Meanwhile, back at the farm…

I know it’s weird that my fantasy life focuses on farm improvements. But this weekend, I executed three of them. The hen house was seeming a bit cramped, especially with four pullets soon to be added.  Also, the hens seemed to avoid the three small nesting boxes inside, preferring a larger box. So I added an two foot extension with larger boxes. I also had the idea of cutting a large sheet of plastic to lay over the bottom before putting in the sawdust, so I can (in theory) pull the plastic out with all the chicken manure when I want to change their bedding, as opposed to scraping out the house each time.  We’ll see how that works. I purchased all the materials for this expansion, including the roosting poles and roofing tiles at Urban Ore. It looks a bit ragtag, but the chickens don’t seem to mind:

[slideshow_deploy id=’1273′] Continue reading “Meanwhile, back at the farm…”

The peculiar behavior of chickens

I’ve been letting the chickens out into the winter garden to weed and fertilize. I cover or fence off the few crops I don’t want them to eat. But the chickens are curious and persistent. Yesterday, they managed to peel back the ground cover over the last cauliflower and strip it:

This seemed odd to me, because earlier that day, I’d given them some collard leaves, and the chickens just left them on the ground uneaten. Continue reading “The peculiar behavior of chickens”

Winter garden

The weather here in Northern California has been wonderfully sunny and warm for the last week or so, giving me time to get the labyrinth ready for winter, take down old tomato vines, and get the beds ready for planting.  For the labyrinth, I trimmed and added garlic and greens, along with new pebbles for the path.


The tomato vines were a bigger challenge.  There were a lot of them! And I had put off taking them down because there were still so many green tomatoes.  But now the green ones are ripening on the window sill. It took me three afternoons to pile up all the vines, and then all day to put them through my wonderful Eco Shredder. The shredder is a great tool, and from three huge piles of dead vines, I have about a small garbage can full of wonderful fine green-brown mulch.  I let the chickens out and they were very willing to help with the cleanup. They love to forage, and ate quite a bit of the shredded vines, even though they don’t like tomato plants normally.

In any case, they were happy, I was happy, and the garden is almost ready for winter planting. My neighbor gave me some black fava beans and these should make a good cover crop.

It’s not too late

You can still go to the amazing Heirloom Expo at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa (thru Thurs., 9/15) and see displays of heirloom plants, animals and vegetables. You can eat basil pressed watermelon, the best creamy coconut popsicle I ever had, and buy seeds, plants, olive oils, vinegars, soaps, garden tools, videos, books, and even get a free packet of compost to take home. We heard a singer who could yodel up a storm and learned a little about biodynamic farming. We watched Chef Ray carve fruit and vegetables (that’s his sculpture above with eggplant leaves! and below a squash with watermelon roses and a polka-dotted apple).At the animal barn we saw dozens of varieties of chickens , turkeys, and ducks. As there were lots of roosters, and roosters crow to define their territory, it was cacophonous.








Outside were heirloom pigs, goats and sheep, even some cows. I would love to have a pig or two, especially one of the miniature heirloom breeds, but that might stretch the tolerance of my suburban neighbors, who so far are okay with my rooster.

We met a woman who demonstrated a home-made bicycle-driven wool carder that she built. It put me in mind of my compost machine, except she’s developed a kit for sale. Anyone have sheep and need a better way to card your wool?

Garden, chickens, bees

It’s a very foggy August here in the East Bay, and I think the red mulch is really helping the garden to flourish. I have a tomato jungle with many green and some ripe tomatoes, corn almost ready to eat, baby eggplants and artichokes, squash (always a plethora of those) and cucumbers.

Plus, the chickens should be just about ready to lay. I was given an Americana rooster, named Malawi, by a family who couldn’t keep him, and so far the neighbors are okay with him. I added herbs and fake eggs (chickens like to lay their eggs next to existing ones) to the nesting box, and hung a continuous feed feeder up so that they can eat to their hearts’ content, all in preparation for eggs.

The chickens were a little spooked by the new feeder at first, but soon got used to it.


