • Snacking:  While it's true that chickens will often hunt down your slugs and snails and also enjoy plucking at a wide range of weeds, they really have an all-inclusive palate.  This means that they will equally enjoy snacking on young vegetable seedlings, flowers, rose leaves, and peck around any available fruits or vegetables. 

  • Getting them back in the coop:  Come dusk most chickens will automatically find their way back to the safety of their coop.  They are almost night blind so as the light begins to fade they will wander closer back to safety until they put themselves to bed.  Letting your hens free-range puts a responsibility on you to make sure that they've all made it back into the run and/or coop before dark and that you LOCK them in.  Sometimes a hen will get flustered and not find her way back before it's too dark and she'll just settle down right wherever she is and hope for the best.  The best does not usually come to hens sitting out all night without protection.  Weasels, snakes, skunks, and most of all, raccoons all want to eat your birds and they are just waiting for an opportunity to snatch them.  Nightfall is when most of them come hunting*.  So if you can't commit to locking your birds in at dusk every single night, you should not let them out.

  • Birds of Prey:  Although I haven't personally had a problem with chicken hawks or other birds of prey, you need to know if that might be a problem where you live as Belinda pointed out in the comments.  A large hawk can carry a chicken away, but especially vulnerable are smaller breeds such as banties.  If you don't know if you have such birds of prey in your area, ask the poultry experts** at your local farm store.

With my first flock I started off letting them free-range all day long but after experiencing the damage they did to my most tender vegetable plantings I decided to only let them out during the last two hours of daylight (generally when I liked to be in my garden too) so I could watch over them and scare them off of any fresh plantings.  This served me very well.  The girls got some well deserved foraging in and some freedom but didn't have enough time to do much damage.  The reason I let them out at the end of the day, instead of in the morning, is because not all chickens are easy to catch when they don't want to be caught, but all chickens naturally return to their roost as it darkens which cuts down on work for me.

If I had a bigger property and could fence off my vegetables I would let my flock free-range all day.  But even a couple of hours a day will improve the quality of life your flock enjoys, not to mention the vastly improved quality of the eggs they reward you with.  It's true!  The more your birds get to forage on weeds and bugs and dirt the richer their yolks will be. 

Not everyone who keeps chickens will be able to let them free-range.  What can you do to improve your flock's quality of life in a run?  Here are three things you can do:

  • Weed toss:  When you weed your yard, toss the fresh weeds into the chicken run.  The bigger the pile you give your flock the happier they'll be scratching around in it, eating the leaves (rich in vitamins!) and looking for any attached bugs.

  • Be sure to give them straw in their run: This gives them a satisfying feeling of digging, which makes a nice rustling noise as they work through it.  When it's time to put new straw in the run I bring it in a big chunk and don't spread it around.  The birds like to do this themselves and you'll find they do a great job of distributing it around the run.

  • Kitchen scraps:  I think if birds can't go looking for treats it's important to give them treats from the kitchen.  No grains (except fresh corn!) because if you feed them commercial feed they're already getting all the grain they need, and avoid giving them potatoes.  Otherwise you can give them anything.  You'll probably find that they have preferences (mine won't eat carrots but LOVE turnips, for example).  The scraps will enrich their diet, which will enrich their eggs, and it's a way to compost some of your kitchen scraps.

There are two sounds I like best in the world:  the first one is the sound of my kid laughing, the second one is the sound my chickens make when I toss them watermelon scraps, a quiet clucking and cooing which I think is more soothing than the sound of fountain water in a garden.

*Though my friend lost a hen to a raccoon during the day time!  This is pretty rare but it can happen. 

  • **This will be the person in charge of ordering and caring for the chickens the farm store sells.  They are nearly always people with strong experience in raising poultry and can answer most questions you might have about keeping hens.
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Kitchen Garden Notes: July 10, 2010

shelled peas and onions 2.jpgIt's HOT.  It's too hot to go out and water anything but it's hot enough that everything needs watering.  Except for the peas and favas which I'm almost done harvesting.  I grew two kinds of peas and as soon as I can find the packages and finish weighing them up I'll write a post about the total yields I got from them. 

I only plant peas for shelling.  Without intending to, one of the varieties I planted this year is a "pod pea" which is the kind you can eat pod and all- even after the peas have started growing large.  I don't like to eat them that way.  I do like snow peas when they're young and tender but I hardly ever grow them because the shelled peas are so darn good and so hard to come by in farmer's markets or grocery stores that I devote all my pea space to growing my own.

