Thursday, May 27, 2010

Let's Move the Coop

I've had my vegetable garden laid out in four freeform "S"-shaped beds for years. The long horizontal sections work as a terrace system on ground that slopes away to the east. But the curves are getting harder to reform each Spring, and are difficult to cover to stretch my season. I have one more bed in a separate area below the main four beds, but it's down by the fruit trees and the plants never do as well.

We've done ok with those five beds, but six would work better for crop rotation. So I've been mulling over a garden remodel for a couple of seasons now. If the main garden was just a little bit wider . . . and I got rid of those nasty, thorny blackberries there . . . I'd have room for six long beds, stretching all the way across the slope, plus have the perennial stuff (asparagus, horseradish, sunchokes, and berries) all inside one big sunny space. Get rid of the lower shaded bed, and with straight planting beds, maybe even devise a grow tunnel or two for more fall and winter eating . . . .

So . . . more measuring, plotting, and planning. It would mean moving the fences out, including that old arbor, but everything would pretty much fit just right. Except there in the lower, north-eastern corner - if only the chicken coop were a bit more to the east . . . .

Time to go get sweet husband, draw lines in the dirt, step off some measurements, and explain what I have in mind. And then wait another week for him to take it all in - share in my vision, so to speak. Once he can see it too, he's a git-er-done kind of guy.

Our chicken coop has a slatted floor, with the droppings pit underneath. So first item of business is to pull the bottom skirting off the outside and clean out the pit. A full wagonload, plus more, goes up to the compost bins, covered for use later in the season (kept dry, it doesn't smell at all).

A couple of car jacks from the garage were enough to get one side, then the other, up enough to make a board "highway" atop cinder blocks.

With pieces of metal conduit for rollers.

And so, with a bit (ok, lots) of muscle power, the coop moves east. Time for a design conference: how about, if we also spin it around 90 degrees, so that the east side faces north? Then we redo the pen on this side, and put the gate over here? If we drop it down the hill a bit, the water faucet should be fine, and we'll have the pen door, the coop door, and access to the nest boxes all lined up together, here on the west.

Ok, that's the plan, but it's getting dark. Time to let the flock get back inside for the night, and he'll do the rest tomorrow.

Next morning, let the girls out, rearrange the board "highway", pull down the fence (keeping the ratty, tacked-together, quilt of wire pieces in one long piece to reuse), move everything else out of the way, do a bit of leveling here and there, and the coop spins to the north. Let's get rid of that old pen door, and use this salvaged dog run gate instead. We've got room to give them a bit of pen area east of the coop too, to give them a bit more summer afternoon shade. If we attached both ends of the fencing, and then stretch it out into shape, and then put in the fence posts, we know we'll have an exact fit without having to reconstruct any of the fence pieces.

Dig trenches to bury the bottom of the fence for predator-proofing, and attach new skirting to the bottom of the coop. Get the food, water, and shade sheds into the new pen; get all the re-construction debris cleaned up; the tools cleaned up and put away.

Moving some dirt around with the rake lets the gate swing freely. Meanwhile, the girls are hopping in and out of the coop, inspecting the new pen area, and settling right in. At nightfall, one of the guinea hens walks right past the open door to the east side, then stands there looking quizzically for a door that's no longer there. I have to walk her back around to the north, but then hearing the others inside already, she hops in too. Everyone else, no problem at all. And there are eggs from everyone, even the guineas, in the nest boxes the next day.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Panic!