On a sad note, though, the bees have failed to thrive. I’ve been noticing their numbers diminishing, and yesterday looked in the hive. There were only a few dozen bees, and not much comb. The bee guru says this just happens sometimes. It’s disheartening. After the last bees live out their hospice days in the hive, I will clean it out and prepare it for a new swarm in the spring. And I’ll move it to a spot where they get more sun.  Then perhaps they will do better.  For now, just waiting for the wonderful sound a hen makes when she announces that she’s laid an egg! laid an egg! laid an egg!



William Burroughs, a guy with a weird imagination if there ever was one (Dr. Benway, I presume?), wore plain gray suits to preserve a certain public anonymity. I feel the same way about bumper stickers. I want my gray car to blend into the flow of traffic, unnoticed by all. Not to mention that if you have a bumper sticker on your car and then drive badly, you’re undermining whatever cause your sticker promotes. Yesterday I was cut off by Veterans for Peace, and aced out of my parking space by Keep Tahoe Blue. Not that it makes me want to turn the lake orange or declare war, but it doesn’t help. And just when I had decided never, a friend brought me this. But I think I’ll post it here and on my fridge, not on my car.

Continue reading “Miscellany”

The Amazing Original Homemade Compost Buster

Okay, I have promised MacGyver-type solutions on this site, and here is the first one (if you don’t count the bee egg, which I didn’t invent): the amazing, fabulous, original compost and chicken food grinder, made for a total of under $100 out of a used stainless sink, a used heavy duty garbage disposal, and a new faucet and water line from the hose. You can read this or  see it live, captured by my amazing friend and documentarian extraordinaire, Yeh Tung.

Compost is pretty simple: kitchen scraps, garden waste, straw or leaves and if you have some animal manure, great! Layer it, water and turn it from time to time, and wait. This is fine if you have unlimited space and time.

The problem is, if you have a small area, there is always too much compost and it takes too long to break down, so there are always more kitchen scraps and garden waste than there is space. Even if you import extra worms, as I did.

Over the years I’ve tried plain, unprotected heaps (attracts rats, raccoons, possums and skunks), drums and plastic compost houses (fill up too fast), and even an expensive machine from Nature Mills that turned kitchen scraps in to a wet smelly mess that was too stinky for inside and attracted flies and bred maggots outside.

My solution is the amazing, easily home built compost buster, made from a garbage disposal.  For my prototype, I simply cut a hole in a piece of plywood, set it on a 2×4 stand, screwed the disposal onto it and put a bucket underneath. I used an extension cord and plugged the disposal in to turn it on. I put a strainer on top of the bucket, and used a hose to provide water.

Once I proved to myself that the concept worked (despite all advice to the contrary!), I added a length of old bicycle tire inner tube to the exit of the disposal, and put a cork in the intake valve. I added a sink, a faucet, and a big used Igloo container with a hose bib in place of the drink-dispensing valve.














The raw material goes into the sink, gets ground up in the disposal and drains into the strainer. The water goes into the cooler. I added a switch to turn the disposal on and off.

If it’s stuff the chickens will eat, I give the mash to them. This eliminates the litter of rinds and cobbs they usually leave. I make a mash of kitchen scraps.  I also let them eat corn cobs and rinds down to the nubs and then take the rinds and cobs out to mash up for the compost along with garden waste, citrus, and onions, where the worms make it into compost practically overnight. The nutrient-rich water goes onto the vegetable garden.

Effective, efficient, and as noted, has a certain (at least to me) poetic elegance of design.




How the garden grows

This is the labyrinth this morning.  I can see the plants grow from one day to the next. I’ve let the salad mix and some herbs go to seed in the labyrinth, hoping I’ll see new seedlings soon.

Herbs include all the common culinary herbs, plus borage, hyssop, lemon verbena, summer and winter savory, lemon balm, Thai basil, fennel, rue, feverfew, along with five or six kinds of lettuce, three kinds of chives, and dozens of flowers.

The rest of the front is all flowers.

Along with the stone work, there is drip irrigation, so no watering issues (for once in my life) other than figuring out how often and how long I want the water to drip.


The back, aside from a plethora of poppies, is all vegetables, chickens, and bees.