Is it worth it?  Oh yes!!

lettuce head 2.jpgThis is the first time I've ever grown iceburg lettuce.  This is "Red Iceburg" which was really crispy and delicious.  I only got two heads of it because I wasn't careful in my sowing of the seeds and had some cat interference as well.  I will definitely be growing more crisphead lettuces!

pile of favas 2.jpgThe favas didn't get very large this year.  I attribute this to how late I planted them.  As always, they are very tasty and were effortless to grow.  No pests (now there are black aphids on them but there were none all season up until harvest time). 

pale poppies 2.jpgThe poppies continue to amaze me.  I find them mesmerizing and I look at them all day from my window while I work.  I love the scarlet ones, of course, but these pale ones may be my favorites. 

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Right now my yard is waist high in grass and weeds.  We have no mower (ours broke and no one here in town works on electric mowers)* and I have not been making time for weeding between working and writing my novel.  This coming week I hope to work harder to tame the forest out there.  I have wild blackberries threatening to swallow half my yard too. 

This I am encouraging in part because I tasted them last year and they were really good!  I love blackberries and I had actually thought about buying a couple of cultivars to create a hedge of them in the corner of my garden.  Sometimes nature throws at you exactly what you crave.  They are probably the "Himalaya" blackberry which is considered a noxious weed here in Oregon.

I can't consider anything a noxious weed that generously feeds so many animals, insects, and me!  This heat, though I loathe it, is exactly what the blackberry bushes need in order to ripen the buckets of green fruit they've got hanging from them. 

*This is a reasonable excuse, but of course we hate mowing and rarely do it anyway.

Strawberry Yield: 2010

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scale strawb 2.jpgThis whole yield is from second year plants that I planted at the base of my three peach trees (which are in 3' x 3' raised beds).  I wish I had recorded exactly how many plants I put in each raised bed but since I didn't I'll have to estimate that there were about 7 plants per bed. 

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The first year we got only a handful of berries.  I didn't pinch off the flowers as all garden books suggest (to strengthen the roots and plants so that the second year will be all about fruit production.

Total yield from 21 plants:  13.5 lbs

That means that each plant produced .64 lbs of fruit.

I have done some research on how much yield I should be expecting (to see if my plants are performing well or not) and there is wide variation in what yields one should expect.  So that's inconclusive. 

What I can conclude is that underplanting the peaches with the strawberries worked really well!

Because most of the fruit is ripe before we get our hot weather here I didn't water these once this season. 

These are june-bearing plants but I don't know which specific variety because a friend gave them to me last year. 

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Kitchen Garden Notes: June 11, 2010

red rome apple 2.jpgThere are so many good things happening in my garden right now.  My Red Rome apple has set a ton of fruit even though it's still sitting in a dirt pile in the driveway.  We dug it up from the other house and haven't decided where to put it yet.

fava macro 2.jpgI love fava flowers with their bold black marks and stripes.  I planted them late this year so I'm not sure how they'll do but it seems they're doing fine so far.  It just might be later than usual when I get to harvest them. 

blueberry cluster 2.jpgAll of our blueberries were transplanted from our last house and are doing pretty well.  This particular one is in the same dirt pile as the Red Rome.  In spite of not having a deep place to send its roots down in, it looks pretty happy. 

peas blooming 2.jpgThe peas are very tall and covered in blossoms though I have yet to find any pods.  Peas really love our cool climate here. 

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The strawberries from last year are very full and making tons of berries.  Unfortunately they are also being choked by bindweed which is rampant in our garden.

Seeing all the good fruit and flowers growing in my garden right now is a little bittersweet because there's a strong chance we'll have to move.  Not to a new house but to a rental.  We're trying to work with our bank so that we can keep our house but the truth is, it doesn't look good.  So I walk around and wonder what I'll get to taste before I have to pack up and find somewhere new to live. 

We've started four gardens at four houses since becoming homeowners 10 years ago and I've gotten better at it with each one.  Every time I plant fruit trees and look forward to tasting the first tiny harvest and each time I end up moving before I get to enjoy them. 

We like to think of ourselves as modern-day Johnny Appleseeds, planting fruit trees everywhere we live so that others can enjoy them after we're gone.  Establishing fruiting trees in a world that talks about starvation and wonders how we can feed all the people in the world while planting non-fruiting apple trees and ornamnentals feels useful and positive. 

