Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Little Bit of All Kinds of Stuff

Lots of little bits and pieces to talk about - where do I start? The smoke here is worse than ever. This morning I could barely see across the highway, two short blocks below us. That's Boris, our German Shorthair/pound hound, looking so regal lying there in the dirt. I had to do some laundry this morning, and used the electric dryer instead of hanging things out. I didn't want my clean clothes reeking of smoke. It's so thick it hurts my eyes to even be out in it.

The fires in California were all caused by lightning, but it's got everybody worried because we usually don't get the dry thunderstorm weather coming through here until late July or August. If the fire season is starting this early, it's going to cost a lot more tax dollars to fight the fires and, coming off a dry winter, lots more property could burn. Also, this week is the one-year anniversary of the big South Lake Tahoe fire that burned over 250 houses, so that brings up some bad memories. That fire last year was started by a teens' party campfire left unattended. Four years ago, a disastrous fire here in Carson City started the same way. The fire burned for four days, and over 50 houses were destroyed.

That fire burned towards our house the first day, but they stopped it on the ridge just to the north of us. We had fire trucks on both corners of our lot, and could see the line of fire fighters silhouetted all along the ridge. We were under a "be ready to evacuate" order then, so had the cat in the carrier, the dog inside on his leash, and the sleeping bags, some clothing, a few mementos and computer backup discs ready to go. The chickens we'd have to leave to fend for themselves, and in the past when we had horses we had to walk them down the street out of danger. That time, I was also packing to leave for my Africa trip the next morning, so I had all my things just thrown into garbage bags and I figured I'd finish packing in the evacuation center if necessary. It's scary. Do you have a list of what you'd take if you were in that situation?

But the fires aren't anywhere near us at present - just the smoke. I have to admit - it makes a nice filtered light for photos. So, let's move on to some other items: I love watching how our animals interact. The new chicks are doing fine in the coop with the rest of the flock. We had a little bantam rooster in the pen with the babies as they were growing up, and he's now taken charge of watching out for them. Yesterday evening, when I went out to shut up the coop (predator protection measure), a couple of the little Reds were still outside. I was just puttering around in the garden waiting for them to go in when I heard one of them squawking. I went over to see what was the matter, and that little rooster had come back out and was pulling the feathers on one's back. It was time to go in and he was telling her to quit messing around. As soon as he let go, she hopped through the door, with him right behind her, and I could close them all in for the night.

Mrs. Guinea wasn't in the coop last night, so she must have a nest somewhere now too. Male guineas don't stay with their mate by the nest during the night, so Grey was back in the coop as usual. But this morning, very early, Missus woke me up (guineas are very loud) calling for Grey. Of course, he was shut up inside the coop, so I had to get up and go open it up so he could fly out and join her, and then she was quiet. What's interesting to me is that tonight, when I went to shut up the coop, Grey wasn't inside. He was perched up on the gateframe of the pen, right next to the coop. Missus wasn't there again. He looked a bit uneasy, like I might try to chase him off the gate, but I told him he was fine. He's figured out she's not inside, and he can't get out until one of us opens up the coop, so he wanted to spend the night outside the coop. His reasoning ability amazes me.

I'm off to the San Francisco Bay Area tomorrow. My sister and I are going to see Allison Krause and Robert Plant in concert at the Greek Theater on the University of California at Berkeley campus. We both love live music, so this is quality time together for us. It will be a quick trip, because I have to be back up at the Lake Saturday afternoon for a training session for volunteers working the Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor this summer (how to do things for free, again).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Hazy Day, and the Pecking Order

I heard on the news last night that there have been more than 800 lightning-caused fires in California since last Saturday. A lot of the them were knocked down quickly, but at least 200 aren't under control yet. Being downwind, we get the smoke - lots of smoke.

Last night, we could actually smell it. I even went out front to check things out because, as always, the smell of brush smoke makes me nervous. Today, standing on the deck looking east towards the garden, I can barely see Prison Hill less than a mile away, and nothing at all towards town to the north or over the ridge towards Carson Valley to the south. It's thick enough to make my eyes hurt, so I think I'll stay inside as much as possible today. Our weather forecast says more dry thunderstorms (lightning without rain - it evaporates before reaching the ground) Thursday and Friday - fire season is here.

This morning, Aries went to open up the chicken coop. As usual, first out were Grey and Mrs. Guinea. The hens are used to this - staying inside until the guineas grab a bite to eat and then fly out of the pen for the day. But the bigger of the Barred Rocks is used to bossing her penmates and getting to the food dish first every morning. When she tried that today, Grey let her know that was against procedure. He had her cornered against the fence and was pulling feathers off her backside before Aries stepped in. He said he was afraid Grey would kill her - that he was ready to drop-kick the guinea out of the pen if he could have caught him. Aries put the little one back into the nest box and came in to tell me about it before he left for work.

