Things that make me go “Yay!”

All of these photos were taken over a three day period. Everything is waking up!

Baby apple tree with new growth

Parsley by the mound

Fungal goodness

Stir fry with my broccoli and mushrooms

 

Big, fat, hairy chives

Arugula without end

Sweet potato-apple muffins (my sweet potatoes, dad's apples)

Camelias on my table

Good egg production on organic feed

Yoga socks (what a great idea!)

A giant pot of wheat straw pasteurizing on my stove (for more mushrooms)

Salad greens and cilantro

Flats of seedlings in my house, away from marauding rats

The last of last fall's collards

Sugar snap pea sprouts

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Making things

Eat • Play • Love

It’s early evening on a Sunday. I have been in my kitchen all afternoon, and four mounds of homemade pizza dough sit rising in a large bowl covered with a towel. The counter is arrayed with a bounty of toppings: mushrooms from my mushroom growing project, a bowl of sauce made from tomatoes I canned last summer, local chevre, pesto I made from my basil and froze in August, prosciutto and Italian sausage from a nearby charcuterie, onions, peppers, olives, more cheeses. I have also made an enormous salad with arugula and radishes I harvested from my garden that afternoon.

The sideboard is loaded with stacks of plates and napkins, and two big tumblers hold knives and forks. Several bottles of wine stand open on the counter bar alongside rows of glasses, and a cooler in the floor is brimming with beer. There’s a gallon of my specialty, mint iced tea, in the fridge.

Folks start to arrive around 7 o’clock, their arms full of desserts and more drinks, instrument cases slung over their shoulders. I help unburden them. We set the desserts on another counter corner, and jackets and instruments go in the living room. We gather, of course, in the kitchen.

By the time a dozen or so people are chatting and laughing, drinks in hand, I have pressed out the first of the pizza doughs onto a peel and have invited a few of the hungriest ones to load it up with their desired toppings. Into the oven it goes, followed shortly by a second one, then a third, then a fourth. A half an hour later, with steaming plates piled high, we are seated at the bar counter and around my broad square maple table, laid out with the red, yellow, and blue straw placemats I picked up in Mexico not long ago and some camellias I cut from the bush out front and tucked them into a cluster of bud vases.

This tastes good.

Flavor, to my palate, is about more than ingredients. It’s about the environment around the food as it comes into being, the emotions of the cook who is preparing the meal, the mood of the room in which it is being served. Our awareness of all these things, I believe, affects how food tastes, even how it nourishes one’s body during the rest of its journey.

Now, I love to fix myself a solo dinner and tuck in with my veggie and noodle bowl and a cold beer, my doggie or kitty, and a movie in my big kitchen chair, but one of the joys of my life is sharing the Southern Urban Homestead bounty with friends. We gather, we feast, we take pleasure in the rich and subtle flavors of the food lovingly prepared, company warmly welcomed.

On this night it’s pizza and a dozen folks, but it could  be venison chili (thanks to my neighbor, the hunter, who is willing to barter game for eggs) and eight people. Or it could be a frittata with my girls’ eggs and my garden veggies for two or three people. But the ritual is the same: after we have eaten our fill and rested our full bellies a little while, we complete our celebration of good flavor with a kind of sonic dessert.

Many of my friends are musicians, and they are good, appreciative eaters, too. Our spirits are high from the meal and congeniality of this loving group of people. Our resident piano player has recently acquired an accordion, so we launch into a raucous rendition of “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox” in its honor: guitars, basses, ukuleles, harmonicas. Warmed up and tuned up, we then settle into an around-the-kitchen routine of taking turns at leading a tune.

We play for several hours–some of our original songs, some covers so beloved we’ve practically worn grooves into them. Because we’ve played most of them together before, everyone falls easily into their parts. For the others less familiar we take a moment to teach and learn. The house is full of music and the lingering good aromas from dinner. Caleb is asleep in the middle of everything, adding his sonorous snores to the din.

