Thursday, May 31, 2007

Raccoons and Chickens

Warning - there is a graphic photo later on that shows a dead chicken. You might want to browse away now if that sort of thing bothers you.

A few days ago I let the chickens out in the morning. I checked their food and water like I always do, and counted them like I usually do. One was missing. I'd counted them the night before when I tucked them in, and all had been present and accounted for.

Well, that happens sometimes. A bird will be in the fenced in run, or hanging out in a nest box, or standing and contemplating her toes.

So, I did a search and couldn't find her. I *did* find a big pile of feathers. Their water dish had been overturned, too. Not a good sign at all. The next morning one of the roosters was dead in the coop, with his head mostly torn off. That usually means raccoons.

Our chicken house is a slapped together affair. It has lots of holes and access points. We patched it up as best we could, and set a couple of live traps.

That very night, we caught a huge raccoon. The next night, we caught the smaller raccon shown in the photos. And although no raccoons got into the chicken house, we lost yet another hen, as you can see below. She was killed by a raccoon reaching through the fencing.

Apparently the chicken was *very* curious about the raccoon in the cage. So much so that she wandered close to the fence and was nabbed by another raccoon.

Last night as I was walking to the chicken house to tuck them in (and set the traps - we set them after the chickens are locked up so we don't inadvertently trap a chicken - been there, done that), a hen came screaming out of the chicken house with a raccoon hot on her heels. I screamed at the raccoon (and cussed) and he ran up a tree. We caught the hen and placed her back into the house.

This morning both traps were sprung but there was no raccoon inside either one of them. Raccoons are clever enough to reach in through the walls of the trap and get the bait. We're going to put hardware cloth on the back portion (the bait end) of the trap so they can still see and smell the peanut butter but not poke their little paws in through the sides to get to it.

While I absolutely positively hate losing hens (and a roo) to a raccoon, you do have to wonder how utterly stupid a hen has to be to walk right over to the fence where a raccoon is positioned. Imagine the following scenario. Give the raccoon a New York stage whisper and the hen a voice like Aunt Bea.

Raccoon: Psst! Hey. Hey, you.
Hen: ooooohhhh? (hens mumble a lot)
R: Yeah, you. C'mere.
H: -mutters uncertainly-
R: C'mere. I got something to show ya.
H: oooohhhhhh!
R: Ya gotta come real close, see? 'Cause my arms are real short, see?


Wednesday, May 30, 2007


We got bees a while back. We got the hives in pieces and assembled them. The lid was already put together but the boxes had to be assembled and the frames that hang down inside had to be assembled and then the foundation placed in the frames. Then we painted the exterior. We used white because it will help keep the hives cooler in the summer time.

The big bottom boxes are called "brooders" and the smaller box on top is called a "super" but from what I gather the terms are kind of interchangeable. All boxes can be called supers and large or small boxes can be used for brooders. Left alone, the bees will use the entire space for raising brood, storing nectar, and making and storing honey.

You can get a screen separator called a "queen excluder" to put between the brooder and the super that has openings large enough to allow the workers to move through it but the queen cannot because she is too large. This would keep the brood all in the bottom box and the top box would only be used for honey storage (and maybe pollen? I'm not sure).

Ours is all open from one section to the other. Some folks use two big brooder boxes on the bottom and then the queen excluder and one or more supers on top. We don't use an excluder yet because the bees will be busy building up their population and storing food for winter. They will need all the stored honey and pollen they can acquire. Their ability to gather nectar and pollen is hindered this year because they are small in number and raising brood has been delayed while they acclimate to their queen and she begins to lay.

Looking inside the top of one of my hives. This is the weaker hive and there are not many bees and not much activity.

In the foreground is a quart canning jar with sugar syrup (one part table sugar to one part water) with three small holes punched in the lid. The jar is turned upside down and the bees eat this syrup while they are getting established. I had three jars in each hive when I first set them up.

You can see that the jar is sitting on the frames hanging in the bottom box. Some of the frames in the top box have been removed to make space for the feeder jars. The frames just hang in the box like file folders in a filing cabinet.

