Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Molting Chickens: It Ain't Pretty!

My chickens are about 1-1/2 years old and have stopped laying eggs, but I'm not concerned.

molting chicken
This is a molting chicken!
Click photo for a closer look.
You see, this is fall, when chickens molt. They are losing their old, sometimes tattered feathers and replacing them with new ones. Last year Jenny was the only one to molt and it seemed like her feathers fell out by the hundreds. Some chickens molt that way while others just lose a few dozen feathers here and there. Tiggy is also a big feather dropper. She molted early, in mid August. Flopsy and Mopsy started in early October are taking their time.

Chickens stop laying eggs (ovulating) when they're in a molt. Their bodies need to redirect that energy into making beautiful new feathers. Once they're done molting, they'll start laying again. In the meantime, I've added a little more protein to their diets to help their bodies with feather production. I've been giving them (canned) mackerel or tuna, leftover soups, meats, fish and pasta. No chicken though, I can't go there.

After the molt. Isn't Tiggy gorgeous?
Here are a couple of things I've also learned this year: When chickens are not laying eggs, their combs tend to lose color. My guess is that a chicken's comb is a "flag" to attract roosters when they're ovulating. The girls also don't "squat for the king" when I walk by, another sign they are not ovulating. Tiggy became broody early this summer, sitting in the nest box for months trying to hatch invisible eggs. Her comb also became very pale, she lost her squat and was not laying. Now she's back to normal and I'm just waiting for the rest of the girls to get their groove back! In the meantime I've been buying free range chicken eggs at the grocery story and just hoping that their definition of "free range" is in the same vicinity as mine.

January 2013 update: I was going to put a light in the chicken run after the winter solstice to get the girls laying eggs again. I figured a couple of months off duty would be enough. But to my surprise, about a week after the solstice they started laying again! I guess that teensy extra bit of sunlight kick-started their hormones.

February 2013 update: I noticed this Sunday that the girls' combs were not as bright red as they'd been lately. We were having a snow storm and they were out in the cold and blowing snow. I brought them into our sunroom for a while jus to give them a break. Pretty soon their combs were a luscious red again. So... temperature also affects comb color. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Run Chicken, Run!! The Danger in the Sky

This is an update to my ongoing chicken education. A few weeks ago I came home from the grocery store and decided to go out back to check up on the girls. I heard a very loud squawk from behind a tree and my white chicken Tiggy came running out with a hawk running after her. I shouted and the hawk flew up, only to perch on my 6' privacy fence just to the left of the tree. I charged him and he flew back to the fence on the other side of the tree, not wanting to leave his prize dinner behind. I have to say this hawk was about 1/3 the size of my chicken and very focused.

At this point my geriatric dog Abby stuck her head out the back door. Normally she will chase, slowly but loudly, after any intruders in our yard -- bunnies, squirrels, birds that don't live here, dogs she sees through our fence. But for some reason she didn't notice the hawk on the fence. I started yelling to Abby to "get it, get it" pointing at the hawk. He finally took his eyes off Tiggy when he saw Abby, even though she remained clueless. The three other hens were already in the chicken run (smart girls!) so I shooed Tiggy in and locked the door so I could go in the house and research hawks.

Tiggy looking fierce
Coincidentally the issue of Mother Earth News I had sitting around had an article on sky-borne dangers to chickens. They had a lot of pictures and descriptions of predatory birds, but no solutions as to how to keep them away other than locking up the chickens. Not sure what the point was of that article.

After spending about 20 minutes following leads I found through Google, I learned that (1) hawks are territorial and will not come on a property if another hawk is already there and (2) a lot of people will put up a hawk decoy for this reason.

Bird B Gone
Amazon, as usual, came to my rescue. They have a hawk decoy by Bird B Gone that was recommended by one of the articles for being pretty successful. I have free 2 day shipping with Amazon, so my decoy arrived quickly. He looks good enough to make my chickens very nervous! They recommend moving him around so he doesn't look so decoy-like, which I do. It's been two weeks now and I haven't seen a real hawk yet. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Gallop Intentionally!

This is a short story about a funny, profound (or profoundly funny) statement.

My Joe.
About two weekends ago I was out at the barn riding my horse, Joe. He's a sweet and personable horse and usually pretty low key. I was done with lungeing and riding in the arena and decided to ride him around the property. He had on a bareback pad (no stirrups) and bitless bridle.

We were around the back side of the indoor arena. Inside, a couple of women were riding their horses. Joe suddenly noticed the sounds of activity, decided it was a sabre toothed tiger or something, pivoted 180° on his left front leg and took us off at a full gallop. We covered about 30' in less than a second (or so it seemed), just long enough for me to start looking for a soft place to fall. In the meantime I pulled back on the reins and shouted "whoa Joe". He stopped fairly quickly, bucked a little then settled down. I got him walking again and he acted like nothing had happened. I was amazed that I hadn't fallen off and it all happened so fast that I didn't even have time to squeak out some adrenalin (or pee). It was also nice to learn that bitless bridles work. We walked around the property for another 5-10 minutes and I decided it was time to call it a day. I took him back to the barn to untack and do the usual end-of-the-ride stuff — brushing, picking out his hooves, sharing treats.

Trail riding in Elizabeth, Colorado
Later as I was heading out, I ran into Wendy and Laurie chit chatting in the lounge area. Wendy knew what Joe had done and Laurie didn't, so I told my little story. Laurie commented that she always gallops bareback, which is very true. She and her friend Ann have Arabian horses that they've owned for years and they ride like they were born to ride. With mere bareback pads, they gallop all over the place, run up and down small ravines, even ride their horses backwards and never lose their balance. I've NEVER ridden like that!

When Laurie said she gallops bareback, Wendy looked at her very intently and asked, "do you gallop intentionally?" Laurie replied quietly yet emphatically, "I always gallop intentionally." I had to laugh at the exchange—it all looked so serious. I was also tickled by the expression, "gallop intentionally". It just sounded so profound, like "live consciously," but with more gusto. I told the girls that would be a great bumper sticker. So I went home and made one!