If we don't get to keep this house we will probably never be able to own a house again and my gardening days of collecting antique roses, establishing fruit trees, and growing my own vegetables will be likely be over.  It doesn't mean I can't continue to do a lot of the things that define urban homesteading. 

I am thinking about places where I can transplant some of my treasures so that I can visit them. 

But who knows, maybe some amazing bit of luck will allow me to stay put.

Kitchen Garden Notes: May 18, 2010

another pink moss 2.jpgThe moss rose Gloire de Mousseux is in full bloom.  I didn't prune any of the roses this winter so they're a riot of tangles.  This one gets very tall.  I'm pleased it didn't ball up in the spring rain.

arnica macro 2.jpgThe arnica has just started blooming and I have promised myself not to miss out on harvesting it this year.  I got lots of blooms last year and never managed to get them.  They trickle in for a while then bust out in full flower mode and then are suddenly done.  I'm determined to make an arnica salve from my own plants this year.

favas 2.jpgThe favas are beginning to set flowers.  I wish they'd had a chance to get taller first but I planted them late in the season.  Still, I can't complain about getting such a great germination rate for this bed I planted.  Almost all of the seeds came up.

pea tangle 2.jpgThe peas are very busy vining up.  I have a perennial problem of not providing support before it's too late.  This variety is semi-self supporting.  We'll see what happens.  No blossoms yet.

comfrey 2.jpgThe comfrey plants my friends John and Jin brought me from their own garden were looking dreary for a while but they are definitely digging in and I have a feeling they'll fill out their raised bed well given the chance.  I've been wanting to establish a comfrey bed for ages.  Comfrey is brilliant in a healing salve, chickens love to eat it, and it's also a great additive to the compost bin. 

*Note: as someone has pointed out, this is NOT comfrey.  Comfrey has bell shaped flowers.  I had not yet bothered to verify it's identity and simply took it for what my friends believed it to be.  If anyone can tell me what it is, I would love some help identifying it.  It isn't borage but may very well be in the Boraginaceae family- those flowers look a lot like forget-me-nots  but the foliage on the plant is a lot more like borage or comfrey.  At the base the leaves are quite large and form a big clump.  Anyone know? 

Frost peach 2.jpgOf the three peach trees this is by far the healthiest.  It's "Frost" and seems to be much less inclined to succumb to peach leaf curl.  It has a few peaches that might not drop.  Fingers crossed!

shallot 2.jpgI took the picture before I weeded.  I let this bed go nuts with weeds but when I was out there yesterday I started pulling them out and saw that most of my shallots had successfully come up.  Only a couple of rotters.  Now that I've cleared the weeds they should do even better.  They're planted in a bed with strawberries.

quincelet 2.jpgThe quince tree has really taken off this year and there are quite a few fruits swelling on it.  I'll have to keep an eye out because the branches are still thin and might not support too much fruit.  Often a young tree will drop most of its fruit so I'll just have to keep my eye on it.

Apothecary Rose 2.jpgThis is my Apothecary's Rose that my good friend Nicole gave me from her own garden.  She gave me several own root pots of them and most of them have survived.  This is one of the earliest cultivated roses and was used (as the name suggests) for medicinal purposes.  It's a once bloomer that is supposed to set hips really well.  I'm pleased to see so many blossoms in this first year in the ground of my garden.

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This is my potato bed with most of my thyme plants.  I missed the opportunity to get an early crop of thyme for drying.  I don't personally like drying and using stems that have flowered.  However, if your thyme is like mine and you'd like to get a good harvest in a month or so, I suggested giving them a trim now.  I plan to do that for mine in the next couple of days.  I used thyme more than any other garden herb.

The potatoes need mulching but I haven't got a way to get a big bale of hay to our house right now.  So they'll just have to wait.

I also managed to get planted seven artichoke plants: 5 Violetta and 2 Green Globe.  I put them in a raised bed that's 8' x 4' which if the artichokes grow well will barely be able to contain them.  I didn't have another spot prepared for them and needed to get them dug in so it'll have to do.  I can always transplant them later if need be.

I bought, but haven't planted, 6 tomatoes: Caspian Pink, Green Zebra, Black From Tula, Pruden's Purple, Sun Gold, and Striped German. 

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Proper Heating For Chicks

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And what to do if you overheat one.

