Picking Chicks

The flock of roosters was initially unintentional. I thought they would all be in the stew pot by autumn. I was wrong. I have the setup, the routine, and lonely birds. It is time to add some ladies, and I spent a lot of time at the Hoover’s Hatchery website and the Murray McMurray Hatchery website. The new additions need to be the right birds.

The black star roosters don’t like the snow, but they do like to be outside.

The flock free ranges. No fence in sight. Except for the garden fence, which they go over, under and around freely. They established their own range and stay within 130 feet of the chicken house. That range overlaps with predators: the dog, the cats, the racoons, the mink, the fox, and yes, the hawks. I need birds that forage well, are rugged, friendly and independent. Just like me.

My current flock makes me smile, and any additions need to be just as eye-catching. The Sapphire Gems are a gorgeous blue-grey and lay 290 large brown eggs a year. That makes them one of the top layers on the market. They are also a bit on the big side, weighing in at 6 pounds, and that makes me nervous.

When guineas get scared, mad, or excited, they go…up. Which is great when they are being chased by a dog. Less great when it is dusk and time to go in the aviary, but the other birds are blocking the door.

Guineas are small, weighing about 3 pounds. That means my guineas could easily end up at the bottom of the pecking order. When guineas end up at the bottom of the pecking order, they end up in the tops of trees. I am trying two of the Sapphire Gems, which a neighbor will take if they become too dominate in the aviary. I am getting five Blue Andalusians. The heirloom Andalusians are smaller, and each feather is a dark laced grey, which means they will be exquisite looking birds. The Andalusians lay 280 medium eggs a year, so the production is significantly less than that of the Sapphire Gems.

Charles and Bess sitting in the dead oak tree, protesting snow.

If two of the seven hens survive to maturity in my yard, which is statistically what will happen, they will still produce more eggs than I can eat in a year. The trade off of smaller birds, smaller eggs and fewer eggs is worth it to me if it keeps my mixed flock content.

The Flock: the first addition

Upon seeing the delightful little chicken house my flatmates had built for their chickens earlier this summer, a friend knew exactly what I needed: keets. When he said he was giving me some, I tried to conjure up in my mind what a keet was to no avail. We drove to pick up the seven cute, little, incredible wild birds. I fell in love immediately, until the drive home when they started shrieking, each at 96 decibels, the whole way. The magnificent seven spent their days frolicking in the garden.* Their volume crescendos when they are excited about things like learning to fly, or when strangers come up the driveway, or for various reasons beyond human comprehension.

A young keet.

The very kind couple who sold me the keets provided me with everything I need to know: they were a mixture of pied and pearled coloring (which meant nothing to me), they needed more protein than chickens, and they preferred to roost in trees and nest on the ground, which made me wonder how any survive ever.

The keets enjoy the blueberry patch during the day; at night, they go into a pet-carrier and spend the night inside where it is warmer and safer.

If your knowledge of fowl beyond chicken, pheasant and turkey is a bit rusty like mine is, keets are baby Guinea Fowl. Originating from Africa, they were introduced here primarily as a meat bird. They are hunters, which means no tick, grub, or grasshopper escapes their attention. They also run on the wild side, preferring not to be picked up. Unless their options are being carried or having to walk in the snow. In which case being carried suddenly becomes a very attractive option.

Charles (a pearled guinea) eats moss off of the side of the front step. At dusk, he was quite adamant about not going down into the snow. I ended up carrying him, along with the rest of his flock, to the aviary for the evening.

*Why did the keet cross the road? To prove you can’t build a fence good enough to hold it. I drove over one of the keets within days of their arrival because they were too small to see. I hadn’t been worried about that because I knew they safe were in the garden.

Kiwis in Iowa: a potentially awesome vine

When I’m creating with the landscape, my top three criteria are usually local, organic, native. But I’ve been totally intrigued with the idea of adding kiwi vines to the yard. I repainted the windmill a few years back, only to have invasive hops run rampant over it. Hardy kiwis (Actinidia arguta) are native to China and Siberia, and produce lovely (I hope) little fuzzless kiwis. After doing enough research to determine that, having never actually tried a hardy kiwi, I completely lacked the knowledge to figure what varieties I really wanted, I opted to go with a variety pack from Stark Bro’s.

