Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Teaching the Messengers

Every spring, since my first year of teaching six years ago, I've been teaching a science unit called Life Structures, which investigates the cycle of life of plants and snails. But never have I been so excited about it until now. The timing of this unit really couldn't have been more perfect. A few weekends ago (on the first day of spring to be exact), I graduated from my Master Gardener program and became an intern. That means that I now have to complete my 90 hours of master gardening community service over the next two years. I've got lots of fun volunteer opportunities coming up that will rack up quite a few hours. But what I didn't realize is how my training would impact my teaching and how I'm reaching the greater community through my students.

To give you some context, the science unit starts out by teaching the students about plant parts and seeds. We started germinating seeds today. But where the unit lacks in providing the students with a real-life context for the information or practical gardening tips, I'm now supplementing with my ever-expanding gardening knowledge. And as I found out today, my enthusiasm is beginning to spread! One parent emailed me and said that her daughter came home ready to make plans for a vegetable garden. The same day, upon picking my students up from the school library, another student was anxious to show me the two seed books she picked up to learn more information.

I gave each of my students a spiral-bound notebook today and told them it would be their garden journal. I didn't want them to seem like just another curriculum material, so I gave them to my students as a gift that they would be able to use to keep track of their observations and scientific discoveries in their own gardens at home. I'm going to bring in my own garden journal tomorrow to show them how I keep track of my garden successes and failures.

I have trouble finding the words to describe how exciting it has been to share what I love with these curious kids that I spend so much time with. They just soaked it up and can't wait to learn more! I can't think of anyone who would be more excited about germinating seeds then they were today. When I began my Master Gardener program, I knew that I would be working to educate the community in sustainable gardening practices, but I never envisioned it happening in my classroom in such a natural and entertaining way. I also never thought about how that information would travel through my students to their parents, and maybe beyond.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The path of least resistance

A few months ago, I wrote about spending an afternoon conjuring up a beautiful plan for a wild flower path that leads to my backyard garden. The idea came to me while listening to an amazing Master Gardener lecture about organic gardening – all the talk about attracting beneficial insects to your garden, like bees, must have gotten to me. Originally, I thought I would install the flagstone path myself (read: Jake would have gotten sweet talked into installing it). I also thought I would use the sheet mulch technique to turn the uneven sod into organic material-rich beds along the pathway, but upon closer inspection of the area, it would have required much more tilling and digging than the sheet mulching would have accomplished. Since Jake's got his hands full building our chicken coop and I would like to get things planted and established this spring, I decided to get some help with the project.

With a new fence installation and a little landscaping, this once neglected part of my property got a face lift and new life. The path turned out absolutely amazing, and I really don't think I could have done the same work myself. Plus, now that the infrastructure is in place, I can focus my attention on the part I really like – the planting! Next week, during my school's spring break, I plan on transforming this blank slate into an inviting, meandering corridor to the garden out back. Stay tuned to see the transformation.

On another note, after finding Penny perched on top of the waterer multiple times last week, I thought it was time to install a roosting bar perch in their brooder. I just cut a wooden dowel to size and stuck it through the two notches I made in the sides of the box. It took them a while to get used to it – most of the time they just walked over it back and forth. I tried to set them on the bar and help them balance, but they didn't seem to appreciate my little tutorials. In the end, Penny finally got the idea and I caught her sleeping on the bar. At this point, it's a little advanced for Lucy and Ethel – they mostly just walk over it and sleep around it. But I think it's only a matter of time before they're copying Penny and are perching on it too.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring has sprung!

Today I celebrated the arrival of spring. The forecast called for sunny skies and temperatures near 70 degrees, so I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and longer days by doing some after-school spring planting. Last week, we put another big chunk of lawn to use by building a new raised bed in the front yard. It's 4o square feet of gardening goodness. So, to break it in, I planted 40 strawberry plants today, or 10 beautiful squares. I know it seems excessive, but I decided that I'd actually like to see a crop of strawberries this year, rather than eating the one or two that appear on random strawberry plants around the yard. Plus, strawberry plants will last for three to four years, so they're really the gift that keeps on giving!

