As I do every year at about this time, I’ve gone broody.
I need chickens.
Actually, what I *really* need is quail, but they aren’t available locally. Failing that, I’d like a duckling. Or two. Or six. Whatever. Ron is balking, but I’ve seen a couple of people in town raising them as backyard pets, and they appear to be thriving. Sure, their wading pool will probably add a coupla bucks a month to the water bill, but that’s still cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store. Plus if I ever adopt that Border collie I’ve been thinking about since January, it will have something to herd, so it won’t get bored and spend all day annoying me. And if we end up hating them? Duck is DELICIOUS. I’m not seeing a down side here.
Anyway, one way or the other, it is that magical time of year when a Rubbermaid tub full of shavings and a screen are supposed to appear in my office, and a heat lamp is supposed to hang over them, warming a flock of stinky-yet-adorable balls of fuzz.
My favorite chicken breed, as anybody who’s spent much time on this blog knows, is the buff Orpington. Orps are good layers with great personalities — curious as cats and almost as friendly as dogs. They get along well with other chickens, they’re decent foragers, and they’re entertaining enough that I could probably cancel my Britbox subscription if I had a flock. WIN.
Tractor Supply — the only local source for chicks that I’m aware of at the moment — does not carry buff Orpingtons. Or any other variety of Orpingtons, for that matter. They do, however, have a few barred Rocks, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that Rocks are probably a better choice for our yard than Orpingtons, because they’re much more aggressive foragers, and I’m told this neighborhood is lousy with scorpions in the summer. A flock of feisty barred Rock hens would happily knock down the scorpion population for me.
I think I’ll head out to the shed to take a quick inventory of my chick-rearing equipment, and then I’ll cruise down 66 to Tractor Supply and see what kind of feathered friends I can rustle up.
Look at my new squiggly friend! I met him in the garden this afternoon.
I would like the record to show that I was a very good girl and did not try to pick up my slithery new friend or pet him, even though I really, really wanted to.
I showed my pictures to people at work today, but nobody there likes snakes. I don’t know why. I think he’s cute. I like his racing stripes and his pretty brown eyes and his flickery little tongue. I was pretty excited to find him in the garden, partly because I’ve never seen a snake in my yard before and partly because cold-blooded animals are a sure sign of spring.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, I don’t stop gardening in the winter. Time spent working in the sunshine is a necessity if I’m to keep seasonal depression at bay, and winter is an ideal time to work on a garden’s infrastructure. My focus this year has been adding raised beds. I had six last year, and my goal is to have a dozen by planting time this year — a task that should be accomplished easily enough, as we generally buy one every paycheck, and we’re still five checks away from Planting Day.
I’ve been filling the beds with compostable materials, peat moss, and finished compost. A third of a bale of peat on the bottom provides filler as well as drainage and aeration, and three bags of compost on top will just about fill up the bed, for a total cost of about $8 per bed.
I can’t say enough good things about these beds, which are just plain old 36-inch fire rings. They run between $30 and $45 apiece, depending on where you buy them and whether you catch a sale, and they’re lightweight, easy to position (just roll them where you want them), and make planting and weeding very easy. I installed them out of necessity — the juglones from the neighbors’ black walnut and pecan trees have rendered the soil in my backyard worthless for growing most vegetables — but they’ve proven so advantageous in so many directions, I’m not sure I’d go back to traditional rows even if I had the option.
As you can see in the picture, I’ve also started mulching with cedar shavings in between beds. They look neat, discourage pests, and smell nice when I walk over them.
P.S.: The tin cans you see in one of the rings in the top picture are leftovers from last year’s plantings. Besides being a good way to start seeds, the cans help protect young plants from marauding squirrels, which love to dig through my raised beds in search of nuts. My tomato plants wouldn’t have survived without them last year.
I spent a little time in the garden last week, pulling out last summer’s tomato vines and clearing the beds so they’ll be ready to replant this spring. I wasn’t sure what to do with the vines, and while the fire-ring raised beds are neat and easy to work with, they’re not terribly pretty. My long-term goal for the backyard is to turn it into something straight out of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel — an irresistible Heligan in miniature, if you will — and big metal rings aren’t quite up to that standard. I’d been considering various options for making them more aesthetically pleasing and getting them to blend in with the scenery a little better, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on retaining-wall blocks or stackable stone. While I was standing on the deck, surveying the yard and taking a mental inventory of the tasks I need to complete before spring, I noticed an abandoned doves’ nest on top of the fence post nearest the house and had an idea for recycling those spent tomato vines:
I’m trying to decide whether I like it. It certainly blends in better than a bare metal ring, so I’ll probably keep it until I think of a better idea.
Meanwhile, I was perusing the Shumway’s catalog and found this:
I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.
What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.
That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.
In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.
Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.
Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:
1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)
2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.
3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.
4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)
You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.
The most wonderful time of the year is the first Saturday after Tax Day, when we put the garden in the ground.
The second-most wonderful time of the year is the day Cubs pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
But the third-most wonderful time of the year is now, when the companies that sell seeds for the garden and beekeeping equipment for the apiary start sending out catalogs, which means I can start dreaming about spring in specific detail and figuring out how many times we’re going to have to eat enchiladas or sauerkraut to save up enough cans for all the seeds I intend to start. (Tin cans with the bottoms cut out make the world’s greatest seed-starting pots/squirrel deterrents. Unfortunately, about the only products that still come in cans with identical tops and bottoms are Ro-Tel tomatoes; certain brands of sauerkraut; and most enchilada sauce. This means for about two months every winter, my grocery list revolves around my gardening needs.)
Gardening and beekeeping catalogs are my saving grace every winter. Gray skies and short days don’t do anything positive for my mental health, and after a while, I start to wonder whether I’ll ever get to put my hands in the dirt and bask in the sunshine again. When that first seed catalog lands in the mailbox, I see the first glimmer of hope.
We got catalogs this weekend from Seed Savers Exchange and Betterbee, so I’ll spend the next few months dogearing pages and circling varieties that sound promising and drawing scale diagrams of the garden while I dream of spring.