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Chicks have very specific heating requirements.  When they are allowed to hatch with their mother they spend most of their time nestled under her where they are warmed by down.  As they age they'll venture out more and more.  When they first hatch they aren't able to regulate their own body heat.  So if you are raising chicks from a feed store, without a mother hen, it's important to simulate the heat they require.  For this you will need a heating lamp. 

The general guidelines are this:

  • For the first week of a chick's life the warmest spot in its box (or tub) should be at 95 degrees.  The box should be large enough that they can get out of the heat for breaks, to cool down.
  • Each week you should lower the general temperature by 5 degrees.
  • The best way to monitor the heat level is with a thermometer which should be placed to the side rather than directly underneath the lamp for a more accurate reading. 
However, if you don't have a thermometer you should do the following:

Start off with the heat lamp about 28" from the bottom of the area in which you are keeping your chicks.  Measure it with an actual ruler.

  • Keep a fairly close watch on the chicks to see where they spend most of their time.  If they remain constantly huddled right under the lamp, then there isn't adequate overall heat and you should lower the lamp by one or two inches. 

  • If the chicks are huddled as far away from the heat of the lamp as possible, then it's too low and should be raised by one or two inches.
  • In an ideally heated environment your chicks will be scattered throughout their quarters feeling comfortable enough to explore all corners.

What to do if you overheat a chick:

Last weekend we discovered one of our chicks collapsed.  In fact, we were sure she was dead because she seemed sunken, she wasn't moving, she was limp, and her eyes were closed.  While we were sadly trying to figure out where we would bury her, a sad office to perform on a mother's day, Philip jumped out of his skin when he felt her move a tiny bit.  She still seemed lifeless but he'd felt the tiniest movement of breathing. 

When chicks are tiny they are fairly fragile so we really had no hope that she would make it.  I took her with me into the house, wrapped her in a dry washcloth, planning to simply hold her until she died.  Thinking she would be more comfortable if kept warm, I proceeded to wrap her in a heating pad. 

Her beak started opening and closing very slowly, which seemed hopeful so I ran to get her some water to see if she'd drink and once I dunked her beak a couple of times and saw her throat make a swallowing motion, I ran to call the farm store for advice.  The first thing John the chicken man asked me was how low my heat lamp was.  He said it sounded like the chick was overheated. 

I measured how low my heat lamp was and discovered that I had it at 12" above the litter which was way too low!  I was really worried about not keeping the chicks warm enough and because I couldn't find my thermometer I was overcompensating.  In effect, I had cooked my littlest chick. 

On discovering that Mo was dying of heat exhaustion, I immediately removed her from the warmth of the heating pad and continued to force her to drink tiny droplets of water.  While the odds were clearly against her, when I heard her peep for the first time that morning I knew she had a chance. 

If this ever happens to you I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to revive a heat exhausted chick:

  • Remove the chick from the source of the heat immediately and if you have other chicks then adjust the heat lamp so that the other chicks are out of danger.
  • Don't bury a chick immediately on finding them collapsed.  With a large chicken it's easy to tell when they've stopped breathing.  One week old chicks are so small it isn't easy to tell.  Try the following tips before giving up.
  • Fill a very small cup (I used a demitasse) with cold water.  Gently dip the chick's beak into it being careful not to submerge their nostrils which are about halfway up their beaks.  Wait a couple of minutes before trying again.
  • If the chick's throat swallows the droplets of water, then she's still got a chance.  Keep doing this for a half an hour or so.
  • If your chick, at this point, starts showing stronger signs of life, I suggest adding a pinch or two of sugar to the water.  This can help give the chick added energy to help revive her.
It took Mo 1 hour before peeping. It took her 2 hours before she started trying to sit up and opened her eyes again.  It took fully four hours after we found her for her to stand up on her own again.  It took five hours for her to start eating scratch again and walking around.

  • Whenever you have an injured or sick bird it is imperative that you remove them from the rest of their flock.  Birds are not kind to injured flock members.  So if you are nursing a small chick back from heat exhaustion, you need to create a separate space for them to recover in.  We put her in a very small box with some food and some litter and set that near the heat lamp in the bigger box where the other chicks were, being careful not to put her directly under the lamp.
  • During the time she was in the separate box I gave her frequent drinks of water by hand because  I couldn't fit a watering dispenser in the little box.  Chickens are thirsty birds, making sure they have fresh cool water is very important. 
  • When I reintroduced her to the rest of the chicks I kept a close eye on them to be sure she wasn't being picked on dangerously.  I didn't consider her safe until I'd spent some time with them to watch the other chicks.
We were very lucky.  I know that in a similar scenario we very well might have lost her.  John the chicken guy advised me to get a replacement chick just in case, and we did that.  But I'm happy to say that Mo, a week after her near death experience, has continued to prosper and it seems she's going to make it.