When I was driving home from the nursery this afternoon, I thought to myself, it's officially spring and I actually have spring chickens! So I dyed a half-dozen beautiful farmers' market eggs in their honor. In this month's issue of Sunset, I read that dying brown eggs can result in amazingly vibrant colored eggs. Confirmed. And then, as if things couldn't get any better, I had a beautiful ceramic egg carton to put them in. Thank you, Claudia, for the most adorable chicken-gift ever.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Learning Curve

I've finally got the chicks all settled in, but I must say, it's been quite an ordeal getting everything dialed in. The main problem I've had is getting the temperature just right. Now I know that I'm a bit of a perfectionist and most likely, if the temperature in the brooder was a little off, they'd probably be just fine. However, the high, fluctuating temperatures in the brooder have caused other problems.

According to my books, the temperature should be between 90 and 95 degrees. I am creating that with a heat lamp suspended from the ceiling. Until my little pullets (young hens) have their adult feathers, they won't be able to monitor or create their own heat. That's why they have to stay inside the brooder (my bathtub) for the first eight weeks of their lives. Well, what the books don't say is to consider what effect your micro-climate will have on the brooder's temperature. There's a heat vent in my small bathroom where the brooder is so when the heat's on and the door's closed, the bathroom gets pretty hot. I learned that when I woke up the next morning, after the chicks' first night in their brooder, and discovered that the water in their waterer had completely evaporated over night. That means the chicks were in a hot little brooder for hours with no water! Dehydrating your chicks, or any animal for that matter, is one of the worst things you can do to them.

So, the next day after school, I made an hour-long trip during rush hour to the feed store to get a gallon-size waterer. This is way overkill for three little chicks, but I'm happy to report that now the water doesn't dry up.

Another change I made was taking the divider out of the brooder so that they can now access the entire space. Penny is a week older than the other girls and the woman at the feed store said they'd be fine. I think she's right, but what I didn't consider was the fact that she'd have different temperature needs than the others. My books recommend lowering the temperature in the brooder by 5 degrees every week. So Penny would probably be more comfortable in a cooler environment. That was confirmed when I found her sitting in the waterer, as far as she could get away from the lamp. After finding her in this position twice, I decided to take out the divider to give them more room. I think they're more cozy now.

Jake told me that his friend, who's family raised chickens when he was growing up, said that they kept their chicks in a box in the basement with no heat lamp and they were fine. And like I said before, I'm sure they'd probably survive without all my fussing. But the fact of the matter is that I have a huge learning curve. I am only recently an urban farmer and my only real experience raising animals has been with dogs. Give me a puppy and I'll raise him just fine – I've got puppy signals and behavior figured out. But chicks, now that's a whole other ballgame. I'm trying to learn what behaviors are normal and which are not. I'm trying to figure out if the chicks are giving me signs that they're distressed or are just being chicks. All I can really do is just keep reading my chicken books and observing their funny little ways, and hopefully everything will turn out in the end. I'm savoring every moment of this delicate and ridiculously cute time in their lives because they'll growing up quick and it will be over before I know it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lovely Ladies

Today was probably one of the hardest days of work I've had in a long time. I had to stay focused and productive all day knowing I was going to get my chicks today. I felt like a kid! The farmer in line behind me at the feed store, who asked for 25 Buff Orpingtons and 25 Americaunas, asked me, "You already got 'em named?" Of course I do.

This is my little Buff Orpington, Ethel. I don't think I should be picking favorites, but I think she might be mine. The other girls are so feisty with each other, but she's mellow and just rolls with it.

The little redhead, a Rhode Island Red, is Lucy. She and Ethel seemed to enjoy pecking around together so I thought their names were fitting.

And this is Penny, my green-blue egg-laying Americauna. She is a week older than the other girls and is by far the feistiest of them all – she'll push right through the other girls and is not afraid to peck them either. If there really is a pecking order, I think she'll be on top.

So now they're all tucked into their bathtub brooder and I'm trying not to go into the bathroom every five minutes to see how they're doing. I've already raised and lowered the heat lamp chain at least four times to try and get the temperature just right. There's nothing quite like the contented chips I hear – I can tell I'm turning into a crazy chicken lady already. More updates to come!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bathtub Brooder

No one can ever question my will power after today. I went to the Bothell Feed Center to buy supplies for my chicks and did not buy chicks! My plan was to be practical by getting everything I need to raise chicks in my bathroom and then bring the babies home on Wednesday, when the Grange is scheduled to get a new delivery of day-old chicks. Since I'll be at a double dutch tournament this weekend, I wouldn't be around to keep a close eye on my new little brood. But, when I walked into the store and saw the precious little balls of fluff, it was all I could to do stay focused on my agenda and leave without chicks in tow. A quick call to Jake from the parking lot of the feed store was inevitable, "Remind me why I shouldn't buy chicks today?"