Here is the famed red mulch, chicken coop in the background.

The baby cucumbers, artichokes, tomatillos, corn, and beans:




and four of the seven pullets, happily eating scraps.

When Larry discovered me baking egg shells this morning before adding them to the compost, he said:

“This is a farm my Okie relatives wouldn’t recognize.”

Indeed! I hope this is not like someone’s dull slide show of their vacation–but I couldn’t resist.

Supervised freedom

Today for the first time I let the chickens into their large, uncovered pen that gives them plenty of grass and bugs to eat.

They’ve been in a small enclosed area since they went outside, about a month ago.  The enclosed area has chicken wire or bird mesh around 2″ x 4″ wire, and is about 5’ x 16’.  It’s covered top, bottom, and sides. Their house is inside and is 3’ x 4’. It’s hard to believe they were once small enough to fit through 2×4″ mesh! They cheerfully but cautiously explored, then went back in to their smaller area after an hour or so.

I stayed out there with them, to make sure they really are too big for the chicken hawk, because a few days after I first settled them in their caged area, I saw a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk or possibly a Cooper’s Hawk (they also call these hawks Chicken Hawks, no surprise) sitting on top of the chicken coop.

It was hardly larger than the chicks (so probably Sharp-Shinned–they’re smaller), but it seemed thoroughly unintimidated by me.

It let me come within 15 feet before it reluctantly moved to a branch slightly further away.

The chicks were huddled in their house.

I did lose one chick the day before I saw the hawk. I started with eight. I went for a walk one afternoon and came back to find only seven. I counted and recounted. Only seven. Then I found a small hole in my wire. I guess one got out, and perhaps was a meal for the hawk or a cat or… Nonetheless, I didn’t try to chase the hawk away. It’s my job to keep them safe, not the hawk’s to refrain from catching one. So they only get supervised freedom for now. As my friend Poppy once said, when we saw a raven grab a baby sparrow from its cliffside nest, “It’s a bird eat bird world.”


Chickens, Driving at Night

It seems to me that chickens are the perfect eco-accessory. Here they are, a few days old, when they were still in the laundry room.

They grow quickly, provide eggs and meat, and are omnivores. I ground up the remains of the fish stock and they gobbled it—no more smelly mess in the garbage. They eat weeds, bugs, snails and slugs. I’m planning to make a “chicken tractor” to move them around to various parts of the garden. I wonder if I’d still like them as much without the knowledge of future eggs? There is really no comparison between the eggs from a backyard chicken that gets to roam and eat grass and bugs to those sold commercially. Larry says the yolks are the color of a Van Gogh sun. Of course, here in the suburbs, no roosters, which is too bad. I understand that others may not be charmed by the rooster alarm clock. They do crow incessantly, starting before dawn. When I was in Puerto Rico, surrounded by households with roosters I wondered: is a rooster’s crow the sound of poverty or of affluence? In any case, a small, well-tended flock of chickens is pretty delightful. I saw this poem about chickens years ago and saved it.

Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty 

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces.  Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.

Jane Mead,  The Lord and the General Din of the World

I don’t know anything about Jane Mead, but the following poem, also about a bird seen driving at night, was written by a woman who died fairly young from a chronic and degenerative disease.  It’s a level darker and deeper:

Night Owl

            You are nearing the land that is life,
            You will recognize it by its seriousness.

Diving my bad news the back way home
I know I’m in the land that is life
when I reach my favorite stretch of road—fields
flat and wide where corn appears soon after
planting the soil tilled, night-soaked
and crumbled into fists.
Ferguson’s barn is somewhere
at the end of this long arm of tar
and as I near it, something grazes the back
passenger-side door, luffs parallel to my car—
a huge owl on headlight spray floating,
holding night over the hood to see
if this moving thing is real, alive,
something to kill—then gliding in
close as if to taste glass.
The road levitates, buffeted on a surf
of light, the fog-eaten farm disappearing
as I ride into starlessness, cells conspiring
so I am bright-flecked and uplifted—is this
what it feels like to be chosen—to be taken
under the wing of something vast
that knows its way blindly?

M. Wyrebek, Be Properly Scared