When I went down there later, the rest of the girls were on the perches, and then later had even gone outside. But the one Barred Rock (I usually wait to see personalities and physical characteristics before naming anyone) was still hiding out in the nest box. So I got her out of there and had her join the rest of the girls out in the pen. I pulled three spinach plants starting to bolt and threw them into the pen in different places. The hens staked out two, but let the new girls have the third, so it looks like everyone will be just fine (as soon as they learn that Grey is the cock of this walk). When I went out to check just now, the newcomers have one shade porch and the big girls have the other. BlackFluff and Baldy have gone broody again, so they're hunkered down in two of the nest boxes. I keep making them get up and out - without a rooster, there's no way they'll be hatching out any babies now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Chicken Update 2008

I practice a system of integrated pest control instead of using chemicals. After the garden is harvested each fall, the chickens are allowed the run of the entire yard. They have a wonderful time scratching in the dirt looking for bugs and weed seeds. But during the growing season they can be too destructive to little plants just getting started so wings are clipped (on just one side only, we stretch the wing out and clip the end 1 - 3" of the big feathers - the idea isn't to prevent them from being able to lift off, but just to make them unbalanced enough that they don't want to try) and they're confined to their chicken yard for the summer.

The new girls, the six baby chicks we bought the end of April - two Barred Rocks and four Rhode Island Reds, got moved from the dog crate inside out to the dog run once the weather warmed up and they had most of their feathers. They've grown into lovely and happy pullets there, but I'm hoping for a family of keets (baby guineas) any day now, and they're gonna need that space. So the girls, plus a meek little wayward Buff Cochin bantam rooster that's been sharing the dog run, now have to move in with the rest of the flock.

So this evening, after we closed up the coop for the night, we went out and moved the girls. The nest boxes open from the back to allow for easy egg collection without going into the coop, so we just put everybody into a couple of the boxes for the night. In the morning, that will give them a bit of protection until they're ready to venture out. Then comes the tough part. Chicken communities have a definite pecking order, and the new girls will have to learn their place is at the bottom. At least they won't have a rooster jumping on them. We took in a neighbor's dog for a couple of weeks after he couldn't keep him anymore (and have now found him another home), but while he was here and the chickens were still on the loose, he pounced on our rooster (just playing, not to kill, but he's too big to play that rough - we found the rooster dead inside the coop later on, so he must have been internally injured). The hens seem happier without a rooster around anyway, and Grey Guinea is a lot calmer not having a rival male around so I guess everything worked out for the best. It's certainly a lot quieter in the mornings.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Little Critters

Organic gardening practices and living gently upon the land allow for a wide variety of little critters about the place. Most are welcome, a few are tolerated, some are fenced out, and only occasionally is someone removed (ie. rattlesnakes). With the return of warm weather, lots of our little friends are back.

Sneaky Snake, our resident gopher snake seen here peeking around some plant pots, has come out of hibernation from his den under the shed. He's a quiet fellow, helping keep the mouse population under control (field mice, believe it or not, can be deadly - merely sweeping up their dry feces transmits Hantavirus, a fatal respiratory disease). Gopher snakes are not venomous, and kill their prey by constriction instead of poisonous bite. But as a defense mechanism, they do a really good rattlesnake imitation. They can flatten out their heads to the viper's characteristic triangular shape and mimic the "rattle" sound by hissing, all the while shaking their naked little tails.

The carpenter bees are back too - buzzing about around the wood pile. These big shiny black bees live solitary lives instead of the communal life of honeybees. Each female creates her own little egg-laying tube in fenceposts or other scrap wood we have piled about. They share pollination duties with the honeybees - also back out and about - ensuring that I will have plenty of zucchini again this year.

Speaking of honeybees, Aries had an interesting day at work yesterday. He works in Facilities Maintenance for three of the resort hotel/casinos at South Lake Tahoe (fixing and maintaining everything from toasters to the big steam boilers in the basement to running the electrical for the big summer concerts - obviously, he's very handy to have around the house too). Yesterday, he was the Supervisor, so he was the one that took the call - a huge mass of bees was in the planter box right next to the sidewalk. "Should we call the exterminators; do we spray them with poison; we're scared - bees are dangerous!" Luckily, we've had bee hives in the past, and Aries has dealt with swarming bees before. He knows they're only looking for a new home, clinging to their queen while she rests, and very rarely sting while swarming. So Aries got a cardboard box, held the branch they were clustered on while a nervous co-worker cut it, and put the whole bunch into the box. Since he'd ridden his motorcycle to work, he couldn't bring them home (darn! I wouldn't mind having a hive around here again), so he carried the box out to the woods behind the casino and let them go there. Everybody's happy, and he's a hero.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Just a Born Lunatic Here