Other articles on raising chickens:

Caring For Chicks: The First Six Weeks

Choosing Chicken Breeds For Backyard Flocks
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Backyard Flock: meet the new chicks

Our flock of hens is down to three and they are four years old now which means they're middle aged and though ours are all still laying very well, we wanted to add to our flock so that as our older hens slow down their laying we'll still have plenty of eggs.  So we brought our new flock home and here they are:

Anna portrait 2.jpgWe've had ameraucanas before and love them.  Not just for the colorful eggs they lay but because they're cool looking and our experience is that they have great personalities.  We have never had a pale one, which in some places are referred to as lavender Ameraucanas*. 

Bungie portrait 2.jpgThe naming of new chicks is a very important ritual.  You can name your chickens anything you want but there is a strong trend towards giving them antiquated women's names like Doris, Flora, or Dottie.  I like this trend but my son and husband feel no need to name them according to anyone's tradition.  I originally let Max (my son) name two of them and was going to let Philip name two of them as well but had to revoke his naming rights after he named our littlest chick.  We originally meant only to get 6 chicks.  We ended up with one extra because we almost lost our Speckled Sussex and the farm store suggested  a back up bird

Anyway, the naming frenzy got out of control and here are some of the names brainstormed between my guys:  Doo-boy, Carlito, Boo-doy, Leroy, Larry, Carl, Bouffant, Curly, Spikey, Lemon-boy, Turd (what is it with 9 year old boys?!), Jumpy-jump, and Blackie. 

Curly-sue portrait 2.jpgI'm willing to bet that no one can guess who named which birds.  Naturally if you're a farmer who has more than a small flock you don't indulge in the great chick naming event.  It's too bad, I must say it adds some lively fun to family life and my kid is much more interested in chicks he gets to take part in naming than chicks he doesn't.  It becomes more personal to him.  Naming is not recommended for those birds being raised for meat.  We raise ours for the eggs, the manure, and the pleasure of having them around.

Dimity-Jane second p 2.jpgWe have a favorite Looney Tunes cartoon which I think is called "The Stranger" and is about a chick who is adopted by a mother duck who tries to raise the chick with her own ducklings.  The animators did an amazing job of capturing the distinctive way chicks have of moving.  If you haven't seen that cartoon I suggest trying to get your hands on it.  (We have it on a disc of a cartoon collection.) 

Bob portrait2.jpgBob is difficult to photograph.  She's not very cooperative and her head being so dark adds another challenge.  We've never had Australorpes so we're pretty excited to have two of them.  Of course, any or all of these chicks could turn out to be a rooster, in which case we'd have to sell them back to the farm store.  Hopefully we'll end up with at least one Black Australorp. 

Drusilla portrait 2 .jpgI'm curious to see how different Bob and Drusilla will turn out.  Drusilla has a lot more yellow on her but I thought the grown Australorps are all black.

Mohawk portrait 2.jpgThis is Mohawk who had a very stressful weekend during which she very nearly signed off after becoming cooked by the heat lamp.  My next chicken post will give some tips about reviving chicks that have collapsed from overheating.  It is amazing that she made it.  She's still a little ruffled looking but she's completely recovered. 

Mo 2.jpgTaking pictures of the chicks in their box is hard.  The lighting is tough on the pictures.  This is Mohawk just after making her full recovery. 

Unceremonious 2.jpg
Drusilla being manhandled by me.  Chicks don't naturally like being picked up.  Unfortunately for them there isn't an animal on earth that wouldn't like to sink its teeth into a baby chick, humans being no exception other than their willingness to plump them up first.  The birds know their position and are therefore suitably skittish around anything not them.  We make a practice of handling our chicks a great deal.  They run, they scuffle, they peep, but in the end they will be forced to suffer our gentle assaults.  Over time they become used to our voices; learn that we are the strange beings who bring treats like snails and greens and best of all in the entire world...watermelon, and will come running when they hear us. 

*Only pure bred Ameraucanas are called "Araucanas".  Ours are not pure bred.  The kind we got is an Ameraucana or sometimes they're referred to as "Easter Eggers". 

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