Posts Tagged ‘chickens’

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 1: Part 2

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I knew I’d have to do each day separately, since I’m excited about this topic and that makes me verbose. However, I thought that splitting each day in two would keep the word count reasonable. Silly me.

It's so pretty, with the little garden and the flowers.

It’s so pretty, with the little garden and the flowers.

Homestead three was a co-operative chicken coop presented by Frank Kinder and Michele Mukatis. Four families took over what appears to be an alley between yards to build a chicken coop and run. Each family cares for the flock for one week at a time, and that week is when they get the eggs from the flock. To do this well, pick your co-op carefully and communicate, communicate, communicate! Michele thinks that having laidback members helps a lot, but they aren’t so laid back that nothing gets done. By making it a group effort, the work for any one person or family is minimized while still being able to have that immediate connection to your food source. It also means that you have people to take over if you want to go on vacation.

Rhode Island Reds are a pretty sturdy and reliable breed for egg-laying.

Rhode Island Reds are a pretty sturdy and reliable breed for egg-laying.

Because they aren’t as close to the coop as, say, John was, they opted to go for a very secure run that the hens could walk in and out of at will instead of being let in and out each day. With a larger number of people invested in this coop, they had enough labor and money to make a predator-proof run. For the construction, industrial staples were strongly recommended. Apparently the regular ones pull out way too easily. They had to work out who buys the feed (two bags at a time on a regular rotation through the families), who cleans the coop (every five weeks, so that it rotates families), and how to resolve conflicts. They also had to talk about how to handle a person wanting to leave the co-op and what to do with the hens that were too old to lay. Commercial hens are generally replaced annually. However, real hens often lay for three to five years before they become unreliable. Would the older hens hang around as pets or would they turn into dinner? I suppose being on the same page as to practicality would help a lot with making that decision.

Being birds, they like to sleep off the ground.

Being birds, they like to sleep off the ground.

Again, much of the coop was made from cheap to free materials. There was a monetary investment, but you don’t have to break the bank to get started. As with most things, there is a learning process. Chickens are very scared of the sound a tarp makes in the wind. They need shade, so look for something like canvas as a non-rigid shade cover. They bed with leaves that they collect from people’s curbs and yards in the fall and leave bagged up until they are needed. When collecting leaves, though, bear in mind that oak leaves don’t break down well and if the homeowner sprays chemicals, those chemicals will end up in the chickens and their eggs. To keep predators from digging into their coop, they put down a layer of cinder blocks with the holes vertical. This allowed drainage, but most critters will give up if they run into something solid when they start digging.

Bugs are more good than bad. And your chickens happen to find them delicious.

Bugs are more good than bad. And chickens happen to find them delicious.

They learned the hard way that while you can feed chickens kitchen scraps and weeds, you really don’t want to feed them grass clippings. They get balled up in the craw and are gross to get out. If your chickens do get ill or injured, though, it looks like Pikes Peak Vet might be the only vet in town that takes them in.

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The last stop for the day was goats with Monycka Snowbird. At this moment in time, goats are not legal within the city limits, but Monycka is working with Council Member Jill Gaebler to fix that. After all, they’ve been legal up in Denver for two years, and they’re becoming legal in all sorts of other cities across the country. It’s about time we got our act together. Chickens are the gateway drug (everyone had chickens), but goats aren’t far behind.

Yep- that's the attack goat.

Yep- that’s the attack goat.

Major point to remember- that goat smell? That comes from un-neutered males, or bucks. They will probably never be legal within city limits due to that smell. However, wethers (neutered males) and does (females) don’t stink. Not having bucks around also means that the milk won’t be nearly as goaty. When it’s time to breed, you just take your does out of town for a date. They gestate for five months and then can be milked from 12 to 18 months, though you do get less the longer you milk them. Her goats are registered Nigerians and should produce one to two quarts each per day once they have had a kid or four. Apparently they frequently come out in multiples.

Chicken coops on this tour were anything from utilitarian to gorgeous.

Chicken coops on this tour were anything from utilitarian to gorgeous.