Around 10:00, we stand up, stretch, nibble on leftover cold pizza and the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies someone brought, and start to pack up instruments. Warm hugs farewell, talk of gigs coming up. A few folks linger to chat and help load the dishwasher. The house is quiet and empty by 10:30, but my heart is full.

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Piling It On

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1995). Stein (who, sadly, died of lung cancer in 2005) tells the story of how she began to completely reinvent the way she gardened in her five acres in Westchester County, New York. Instead of endlessly struggling against the local ecosystems to create some kind of idyllic English garden-style suburban lawn, Stein began to garden with her local habitats, to restore biodiversity right there in her backyard and coax it into a more naturalized landscape.

The layers, from ground-level view, before I dug through them

One of the topics Stein devotes some attention to in her book is soil. Rather than tilling up the soil of her vegetable garden and compacting it down year after year, she began to try to mimick a forest floor with her garden—to help it become dense with layers of biomass that fall to the earth and break down into loam. Stein made like a tree: she deposited deep layers of leaves, along with kitchen scraps and other compostables, onto the soil and left it there for months on end. When she stuck a spade through the layers, she found rich, fluffy soil that was teeming with microbial life.

I own a tiller, but I have rarely used it after reading Noah’s Garden. Instead, every fall I heap leaves, chicken poo-soiled hay, and half-broken-down compost onto my garden beds. Last fall, before I spread the leaves, I also put down several layers of paper—mostly some old chicken feed bags, but those paper lawn waste bags work great, too—right on top of the soil after I had pulled out all the spent summer vegetable vines and stalks.

Here's a peek at the soil after I hoed through the layers to plant peas.

It went like this: a layer of paper, a layer of leaves, a layer of poo/hay and half rotted compost, then another layer of leaves. I kept piling it on, adding more throughout the fall and winter, so that the layers were about a foot deep. I have heard this method called “lasagne gardening.” It’s also called “sheet composting” or “no-till gardening.” Sally Wylde would have called it mulching. The woman did know how to mulch her garden.

A view of the rows hoed out and ready for peas. The layers of mulch will remain between the rows.

Whatever you call it, it is some kind of magic. Last weekend I planted peas, which meant it was time to send a hoe through those layers and see what was beneath. And what it was, was worms. Big, fat, juicy ones. The earth itself practically wiggled, there were so many earthworms in it.

Those earthworms basically do the job that the tiller would do—only they do it much better, without damaging the soil structure, without leaving the soil vulnerable to later compaction when you walk through in your garden clogs. They are also a sign of healthy dirt. And my favorite part? Throwing a bunch of paper, leaves, and poo down to grow the worms is much easier and less stinky than handling a tiller. It’s also, I think, a much easier way to get worm compost than with a worm bin. I am all about the lazy.

The other thing about all those layers is that they will stay there all summer long. They will slowly break down and become pure compost, too. Worried that your garden will offend the neighbors because it’s piled high with your recyclables? Consider this: in late summer, while your neighbors’ gardens are dessicated and pitiful and the weeds have taken over in the relentless heat and drought, the “trash” you piled in yours will be holding in tons of moisture and helping keep weeds to a minimum. Your garden will be thriving and green.

Here’s a little clip of me saying howdy to the worms:

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Fowl Language

Chickens have their own language for letting you know what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not limited to their “Bok-boks” and coos and cackles. They speak their minds with their bodies: the color and appearance of their combs and wattles, whether or not they are laying, the appearance of their plumage will tell you volumes.

Our chickens spent the winter telling us how hacked off they were with us, and understandably so. They suffered a triple whammy starting back in the late fall, when we switched their feed. They had been on Purina Layena pellets all their lives, but as organic feed became increasingly available and cheaper, we decided to make the switch. And that was our first mistake–not that we made the switch,  but that we made it too abruptly. One day the were happily crunching away on their Layena pellets, the next they were dubiously poking their beaks into what must have felt and tasted like sand. The organic feed is quite powdery with whole bits of corn and other grains. We should have introduced it gradually, mixing in an increasing ratio over several weeks. But we didn’t–and that was the first whammy.