You do have your towel with you, don't you?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Just a Little Bit Crazy

Sometimes, doing crazy things makes me feel most alive. I went to two outdoor parties this weekend, and snowflakes were swirling on both. Now, it's supposed to be somewhat nice around here by the end of May, so the people that scheduled these parties weren't the crazy ones. It's all of us that showed up anyway :-)

Friday was the end of our local Bike to Work Week, with a big after-work party planned out on the open patio of a local establishment. I didn't ride my bicycle (my involvement with Muscle Powered leans more towards walking/hiking and advocacy), but I did bundle up to be there, and ended up manning the keg. The live entertainer played his instrument wearing fingerless biking gloves, and the attendees took turns around the outdoor firepit. We all laughed when Christy, wearing socks plus wool tights under her blue jeans, took off the socks to offer them to Terri, silly girl, who'd come from work wearing flip-flops. Terri immediately took her up on the offer, and donned said socks. Sometimes, a touch of insanity can really make the party. A good time was had by all.

And then, another party Saturday evening, also outdoors, also cold, windy, and snowing. This one was a neighborhood party, held at a sculpture shop down the street. The owner, and most of the guests, were Burning Man regulars, so I knew ahead of time that this party wouldn't be quite the usual fare. I've never been to Burning Man - my sister and I always plan our annual get-together at a Lake Tahoe beachfront campsite that week. Camping in a sandstorm in the desert with thousands, versus camping in the pines with family? No contest - I'll take the Lake. But the Burners are special and fun people, and so once again I bundled up and off we went. And again, another good time was had by all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Frost Protection Tips

I'm not the only one dealing with an unseasonably cold Spring. Annette, in Virginia, wrote to me asking for frost-protection suggestions for her garden. I've prettied up the links, and am posting my reply to her to help anyone else looking for ideas:

Hi Annette,
I use Wall-o-waters on my tender plants. Home Depot had some this year, and sometimes Wal-Mart does too in early spring, or they can be ordered online. Okra was the only thing that froze one year (29 degrees June 7th) inside the W-0-W's; tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants survived. I wrote about them here.

I haven't used any kind of tunnels (she asked about them specifically), because with my S-shaped beds it would be difficult to make them. I am, however, thinking about redoing the garden into long straight beds just so I can make tunnels to stretch my season, after reading this Eliot Coleman article in Mother Earth News.

I don't think sheets (that's what she's using) provide enough protection when I have to cover things overnight. I watch for single-layer (not quilted - takes too long to dry if wet) bedspreads and draperies in thrift stores or garage sales. I once found a hideous red velvet bedspread that worked great for years. I like draperies because the pleated top section is heavy enough to stay put on the windward side and then the fabric spreads out nicely, with a heavier hem on the other end. I remove any vinyl liners and just use the fabric part (the liners end up covering the compost). I drape them over plant cages, and wrap them around tall staked tomato plants, sometimes using clothespins to clip ends together or to attach to the cages inside, and bricks to hold down the ends. Photo here.

I have some wire fencing bent into bracket-shapes [ , wide enough to cover my wide beds about 5" high. I put a sheet over one of those to shade carrot seeds for better germination (blue sheet here). They can also support the heavier coverings if necessary in early spring when plants are still quite small. They work great if I have to cover cucumbers and squash that have just started to run.
That ought to give you some ideas to work with. Good luck!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Spring that Never Came

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those years where we go straight from wintry snows to summer heat. Is anyone else still getting snowed on in the middle of May?

Of course, any gardener that's been here a while knows we can't set out our tomatoes until after Memorial Day. And even then, some sort of night time protection is usually necessary until practically the Fourth of July. But while cold may be normal, the wet this year is a bit more than usual. This year's combination of cold and wet has made it difficult to even get out in the garden, much less get things planted in a timely manner. And whether I'll be harvesting anything at all from my fruit trees remains to be seen. Just about everything is now, or just finished, blooming. Only the grapes and berries are still waiting.

Knowing today's storm was on the way, and expected to be a wet one, yesterday I braved the cold wind to get out in the garden and finish getting my Early bed planted. I scooted around beneath the netting to plant seeds of English, Chinese, and Snap peas, some pak choi, and a variety of lettuces. I set out some little seedlings of Swiss chard and calendula. The onions were set out last week, and the garlic, shallots, and spinach from last fall are looking good. The last bit of that bed I filled up with leeks dug from my leek nursery bed. Now, everything is getting a good soaking, and should pop right up when the sun comes back in a few more days (well, that's the plan, anyway).

