Sunday, August 31, 2008

Holiday in the High Desert

Labor Day Weekend is the "Last Hoorah" travel weekend for a lot of people. As a result, I try to stay as far away from roads as possible. In fact, it's usually my favorite holiday to spend at home. By the end of August we are usually having a few days that are under 90*F, and with luck, one or two of them will land on the holiday weekend. Indeed, we are in luck this year, as today it is supposed to be under 80*F, even!

The "rescue" apple tree and my miniature corn field in the NE corner of the garden. The tarp is strung on the fence between the garden and the chicken run to provide shade and a wind block.

So I slept in until 5:30 a.m. this morning, and then met the sunrise with a small stampeed of chickens. The air was crisp and breezy, but not cold and windy, so everyone was hungry and energetic. This young "Easter Egger" doesn't yet have her poofy cheeck feathers, and is maturing quite a bit slower than her flock mates. I suppose in a different flock, she would have been culled long before now, but in a small, home flock like ours, we can afford to keep on a slow grower.
You can see the poofy cheeck feathers on the two "Easter Eggers" here. They are attacking some dried sunflower heads from last year's harvest.
As you can see, the sunflowers were a big hit with the chickies. I hung out in the coop filling water bottles and mixing up more food and such while they squawbled over both the seeds and the right to attack the dried sunflower head.
Another big hit with the chickies are the steps to the coop. Both fun for hopping on and beeing taller than the other chickies, and a great place to chill out under.
As cute as the chickies are, however, their sweetness is just an illusion. Here is some of the destruction that they caused in the corn patch.
And, while Life is determined to go forth in spite of the Desert, the Chickens and Me, only a few corn stalks produced ears. And those that did produced small ears... and most of those were sampled by Chickens.

So now, I think, it must be - Nap Time!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

General Status

Work progresses on the chicken coop. Here DSR is screwing down the plywood that will be the underlayment for the roof. It's so nice to have the chickens out of the laundry room on a permanent bases, now.
Of course, major work on the coop means that the chickens spent all day hanging out in the tattered remains of the garden. The corn patch, of course, is still a favorite. But the chickies have also discovered that sunflower leaves also make delectable eating greens. One of the brown Easter Eggers caught a small lizard and made off like the winner of The Grand Prize. She ate it down in one bite. Of course, I didn't have my camera handy, but it sure was funny to watch.
This Yellow Pear did not fare as well as the last one, so it was tossed to a lucky chicken this afternoon. At least I got to eat the other one myself. I suspect that the green tomatoes on the vine now will not make it to ripening as the nights will soon become too cold. First hard frost should be coming 'round soon.
Harvested another Eight Ball zuke this afternoon. Procrastination meant that it is quite a bit bigger than the last one. Still, should be good for stuffing. There are 4 more that are now growing bigger - indicating that they were successfully pollinated. This is a photo of a female flower - you can see the baby fruit at her base. If pollinated, it will darken and start to increase in size. If not, it will yellow and wither. Since I hand pollinated this one, it will hopefully grow and get eaten in a few days.

    Some lessons learned this year
  • What chickens don't eat, they will trample to death
  • Watering and covering the compost pile really speeds up decomposition
  • Eight Ball zukes are cute, but Black Beauty (a "regular zuke") is much more productive for the space and water
  • Tomatoes continue to be a challenge to get to fruit - lots of lovely bush, lots of cute little yellow flowers, but not much pollination
  • The wild birds and other critters have learned about sunflowers - need to "bag" the heads well before seed formation now
  • Need to plant a lot more sunflowers if we are going to supplement the chickens' diet with seeds and leaves
  • Young zucchini leaves are relished by young chickens, even if they are prickly
  • I will need to make a chicken wire "cage" for the garlic prior to planting it in the ground
  • Only going to plant two types of garlic this year - Georgia Crystal and Siberian. Besides the distinct color differerence of the bulb wrappers, I'm going to plant only one type to a bed. This will help with identification when it comes time to harvest. The smaller cloves I will plant together so I can let the scapes mature - the chickens loved the tiny bulbils and garlic is supposed to be good to help clean out their systems.
  • I still cannot keep up with pinching back basil flowers when the heat of summer gets here.
  • Lemon balm and oregano should be harvested early in the spring before the summer heat makes them bloom.
  • Rosemary needs full sun - even in the desert. When the basils start shading it, then it slows down in growth. When I pinch back the basils, the rosemary starts growing vigorously again.
  • Strawberries will take over, given lots of food, water and desert sun.
  • Do not procrastinate in taking photos of flowers in the spring - today might be a perfect day, but tomorrow a hard frost could destroy all the blooms and buds.
  • Baby chickens are all consuming
  • The trees need lots of watering in the summer - once a week for the young ones is not enough

Monday, August 18, 2008

Garden Update

What chickens don't eat, they will trample or tear up just for fun. So, between hail in June and ever growing chicken feet and beaks, not many of the dozen tomato plants have survived. I am convinced, however, that nothing short of pulling the plant out will kill Yellow Pear. This hardy soul only has one tomato on it right now, but it is turning that lovely yellow color, and if I get to it before the chickens, I could have a sweet bit of tomato heaven in the next day or two.

Male flower buds on the Eight Ball Zucchini plant. The one that is coloring up is ready to use for pollination. I rarely wait until they are actually open these days.
This is a Mexico Midget tomato. The seed is several years old and I was surprised it was so viable. I set out several, but this plant is the lone survivor of this type. There are a few thumbnail sized green tomatoes on it. Unlike Yellow Pear, it does not seem to set fruit when the temps are in the mid to high 90s.

I know, I know, I'm not supposed to let basil flower. Still, I had some basil in my (still store-bought) eggs this morning along with some of the rosemary that you can almost see in this photo. Also added a pinch of fresh oregano. Yum!

Eight Ball Zucchini Report

What would summer be like without zucchini? Generally speaking, I was expecting an overload of zucchini this year. I had doubled the number of zukes that I planted out this season, and while they have to be hand pollinated to foil Mother Nature, generally speaking, they are more than prolific. In fact, in places with a higher density of pollinators, they are known to take over whole city blocks. And other than the pollinator issue, if you give it some amended sand and copious amounts of water, it loves the desert. 90 degree days, doesn't bat an eye. 100 degrees, are you kidding, that's barely warming up. True, last year when we got to 108, it wasn't really happy, but hey, it was 108. ... but then along came 27 ravenous young chickens... and instead of a dozen zucchini plants (people would shudder and say in disbelief, "You planted a dozen zucchini plants?! Are you crazy?!"), I ended up with just two healthy plants and one that I really should just put out of it's misery.

My main crop of zukes was going to be the standard Black Beauty. She performed well for me in humid Georgia and the hot San Joaquin Valley. With pollination help, she did fine in the High Desert. Unfortunately, she was planted on the ground and was not equipped to deal with chickens. As a result, the only survivors were a few of my trial of Eight Ball Zucchini plants. And here is the first one to come to harvest - about the size of my fist.
This shows it in relation to my SLR camera lense cover for a size comparison. Generally, when the chickens are out, the raised bed is covered in chicken wire so they can't destroy the last of my zucchini plants.

And, of course, the obligatory Super Model Harvest Pose on the corner of the raised bed.
This is a baby Eight Ball, about an inch and a half in diameter right now. You can see where I cut off the top of the flower so that I could take a male flower and pollinate her. The high temps kill the pollen on the male flowers, so pollination has to take place between right before the male flowers open until it starts warming up around 10 a.m.

All in all, the Eight Ball Zukes don't produce nearly as many female flowers as Black Beauty, and the zukes don't have as much mass as a Black Beauty of comprable age - but they are cute and I think I will grow them again next year. Germination was good, but they have to have lots of water and shade their first few days if the temps are over 90*F. Plants are bushy, not viny, and tend to be pretty open. The stems and leaves have the traditional zucchini spines. I hope to have enough to make stuffed zucchini with them some day.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Today's Chicky Pics

The chicken coop as it looks today - steps, door, roof trusses. (View of the south side.) Eventually there will be a window next to the door, oh, and a roof, too. Everything is screwed together as opposed to nailed - the theory being that screws are stronger. With the 75 MPH wind gusts that we get during some of the year, we need all the strength we can get. The daubs of white are putty over the screws. Eventually, I think, everything will be painted white with some contrasting color trim. We were going to paint it red like a barn, but figured we'd better go with the most heat reflecting color we could. 103*F yesterday.