Inside each frame is wax foundation. It is pre-stamped with a pattern that the bees use as a basis for building their comb. This helps keep the comb lined up and orderly, and makes it easier to check the hives to be sure there aren't any diseases, parasites, mice, or other problems, and that the queen is laying and things are proceeding well.

The foundation I have has very thin wire stamped into it to help support it a little bit. As thin as this foundation is, the bees will draw it out some as they make their combs and it will become even thinner.

We've only had bees about two or three weeks now and I've already made a couple of mistakes. I'll post about that in the future.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Asparagus Ferns

I planted asparagus last year. I knew about asparagus spears, because I bought them at the grocery store. I had read about asparagus ferns, but didn't know if they were separate from the spears or if the spears turned into ferns, or what. I am now a little bit smarter in the ways of asparagus than I used to be. As asparagus grows, the tip opens up just a bit, as shown in the photo above.

In no time at all, each one of those little buds or clumps or whatever they are shoots out on a long stalk. This happens seemingly overnight. Don't blink, you'll miss it.

Then the long stems begin to get all leafy. The ferns will get fluffier and bushier than this, but this is where my ferns were at when I took these pics. They also get tiny little flowers on them.

You have to leave some asparagus to "fern out" because the tubers down in the ground need the energy provided by the ferns' photosynthesis to stay healthy and grow. Asparagus is an oddity in the garden because you get to harvest the plant first, then feed it and nurture it. How well you care for it this year will be reflected in next year's harvest.


My URL is changing

I'm moving Palazzo Rospo to a new site.
The blog will stay intact, but the URL will change.
Can you believe it? I exceeded my bandwidth and was cut off two months in a row.
Time for a new home.
All this old stuff, plus new stuff (when I get around to writing something new, that is!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Feed Bags in the Garden

Our feed bags pile up fairly quickly. We buy dog food, chicken feed, and rabbit feed in 50 lb. sacks. I thought they might make a good weed suppressor in the garden. I have put a bunch of bags down one path in the garden, between two of the raised beds (my raised beds are more like long mounds - they don't have sides of wood, brick, etc.).

So far they are doing a good job at keeping the weeds out. A few peek out from the edges but they're easy to pull. Sometimes they're kind of slimy under there, yuck! We've had a very dry spring, and maybe in a normal year I'll find that the bags are a bad idea due to slugs but so far, so good.

Downside: I'm wearing holes in them kind of quickly adn they are ugly. But hey, they're free and I'm cutting down on my throw-away trash.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thin != Tender

I always thought the thin tiny asparagus at the grocery store would be the most tender. I avoided the fat "woody" asparagus. Boy, was I a goof!

It turns out that asparagus spears come up out of the ground at a certain thickness and that thickness doesn't really change over time. They get taller, and fern out, but they don't get thicker. At least, not noticeably.

The big fat spear of "purple passion" asparagus shown above is nice and tender. The thing to look at is the bud. As long as it's closed up tight, the asparagus will be delightful. As soon as the bud shows signs of opening up, you should harvest the spear about 15 minutes ago. Asparagus spears grow very quickly, so daily harvesting is a good idea.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Newspaper Pots

Some plants, like the peppers above, require a long time to grow to maturity, bloom, set fruit, and ripen. In most areas, those plants are not grown from seed sown directly into the garden, but from already established young plants called seedlings. This gives them a jump start and allows them to produce before the fall frosts hit.

If you grow your own seedlings, you'll need some kind of container to hold them until they get big and strong and the night temperatures are warm enough for the young plants to survive. Behold the newspaper pot.

To make your own stylish newspaper pot, you will need some old newspapers (new will do), some masking tape, and a drinking glass or other cylinder about 3" to 4" in diameter. A soda can is a good diameter but I find it's too short. It may suit you fine though.

Tear the big newspaper sheets down the center so you have two sheets with only one page on each side. Fold one of these resulting single-page sheets in half vertically so the crease runs from top to bottom and the left and right edges are together.