If you too live your life intentionally and with passion, you need one of my bumper stickers as a reminder to "gallop intentionally". They are 10"x3", waterproof vinyl, professionally printed. Click here to buy one for the amazingly low price of only $3, and postage is included! Ride like the wind, Bullseye!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What the HAIL was that?!? Is there life after the hail storm of the century?

Lettuce and carrots.
Infinitely more difficult to overcome than the dense clay soils of Colorado, hail storms are a common and devastating occurrence on the front range. Its not unusual to see an occasional pockmarked car, the hood, roof and trunk looking like lingering scars from heavy teen acne. Windshields break, windows and roofs are trashed, trees are denuded, vegetable and flower gardens are pulverized. I've heard of people being felled—permanently—from a serious hailstone blow to the head. I guess I can't complain. But (and to quote Pee Wee Herman, "everyone I know has a big but") I can't tell you how many times I've started plants from seeds in the dead of winter, nurtured and transplanted them into gradually larger containers, waited patiently for our last frost date (another joke), lovingly planted and finally watched with great pleasure as my garden grew. Then, just as things were looking their best, those greenish clouds would build in the afternoons. They would eventually drop, in a matter of a few riotous minutes, mothball-like ice that pulverizes and shreds everything in sight. If it's later in the growing season, there's little hope of recovery for that summer.

A couple of before/afters in my garden
A few years ago a long-time favorite nursery, Arapahoe Acres, closed it's doors after 40 years in business due to heavy hail damage. Their retail store was on S. Santa Fe Boulevard, not far from where I live. AA sold plants, garden art, pond supplies, seeds, gardening tools, just about anything a gardener or landscaper needed. Their biggest asset was acres of trees, shrubs and other landscaping plants. They were so big they had to shuttle customers around in golf carts to shop. Then one of our afternoon summer hail storms wrecked havoc on their tree/shrub farms north of Denver. The damage was so extensive it destroyed their inventory for years to come. They lost heart and chose to close their business forever. Very sad.

Squashed squash.
So, fast-forward to summer of 2012, Highlands Ranch CO. I've been very lucky for the past couple of years—hail storms either missed my garden or were mild enough to cause only minor damage. I had taken to asking Mother Nature to protect my garden at planting time, sprinkling some home-grown dried tobacco leaves as an offering ala David Elliott. But on June 7 an unheard-of midnight storm dumped hail fast and furious in our neighborhood for about 20 minutes. Our violent weather always comes in late afternoon, after the moisture buildup over the mountains finally reaches the front range and the heavy wet clouds can no longer contain their contents. Not so this time. Rare midnight lightening (so rare I've not witnessed it in my 30 years in Coloado) and violent thunder rocked our house. Our dog was beside herself. Then came the hail—hesitant at first and then loud, hard and unrelenting—elevating in strength until I wondered if our roof and windows would survive. In the back (well, actually the front) of my mind was the thought, "crap, there goes the garden". The storm let up about 1 a.m. and I fell asleep eventually, dreading what I would see in the morning.

All downspouts looked like this.
It was as bad as I expected. I looked out the bedroom window that faces our street and saw what looked like snow. The lawn was white, except for the green shards of leaves from the tree in our front yard. I went downstairs and opened the front door. Our front porch planters were filled with a couple of inches of hail and a few specks of green. The downspout in front of our garage had a mound of hail about a foot tall at its base. Heading to the back yard, the lawn was covered with hail as well. More mounds of hail below downspouts. Shredded tree leaves everywhere. The garden was pretty much gone. Our raised beds contained about 2" of hail, flecks of green showing here or there. The apple trees were tattered, the apples punctured and bruised. The lilies in our pond were in tatters.
Mustard before & after
Tomato and pepper plants were scrawny sticks bearing beat up fruit. Lettuce, collards, chard, turnips, squash, rhubarb, you name it, were unrecognizable. Never in my history of gardening had so much damage been done this early in the growing season. I didn't know if I should just turn the soil over and attempt to start again from scratch, or wait a little while and see what might survive. Our growing season is SO short that there was little I could replant that would actually produce before the end of the season. Our chickens, on the other hand, were gobbling up the hail like it was candy.

The scientist in me decided to give it a couple of weeks before I would uproot and replant. Quite a bit of my crop had been in the ground long enough to develop a decent roots, which I felt was a key to possible plant recovery. I felt that with leafy plants such as lettuce, various greens and root plants such as turnips, kohl rabi and rutabaga, there might be hope.

Recovering lettuce and carrots.
After two weeks things looked promising, after three weeks even more so. Unexpectedly, most of my tomato plants did fairly well. I attribute this to the fact that I had staked them very vertically and so weren't as damaged as they could have been. The tomatoes were so tall at planting time that I couldn't fit them into tomato cages. I used 6' tall stakes and plastic coated ties to secure their branches upwards. That resulted in them being more vertical, similar to bound Xmas trees, rather than their naturally relaxed horizontal state. Many existing tomatoes and peppers were scarred but still able to ripen; a few leaves were not shred by the hail and so were able to provide the plants with much needed sun exposure. Pepper plants did not fair as well, but did manage to re-leaf after time and start producing more fruit. Carrots were unaffected. Even my struggling rhubarb plant managed to limp along on tattered leaves and produce some new strong ones. A stevia plant that was taken to its knees managed to rebuild itself completely.

I did have to pull out a couple of tomato plants and all of the squash plants. By that time I was able to find late season substitutes that did not require a long production time to make it though what's left of summer. I found an eggplant bush at half price that was full of fruit. Basil and parsley were planted in empty spots. A couple of store-bought almost-flowering squash plants went in too. I filled a gap with beet seeds, thinking that by fall they will have sprouted and grown. They can tolerate cooler weather.

By late July the garden took on its usual overgrown, out-of-control mid-summer persona. It is not as I planned, but will still be somewhat productive. I'm glad I didn't bulldoze.

Recovery at 3-4 weeks after the storm.
I guess the hardest thing about being an urban farmer is learning to deal with whatever Mother Nature dishes out. We are not financially crushed by natural disasters like commercial farmers can be. If our crops fail, there's always farmers' markets. But it's so reassuring to know that the tender plants we put in the ground are sometimes able to heal themselves.

