Chickens in Motion

I’m giving the chickens short, very supervised visits to the side yard – working to get them used to the idea of going back into the house, and also making sure that the dogs become acquainted with them as members of the family, rather than crunchy squeaky toys.

This is Thing One.  I keep getting the most photos of her, because she’s the chicken that will reliably come when I call.  She’s a lot less pettable than before they went outside – I’m glad to have them out of the upstairs bathroom, but I kind of miss cuddling their sweet feathery bodies in  the crook of my arm.

The chickens are definitely making more of a cluck than a peep these days – except Freebird, who still peeps and runs around like the sky is falling.  If she weren’t Freebird, she’d be Chicken Little.  But, this bird you cannot change. I think she’s a few days younger than the rest. They eat grass like a kid eats spaghetti noodles – they break it off about halfway down the stalk, and work it in long-ways. I tried to get a picture, but they’re so fast it’s hard to catch it happening.

As always, the thing that works best for getting a good shot is shameless bribery.  I’ve got a cabbage looper moth in my hand.

She goes for it.  They’re becoming a little heavier-bodied, and not quite as keen to fly distances, but they can still catch some air.

Nothin’ but net, baby.

One insect that the chickens are NOT going to be fed, is assassin bugs.  These voracious killers wipe out a lot of bad bugs; the beaky thing tucked under its chin whips out and impales the unwary victim, and the assassin bug uses it like a soda straw to suck out the insides of its prey.  The way they pose kind of reminds me of America’s Next Top Model… work those long legs, baby.

Chickenbee Update

The coop in its new home in the side yard.

The chickens are doing well.  After a couple of days of not being able to figure out how to go up and down the plank, they’ve finally managed it, and they go back and forth easily.  Their voices are changing; they are starting to make clucking chicken noises instead of songbird tweets and chirps.  Their bodies are starting to develop into chicken-y shapes, but they’ve still got some chick fluff; they’re like awkward chicken teenagers.

Bees continue to do well.  A lot of the capped brood has been hatching, and they’re back-filling the emptied brood cells with honey.

The patterns of color in the pollen remind me of the old Lite-Brite.

I saw two queen cups, and the possible makings of a third and fourth.  They were all high up on the frame, not hanging from the bottoms – which makes me wonder if the hive is going to try superseding the queen.  I’m not sure how concerned to be about this; if anyone has advice, I’m keen to hear it.  Perhaps they’re just “insurance cups.”

Twice in the past week, there has been a busy cloud of buzzing bees outside the hive.  A lot of them seem to be trying to get in from beneath.  I checked very carefully, and they’re not getting in… they’re just trying to.  The hive has a screened bottom, so perhaps they’re smelling the hive and the honey and thinking they can get at it.  I’m thinking there might be robbing going on.

The entrance.  Notice how many bees are going *under* the hive, like they’ll find a back door.  When I removed the screen, I put the entrance reducer on in “small” mode, and had just last week opened it up to “medium” – I think they may not have been ready for that yet. I put it back to “small,” and haven’t noticed the problem since.

Mimosa is blooming across the creek, and it smells sweet in the afternoon sun.  I have fond memories of these from when I was growing up; there was a big one near my grandparents’ house.

Chicken Coop

Chris built a chicken coop this weekend.  I helped some, screwing on the flashing and attaching some of the hardware cloth, but it’s really Chris’s baby.

We decided on a design based on the A-frame “Ark” style of chicken coop, like the Wentworth Mountain Arks.  This allows the coop to be moved from spot to spot in the garden, so that the chickens can cultivate and fertilize a new area every few months.  It’s also got a lot of cool and convenient features for managing them.

One whole side lifts off and pulls away, so that it’s easy to get access to the whole top portion.  This is useful for cleaning.

On each end, there’s a triangular door that hinges down to allow access for egg collecting.  Each short side has two nest boxes, and there’s a roost that runs the length of the center. I put two handles on each end, but even with the handles, it’s a heavy and ungainly thing to move.  It’s portable, for a given value of port.  I’m planning a lightweight “afternoon playpen” type of thing for them later on, made of bamboo and convenient to pop around the garden for them to weed and feed.

