I believe the bees are in trouble, because of our collective ways of using and abusing this planet. Naively, I also believe we can help them. 

I bought a Flow Hive during their massive crowdfunding campaign. It’s been sitting unopened in 2 separate brown boxes for over a year. The last place I lived had a “no bees” policy. In preparation for getting a nucleus of bees, I have been doing internet research. To be honest, I feel a little scared.
When I was a very little girl, while bees and wasps were still the same thing, I was at the house of my parents’ friends. They had a very mean little boy, about the same age as my older brother. He was old enough to know better. They also had a big slide, the kind with the big red metal arch over the top that I had seen on playgrounds. I remember asking the boy for permission to go on the slide. I remember the grass hadn’t been cut, it was long and dry from the heat. I remember getting to the top of the ladder and seeing that it was full of bees and wasps (I now know it must have been just wasps) and not knowing if I should go quickly through and slide down fast or back down the ladder slowly, because they were angry and after me. I think I screamed. I think I chose the fast route. I don’t remember what happened next, the only other memory I have from that incident is sitting on the bathroom counter with my mom and the boy’s mom, crying, as my mother consoled me and cleaned dirty feet and my many stings with a washcloth. From then on I was told I was allergic to stinging insects, as I would swell up excessively if stung.

Many years later I was on the other side of the continent, and I had another encounter – with real bees this time. I wasn’t having a very good day, for a multitude of reasons I won’t go into here, and I was walking to golden gate park while crying and feeling sad and angry. I was noticing that every square foot of the city felt like it had been trampled on, even in the beautiful, huge, lush park I could smell the stench of old urine and see dirty evidence of humans everywhere. I desperately wanted to find a little patch of undisturbed nature. A bee caught my attention, flying directly across my line of sight, and very close to my face. I stopped. I heard buzzing, saw more bees, and walked slowly closer to them. A hive in a tree in the park in the huge overpopulated dirty city I had just been mentally complaining about had me transfixed, and grounded, and awed. I stood and watched the bees for quite some time. They have very specific flight paths, I noted. Their cooperation is beautiful and steady, predictable. I searched carefully with my eyes for the hive deep in the tree trunk, in vain. My breath was slow and I had regained my sense of self, my sense of purpose. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true, that experience changed something in me. I didn’t want to go back home for a long time, and by the time I felt the urge to start walking I was full of such joy and excitement I was practically skipping. 

Now I’m in a different chapter of my life, a very different chapter, and about to bring a colony into my tiny backyard. Ten thousand bees. Here we go.

Coop co-operation: Project Springtime part 4

It takes about a thousand curse words to complete a chicken coop like mine. 

Also, it isn’t “finished” but it’s complete enough that the chicks have been living in it for a week. 6 week old chicks can make a huge mess, by the way. I’m still cleaning up chicken droppings from my porch, but that’s another story. 

The coop: I liked the plan because it appeared to be simple and straightforward, with an enclosed run below and a coop above for sleeping and laying eggs. I learned a whole lot. I’m not a total stranger to woodworking, but it has been many years since the last time I smelled sawdust. 

It’s particularly important to measure. Everyone will tell you that when you’re working on a wood project, especially when you’re a woman and they’re a man. But it is important. I measured everything except the space I was putting the coop into. I just eyeballed that. Whoops. 

I’m raising urban chickens, so space is at a premium. That was another factor for the coop selection. In my mind, 5.5 by 8 feet is easy to estimate and not so big. Not only is it big, its heavy. 

So the space was an issue, but only by a very very small margin, I’m talking a couple of inches (turns out I’m pretty good at eyeballing measurements!) in the wrong direction. The “landscaping” in the “backyard” here is odd: a mature chestnut tree is immediately surrounded by painfully rough and jagged but uniformly white rocks, and then a narrow long raised flower bed with bricks bordering it goes around 3/4 of the perimeter and opens up to a little garden bed. The rest of the functional “yard” is a concrete slab. I planned to put the coop in the unusable portion of the “yard” behind the long narrow raised flower bed, between it and a (commercial) building which butts right up against this property line. That space, without the bricks on the far side, is about 5.5 feet wide but it has variations that didn’t allow the coop to sit on the ground. 

Luckily, there was an abundance of concrete blocks lying around (and also on the backside of the flower bed, where nobody was looking so it didn’t need to be the pretty/expensive scallop shaped brick). I decided to make a perimeter (hah! That makes it sound homogenous) of concrete blocks, and rest (hah! That makes it sound easy) the coop on top of that. 

Problem 1 with this plan was that the coop was already over in the spot, teetering on little protrusions, somehow balanced but NOT FALLING APART BECAUSE ITS A STURDY…THING. I’m still amazed by this, as you can tell from my use of the caps lock button. 