As a final note, it is now mid-August my tomatoes are finally getting red. It took a long time for the plants to recover and have enough extra energy to produce new fruit. However, they are also dying from Fusarium wilt. I'm not sure if they are naturally non-resistant since I grew them from seeds I saved from a Whole Foods tomato. It could be from the stress. The new squash plants are just now producing. Carrots, turnips and all greens are doing well, but the cukes and broccoli were a bust. I might try to rig up a sort of net covering next spring to deflect at least some hail. I'll also look for VFFNT tomato seeds and plant them in my other raised bed for a change. And pray it doesn't hail.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Glorious Feast: Garden Harvest Lasagna

Spoiler: A link to the best ever Vegetable Lasagna recipe can be found at the end of this post.

My teenage son became a vegetarian this winter, so I've been cooking more meatless dishes whenever possible, or altering my meat-containing recipes (such as soups and stews) so that my husband and I can add our protein separately. For years I've seen recipes for zucchini lasagna and it never sounded very exciting to me, but I love vegetables and want to find new ways to use them in meals other than the usual sauteed or steamed side dishes.

Now, in early summer when our vegetables start maturing, I usually end up with one of this, one of that, an undersized other—not enough for a complete meal's side dish.
Home made ricotta enhancements
A recipe for homemade ricotta cheese I found through Pinterest promised to make the best tasting ricotta in about 15 minutes. That caught my attention—and imagination. Thinking back on one of my favorite vegetable pasta dishes, Pasta Primavera, I came up with my own vegetable lasagna dish that totally knocked my socks off! Not only was it one of the best lasagnas I've ever had, but it was easy!

Veggie Sauté
Try it!
I already had most of the vegetables I needed. After a quick trip to Whole Foods I also had ricotta ingredients, pasta sauce, mozzarella and lasagna noodles. I decided to try Whole Foods' 365 brand no-cook lasagna noodles. That saved me some time right off the bat—no cooking, rinsing and keeping the noodles unstuck for my recipe. I also found a new 365 pasta sauce I'd not seen before—Sun Dried Tomato & Basil. That turned out to be a very fortuitous choice! I have to say I LOVE this sauce. It's so good that it tastes great cold, right out of the jar. I think it would be a fantastic dip for pizza-dough breadsticks or as a quick and easy bruschetta. It has incredible flavor, thick sauce and lots of chunks of tomato. Belissimo!

I made a double recipe of ricotta and yes, it was so quick and easy that I don't know why I haven't tried that before. It's extremely fresh tasting, sweet and delicious!

I julienned the vegetables, sauteed them in olive oil until they were only slightly softened and then set up my assembly line on the kitchen island: sauce jar, raw lasagna noodles, ricotta bowl, vegetables, shredded mozzarella. I used an 8x8 Pyrex baking dish. I layered my ingredients, baked at 350 for about 45 minutes and voila, pulled the bubbling beauty from the oven.

The vegetables were perfectly al dente, the ricotta sweet and rich, the sauce an enticing combination of flavor and texture. The pasta was cooked perfectly! My husband even spontaneously commented on how delicious and satisfying this meal turned out to be. It was SO good that I had cold leftovers for breakfast the following two mornings.

And as for my son? I had actually made this dish for him. But between his night job at Noodles & Company and spare time spent with his girlfriend, he didn't have a chance to even try it. One of life's little ironies! My vegetable lasagna recipe can be found here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More soup?... this time it's Beefed Up (or not) Mushroom Barley

12+" trout from Georgetown Lake
Spoiler: A link to my best Mushroom Barley Soup recipe can be found below.

Okay, if anyone is reading my posts (and I question that), I have to apologize for getting off the urban farming track for, once again, a soup recipe. I just can't help myself.

I had the most amazing weekend with some girlfriends. We spent the night at a rustic cabin on five wooded acres in the Rockies. It's near the Georgetown Cemetery and I go up there every chance I get.  On this trip I, my ghost hunting friend Callea and two ghost hunting "virgin" friends gathered to investigate the cemetery and cabin during the Super Moon and Triple Portal. The weather was amazing up there for May, very clear, warm and sunny. We couldn't ask for better. I fished for a short time on Georgetown Lake and caught two gorgeous trout, which I brought home and cooked for dinner last night. Sunday morning we cleaned up the cabin and headed home.

It's now Monday and I woke up this morning to chilly temperatures and rain, which is rare and very welcome in Colorado. The cooler temps and clouds make me want to cook soup for dinner. So, like I said, I can't help myself.

When we have leftover steak (or chicken, turkey or pork) I tend to freeze it rather than reheat for not-so-exciting leftovers. Then later on I use it for soup, stew or green chili. Today I cleaned out the freezer and found a nice piece of frozen steak. It was marinated in one of my favorite concoctions and so decided that mushroom barley soup with beef would be on tonight's menu.

I once read that you could call yourself a gourmet cook if you can make a delicious and satisfying meal from whatever you have on hand -- no trips to the grocery store. Another confession. I am now so old (and have been cooking for most of my life) that I know what tastes good together. But I do love creating something new from what's available. I think my hero, Thomas Edison, would have liked me. And I'm starting to wonder if this blog is really about urban farming, or simply food. Food to grow, food to cook, food to eat. Am I a foodie or an urban farmer? I think they just go together naturally. Whatever you call me, my recipe can be found here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gardening in Heavy Clay: A Great Solution... or Two!

April 2012, all raised beds ready for planting
The weather has been unusually warm this spring, which gave me a chance get a head start in the garden. Over the past 3 weeks I've spent an hour or so every day cleaning old leaves out of corners, adding two more raised beds, uncovering the garden path stepping stones that our chickens buried in dirt over the winter, adding bags of garden soil to the new beds and tilling in sheep and peat. We cut down three overgrown lilacs, dug up the stumps and are planning to make that spot a sitting area in the garden -- a nice place to have coffee in the morning surrounded by lush gardens, birds and bees.

I've been gardening in Colorado since 1985 and it has been a struggle. All of the places we've lived had heavy clay soil. Our growing season is short: last frost date is in late May and some of our trees' leaves begin turning color as early as July. The sun in the summer can be blistering, we don't get much rain and when we do it usually also brings hail. But I'm a gardener through and through and just can't make myself stop trying.

