Category Archives: Meanwhile back at the ranch…

Inside my head, our five acres on the Columbia River is a place of of fruitfulness, peace and beauty. A garden brimming with vegetables, chickens contentedly scratching after bugs, the warm hum of a beehive, the contented munching of cattle and other beasts – and all of it without the use of any toxic chemicals. And some of this we have – but the reality also includes weeds, sweat and tears.

An unexpected guest

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There are a few pieces of railroad tie, rocks, a straw bale, and a couple other random odds and ends out in the chicken run, and sometimes when I go out there I roll one over. The chickens are immediately alert, waiting, their eyes on me. If I call “Kip kip keee-ipp!” they come running, because they know I’ve uncovered a juicy hoard of bugs.

This evening I rolled over a rock and, sure enough, bugs. So while they were pecking and scratching there, I rolled over a piece of railroad tie and – YIKES!! – I found this!

Gopher snake

Gopher snake

I dropped a small pebble on him to see if he would rattle, but he didn’t, so I just enjoyed him for a bit before the chickens came to see what I’d found. (Yeah, I like snakes – I told you that before!) While I was chasing them off, he disappeared under the straw bale. I don’t think we have gophers in the chicken run, but we definitely have mice. I’m hoping he’s willing to be flexible!

Hey, Steph – isn’t he cool?!?

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Springing into action … again

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It’s a little over a year since I published my first post … wasn’t WordPress supposed to send me some sort of YeeHaw about that? Whatever – the point is, I’m kinda back where I started: in the veggie garden. I gave up on it in July when the weeds swallowed my wheelbarrow, but that was a tactical retreat, not an admission of defeat.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it's quite obvious that he's having a blast.

His complaints are clearly nonsensical, since it’s obvious that he’s having a blast. Here, he’s making a big spread-out pile of horse manure, dirt and stable waste into a compact, tall pile, while seated on two very big round things. Every man’s dream, right?

This spring Himself and I have gone in with a unified front and guns blazing. We have experienced some friendly fire (mainly when Himself accuses me of constantly dreaming up projects that are, and I quote, “too damn big”, and then, and I quote further, of “expecting him to do all the damn work”), but no one is actually dead. Yet.

I had to concede some key arguments in order to get him on board … but to be honest, while my ideals are good, they were more than I could accomplish given how unfit I am. I really wanted this garden to be established using a permaculture and no-till approach from the outset, but it simply wasn’t practical. The area we’ve set aside for fruit and veggies (with a corner lopped out of it for the chickens) is pretty big – around 100×80 ft – and it was hillocky and rutted and impossible, especially since I’m hobbling about on a fractured ankle. So I lifted the tractor ban, and the ground is now depressingly compacted, but flat and smooth. As we fill it up with raised beds and plants it will become inaccessible to the tractor, and I’m hopeful that, given time and plenty of tasty composted goodies, the earthworms and other tiny critters will heal the soil.

Himself has had a few concessions to make as well. Being an engineer with (gawd help us) a military school background, he likes things neat, matching, with square corners. Do you have any idea what it would cost to fill 8,000 sq,ft with beautifully crafted raised beds like these? Nor do I, and although he could probably calculate it with ease, it makes no difference: however you add it up, the answer amounts to “a shitload”.

In any case, I find repurposing more satisfying, which is why I was very happy to learn that a local farmer was ripping out hundreds of acres of wine grapes … and replacing them with carrots – can you believe such a thing??? But his bizarre choice was my good fortune, because he advertised 8-ft long, 5-in diameter wood poles, formerly used to hold up the vines, on Craigslist for a little bit of nothing. With only minimal eye-rolling by Himself, we purchased three truckloads. (Reverting to the subject of friendly fire: I helped with the first load and was thereby incapacitated and unable to walk for nearly a week, so Himself and some other sturdy fellow fetched the other two loads. I should get points for wanting to help, right?)

What's left of the pole pile after yesterday's work party.

What’s left of the pole pile after yesterday’s work party, with Argos doing a “stay” to help make the picture pretty.

Then on Saturday we had a work party, involving a couple of young, energetic friends with whom I occasionally trade babysitting for farm labor, and a gang of teenagers in need of pocket money. As it turned out, “8 feet long and 5 inches diameter” was merely an approximate description of the poles … but that just made the design and construction process more interesting. (Or so it seemed to me, after Himself asked me please to be quiet and let him get the job done. One of my Life Rules is, Never argue with an engineer, especially if he’s carrying a hammer, so I sat down on the side of the asparagus bed and let him get on with it. He adapted my original concept design, which necessitated some fixing by me – ha ha! – but I’m happy with the end result.)

