About Annie

Mommy, librarian, PhD student, foodie. Family above all else!

Good intentions

Was my last post really written in February?  Nah, can’t be correct.  I totally intended to write about the (near) completion of our front yard fence with its beautiful benches.

Comfy bench right inside the new fence, we have TWO!

Comfy bench right inside the new fence, we have TWO!

I meant to write about my efforts with vertical garden expansion, and all the planting we have done in our edible front landscape…

Edible plants give so much more than food - just look at this nectarine blossom!

Edible plants give so much more than food – just look at this nectarine blossom!

There was the planned post about the garden space we have dedicated to the kiddo and her friends, complete with tree platform and crazy playthings, did I not write that one?

This old bench came from the local swap meet - it was clearly MEANT for our yard!

This old bench came from the local swap meet – it was clearly MEANT for our yard!

I had this whole mental post on the shrinky dink hoses we bought.  The ones that totally changed my life – making it possible to water the entire front and side yards in about 10 minutes, while simultaneously relieving me of many pairs of shoes I clearly no longer needed, soaking my work clothing before I get into the car, and generally wasting gallons of water due to their design flaws.  Nah, I don’t even have a picture of their shriveled lime green glory.  Must have missed making that post too.

And now it is a week before my daughter graduates from 4th grade.  There are parties to celebrate going on to middle school, our last book fair volunteer shift.  There are gifts to buy for a gazillion school employees that made it possible for my kiddo to make it through elementary education thus far. There is a conference for about 200 librarians being hosted by my institution in just over a week. Oh and this little book I am writing, better known as my dissertation.

I am dragging.  Really.  The artichokes I looked forward to, growing way up at the top of the back garden?  Lovely purple flowers now.  Forgot to harvest them, along with BIG heads of celery that have gone to seed.  The chickens have eaten bushels of purple carrots that we just never had the time to peel or eat ourselves.

I am currently living on a diet of sugar free Slurpees, grapefruit juice, and Hot Tamales. I figure I am getting all the essentials – high sugar fruit juice, chemicals, and candy.  How could I go wrong? I used to cook and bake – I think.  I have these things I vaguely remember are called pans.  They sit on this big box that I have heard is called a stove.  I wonder if I could use them to plant more stuff…

And oh yes, we have four more chickens coming.  That big structure taking shape in the back yard still needs wire, and a roof, and…

These babies need housing, gotta get the new coop finished!

These babies need housing, gotta get the new coop finished!

You say you want a revolution…

In a recent issue of Urban Farm magazine, a community gardener described the fruits of her labor in terms something like this: It’s not just a garden, it’s a revolution.That statement struck me as a profound truth. What folks like Don Axe of Valley View Farm, folks like me at the Laughing Place, folks turning lawns into vegetable gardens across the country are doing is participating in a radical and pervasive change in society – the very definition of a revolution. (Thanks Dictionary.com for clarifying!) We are changing, in small ways and large, the food chain.  We are changing how children understand and value what appears on the supper table. We are changing our neighborhoods by providing shared resources, and a means of connecting with the people around us.

I am unashamedly adopting the words of that community gardener as the motto for the Laughing Place. In fact, the boat that serves as our newest raised bed is named Revolution.

Giving our boat a name...

Giving our boat a name…

Yes, I am a Beatles fan – so all on its own the name makes some sense.  But a sign placed just above the name is soon to follow, one that will connect the dots for our neighbors: “It’s not just a garden, it’s a…”

For Americans, the return to a more agricultural focus has become trendy.  I am one of three backyard chicken keepers in a three block radius in our neighborhood. Many of my extended family members and friends garden, and a couple of them could also be called urban farmers. We have time and resources in plenty. But what if we could change the larger world with our little gardens?

