Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Across One April


(Shoutout to anyone who knows the book I parodied in the title of this post. Wasn't everyone forced to read it in 8th grade US history?) 

A bunch of things happened this month, including a straw bale adventure:

Hay is for horses, straw is for gardening.

After I found an actual tack store in our area (!!!) - Trikee Tack in Glendale - I finally had a place to get bales of straw. The reason we needed the bales is to try out this thing I've read a lot about called straw bale gardening. Basically you get bales of straw, set them up on their side (just like they're sitting in the trunk of my car in the pics below), water and fertilize them until they start to rot on the inside, the plant crops in them! It's supposedly the cheapest way to "build" a raised bed and start creating healthy soil.

We also brought our foster puppy, Cairo, along for this adventure. He was not allowed inside the store and I don't think he was too happy about the straw. 

Turns out you can fit FOUR whole bales of straw in a Subaru Forester. Who knew!?

Coop Progress

Remember when we found that archeological treasure of a cement post hole in the ground? Well guess what (chicken butt): it has a twin! And that twin just so happened to be in exactly the WRONG place this time.

Even though we had already attached the nest box (and entire frame that supports it) on the left side of the coop, we decided to switch gears - quite literally - and reverse the sides of the coop, moving the run to the left side instead of the right. This meant that the wall with the nest box on it had to be on the right side of the coop.

Then I had to leave for work - but Rick & Judy were able to come over again and help out TREMENDOUSLY with this part. The walls of the run were still assembled (or never disassembled, rather), but the real devil was getting the bottom put together just right.

This part is tricky because we're burying wood in the ground, so in order to protect it a little more we add a layer of sand around it. This helps the water drain, keeping it away from the wood and hopefully extending its life. This wood is also pressure treated so it's the best lumber for the job, but it still won't last forever (life is fleeting, and so is lumber).

THEN, we have to lay down hardware cloth (aka rabbit wire) over the sand to create a fully enclosed system that won't let any raccoons or possums or coyotes dig under to get to the tasty chickens inside.

It took Brandon nearly a dozen trips to and from the hardware store to get all the sand to our place. Turns out you can't just pack in as many 70-lb bags of sand as you want because you'll go over the car's weight limit for hauling. HOW FUN!
Lucky for Brandon, I can still fit fully inside the coop, making it a little easier to re-arrange this lifesize jigsaw puzzle.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the left and right sides of the coop, for better context. The left side is where the run will be attached and the right side is where the nest box will be attached.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the house (the front), Judy and I gave the front yard some landscaping help. While we worked separately across several days, we eventually pulled all the weeds and re-mulched areas that were prone to weeds. It takes a surprisingly deep layer of mulch or bark to completely smother the weed.

The basic idea behind mulching (which I did not know!) is to completely block the sunlight from areas around the plants that you actually want to grow. Additionally, if you use dead leaves and rose petals and other organic matter as the mulch, it feeds the soil (and plants) as it decomposes!

I've enlarged this picture so you can see just how many weeds we pulled up. That greenish trash bin in the back? That's our "green bin" ENTIRELY full of just weeds.

TL;DR - mulching is really important and weeds are literally the worst. Mulch, mulch, then mulch some more!

I think that's it for April, stay tuned for more developments in May!!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

We Love Books!

Turns out one of the industries that millennials (that's us!) AREN'T "killing" is LIBRARIES! And we're living proof of that. Shortly after I moved down here, Brandon and I got library cards for the Pasadena Public Library System. Once I discovered that there was an urban farming section of books, I was unstoppable. Here are some of my favorites that I checked out:

And here's why I like these books:

  • Homegrown by Heather Hardison - a truly beautifully illustrated book on all sorts of things, from growing vegetables to seed saving to making jams and preserves. I really just loved all the illustrated guides.
  • Preserving by the Pint by Melissa McClellan - this book and its author are pretty much single handedly responsible for getting me into canning and making preserves in general. It's the perfect guide for an incompetent novice (like myself) who is wondering what to do with an abundance of fruit.
  • The Backyard Homestead - this book was really cool. It had several sections dedicated to what you can grow and raise on varying fractions of an acre. Helpful for understanding how much you can do on such a seemingly small plot.
  • How to Grow Food - one of my ALL TIME FAVES! It's such a perfect and simple guide to growing food, like it says. The book is divided up by fruits, vegetables, and herbs and explains the basics to growing each crop. For novice gardeners who are easily overwhelmed by too much information, this was an excellent starting place. 
  • Your Farm in the City - a wonderful resource for navigating urban homesteading/farming. Trying to do a country thing in a non-country place provides a unique set of obstacles, and this book recognizes that! How cool!
  • 40 Projects for Building Your Backyard Homestead - SUPER HANDY guide to building all sorts of things! Step-by-step instructions that are usually very budget friendly. This book was actually the inspiration for our straw bale gardening project (more on that later). 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

We've Got Worms

LONG TIME NO SEE, FRIENDS! Life has been busy lately, lots of updates to share!

I promised I would tell you all more about our composting projects, and I try to be a woman of my word so here we go. I attended a gardening workshop put on by LA county so that I could learn more about composting and water-wise gardening, AND purchase a worm bin and yard bin for cheap!

What is a worm bin?
This might be my favorite backyard addition yet. It's literally a bin of worms - specifically, red wigglers, which are an African species that are particularly good for composting food waste because they eat their weight in food every day. The other stuff in the bin is coconut coir (the brown hairy stuff on the outside of a coconut), which provides a neutral organic material that can hold water and make a nice comfy home for them. 

So what do you do with the worms? Just look at 'em and stuff??
Yes! I love my worms and I check on them frequently. But I also have to feed them about 1/2 pound of food scraps per week. They eat the food scraps, poop it out, and the poop is literally "black gold." Sometimes referred to as "castings," worm poop is an incredibly potent fertilizer and plant food.

You can feed them ANYTHING?
Not exactly. These worms are delicate creatures with very sensitive skin and tummies. They don't like an overabundance of eggshells - which help balance the pH (acidity) in the bin, but also make for very sharp edges that can cut the worms. They also don't like super acidic foods like citrus and tomatoes. We just put all of those scraps in the big compost bin. I've also been told we should be careful with the amount of coffee grounds we add to the bin, so I limit that as well.

There's also a delicate balance that must be kept in order to keep the worms and the whole mini-ecosystem healthy. Whenever I add "green materials" - stuff that has moisture in it, like food scraps, I need to also add some "brown materials" to balance it out. In the photo below, I'm using torn up egg cartons as additional brown material. It's important that the bin doesn't get too wet because the worms breathe through their skin, and they are terrible swimmers. 

Anything that I can't feed the worms (which is the bulk of our food waste, since the worms can only eat so much) goes in our big compost bin, which is the "Soil Saver" shown below. It's basically a big plastic box with no bottom that I dump food and yard waste into. It lives outside in a relatively shady area. It has plenty of vent holes for air and microbes to get in and help the decomposition process along. Eventually the stuff that I pull out of the bottom will be super-rich, healthy, black soil. We'll see how that goes!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Problems Detected & Coop Erected

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to Rick & Judy for coming out to our ranch-in-progress and getting this coop standing.  There is no way Brandon and I would have been able to cut the lumber and make the footings level without your help! 

Additional disclaimer: I've been sick with bronchitis for the past week so really all of this work was done by Brandon, Rick, and Judy. We definitely owe Rick and Judy fresh eggs and veggies for the rest of our lives.

Supply Run

Now that we've made it out of the rainiest part of the winter, B and I decided it was time to start getting this coop back together. Last weekend, we both had a day off so we used that day to take a trip to Home Depot - the land of infinite building materials and surprisingly sparse staffing. We eventually found (read: hunted down) a person to help us, found everything we needed, and headed home to start digging a hole in the ground for the coop legs to be set in:
  • Four pressure-treated (PT) 4x4s (4 ft long)
  • Six cinder blocks 
  • Anchoring cement
Not far into digging the 4' x 6' footprint, we discovered this treasure.

After a few attempts to dig it out or smash it to bits (neither of which were successful), I had the idea: if we can't move it or work around it, let's work WITH it!

This cement patch happened to (fortunately) have a hole perfectly fit for a 4x4. The location of the patch wasn't exactly where we had initially planned for the corners to be, but adjusting our plan by a couple feet was not a big issue. It worked out surprisingly well for such an odd find.

Coop Footings 

The footings are very important because the posts have to do two VERY IMPORTANT things:
  1. Support the weight of the coop (approx. 600 lbs)
  2. Not rot or decay over time
Number 2 is hard to avoid when putting wood in the ground, but we're hoping to slow the rotting process by using pressure treated lumber AND by securing the posts in cement to minimize direct exposure to the soil. Each post (except out special guy, the right-most corner in this pic) is stacked 2 cinder blocks high, with our predator-proof hardware cloth sandwiched between the two blocks.

'Coon Proofing

Raccoons are a natural born enemy to any chicken raiser. They kill for pleasure, they can get into almost anything, and they will take out a whole flock. Don't be fooled by their cute tails and masks, these fellas are RUTHLESS. 

From what I know from experience plus hours of forum searching on, the best way to predator-proof your coop is to have a continuous layer of hardware cloth (a.k.a rabbit wire) buried under the coop and run that connects to the bottom frame. This way, nothing can dig tunnels under the coop to get to your precious lady birds.

 In our case, the pieces of hardware cloth were not wide enough to cover the entire bottom, so we are connecting two panels with zip ties. Zip ties are great because they won't degrade in the soil, and they're cheap so it's easy to add a LOT of them to secure the wire bottom.

From the Ground Up

Now that the legs were in the ground and the cement had dried, it was time to get the coop onto it! Earlier in the week, B and I figured out how to remove the "walls" and roof in one piece off of the coop floor, after we figured out how to remove the antique windows. Not bad for a sick day!

Holy hell, those windows were at least 50 lbs each and the walls+roof cut the remaining weight down by two thirds, at least. Left with just the bottom stage, they had something they could actually lift and secure to the posts.

Continuing the bottom-up construction, Rick, Brandon and Judy lifted the walls and roof onto the bottom and screwed it all back together with the salvaged deck screws.

And with that, the coop was officially erected! Have I used that word enough? I mean in the not-dirty sense... it's just the best term for this particular step, OKAY!?

On the day of the coop erection (Saturday, Feb 4th), I was out all day working and learning to compost (more on that later). Brandon was texting me pictures throughout the day and I was nearly in tears of joy when I came home to find THIS BEAUTY:

The coop is gorgeous, sturdy, and finally starting to look more like a structure than a pile of lumber. The next step in this process will be to dig out the footprint for the run, to the right of the coop. The run is a 4' x 8' rectangle, but the walls are mostly still intact. I definitely see more digging, PT lumber, and trips to Home Depot in our future.

Keep your eyes peeled for updates on our composting situation! And feel free to send us your thoughts by commenting below!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Marmalade Masquerade

The wet winter has yielded a second bounty of sweet little tangerines (or clementines, I'm not sure of the difference). In addition, I have joined the Food in Jars Mastery Challenge for 2017, led by Marissa McClellan, author of Food in Jars.

For this batch of marmalade, I used our backyard-grown clementines and some Meyer lemons that I had leftover from a baking project. Meyer lemons might be my favorite citrus fruit ever, so I'm really glad that I got to incorporate them into this delicious citrus jam.

I loosely followed the instructions (but not the ingredients) for this three-citrus marmalade. Mostly because it has lots of pretty pictures and is very easy to follow!

I don't care much for the bitterness of true marmalade, so this time I decided to go a different route: citrus jam. Instead of boiling the fruit whole (like with traditional marmalade, I peeled each tangerine by hand, then squished out the fruity guts from each segment to get rid of the pithy membrane while preserving some of the fruit's natural texture.

I then chopped up the peels, and along with the membranes and seeds, made a cheese cloth bundle of the bitter-tasting but pectin-rich parts of the fruits. I boiled this bundle in with the jam until it reached 220* F and it set perfectly!

Important things I did differently this time that made everything easier:

  • I actually used a candy thermometer to measure the exact temperature of the jam. It takes longer to get to 220* than you might think!
  • I made the jam in a dutch oven, rather than my stainless steel stockpot. The dutch oven is much larger, retains a lot more heat, and the ceramic coating makes cleanup a breeze.
  • I got myself a pair of jar tongs, which make a huge difference when trying to lift hot glass jars out of the canner!
I've learned a LOT about preserving foods in the past month-ish, and most of it is due to Marissa McClellan's wonderful books and super helpful and organized website. This delicious batch goes out to you, Marissa. Thanks for making me feel useful in the kitchen.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Apples and Oranges (and Grapes)

Happy new year, everyone! Brandon and I started the year with entire day of working in the yard while the sky threatened rain all day. Brandon's parents got us (among many other treasures) a ladder for Christmas, and it might just be my favorite present yet.

Our apple tree had been neglected for years and was very overgrown, crowded, baring only small and flavorless fruits. When I started trying to rejuvenate it I quickly ran into a hurdle. Some vine-like thing had been growing up the fence behind the tree and, seeking more sunlight, grew onto the top of the apple tree and the neighboring mystery tree. Before the ladder, there was no way I could get all of these vines off the tree.

So we got out the ladder and I started climbing and yanking these vines out. Damn, it felt so satisfying to get these dead crawlers off our precious apple tree. How dare they steal its sunlight!

Upon closer examination, these vine-y sunlight stealers appeared to be grape vines. The previous owners must have planted them thinking the vines would grow along the back fence, but when the tree grew bushier and shaded the grapes, they sought sunlight (or revenge) and climbed up the tree! Lesson for everyone: don't plant grapes where they don't get sun!!!

Once the vines were off we started pruning the tree. The general goal is to get the tree to resemble a goblet shape. Brandon sawed off low-hanging and downward-growing branches to encourage more upward growth. I clipped any suckers and small branches that seemed crowded. From what I've been reading, it's very important that each branch on the tree gets ample sunlight and air circulation. Branches that cross over each other or point straight down or straight up are generally undesirable.

I know, I broke the golden rule by taking a vertical video. Sorry!

After hours of sawing and clipping, we ended up with a much happier looking apple tree, bundles of apple wood for our future fire pit, and a full bin of yard waste. Once we fill the bin, we generally call it a day.

AND as a happy surprise, the clementine bush was still fruiting after my first harvest! So I collected more fruit and I am now preparing to make another batch of clementine marmalade. Hopefully this time the jam will actually set and firm up. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Storm Coopers

First off, Merry Christmas to you and yours! Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Happy all the rest of the Holidays too! I hope anyone who is reading this is happy and well.

That's me, cold and damp and barely caffeinated picking
up a UHaul. Notice the extra curls in my hair due to the
humidity. Thanks rain!

Now for the adventure recap: 

WE DID IT, Y'ALL! We rented the truck, got up at the crack of dawn, grabbed our tools and rain coats and headed out to dismantle this coop! And of course, it rained for nearly the ENTIRE TWO DAYS it took us to complete this thing. This is especially odd because it almost never rains down here and we just so happened to pick THIS weekend to do some intense, outdoor, manual labor.


