Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hens and Housekeeping

Mother Hen. Every flock has one (animal or human) -- ours happens to be Helen, a Rhode Island Red; who also happens to be a homebody and an extraordinary housekeeper. She was named in memory of my mother - but not for any of those reasons. As a chick Helen was the bossiest - and it just seemed right that she should bear my mother's "given name."

Helen out grew her bossiness when she was no longer the largest of our girls (there's that pecking order!); and became quite the henhouse keeper. While the other girls are out enjoying a romp in the yard, Helen stays nearby the coop - running in and out of the pen and coop making certain everything remains in order.

She's nearly obsessed with what goes on in that coop. The other girls can just forget about any privacy while laying an egg. She's right there with you sister! Checking your progress and happily chiming in with you as you announce your success.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the coop's egg door to find two hens jammed in the 10 inch by 10 inch nest box. Buttercup neatly tucked in on the inside, and Helen, squeezed in, on the outside. A few minutes later I retrieved two fresh eggs. Now that's teamwork!

Helen likes things tidy and I often find a single egg in the middle of the coop floor. I suspect that she has rolled this egg out of the nest and away from the others for a reason that only makes sense to a bird brain. Lately it's been the egg of one of the Barred Rocks. Perhaps this is her way of getting back at the pecking order.

I guess we all have our idiosyncrasies, but she's a good reliable layer and an excellent housekeeper. My Mom would approve.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sweet Basil Starts

In just six short weeks our "last day of frost," May 15 will arrive. I usually don't attempt to put much in the ground before this date with the exception of cool crops; and even then you're taking a chance and will be lucky if anything germinates.

The best way to get a jump on the season is to start seeds indoors. This may sound like a lot of work, but it really couldn't be easier. You don't need fancy lights and trays and soil -- in fact my best success has been a sunny windowsill, recycled "lettuce" boxes and standard potting soil. It's a great way to get a jump on the season and save a couple of bucks by starting your own plants.

I've been starting basil indoors for three years now and have had great sucess. The seedlings are easily transplanted to pots or directly in the garden, and we enjoy fresh basil all summer and pesto all winter.

Here's what you need: plastic lettuce containers and lids (or plastic wrap); potting soil or seed starting mix; and peat pots., You can put the soil directly to the container and not use peat pots. I've done both and found the peat pots work better for transplanting; either way works.

I use seed start mix, but again, my first year I used regular potting soil and everything came up just fine. However, I don't recommend using garden soil.

Just put the soil in the container (or peat pot); dampen the soil (a spray bottle works best for this), poke a small indentation in the soil and drop in a few seeds! Gently cover the hole, spray once more and pop on the container's lid. No lid? Cover with plastic wrap.

After a day or so, I poke a few air holes in the lids and keep the soil moist (condensation will help too). Once the seedlings are up and going, you can take the lid off. Do keep them moist, but don't over water.

You can start taking them outside during the day, after May 15th, to start hardening them off, but don't forget them! Last year I lost a whole batch because I left them outside overnight. It just happened to be the day we got our baby chicks. In all the excitment of the new arrivals I completely forgot my starts and they all froze! Basil is very, very tender.

This year I have 50 peat pots of basil started -- it certainly is less expensive than buying plants at the big box or farmers market. Speaking of FM, you might just see me this year...with basil plants and fresh eggs for sale!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chicken Kitchen

Our chickens are spoiled. Not that it comes as any surprise -- we happily find another chair to sit in when occupied by one of the cats. But the "girls" really have it good. Everyday they get an extra special treat, prepared especially for them from Chicken Kitchen.

What may seem like lowly fare to some is quite divine dining to a chicken. Take cabbage for instance. By and large people don't eat cabbage unless it is drenched in mayo ala cole slaw; or it happens to be St. Patrick's Day (and then it's really only decoration on the plate). But to a chicken, well it just doesn't get any better -- unless it comes mixed with cracked corn.

The girls happily consume whatever leftovers they are presented with: rice, beans, spaghetti, fruits, veggies - whatever. I've been know to ask friends after a dinner out if they are going to take their "leftovers" home, because the girls would love those refried beans!

It really is "girls gone wild" when they see me coming to the coop with a big plate of rice and left over brussel sprouts. A spirited soccer match usually erupts as someone takes off with a prime sprout.

We are pretty careful about what goes in their beaks -- no meats, no onions, no garlic (who wants onion/garlic flavored eggs?) since we are eating their by-products. And we have debated the feeding of leftover scrambled eggs (which they devoured in 37 seconds). Regardless, I can tell you that they have very well developed palate and a taste for the gourmet!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's About Time...

Welcome to the Coeur d'Alene Coop! I'll be sharing my experiences at "urban" chicken farming and gardening on our expansive .16 acre lot in Midtown Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

We've been "chicken farmers" for about 10 months now; getting our girls last May at one day old. We have six beautiful hens - Buttercup (Golden Sex-Link), Flame (Black Sex-Link), Harriett (Australorp), Helen (Rhode Island Red), Henrietta aka Henny (Barred Rock) and Penelope aka Penny (Barred Rock).
Below is a picture of the girls at about 3-4 days old. Their "brooder" consisted of a plastic tub and heat lamp. This worked well for about 3 weeks and then they were ready to move into their new coop.

I chose these breeds specifically for brown eggs, their cold-hardiness and egg production during colder months. So far they have all exceeded my expectations and survived the second snowiest winter in decades!

Our first eggs arrived in early October and before winter set in we were getting 5-6 eggs per day. During the winter months we averaged between 3-4 eggs per day. Now that spring and longer days are approaching, we are back to about 5 per day.

The girls came through the snow and bitter cold very well. We insulated the coop and covered it with a tarp and added a heat lamp for warmth. We also added "disco" rope lights to help simulate daylight. Not sure how effective it was, but I did catch the girls doing the hustle on one snowy night.

If you use a heat lamp, do choose an infrared light. It's not bright -- and that's important as we found out when the girls were crowing at 3 am!

Yes, they do "crow" or cackle when they lay...and it can be quite loud, especially at 3 am.

And finally, the most asked question I get: Don't you need a rooster to get eggs? No, you only need a rooster if you want baby chicks. Eggs happen regardless!
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