057 Winnetka Farms Part 2

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On the podcast this week we continue our conversation with Craig Ruggless who, along with his husband Gary Jackemuk, runs Winnetka Farms in Los Angeles’ San Fernando valley. In last week’s podcast, episode 56, we talked about Italian vegetables. This week Craig tells us about his double-laced Barnevelder chickens, Muscovy ducks and we complain about our mutual problems with rats and racoons.

If you’d like to stay in touch with Craig you can find him at The Kitchen at Winnetka Farms.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

An Open Letter to Our Mammalian Friends

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Thank you Mark Frauenfelder for digging up this image.

I get it. This drought has been hard on you. Fewer resources leads to intense competition. But can we show a little more courtesy?

To the raccoons of Los Angeles: I thought we had a deal. Like club hopping hipsters, the night belongs to you. So what’s up with the recent daytime activity such as the bold raid on our chicken run that took place on Saturday? I’m not going to apologize for spraying you with a hose. Thankfully you had the good sense to run away. If you had grabbed a chicken I’d be organizing small game hunting trips for dentists. It’s bad enough, because of you and your robust fingers, that I had to build a coop that I’ve dubbed “chicken Guantanamo.” I thought I could have a less robust daytime chicken run. I’m not happy that I had to spend over $100 to beef up that run. My accountant will have to devise an elaborate amortization strategy to keep our eggs affordable. I’m also not cool with the daytime raids on the fig tree even if it entertains our indoor cats.

To the rats of Los Angeles: avocados do not mature on the tree. This is probably why you take a single bite and allow them to fall to the ground. You’ll never get guacamole this way. And can you please not drop half-eaten grapes all over our patio furniture. Not only does it create a mess but it leads to unseemly First World meltdowns, “My Martha Stewart patio set is ruined! How will I survive!”

To the Fox squirrels of Los Angeles: you know you don’t belong here. The residents of a veteran’s home released you back in 1905. From there you displaced your more polite, native cousins. I get that you’re not going away. But can you please leave at least one peach for us humans? Keep this up and I’ll put together an unfavorable social media strategy to rebrand you as “#cuterats.”

To the possums of Los Angeles: I appreciate your freakishness and you’re actually kind of cute up close. But you guys don’t look so good under the glare of an unflattering patio floodlight. We do value appearance here in Southern California. Please consider some better hair and skin care products. Go to the gym. Splurge on a better stylist.

To the skunks of Los Angeles: what’s up with the OCD digging? Please note the comment Brad just left on our blog,

I’m eating skunk right now from the crockpot with brown rice. Tastes fine. I’ve eaten it before, but the crockpot skunk is the best I’ve tasted. Neighbors don’t want them, and it was clean, didn’t see any parasites. Watch for the roundworm.

To the coyotes of Los Angeles: I dig the trickster thing. You’re way better styled then the possums.

To the mountain lions of Los Angeles: maybe it would be best to stay out of our crawl spaces. You’re scaring our plumbers.

To the humans of Los Angeles: you’re mammals too! What’s up with the lawns, corrupt politicians, freeways, ugly mini-malls . . . oh, wait this could go on forever. You drive like a bunch of jerks.

Anyways, I hope you all get this memo. Don’t make me put up signs.

Breaking Broodiness in Chickens

This picture is what happens when I forget to take a picture of our broody hens.

This picture is what happens when I forget to take a picture of our broody hens.

This past week three of our four hens decided to all get broody at once. And since we have only one nesting box they all crammed into the box as tight as passengers in economy class in what passes for air travel these days. Since it’s August and hot and humid, I began to worry that they would overheat.

Then I remembered a trick passed along by a UC David avian veterinarian at a conference I recently attended. He suggested giving broody hens a cold (out of the tap) bath. I gave this a try, giving each broody hen a 30 second dip in a shallow tub of water (just enough to get their derrieres wet). It worked immediately and they spent the rest of the day scratching, eating, drinking and running around.

But by the next day they were back in the nesting box. I spoke to Dr. Google who informed me that it sometimes takes more than one bath for this trick to work. After another 30 second dip in a cold bath they have not returned to the nesting box.

If you live in a cold climate I’d suggest drying them off after the bath.

Have you tried the cold bath technique? Did it work for you?

Strapping Bee Hives

Eric, of Garden Fork TV, posted a video response to my scary toppled hive situation. Langstroth hives are heavy and get tipped over by high winds, bears, teenagers and (where I am) earthquakes. Eric says:

Strapping your hives with ratchet straps, the good kind used by truckers, will reduce the chaos when a beehive is  knocked over.

We first started strapping our beehives as part of our bear proof the bee yard project. If the hives are strapped, the hives stand a better chance of surviving a bear in the beeyard. One can say that a ratchet strap won’t keep a bear from tearing open a beehive, but I’ve read where the strapping has helped save hives.

Read the rest of his post here.

John Zapf, our digital design podcast guest, came over to help me re-stabilize my own hives and they seem to have recovered (thank you John!). I need to make more substantial and termite proof stands in addition to strapping them. And in the comparison between Langstroth vs. top-bar hives, you can add tipsiness to the list of problems with Lang hives. I think I’m still in the Langtroth camp, but just barely.

A Painful Beekeeping Lesson

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Just a few of the stingers imbedded in my bee suit.

I spent the weekend in a Benydryl haze. When you make a mistake in beekeeping you get immediate feedback.

A freak summer storm descended on Los Angeles this past Saturday. Lighting strikes knocked the power out in many places and lit palm trees on fire. Unfortunately for me, the deluge softened the soil underneath one of the legs of one of my beehives causing it to fall over and knock over another hive. I didn’t discover this situation until 7 p.m. as it was getting dark. Kelly was out of town and I was alone in the backyard staring at a jumble of bee boxes.

Here’s what I should have done:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pause, and assess the situation.
  2. Come up with a plan.
  3. Gather all the equipment I needed.
  4. Smoke the hive boxes.
  5. Slowly and confidently put them back together.

Here’s what I did instead:

  1. Panic and run around like an idiot.
  2. Throw on my bee suit wearing just a t-shirt (thankfully I had pants on!).
  3. Skip the smoke and just start hefting the boxes around.
  4. Not only did I not assemble the needed equipment (smoker, lighter), I did not have the garage door opener to access that equipment. At one point I had to run through the house covered in angry bees to get the clicker.

Then I started moving the boxes without first smoking them (which I know is wrong, but I did anyways). A lot of bees came out to let me know they were unhappy. I felt the full and fierce anger of nature. I got the crap stung out of me through my suit. One of the things you learn working with bees is that a hive acts as one mind, one consciousness. When bees and humans are working together the relationship feels like telepathy. When we’re at odds it’s like something out of your worst nightmare. You’re struggling with a unseen, intelligent and very powerful adversary, one that feels very alien and “other”.

By acting hastily, I caused a potentially dangerous situation not only for myself but for other people and animals. Thankfully it was raining and dark and I was the only victim. It was one of those situations when I knew what I was doing was stupid but I did it anyways, propelled by a needless hysteria.

What did I learn? When it comes to beekeeping, never panic, always think ahead and stay calm and deliberate. Use smoke if you think there is any chance that bees might get angry. Wear a thick shirt and pants under your bee suit. Call for help. Bee boxes are heavy and sometimes two brains are better than one. Maintain your equipment (I knew that one of the boxes was leaning but I delayed fixing it). Have your tools at the ready so you can just grab them when you need them.

Of course all of this is common sense. I guess the final lesson is that we humans have a special way of screwing things up. Bees? They plan ahead, store up food for a rainy day and keep focused.

Bird’s Nest

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I’ve been wishing I would come across an abandoned bird’s nest for a while now. They’re just such marvels, so clever, so sweet–one of my favorite things in nature, and that’s saying a lot. I imagined how I’d display a nest if I had one, how I’d keep it safe from the cats.

Then, the other day I found this one sitting on the coffee table on our back patio.

Just sitting there, right in the middle of the table, as if someone put it there on purpose, all strange and gorgeous. I assumed Erik had found it. And since the table sits under our grape arbor, and a few grape skins were in the nest, I figured the nest had been up in the grape vines, and Erik had discovered it whilst up on the ladder, trying to defend our grapes from sundry critters.

Nope. Erik knew nothing of the nest.

Logic tells me it must have jiggled out of the vines on the arbor — perhaps a rat dislodged it?– and it happened to land face up on the center of the coffee table.

But my heart tells me that it was a present.

I’m particularly fond of this nest because it is made up from pruned materials from our yard. In fact, I think most of it was filched from the greens bin that I let sit on the back patio for far too long this spring.

I see bits of twine from our bean trellis in there, and some grasses which look familiar. That ferny stuff around the perimeter are clippings from this asparagus fern that I’ve been trying to eradicate for fifteen years. (At this point, I admire its persistence so much that I can only bow to it as a respected enemy.) The fern is beautiful in this nest. The soft fluff in the middle may have been sourced from a silk floss tree about a block away.

The grape skins in the nest are interesting. Could be that the birds were eating grapes, but I doubt it. Instead, I imagine a lazy mouse lounging in the nest, sucking on our grapes in luxury and spitting out the skins.

Or the skins may have fallen into the nest once it was already on the coffee table. There is, unfortunately, a rain of grape skins onto our patio every night, as we steadily lose our war with the nocturnal creatures for our grapes. But that is the subject of another post.

Anyone have any guesses about what kind of bird made this nest? The bowl is about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across.

ETA: I’ve been looking at this great page of bird nests–it’s heaven for the bird nest enthusiast. So many types of nests! Wee little eggs! Baby birds! One bird even made its nest in a sweatshirt hanging on a laundry line. (That’ll teach you to bring in your laundry promptly):

http://www.thebirdersreport.com/egg-and-nest-identification

And as of now my uneducated guess is that it is the nest of a house finch.