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!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Craigslist Chicken Coop

Yesterday evening, after I finished looking up the cost of all the materials it would take to build our chicken coop from the ground up, I did some craigslist searching for free and cheap stuff for our homestead. This has been a regular nightly activity for me lately, and HOLY COW am I glad I stumbled upon this post when it was only hours old!

This incredibly talented woman built her custom dream coop out of high quality materials and decorated it to match her beautiful Spanish style house -- including faux terra cotta roofing tiles and ACTUAL ANTIQUE WINDOWS!

As a chicken lady myself, I was head-over-heals in love with this coop. Every chicken raiser gets to a point at which they give up on all the pre-made coops and figure, I can make exactly what I want, how I want it, for much cheaper - and do it better. This is where I was at, but there was no way I was going to pass up this deal.

The deal: she was selling this coop (which cost over $1000 and a month of labor to build) for $40! Forty, as in, four-zero. The catch: the coop had to be taken apart and moved out of her backyard by December 23rd.

I closed this deal as soon as I could get Brandon to agree to it and rent a 10 ft U-Haul for tomorrow. We visited the woman's house this afternoon to take a look at it all in person. It's definitely going to be a LOT of work to take it apart and transport it back to our yard, but the good news is:

1) It's entirely held together with deck screws, rather than nails;

2) We'll have three (if not four) people to help lift the pieces into the truck; and

3) It's all within Pasadena, so we won't put too many miles on the truck (which saves us $$$).

At 7:00am tomorrow, Brandon and I will be picking up our truck and beginning this delicate demolition adventure. I'll take lots of pictures, and update once we recover from all of this. Then all we'll have to do is replace the boards that have rotted and re-assemble it in our yard! 😅

That's all for now, folks. Stay tuned! 😜

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Garden Additions & Decisions

Look at this adorable man and his cheesy smile!
This week we have been enjoying one of the rarest of rarities in sunny Southern California: rain! My NorCal roots have been showing as I've been, quite literally, dancing in the rain. It drives the nerve damage in my elbow crazy, but it is so desperately needed by our plants (and the whole state).

One of the best things about the rain is that it makes yard work so much easier by softening the soil and cooling off some otherwise intolerably hot days. (Ok, it's not really that bad. It was just so insanely hot during the summer...which lasted until mid-October. That's too long for a season, if you ask me.)

As B and I have been getting our hands (and feet and legs and clothes) dirty weeding this dirt patch that was once a rose garden, Brandon's parents (Rick & Judy) were out collecting succulents and drought-tolerant plants at estate sales for us. We're incredibly lucky to have good people like them helping us out, and we're so SO grateful for their love, guidance, support, and gifts! 😊

When we moved in to the Earl House, we decided that this oddly-shaped patch would be ideal for a vegetable garden: it's small (to keep us from going overboard) and close to the house.

But, after diving into some gardening and backyard homesteading books, we learned that raised beds really are the way to go. It only took us a few (read: MANY) weekends of work on that dirt patch and a trip to the library to figure that out. Oh well, we're learning! 😅

The good news: Now that it's weeded and the soil has been loosened, this patch will make a great little outdoor hangout area featuring a fire pit, some nice outdoor chairs, and a rosemary bush to keep the bugs away (and because it smells good).

Please enjoy this photo of Brandon "falling," as promised on Facebook.
And, regarding the plants from Rick & Judy, we're planning to find them suitable homes in the front yard and side hard. These desert plants are going to do much better in this climate than the current grasses and water-intensive plants we have.

TL;DR - we're young, dumb, and learning. We dug up a dirt patch for nothing. Next on the to-do list is to find some free bricks or pavers and get this project rolling.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lady Marmalade

Disclaimer: this experience was much less sexy than the performance of the song Lady Marmalade from Moulin Rouge.

The jam you've all been waiting for: Clementine Marmalade!
After getting multiple requests from friends and family for photos of my sticky mishaps in the kitchen attempting to make then can this experimental citrus goop, I uploaded all the pictures (and the its corresponding story) for your viewing and reading pleasure:

Turns out that silicone-tipped tongs make great jar tongs!
No need for specialized equipment if you can't afford it.
Prepping the Jars

First, I sterilized the jars in a the biggest pot we have (a whopping 8" diameter stock pot) by boiling them in water mixed with a generous glug of vinegar. Very scientific, I know. I'd approximate a "generous glug" to be equal to about 20 mL.

After boiling for 10ish minutes, I removed them from the pot and let them dry on a kitchen towel covering my wooden cutting board. Shielding them from our cool tile countertop prevents shocking the jars.

Step 1: Boiling the Fruit and Its Goo
After boiling the fruit whole for 2ish hours and letting them cool overnight, I gently scooped out the innards and pushed them through a strainer. The rinds were left rather soft and delicate, so I carefully chopped them into tiny pieces and added a few handfuls to the pot. A true marmalade is made using the rinds of the fruit, and I wanted to be true to the name. Then, I added about half the amount of sugar that the recipe called for -- because, like all beginning canners (apparently), I looked at "7 cups of sugar" and thought "NO WAY! That'll be sickeningly sweet!"

Hindsight is 20/20. It turns out sugar is very important to the marmalade's "setting" process and its texture when cooled. More on that later.
Step 2: Filling the Jars

Using a ladle, I filled the hot, boiled jars with the orangey goop. I also made sure I got an equal amount of rind pieces in each jar. Doesn't the rind just look beautiful floating in that vibrant tangerine jelly?!?

I wiped the rims with a damp towel, applied the clean lids, and tightened the rings just until I felt some resistance. In the canning community, they call this "finger tip tight." It leaves enough room for oxygen to escape in the processing step but not enough room for water to get in. Thanks chemistry and physics!

Step 3: Processing

This is where the magic happens. I placed the filled, closed jars back into the big pot (filled with water and vinegar) on a rack of jar rings. I'm planning to get a silicone trivet to use in the future, but this worked just fine for my test run. Once the water was boiling, I let them process (sit in the boiling water) for 15 minutes exactly.

After the time was up, I turned off the burner and moved my jars back onto the towel/cutting board with those red silicone tongs. Then, the jars did the most exciting thing that jars are probably capable of: they made that beautiful "ping" as the lids sealed! I never thought I would be so happy to witness such a small victory, but there I was, dancing in the kitchen, yelling upstairs to Brandon "the jars sealed!! I did it!!"

Then the hardest part: I had to let them sit there and cool for 24 hours to find out if I did everything right.

I waited over 48 hours (just to be sure), and found that the marmalade was just a little too runny for me to be comfortable calling it a marmalade. So I bought some pectin, emptied the jars back into a saucepan, and got it boiling again.

Pomona's Universal Pectin next to a jar of 
calcium-water, made using the calcium 
supplement that came with the pectin.
I added the rest of the sugar that the recipe called for and prepped the pectin to be added. Another one of those moments where hindsight is 20/20 - this pectin was unlike most powdered fruit pectins and in that it is calcium-activated, rather than sugar-activated. In order to use it properly, I should have mixed the pectin in with the sweetener and added the calcium-water mixture to the fruit goop. What I should NOT have done (and actually did) was mix the calcium water with the pectin powder separately, then try to dissolve the activated pectin into the mix. This did not go well, and ended with me straining jelly junks out of the mixture and re-canning it with essentially the same result. 😫

So here's my first batch of "marmalade," which is really more of a rustic syrup or yogurt additive. It may not have turned out perfectly, but at least I learned a lot and still ended up with an yummy, edible product. Here's to next time coming out a little better than the last! 🍻

The final product posed in front of one of my favorite books from the library (and our tiny, fake Christmas tree).