Congrats Denver!

From the Denver Post:  

Denver City Council eases way to own chickens, goats at home

Apparently it was previously legal, but more difficult because you had to pay steep fees and inform all your neighbors. Now, thanks to citizen action by urban homesteaders, the fee has been reduced to 20 bucks and you don’t have to inform your neighbors in order to keep 8 chickens or ducks and up to 2 pygmy goats. No roosters, natch. Congrats Denver! I’m proud to say you’re my home town.

via The Lazy Homesteader’s Facebook

Animal Tracking

A track trap we laid to capture chipmunk tracks. We got some mice, too. No one wanted our peanuts–the chipmunk actually hopped over them. These critters had an advanced palette, preferring locally sourced pine nuts from the pinon pines. Photo courtesy of one of my classmates, Kurt Thompson.

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just returned from an amazing five-day sojourn in the mountains, at the Windy Springs Preserve, in which I learned the basics of animal tracking from a pair of wonderful teachers, Jim Lowery and Mary Brooks of Earth Skills.

Tracking is the kind of skill that you can easily spend a lifetime, or two, developing. Yet it is also possible, with good teachers, for even a neophite like me to pick up a working knowledge of the art over a couple of days. By the end of the class, I was able spend an enthralling hour tracking a cottontail through a maze of sagebrush–all by myself.  Over the course of the class, I was fortunate enough to see the tracks of deer, bobcats, bears, coyotes, cottontails, jack rabbits, grey squirrels, chipmunks, kangaroo rats, foxes, mice, snakes, horned toads, lizards and beetles. We also got to practice tracking people, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I particularly appreciated about this class was that Jim and Mary encourage you to use your intuition as well as the “hard skills” of print identification, precise measurement, gait recognition, animal behavior, etc. For me, this was rewarding–and intriguing. It took tracking out of a purely left-brain zone, into a place of deep connection with both the animal and the landscape.

You can down load a free pdf on tracking basics from their website.

Tracking and Gardening

Now that I’m home, it strikes me that some of these skills I learned could be useful in the garden. Most anybody with a garden has had a moment when they wonder, “Just what kind of critter is digging holes in my beds?” or “Who is eating my cilantro down to nubs?” With my new knowledge set, I can answer these questions by setting up a track trap.

A track trap is an area of soil smoothed flat to capture animal tracks. In this class we used two methods: one was to drag a big, flat sack full of dirt (for weight) across stretches of open ground to smooth and compress the soil. When made in the evening, these clear spaces catch the prints of any animals that come through overnight or in the early morning. The results the next day were often spectacular–a clean, written record of the night’s activities. You may have seen this type of trap occur naturally on the bank of lake, or on a beach, or on a clean stretch of ground after a rain.

The other type of trap made by dusting a thin layer of dry clay on the rough side of a particleboard sheet, and then arching a piece of something flexible, like thin metal sheeting, over the board to protect the clay bed from wind, birds etc. If positioned correctly, these traps catch the tracks of smaller creatures–rodent types–very neatly.

If your garden topography allows it, you could drag clear the area around your beds in the evening and see what prints might show in the morning. The Internets are full of track pictures that you can use to identify your particular culprit. You probably already have a few guesses about who it is–it would only take a minute of googling to find out the difference between the tracks of, say, an opossum and a skunk. Or a feral cat and a raccoon. Even if the prints are not particularly clear, you can often tell a lot just by their size. Websites with track ID pictures come with notes about standard measurements.

Once you know for sure who is causing the mischief, it might be easier to come up with solutions for how to protect your garden. For instance, you could look up advice from your local Integrated Pest Management program, like the one offered by the University of California.

Note: If you’re in the market for a good tracking book, I can recommend the book we used in class, The Tracker’s Field Guide, written by one of the teachers.

Support Locally Sourced Kittens

Mrs. Homegrown here:
Our friend, Anne–who stuck us gifted us with our own kitten a couple of months ago, now has a pair of rescued kitties looking for a home. They came to her in bad shape, their tiny little bodies crawling with fleas, so much so that the water of their first bath turned blood red. One was very, very sick with some sort of intestinal bug. He didn’t seem likely to make it, but recovered, thanks to Anne’s 24-hour care.
But those dark days are over. These authentic HaFo SaFo street kitties (HaFo SaFo is a neighborhood in LA, and a blog)  are now healthy, happy, darn cute and ready for permanent homes. They are well socialized to humans, as well as other cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, ducks and turtles.
The kittens are siblings. They have very similar markings, the difference being that one has crisp-edged markings, the other blurry-edged markings. Therefore, the kittens are provisionally known as Sharp and Blurry, or Dodge and Blur. Sharp is a girl, Blurry a boy.  I believe they could be adopted together or separately.
Anne is happy to give them free to a good home. If the adopter wanted to make some contribution toward medical expenses, that would be cool–because Blurry needed about $100 worth of medicine–but it’s not at all required. Most important is that they get a home. 
Remember, kittens are a most excellent source of low-tech entertainment and chemical-free rodent control, an ideal addition to any homestead–guaranteed to be useful throughout the zombie apocalypse!
If you’re interested, send us email at [email protected], and we’ll pass you on to Anne. 
Please be sure to pass this on to any cat-susceptible friends you might have, too. Thanks for your help finding these little guys a home!
Note: Erik is worried this sets a precedent, and that Root Simple will soon become Pet Simple, because we’ll be inundated by requests to advertise pets. So let’s lay this out now–we won’t. That’s not our mission. But Anne is our friend, and she lives just few blocks away from us, and rescued our cat as well as Blurry and Sharp from the immediate neighborhood. Therefore our kitten and these are siblings, of a sort.
Speaking of which…

***

Update on our kitten:

Our kitten is now confirmed to be female. She’s about 12 weeks old now, still very small, compared to adult cats, but all graceful and cat-proportioned (as the photo above illustrates). The toddling, cuddly kitten stage is far behind. Now she spends 80% of her waking hours practicing killing things in ever more spectacular ways, and the remaining 20% getting into trouble by exploring where she should not (knocking over things, missing jumps, falling off ledges, getting coated with dust bunnies). As I said, kittens are excellent source of low-tech entertainment.
As for a name, we’ve been having trouble naming her. Nothing sticks. As of now, she’s named Phoebe, after the formidable, insect-eating birds that stalk our backyard. She’s as much of a hunter as any phoebe–and black, too. Her surname is WoadNyx, because she really needs a witchy name, since she seems to be born of 100% pure Halloween cat stock: Phoebe WoadNyx.
My allergies were really doing well, but just in the last couple of days I’ve turned into a walking snot factory. However, it may be seasonal allergies. It’s so hard to tell. I have faith that this will pass. It has to, really, because Phoebe and Erik are in the midst of a shameless love affair, and I don’t think I can make him choose between us. When she hears him come in, she runs to greet him, like a dog. She sleeps on top of him, purring like an outboard motor. It’s ridiculous. I--I am nothing but the sniffling human who brings her dinner, a fine enough thing to sit upon when The Great One is not around. 
Cats.

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(the above is a contribution to this post by the demon herself)

Cat Litter Composting

Pocket Nitrogen Generator

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

Apologies to you googlers looking for solid answers. This is what Erik calls a probe. I’ve decided to compost our kitten’s litter box waste, and this is how I plan to go about it. However, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot as I go, so this post isn’t instructional. I will post a report once the system gets going.

The real reason I’m posting is because I’d love is to hear from any of you who do this already–tips are much appreciated! I’m particularly interested in finding a good brand of litter that composts well.

The basic gist:

Okay, first, anyone who’s gone through Composting 101 knows they say not to put pet waste, especially dog and cat waste, in your regular compost bin. This is because cat and dog poop contains pathogens. We never composted our late dog’s waste, and for 12 years we sent at least two big plastic bags of poop to the landfill every day. Parents who use disposable diapers got nothing on me in terms of environmental guilt.

Now we’ve got this cat, and I’m looking in her litter box and seeing nothing but carbon and nitrogen. I can’t stand it. I’m disregarding Composting 101 rules because I know this can be done, if done carefully. Over the years I’ve learned to be amazed by the Cleansing Power of Compost & Time, especially since we started doing some humanure composting. Check that link for more info on Jenkins’ good work in that area–research, technique, message boards, etc. It’s all there. Human, cat and dog waste are all more tricky to work with than your more benign chicken and bunny waste. This isn’t something one should do in a half-assed way, but it is possible.

The plan I’m going to follow is the basic humanure model, which is classic composting, but with lots of attention and care, followed by a 2 year rest period for the full bin, during which time worms and bacteria do their scrubbing magic to help remove any lingering nasties. When the first batch is done, I’ll have a sample lab tested, just out of curiosity.

Whatever I do, I won’t spread my finished compost on food crops, but instead under our trees and around our perennials. 

I have considered doing this via a worm bin, but as I understand it, the worms don’t like the fresh pet waste–and understandably, too! They like to come in when it’s broken down a bit. I’ll definitely add worms to the bin when the rest period begins. But if anyone has a pet-waste worm bin, let me know how that’s going!

Now I have to find a spot for (yet another) bin of poo in our yard.

(Do I hear the soundtrack to Deliverance playing, or is that just my imagination?)

Update: Read what I decided to do in The Cat Poop Portal

How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.


I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

Deep Bedding for Chickens

We’ve got about 5-6″ of loose stuff on the floor of our chicken run. Underneath that, it’s black gold.

Around this time of year, folks are getting chickens. Some for the first time. So I figured it was time to talk about deep bedding again. I know we’ve written about it before, in our book, or on this blog, but this advice bears repeating:

Nature abhors bare ground. 
Line your chicken coop and run with a thick layer of mulch.