Raised bed in early summer.
After struggling with our clay soil for about 10 years, diligently adding amendments and going as far as buying a rototiller to save my back, I finally saw an article in a magazine about raised beds. I'd seen them before but never gave them much thought since they looked expensive. But two years ago I decided to try just one. We built a raised bed on one side of the garden. It's about 10' x 10' and about a foot tall. On the other side of the garden we tried gardening in bags of garden soil placed on the ground -- sort of mini raised beds that you don't have to build.

The raised bed was built with double stacked 6'x10' treated wood planks. 4"x4" posts were nailed in the corners with legs sticking out below. These legs were buried in the ground at different depths in order to make the bed level. We filled the bed with bags and bags of garden soil and mixed in some sheep and peat.

Gardening in soil bags.
The soil bag garden was much less formal and permanent. I stabbed a weed puller a few times on the back of each bag and flipped it over so the holes were facing down. Holes were cut on the top side to insert plants. For deeper root plants such as tomatoes, I stacked two bags, cutting larger holes between them for drainage.

Raised beds vs. soil bags
Both systems solved two problems I was having with gardening in our dense clay: the plants could grow in perfect soil, and drainage was perfect as well. You see, even though I amended and amended our in-ground garden both spring and fall for years, the clay seemed to devour the amendments yet never improved. Plus, I was basically trying to grow a garden in a large clay bowl with no drainage. Water would go through the amended soil and sit at the bottom, pooling in the clay that lay below. With the new raised bed, the water could drain through the nice soil and out of the bottom of the bed.

Garden harvest: Eggs not included.

Overgrown by mid-July
The following summer we added another large raised bed and two smaller ones and used the previous summer's soil bags for filling. This year (2012) I added two more small ones and the garden is now complete. Rather than building them from wood again, I found raised bed kits at Walmart that are made from recycled plastic. I stacked two kits together for each bed. They look nice and blend well with wood beds. They probably cost about the same, were much easier to build (no hauling heavy planks home from the store; no cutting). They would also be much easier to relocate, if necessary. We'll see how they perform this summer.

I've adjusted sprinkler heads to cover the beds, and when the plants get too large to water from above (the big leaves redirect the water in all directions), I have soaker hoses snaking through the beds to take over the job. I'll update this post with my progress this summer.

I've been starting a lot of my plants from seed, sometimes starting tomatoes and peppers in January in order to have vegetables before the first frost. It's a lot of work sometimes and not always successful. This Christmas I bought myself an LED grow light to see if I can keep vegetables or herbs growing indoors all year round. I've experimented with it, and I have to say it blew my mind. In January I planted a variety of vegetables and herbs and the growth was amazing. We were eating greens 4-5 weeks after planting seeds.
Green beans a week later. Growth was strong, healthy and incredibly fast! I was able to start some plants from seed that I'd previously had no success at all. So, I started my next batch of seeds a week ago, this time intended for transplanting to the garden in late May. I'll do a separate post on what I've learned about increasing indoor seed starting success and my super duper booster LED grow light.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More of "Eat Your Veggies!"

Spoiler: A link to my Kitchen Sink Soup recipe can be found below.

I really love a hearty soup. Living in Colorado, our winters can begin in early October and last pretty much into May. I've come up with a lot of soup recipes over the years. I think of soups as perfect food: you can have you veggies, protein and carbs all mixed together in one warm, thick, hearty, delicious and satisfying meal. Soups can be very forgiving: you don't have to follow soup recipes like a scientific equation. If you like the ingredient, it will play nice in the pot. As a mother, I've also found that you can pack extra nutrition into soups and fussy eaters won't even know it's there. Nutrition espionage at its finest.

Stone soup? I think not!
I remember being in Kindergarten and Mrs. Rogers, our teacher, told us a story about stone soup. Her version was (and I'm not quoting her accurately here) there was a homeless man camping in the woods. He had no food and no one in the village was charitable enough to give him any. Some children came upon him in the woods. He had a campfire going and a pot of water boiling over the flames. Nowadays this story would never be told -- who in their right mind would want their kids visiting with a hobo in the woods? Anyway, the kids asked him what he was making. He said "stone soup" -- and he tossed a stone into the boiling water. He said the soup was normally extremely delicious, but this one was missing something. A few carrots maybe. One of the kids ran home and brought him carrots. He tasted the water and said, "I bet an onion would make this taste great." So another kid brought him an onion. He tasted the soup and said, "something's missing, I think some celery would make this taste even better..." and so on until the kids had brought him many ingredients and he finally had this masterful soup. Well, I just thought he was the cleverest hobo that ever lived! And the story has stuck in my mind to this day. My Kitchen Sink Soup always reminds me of this story.

I wasn't planning to make soup this week. It has been sunny, glorious and at least 70° every day. Not exactly soup weather. But I had a few odd bits of vegetables left in the fridge from my excursion to Heavenly Harvest Produce a couple of weeks ago. I also had some leftover cooked veggies. None of them added up to a full serving. Tie breaker: I bought some pork neck bones for my dog as an experiment. She is on a raw, species-appropriate diet, and I'm always looking for something new and economical for her to eat. I hadn't added too many different bones to her diet, preferring to stick with the ever-safe natural chicken backs from WholeFoods and an occasional pork rib. The neck bones looked meaty and the bones didn't look too thick and hard. After opening the package I found only one I was willing to give to my dog, so I thought the rest would make a nice broth. That's when I decided that soup was definitely going on the menu.

Yes, they are in my sink.
Like my Kitchen Sink Salad, the name comes from my tossing an odd assortment of vegetables in the sink for rinsing. I also consider the soup consisting of "everything but the kitchen sink." Gotta keep an open mind. I start out with my typical basic soup base: a chopped onion, 2-3 ribs of chopped celery, a few cloves of chopped garlic and 2-3 chopped carrots. Sometimes I saute them in super-healthy coconut oil, but this time I opted for extra virgin olive oil. I saute these in a dutch oven until the onion starts to approach translucency.  At this point I added the pork neck bones, browned them just a little bit, and then added 8 cups of chicken broth. Since the pork was raw going in and I wasn't going anywhere, I turned the heat way down and let it simmer for an hour plus. I added some salt and pepper at some point. When it looked "right," I turned off the heat, moved the pork bones to a plate and left the pot on the stovetop to cool down. Once the bones cooled off, I stripped the meat off, put it in a separate bowl and placed it, covered, in the fridge. My son is a vegetarian and so to make life easier, I make one big pot of soup (he doesn't mind broths, he just won't eat meat) and keep the actual meat bits separate for my own dining pleasure.

