Garden Beneficials

My garden is entirely organic. Other than a limited use of Sluggo when the slugs get completely out of hand, I don’t use even natural sprays.  And hopefully, I’ll be able to discontinue even the use of Sluggo eventually. I have noticed SUCH a difference in my yard since I stopped trying to control nature.

Things that used to be a problem, like aphids, just really don’t exist for me anymore. I used to have aphids covering my rose buds in spring, now I rarely see any. If you leave the bugs alone, the predator insects will come! I have tons of ladybugs instead. Last year, I planted a lot of currant bushes, and I had little worms eating the leaves. I fed a few to the quail, but otherwise, I left them alone. This year, I saw about two worms…before something swooped in and devoured them. I have never seen such gorgeous currant leaves!

It really bothers me when people’s first reaction to seeing an unfamiliar bug is to kill it. So many posts on my gardening groups are something like: “What is this bug and how do I kill it?” Killing things should not be our first reaction! Just today, I was out by one of my mini ponds, and I saw these gross-looking larvae swimming around in it. They looked like maggots with rat tails…and no joke, when I googled, them, that what they turned out to be named: Rat Tail Maggots! Ick! Kill them!!!!

Not so fast. Turns out they are the larvae of Drone or Hover flies, and they are a very important beneficial bug in the garden. Resembling pretty little bees, these flies are great pollinators, and are one of the top predators of worms, caterpillars, and aphids. I want these guys in my garden. I’m willing to let their gross (but weirdly interesting) larvae live in my pond. So glad I didn’t just dump out the water and kill them.

I also enjoy having non-bug beneficials in my garden…like moles. Yes, moles ARE beneficial!

Contrary to public opinion, they don’t eat your vegetables…or any vegetation at all. They burrow through your soil, improving it while consuming worms and grubs. Having a mole take up residence is usually a sign that you have pretty good soil…and you’ll have even better soil by the time he moves on. Sure, he pushes up little hills of dirt here and there, but that’s no biggie.

The only critter I’m having a problem with right now is baby rabbits. Wild ones, from the field behind me. Once they are grown, they are too large to fit through my fence, but baby rabbits are tiny and squishy and cute. Cute…until they eat every single kohlrabi you plant…and do it over and over, because you think you have covered all the holes, so you plant more, and THOSE vanish overnight too. I have a bunch of scrap wire and wood lining the bottom half of my fence now, but my kohlrabi are safe at last. I don’t mind sharing – but I do want some for myself and my chickens!

It is amazing how useful birds are, too. I do have to cover my sunflower and pea sprouts, but otherwise they leave most things alone. And they eat tremendous amounts of bugs. I see the little nuthatches hanging upside down in my roses, looking for bugs. It’s far more interesting, then simply putting out a feeder…because you get to see birds doing actual bird behavior. I need to get more nest boxes out there! The one in the picture above has been in constant use so far this year. The nesting pair gathers feathers from my chickens to refresh the nest after clutch. Even though it is right above one of my most used paths!

One thing I don’t have…yet…is snakes. I’m working on attracting some, but until then, I make do with $1 plastic ones from Walmart. I place them where I really don’t want birds – with my pea sprouts, my ripening strawberries, etc, and they really do keep the birds from coming too close. Even the chickens stay away!

It seems like every time I go out in the garden, I see some new wildlife activity, and it’s so cool.

In other garden news, I have so much lovely fruit ripening from trees that I planted. This year, my very first espalier apple is producing: Cox’s Orange Pippin, a very old heirloom variety and reputedly one of the best tasting…if not THE best tasting. Apparently the taste depends a lot of which part of the world it’s grown in.  It’s from England originally, and since the Pacific Northwest is basically the exact climate as England, I have hopes it will be amazing here.

Also going crazy are the little peach trees I planted just last year. I can’t believe they are producing at all – much less so bountifully! There are at least two dozen peaches developing.

And since I picked great old varieties with leaf curl resistance, I’m having no problems with no spraying.  One is Indian Free, the other is Charlotte.