The start of my raised bed garden

The start of our raised bed garden. To the left, bordering the Nasty Neighbor, is a bed I built a few weeks ago, using old power poles. It contains an 80-ft row of asparagus. The three raised beds are what we built on Saturday. The Engineer says this looks, and I quote, “scruffy”. I think it looks rustic, and will be charming when full of greenly growing goodness.

If you’re wondering how to build raised beds using somewhat uneven old poles, the way we did it was to lay the bottom ones out. (The poles are used only for the long sides of the bed.) We then hammered sections of rebar into the ground to hold them in place. (In the final step, the rebar needs to be hammered right down such that it doesn’t stick up above the level of the top pole and stab unwary gardeners.) The end pieces, 5-ft sections of 2×6 lumber that Himself had lying around, were nailed to the poles. Then we laid the next layer, nailing it to 2×6 in its turn. My design called for three sections of rebar – two at each end on the outside and one in the middle inside – that essentially brace the poles into place, which minimizes the load on the end pieces. I think this would make them more stable and better suited to being sat on while one is weeding, so will build the remaining beds that way. Some of the poles are bent, creating gaps when they were laid on top of each other, so in a few places we’ve had to block the gaps inside with some old chipboard from one of Himself’s piles of Random Stuff That I May Need One Day. This will probably rot within a year or two, but by then the soil will have stabilized such that it’ll remain in place.

So far this year, I have planted a second plum tree, a peach tree, about 80 asparagus, a rhubarb plant, about 15 strawberries, a gooseberry bush, a horseradish, and about 10 walking onions. I have more berry bushes, another rhubarb plant and some fingerling potatoes waiting to go into the ground. I should have started seedlings in pots weeks ago, but am behind the curve … After last year’s weedy debacle, part of me couldn’t quite believe we’d be able to get our act together this year. But Himself has quit pouring contumely upon my commitment to organic gardening, and I’ve quit being rigid and perfectionist about it, and we’re managing to cooperate … so I guess this week will see me hard at work with seed packets and potting soil. In the fullness of time, maybe there will be crops!

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to

He also sent me this link in case I should feel the need to “perform my own calculations”. You’ve just got to love such optimism!

And … I’ve just received an email that reminds me of the many benefits of sharing life’s challenges with an engineer. While I have been writing this, he has been very busy Calculating, and has sent me the following:

I have calculated how much dirt/manure mix we have available in the pile in the front yard.
The pile is between 5-1/2 to 6 ft tall and the radius of the pile at the base is a bit more than 6-1/2 ft.
This calculates out to a pile volume of something between 270-to-295 cubic feet of soil/manure mix.
The volume of a 14 ft long raised bed is 14x4x1.25 = 70 cubic feet
Therefore, there is ample soil/manure in the pile to support filling at least FOUR MORE 14 ft beds.

I am now doubly motivated to build and fill the remaining beds, just to see if he’s right!

Your turn! How does spring affect your behavior? If you’re a gardener, do you try to befriend Mother Nature, or do you believe in better living through chemicals? Have you ever felt the urge to hit someone with a set square if something you build doesn’t line up perfectly?

The Day of the Chicken

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Yesterday ended with a chicken. I told you about her. To wrap up that story: she didn’t make it. I’m sad, of course – and became sadder when I saw my beautiful Mr. Roo calling and searching for her this morning. He knows one of his girls is missing, poor guy.

Mr Roo and his harem

Mr Roo and his harem

On the other hand, I did eat an omelet for breakfast this morning. How emotional can I get over the death of a creature whose unborn young I eat almost daily? Not very, to be honest! I love Mr. Roo, and I enjoy the kippies – watching them scratching in the dirt and crooning to each other is immeasurably soothing. I’m really happy that we are, at last, putting a dog-proof six-foot fence around our huge veggie garden (which contains the chicken run), because that will give them access to a much larger area for crooning, scratching and nibbling. But when it comes to deciding whom I’d rather cuddle – a chicken or a chicken-killing dog – I’m going to pick the dog every time.

So last night, after posting yesterday’s blog, I forgave Miss CeCe and let her crawl into her usual spot under the duvet. Snuggled up with her it dawned on me that yesterday began as well as ending with a chicken and a rescue dog, and I sleepily wondered whether there was some mystical connection between these two separate events.

The morning’s story started about a year ago, with a call from a vet who was poised to load up a big syringe of blue juice and inject it into a gorgeous German Shepherd pup. His name was Rip, and his owner had brought him in because he had killed a chicken. In our county that crime carries a death sentence.