In the end, I resisted and made it home with only the supplies I needed to set up my bathroom brooder. I have to give credit to Amy Stewart at Garden Rant for her inspiration and guidance. Reading her recent chick updates have made me giddy with anticipation.

In a nutshell, baby chicks need a place to grow with an artificial heat source since they can't maintain their own body temperature. The chicks' mother usually provides this warmth so I'll need to provide it for them. The chicks will be living in my bathtub, which we don't use by the way, for about eight weeks, until they are fully feathered-out and ready to be outside.

Today I bought the following supplies:
  • two 20x20in cardboard boxes
  • one big bale of pine shavings (bedding)
  • chick feed (non-medicated – sanitation will be the key so they don't get sick)
  • a chick waterer and feeder
  • heat lamp and chain to suspend the lamp from the ceiling
  • thermometer
Amy estimated that the supplies would cost around $80 and I found that estimate to be pretty accurate. I am willing to bet it will be worth every penny!

To make the brooder, I put the two boxes together to make one large box. I did this by cutting one side of each of the boxes down the middle. I bought a long length of chain, which I connected to the heat lamp. I suspended the chain from a plant hook in the ceiling and luckily, the placement of that hook couldn't have been more perfect. The lamp is suspended right above the box on one side so the chicks can go under the lamp when they want to be warm and get away from it when they want to cool off.

According to Amy, when the chicks are really young, they can wander away from the heat lamp and may not be smart enough to get back to the warm area that they need to survive. So, I brought two of the side flaps together with a binder clip to create a cardboard divider. Later, when the chicks get bigger and are used to their surroundings, I can just remove the clip and let them take advantage of the whole brooder.

To finish the brooder, I put a couple inches of bedding material in the boxes and put the feeder and waterer in place. Now all I have to do is hurry up and wait!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Beans, beans, the musical fruit...

According to our new mayor, Mike McGinn, 2010 is "The Year of Urban Agriculture" in Seattle! But for me, it's going to be the year of heirlooms. After saving seeds from last year's heirloom tomatoes, I decided to grow more heirloom vegetables this year so that I can save more seeds. I love the idea of growing and saving my own seeds year after year, rather than breaking the bank on seeds from the multitude of catalogs I get each spring.

One heirloom cycle I'm looking forward to starting is dried beans. If you're interested in trying your hand at saving seeds, I think this is the place to start. You can eat the pods as fresh green beans and then let the last crop dry on the vine in order to harvest the dry beans.

Here are a few bean basics:
  • There are basically two types: bush beans (compact type that don't need a trellis) and pole beans (trailing varieties that need the support of a trellis).
  • Bean and pea trellises are lovely. Check out Willi's latest pea trellis post!
  • In our climate, you can start sowing your bean seeds in May.
  • Beans are best sown directly into the ground as seeds since they don't transplant well.
  • In a square foot garden, you can grow bean bean plants or eight pole bean plants per square.
  • When you see pods on your plants, you've got to harvest them so that your plant will keep producing. This can sometimes be a daily project during the summer.
  • Green beans freeze beautifully. Just wash, pat dry, trim the ends, seal in a freezer bag, and pop them into the freezer.
Today, I was lucky to score the great resource, Edible Heirlooms by Bill Thorness, at a book sale during my Master Gardener classes today. It has great tips on what varieties grow best in our maritime climate, how to grow and harvest heirloom vegetables, and the best part, how to save each plant's seeds. I haven't had a chance to read the entire book yet, but so far I've learned that the bean seeds I bought from Seed Savers Exchange, Cherokee Trail of Tears, were actually carried by American Indians on that historical forced march. I am deeply humbled by the idea that I will be able to sow a few of those seeds in my garden because of their foresight in collecting and saving them.

Check out the following seed companies for lots of beautiful heirloom seeds: