Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Teenage Mutant Ninja Chickens

As chicks begin to grow their adult feathers (rather than the down they hatch with - which are feathers with no shaft), they enter the hilariously awkward puberty stage of chickenhood. And it makes for great photoshoots.

Anyone who has raised chickens from chicks is familiar with this phenomenon, and almost everyone takes advantage of it by capturing the awkwardness on camera.

What makes for such absurdity is the way that feathers grow in. They grown in encased in a sheath of keratin, the protein that makes up our fingernails and hair - and also makes up their beaks! As the keratin flakes off, the feather unwinds itself from around its own shaft. But the process takes a bit, so in the meantime the chicks just look like weird lizard creatures. See for yourself:

Oh yeah, we upgraded them to a bigger box - this one's cardboard - because they outgrew the other one. Featured: wood shavings (now that they know not to eat them), a roosting bar (practice for adulthood), watermelon rind treats, and chick grit - helps them break up food in their crop a.k.a tummy #1.

Some sad news: One of the chicks was not quite as active and alert as the others, and about a week after arriving, she started going downhill quickly. She wouldn't eat or drink, so I fed her baby bird formula with a syringe. She gained weight but never functioned on her own. We think she was blind, which was why she wasn't acting like the others. When she stopped holding her own tiny head up, I knew it was time to find a way to put her down humanely. Doing that with chicks is hard, because they are so tiny and so helpless, so I took to the internet to find some info. While I was setting up to do the "vinegar and baking soda method," she passed on her own in the company of her siblings. I was sad she suffered up until the end, but glad to see it end regardless. Some chicks just never thrive, and we don't get to know why if we're not vets. It's sad and hard, but it's part of farming - and definitely part of urban farming.

Sweet, sweet Lady - you will be missed.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Little Additions!


We were on baby-watch all week and the box finally arrived -- while I was at work, of course -- and Brandon officially became a chicken dad. He did great, only panicked a little, but was able to follow my instructions that I sent through text while I was at work.

I raced home as soon as I could and was lucky to come home to my favorite sound in the entire world: peepers! Six active, peeping, cheeping, little tiny chickens. And since blue coloring is a recessive trait that only shows up in about 50% of chicks, we got a mixed bag: 2 black, 2 true blue, and 2 splash (a mix of gray and white).

We couldn't be happier -- just look at our glowing smiling faces! (The glow is from the heat lamp.)

And now... enjoy some hilarious chick pics!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017



That's right... Brandon and I are expecting 6 baby chicks to arrive (by mail!) on June 2nd, 2017.  
We ordered them through because I wanted to select a specific and rare heat-hardy breed: Blue Andalusians. They are a Spanish breed and known for being particularly heat hardy, which has been backed up by anecdotal evidence from my chicken friends on Facebook who say Andalusians can withstand 119*F summers in Arizona no problem -- that's the kind of bird I'm looking for! 


So we went a little wild with our "maternity" photoshoot. Brandon's brother's girlfriend is an excellent photographer and volunteered to help us execute this Facebook goof.  

While we were waiting for our package to arrive, we prepared for chicks by setting up a brooder box. A brooder box simulates the environment that a mama hen provides for her little ones after they hatch. It's essentially a box with a heat lamp over it, plenty of food and water for chicks, and protection from the elements.

I've been using this specific wooden box ever since my very first batch of chicks. My dad and I call it the "Caloca box" (or sometimes, the "cloaca box" because jokes). Caloca was apparently the last name of the family who lived in our house before my parents moved in. When my parents remodeled our kitchen, they kept this wooden box that was previously a big drawer for pots and pans. It has "Caloca" written on the side in blue sharpie, hence the name. The box is just the perfect size for a brooder box, and it's held up for 10+ years! It's a good box.

Here's my Brooder Box Prep Process:

  1. Sanitize the box. It's important to actually use bleach in this process to get rid of any germs from the last batch of chicks or that the wood may have collected while the box was in storage (y'know, sitting in your garden shed for the last year or so). I dilute bleach in a bucket of water, scrub the box, rinse it with the hose, and let it air dry for at least a day.
  2. Find a good spot. Most people start their chicks indoors, so it's easier to control the temperature. Garages are usually best for this, but we don't have one of those - so I used the living room (thanks housemates!). It will smell like baby chicks, most definitely. The smell is different than chicken poop, and isn't decidedly bad but it is noticeable. 
  3. Line the box. Lay down newspaper first. I save all the junk mail we get that is printed on non-glossy newspaper. (Most newspapers now use soy based inks so it's all totally biodegradable!) Once you've got a couple layers of newspaper down covering the entire floor of the box, cover that with paper towels. WHY? Even on the non-glossy stuff, little baby chicks can have a hard time getting a grip on newsprint, making it harder for them to stand and walk around. This IS the place where they're essentially taking their first steps, so we want to help them get it right.
  4. Add the essentials: heat, water, food. Either hang a heat lamp from the ceiling above the box or clip the lamp to the side. Red bulbs are best because they don't disrupt the chick's sense of night and day. You want the temp inside the box to be about 95*F to start.
    Food and water containers for chicks can be found online or at most feed stores. It's important to use stuff that's low to the ground/floor, like the chicks! I don't add supplements to the water typically, but I do use medicated starter. The organic/non-medicated stuff is more expensive, plus I've just always trusted it. 
That's it! Just add chicks.

Stay tuned for updates when they arrive!!!

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!