The chickens have access to an enclosed ground area below the body of the ark, by way of a gang plank that you can see in the picture above.

This rope pulls up the gang plank, sealing the chickens in safely for night.  We haven’t seen evidence of a lot of nocturnal prowlers in our area, but this security gives us peace of mind that the chickens won’t be dinner for some racoon or feral cat.

One end of the coop has a screen door that hinges up.  This allows us to get in to change their food and water.

While it’s not exactly comfortable, it’s possible to get entirely inside the coop.

The chickens in their new home.  I tried putting two in the top and three in the bottom, hoping that they’d call to one another and figure out the gangplank; this was a failure.  Chris ended up crawling into the run, catching each chicken by hand, and passing them up to me to put in the coop portion for the night.  Chickens are not very bright.  They just sat there doing their best “The Sky Is Falling” imitation, interspersed with random moments of  “Ooh, a bug!”  We’ll see if they can figure it out in the morning.

Kego was *fascinated* by the chickens.  She’s got a lot of herding instinct; I’m hoping that in time, she can be helpful in chicken management.

Bees Hatching Out

I had another nice visit with the bees.  I’m getting much more of a handle on the process and the feel of working through the frames.

Her Maj the Q continues to lay a lot of eggs.  The bees are no longer taking the sugar syrup, so I hope they’re putting up some real honey.  Lots of pollen in there too!

Itty bitty baby bees.  I’ve had plenty of insect metamorphosis around me – but it still amazes me that these tiny grubs lying in puddles of goo are bee larvae.

Any of my bee peeps know what’s going on here?  It looks like a wispy cocoon that’s gotten some dirt on it.

About-to-be-capped pupae.  You can see the cap starting to build over the bottom of the three.  Their eyes are purple, and this is the first time I’ve ever really SEEN the three simple eyes on the forehead.

A new bee chewing its way out of the cell.

And a little video of the same bee.


The squashes are blooming like crazy.

Unfortunately, today’s crop are all boys!  I need to learn how to make the stuffed-and-fried version; I understand they’re quite a tasty treat.

Looking closer, there’s something in them… the bees are still asleep this early in the morning, but the blossoms already have visitors.

Ants.  Tiny ants are visiting the squash blossoms.  I hope they are tracking pollen!  There’s a little opening at the base of the flower; it almost looks like a secret ant clubhouse.

Most of the tomato blossoms look like this.  This is a Better Boy plant; its blossoms come mostly in clusters of four or five, while the cherry and grape plants put out clusters of six to a dozen.

But on one plant, many of the flowers look like this.  They’re not double, in the sense of having two rows of petals – they look like two flowers worth of stuff packed into one flower.  This is still a Better Boy – same seed packet as the first one, growing in the same bed.

Then some of them (on that one plant) look like this.  Anybody know what’s going on there?

It doesn’t seem to be stopping the plant from setting healthy fruit, but they do have a slightly more ridged texture.  The brown mark appears to be just a little bit of schmutz from the remains of the flower, I don’t think it’s blossom-end rot.  We’ll see what we get… as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Hopefully they’ll taste OK!

I pulled the Shanghai bok choi and the remainder of the spinach, radishes, and salad mix.  Once we started getting ninety-degree afternoon temps, the lettuces all turned bitter and started bolting.  I had envisioned saving the seed from the bok choi, but then I learned that members of the cabbage/mustard family can all hybridize, and we’ve got a strong population of wild mustard in this part of Texas – I’d be much better off getting fresh seed this fall.  I put in seeds for more squash and some more of the purple orach.  I am planning to pull the rest of the mustard and plant some seeds for grain amaranth and pearl millet.