When you’re getting goats, you need at least two. They are herd animals and they won’t bond with your dog to keep them happy and socialized. She recommends Craigslist for finding goats. People don’t usually take good goats to the livestock auctions, so avoid those. Expect to pay $2-300 for a good goat. However, if the doe is a solid milk producer, the kids should be easy to sell since those things tend to run in the family. (Please let your goat mature completely before you breed her, though. It’s very hard on them if they aren’t quite there.)That’s also why you should check out the dam of your new goat before you buy. If she’s a solid citizen, yours probably will be, too. Make sure that your goat has been debudded. Apparently the process is traumatizing for humans to watch, but it’s done for the safety of the goat and everything the goat comes in contact with. Horns can get caught in fencing which may make them panic and break their neck. They also tend to enjoy bowling for chickens and small children, so no horns reduces injury to the creatures being bowled for. This has to be done when they are no more than a couple of weeks old. There’s no way to do it later.

A meat rabbit.

A meat rabbit.

Speaking of fencing- goats are smart. Once they figure out a way out, they won’t forget it. This includes the dog-door into the house. Your fencing needs to be secure to keep large predators out, but it also needs to be really secure to keep the goats in. Your pet dog may or may not make friends with your goats and chickens. Dogs are predators, goats and chickens are prey. Not all dogs are able to see them as something to be protected rather than something to be eaten. Goats are also very territorial. They may learn to accept the house’s dog in their territory, but they do not like dogs they don’t know at all. Not even if you take them out hiking with you. Yep, they’re smart enough to be leash-trained and to carry packs. As an odd aside- apparently goats and pigs are mortal enemies, so you might want to pick one or the other for a small backyard.

Everyone that wanted to got to try their hand at trimming goat feet.

Everyone that wanted to got to try their hand at trimming goat feet.

Everyone has heard that goats will eat anything. It’s not true, though. They are browsers, not grazers, so they will not mow your lawn, but they will mow down your blueberries that you imported special soil to grow. They will also demolish a garden in record time if it isn’t fenced very well. However, once their hay is pulled out of the feeder and hits the ground, they won’t touch it. They also won’t get hungry enough to give in. They would rather starve than eat something they don’t like. On the other hand, they will taste anything, so watch out for shirt hems and paper in their presence. The eating results in lots of pooping- however, healthy poop has almost no smell and it doesn’t need to be composted before it goes on the garden. The lack of smell also means that it attracts almost no flies. If they do get into something they shouldn’t, there are only two vets in town that take them- Dr. Valch and maybe Airway Vet.

This picture was not altered in any way . . .

This picture was not altered in any way . . .

Chickens are pretty easy, but goats require a bit more from their owners. Not only do you have to keep them from tasting things that might make them sick, you also need to trim their hooves to keep their feet from rotting. (Unless you want to hire me to do it. I could totally be the goat farrier.) They are an awesome addition to your homestead, but make sure that you think harder about the responsibilities than you do for chickens.

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 1: Part 1

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

Gardens, chickens, ducks, doves, rabbits, cats, and a pair of very friendly dogs. All in one urban back yard.

It was pure chance that I stumbled on the schedule for the first annual Urban Homestead Tour, but I’m so glad I did. Each homestead had a 45(ish) minute presentation staggered so you could attend all four of them each day. Each homestead was also open for four hours so that you could come before or after the crush if that worked better for you. It turns out the turnout was a bit more than expected. Next year, presenters, could you have the homesteaders do two or four presentations during the open house to spread out the mob a bit? It’s only going to get more popular, and some of the yards weren’t set up in a way to handle large audiences. That being said, even if I missed some parts of some of the presentations, each one gave me a good dose of information. So much, in fact, that you’re only going to get an overview here. You’ll have to come out next year to get the whole scoop.

It's a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

It’s a treadle sewing machine! That she uses!

The first stop on the tour was Kathy Olson, formerly of Couch Comfies by Kathy. Her topic was fiber arts. She was a fantastic start because when she asked me if I was a homesteader and I demurred (I consider myself to still be aspiring to that title), she asked if I canned, or froze, or sewed? I don’t can at the moment, but I’ll get serious about freezing once my freezer arrives, and I do knit. I guess I do belong with these folks! She then described the best way to freeze herbs. Wash and dry them, lay them flat in a ziplock bag and squeeze the air out. Once they’re frozen, you can just open the bag to cut off what you need.