I imagine that not one person in Somalia is going to thank me for a box of my surplus produce – whatever good intentions might have been packed in with the tomatoes and zucchini, the fruit and veggies would arrive unusable. But what if we could contribute something that won’t rot in the shipping? What if we sent ideas? That’s just what Marcin Jakubowski is doing. Through a unique initiative, Marcin is designing an open-source blueprint for self-sufficiency. Check out his TED talk here

Pretty inspiring, no? And what if a farmer in Afghanistan applied for a Kiva loan to build one of Marcin’s tractors? Would you contribute $25? I’m pretty sure we CAN change the world – one farm at a time.

Crazy Containers

The ground is a great place to plant things.   But as any good gardener will tell you, a nice flat patch of dirt need not be the only space you consider when starting, or expanding, a garden.  In fact, the Laughing Place began when I could not part with an old wheelbarrow that had finally ceased to be useful for its original purpose.

Old wheelbarrows never die...

Old wheelbarrows never die…

That wheelbarrow herb garden is now surrounded by greens in grow bags, peas climbing a branch trellis in an old basket, and a popcorn popper filled with Rue.

The Whirly-Pop now has a new purpose

The Whirly-Pop now has a new purpose

One benefit of container gardening is that pests, like the voles that have stolen two of my artichoke plants, find it harder to burrow under and eat the roots of things planted in say, a toy truck.

Ready to place in the garden

The voles may be plotting to car jack these plants!

Unusual containers are also just fun. It would have been easy to turn the bit of dirt beside our driveway into another regular garden bed.  But when presented with a 12 foot fishing boat, what is a girl to do? Plant beans, naturally!

Front seat for the kids to play fishing games, garden in back!

Front seat for the kids to play fishing games, garden in back!

Then again, sometimes the container isn’t all that unusual, but the crop growing in it is altogether out of the ordinary…

This type of gardening isn't for everyone.

This type of gardening isn’t for everyone.

got eggs?

We do!  What seemed like an eternity, and was in fact just 5 short months of maturation for our little ladies, ended in late October with the arrival of our very first egg.  I literally ran into the street with the lovely, perfect brown specimen clutched protectively in my hand – screaming and jumping like a kindergartener who is first to the playground.

Neighbors who had no idea we’d ventured into the world of chicken keeping smiled indulgently as I held out my prize for their inspection – a look of realization finally spreading across their faces as they began to understand just where that egg had originated. In. My. Yard!  From my own chickens!  Well, they might not have been as impressed as I was – but they humored me.

A thing of beauty, and a joy...until we cooked it.

A thing of beauty, and a joy…until we cooked it.

Seriously, I wanted to bronze it. I felt like I should send out birth announcements. I did NOT want to break it, or do less than place it on the mantle in a position of honor.  At least until the 2nd, 3rd, 4th eggs came.  At last I was able to relent, and scrambled eggs seemed like less a travesty and more a necessity.

The kiddo got a kick out of breaking that first egg!

The kiddo got a kick out of breaking that first egg!

In the beginning, an egg a day seemed like true bounty.  As one hen after another reached egg laying age, the count began to grow.  I rejoiced when I had enough to actually fill an egg carton!  Hopeful family members began saving their old cartons, and I wondered if I could ever bring myself to part with these gifts from my generous, gorgeous pets.

Every egg is an amazement!

Every egg is an amazement!

We average 5 eggs a day now. That doesn’t seem like many, right?  Five eggs -they (almost) fit in one hand when they are gathered. But 5 A DAY is actually a lot!  Eggs began to fill the spaces in our kitchen.

Eggs, eggs everywhere!

Eggs, eggs everywhere!

I sought out ways to efficiently clean and store them. The fridge filled up. I began to give them to my family, at last satisfied that I could not possibly use them all – no matter how many muffins, cookies, omelets, and quiches I planned to make. I cleared space on the kitchen counter and bought an ingenious little contraption called an egg skelter. Two dozen eggs fit nicely and it amuses me no end to roll them down the chute!

The egg skelter - Like a roller coaster for eggs!

The egg skelter – Like a roller coaster for eggs!

I have begun to sell our eggs.  I figure they are a cooperative effort between me and the hens.  I feed the girls, clean the coop, make sure they are happy and safe.  They lay beautiful, tasty brown protein orbs. It’s a pretty good partnership.  And I get a side benefit – every single day gathering those eggs gives me a thrill.