The second whammy was just winter itself. We went from a gentle autumn to a brutal chill practically overnight. And while chickens have ways of keeping themselves and each other warm (they’re pretty much individually wrapped in down comforters), that kind of radical shift is no fun, especially combined with the shortened daylight hours.

Whammy number three was a mass molt that started in the fall and cycled through every chicken. Those down comforters? Considerably thinned. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones is a miserable affair anyway. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones in the cold when the food you like is gone—just gone—is grounds for revolt.

And revolt they did. We stopped getting eggs in late October. They spilled the new feed out of the feeder and scattered it all over the floor, refusing to eat it. Every time I walked back to the coop I was greeted by an angry chorus of chants for justice and democracy and decent grub (grubs, actually, would be great).

We backtracked a little and mixed in some pellet feed, hoping to ameliorate the situation. They ate it begrudgingly, but still no eggs. Neighbor Bill concocted some kind of chicken gourmet treat of all the people foods they adore–grits, cheese, greens–and served it on a giant platter. I gave them cat food. Still—nothing.

Finally, last week the pall began to lift. The molting seems to have passed, the days are getting longer, and we’re getting a few warm, sunny days here and there. And the egg production is beginning to bump up at last. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll stick with the organic feed, but if we get as many eggs as we did with the Layena, then it looks pretty good.

Here are a few questions that have come my way in the past few months from fellow urban flockkeepers:

Q: We got a couple of mixed breed hens last weekend. The woman I got them from was just feeding them a little corn feed because they were open range and mostly eating insects. I started feeding them the Layena crumbles and am still giving them a little bit of the corn feed. One of the eggs was really thin yesterday and then today there was only one and it was almost mushy.

They need calcium in their diet. Their bodies use it to form the shells. Give the feed time to work its way into their systems, but you can also supplement their diet with calcium rich foods. We give ours a container of cottage cheese from time to time. Lots of seed and feeds also carry crushed oyster shells which you can mix into their feed.

Q: I would like to buy some adult laying hens to start my flock. What is a good source to find them?

If you are a resident of Georgia, you are entitled to a free (I recently learned that the state now charges a fee, which is disappointing!) subscription to the Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin, now in its 94th year of publication! The ads are a great way to find chicks and hens, plus fun facts about Georgia agriculture. Also, chickens are more and more frequently showing up on Craigslist.

Q:  My neighbor thinks one of her chickens has an egg stuck. She says it hasn’t laid for at least 2 days and is standing still a lot. She also said she thinks it is in some discomfort/pain. I think she is feeling a bit unsure of how to proceed with “greasing the vent.” Do you have any advice for her?

Yes, it sounds like she might be egg bound. Another sign is that she’s kind of holding her butt down towards the ground. The most common remedy is to get yourself a very good but thin rubber glove, douse your finger with mineral oil (or ky jelly or olive oil–you get the drift), and lubricate around and up inside her vent. The best way to get a good hold of the bird to do this is to hold her like a football under your arm with her butt toward you. Push your finger up, and you should be able to feel the egg. But be careful not to break the egg. If the egg is right at the top of the vent, it should slip out. If not, you can try a warm bath. Water should be warmer than the chx body temp, and you need to hold her lower half down in there for 20 minutes (it really needs to be that long). The idea here is that it relaxes her muscles a bit, helping the egg along. It all sounds gross, I know, but we do what we must for our girls!

Q: Help! Our sweet little pullet Lola started crowing like a rooster!

And that’s probably because Lola (aptly named, thank you, Kinks!) is a rooster. This is an all-too-common problem for city chicken keepers. Roosters are loud, and they are loud early in the morning. In densely populated urban settings, this can make for a rude awakening, so to speak. Some roosters can also be aggressive toward people in their role as flock protector. Again, Craigslist is great for this. Place an ad and see if you can find someone to take that rooster off your hands. The Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group message board is another useful way to find a home for him. Let your experience, though, be a cautionary tale for others: when you acquire your baby chicks, make sure that they are sexed—this just means someone has gone to the trouble of separating the baby hens from baby roosters—if you want to keep the neighbors happy. Bribing them with fresh eggs also helps!