A garden is a magical place.

The Little Meats

These guys have been such a pleasure to have around. I don’t know whether it’s the breed (Naked Necks) or just because there are ten of them (plus one future layer) but they are FUN.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve shown you pictures, so I’m putting them in chronological order, so you can see them grow. They still have a ways to go before they have their ‘one bad day’ as Joel Salatin puts it, but until then, they are having a ball.

They are experimenting with the Big Girls’ perch – much to the dismay of the Ellie, my Welsummer who likes to go to bed early.  It’s simply impossible, she says, for a civilized hen to share a perch with such an uncivilized gang of youngsters.

And just look at their necks! Are we sure they aren’t diseased???

The babies love their kefir.

Even the new future egg-layer, our Golden Sexlink. We have named her Matilda, Tilda for short.

She is the sweetest little bird. I have to be very careful not to step on her, because she’s always right at my ankles. I haven’t socialized these meat birds much, because…well, they ARE meat birds. They aren’t scared of me (because I bring the food) but they don’t really want to be touched. Tilda does. Even though she was raised exactly the same, she started approaching me, and wanting affection – or at least extra treats!

They love to sunbathe – they spend more time stretched out in the sun than any chickens I’ve ever raised.

And when they are in the way back part of their yard, and they hear me coming with the fermented grain, it’s like having a little flock of velociraptors. They are fierce, when they run!  Sometimes, it startles me…but always, it makes me laugh. I need to try and get a video of it.  I did get a video of them drinking kefir.

I just took this pic today. Relaxed, happy babies, just hanging out.

And Ellie peeking at them through the grape vines, still convinced there’s something wrong with them…

I have been working on planting the chicken areas with lots of future fruit sources: grapes, mulberry, blackberries, herbs, wolfberry, roses, apples, and many others. It’s really starting to look pretty nice, and the girls appreciate the greenery, even if it’s too soon for fruit.

I have also spread a thick layer of wood chips out here. The chickens are not very fond of them when they are fresh – I don’t know if they don’t like the smell, or the prickliness of all the pine needles and twigs, but it prevents the ground from turning to mud in winter, and bare, dry, cracked earth in summer. Once the chips age a few months, they will be in here, constantly digging through it and finding tons of worms and bugs.

April Garden Improvements

In between building the future rabbit colony housing, I’ve found time to make a few decorative improvements to the garden.  Over the last year, I’ve been adding more and more food-producing trees, shrubs, and plants to the chicken’s yard. And finally, it’s beginning to green out.

They will have blackberries, jostaberries, seaberries, mulberries, apples, currants, grapes, roses, oregon grape, and various other plants and herbs. I’m also working on building them grazing beds, with edible greens underneath.

These two are planted with red clover. once the greens grow up high enough to reach up to the wire, the chickens will be able to pick at them – without being able to kill them by either digging or over-grazing. I need to get more finished, with kale and wheatgrass, and other tasty things.

The south facing stone patio next to our house, while wonderfully warm in early spring, is way too hot at the height of summer. To cool it down a little, I’ve built trellises, and plan to grow green beans up them to provide food and a little shade.

And my personal favorite, that makes me happy every time I see it: a mirror, at the end of one of the garden paths!

It adds the illusion of more space, and more life to the garden. I wish these pictures could fully capture it.

Spring is such a wonderful time of year. Green is such a lovely color, after all that winter….

Chicks!

First time foster mother Ophelia, my frizzle cochin hen, has been doing an excellent job with her new family. Eleven babies would be a handful for anyone, however experienced, and I think she’s sometimes a little frazzled by them…but she hasn’t lost one yet (permanently, at least!)

Ten of her babies are the “little meats” as my mom calls them…our future dinners. They are Naked Necks, a traditional meat breed.

The other is a Golden Sexlink, and we’ll be keeping her as an egg-layer.

We might keep just one of the Naked Necks, too. I’m considering keeping my own breeding flock, and I’d like to test the breed and see how I like them as adults.