She made the bear when she was 12, and he's sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

She made the bear when she was 12. He’s sitting on her first quilt and other samples of very doable quilting.

Once her talk started, it was pretty clear that her approach to fiber arts was both practical and welcoming. Quilting is basically being able to sew straight lines. But don’t be afraid to quilt something other than, well, quilts. She was wearing a pretty quilted vest, and she had several examples of gifts including pillows and wall hangings. She, personally, likes to knit hats and scarves herself to match them to her coats. As for practical, her biggest hint for quilting was that if it doesn’t work quite the way you intended, finagle it until it does work. The odds are that no one else will know that the pattern isn’t quite what you’d intended when you started. The other option is to box up “mistakes” to look at later. If you start an afghan today and get bored, you might be ready to finish it two or three years from now, so hang on to what you’ve done.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me.

Yep, looks like homesteading to me. Yum.

Did you know that Amish quilts always have a flaw because only God is perfect? They aren’t the only culture that has some variation of that idea. Did you know that if you get a genuine antique quilt, you’ll probably find an even older, worn out quilt inside of it acting as the batting? Waste not, want not, you know. Her suggestions for beginning homesteaders are to make it Convenient, Organized, and Not a Chore. The easier you make it for yourself, the more you can do. Also- patterns are really just suggestions.

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

Coooookies! (All American Sun Oven)

The second stop was John and Louise Conner to learn about chickens. However, we were first greeted by the scent of baking cookies. The sun oven is so good that it even works in the winter, if you have enough sun. It’s a bit pricy, but apparently if you find them on Facebook, you can get some decent discounts on it. The other thing that greeted me was that the yard looked, well, normal. I could see having friends over for a picnic in that yard and not weirding out your non-homesteader friends. Of course, how the yard comes together does depend on how much you put in it and how it’s shaped, but it was nice to see the variety of possibilities.

It looks so normal . . .

It looks so normal . . .

He started off talking about reading a whole lot of books when he was thinking about getting into chickens. He read them, and promptly forgot most of the information. Most of what you will learn will be from experience, but knowing it’s in one of your books to refer to will be useful. His two favorite books are Keeping Chickens by Barbara Kilarski (a friendly intro to chickens) and City Chicks by Patricia Foreman (a more in-depth look at them). He also suggested backyardchickens.com, warning us that it’s got such a huge group of people that it might be a little intimidating.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

. . . until you get to the cool part.

The city rules are up to 10 hens and no roosters (although apparently you can have as many as you want if they’re under 6 months). He finds that four hens can be a bit excessive since it’s just he and his wife. During the summer, hens usually lay daily. They taper off in the winter unless you fool them with extra lighting. The city requires two square feet inside and four square feet outside per chicken. John (and other presenters) pointed out that if you give them more room outside, they can accept less room inside. They just come inside to lay eggs and sleep, generally. Most back yards aren’t big enough to have genuine “free range” chickens- particularly if you intend to do anything else with it. However, the more room you give them, the happier they will be.

That's a happy chicken.

That’s a happy chicken.

When it comes to housing, he suggests keeping it close to the house since you will be going out twice a day in any weather- letting them out in the morning and locking them up at night. However, you will need around a 10’X10′ space that gets sun in the winter which may determine where the coop goes. He purchased plans for the coop- the Playhouse coop– but the run was constructed from broken dog runs. Freecycle, Craigslist, and dumpster-diving seem to be a part-time job for most of the homesteaders, but you get some pretty awesome results from re-thinking how to use cheap to free objects. When you’re placing and building your chicken coop and run, you need to bear in mind that chickens will probably destroy the ground in their run- they love to dig- and we have a lot of predators. Even if you don’t have a neighborhood bear, you will be dealing with foxes, coyotes, birds of prey, cats, and dogs. This is why you lock them up overnight. It’s easier to make a perfectly secure coop than a perfectly secure run. The other thing that you need to think about is having enough ventilation but no drafts. If you get it right, chickens don’t need a heater in the winter. He also chucks in old leaves for them to shred and peck at. Once they’re broken down, he’ll scrape the top layer out of the chicken run for lovely compost.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

The world would be a better place if more street corners looked like this.