Doing this is called “deep bedding.”

Deep bedding solves a whole lot of chicken-related problems in one easy step:

  • It goes a long way toward controlling odor. 
  • It reduces flies (it not only absorbs poop, it actually fosters parasites that kill fly eggs)
  • It makes the coop area much more attractive to look at. 
  • It gives the chickens more to do (ie scratch) which keeps them happy, which keeps them from developing bad behaviors
  • It saves you work, because you don’t have to clean it out very often. Maybe not at all. Depending on your set up.

(This is a little off topic, but in a similar way we also advocate thick mulch over any bare ground in your yard. It will improve the soil, encourage worms, discourage weeds, conserve water, etc. If we had lots of spare time, money and a big truck, we’d drive around LA dumping mulch on the many, many parched landscapes that desperately need it.)

    How deep? What do I use?

    The deeper the better. Say 4 or 5 inches to start, and you will add more to that as it breaks down. As to what to use, you can use any dry organic matter–leaves, husks, straw, dry grass clippings, pine needles. We use straw, and a lot of dead leaves fall into the run, too.

    If you want to use straw, try this: just toss a few flakes* of straw into the center of the coop, and the ladies will do all the work of distributing it for you. Scouts honor. Go away, come back in an hour, and it will be so level and even, it will look like you spread it yourself.

    Start to think about your chicken coop/run as a compost pile rather than as an animal enclosure. That is what it will become. The chickens break down the bedding material, all the veg scraps you give them, and their own manure, through their constant scratching. Over time, the floor of the coop and/or run becomes a deep soft deposit of compost. Ours is sort of like quicksand. We throw all sorts of stuff in there–kitchen scraps, huge stalks of bolted lettuce, armloads of nasturtium, squash rinds–whatever goes in vanishes within a day or two. The hens peck at it until all the good stuff is gone. Then they trample it. Then they bury it. It all becomes one.

    Wear and weather break down the bedding, so you will need to add fresh material every so often. You may also choose to harvest the compost that accumulates in the run. When you do so is up to you. We don’t harvest more than once a year, but your mileage may vary. When you do clean it out, replace what you took with lots of new bedding.

    You will probably want to transfer what you harvest into a compost pile to finish up before it goes into your garden.

    Note: The hen house is different

    Our hens don’t spend any of their waking hours in the hen house, except to visit in the laying box. This means they never scratch around in there, which means this whole “living compost” system just doesn’t work in the house. The poop remains where it falls beneath the roost, untouched. Because of this, we have to clean the house out regularly. To make clean up faster, we don’t use straw or leaves inside–though we could–instead we use wood shavings, because those scoop out fast and easy, like a cat box. The soiled litter goes into our compost pile.

    Hens so hot, they had to be put behind bars!

    *Flake, a vocab word: Straw bales are compressed in such a way that when they are unbound, they come apart in sections about 4 or 5 inches thick. These are called “flakes.”

    Meet the drones

    Action shot! Check out those huge, beautiful eyes

    I found this drone scrambling around on the ground in our yard. I don’t know why he was there. Perhaps he was all worn out from nightclubbing. Perhaps the ladies in his hive had booted him out. It’s hard to say. But I enjoyed taking a close at him, to appreciate the difference between him and his sisters, the worker bees, first hand.

    Worker–Queen–Drone

    Drones are longer than the workers, and a lot thicker through the body. Not so large that they’d be mistaken for bumble bees, but they’re definitely big, husky boys. The queen is longer than a drone, but much more slender–and anyway, unless you happen to catch her mating flight, you’ll never see a queen out and about. So if you spot an extra-large honey bee, it’s a drone.

    The other dead giveaway for drones is their huge, shining eyes. Drones have one function only: to mate with a virgin queen. Should one come by. And should they be able to catch her. So they have to be on constant lookout, and moreover, they have to be looking up at all times, because she won’t be stretched out on a lounge chair, waiting for him to bring her a cocktail. She’ll be flying super-high up. He needs those huge eyes to spot her.

    (As an aside, I don’t know why drone has become a synonym for a mindless worker (e.g. office drones). Drone should be a synonym for a highly privileged but ultimately disposable male, a male who lives off the work of others, his sole function to continue his genetic line, i.e, an aristocrat. I read a P.G. Wodehouse novel in which a gentleman’s club–in the historical, English sense of the term, not the euphemistic strip-joint sense–was named the Drone’s Club. And that was the best use of drone I’ve yet encountered.)

    The last thing–and the coolest thing–you should know about drones is that they don’t have stingers. They cannot sting. Or bite. Or even wound you with a sarcastic remark. They’re lovers, not fighters. So if you’ve always wanted to pet a bee, don’t be afraid to pick one up.

    Erik has been reading up on the amazing, secret life of drones lately, and I hope he’ll post about that soon. It will blow your mind.