Next project, when the weather allows, is to get the Roots and Brassicas bed ready to plant. Too much cold can stress some cole crops, especially the cauliflower, stunting their growth instead of producing nice big edible heads. But I should be able to get them into the ground in another week or two. Today's snow just provided a bit of natural irrigation, melting quickly when I brought them back into the house for the night. It's time, too, to get my seed potatoes out of the cellar and into the light. Maybe we won't see a Spring this year, but I know Summer will be here before we know it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Potting Up the Tomatoes

I managed to squeeze in a bit of time this afternoon to pot up my little tomato plants - transferring them to deeper containers. Tomatoes will grow roots on any part of the stem when buried in the soil, and more roots on tomato plants means less stress once our hot, dry summer gets here. And happy plants mean a bigger, better harvest. To learn more, see my post on the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog.

Nights are still hovering around the freezing mark, so the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants will stay inside, under the lights, for a few more weeks. The cabbages and kales, on the other hand, are now pretty much hardened off. I've been moving them out to the table on the deck every morning, and then back in to the kitchen counter when it gets dark.

I'm thinking maybe Sunday (if the predicted rain holds off) I can get their planting bed ready and get them into the ground. Nobody is going to want to talk to a Census taker on Mother's Day, are they?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Slow Start to the Early Bed

I really should have gotten my peas and lettuces seeded by now, but this Census job has turned into a full-time gig the past few weeks. The weather has been iffy to work around too. It seems whenever I've had some time to work outside, it's either been raining, snow on the ground, or horrible winds. So I'm trying to get things done in bits and pieces when I get the chance.

Half of the 50' long Early bed was composted last fall. About half of that was planted then too, with garlic, shallots, and seeds of spinach and arugula. They were all up and growing by the end of February, and in fine shape now. In fact, the arugula was starting to bolt, so I pulled most of what was left and gave it to the chickens. One thing that slows me down is having to protect whatever I've been working on from the birds, both domestic and wild, at the end of each day. Then, before starting again later, all the wire has to come off again so I can get at the planting bed.

To date, I've managed to get the rest of that bed composted, turned and raked smooth for planting; the soaker hoses laid out, with all connections fixed up with new rubber washers; pea posts pounded in (and topped with cans to support the netting), fencing trellises attached with twist-ties. Tuesday afternoon, I was out there on my hands and knees setting in tiny little Copra onion plants (a last-minute order from Dixondale Farms - my onions, seeded inside a couple of months ago, didn't germinate reliably enough). I put the dried-out little plants to soak for a couple of hours in a weak fish emulsion tea while I got everything ready. Using a dandelion digger as a dibble, I'd make a loose little planting hole, use my finger to poke an onion down into the dirt, and then give it a little pull upwards, getting the roots started in the right direction as I firmed the dirt around each little plant. I know they're probably hard to even see, set out in a 6" spacing grid, but I know the Copra onions are really good keepers. The sets (little bulbs) you buy in the big-box store are fine for summertime fresh eating, but I want onions that will last in storage until at least March, or even better, May. Onions are tough - these guys are starting to perk up and green up already. The last few I planted into clumps to pull for fresh eating later in the summer, but most of these won't be harvested until mid-September.

We've had quite a bit of wind the last few days, but Tuesday, when Aries was home to lend a hand, I managed to get the netting suspended over that bed then. Every year, I seed my little greens and peas, watch eagerly for them to start poking up out of the dirt, and then, one fine morning, go out to find everything chomped right down to the dirt. The sparrows and quail devour everything - they can jump right down under the wire I use to protect everything from errant chickens. Then, a few years ago, the guinea fowl developed an addiction to pea blossoms. They'd be out there calmly plucking every one on a daily basis. I was going to all this work and getting nothing!!