He doesn’t like using the word “sustainable” for homesteading since it’s been co-opted. He’s got a good point. These days, it’s about as meaningful as “organic.” The word he likes is “resilient.” During the Black Forest Fire, one of their major concerns was the fire getting to the highway and shutting it down. Not because of the commuters to and from Denver, but because most of our food comes via Denver. It would be possible to find other ways to get the food here, but it would be a lot further and a lot more expensive. As I mentioned in my last post, most cities have about three days worth of food. However, if you have a garden and a couple of chickens, a hiccup in the food supply isn’t that big of a deal. Heck, if you’re also canning and freezing, you might not even notice that the stores are short on stock.

Heirloom Gardens: Super Big Dig

Just a little garden.

After playing in the Ranch Community Garden on Saturday, I trotted up to Denver to spend another Sunday afternoon with Heirloom Gardens digging over a plot. It is a brand new plot and a mere 19,000 square feet. The call had gone out some time ago for everybody to show up, bring a friend, and bring extra tools. There were between 20 and 25 people, including at least a few shanghaied significant others, and the pile of available tools made it clear that I wasn’t the only one to borrow extras from friends that couldn’t be there in person. The dig was scheduled for four hours, and it took the entire time.

Our society has been industrial for a while now. Enough generations have passed that when the average person looks at a plot that is nearly half an acre in size, the assumption is that it needs to be handled with some sort of machinery. After all, we invent this stuff so that we don’t have to do physical labor, right? The newest, greatest, coolest gadget is one more labor-saving device. Maps were invented and refined so that we didn’t have to keep the geography of an area in our head and gave us the ability to share that information with others without having to actually walk through the area to learn it. Now we have GPS units that tell us where to go so we don’t even have to read the maps ourselves. I don’t own a GPS unit yet, but I will when I start getting serious about hiking. It makes sense to have one for safety. As

Tools to spare

awesome as they are, however, there is a lot of information that a GPS unit can’t give me. If I’m out hiking and I run out of water, it can’t tell me about the spring right over the next ridge. If it starts raining out of nowhere, it can’t tell me there’s shelter 100 yards off the path to my right. Someone who has the geography of the place in their head could probably tell me both of those things.

We did have a little mechanical help with this plot. One rototiller. Other than that, we had rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, and muscle. Because I, and I am sure the rest of the volunteers can say this, spent four hours digging out weeds and removing rocks to ease the way for the tiller, I know that land in a way that I could never have understood it if I had instead spent the one hour or so that it might have taken to turn the land from the seat of a tractor. I don’t know what the weed is, but there is something growing there that has a surprisingly large and tenacious root considering that the above-ground part is totally non-woody. The area had clearly been either glacial or a river at one time considering that the rocks were almost all water-rounded. The bricks we dug up may indicate that it had also been a dumping ground during a construction project. I would have seen none of this even from the height of the seat of a lawn tractor.

Less than 25 people and four hours later. Impressive, isn’t it?

I work for a company, I imagine most people do, so I am used to having someone in charge of a project and lots of other people taking care of the various steps along the way. We had someone measuring and plotting each long row. Two people were in charge of the strings between the measured stakes showing us where to weed and spread the horse manure. They had to be moved when the tiller came through and replaced to delineate the beds when they’re ready to be planted. Some people were filling wheelbarrows with the manure for others to take out to each row and still others to rake out. Most of us were tackling the weeds and rocks. What I’m not used to is that once you were assigned a job, you were allowed to do it more or less in your own way. If you saw a job that needed to be done, you could switch over to that one because, well, it needed to be done. One person was in charge of timing when the weeders needed to move to the next row, and occasionally there was a request for more people to do a particular job. Other than that, things were done as the individual assigned to the job felt it should be done.