A bit of history: Rip had been dumped out in the country on a cold day a few months previously. The people who picked him up didn’t actually need a puppy (contrary to popular belief, not every farm-dweller is in want of a dog) and they weren’t up for the hard work of training him – but he was a sweet, affectionate fluffball, and he needed a home, and they had room. So they kept him, and it was all happy-ever-after until the weather warmed up and their neighbor let his chickens out to roam.

None of these people had fences.

Fast forward through the inevitable, and there Rip was, happily washing the tears off Doctor A’s face while she tried to steady her hands enough to load the syringe. She couldn’t do it – it was just too wrong – so she called me.

I was in no shape to take in a wild child with a chicken habit. I had retired mere weeks before from running the dog rescue Himself and I established in 2008, and I was fully occupied in burning out like a Roman candle. On the other hand, saying no wasn’t an option, so we agreed to care for him for the few days the rescue needed to find a foster home. Problem solved – right?

Wrong. Some weeks later, a couple of sheriff’s deputies pulled up outside our house. They’d heard that we had a designated dangerous dog on our property. That’s right – the chicken-owner was making a case out of the issue, Rip’s previous owner was facing a fat fine for not having him euthanized – because, in terms of the county statutes, a dog that kills a chicken is automatically deemed dangerous.

Semi-random picture of the dangerous dog I keep on my desk.

Semi-random picture of the dangerous dog I keep on my desk.

Well, we told them he’d moved on and was in the care of a rescue that would rehabilitate him and keep him well away from chickens, and off they went. Until … a month or two later, when they returned and we did the same dance again. (Need I point out that their gas alone cost more than a replacement chicken?) And then a month or so later I received a summons to appear in court.

By that time, Rip was being fostered in a different state, and was on the point of being adopted to a home hundreds of miles away. I also had a file full of affidavits from the vet, a trainer, several fosters and my own self, attesting to the fundamental goodness of the dog, as well as my complete absence of personal responsibility for him in any capacity whatsoever. None of this made the smallest difference. A chicken was dead and, by golly, no matter what the cost (which I haven’t figured out, but this was one expensive chicken), they were determined to prosecute to the full extent of the law.

They just needed to figure out whom to prosecute … because everyone involved had complied with their demands. The chicken’s owner had been compensated, Rip’s original owner had been exonerated, and the rescue had removed the canine culprit from this jurisdiction. I was the sole itchy spot on the smooth skin of their butt cheeks. Because they were unable to articulate what they wanted me to do, I couldn’t comply. So they kept coming back, and the more I told them I didn’t own the dog, had never owned the dog, didn’t wish to own the dog, and didn’t even know where the damn dog was, the more determined they were to give the ghost of that chicken its day in court.

Eventually the new head of the rescue group and I met with the Assistant DA, who agreed to give Rip 12 month’s probation, subject to a bucket-load of terms and conditions. The probationary period ended yesterday, which is why I was seated in an otherwise empty courtroom shortly after the sun fumbled its way into the sky. Suddenly the doors slammed open. The judge marched in, her robes flapping like a crow’s wings, with the ADA scampering and chattering in her wake. “All riiiise,” intoned the person responsible for intoning. I was the only one there, apart from the legal folks, but I stuck my finger in my book and rose dutifully.

“Oh my goodness – I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed your hair!” squeaked the ADA.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s been a while.”

The judge stared at me, stared at the ADA, and shook her head. “Case dismissed,” she said, flapped her wings, and left the courtroom.

The ADA assured me it was all over, but gave me no stamped or signed paperwork to that effect, so who knows. We’re short on criminals around here, apparently, and one must do something with those pesky Halls of Justice or the taxpayers get tetchy.

Or … do you think there might be more to this than over-heated bureaucracy? Could we, perhaps, all have been dancing to the inaudible piping of the chicken’s outraged ghost? Could the ghost have taken possession of a naughty mongrel (herself not much bigger than a chicken) in a final effort to have revenge? Could this, in fact, be more than a coincidence?

Nah, I don’t think so either – but, just in case, Argos and I have a date to take Miss Kippy up into the hills this afternoon and lay her in her final resting place. We’ll put her somewhere out of the way (but with a nice view of the river), where coyotes and crows can absorb her into their bodies and so end this unearthly cycle of events forever.

Something like that, anyway.

Well, yeah, we'll take a ball. We'll have some happies. Because life goes on, right?

Well, yeah, we’ll take a ball. We’ll have some happies. Because life goes on, right?