Roll the folded newspaper sheet loosely around the cylinder and tape the seam. Loosely, because the little beasties are really hard to get off the cylinder if you roll them tightly. I like to put the fold of the newspaper on the cylinder and let the ragged edge hang off the end. It makes for a neater finished product.

Find a place on your cylinder that you can use as a mark for lining up the top of your pot. While this step isn't necessary it's nice because it makes all your resulting pots a uniform height, which is important to anal people like me.

Fold the "hanging off" edges to the center of the cylinder and hold in place with a piece of tape.


You can fit about 6 by 3 newspaper pots in a seed starting tray. They're nice because they allow you to put water directly into the tray, which waters your seedlings from the bottom up.

When you get ready to transplant, you can set the pot directly into the ground where it will disintegrate. Newspaper ink is soy based so will not harm your plants. Tear the top off of the pot or dig your hole deep enough to set the pot completely below ground level. If you leave the top of the pot exposed to the air, it will wick moisture away from the roots of the plant and into the air, drying out the roots of your plant.

I like to also tear the bottom out of my pot so the roots can grow downward more easily. I frequently just tear the pot completely off and toss it into the compost bin.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chicken House Tour

We inherited our chicken house when we bought this place. It is not beautimous, but it is fairly functional. It needs to be rebuilt as the posts that are the foundation of the entire structure (corners, mostly) are rotting. It is right on the wet weather creek and the creek is threatening to erode the dirt right out from under the wall. And, as it has a dirt floor it's easy for critters to dig into. Still and all, it's working for us, for now. Let's take a tour. In the photo above you can see the (re-fenced) run, the window and door - the door enters into what I call the "little room" but they may be the same size) and the orange stuff is on what I call the "big room".

The "little room" is mostly enclosed, with ventilation at the rooftop and some drafts. The "big room" is much more open, with construction netting stuff forming some of the walls and a tarp acting as a wind and rain block. The entire affair is rather cobbled together, with the walls being made of plank wood, tin roofing, tarp, cardboard boxes, feed bags...

This is in the "little room". The chicken-sized door goes out into the fenced in run. Our chickens mostly free range but it's nice to have a yard for them during times like now, while we've got a trap set trying to catch a fox that's been preying on our chickens. I lined most of the little room with 1/4" plywood because our winters are cold (-8F this past winter) and the room was very drafty - like, you could look through the walls.

In the "little room" looking out the door. There is a doorway between the "little room" and the "big room" and it has a heavy piece of rubber hanging in the doorway, with a 2x4 piece of wood stapled to the bottom. It's very heavy, probably heavy pond liner. I roll it down in the summer so there's lots of ventilation. In the winter I roll it down to reduce airflow and drafts. The chickens push past it if they want to go into the big room in cold weather. Fools.

The "big room" with the wall partly of wood, corrugated metal, and cardboard, and partly of construction "webbing" and tarp. There are roosts in both rooms but the chickens only roost for the night in the "little room".


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Speckled Sussex Chickens

These are old photos, taken back in January when the world was mostly dead looking. It was a clear, crisp day - perfect for photographs. Our chickens free range. They eat a surprising amount of grass and greens. Tons and tons of it. They eat bugs and seeds and worms and grubs, too. In the photo above they're devouring some kind of leftovers from the kitchen. When they see me coming out with a bowl, pan, or pot in my hand they come running.

Speckled Sussex are a very pretty breed. Their dark feathers are a rich mahogany brown with lots of red undertones, and their black feathers have a green sheen to them, especially in direct sunlight.

This hen is scratching and poking around for something beside the wet weather creek. Speckled Sussex love to forage. They clamor to be let out in the morning and spend almost all day wandering around, scratching and eating.

Recently we lost four hens in about 5 or 6 days. The chickens are locked up in their house and run, and not allowed to free range for the time being. We've seen a fox down at the chicken house. We set a trap for it and so far we've only caught an opossum. Opossums will steal eggs if they can get to them, but they're not much of a predator otherwise. We let this one go.

I hope we catch the fox soon. The chickens are tired of being cooped up (so *that's* where that term came from!) and 2 roosters is too many for only 9 hens, especially in close quarters.


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