September 11, 2009

The Scoop on the Coop

Well, we have finally finished the coop enough that I decided it was time to tell you a bit about our summer project.

We're pretty pleased with how it turned out, considering that it's made almost entirely out of leftovers from our house.  The only things that we had to buy were a few extra roofing shingles, a couple of sheets of plywood for the roof, a gallon of exterior paint, and wire mesh for the run.

Still a few things left to do, but mostly done.

The work involved was a little more than we anticipated (and most of it through record summer temperatures), but since almost every room in the house looks out on to the coop, we wanted it to be something that we enjoyed looking at.

While we didn't have any actual building plans, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted it to look like.  Using Google Sketchup, we played with things like the wall height, roof pitch, and window/door placement until we ended up with something that we were happy with.

My husband hadn't done a lot of framing before, but he did an amazing job of turning our ideas into an actual structure.

Some of the features that we planned for are:
  • we placed the coop in the sunniest part of the yard so that the run will have a chance to dry out in between winter rain storms.
  • passive solar heating - the coop is oriented exactly east/west, so the overhang shades the windows on the south side during the hottest part of the summer, but lets the light in when the sun is lower in the sky during the fall and winter months to help keep the chickies warm (also, because of this positioning, the coop itself creates a nice shady patch in the adjoining run).
  • the coop and run are directly in front of the vegetable garden, with an extra door into the back of the coop so that all of that precious chicken manure can be scooped out right where we need it.
  • there's an additional pop door on the south side where we will eventually dock a chicken tractor (next year's project)
  • we wired for overhead and exterior lights, as well as an outlet for either a fan or heat lamp, depending on the season.
  • we're going to install gutters which will lead to rain barrels on the back side of the coop in order to reduce our dependence on well water for irrigation.
  • we allowed for lots of natural ventilation.  There's a ridge vent in the roof, as well as soffit and gable vents, which will eventually have small doors so we can close them up during cold snaps.
Insulation and back door into the garden.

As mentioned, we used almost entirely recycled materials, many of which were given to us.  My mom and stepfather are renovating their house (which was built in 1909) to turn it into a B&B, so we were able to take a lot of things that would have otherwise gone to the dump, including the insulation in the photo above.  We insulated the ceiling using rock wool and styrofoam sheets that were left over from insulating our basement slab.

The interior walls are covered with shiplap that was torn up from the floors and walls of my mom's house (beautiful one foot wide, 100 year old fir boards).  They will eventually get a coat of paint to make them easier to clean, but right now they are a weathered grey, which gives the coop a rustic, barnlike feel.

The exterior is covered with fiber cement lap siding, which we painted to match the house.  I built the ramps out of cedar decking cut-offs.

This is the day that we let the girls out into the run for the first time.  They were pretty sure that we were up to no good...

My favorite Speckled Sussex was the first one out of the coop.

...but it wasn't long before they were outside and charging around the run.

I'm still amazed at the instincts possessed by these domesticated birds.  They kept a constant watch on the sky, and would run inside at the first sign of an aerial attack (it was usually just an airplane - our property is on a flight path).

You can see in the above photo that the bottom of the coop is enclosed with 1/2" wire mesh, which was given to us by our neighbor.  It's a much heavier gauge than hardware cloth, and will hopefully keep anything from digging under and making a home under the coop.

Pippin - our beautiful Dark Brahma

The run is about 5 1/2 feet tall, so the kids and I can stand in there comfortably.  The top four feet are covered with 2" square wire mesh, and the bottom 18" with 3/4" hardware cloth.  The hardware cloth is actually 3 feet wide, but we buried the bottom 18" underground to prevent anything from digging under the fence.  While we don't have many of the usual predators here (not even raccoons or skunks), with the public trail running past our property, there is some concern about dogs.  

Of a bigger concern are attacks from the sky, so I used the deer fence that didn't work so well on the veggie garden to cover the run and keep out winged predators.

This second gate from the garden into the run will make it easier for me to bring them garden scraps.  We also want to be able to let them into the garden from time to time for a change of scenery and to help clean things up at the end of the growing season.

I fashioned their roosts out of cedar decking and 1 x 4 cedar trim (which had been pre-stained).  I sealed the cedar with the same non-toxic linseed oil product that we used on our butcher block countertops.

The east facing window provides them with a sunny spot to bask and preen in during the early morning hours...

...and I built a perch under it so that they can take in the view during the day.  It's easy to tell who is at the top of the pecking order by observing who gets to sleep here at night - it's clearly their favorite spot. 
I'm in a rush to build some nest boxes, as their faces are starting to turn red, which I understand is a sign that they're getting ready to lay.  I'm thinking about building a "community" box as opposed to individual nests, as I keep hearing that they will all use the same one anyway.  Any thoughts on this from those of you with chickens?  My girls are a cuddly bunch, so I can't see it being a problem.  

After all of that hard work, I think my favorite part of the coop project is the stepping stone that my daughter made to go in front of it.   It makes me smile whenever I see it.

Now if only they would start laying!

September 06, 2009

Sour Puss

Ours is a family that loves big flavors.  Salty, bitter, spicy, sour - you name it, we love it.  Even the kids adore things like garlic, dijon mustard, kalamata olives, and tonic water, which is a dream for me, 'cause there's no way I'd enjoy cooking nothing but plain pasta or white bread sandwiches.