The 2nd Most Popular House on the Block

Our neighbors, the ones with 8 kids, recently completed construction of a built in pool.  This means they were automatically granted the title Most Popular House on the Block by the under 12 set. It is hard to compete with a pool for sheer cool factor. Just ask my sister, she has a pool too – and usually gets to host family dinners in the summer.  Coincidence?  I think not.

There is no denying – kids love water!

Our backyard does not house a cement pond (thanks for the memories Beverly Hillbillies!), but we retain bragging rights as the 2nd Most Popular House on the Block. It turns out chickens can be a kid’s best friend when it comes to attracting the attention of playmates.

The kiddo loves Camilla!
(Photo by Marcus Emerson)

On any given day you might find four or five giggling kids feeding berries to the hens, walking through chicken poop with sheer fascination and delight (no, really, dog poop makes them re-enact the projectile vomiting scene from the Exorcist, chicken poop is fun!) or attempting to sneak up behind an unsuspecting fowl in order to give her a thorough petting.

Our five year old neighbor boy, Z, stands on our front doorstep and cries when our 2 tiny dogs greet him from behind the screen door.  But he has no problem holding Camilla or Eloise, the gentlest of our flock.

Even timid kids like chickens.

Life with chickens and a small boy just over the fence has become something one would imagine the life of a mobster under heavy FBI surveillance would feel like – no matter what I am doing or where I am standing, Z is there to give advice and narration:

Z: Hey! Are you feeding your chickens?

Me: (Tossing tomato slices to a waiting feathered friend, or 6) Yep, feeding the chickens.

Z: Why?

Me: I thought it would be a good idea.

Z: Do you think they will die if you don’t feed them?

Me: Something like that.

Z: Do you think I should feed them?

Me: What did you have in mind?

Z: Well, I don’t like broccoli very much, maybe they could have that!

The ladies are a never ending source of amusement to our whole family – from the moment I open the run gate and all six fly out in different directions, squawking as though they are being chased by a coyote, to the moment they head up the ladder for the night, jostling one another for the best position in the coop. And all the kids in the neighborhood feel the same. Just wait until we find the first egg!

Dignified? Um, no. Funny? Yes!
(Photo by Marcus Emerson)

Permascape

In her recent post, Phyllis alluded to the struggle that every gardener must face – how do we best use the space we have been given? Is it enough to grow things to nourish the body, or do we need to nourish the soul as well? In our case, the decision was made to use a bit of our land to feed the need for peaceful vistas. But what if there was a way to do traditional landscape and still grow good things to eat?

Enter the world of Permascape or permaculture – the concept of creating sustainable yards that are full of beautiful, edible plantings. Books such as Gaia’s Garden and The Edible Front Yard offer tons of inspiration for turning lawn space into food space without losing the peace and comfort of a lovely landscape.

In truth, even our St. Francis garden has elements of permascape. The bush that supplies a background (and often threatens to swallow him entirely!) for the statue of St. Francis is a rosemary. The furthest corner of that garden contains a large lavender plant. And hidden under the fountain and maiden grasses are lemon thyme and Texas tarragon.

Texas Tarragon as landscape plant

As we plant, we are conscious of the role each new addition plays. Fruit trees have taken the place of hedge plantings. Grapes  and berries now adorn the trellises in our courtyard, side yard kitchen garden, and in front of the house. As we mature as gardeners, we seek out plants that serve a dual purpose as well as scoping out new spaces in which we can grow things. The principles of permaculture offer excellent ways in which to find that perfect compromise – a lovely and sustaining yard!

Triple crown blackberries are beginning to grow up a trellis near our front door.

Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of Thompson seedless and Concord grapes. One day the vine will cover the front wall of our house.