Because we’re doing the garden organically, I’m particularly on the lookout for pests.  These are squash borer moths.  Their eggs (you can see two of them, near the center of the photo) will hatch out into hateful little grubs which will chew their way into the squash stems and hollow them out, killing the whole plant for a small bite.  We’ve been spraying the squash with BT (Bacillus thuringensis, a natural insecticidal bacterium), but I figure any moth I can catch with a butterfly net equals 100 to 200 little caterpillars I don’t have to worry about.  They are a wasp mimic, and it’s amazing how well-ingrained the “don’t touch that, it stings” instinct is.  These two are in a little plastic tub, awaiting execution by pecking squad.  The verdict: the chickens declared them delicious.

My Grandmother Read to Me

There was this story my Grandmother read to me… it was a kids book, and I think the title included a family’s name.  This family moved to the country, and a dishonest man sold them a parcel of land that turned out to be a pond… and therefore useless.  Something happened that drained the pond, and the family suddenly had the most amazingly rich, pond-bottom soil.  They would do things like plant corn and ride the burgeoning stalks like hobby-horses as they sprung out of the ground, or plant pumpkins and race them across the fields as the vines sped along.  It was kinda creepy, in a way – fast-moving vegetables are rarely a good thing – but I grew up with that firmly ensconced in my personal mythos. Very, very Kansas.

And that’s a little how I’m feeling about the garden this year.  If things continue to grow at anything like their current pace, we won’t be able to reach the fruits to pick them.  And yes, I know, it will soon be hundred-plus days, and things will slow down.  But it’s SO COOL right now!

Front and center are the fantastic squashes.  They’re really zipping up; compare to the same shot eight days ago:

Eight good days, hey?   There are four kinds of squash; there are two spaghetti squashes (planted from seed we saved from a grocery store vegetable), then two Fordhook zucchini, then one round and one golden zuke.

Even before they flower, the Fordhook zukes are about the size of my thumb.

I’ve always thought these little round zucchinis are SO CUTE.  The plant is cute, too – much more upright and pert than the Fordhook, and covers less ground.  We’ll see if it beats the Fordhook in terms of squash-per-square-foot.

The golden zucchini.  These aren’t as big as the Fordhook, but I think they’re not quite as far along, either.  We’ll see!

These tomatoes are still smaller than tennis balls, but not by much.  Perhaps the size of raquetball balls.  These are the Better Boy plants my Dad started from seed on December 1.   I have good hope of eating one before the end of May.  And no, we’re not fighting some horrible black-speckle fungus – we had a good hard rain, which splashed dirt on everything.

The grape tomato is the only, one, single tomato plant that we didn’t start from seed.  Chris and I love their sweet flavor for salads and snacking, so I had to have one.  Next time, hopefully, from seed.

The orach, or purple mountain spinach, has become one of my favorite vegetables.  It has provided a bunch of delicious greens (or purples?) already, and shows no signs of slowing down or bolting.  I’ll definitely plant this again next year. When sauteed, it releases a dark magenta juice that colors everything it touches, much like beets do.

For some reason, its leaves repel water.  They never get wet.  It goes away when they’re sauteed, and it tastes almost exactly like spinach.  Mixing it with pasta and white cheese sauce and then topping with mozzarella and crumbled cotija anejo cheese yielded something that looked like blackberry cobbler, but tasted like starchy purple happiness.  I love cheese. Purple savory food was a bit weird.

A sweet little purple speedwell.

This is one of Chris’s favorite plants, a sweet broom.  The yellow makes him happy.  They had a huge flush in early spring, and now they’re reblooming; I hope they do it every year!

The herb garden is growing more slowly – this was a huge patch of weeds and Bermuda grass, which we covered with kill mulch.  This soil hasn’t been as much enriched and opened as the garden soil, but hopefully they’ll grow up and out with summer.

In front is a wildflower shade mix, another of the MANY things that we should have planted last fall, had we known.  Now, we know… hopefully we’ll still see some flowers before they get zapped by the summer heat.