Modern magic

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I love living at a time, and in a place, where I just have to point my finger and KAZAM! – magic happens. Take this evening, for example. In fact, take just the last 15 minutes.

First, by way of context, a word picture. I am sitting at the dinner table, refusing to make eye contact with a deeply apologetic (if you’ll believe one wag of it, which I frankly don’t) small shithead mongrel. In the mudroom is a punctured hen, trembling and panting in a crate. I have cleaned her up and wrapped her in a warm towel, and she’s resting on a cushion of fresh hay. I think she will probably be dead by morning, and I’m very much inclined to insist that Himself put her out of her misery. Himself is very much inclined to “see if she makes it”. I lack the moral or intestinal fortitude to haul out an ax and Do The Deed myself. As the designated Mother Earth figure around here (you learn to make do with what you have, and I’m the only member of the household with both opposing thumbs and mammaries), it falls to me to ensure that any “making it” is achieved as effectively and with as little suffering as possible. “Fuck it,” I say in motherly tones, directing another unloving glare at the mongrel.

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CeCe the shithead mongrel chicken-chomper thinks that if she doesn’t look at me I can’t see her, and therefore I won’t be mad. She’s our current foster dog, and I’m thinking her forever family better not have chickens…

At that moment my glance falls upon my magic wand phone, and suddenly I know what I need to do. I point my finger and KAZAM! – there’s Google.

Right, yes, I know, most people would have thought of Google immediately – but I grew up in a different era, okay? I remember the day my parents bought a brand new, hot-off-the-press, late 60s edition set of Encyclopedia Britannica, from an actual human salesman who came to our home. They and he and 11-year-old I sat around the dinner table my great-uncle made (the very table that I now sit at, clear on the other side of the planet), and the salesman covered the table with brightly colored glossy brochures. They were full of snippets of information and they had an amazing shiny-glossy-paper smell, and I was only vaguely aware of the salesman periodically inviting my parents to notice how much their brilliant firstborn was enjoying the opportunity to LEARN. Then he went outside to his car, and came back in with a big box and a free bookcase. And inside that box, good friends, was all the knowledge in the world.

I loved those encyclopedias and spent hours browsing through them during the ensuing years, and I can tell you with no shadow of doubt that nowhere in the lengthy, comprehensive, very-small-print index was there a category for “how to treat an injured chicken”.

I started out to tell you about a 15 minute snippet of my day, and I seem somehow to have wandered more than 40 years off course. Let me get back to the point.

Via my phone, Google told me I could give the hen aspirin – five regular aspirins in a gallon of water. It told me how many milligrams of aspirin were in a regular aspirin (325). It told me how many ounces of water were in a gallon (128). My phone helped me calculate how much water I needed for one baby aspirin (about a cup). Then Google told me I could give the chicken sugar for shock, and how much (3 Tbsp per gallon of water), and also that I should flush out the wounds with hydrogen peroxide and cover them with Neosporin, and that I should continue to do this for several days, and that there was every chance she would survive. Google even provided numerous anecdotes from people whose chickens had survived an astonishing array of injuries, and it comforted me greatly to know that there are real live people out there who will put a splint on a chicken with a broken leg instead of … well, say for example, eating it.

I did everything Google and my phone told me to do, and tucked the hen back into bed, using the same phone to record the occasion. KAZAM! (Seriously, guys – pictures. Taken with a phone that fits inside my pocket. And the pictures – which are in full color – are already available to be shared … with you … wherever you live, anywhere in the world. Do you know how amazing this is? Or is the amazement limited to people whose first camera was a Box Brownie?)

Hurt hen

You can’t see it here, but she’s been well-basted with antibiotic ointment, as well as generously dosed with aspirin in sugar water.

Hurt hen

Tucked up for the night. I still don’t really expect her still to be with us tomorrow … but we’ll see. I’ve done the best I can. (Feel free to chip in here with advice, Mother Hen…)

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Argos would SO love to get inside the mudroom… and finish what CeCe started…

So is it just me, or are you also sometimes sideswiped with amazement at this brave new world we live in?

Chicken status update

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I understand that some of my readers have delicate sensibilities, so here is an update on the chicken.

Apart from potentially terminal baldness (in that it might have been terminal if I hadn’t brought her inside and warmed her up), she is doing well. And she is no longer in our bedroom.

Okay … chicken’s wellbeing / chicken in bedroom situation … I think I’ve covered all the bases. Getting back to Henrietta…

I'll know she's ready to go back outside when she lays an egg.

I’ll know she’s ready to go back outside when she lays an egg.