After the workday was done, it occurred to me that my New England family ties probably stood me in good stead. There is a decidedly independent streak in the people I was working with, and a willingness to work hard to be independent. This house had chickens, while the

So that’s what you do with canning jars outside of canning season. I’m tucking that away for future reference.

neighbors had a flock of ducks. It was also not an unfamiliar concept to be pulling as many rocks out of the ground as plants. I think I understand, now, why they use rocks as mulch out here. There are enough of them.

In the end, we didn’t quite finish the entire area. There was some compromise also on leaving the paths to be weedwhacked instead of dug over as is their preference. However, by the end of the weekend, I was really, really impressed with people. Between the number of beds we set on Saturday, and the massive amount of land we cleared for a garden on Sunday, it is amazing what we are able to do when we put down our gadgets and go do it.

Heirloom Gardens Big Dig

Lots of jobs to do

Happy Earth Day! I don’t think there’s a better way to celebrate the Earth than to spend a day covered in it.

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to hang out with the Heirloom Gardens crowd. Today was a mostly physical day. We met for about three hours to do the initial prep work for a garden they have been using for several years. I am no good at eye-balling sizes, but there is a lot of room for veggies in the plot. It even has a gnarled peach tree that has set fruit to be used by the CSA. There were almost a dozen of us there, so there was lots of work to go around, but we weren’t overwhelmed by it.

It was nice to run into a couple of familiar faces, but I met some new people as well. Including a young woman who had also been raised in Pennsylvania/Maryland and was now living out here. It was really interesting to hear that someone else just didn’t feel at home until she moved out here. I had always supposed that was just me. There wasn’t

Digging in the spread manure

quite as much talking, as we were spread over a wider area, but conversations ranged from the lack of right-corners in permaculture to the fact that Barbara Kingsolver reads her more recent books for the audio-books. Again, I didn’t hear any philosophy or reality TV discussions, but there were things to talk about, and there were quiet discussions going on all over the garden as people moved around and worked near different people.

In the gardens I’ve been playing in so far, I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t really had to deal with a winter’s worth of weeds. The first step was to dig and pull up the biggest chunks of weeds that would be likely to foul the rototiller. Once most of us had gotten a good start on that, someone was assigned to measuring and plotting the long beds. Sundari plants in beds rather than individual rows, as it is a much more efficient use of space. That meant that each section was four feet wide, with two-foot paths between them. When the garden is planted, each row will then be divvied up into sections for each type of plant that is to be grown.

The tulip and the grape hyacinth under the peach tree were to pretty to disturb.

Once each bed was measured out, the tiller was run down both the beds and the paths to loosen the dirt and dig the remaining weeds into the ground to finish killing them. Most of them, anyway. The manure, chicken and goat, was laid on each bed and dug in by hand, as it seems that tillers and straw don’t get along very well. It did give me a chance to work more closely with some of the people, as they are in the habit of each person digging in half of the bed and working in pairs down the row, and have some interesting conversations. Someone mentioned that you got used to the smell. I’m more accustomed to cow, but manure smells like spring to me. Growing up in Amish country, you knew when planting season had come if you drove anywhere with your windows down. Sure, the smell was . . . not roses, but spreading manure was part of their farming practices to use what they had for all it was worth. Unlike the almost sterile agri-business farms, there was no hiding where this fertilizer came from.

The last step was to scatter clover seeds along each path and scratch it into the soil a little bit. If you use clover as a cover-crop or on your paths, don’t expect a clover-free lawn right beside it. Apparently, along with being a nitrogen-fixer and green mulch, clover is tenacious and willing to spread.

The lilac wasn't so lucky.

I ache, my feet are killing me from jumping on the shovel to dig out weeds and dig in manure, and I’m wondering if my palms are going to actually bruise from the “T” handle on my shovel. Fortunately, the tank-top worn today helped to even out the farmer’s tan started yesterday. I doubt I’m the only gardener nursing these pains and loving the fact that they signal the beginning of another season.

P.S. It seems that the garlic we planted in March is coming up nicely. If you haven’t gotten yours in yet, it might not be too late!