I love raising chicks with a broody hen; there is no fussing over temperature and heaters – the chicks just run free whenever they want, ducking in under mama whenever they get chilly. And they spend a surprising amount of time out in the world, even when they are just a few days old. It makes for stronger, healthier hens, I think. Plus, they eat whatever mama eats, which means lots of greens, bugs, and worms.

The other adult hens do not bother them, other than a warning peck if they get into trouble.  But as they grow up, they gradually grow into the flock, without any of the trauma and difficulty of introducing “stranger birds” into an established flock.

And there is nothing more amusing than watching chicks get into mischief. Here they are invading the hens’ food bucket. I came out to do a head count and make sure everyone was ok, and came up missing a few. Here’s where I found them!

Growing a Little Fruit Tree

My gardening life changed the moment I stumbled across a book called “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” by Ann Ralph.  I have a large yard, but it’s still a city yard. I have no room for fruit trees…or so I thought, until I read this book. Now I have 22 fruit trees – and I’ll be adding a few more next year. And this does not include bushes,  like blueberries or gooseberries! (I have many more of those.)

A few of the trees are traditional espalier trees, that I grew from one year-old “whips” (basically a skinny little stick on roots). One of my espalier pears is blooming this year for the first time.

It’s four years old, and I’m hoping for fruit, even though its pollination pear is not blooming this year (it’s a year younger). Maybe a neighbor has a pear I don’t know about? I can hope, right?

My four year old espalier apple is also blooming.

Apple blossoms are so pretty.

I like the art of espalier, even though I’ll probably get more fruit from the “little tree” method. Supposedly, about 100 apples per tree. Given that I currently have seven apple trees, that is a very nice number!

I also have a couple of columnar apples, which are really taking off, and looking quite gorgeous.

I could be pruning them into more of an exacting columnar shape, but I rather like the extra branches.

All of the “little trees” were planted last year, and although I chopped their little trunks off even with my knee immediately after planting them, they have grown immensely.

I have two peaches, both planted together only about a foot apart. This distance helps keep them small, and of course is great for pollination.  Both peaches bloomed this year, so I’m hoping for a few actual peaches!

One of the trees was covered in the brightest pink blossoms possible. I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of the entire tree in bloom, but here’s a close up the flowers.

I have four plums, and am planning to add a couple more next year.

Two of them produced a handful of flowers, so probably next year I’ll see fruit.

Last year, I planted two sweet cherries.

And this year, two sour cherries. These are hard to see, because they haven’t leafed out yet, and are just sticks in the ground, cut off at knee level.

Can you see them? Look for the blue and yellow tags!

The cutest little tree I have is my Dolgo crabapple.  (Ignore the cardboard, we’re expanding our Back to Eden garden, and are anxiously awaiting a load of wood chips to cover said cardboard!)

Planted last year, it astonished me by producing exactly one little apple. This year, it’s blooming quite well, and I expect to get several more. See how perfectly adorable it is? And see how many branches it’s grown in one year?

I love this method. Basically, I will always keep these trees small enough to reach all the branches while standing with both feet on the ground. No ladders, no picking hooks. I could not recommend Ann Ralph’s book any higher!

New Chicks!

Life on this fallen earth being what it is, for every joyful event, there’s a sad one. Today, we brought home a box of baby chicks…last week one of our original old hens died. Antoinette, our Delaware, who lived up to her French name by loving to eat snails.

She was feisty, and bossy, and the first one into everything new. For the last three years or so, she’d been having trouble with a bit of lameness that I was never able to discover a cause for. It didn’t slow her down much…other than being unable to jump up onto her roost at night.  Her last day, she seemed fine, and it was a perfect day for a hen. She got to help me plant new trees in her yard – lots of tasty bugs and worms! – and later, she sunbathed with her sister. When it started to rain, I waited it out with her in the coop, so she had a lovely long snuggle…one of her favorite things in the world.

And then, in the morning, she was just…gone. Dead, I think, of a heart attack or stroke. She was quite an old girl. She’ll be missed.

But chicks! There is nothing like the happiness of bringing home a box full of babies!

There are ten Naked Neck chicks in there, and one Golden Sexlink. The Sexlink (name still to be chosen) will be joining the flock as a new egglayer. I’ve never had a Sexlink before, preferring the heritage breeds, but I’ve heard they are terrific winter layers – something my heritage breeds are not. This is a test. If she does well, I might keep a couple Sexlinks permanently in the flock.

The Naked Necks are for meat. If I like this breed, I might try keeping a rooster and a few hens so I can produce my own chicks of this breed every year.

The new chicks are being foster-mothered by my grey Cochin, Ophelia.

She was kind enough to go broody for the first time nearly EXACTLY two weeks before the store was stocking Naked Necks.  We just put the babies underneath her, and she took to them instantly. I think she’s going to be a great mother – fingers crossed! It’s good she’s so big and soft and fluffy, since she has eleven babies to care for. The most we’ve ever given a broody before was four. It’s going to be so cute, when she starts taking them out and teaching them how to be chickens!

Mostly Birds, Wild and Tame.

Mom made the fabulous discovery that our local food co-op no longer demands that you sign up to get vegetable scraps from them. Now, they just put whatever they have out in bags, and it’s first-come, first-serve. So far, we’ve gotten three bags. They went through the first bag in a shot, but still have a ways to go on the recent bags!

They even had a bunch of apples and nectarines in there!

Soon, hopefully, there will be lots of veggies to eat in their own run. Last year – and this Spring – I’ve made a point of planting all kinds of fruit bearing trees and bushes in their yard. Today, I put out several wood frames that I will staple wire over, then plant underneath. They’ll be able to eat the wheat grass, clover, kale, etc that I plant, but not get to the roots to dig them up.

They are happy, spoiled chickens. Someone needs to tell them that, so they stop whining at me!

The most exciting news in the chicken world, though, is this:

My frizzle cochin Ophelia has gone broody! This is exactly what I wanted when I chose this breed: a hen that would raise chicks for me early in the year. I have two other girls that are hit-or-miss broodies, but they always go broody late, when all the chicks I want are already gone from the stores.

This year, I’m getting 8-10 Naked Necks to raise for meat, and I really, really, wanted a broody to do all the work for me. Broodies are amazing. And Ophelia is timing it perfectly – almost two weeks to the DAY after she took to her nest and became a hissing, growling fluff of hormones, is the one day when the store is going to stock Naked Neck chicks.

Speaking of hormones, puberty finally struck my sweet little Bobwhite quail, and literally, in one single day, they went from all snuggling together to chasing each other around and trying to commit murder. I’m not even exaggerating on the murder thing – I’ve found quail pecked to death overnight with previous groups. I don’t want it to happen again. So I since I have one pair of snowflake bobwhite quail, I separated those out first into the empty “Display Coop”.

That solved the issue for about an hour. Then one white male started bullying all the others. I separated him out. Peace for almost a day. Then a second male started in with the bullying, so I took him out. I say ‘bullying’ but it was absolute terrorizing! The other quail, which mostly prefer to stay on the ground, were flying up to the very top of the cage and cowering behind the parakeet nest boxes, afraid to move.  It was so sad to see that it made it alot easier on me to butcher the troublemakers. The final two whites (which I suspect are both girls) are finally at peace. They are so happy. They get to stay, although I plan to move them into one of the small coops later this summer, and hatch out some California Valley Quail – you know, the ones with the topknots? I’ve always wanted some of those.

Every batch of quail I hatch all have a single theme for their names – it makes it easier to remember which clutch they came from. The bobwhites are Harry Potter themed. The Snowflake pair are “Buckbeak” and “Bellatrix”. One of the whites is “Luna”. But I’m stuck on a good girl name for the other white.  And suggestions?

The wild birds are checking out my nest boxes (I need to get lots more of those built before next year), the bumblebee queens are out looking for homes, and look! Someone very special moved into my honeysuckle tree! I haven’t caught sight of the resident yet, but I think it’s a positive sign.

This is going to be a very good year.