There's a tarp on the south side of the coop for shade. Under it is the waterer and feeder. And except for the heat of the day, there are usually at least a few chickens on top of it. Luckily, it hoses off well. Eventually it will be replaced with an awning. Being that they like to sit up high, however, we're going to put removable (and washable) roosts on its support posts.

The corn patch is everybody's favorite place to hang out. It seems to be an all around chicky paradise: cool, damp dirt to dust bathe in or hunt bugs in (or, perhaps both at the same time); tender corn leaves to eat; young corn cobs to devour before they even start looking like baby corn on the cob; large, rustling leaves to pick at and shred (I don't think they actually eat the tougher ones, just play with them); tall stalks to provide shade and a great place for hide and seek. Makes me want corn that is 10 feet tall for me to run around in (although I'll pass on searching for and eating bugs).

If the people are to get any corn next year, I will certainly have to barricade it so the marauders can't get to it!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Coop Building Part One

We are well into August 2008 and the coop is still not completed. We've come a long way, though, and at least the chickens have been out of the laundry room on a permanent bases for a month now. (Remember to click on the photo to see full sized versions of them.)
We naivly thought the chickies would live in the bottom half of a dog crate for 4 or 5 weeks and then move into their newly completed coop and chicken run. As of today, they are just about 8 weeks old - and we are still several weeks off from completion.

The coop certainly is suffering from "scope creap," and as such, is both over budget and well past the original projected deployment date. At least we are currently in a successful beta-test.
Six bags of fence post concrete were used for each of the 4" x 4" foundation posts. There are a total of 9 posts. Posts were set a few days before the beginning of the floor joists and braces.

Floor details. The boys used a lot of brackets, screws and nails. Not to mention, lots of wood. Lowes loves us. A lot.

At this point, the chickies' whole world is still the bottom half of a dog crate in the laundry room.

Mid-June and the walls are going up. DSr. and DJr. built them on the floor and then hoisted them into position by hand and bolted them to the foundation posts and floor support beams.
The West wall is the first one up. This one faces the fenced garden area.
The North wall is next. Also, most of the fence posts and frames for the run are up by now. The tractor and auger have certainly proved their worth.
All four walls are up and the opening for the door is in place. You can barely see it in this photo, but the door is wrapped in a camo tarp on the floor as it hailed in June - three times!
Detail of teh walls being bolted to the foundation posts.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Chicken Feathers

These photos were really taken yesterday evening. I'm not sure any more if my Ameraucanas are purebred, but at the very least, they appear to be "Easter Eggers," and that is OK with me.
I love the colors and markings on their feathers. These are neck feathers where they transition to the body feathers.
One of the reasons I think they may not be true Ameraucanas is because they have tails - and I understand the real ones don't.
This photo didn't turn out sharp enough to really capture a detail of the feathers, but you can see that this white so-called Ameraucana also has a tail.
A Silver Laced Wyandotte getting her adult markings.
Detail of the "laced" feathers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New Chicken Feeder

Just for size comparisons, this is a picture (originally posted on June 28, 2008) of a Maran on my hand.
And this is a picture of the Princess Chicken taken yesterday evening. I know in the blog they look similar in size, but note that the hand that is holding the chicken is the same hand - and that hand hasn't changed sizes in decades, now!
The new feeder came on Saturday (actually, it got here earlier, but I was on business travel, so it hung out at the post office for a while). The chickens really like it a lot - no more banging their heads against the divider in the baby chicky feeder. A little more than half the flock can eat at one time, and since the food is out for them all day long, it isn't a problem. About half head straight for food when I let them out in the morning and about half go running around like, er, chickens, just enjoying the freedom to run and flap about. Around the time they are done running around, the first set of chickens have filled their collective tummies (crops) and are ready for a stroll, and the others get to eat. Working out well, but I can see a second feeder in the future.
Of course, there are benefits for the head hen (me!), too - this feeder holds about 20 lbs of food - close to half a bag. That's about 3 days worth. Where as the baby feeder (that once held a full day's ration for them) only now holds a half a meal for them. By the time they have transitioned off of baby chicky food in the next month or so, I'm sure I will be needing another grown up feeder.
Other advantages of this feeder is that it is up on 4" x 4" blocks of wood so they can't scratch out food and waste it, and it has little dividers which are pretty effective at preventing the pullets from swishing their beaks from side to side and flinging food about. Given a choice, the chickies will fling food everywhere every time.