What’s Old is New

I have a passing interest in history, mostly to fuel my interest in stories. I have been working on a story set in Boston in 1705. It is a part of our history that isn’t very well known, since there weren’t any major land discoveries or wars at that point. That makes it a little hard to get into the minds of the characters, since I can’t go to Gettysburg as I could for a Civil War story or Lexington, Massachusetts for a Revolutionary War story. Two major sticking points for me to really understand the main character’s life are a town house that produces much of its own food and the associated chores as being social occasions. I got to experience both this weekend with the Heirloom Gardens Meetup Group.

This Meetup Group is an extension of Sundari Kraft’s Heirloom Gardens. It is to help with those times when she needs more hands than

Garden Beds

her apprentices have. I think it’s a great idea for letting people that can’t be apprentices due to time or distance restrictions, like myself, still participate and learn. I happened to be up in Denver on Saturday for a class, so I signed up to help plant garlic. It is usually planted in the fall, but this was an experiment to see if it could be planted in the spring for those of us that didn’t manage to plant it in the fall for whatever reason.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the yard we would be working in. The houses in that part of town tend to be modestly sized, with town-sized yards. I was expecting a couple of beds, mostly. Possibly raised beds, surrounded with grass or mulch of some sort. I wasn’t expecting the miniature farm that she has. It is the most efficient use of a back yard I have ever seen. The animals, goats, chickens, and a couple of ducks, live on one side, and the other is given over to garden beds. When I think yard, and I am sure I’m not alone in this, I think grass, shrubs, maybe some flowers. However, I believe this yard is put together the way far more yards used to appear for most of civilization. In times before you could just pop down to the corner store when you needed a dozen eggs, it

made sense to keep the egg-makers in the back yard. They are also excellent non-fossil-fuel-using garbage disposals. Of course, not everyone would have every kind of animal, but when you don’t have neighbors on one side with a milk cow or goat and a neighbor on the other side raising ducks to trade with, it does help to have them all yourself.

The work itself was not hard. We had to pay attention to the spacing for the garlic bulbs and make sure we were putting them in their holes pointy-side up. That was about the extent of the mental challenge. However, it was a really nice break from my regular job in front of a computer and all the time I’ve been spending in class to sit on the ground and dig in the dirt. It also let the three of us, Sundari, a young man in college, and myself, chat. There was no deep philosophy discussed, nor did we compare which Housewiveswe thought was the best. We discussed weather and

Ooh, comfy garlic bed . . .

mountain biking along with gardening and small-business challenges. We also talked about the goats that were out and about in the yard so they didn’t feel left out. Naturally, they insisted on being in the middle of what we were doing more often than not, since that had to be the most interesting part of the garden. Once all of the cloves were planted, and the end of the bed was marked so that something else could be planted in the balance of it, all we needed to do was mulch it with straw and return the goats to their pen.

I was particularly interested in the seed-starting meetup on Sunday. This was even less physically demanding, since we spent most of the time sitting in chairs around the table. It was slightly more mentally demanding, though, as we had to make sure that we got all of the even slightly sprouted seeds off of the wet paper towels and into the seedling trays and not break any of the ones that had sprouted with abandon. The goats were out again to hang out with us. One of them determined that the freshly planted and mulched garlic bed was perfect for a nap in the sun. It was a different group dynamic, being a larger group and all women this time. I could almost see the starched collars and long skirts as

Seedlings to be covered

we sat around chatting about gardening and, there were a couple of mothers present, children, among other things. The plastic seedling trays and PVC-pipe greenhouse are modern inventions, but the conversation could have been held just as easily over quilts or shelling peas. I was the newest addition to the group, and some of them had been doing these things together for a while so they had a shared history. I am starting to see articles in various places about activities you can do for entertainment for free, since so many people are more strapped for cash than they were just a few years ago. However, chores seldom make the list. They should, though. Sundari mentioned that we probably planted about a thousand seeds. Those will become a thousand plants that will feed her CSA. All of this while trading ideas and getting to know one another in a far quieter atmosphere than a bar or a club and a far less expectant atmosphere than a networking event.

I expect community is something that I will be spending a lot of time thinking about and musing about on here. I am finding that the homesteading community

Staying warm to grow

is an interesting blend of modern techniques including blogs and meetups and good, old-fashioned chore-sharing and swapping. There are some things that just can’t be explained in a tweet or taught in a blog post. There are some experiences that still have to be, well, experienced.