My help (limited to 2 minutes in between watching the kids and leaving for work) from my partner was getting it over there from the slab where I built it. I could not have done that part alone. The rest (save for that one side he was available to help on) I completed alone. It can be done. 

So there it was teetering, and I’m thinking I have the answer in the form of concrete blocks so I start tossing them into the coop, then I enter the coop and lift the coop by the crossbars with my back while simultaneously shoving the concrete block “perimeter” in place under it. This was by far the hardest part of the project, and while the pain of it did not compare whatsoever to giving birth, I’d like to avoid repeating it.  Some areas have extra blocks in front of them – a halfhearted attempt to disincentivize predators.

 I had to finish the front and back (2 triangles) after the placement. I was unable to procure hardware cloth and unwilling to use more chicken wire (many urban farmers were telling me horror stories), so I chose instead to go “off-plan” and build doors. I stand by this modification, though it is still one of the least complete parts. I was freehanding the circular saw to cut the plywood, which resulted in uneven sides of the doors – wavy, even. I kept having to take them back to the makeshift table (a slab of thinner plywood on 2 plastic sawhorses) and shave off a bit more. Once I was able to fit them in while the coop was on the slab, I expected to be done with that part. However, the weight distribution along the concrete block perimeter, coupled with the blocks themselves sitting at slightly different heights (undetectable to the human eye) meant that the doors did not fit perfectly once the coop was in its place. Lots of shoving, and bits of lifting later, and one door had 2 hinges. The other is just jammed into place, but it’s on the side I don’t need to open. 

Funny thing, today the heat lamp bulb exploded, so I had to open that door I thought I wouldn’t have to open. I used a hammer. Don’t worry, it’s still in one piece. 

Oh there was one other thing I didn’t measure correctly: the placement of the center stabilizing bar on each side. I didn’t see the measurement so I assumed t was halfway up. Later, when the cross bars went in (the ones cut at 30 degrees, which hold up the coop floor), they didn’t sit flush with the stabilizing bar – it was a couple of inches too low. That, of course, meant the side doors (the primary access points) were not the right size anymore, so I had to add a custom trim of a 2×4 on top. It came together in spite of these challenges and I’m proud of my work. 

Here are the things I’d like to fix/finish:

Front and back doors: trim, add hinges.

Side doors: add hinges to far side

All open spaces: add hardware cloth. 

Add nesting box

Make ramp more accessible

Waterproofing: silicone sealant for top gap, ?for other areas around doors. 
The chicks love their coop, although only one can get up and down the ramp. They also love papaya seeds and finding worms. They’re cute chickens. 

Measure everything. 

Coo coo coop. Project Springtime part 3.

It has been cool and rainy every day. All the plants are behind schedule. I’ve had materials for the chicken coop for a month. Boards are cut to size, ready and waiting for me. 

Today it was 85 degrees. 

I do almost everything with my baby strapped to me, but using a power saw is where I draw the line. Actually she draws the line a bit before the power saw, somewhere around hammering or leaning over to measure, but we most certainly will not use the power saw together. 

I finally had the combo I needed today: another adult and no rain.

I chose an A frame coop by Ana White, as it seemed simple and moveable. We are renting and hoping to buy in the next couple of years so I want to take it with us. The top of the A frame has board ends cut at 60 degrees off square. I had our super awesome neighbor’s help the other day getting the 30 degree cuts completed but he didn’t feel comfortable doing the 60 degree cuts. 

Here is the first thing I learned doing this project: 60 degrees off square is tricky!

I am lucky to live in a town with a tool library, so I signed up and borrowed a chop saw. I used one of the 30 degree cut boards as a jig (a device that holds a piece of work and guides the tools operating on it) and secured it to the saw. Then I put the board against the 30 degree cut board, with the blade still set at 30 degrees, endured it was even with my line, and cut. 

It wasn’t perfect. I was still proud. I had to tear off the pieces that were not completely cut off but very close. Then I set the blade to the highest number possible, somewhere around 53, placed JUST the part that hadn’t been cut off into the blade line, and chopped that off. 

Following this, I was interrupted with an urgent chicken need. My other half had heard the chick alarm-peep and noticed a kestrel stalking them very close by, as the chicks retreating to the hedges. He put 2 away successfully but 1 was eluding him so he came to get me. No casualties, except maybe some of my not-quite-seedlings in the planter boxes that he didn’t know were there when the baby decided to plunge her hands into the soil…

Then I began to assemble the sides of the coop, but baby was beside herself and I needed reinforcements. My other half came to the rescue and helped complete the first side, and by then baby was calm, so I quickly put together side 2.

Putting together the sides was slowest during the chicken wire securing part because we couldn’t find the staple gun – I put the chicken wire on from the beginning, with staple-nails and I wish I had just sprung for the hardware cloth (nevermind that my supply total was just over $200 as it was) but I think I’ll get some and put it over the chicken wire and the flooring anyway. 

