Wednesday, September 30, 2009

That's a Wrap!

The tomatoes on the front porch were starting to drive me nuts. Hand watering the 15 or so plants became too cumbersome of a task, not to mention the constant cleaning that became necessary as the plants began to dry up and drop their foliage. So I harvested all of the remaining fruit, green and red. The red went into the crock pot for an improved roasted garlic marinara sauce. The green became pickles.

I'd been pretty excited about a foray into preserving the green tomato as it wasn't something that I had grown up with. I learned the art of preserving from my mother who spent many a summer chained to the stove, overwhelmed with mountains of fresh produce and several scalding hot, burbling pots. I wasn't allowed in the kitchen during the process: boiling pots + rambunctious children = a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen. But I would hang about the dining room sneaking peeks of the happenings and catching strong whiffs of the overwhelming odors of tomatoes, peaches, pears, beans, pickles, etc. You name it, my mother probably canned it. However, the green tomato somehow eluded her Mason jar menagerie. I thought I would pick up where she left off.

I attempted two different types of green tomato pickles, spiced and dill. Both recipes came from my 1975 All About Pickling cookbook by Ortho Books. The dill recipe called for using the fresh pack method (pack jar with fresh fruit then pour boiling liquid over) and turned out perfect. The spiced, however, instructed to boil the toms for 15 minutes or until fruit is soft. I boiled for a very short time, yet the tomatoes turned mushy to the point of being unappealing. This also happened to me when I made my grandmother's watermelon rind pickle recipe last year. In the future, I think I will use the fresh pack method for all of my pickles and let them "rest" for a couple weeks to allow the flavors to meld. Anyone got any ideas as to what to do with a slurry of green tomato pickle slush?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Farm of DEATH!

Sounds like an awesomely bad B movie, eh? Well if you want to see it, there's a showing going on in my backyard. Yes, dear readers, we lost two more feathered friends, Violet and Petunia. I've only got a couple ladies left and these days I often find them huddled together looking tense, as if the Grim Reaper were hot on their heels. I hate to tell them, I think he is.

Petunia inconveniently kicked the bucket the morning of my daughter's 6th birthday. Ute's present this year? A good lesson in the hard knocks of life. Before rushing off to school, she held a dying chicken in her arms, hopefully giving that bird a comforting send off towards the great hen house in the sky. Raising peeps was supposed to teach my child about the cycles of life. Instead she is getting a crash course in all things death. I am unnerved by the fact that Ute no longer associates chickens with laying eggs, but with looking cute for a while and then suddenly dropping dead. And why wouldn't she? Christ, this season's tomato plants have lasted longer than the damn hens!

Violet hadn't been acting like herself for several days before her death. Nothing too alarming. She just tended to be off by herself, separating from the rest of the flock. And when I would pet her, she would crouch down rather than pushing back up against my hand, which was her usual m.o. I had read that this was a sign that the hen was about to start laying and since the ladies were approaching that time, I didn't think too much of it. Then last Thursday morning I found her sprawled out underneath the feeder. I shrieked at the sight (I am not ashamed to be a shrieker). To add to the gruesomeness of the scene, I saw that she was still alive, gasping for air and unable to lift her head or move her legs. I cradled her in my arms and stroked her until she left this world.

I knew Petunia wouldn't make it more than a day longer than Violet. She had also been acting a little depressed and was no longer living up to her nickname, "the Asshole". In the evening when I was putting the ladies to bed, I was heartened when she executed an amazing 180 on the roosting bar so that she could snack from the feeder without losing her spot. I stretched my hand out to pet my girls before I closed up the coop and Petunia whipped out her wings, sheltering Sweet Pea and Gertrude on either side of her like a good mother hen. And to let me know who was boss, she gave me a peck on the hand. I was thrilled to see her back to her old tricks. But the next morning, I found her prostrate on the floor of the coop, having fallen off the roosting bar, in the same position as Violet with the same symptoms. However, death was not so swift for her. She held on for a solid half hour and when I tried to lay her down so that I could get Ute ready for school, she freaked, squawking as hard as she could muster and moving any body part that wasn't paralyzed. I couldn't let her die in such a state. So I swaddled her in a tea towel, carrying her upstairs like a baby. And that is how my daughter came to hold a dying chicken on her birthday. We used it as a teaching moment, discussing how it was a precious thing to be able to give someone we care for a loving departure. [What? It's not my fault the bird decided to make her exit on this day. I'll put an extra $75 in the therapy jar. It'll pay for at least a half of a session. Happy now?]

Discouraged. Dismayed. Demoralized. Disheartened. Dispirited. Distressed. Why do all of my feelings start with the letter "D". I digress. I imagine that many of you out there might be thinking, "Wow, chickens must be extremely fragile creatures!", or maybe "Heidi doesn't know enough about poultry to pull this off.", or even "See I told you raising chickens in the city is a bad idea." I don't blame you. It's not like I haven't thought these things myself. But I don't think any of them are necessarily true. Chickens are super easy to care for: food, water, predator proof housing, roosting bar, laying box... done! The tricky parts? Predators and disease. There are over 200 poultry diseases and a few of them are some mean ass, fucked up sicknesses (pardon my french). And if you buy your birds from a sketchy breeder, you're certain to have a few nasty illnesses smuggling themselves inside those cute puffs of fluff.