Dirty Minds

I may have overestimated how much we needed.

Wait- is this a family-friendly blog? What can I say, I’ve had dirt on the brain recently. It’s probably because I had too much fun playing with manure over the weekend.

Unless you are dealing with hydroponics, you have to think about your soil. Even the water lilies that float on the top of a pond have their roots in soil. Without good soil, it is difficult to impossible to grow good vegetables. At least not the vegetables we tend to think of as “standard.” I believe yucca would be pretty ok with just being plopped in the ground out here.

What makes good soil? At the moment, I still only know the basics, but basically: the sand or clay base, organic material, and things to break down the organic material for use. Preferably, you are looking for a pretty good balance between clay and sand. Clay packs tight, so it can hold water, but it can also inhibit drainage and pack into a hard surface. Sand doesn’t really pack at all, so it helps drainage, the water slipping easily between the large granules. However, that can also mean that the water doesn’t stick around long enough for your plants to use it. I have heard some thoughts on both sides of adding clay or sand to balance the soil you have. I will need to look further into that before I address it here.

Slightly.

Whether you have clay or sand soil or a pretty mix of both, organic material can improve it. It loosens clay, allowing it to drain better and keeping it from baking as hard. It helps sand hold water better and helps it pack a little better to support plants. Compost is the epitome of your organic material. It helps the texture of the soil and offers a bioavailable source of nutrients. Manure is right up there, too. Different ones need slightly different treatments. Hot manures like horse, which is what we are using on Showcase 1, and chicken need to be composted so you don’t burn your plants when you apply it. Cool manures like alpaca or goat can actually be applied directly. Other options, like peat, offer soil improvements, but not so much of the nutritional improvements.

The one that often gets overlooked is what breaks down the organic material so that your plants can use it. We probably miss them mostly because we don’t see them. I was reading a book about Rocky Mountain gardening at one point. It was one of the first specifically for this part of the country. It is old, but it still has a lot of valid information. It also has some that made me chuckle. Like that you should purchase a “lady-sized” shovel to encourage the wife to get out in the fresh air. Also, it told you how to kill earthworms because the casings they leave behind are so unsightly. I believe it was the same day I read that information that I saw bagged worm casings for sale in a garden store.

Worms are one of the more visible decomposers. They not only eat fine materials and excrete some of the best fertilizer you can find, they also aerate the soil in their underground journeys. However, being big enough to see means that they can navigate in and out of your garden more easily than some of the others. This means that if you don’t create an environment they like, including lots of delicious organic material in worm-bite-size pieces, then they don’t have a reason to stick around. Assuming they have enough around to eat, bacteria are a little easier to keep corralled. Manure can offer a good inoculation to a new or barren garden. So can a scoop of soil from your neighbor that just seems to be able to grow anything.

When you are setting up your soil for gardening, however, you need to bear in mind what you are growing. If you are growing plants that originated in Europe or the East Coast, meaning most “vegetable garden” vegetables, you need to build the kind of soil they have. If you are growing plants that are native to this area, less preparation is necessary. I have a friend in Maryland who’s property is incredibly lush. I have never seen land with so many earth worms. In fact, her struggle tends to be that too many things grow. Except for lavender. Neither of us had any idea why this one plant just refused to grow. It turns out that lavender, being from the Mediterranean, prefers soil that is stony, sparse, and well-drained. Who knew that moving out here would actually be preferred by some plants?

Prettiest dirt I'd seen since I moved out here.

Do you notice the soil around you? Or is it just dirt? Some days it is more apparent than others that I come from a family that gardens. My parents take pictures of flowers. I took a picture of dirt. I had been driving up through northern Colorado and Wyoming for hours at this point, seeing little more than sandy, arid, poor soil and the occasional surprisingly blue body of water. All of a sudden I came across the prettiest soil I’d seen since I moved out here. It was in the middle of Shoshone National Forest just pushed to the side during the road construction. I’ve gotten the impression that Wyoming is considered to be a pretty barren state by most. The question is, how did an arid, barren state produce such rich soil? The answer is that it is in a National Forest. That means that instead of being subjected to various forms of human interference, nature is more or less allowed to do what it has been doing for, well, a very long time. That means that generations of trees have fallen to be eaten by even more generations of earthworms. The available nutrients are then used by the younger trees that will then eventually die to feed the younger worms.