Adventures in Vermicomposting

Worm poop.  Pretty powerful stuff.  It does all kinds of amazing things for the garden. Most gardeners are happy to find an earthworm wiggling through their soil.  It indicates that the garden is healthy, and people who push the dirt know that those worms are leaving fertilizer in their wake.  But an earthworm or two can’t do enough to thrill me.  I need more – more clumps of wonderful, friable soil in which to play – bigger, greener plants to tend.

I am also a total sucker for gadgets that are demonstrated at the fair. Yes, I have orange cleaner, weirdly shaped mops, piles of brightly colored chamois’, and more than my share of shiny knives – all sold by charming, silken-voiced men from behind counter-tops littered with leaflets and accessories.

I know…they almost never work.  A similarly afflicted former co-worker once destroyed the floor of our staff lounge while demonstrating the wonders of a mop that would remove ANY substance from carpeting. She recreated the fair demo by pouring fresh coffee onto the carpet, and proceeded to neatly work it into every fiber over a 4 foot square with the miracle cloth she had just purchased.  Our boss had the stained carpet replaced a couple of months – and several steam cleanings – later. Oops!

Still, when I rounded the corner of the building housing all the demos, and spied the tower of green trays I was hooked. What new garden wonder was this?  Ah!  The Worm Factory 360.  Four trays, a lid, and the potential to quickly create rich compost full of worm castings.  SOLD!

Worm Factory 360 – a thing of beauty!

I brought the giant box home, unpacked it and began to read the instructions.  The salesman had let me know that one tiny element was missing from the setup – worms.  The composter comes without the key ingredient, so I did an online search and purchased 2,000 Red Wigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.

A sack full of wriggling workers.

I waited a week or so, hoping that the worms would not be left on my doorstep on the hottest day of the year – frying on my steps before I could rescue them.  I have a good UPS guy though – he rings the bell and runs, but only after placing packages in a shady corner.  Honestly, I have never answered my door covered in chicken poop, said anything inappropriate, or threatened him in any way.  NO idea why the running, but, oh well.

I took the sack – which moved in a way that creeped out the 8 year old, and simultaneously fascinated and repelled me – out to the waiting tower of trays. The print instructions read like a rocket manual (too bad I had misplaced the DVD.  I found it later and it is MUCH simpler and more to the point – sigh) but I managed to get the suggested materials arranged to form a nice worm bed.

The instructions indicated that the worms should be left in a pile, rather than spread through the bed.  Dump one sack of worms – check! The manual also hinted that our newest pets might be inclined to, er, slink away and that they should be kept under a light with the lid on for three days or so, presumably until they had decided that we measure up as a host family and um, dug in for good.

I checked them once or twice – an hour – for the first day or so.  Too much fun to see what they were doing and they did tend to slither up to the corners of the lid and then fall onto the table in clumps.  I scooped them up and put them back a couple of times, rearranged the bedding material, and finally convinced them that a ready supply of food would be theirs for the taking should they be inclined to stay.

After about a week I had my first shock. We have chickens.  Chickens attract flies – no matter how often and how well I clean (scrupulously, thank you very much) there will be flies when one keeps farm animals.  Such is life.  What I didn’t figure on was that the flies had found a way into the worm bin and laid eggs.  Yup, I had to work to keep my breakfast down the morning I uncovered the worm tray to find it crawling with fat white maggots.  GAG!!!!!

There was a ready solution at hand however.  I mentioned we have chickens, right?  Chickens LOVE bugs.  And worms.  And, yes, maggots.  I donned some latex gloves and dug through the maturing compost material for a juicy specimen, offering it to the ladies.  MUNCH!  Gone was the maggot and Annie was a happy woman.  Did I love picking through semi-decomposed vegetables and worms to find maggots?  No. I did not. But… I filled an old dog bowl with snacks for the hens and everyone was happy.  It has been a couple of months and the maggots have not returned.

Now the Laughing Place is home to 3 humans, 2 dogs, 6 chickens, and 2,000 red wigglers. The worms may not sit up and beg (neither do the dogs for that matter) but they do one pretty fantastic trick – check out the compost!!

Worms doing their best to make some seriously good fertilizer!