Saturday, May 19, 2018

Berried Alive

It's a long-awaited dream come true. We have a berry patch!

Since we first terraced the hillside into raised beds years ago, I've known that they were destined to house a host of perennials. This year, we finally had the right setup and no other more-pressing projects in the way. So I went berry crazy!

The bed closest to the house holds blueberries. They're pretty all year, so we put them in the most visible place. We picked highbush varieties because we have the space for the larger plants, and they generally have the most vibrant fall foliage. We're starting with 3-4 plants each of early, mid, and late season varieties, for a total of 10 bushes. That will extend our harvest of sweet-tart juicy berries for as long as possible! The types we planted are:

Early: Spartan, Patriot
Mid: Bluecrop, Chandler
Late: Legacy

We have room for another row of plants, so we'll see which one we like best this year, and then add more next time around.

Across from the blueberries is our future strawberry patch. I gave it a kick-start with about 25 Shuksan and a few Albion, but it's still mostly empty awaiting the end of this strawberry season. We have a patch of strawberry plants currently, which I'll move into their new home after they finish fruiting this year. Strawberries are heavy feeders, so I'm sure they'll appreciate a fresh, well-nourished new bed. And I'll appreciate having a whole additional bed for my annual veggies!

Both of the back beds are full of one of my all-time favorite foods - raspberries. We have a mix of Meeker, Tulameen, and some kind of golden raspberry I wasn't planning to buy but couldn't pass up. There are also a few canes someone shared with me from their garden (plus one lone gooseberry they had on hand.) The canes look so small now that it's hard to imagine they'll ever become the giant tangle I know most raspberry patches to be. I'm so excited to see them grow!

Does anybody know how to separate out raspberry canes that were sold planted together in one big pot?
Because obviously I don't. 

In the rest of the garden, we currently have:

  • Half a bed of lettuce (mixed varieties) - I always intend to succession-plant this so we don't end up with it all ripe at once, but then I can never resist planting every available inch at the first possible second.
  • Half a bed of radishes (mixed varieties) - little red crowns are already peeking out! 
  • Half a bed of sugar snap and snow peas - holy cow do those things grow fast! Every year I plant a couple different varieties to see what I like best, and then every year I forget what I put where, and anyway the vines are so entangled by that point it's impossible to tell what's coming from where anyway. But I've never had one I didn't love, so it doesn't really matter.
  • Half a bed of broccolini! It's my first time growing this, because I get cranky about how much space each individual plant takes up. But I have to say, they're very nice plants. And as a bonus, some volunteer lettuce that sprang back up from last year is loving the shade underneath the broccolini leaves. 
  • A bed of garlic, which I'm hoping can come out soon - we plant our garlic in late fall and let it overwinter, so it's the first thing to pop up in spring. 
  • Oodles of potato hills. I had no idea before I started growing potatoes myself how much fun they are! Once the plants take off, I swear you can actually hear them growing. It happens that fast. Every day feels like a little victory, and yet they barely take any work at all. 
The lavender has also, as promised, nearly doubled in size this year. I'm hoping to have some bundles or sachets available in early fall, so keep your eyes (nose?) peeled for that. 

Up next: the pumpkin and squash patch! Although we grew these plants in previous years, this is the first time they'll be in what we've always intended to be their main growing area.  Lesson from last year: I'll be putting hardware cloth down underneath the soil, so those digging barbarian voles can't upend my precious babies. 

The Garden Guardian, hard at work and in hardcore need of a bath.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Amazing Race: Chicken Edition

If you think being the new kid in high school is tough, you've never seen me try to introduce new chickens into a well-established flock. Imagine that the entire school is one giant clique of Mean Girls (tm) and instead of cutting words, they have literal pointy beaks.

It's surprising to lots of people that chickens don't lay eggs their entire lives. Egg production peaks after a few years, then slows for a few, and then often stops entirely. (Shower thought: does that mean chickens go through henopause?) Our ladies are now three years old. So to grow our flock and plan for a steady flow of eggs in the future, it was time to introduce a few new girls.

I've known from the very beginning that we would eventually need to do this. I was excited to re-live the adorable baby stage, get to know some new breeds, and introduce different egg colors. But I was very, very worried about the well-documented difficulty of introducing new chickens into your flock.

The phrase "pecking order"? Yeah, that's a real thing. Chickens establish a social order, and they don't like to have their places threatened by newcomers. When new chickens are introduced, the existing flock can bully them, sometimes violently. While some amount of jockeying is to be expected, there is a lot of guidance out there on how to integrate new girls as seamlessly as possible.

So here's what we did:

1. We purchased chickens that were already a couple of months old. While this meant missing out on the incredibly adorable fluffy-chick-down phase, it meant several weeks less of keeping them totally separate and under a heat lamp. (They're still tiny and adorable.) We did keep them separate until they were big enough to defend themselves. And we got three so they could help each other out - it can be much harder to introduce just one or two.

2. When we did put them into the coop, we set up a large wire cage/playpen just for the little ones. The two groups could see and hear each other, but with a barrier between them. That way, they could start safely getting used to each other.

3. After a couple weeks, we opened the door! The little girls can still get in and out of the playpen, but the big ones can't. And there's food inside, reducing competition at the feeder. So they're together, but with some refuge. We did the initial introduction in the evening, when the older chickens would be groggy, and we gave them some treats to distract them at the same time.

Sounds easy, right?

I know why the caged bird squawks.


We were starting Step 2. The playpen was set up. We brought the three new ladies into the run, in a box. Preparing to put them into the playpen, we opened the box.

All hell broke loose.

A tornado of flapping and squawking whirled through the coop as the existing flock erupted into a complete uproar. Henry, our rooster, was so perturbed that he busted right out of the coop! He yanked open a small hole in the chicken wire and ran out into the yard, hollering his head off.

Since we weren't planning on any loose chickens, we hadn't locked the dog inside the house. Our little predator took one look at the running, flapping, yodeling chicken dinner drawing all sorts of attention to itself. Then she looked at me.

Then, still making full eye contact with me, she licked her chops. 

And took off running after the chicken.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 

Imagine the ensuing scene. I'm yelling and running after the dog. Brett is hollering and chasing around a chicken. All the remaining chickens in the coop are screaming like spectators at a WWE match. Based on the noise alone, I assume all our neighbors now believe we've joined some kind of ritual murder cult.

Miraculously, no actual murder occurred that day. I caught the dog, Brett made a wild dive and snatched up the rooster, and the new little chickens eventually made it into their playpen. Ten minutes later, everyone was happily going about their business, cooing and scratching in the dirt like nothing had ever happened.

Victory crowing.

When I tell this story to people, invariably someone says "Wow, I wish you had recorded that!" I mean, yes, I totally wish we had that on film, but we'll all have to settle for the magic of the imagination here. Like THANKS BUT WE WERE KINDA PREOCCUPIED.

Anyways, the door-open playpen phase is going okay. The big ones definitely still rule the roost, and any little chicken getting in their way gets a big peck on the back. But there's no serious harm and it gets a little better every day. Our little high schoolers are growing up fast!