 

It included two Anna Hardy Kiwi’s, a male pollinator partner for them, and an Issai Hardy Kiwi. The Issai self pollinates. The plants are beautiful, and I managed to get them in the ground, mulched, and deer-fenced within a day of them arriving. They probably won’t produce fruit, even with the best of care, until 2019 or 2020. But it will good to see something with potential growing in the next few years, versus the hops.

Bee Season

The bees are here, the bees are here! Last year, I spent no time in the hives, received no honey from the bees, and went into the winter with no bees. It wasn’t a lack of productivity on the bees part, just a lack of assistance on mine. The hives became overpopulated, the bees swarmed, and swarmed, and swarmed again too late to remain viable through the winter.

Like most other inbred domesticated animals, apis mellifera usually need a certain amount of care and management to be successful. With Amazing Space finished, and a partner to help me in the apiary, they should get more attention this year and we will see what the top bar hives can really do. Top bar hives require less (in this case, no) chemical input, but like most organic systems, that translates to greater time in the field physically working with them. We will need to move frames around and remove comb throughout the season.

It is naturally shaping up to be a good bee season. It has been warm, so there is a profusion of blossoms full of both nectar and pollen.The apple trees and lilac bushes are in full bloom. The dandelions, bluebells, and wild violets are creating a fusion of blue and yellow.  The warm days will allow the bees to fly more and feed easily, and the colony will build up quickly.

Creating an orchard

When I was nine, my grandfather would let me mow the hayfield with the tractor. He would supervise from the edge of the field, wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and straw hat, eating an apple fresh from the tree.

31 years later, I wear long-sleeved plaid shirts and a straw hat to protect me from mosquitos, thorns, ticks, and the sun. I inherited a McCormick Farmall Cub tractor older than I am. The only thing missing was the apple tree.

My friend Craig has been trying to give me a pair of apple trees for about two years now. I have always demurred, because apples need sun, and that’s not something I have a lot of living under the canopy of an oak savanna. But this spring I was watching the cardinals and chickadees in the thicket of mulberries, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle that had grown up under the dead oak tree, and I realized that I do, indeed, have a sun spot.

The oak tree died back in 2000, before we moved onto the land. It is gradually crumbling in place. Woodpeckers are aiding its decomposition, and more small twigs and bark slough off each year. If enough sunlight in the area is allowing the birds to plant  and grow a thriving orchard of invasive trees and shrubs, its enough sunlight for a few more desirable trees as well.

Armed with a chainsaw and a shovel, I started clearing and planting. Since I had no idea what kind of apple tree I wanted (the kind that tastes good?), Craig started me with a lovely variety of heirloom eating apples: a Chestnut Crab, a Yellow Hardin, a Golden Russet, a Ribston Pippin, a Rhode Island Greening, and a Yates.

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On the Wild Menu

As part of the wild foods foraging program today at Indian Creek Nature Center, we were able to bring together a  very local, very fresh, gourmet menu.

Appetizer: serviceberries

Salad: purslane leaves, lambsquarter leaves, dandelion leaves, yarrow leaves, red clover blossoms

Salad dressing: orange champagne vinegar and basil infused olive oil

Main course: milkweed blossoms sauteed in butter with catnip and mulberries on the side

Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you arent sure about what youre picking, develop a relationship withyour local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you dont eat something poisonous
Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you aren’t sure about what you’re picking, develop a relationship with your local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you don’t accidentally eat something poisonous.

Drink: sumaconade (staghorn sumac drupes, honey, cinnamon stick)

Staghorn sumac drupes are edible and high in antioxidants. Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.
Staghorn sumac drupes are high in antioxidants.* Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.

Dessert: paw paws and aronia berries (frozen last year), and elderberry jelly and wild plum jelly (preserved last year)

After dinner tea: chamomile leaves and buds, stinging nettle leaves, red clover blossoms, wild ginger root, wild rose blossoms, mountain mint leaves

chamomile
Chamomile isn’t native, but it is also not a problem for restoration. It prefers dry, sandy soil and no competition.