When I had gathered all the other ingredients I wanted to put in my soup, I turned the burner back on, starting chopping veggies and adding them to the broth as I went along. Once the pot was full, I let them simmer for about 30 minutes. I had some teensy alphabet pasta in the pantry and threw it into the broth to soften. When we were ready to have dinner, I put some of the meat bits into my bowl and we served ourselves the hot soup. We grated some parmesan cheese on top and toasted and buttered some artesan bread for dunking. My absolute favorite is the rosemary bread sold at WholeFoods -- not only is it delicious, but when you toast it the fragrance of rosemary fills the kitchen. It also makes heavenly croutons. My African Greys and our pet rat also got--and loved-- some soup for dinner. What was left was given to the chickens who quickly cleaned their plate. There's nothing so universal as good, healthy food. The recipe is here for those who like to keep recipes.

PS: I finally broke down and bought a juicer this week. After watching this VIDEO of a doctor who cured her own MS by eating a lot of raw vegetables, plus a few years of internet research, I feel that nothing is better for our health than raw natural food. Supplements are okay in a pinch, but our bodies really run the best on the real stuff. What could be more natural? So... there may be a third Eat Your Veggies post in my future, but probably titled "Drink Your Veggies." Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Best Diet in the World: Eat Your Veggies!

Spoiler: Great salad, salad dressing mix and Caesar salad dressing recipe links can be found at the end of this post.

What is the healthiest diet for humans? There are certainly a lot of choices and opinions out there, and rarely do they agree.

I grew up in New Jersey (the Garden State) during the '60s. There were plenty of vegetable stands on the outskirts of town, and I still hold those as my standard for farmers' markets. Nothing fancy, simply just-picked fresh produce, locally and organically grown, at reasonable prices. Apples came with spots, tomatoes with a few cracks, other veggies and fruit were a little misshapen--distorted even. That's what real food looked like. No wax coatings. No cukes looking like they were pressure-formed at a plastics factory. Lots of flavor. What could be wrong? That was nature.

I've been a human for a long time. As a kid, we ate a lot of vegetables whether we liked it or not. We ate some meat and some carbs. When I was a kid, food was simple. You ate what your mother--or the school cafeteria--provided. Back then, we were all pretty healthy and very few of us were over weight.

But, avert your eyes for a moment (or 50 years) and everything has changed. Increasing incidences of allergies, diseases, diabetes, high cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity--you name it. Change is not always for the good. And better living through chemistry should not necessarily apply to our food.

My thought is, we were crafted from the very elements of our planet and so logic states that our bodies should be in perfect harmony with the nutrition provided by our mother Earth. Our bodies are these amazingly self-sufficient bio-organisms that grow, heal and repair themselves without any conscious effort. We truly are indigenous to our planet. We began here, we belong here and everything we need to perpetuate our species is here -- naturally. But... then something went terribly wrong.

Onions at Heavenly Harvest
We humans have been messing with mother nature for about 200 years. We have introduced chemistry into every phase of our lives. Chemical manufacturers have been messing with our food via genetic modification, pesticides and mass production. Greed has reduced the quality of our food via "factory production" of animals and vegetables. Special interest groups, such as corn farmers (high fructose corn syrup, GMO corn), animal feed manufacturers (a pellet for every animal, causing Omega 3 deficient foods), cane sugar farmers, dairy farmers (hormones and antibiotics), pesticide producers (Roundup-ready GMO corn and soy) have shamelessly degraded the quality of our food, all for the all-mighty dollar. We make cosmetics, soaps, lotions, shampoo and cleansers from petroleum that leach through our skin and end up inside our bodies. Not to mention the special interest groups-- oops, I meant government agencies--such as the FDA and AGA, misrepresenting and omitting information regarding health issues, studies and statistics.  Add to that pharmaceutical companies pumping dollars into schooling, research and other incentives for the training of doctors and we end up with biases and omissions of information up the wazoo. And for some reason, not many of us have a clue of what's going on. Somehow we've been brain-washed to implicitly trust government agencies, doctors, statistics and studies. How did we become so gullible?

A-hem, so back to diet. There's Atkins (low carbs, high fat and protein). Paleo, which takes us back to caveman days when humans ate what they could forage -- occasional lean meats, mostly greens and maybe some seeds, nuts and rare fruits. There are vegetarians. Vegans. Betty Crocker. Who, exactly, is right? If you look at our teeth, an indicator of what our natural diet should be, it's pretty much a mish-mash. Our front teeth are perfect for nipping off bite-size bits of food. We have incisors, reminiscent of canines, meant for tearing meat. We also have molars, designed for grinding grain and other foods. Hey, we're omnivores!  So, apparently humans are built to eat just about anything. But I have to admit that every BODY is not the same. Our ancestors came from different parts of Earth, and most likely adapted to whatever was available to eat in the areas where they lived. So, that introduces another element. We're all borne of Earth, but our bodies have adapted to local food availability. That's a thought worth looking into. My heritage is Eastern European. For for some reason, my body responds best to a lot of veggies and protein. Carbs tend to bloat me and make me put weight. People indigenous to the polar regions flourish on lots of fish and whale. People from Asian countries do best with a lot of fresh seafoods, raw veggies and seaweed.

Just an example of what's available at Heavenly Harvest
The one single thing I've found in common with all the diets and cultures I've studied is raw fresh vegetation. Not one diet I've heard of has ever said that vegetables are bad for you. Even the diets that insist on lots of proteins in the form of meats and dairy products do not deny that animals that forage naturally on grasses and other plant materials are superior in nutrition to those that are fed pellets. Naturally grazing animals have a much higher Omega 3 content (which is an essential fat that is key to our health) than those fed an unnatural diet. And we've all heard that you are what you eat--and what you eat eats.