I love watching the night sky. In the dark of the moon, I love seeing the stars, but full moon nights can be so glorious (I even check the phase of the moon when booking vacation and camping reservations). To the east of us across the valley, Prison Hill runs north and south for more than a mile. The various ridgeline bumps and saddles, as seen from my house, are good references for seeing the difference in where the full moon rises throughout the year. The full moon just past rose surprisingly waaaaaaay to the south. It wasn't over any part of Prison Hill at all - it was so far to the south southeast that it rose over a low spot on the distant Pine Nut Mountains.

Years ago, when I first noticed a full moon rising way over the northeast end of the Hill, my first thought was akin to Chicken Little's - "oh no, our earth's axis is wobbling, we're all gonna die!" How terra-centric of me. I've since learned that it's the moon's orbit that varies over time - kinda like a spot on the edge of a plastic plate, dropped face-down, would wobble and tilt about before finally landing flat. That wobbling, tilting effect, above and below the plane of our equator, is what the moon's orbit does over an 18+ year cycle.

Then too, there are the seasonal variations. The full moon is always completely opposite the sun in the heavens; the new moon closely follows the sun's path. Since it's now summer in the northern hemisphere, the path of the sun is high in the sky with respect to our horizon and along with it, the new moon. In contrast then, the full moon runs low this time of year (and how convenient that in the winter the full moon runs high, providing more light during the longest nights). It's rising even more to the south than usual right now (here in the U.S. anyway - did it rise at all in northern Europe or Canada?). Quick, go look.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Rest of the Garden is Planted - Finally!

I'm only a couple of weeks behind. Our last freeze is usually around the end of May, so I never plant most things until after the first of June anyway. But this year, what with going to Colorado and everything else happening around here, I'm a bit later than usual getting everything into the ground. But now it's done!

In this year's "early" bed, the last of the arugula has been harvested and replaced with kale plants, and parsley plants have been set in among the last of the spinach. The three varieties of peas (English, snap, and snow) are blooming, so I'll have fresh peas any day now.

In the "roots" bed, the potatoes - Yukon Gold and Russet, held over in the cellar from last year's harvest, are planted a few inches deep and then topped with a foot of straw inside a stake and wire framework. I created this method after reading about people putting cardboard boxes over their plants and then filling them with straw to make harvesting easier. I didn't have any boxes, but this way I re-use the wire year after year and the straw goes into the compost pile in the fall.

The blue bedsheet stretched over a wire frame and held down with another piece of wire is shading the carrot seeds. They dry out so easily that I never had a very good germination rate until I started covering them until they've sprouted. On around the rest of the bed are beet seeds, then cabbages, broccoli and calendula plants. One good thing about being so late is that I didn't bother putting the Wall-o-Waters around my tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants. When I set them out around Memorial Day, they need the protection because the nights are still so cold, and then I usually leave them on until the first of July. This year, I'll see if they get going ok without them. My plants are quite small compared to what people buy in the stores, but I think that lessens the transplant shock and then they catch up quickly.

We make a big compost pile every autumn, grinding up the green garden waste, leaves from our trees and the straw mulch, and from cleaning out the chicken coop. Before planting, each of my five garden beds gets an inch or so of compost dug in along with a light sprinkling of my fertilizer mix (equal amounts of bonemeal, bloodmeal, and greensand mixed together in a bucket). In the "fruiting" bed, the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers also get a big pinch of Epsom salts (magnesium) and crushed eggshells (calcium) in each of their planting holes to prevent blossom-end rot. In the "vining" bed - cukes, zukes, and squash - squash bugs have been a problem in the past, but last year I planted a big Chinese storage radish (called Watermelon radish) in between the squash plants and didn't see a single bug! I'm trying that again this year - the radishes grow to the size of baseballs over the entire summer under the squash leaves, don't go to seed, and then keep all winter long down in the cellar. Can't beat that!

Last of my five raised "S"-shaped soaker-hose beds is the "corn and beans" bed. I used to try seeding more corn every couple of weeks to extend the harvest, but that was bothersome and it seemed the earlier plantings were delayed by the cold nights so that everything ended up getting ripe all at the same time anyway. Now, I seed all my corn at the same time but plant different varieties. Some are ready in 60 days, some in 80, and some take 95-100 days. This works great - I eat fresh-picked corn for more than a month!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Home for Wayward Guineas

We currently have three guinea fowl - Grey Guinea, a male that took up residence in our chicken coop years ago after a neighbor tore down his coop and set all his chickens and guineas free when he moved away (the jerk! If we'd known he was going to do that, we would have taken them all in. As it was, the coyotes had a field day. Grey was the only one smart enough to move up into the trees, and then when the weather turned cold, he was smart enough to figure out that inside our coop would be nicer. He's been here ever since); Mrs. Guinea, Grey's mate and one of a brother/sister pair given to us half-grown (her brother, The Bachelor, disappeared two years ago - moved on or more likely, coyote chow); and Tweedit, a single chick Mrs. brought home in late September three years ago. We hand-raised Tweedit inside the house that winter, and she'll still eat out of my hand.