The sides look good. It appears the next steps should be relatively easy. 

I’m planning to put doors on the front and maybe then back too for easy access everywhere. They’ve got to get off my porch. Do you know how messy chicks are?!

Project Springtime, part 3: letting the girls out

The chicks are getting big, of course, and wanting to explore. I don’t have the heart to put a cover on their brooder so they keep getting out and leaving gross not-exactly-breadcrumb trails showing me where they’ve been all night on my front porch. I re-vamped their area so they’d be leaving trails mostly on cardboard and paper, and hopefully after they transition to the coop it will be easy to clean up after them. 

Today, after many many many days of rain, it was cloudy, and I was home planting seeds. I realized quickly that the girls NEEDED to get out in this short window, as they’re about 6 weeks old and have only known pine shavings and front porchy things. I made a quick makeshift enclosure of the front yard next to me, and brought out clean water. Madame Secretary, the buff Orpington, came out first. She is largest but I’ve realized she isn’t the leader. She was a bit concerned to be out by herself. Rashida and Albertina came out together and they 3 huddled for a moment and moved about in close proximity. It seemed they got pretty excited about the new things to peck at. Sadly, it began to rain – although lightly. I stayed out and finished the planting, and as I was getting ready to bring them in I noticed they were nearing the bushes for cover. 

Thankfully it was a smooth and easy exploration, no casualties or chasing involved. I look forward to more!

And the parts to the chicken coop are all sitting in wait, measured and cut. I will do a lot of things with a baby strapped to me, but using a circular saw to cut the angles on these boards isn’t one of them. Soon I will have help. 

Partly practical gardening (project Springtime, part 2)

Practicality is a helpful trait when gardening. What do you plant? How does it grow? Does it need full sun or partial shade? Will it require support? How much space between full grown plants will you need? How much space do you have? What will your family actually eat?

These are important questions to answer.

I have only had a few opportunities in my adult life to make a garden, but I’ve made the way-too-many-zucchini-plants mistake and the not-enough-kale mistake, and plenty of the I-bought-too-many-potted-plants mistakes. 

Here is what I come to this teeny garden with:

Cucumber, squash, and most tomato plants are prolific. I limited my cucumber seed variety to 1, Parisian pickling cucumbers, and only planted a couple of the seeds, and they’re by the tomato seeds because I plan to add a trellis to that section. We eat a lot of tomatoes; we enjoy them raw for snacking as well as cooked and in salads. I chose 3 varieties, a “Nebraska Wedding” orange midsize, a large red cherry, and a smaller red fig.  They’re all up at the front of the box where they’ll get good sun, it will be easier to add the trellis, and it will be easy to snack on them. There are only 2 squash varieties I included this time: yellow crookneck (a thin skinned small summer squash) and Guatemalan blue (a hardier, heartier, and much larger autumn/winter squash). This is one of a few impractical components in my garden, as I know they need a lot more space than I’m giving them. They could try to take over the boxes but my plan is not to let them by heavy pruning, and keeping only a single plant of each. They’re in the middle of one box, along with a slender tender (white queen?) okra. 

Snacking in the garden is important to us. At the front of the other box I have planted ground cherry, sunberry, and strawberry blite: unusual fruits. I have no idea how much they may try to spread. 

In the center of the second box I have 2 melon varieties: Saskatchewan watermelon (white flesh) and mother Mary’s pie melon (palm sized) and I plan to have a single plant of each and prune. Next to those I planted a few corn kernels. 

Taking up the most space is kale. I eat it nearly daily with my perfect breakfast, and when I have it growing outside I can hardly wait for the tender baby leaves to grow so I’ve never had a large kale plant even with a whole bed of kale. We will see if I can keep one growing and eat the rest of the baby kale to make a bit more space for the melons and corn. A couple of paprika pepper seeds went in on one side of the kale section, as I don’t need more than one pepper plant.

Rounding out the other box is a rotund and short French carrot, slender long radishes, and thyme. Chives were supposed to get into the corner too but the chive packet was empty, so that will have to be added later. 

I decided that the sunflowers and borage should go in the ground between the boxes and the sidewalk, but since it started raining (again!) while I was only partway through planting the beds and I hadn’t finished digging the front, those will go in later this week. 

That’s a lot of plants to cram into 2 small beds!

Thankfully, construction of the raised beds was a breeze. I’ve used 2″x12″x6′ cedar, cut into 2′ and 4′ long boards, connected with some 2.75″ exterior screws – 2 at each corner. I left the grass underneath as it was. They’re sturdy and I think they look pretty good. I filled them with organic black gold soil (2 bags each box) and some mountain blend of compost, which if I recall correctly was just a blend of different types of manure (1 bag each box). I may end up making a few more boxes for the other side of the front yard. If I do, I will likely have a kale bed, an herb bed, a melon bed, and a corn bed. 

Now we wait.

Project Springtime part 1.5: chick maintenance

Visions and reality are often a little different. 

I envisioned having three cute chicks whom I would carry around lovingly, let the kids hold, and generally become attached to. 

We are all attached to them, but we handle them a heck of a lot less than I expected. 

Yes, they’re also a lot of work. Here’s what we have done so far, after the brood box setup from my last post.

Daily: change the water and check/change food/grit. Move lamp if necessary. 

Weekly: change the pine shavings (bedding), clean off poo from various places. 

Monthly: (I’ve had them a month, so I mean just once so far) add bricks to lift food and water, add 1 rock and 2 sticks for general amusement/perching. 

Water is critical and needs to be checked on multiple times per day I have found, since the chicks are really enjoying jumping onto the water jar and then the side of the box (sometimes out of the box too). On a few occasions they knocked over the water, and often the water tray is full of shavings even when upright – sometimes poo too! Yuck. If it’s got wet shavings in it I dump it outside on the ground between hedges before bringing it in for a good cleaning. It needs to be cleaned (in my opinion) with hot soapy water every day. I like watching them drink the fresh cool water when I replace it. 

Like children they seem to go through growth spurts, eating more on some days than others. I was filling the tray without a bottle on top at first, then they started eating all the food in a day, so I added the bottle. They slowed down and I think the bottle was unnecessary (didn’t hold any extra feed, difficult to get on and off, hard to refill if there was still feed in the tray) so I removed it today. So far not much poo in with food, but when there is some I remove it.

The bedding, especially if an inch or two deep, should last all week without getting too stinky or yucky looking – depending on how many birds you have I suppose. When I see a lot of poo mid-week I scoop some out. Since I upgraded their box a couple weeks ago I am scooping the old litter into the old box, and will take the whole thing to compost as it gets more full. I’m using an old plastic container to scoop out, and removing the litter with the chicks still in the box. They don’t seem to like this process, but they dislike the addition of shavings even more. I usually grab a big handful at a time and toss it in to the section they are avoiding. I assume there is probably a better way to do this, maybe moving the chicks to a different box while changing litter but that seems like unnecessary mess. Tonight I also cleaned up a bunch of poo outside the box. I’m looking forward to the coop. 

Of course, as I’m doing all these things I have a baby strapped to my front, and she’s going nearly upside down as I bed forward to remove and replace shavings. Mostly, she is agreeable, especially if I pick up the chicks afterward so she can touch them. She is far gentler than I expected considering how rough she is with us humans. All day long she says “bok bok,” which is her way of asking to go see them. When we have to come back inside she screams. She loves them dearly. As does the dog, who thus far has been very well behaved around the chicks, but insistent upon going to visit the box as often as possible. 

I have acquired all the wood for the coop, and will be posting about that as I begin construction. So far vision and reality have not looked alike, but I am thoroughly enjoying having chicks and the adventures associated with them so far. 

Project Springtime Part 1: Making a home for baby chicks. 

I decided to make my cross-town move a little more complicated by adding baby chicks to it. I’m now the proud owner of a black Australorp, a buff Orpington, and an Ameracauna.  They’re nearly a month old and have been perching on the side and leaving the brooder on occasion. Luckily they have very effective alarm peeps and we have had no casualties. 

They’re sturdy birds; the dog, the baby, and the noises of the move were tolerated well from the start. 

I’m feeding them an organic, unmedicated chick feed with grit and occasional scrambled egg treats. I know, feeding them eggs is weird. They go bananas for them and show their true chickeny silliness when it is time for treats. 

So far all that has been necessary is to make the brooder, feed and water them. The brooder consists of 1 large plastic tub with high sides (2 feet) around 2.5-3 feet long, and a special red heat lamp with 2 metal arches around the bulb for protection. I filled the bottom with a layer of pine shavings, and bought both a plastic feeder and waterer, to which I attach glass mason jars. I had a flat thermometer stuck on the inner wall of the brooder for the first couple of weeks to monitor the temperature more closely and keep one corner of the brooder between 85 and 90 degrees F. 

My first brood box was too small. I upgraded to a larger box with higher sides a little over a week ago, and the birds are happier. I also added 2 bricks to elevate the feeder and waterer, and a couple of sticks in case they liked standing on them. They don’t seem to care. They do like perching on the side and leaving bird droppings outside the box. In the above image you can see the old and new brooders, with my ameracauna perched on the side of the new blue one. I have no need for the thermometer any longer, but I did have a burn/melt spot after a couple of days when the bulb was too close to the plastic. It smelled gross (plasticky) when I walked out there, which tipped me off. 

The Australorp seems to be experiencing the pecking order. Her neck feathers are sparse as though she is being picked on. 

Next up for the chickies is a coop.