One of our very favorite things is sauerkraut.  A hot dog or reuben sandwich (veggie or otherwise) just isn't the same without it. I remember my grandmother making sauerkraut when I was a kid, but it's something that I've never been brave enough to try my hand at. The benefit of making your own kraut is that it can be left unpasteurised so that it will retain the healthy probiotic bacteria (similar to those found in yogurt) that are responsible for the fermentation process.

Until now, the thought of overseeing a crock of fermenting cabbage for several weeks has always seemed a bit daunting, but this year I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.

I sliced up the heads of cabbage (one green, one purple so that I'd end up with pink sauerkraut) using my mandoline to ensure uniform thickness, and stirred it together with some sea salt (the cabbage didn't end up releasing enough juice on its own, so I had to make some extra brine to cover it).  This is a very small batch, as I only used 2 1/2 pounds of cabbage instead of the 50 that the recipe called for, but I thought it best to start small.

I covered the cabbage with a layer of cheese cloth, tucking in the ends, and put a plate on top to keep the cabbage submerged.  It's supposed to sit like this for several weeks, and the house already smells of fermenting cabbage, but I'm hopeful that we'll end up with something delicious.  More to come...

Another treat with pucker power is the oh so lovely dill pickle.  I made ten quart jars last week using my favorite recipe, and I can't wait until they're ready to eat.

Cukes chillin'.

Since we all love pickles on our burgers but don't always like to take the time to slice them, I was thrilled when I came across Dill Pickle Relish in a store last year.  Thinking that was the smartest thing I'd heard of in a long time, I went on the hunt for a similar recipe.  Canadian Living magazine is well known for its excellent recipes and cookbooks, so when I found a recipe for this relish on their site, I was pretty sure that it would fit the bill.

The resulting relish is a pretty close approximation to chopped pickles, but I'll probably tinker with it a bit the next time I make it (omitting the sugar and upping the amount of garlic to make it more like Kosher dills).  In the meantime I'm sure it will be a nice addition to our winter meals.

Our weather has turned in the last day or two and it's suddenly feeling very much like autumn.  The chickies have had their first taste of west coast weather and I'm not sure they're fans. They were so stunned by the sudden deluge that we had this morning that they just stood there looking confused and pathetic.  After about 5 minutes of waiting for them to run inside, my daughter finally took pity on them and pushed them in through the pop-doors one by one (I guess they hadn't yet realized that it wouldn't be raining inside the coop as well).  They've since figured it out, but they actually seem to be enjoying the light drizzle right now.

As for me, I'm sitting beside the first fire of the season, and enjoying a warm cup of chai.

Labor day indeed - ha!

September 02, 2009

What We're Harvesting Right Now

Aside from complaining about four-legged invaders, I haven't really spoken much about the garden this summer so I thought I'd do a brief update.

Our soil is still really awful, so things still aren't doing as well as I would like.  One of our friends described the soil here as "rock flour", and that's exactly what it is (a result of glacier movement over this area during the ice age).  It's extremely fine, but it doesn't clump together like clay, so when you first dig it, it looks deceivingly rich and light, but a few days without rain and it reverts to its powdery form and blows away in the wind.  It drains well enough, but there's almost no organic material in it, so whatever water it absorbs, it doesn't hold on to for very long.  We amended it as much as we could this spring with horse manure, coconut husks, and compost, but it wasn't nearly enough.  I'm madly composting piles of veggie scraps with chicken litter and seaweed that I've collected on the beach, so next year it will get another much-needed boost.

We had the hottest summer on record this year (Vancouver broke its all-time heat record one day [33.8 C]  and then broke that record again the next day [34.4 C]).  We got to 39 degrees celcius (102 F) in the shade here at our place, which is unheard of on the coast (we're higher up and farther from the water than much of the surrounding area, so we tend to get hotter summers and colder winters).  We've also gotten less rainfall since April than ever before - our usually rainy spring was eerily dry.  These extremes hindered many of the plants in the garden, but at least the eggplants are happy:

My favorite Dusky eggplants do well even during a cool summer, so they're going gangbusters with the heat.  I picked the above two on the weekend, and there are 8 more on the the two plants outside.  It's time to grill some eggplant.

The Rosa Bianca eggplants are arriving slightly later, but are also producing like crazy:

The Gold Rush and Romanesco zucchinis are producing well, but not so much that we're getting sick of them.

Bags of whole basil are being frozen for winter use.  I used to turn much of my basil into pesto, but now I prefer to freeze it to use as I would fresh basil.  It tastes as fresh in March as it did in August.

The tomatoes aren't doing very well, but I am getting a few a week.  This is my first year growing the Nebraska Wedding variety, and they seem to be happy.  I'm looking forward to getting my first taste of these orange beauties.

Our peach tree surprised us with over two dozen delicious fruits, even though we moved it from my mom's garden to our own after it had already started blooming this spring.

I had to smile this morning when I went to the garden and saw this fresh pile of deer droppings...on the outside of the garden fence.

The deer aren't taking it lying down, however.  One of the gutsy little suckers actually came up on to the deck the other night and ate the plants that I was saving to plant around the chicken coop.  This involved making the trek up the steps and walking 20 or so feet across the deck to where the plants were sitting - all this while we were sitting in the adjacent living room with the lights on!  We heard a bump at the time, but thought it was the cat.

I hate being outsmarted by things that don't even have opposable thumbs.


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