A local plant nursery that usually costs about twice as much as most places, but has amazing things you don’t find at the other places, had these spectacular hostas in three-gallon pots for $10 each.  I wish I could have covered this entire area, but I got what I could.  This whole area gets about an hour of sun per day – unfortunately, at noon.  So far, they’re doing OK.

The other two of the hostas, flanking the front porch.  Chris put together the containers that sit on the porch; we’ll do annual colorful things in them, and hopefully they’ll grow well and we’ll remember to water them often.

Edited to add: One of my LiveJournal friends found the book; it’s McBroom’s Wonderful One Acre Farm.

Bees are Doing Well!

I inspected the hive again this evening after work, and got to show Chris’s parents all (of what little I know so far) about the bees.

The queen is doing her job, laying like mad.  This is one busy little frame of comb – it’s honey along the top (although I’m pretty sure it’s “honey” made from the sugar syrup I’ve been feeding them), and pollen below that, and open brood below that, and some capped brood in the middle bottom.  She appears to be laying in a good radial pattern, although there are some odd honey cells in the midst of the bees.  I think this will even out once there is more drawn comb.

HM the Q.  I think it’s cool that only one of her wings is clipped.  She certainly has done a good job so far;  I look forward to seeing all her lovely children start hatching in another week or ten days.

Chris and his mom and Dad.   And a little better perspective on the insane amount of honeysuckle.

Passiflora x “Incense.” This hybrid makes these amazing grape-purple flowers all summer long; they’re about the size of my palm.

Garden and Chicken updates, Honeysuckle, Surprise Moth

The garden is continuing to bang right along.

I’m realizing that some things I planted too densely – like most of it, actually.  It’s hard for me to remember, when they’re tiny four-inch-pot plants that we’ve raised from seeds, that they will become huge monsters.

The mustard is continuing to provide us with spicy and very purple salads.  The bok choi is bolting; I really should have planted these in November, but I didn’t know that then.  I’m letting it bolt, because the bees love it and I’ll get lots of seed for next year.

The pole beans are getting up their poles in good order.  You can see the colors of the fun fancy ones, in the leaf veins – this is Violet Triumph, and Red Emperor has red veins.

The Kentucky Wonder pole beans that I mistook for bush beans and planted in rows, are starting to show their vining nature and putting out their whips.  I need to figure out some kind of stick solution to get these up in the air, or they’ll start attacking the neighboring plants.

The grape tomatoes have full-sized fruit and should be starting to turn soon.

These Better Boys are about the size of golf balls.  The plants are huge and sturdy; I hope they will bear for a good long season!

The chickens are getting to an awkward stage; they’re no longer peeping balls of fluff, and they’re not yet sleek and full-feathered.  They sound a lot like songbirds.

This is Thing One; I’m training Thing One and Thing Two to be Shoulder Chickens.

Freebird could be a couple of days younger than the rest; she’s still smaller.  And SO CUTE!

Last year, the honeysuckle trickled along, blooming a little at a time most of the summer.  I think that we just missed its big flush in the spring; last spring was earlier than this one, plant-wise.   The blur in the background of this shot, is about thirty feet of vine-smothered fence.  We already ripped out about twenty feet that were in a bad place.

This gives you a little better idea of how MUCH there is of it.  Honeysuckle can be very pushy.  Fortunately, it likes to grow on the creek bank; the embankment is covered in really ugly rip-rap and most things won’t grow there.  It smells amazing in the yard right now.

A couple of days ago, I was standing in the front yard watching Chris work (which he will tell you, is how it always happens… ) and I noticed that the leaves blowing across the sidewalk across the street didn’t look quiet right.  One of them righted itself and flapped a couple of times.  It wasn’t a leaf at all, it was a Polyphemus moth.  I’ve never seen them in quite this shade of pale dried-leaf brown; she’s really lovely.

She’s huge with eggs.  I put her in a cage outside, and a local male hooked up with her the same night.  Now, I’ve got plenty of eggs to start the next generation of little silk-makers!

I love her smoky dark eyes…

and her thick, wooly coat.