Today I drove half an hour to Wheat Ridge to shop at a produce store, Heavenly Harvest Produce

The start of a new salad. Parrot not included.
So, moving on to this week's new recipe: My son, who will be 17 this month, became a vegetarian early this winter. It has been a little extra work for me to cook for my husband and I (plus all the animals) and accommodate my son's requirements as well. But not a big issue. We do a purely-salad night 1-2 times a week. Most teens have very few positive things to say about their parents. Recently my son said I make the BEST salad ever (he also said I was a really good driver "for a woman"). He has loved salad for a long time and usually orders it in restaurants, but our at-home salads are so much more nutritious, creative and deeply satisfying. I call my salads "Kitchen Sink" salad, as I toss everything I need to use up in the fridge into the kitchen sink for rinsing. My salads are never exactly the same, and are usually prompted by an excess of odd amounts of veggies in the fridge that need to be used, plus leftovers from the last couple of days.

We love Italian dressing, but have been a bit turned off by the contents in store-bought dressings--even the organic ones. There are always ingredients that we can't pronounce or identify, and we don't need that. So the recipe for this post is Kitchen Sink Salad and my All Good Ingredients salad dressing mix. Follow the link for a great healthy and satisfying salad and dressing -- and eat what your body NEEDS you to eat. Feel good that you're not only eating what is healthy, but what tastes good and satiates your hunger.

I've also added two Caesar Salad recipes -- one is the more traditional zesty dressing, and the other doesn't have the typical raw egg in the dressing.  Graze and mangia!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Water2Wine: The New Urban Vintner

Spoiler: A link for my absolute favorite pasta recipe, Pasta Puttanesca, can be found near the end of this post.

Okay, okay, this was so much fun!

Last July (2011) our next-door-neighbor asked to borrow our car for a few days. He runs fireworks stands yearly and his vehicle, towing a trailer of merchandise, broke down at the worst possible time. For us it was a no-brainer: we didn't need our second vehicle for anything and were glad to help. It was not a big deal for us.

Apparently it was for our neighbor! After the 4th of July crush, he returned our vehicle and added a gift certificate for a case of wine at Water2Wine, a business where you can not only purchase and taste wine, but make your own. Being a small franchise, they have a few locations across the country.

Green Concord Grapes
When I was growing up we had loads of Concord grapes and one year my mother decided to make wine. I was pretty young at the time and so missed most of the action. All I remember about the process was bottles of fermenting wine in our basement exploding and spraying wine everywhere. Our basement was damp, so I remember clearly the smell of wine and mold. Unpleasant enough to make me not want to attempt wine-making myself.

We (my husband and I) went to Water2Wine together a few months after we received our gift certificate. It's a small but attractive store in a strip mall not far from home. We read a list of the types of wine we could make, sampled a couple, and settled on one specific variety: a Chilean Carmenere. We made an appointment for our wine-making experience.

Herban Farmer Wine
On wine-making day we were led to the wine-making room. There was a large glass carboy containing some filtered water, a bag of wine concentrate and some yeast. Our mentor did the mixing for us, said they would take care of whatever needed to be done between "now" and bottling day, and gave us a schedule for the approximate date we needed to return to bottle our wine--about 6 weeks away. We were given the choice of picking a pre-designed label or making our own. Since I'm a graphic designer we decided I'd design our own label. I emailed the label to them, they sent me a proof and that was that.

We made an appointment for bottling day. Some people invite friends, bring food and make it into a wine-tasting event. We decided instead to go over (my husband, I and our 16 year old son) ourselves.

We were led to another room to bottle. Clear instructions were given to us. My husband took over the job of syphoning the wine from the carboy into wine bottles. My son took the job of corking the bottles. I applied labels and sealed the corks with heat shrink seals.

Pasta Puttanesca
It was so much fun! Did I say that already? The owner's wife asked us if we were hungry. There's an Italian restaurant a couple of doors over, and she offered to place a take-out order for us so we could eat and continue to bottle and sample our wine. She placed our order for take-out and delivered the food to us. We worked, dined and (with the exception of our son) sampled our wine. Happy work! I'd like to share my absolute favorite pasta puttanesca recipe, the photo at the left showcasing our very own wine.

The whole wine-making process was educational, entertaining and satisfying. We now have lots of bottles of delicious wine. We gave some to our gracious neighbors and have many more to gift, enjoy and share.

I have to say that Water2Wine is a terrific experience and great franchise if you're so inclined. I totally recommend that you search for a Water2Wine in your area and make some wine yourself. They take out all the guesswork and chance for error--and make wine-making so easy! Cheers!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sprouts: Little Leafy Buds of Super Nutrition

Spoiler: There are links for recipes below. One is for a fabulous vegetarian sandwich and the other my faux pho soup.

Yes, this post really is about gardening! Gardening doesn't always involve the great outdoors. I'll be posting about my indoor gardening experiences with LED lights in the future. And gardening doesn't always involve dirt...

My sprouting cup
I sprouted seeds for the first time about 5 years ago. As I was researching nutrition for my African Grey parrots, information on the high nutritional benefits of consuming sprouts, such as this, kept coming up:

"Research shows that sprouts are a veritable fountain of youth. Sprouts abound with antioxidants, they are full of protein, chlorophyll, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Broccoli sprouts have been found to contain 50 times as much of the antioxidant sulfurophane as mature broccoli. Wheat Grass juice is the closest substance to hemoglobin, and is therefore a phenomenal blood purifier and liver de-toxifier. Sprouts contain enzymes, giving your body a much needed rest as they digest themselves - invigorating you while requiring no help from your body to process them. New research indicates that peanut sprouts reduce harmful cholesterol and that sunflower, buckwheat and grain sprouts dramatically improve the quality of life for diabetics. The list goes on and on." Quote courtesy of http://sproutpeople.org/

I'd been buying sprouts at the grocery store for better than than 20 years thanks to a fabulous sandwich recipe I've been enjoying, but it never occurred to me that I could grow my own. I bought a sprouting cup, sprouted some wheat berries, and offered them to my parrots. They wouldn't touch them. So I nibbled on the sprouts myself and put the cup away for a few years. Then came our first winter with chickens on board. I wanted to provide them with some sort of nutritious greens since there was nothing left out back for them to forage.