This is how the coop looked when we arrived. Notice the stormy weather, muddy jeans, and soaked raincoats. The cool thing about this was that the coop (proper) -- that's the white enclosed box shelter, raised off the ground -- stayed completely dry inside! And since I'm about half the size of Brandon, I did all the climbing around inside it to pull out deck screws and such.

The first thing we tackled was the nesting box, which is where hens will go to lay their eggs. This coop is laid out such that the nesting box has its own lid that can be lifted up to collect eggs without having to crawl into the coop itself.
It was probably a poor first choice, considering this was one of the most technically complex parts of this giant 3-D puzzle.

But, we did it! And it only took us about an hour and a half to get it off (just the nesting box, that is).

< A view from inside the coop. Brandon is standing outside the coop, behind the nesting box as I free the 2x4s that are screwed to the frame of the coop wall. 

Once the nesting box was off, the coop looked more like a giant cube. Not a true cube, at 4' x 6' x 4' - but it still weighed about 600 lbs. So we decided to move on to dismantling the run. A chicken run is an enclosed pen that allows chickens access to the soil and usually has walls made of either chicken wire or 1/2" hardware cloth. In our case, the walls (and bottom, which is an EXCELLENT anti-predator mechanism) are all lined with heavy duty hardware cloth.

Notice also that the floor of the coop has black rubber mats. This is an awesome idea, and it protects the plywood floor from chicken poop stains and makes the whole thing much easier to clean. The woman who designed this coop really knew what she wanted and knew exactly how to make it happen!

Once the run was down (for which I have to credit Brandon entirely because I had to leave to go to work for 2 hours in the middle of the day), we had only one problem left: the massive, heavy coop itself. The run was easy to take apart since it was entirely frames made of 2x4s and covered in hardware cloth; not too heavy, just big and unwieldy.

The coop was lifted off the ground on wooden support beams, but once the Simpson ties and deck screws were out, it became very clear that the actual wood holding up this coop was pretty weak and rotted out. By this point it was completely dark, still sprinkling a little, and we knew that we couldn't lift this thing off its legs with just 3 of us (me, Brandon, and Brandi - the woman who built the coop). So we tried to reduce the weight by removing the plywood and chipboard walls. But it was still way too heavy, and we couldn't take off the roof without climbing on top of the very structure that we just made incredibly unstable by taking off the supports' Simpson ties and such.

So we went a different route: let gravity do its thing and allow entropy to increase. We got behind the coop and LITERALLY PUSHED IT OVER ONTO THE GRASS - without even a wiggle in the frame structure! This thing is SOLID. The antique windows didn't even crack from the fall.

Once it was on the ground, we could easily scoot it onto the 2 furniture dollies we rented from UHaul and wheel it out of the yard. We had to take apart a small garden structure in order to fit the damn thing through the entrance to the yard but at that point, taking 5 or 10 deck screws out of some 2x4s was no biggie. At this point we had also recruited the help of Brandi's husband, Christian. With 4 of us, we were able to lift the whole coop -- still mostly assembled -- into the truck with no more than 1/2 inch of clearance all around. 😅 After all that, we decided to call it a night.

Day 2

After a shower, a meal, and a good night's sleep we were ready to take everything out of the truck. Luckily, we had some amazing volunteers: Judy (Brandon's mom), and Jany!

Together we scooted the coop out of the truck, placed logs and and rocks under it to hold it above the dirt during the storm, and then took the rest of the day off, preparing for TWO Christmas parties. It's been a hectic last few days, to say the least!

But the good news is, we now have a beautiful coop and lots of high-quality lumber to rebuild what we took apart. AND! We learned SO MUCH about construction, coop design, and our own limits and capabilities.

Merry Christmas, y'all, and thanks for keeping up with us. B and I are headed to Tahoe with his family for the next week, but we'll be back with more shenanigans after the new year. See you in 2017!

Look at this beautiful blue sky after the rain!