I'm pretty sure my birds died of Marek's, which I have astutely assessed with that online Vet degree I've been working towards. In vaccinated birds, deaths due to Marek's shouldn't surpass 5% and in unvaccinated flocks you might be looking at 60%. According to the breeder whom I purchased the chicks from, all of the birds were vaccinated. I don't know if I'm buying that. I'm probably going to be looking at 80-100% mortality. Gertrude is not growing, though she eats like a pig. And both birds are dropping feathers. That's been the first sign with this bug. I can't know for sure unless I get a necropsy, which would require driving to Davis, paying a fee for the services, and possibly culling one of the two remaining birds. That doesn't sound appealing to me. My killing days are done for now.

Maybe the birds were vaccinated and I'm just horribly unlucky. As my dad says, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that the world isn't out to get you." He also warned me that I would need to learn a lot about poultry diseases BEFORE I got the chickens. He's probably sitting behind his computer right now doing an "I told you so!" dance. [You stop that right now dad! I know you're doing it. Not funny!]

I had several email exchanges with the breeder. She told me that she had autopsies on her birds last year and they found Marek's and Cocci in her flock. She copped to both of those diseases when I picked up the second batch of birds, so I'm not going to hold that against her. I'll give her credit for trying to be helpful. But when she told me that she would be relocating her operation and alluded to the fact that it had to do with disease issues, I absolved myself of any potential wrongdoing in the raising of my ladies. She offered to replace my birds, which felt more like she was trying to unload the dead weight (pun intended) to avoid bringing it to a new location. I politely declined, but thought to myself "You couldn't pay me to take your chickens lady, no matter how pretty and tempting they are."

So what am I going to do now? Well I guess I'm going to let the girls live out their natural lives and simply wait for them to meet their maker. One of my fears is that only one will survive and then I will HAVE to introduce at least one new chicken (remember chickens are not loners) to the property. The 2 remaining birds are probably carriers of whatever they have so that means as long as they are around, there is still potential for more losses as they will infect any birds they are housed with. I suppose I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I don't think I can deal with one more dead animal. Mostly because I have run out of places to bury them.

Heidi's Hard Learned Top 5 Tips on Purchasing Chickens:

1. Purchase birds from a reputable breeder. Ask around. Don't go with any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Who knows what kind of nasties they have infesting their operation.

2. Buy vaccinated birds. It's not a 100% guarantee, but it could save you some heartache.

3. The bird should look healthy: bright eyes, plucky spirit, no drippy nose or eyes, have meat on its breast (the keel or breastbone should not stick out so much that it feels like a spatula), no pasted up vents, no signs of mites. Have a chicken owner friend come with you. They'll know what healthy looks like.

4. Know how to keep your birds healthy by having some general knowledge of common poultry issues: mites, illnesses, treating injuries, appropriate feed and supplements.

5. See #1.

R.I.P. Petunia and Violet. You were good, and very good looking, chickens.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Planting Trees and Harvesting Tomatoes

Yup, that's me, hard at it getting that Arbutus 'Marina', a.k.a. Strawberry tree, planted in front of our house. This past weekend Ute and I helped put in a bunch of new trees in our neighborhood with Friends of the Urban Forest. We'd been wanting a tree for some time and FUF gives great deals to residents in our neighborhood. They are a really wonderful organization and so incredibly organized. Along with fellow neighbors, we planted a total of 92 trees in the area, many of them going to Monroe Elementary School where Ute is a 1st grader. They had the whole operation running like a well oiled machine. Our little group of volunteers was the slowest by far, but we still finished somewhere around 1pm. What the above picture doesn't show is that right after it was snapped, I pulled that post pounder up too high, raising it up above the post, lost my balance (and if you've ever picked up a post pounder you know why), came careening off the ladder, hitting the noggin of that older gentleman in the train hat who was standing underneath me, all after our planting leader gave us a dismissive lecture about how tree planting is not a really dangerous activity, but if accidents were to occur, it would be when using the post pounder. I love being the example of why safety precautions are in place. I felt just like a toddler after being given that ubiquitous parental lecture "That's why I told you not to jump on the couch!"

Here's a pic of my big girl doing a much better, and safer, job than I.

Here I am, the joyful owner of a new tree.

If you have a program like this in your city, I highly recommend participating.

In other news, the tomatoes are ripening a plenty. In fact, I was able to make some delicious homemade tomato sauce to freeze with all the excess. The recipe came from Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (a really wonderful read btw). It called for quite a bit of basil, which I will probably moderate on my next attempt of this concoction. But all in all, the sauce tastes great.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

See This Movie: The Garden

The endless, eternal struggle between landowner and peasant plays itself out in this moving documentary of a group of Latino families who are trying to hold onto their 14 acre urban farm in the middle of south central Los Angeles. I got so fired up I watched it twice, and insisted that Esteban watch it with me the second time. Now he's fired up. If you need to get fired up about growing stuff in your town, don't miss this. You can get it on video or you can stream it on Netflix.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Make Way on the Poop Deck

Our DDF constructed this gorgeous deck in less than a day. Of course, within 30 seconds of being built it was christened "the poop deck" as both goats let out their nanny berry loads. Trust me though, it was amazingly beautiful in that first half minute.

The goats can't get enough of their new play space. They're chasing each other in circles, gracefully launching off the deck and scaring the crap out of the poor chickens. And it's also a great place to take in some sun.

Lucy's upper respiratory infection seems to be clearing up. But I'm a little worried about Ethel. I think she might be suffering from some kind of an identity complex. She seems to think she is a chicken.