Guineas are semi-feral. They easily fly out of the pen and roam about. About a week and a half ago, Tweedit didn't come back to the coop at night. That meant either we'd lost her, or she'd hidden a nest and now was going to set on it. Happily, I've seen her every now and then, grabbing a bite to eat and a quick drink of water and then she'll disappear again. A couple of days ago, I was able to follow her, and found her nest out in front, next to the shed between the house and the garage. Outside the fence is a dangerous place to be nesting, but at least she picked a pretty good place, down underneath some very prickly Oregon Grape.

And then today, while I was out working in the garden, I saw her getting some food. Since now I know where the nest is I ran to see how many she's setting on. I counted about 25 eggs. Usually, not all of them will hatch. Last year, both she and Mrs. brought in a dozen keets each (we put a notice on Craigslist and gave all of them away within six hours). My Old Farmers Almanac says a 26 - 28 day incubation period for guinea fowl, so I'm thinking we should have some babies around here about the 25th. When she brings them to me, the new chickens will have to move from the dog run to the chicken coop, so Tweedit and family can move in.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Watch Your Step!

I've been busy - working on the garden, my volunteer activities, and taking part in my first political forum last night. I'll write about those things here eventually, I'm sure, but wanted to post these pictures a friend sent me a couple of days ago.

The first one just looks like one of our typical dry, high-desert chaparral hillsides, doesn't it? Nothing really very remarkable, is there? Or is there? Take a closer look, right there in the middle of the picture (for a closer look, you can click on any of the photos, or just keep reading).

These photos were taken a couple of weeks ago, a few miles north and east of here. When you get a bit closer, you can see that's not just a differently-colored pile of dirt down in that hole (I don't know that I would even get close enough to have taken these photos - gives me the willies just looking at them). It's alive! And moving!

It's an entire den of Great Basin rattlesnakes, just waking up from their winter's hibernation, out for a bit of sun. Now I don't really mind having a snake around. I don't care for the "startle" factor when I first see one, but for the most part they can really be quite helpful keeping the rodent population down. We've had a little gopher snake out under our shed for the past couple of years, and he's actually quite cute when he does his rattlesnake imitation - he'll curl up and shake his naked little tail and hiss.

But real rattlesnakes are a different story. If we get one around the place, we'll try relocating it - Aries will gently pick it up with a long stick and carry it down the road to the open hillsides. But some like the easier pickin's around the chicken coop (the mice really like the scratch corn we give the chickens as a treat) and come back. In that case we'll kill them, but have only done that twice in the 20 years we've been here. But this is still the wild west out here in some ways, so you always have to be aware of where you're putting your feet when out hiking in these hills - especially around open rock formations in the summer and into the fall. And once you hear that distinctive rattle, you'll never forget it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sheep in the City

We had something a bit out of the ordinary happen this morning. We woke early, and when Aries went out to bring in the newspaper he noticed a big cloud of dust rising up out of the canyon above the house. Since there was no wind, no sound of off-road vehicles or dirt motorcycles, and it was a beautiful blue-sky morning, that seemed a bit odd. In just a couple more minutes, a flock of sheep rounded the corner where our road turns to go up the canyon. As they came south down the road towards our house, Aries came in to tell me. We went out behind the garage to watch the show. When the flock reached the corner north of our lot, they stopped and were turned to head east.

The sheep didn't want to go east, so for a while there was quite a bit of milling about - no sheep wanted to be the one in front (literally - they all wanted to follow like sheep). With maybe a dozen people and at least three dogs circling around, eventually the flock turned the corner and started down the hill along our north fence line. Since it was early on a Sunday morning, there wasn't much traffic on the highway below as the flock crossed at the stoplight and continued across the valley. How nice that they even had a street sweeper there to follow behind once the flock hit the paved streets below. I'm not sure if they were just being moved to a summer pasture closer to the river, or if they're intended somewhere for fire-fuel suppression duty. Around here, grazing sheep are a very cost-effective and low-impact way to thin the brush and eliminate the highly flammable cheatgrass in the open spaces around our town. Nice to know they'd been "working" in the canyon above us.