I started with wheat berries, since I already knew they loved wheatgrass. It was an instant hit! Next I tried mung beans, the beans that make the Chinese bean sprouts you buy at the store. They loved them too--and so did I! I realized that I could sprout mung beans for my own home cooked Asian dishes and not have to settle for pale, lifeless and often slimy sprouts sold at grocery stores. We love sunflower seeds in our salads, and I thought sprouted sunflower seeds would be even better. I buy shelled raw sunflower seeds for my homemade bird food mixes and thought they wouldn't sprout as they were shelled and possibly damaged. Not so! They sprouted beautifully and we had another winner!

Just today I decided that I needed to have more than one sprouting container going at once, so I could have continuous sprouts available. I ordered two more sprouting cups, the Easy Sprout Sprouter, from Amazon.com, plus some broccoli seeds because I've heard so many amazing things about them, such as this article Broccoli Sprouts Fight Cancer by Dr. Mercola.

Dried mung beans
So... what's involved? I've been buying wheat berries and mung beans in the bulk foods aisle at Wholefoods. I've seen some health food stores selling small packets of these items for outrageously high prices and am constantly amazed that people buy them. You can buy wheat berries, mung beans, raw shelled sunflower seeds, etc. in the bulk aisles of many health food stores for just about nothing. Look there first!

You need something to sprout your seeds/beans in. I chose the sprouting cup because at the time it was all I could find. After viewing what Amazon has to offer, there are many, many more options out there today. But for this post, I'll stick to what I know. The white food grade plastic sprouting cup holds about 4 cups of content. There's an outer cup and an inner one that has drainage holes in the bottom. It comes with an extra bottom with smaller drain holes that fits in the inner cup (in case you're sprouting really small seeds), a dome and two flat covers -- one solid, one with breathing holes. Oh, and a guide that gives a LOT of specific information on how to use the cup.

These are 2-3 days along
I'll use mung beans here for my example. On day 1, I put about 1/3 cup of mung beans into the coupled cups and add some filtered water (twice as deep as the beans), add a lid and let them soak over night in a cool, dark place (my kitchen counter works fine).

Next morning, I lift the inner cup out of the outer cup, dump the greenish water, and rinse the beans well with fresh filtered water. Later in the day I rinse again. By this point they're already soft and starting to sprout! You can munch on them at any time, but with the mung beans you may also want to keep them growing until they're a couple of inches long so you can use them in recipes, such as my Faux Pho. I rinse and drain 1-2 times every day until the beans are being eaten because it's so dry here in Colorado.

Fresh sprouts
Keep a close eye on the freshness of your sprouts -- you don't want them to get moldy and smelly. Keeping them rinsed and drained, and at a reasonable temperature, keeps them fresh and healthy. Once they grow to the size you want, you'll want to put them in the fridge so they don't get moldy.

I'll update this post with my broccoli sprout experience some time in the future. For extensive information on sprouting, and to purchase just about anything related to sprouting, visit this web site  http://sproutpeople.org/. They know EVERYTHING about sprouts!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What it's really like to have urban chickens - Part 3 - Fully grown chickens, very cold short days ahead and snow!

Spoiler: A link to my recipe for Organic Chicken Feed can be found below.

Dirt baths!
Unfortunately, at least for me, summer doesn't last forever. Our chickens spent the summer and fall foraging in our back yard for whatever greens and proteins they could find, plus the treats we'd give them during the day. They had their pellets available too, but preferred fresh food. Before long, the greens were no longer available and so I started supplementing even more with dandelion greens, spinach, salad and other greens from the grocery store. I asked King Soopers if they'd let me have the greens they were going to throw out because they were past their prime, and they said by law they could not.
Tearing up the garden

So I buy marked down salads when I can or give the girls green stuff from our fridge that's on it's way out. Since our garden was done for the season, I opened the gate and the girls got to finish up the things they didn't like when times were good—celery stalks and leaves, collards and broccoli stems. They take dirt baths in our raised beds and rototill compost into the garden beds.
Healthy homemade food!

I found a great recipe for homemade chicken feed that is too expensive to feed exclusively to the girls, but makes me feel great that I can give them healthy grains in addition to their pellets. And they absolutely LOVE it! So their diet right now is organic chicken pellets, a cup or two of my homemade feed daily, extra treats of greens and food scraps, and some sort of calcium-rich grit such as oyster shells or recycled crushed egg shells.

New chimney
We decided that before it got too late in the season we needed to plan for REALLY cold weather. My husband cut a hole in the roof of the chicken coop in order to attach the old heat lamp and a "chimney". An article I read said that hay was a better insulator than pine shavings, so just before the days got short and nights were cold, I added a layer of straw under the pine shavings.

Now, for those of you who want to know how hard it is to keep a chicken coop clean, I can honestly say that it depends on how many chickens you own. We have five. Two to three times a week I put on some waterproof gloves, roll back the coop (we put wheels on the legs), scoop the poop out and toss it into our compost bin. If needed, I add more bedding. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. Some of my chickens like to watch and make comments as I clean. Easy work. I don't usually have to clean the chicken run because they don't spend much time there. They poop on the lawn and either our sprinklers in the summer or snow and rain the rest of the year melt it into the grass.

The first time we went on vacation AC (after chickens), we paid a friend's daughter come to our house twice a day to let the girls out, check food and water and put them to bed. By our second vacation she wasn't interested. We didn't know anyone else who could do that for us, so we ended up hiring a house sitter. It's more costly, but if you own a house it's comforting for many reasons, plus our dog was able to stay home too.

New plastic roof on run
We had a couple of snow storms in October 2011, and although the coop was snow tight the chicken run was half filled with the white stuff. At one point I bought a clear tarp and thumb-tacked it over the run's roof to keep the weather out. But we have some pretty incredible winds here, and after a couple of months it started to tear and break loose. My husband went to Home Depot and bought some clear corrugated plastic panels. He trimmed them to fit over the chicken run, and for the most part it works well. He angled the sheets on one side so snow (and rain) would drain off and away from the run. We turn on the heat lamp on nights where it got below zero degrees and it seems to work just fine for the girls. If the temperatures get below -10, I can always bring them back into our sun room in the play pen.