So last year, after losing everything once again, I tried draping a big piece of netting over the entire bed - held up by the t-posts holding bits of fencing for the peas to cling to, held down by bricks around the outside edges. And got my first beautiful salad harvest in years (the netting applied too late to get much from the peas). So now, as I get the time, I'll duck under the netting to plant my peas (English, snap, and Chinese) on either side of the center bits of fencing, and greens along the edges. The greens shade the pea roots, the peas climbing their fences shade the greens, and I should still manage to get some decent harvests of both before the summer heat fries everything. That's the plan, anyway.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Enumerator 101

I keep thinking I really should post something. I've been really busy the last couple of weeks, and will be for at least another week or two. I got hired for a temp position, working the US Census. At first, I was hired as an Enumerator - the person that goes around knocking on doors. Before any public contact, we had to go through four 8-hour days of training. But the week before my training session was to start, they called me in for an additional day of training, to do all my initial administrative paperwork, and then taught me how to take ink fingerprints.

So, on the first day of training, while everyone else was doing their initial paperwork, I called each one up in turn to do a fingerprint card. That was an interesting experience. Taking each hand in turn, then each finger and tucking the rest out of the way, rolling each across the ink pad, "nail to nail" and then across the fingerprint card, making sure each print was completely within its designated square, with just the right amount of pressure to clearly show each line and ridge. To get a person's wrist to roll from one side to the other correctly, it's best to have them right up against you, but not look at what you're doing. Too often, they tried to "help" and ended up either pressing too hard or smearing the print by not letting me lift each finger straight up. Others had stiff wrists, making it difficult to get their fingers to roll across correctly. At least I was provided with some little stick-on squares to reprint and cover smeared prints, so one messed up print wouldn't disqualify the entire card.

Then, the training: first, being sworn in with the official oath required of all in government - to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, etc. etc. I've taken the same oath as a volunteer appointee to our City Shade Tree Council, and again when I became a Notary Public. Then, lectures about the confidentiality of the data we'd be collecting, anything we might see while out doing our jobs. The government takes the handling of PII - Personally Identifiable Information - very seriously. Since we were all sworn in as Census employees, we could talk about what was necessary to each other, but our assigned paperwork couldn't even be left out where our family members could see it.

We heard that around 80% of the Census forms mailed out had been returned by the deadline. Our job would be to go out and get the data for the the residences that hadn't. The taking of a national census every ten years is in the Constitution, right there in Article I. The first one was done in 1790, and then every decade since. Only statistical data may be distributed, and confidentiality of all answers is maintained for 72 years afterwards. Only then are specific results available to the public (they didn't say it in class, but I know from talking to a friend doing genealogy research on her family that data from the 1890 Census was all lost in a fire).

Then we learned how to fill out the forms - with tiny little boxes to be marked with an "x" (but don't go outside the lines!), printing neatly within the lines of boxes, one letter per box. No crinkling up those unwieldy forms either - only the original creases allowed (while standing outside - no going inside a house - in the wind, writing on a clipboard). This section to be filled in vertically, then these across, and read every question exactly as written. Extra forms for this and for that instance, when and how to use them, how to read the maps of the area we'd each be assigned to work; how to fill out our payroll forms each day, task codes, codes for areas worked, crew codes. Plus, all the government acronyms and more numbers - forms aren't referred to by their names, but by a letter-dash-numbers. We had to learn an entire new language to do this job: Bureaucrat-ese.

The last day of class, our Crew Leader asked me to be a Crew Leader Assistant instead of an Enumerator. Instead of knocking on doors myself, I've ended up supervising six Enumerators - going out with each to observe and evaluate their procedures and knowledge of the field work, collecting completed forms, helping resolve problems. With paperwork to be collected daily, from employees working independently, setting their own hours - it's like herding cats.

I finally have my team reasonably organized, so will probably start working an assignment area myself. Please, if we knock on your door, be nice - it will only take a few minutes time, and we have to get this information, one way or another. Your cooperation is much appreciated.