* Sumaconade Recipe*

Gather 9-12 staghorn sumac drupes in late summer. Hang them and cover with a paper sack to keep them clean and dry-they will keep until the following summer.

Soak them in 1 gallon of cold water, 2-12 hours

Wring or muddle the drupes with your hands into the water.

Pour the mixture through  clean t-shirt material 3 times to filter it.

Add 1/2-1 cup honey (may be mixed with a bit of warm water to dissolve)

Add 1 stick of cinnamon

Chill before serving

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_13

 

Chirping on Twitter as @pocketmousepub!

Connect with Pocket Mouse Publishing on Twitter @pocketmousepubPocket Mouse Publishing is on Twitter!  Yes, you will hear Jean (itsabeeslifeforme) and Lee (brightskymom chirping tweeting as @pocketmousepub now!

Since we’re brand new, we will bumble around like the fledgling social media-ites that we are.  If you’re on Twitter, we’d appreciate well-known, obvious, how-could-you-not-know tips — I don’t think we’re ready for amazing insider secrets yet!

We hope to see & hear you in the fields and trees, tweeting interesting tidbits about #nature and #forage and #organic and all kinds of things!  After all (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson, April IS National Poetry Month!):

The world is so full of a number of things,
I ’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Healthy Soil for Healthy Food

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In this, the International Year of Soil, I hereby propose a Clean Soil Act for 2015! Healthy soil, a finite resource, is the lifeblood of healthy food. For fun soil activities, visit here.

 

by guest Scott Koepke, New Pi Soilmates Organic Garden Educator.

Current law allows us to apply certain classifications of chemicals to soil that microscopes indicate can greatly diminish biological life. Them’s fightin’ words in the Corn Belt. In my outreach, however, I have found that there are ways to find—excuse the pun—common ground with both conventional and organic farmers on this vital issue. We are building bridges on themes of biodiversity and cost savings. Let’s look at some of the science:

septemberherbsatelaines 017Exhibit A: Organically-farmed soil is biologically robust, teeming with microbial diversity that, as it consumes and decomposes organic matter in what is called the “poop loop,” produces chemically-available nutrients for root systems to absorb. Regenerative—not extractive—practices that build organic matter, like composting and cover cropping, are nature’s free gifts of fertilizer. They also create soil structure that retains hydration more effectively during drought conditions. Organic methods grow nutrients.

Exhibit B: Soil samples from fields that have been conventionally monocropped with corn and soy rotations, and sprayed annually with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, often test to be biologically sterile. The soil itself is less friable and hard-packed. Elevated levels of nitrates, phosphorous, neonicotinoids, atrazine, glyphosates, anhydrous ammonia, chlorides, and heavy metals (to name a few) also leach into municipal water sources.

garlic dicing 007This is a debate that threatens certain corporate interests and can often boil down to an impasse about “safe rates of application.” How much glyphosate can I apply and not have it be destructive?

I would suggest that conventional agriculture isn’t going away anytime soon, and that we all need to, at the very least, consider the ever-changing science that provides ample evidence of pollutive thresholds, for which models like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts mandate regulations. There comes a time when enough is a enough. I’m encouraged that, to their credit, farmers of all persuasions are increasingly acknowledging the need for safer alternatives. As my dear Grandma Helen used to remind me, “Scotty, just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.”

 

3-14-15 Organic Challenge

Being organic should be fun as well as tasty. Today, in celebration of National Pi Day, we are making a lemon pie. You will need a glass of water and:

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Zest the lemon skins, slice the lemons in half, and squeeze out ½ cup of juice.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Stir the yolks together with the sweetened condensed milk, the lemon zest and the lemon juice. Pour the mixture into pie crust and bake for 17 minutes. Put the lemon rinds in the glass of water and drink it while the pie is baking.

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Lemons are full of nutrients and vitamins. Pi is the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. It never changes, and it is irrational. 3.1415 is just the beginning. Wait until the pie is cool before you use it for math! But you can eat it while it is still warm. It goes well with whipped cream.

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