Lots of snow!
A recent snow storm told us that the corrugated plastic roof would not always be enough protection. The storm lasted two days and dumped 2 feet of snow in our yard. Winds whipped the snow around the south side of our house—and right into the chicken run. So… maybe we need to cover the south side of the run with something, at least in the winter.

Chicken luge.
I learned this winter that chickens don't like snow! When we get a good snow fall, we have to shovel out a path from the chicken run to our back patio where they can at least stretch their legs. If I don't shovel a path, they yell their heads off and I don't want to upset my neighbors. I've added second heated water bowl to our patio, I also brought their small bowl of my chix mix back there and a bowl full of chicken pellets, since the patio is covered and their food won't get wet. I bought a couple of bales of pine shavings and made a small burrow for the girls to block out the wind. They tend to hang out there anyway when the weather's bad, so I decided it would be a good idea to build them a "fort" to block some of the cold wind. I fill the floor with hay and they spend the worst weather days huddled there, tapping on our glass doors to come in and squawking for food. Do you think I'm a bit of a mother hen? ;=>

Home away from home.
Now for the not-so-pretty stuff: When the weather is bad the chickens poop all over our patio. I sweep after them every day. If it gets warm enough, I hose off the patio. I've had to remove the cushions from of our patio furniture to keep the chickens off. And oh, did I mention that chickens poop a LOT? When the snow melts off the yard they spend their days looking for things to eat in the yard and forget about the patio. But there have been a few days where that's been impossible and they make a real mess out of our concrete. And sometimes the poop gets smashed down and freezes—there's no way to get that cleaned off until the weather gives us a break. Luckily we live in Colorado and we get patches of nice weather between snow and cold. If we lived somewhere where the entire winter is a frozen mass of snow, I wouldn't be able to deal with having chickens in the 'burbs. They would need a large chicken run and coop or barn.

The girls don't understand why
Abby won't share like they do.
The girls still want to come inside. Every chance they get, they sneak in and I find one sitting on a papasan chair making little "boop boop boo" sounds. One day I was sitting at our kitchen island working on my laptop and heard a soft sound next to me, near the floor. I looked down and there was Jenny, standing next to my chair and looking up at my face. I pick up one or another chicken every few days and take them on a tour of the house. They seem to enjoy it. Chickens are a lot smarter than I expected. They make a lot of different sounds and I'm learning what some of them mean. They have personalities! Jenny is extremely sweet but the absolute bottom of the pecking order.
A chicken named Duck.
Duck is very smart and very vocal. She's always the first one who sees our lights go on in the morning and starts yelling to be let out of the run. She's also the one who comes to our sunroom door and loudly demands food. Flopsy and Mopsy are fairly friendly and quiet and are the ones who will jump up and sit in our laps. Tiggy is standoffish but melts when I "force" her to sit on my lap and endure snuggling and petting. She seems embarrassed about that.

A few of my aprons.
In early fall Denver had it's first county fair. I had seen chicken diapers in a magazine and mentioned them to a friend who is not only a seamstress but also owns chickens. She rented a booth at the fair to sell aprons and asked if I would like to sell chicken diapers. Sure, why not? I ordered a couple from web sites and was not impressed with their construction or fit, so I came up with my own design and made a few. I also made some chicken-themed aprons to match, and joined my friend at the fair. You can check out some of my designs here. Eventually I'll get them on Etsy. You just never know when one of your chickens is injured or sick and needs to spend some time indoors. Did I mention they poop a LOT?

Flopsy stoically modeling a
chicken diaper. 
It's now February and I think we have winter figured out. The girls don't lay as many eggs—three of them are moulting which happens after they stop producing eggs for the winter. They still aren't crazy about snow. Their egg shells are getting thinner, so I'm recirculating their eggs shells into their food (mentioned above). I dry out the egg shells and pulverize them in a baggy so they don't really know what they are— I don't want to give them any ideas. We're just a couple of weeks from the date they came to live with us. They seem happy, and we still love having the cheerful clucking little girls in our yard. One of the hardest things about keeping chickens, at least the way we do, is that they don't have the yard to roam when there's a lot of snow and so spend a lot of time on our patio pooping and demanding food. I keep giving them as many greens as I can to make up for the lack of foraging, in the way of spinach, salad, greens and sprouted wheatgrass. They get great leftovers: Last night it was spinach souffle and leftover fresh trout scraps with the bones removed. My animals eat better than a lot of our neighbors' kids. If you want to feel loved and appreciated, just get a flock of chickens that run full speed to you when you walk outside. Never mind that they're expecting food, they look so funny when they run!

We've been hearing coyotes on the other side of our fence lately—I hope they only come by at night, when the girls are protected by our construction. Our girls are part of our family and we want to keep it that way as long as we can. Despite the mess, the extra work and the shortage of eggs lately, I still love the little sweeties and am glad we have them.

For my conclusion, what's it really like to have chickens in the 'burbs?

Flopsy in a pot.
1. They are really cute! They are quirky, funny, have personalities, look pretty and make fun sounds. Very entertaining—they make us laugh, A LOT.
2. They are the only pets that give you food in return for your efforts.
3. They eat weeds, insects and mice. BC (before chickens) our back yard was overrun with dandelions. Now our neighbors give us dandelions from their yards to feed to our chickens.
4. There is something very grounding and relaxing about spending time with chickens. I get such a warm happy feeling when hugging a chicken.
5. They mow and thatch your lawn and fertilize it at the same time.
6. They produce high quality fertilizer for all your other gardening needs.
7. They will love you if you are nice to them.

Tiggy jumping for some
squash leaves.
1. They are extra work—but not much.
2. They are an extra expense: food and housing.
3. They poop a lot, so cleanup is involved. And an odor if you don't clean up often enough. But... See #6 above.
4. They also eat all of your plants, so exposed gardens and flower pots are out of question. I just ordered a book from Amazon about having a nice yard AND chickens. I'll update with a post of what I learn.

So, urban chickens? It depends on what you're looking for, what type of pet owner you are and how much time you have for a few extra chores. For me? It's a win-win situation. I LOVE my chickens!