The pertinent question, of course, is how to get soil that is that good-looking in your garden. Unless you are building some sort of a bed that you will fill with an ideal mix of soil, a part of the answer is still time. First-year garden beds are seldom as rich and biodiverse as more mature beds. However, we don’t have to move at the same speed as a forest. We can kick-start the process by adding ingredients to our gardens that will encourage worms and other decomposers to move in and stick around. Once they are established, all you need to do is keep them fed and safe. Luckily, that doesn’t include setting out a fresh bowl of food each day like you do with your pets. As long as you are adding fairly regular doses of organic material in the form of compost or manure and you are using little to no pesticides, organic or otherwise, a healthy population should be pretty well able to care for itself. As far as the worms and bacteria are concerned, the benefits to your garden are really just the result of a happy home.

Priorities

Who doesn't like perky ears in the morning?

I have been struggling lately with priorities. The obvious definition of your priorities is what you do. After all, why would you do whatever it is if it’s not important for some reason? My struggle has been that my intellectual and emotional priorities haven’t been borne out by my action priorities. Coming home and eating dinner in front of a movie doesn’t get gardening books read or walks taken. It doesn’t get stories written and I can rarely even claim I’m watching them as research for any of my various projects. I’m getting better about working on my beading project or redesigning my garden spaces while I’m watching, but even with that, I can’t pretend that I’m actually putting my time to good use.

I’m not alone in this, though. After all, look around. What are the priorities, or actions, of so many other people? Eating dinner in front of the TV is hardly exclusive to me. Nor is eating easy, convenient, frequently microwaved foods. When many people go home after work, the first thing on their to-do list is rarely to work on their novel or go out in the wood-shed to see if the coat of varnish on their hand-built table is dry yet. Their priority, my priority, is to be entertained. We consume, we are entertained, we are passive. We don’t create, we don’t entertain, we don’t do. Believe me, my finger is pointed at myself on this one. I am just mentioning that I might not be the only person who should be doing that.

My intellectual and emotional priorities are more and more strongly telling me that I really need to be doing. Learning, creating, moving- it doesn’t matter what, really, as long as it’s doing. I’m happier that way, and more productive. The struggle is, how do I get the intellectual and emotional priorities to become action priorities? Like so many people, I have a day job. It’s easier than some, it’s harder than others, but it eats up 40 hours of my week and more than its fair share of brain cells. By the end of the day I’m tired. Like most people. I don’t have a permanent answer for this question, but I hope I will soon.

In an effort to find that answer, I have been expanding my blog-reading. Today, I stumbled across A Brief Guide to World Domination. It is written with a sense of humor, but it is also something that I intend to go back and read again. Several times. There was one part, though, that is currently sticking in my head. It’s the Ideal World exercise.

The short summary is that you think through your idealized, perfect day in great detail, beginning from what time you get up and what you have for breakfast all the way through what you do for each hour of the day and who you talk to. Then you begin to make plans to adjust your life to get closer to the perfect day you’ve designed for yourself.

As I was reading the summary about what you do when you get out of bed in the morning, a picture flashed though my mind. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t make it up, so I have to believe that it has at least a fair amount of truth to it. I saw myself rolling out of bed and into jeans so I could shuffle out and feed the chickens. (The mental picture was later amended to include feeding the horses. There will be horses.) Some people would probably see themselves rolling out of a bed with silk sheets in a mansion, or dressing in Armani, or even opening up their e-mail from a kid who could finally go to college. Me, I want chickens.

One of the other exercises is to immediately write down three things you can do now to work toward your goals. 1- Write to you. After all, part of being independent is to have your priorities in order. Maybe someone else can benefit from the musings in this post. 2- Dinner will be eaten with a gardening book instead of a movie. 3- Dinner will also be well-made and delicious. Intellectual priorities realized as action priorities.

What are your priorities? How well do your actions match what you want them to be? How do you go about getting them closer together?