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I joined the blue oyster (mushroom) cult.

One of the challenges of gardening on my little urban homestead is the great old oaks that surround and shade my property. But for mushrooms, that shade is a welcome thing. I’d had mushrooms in the back of my mind since a small paper sack of shiitakes first appeared in my weekly CSA pick up a few years ago. Gaia Gardens’ farmer then, the genius that is Daniel Parson, was the first person I’d ever met who knew how to inoculate oak logs with shiitake spores. The result of his labors were what I think of as little flavor poems. Really, there are no words to describe how a good mushroom tastes. That’s why I like to think of them as poems—a thing so original that it can be expressed in no other way.

When Farmer Daniel moved away to South Carolina a couple of years ago, that was it for my shiitake supply. Then a few months ago, my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader Esther (who is also an accomplished mushroom forager, and I’m hoping to persuade her to contribute another guest blog here on her hunting/gathering adventures in the wilds of suburbia) invited me to participate in a little informal mushroom growing workshop she was helping organize in her neighborhood. It seemed like a good activity for my shady winter garden, so one Sunday afternoon in early November I found myself with Esther and a few other nice folks (fun ghis?) in a Chamblee, Georgia, backyard, around a giant turkey fryer vat over an open flame containing wheat straw steeping in hot water. It all felt very primal, but then mushrooms are rather primal—all moisture and shadows.

Our workshop leader, Rod Stafford of the Georgia Mushroom Club, brought along some blue oyster mushroom spawn that we would start not in a log, but in a bag or basket of this wheat straw, which was soaking in the hot water to pasteurize it. He chose blue oysters because they are very easy to get going, especially in colder weather. A good thing, since we were heading into temps in the teens and twenties within a few weeks.

Rod emphasized the need to keep things as sterile as possible (we also used surgical gloves to handle the spores), because the mycelia that form from the spores are competing with other bacteria. We removed the now-pasteurized wheat straw from the vat of hot water and spread it out to cool completely. Then came the fun part: we began by cutting tubes of clear plastic into three foot lengths and tying off each end with pipe cleaners (a few people used baby-sized laundry baskets instead of plastic tubing, but the technique is the same). Then we donned the gloves and filled the bags first with a layer of wet straw, then a sprinkle of the mushroom spawn, then another layer of straw, then more spawn, and so forth. The spawn is strange stuff–kind of fuzzy and spongy and otherwordly. When I reached into the sack to bring out a scoop, I felt like I was digging my hand into alien soil—literally. Its earthy scent is intense but not unpleasant.

We continued with layers of straw and spawn until the bags were stuffed to a height of about a 18 inches, then we tied off the tops with pipe cleaners. The bags looked like giant link sausages. We then poked holes into the bags, baked potato style.

I took my two stuffed bags home with Rod’s clear instructions to find a shady place (no problem there) that would allow for plenty of air circulation. I worried, of course, about the damn squirrels feasting on my mushrooms, so I enclosed them in an old guinea pig hutch and found the perfect spot for them tucked behind my groovy new rain barrel installation next to the house.

I had about a quart of the mushroom spawn left over, so on Rod’s advice I put it to work in a couple of other ways. This next technique thrills me to my thrifty toes because it uses stuff I just normally have around the house that would otherwise get recycled: I took some shredded waste paper and pasteurized it in a big pot on my stove and layered it with the spawn in a couple of quart-sized Mason jars and an old plastic colander (I used plastic baggies over my hands because I didn’t have any surgical gloves hanging around). I covered the jars with loose tents of aluminum foil and the colander with a plastic grocery sack. I added these odd looking containers to the squirrel-proof mushroom cage.

Then I waited. Every day I went out and turned the bags over and maybe spritzed the jars and colander with a mister to keep everything evenly moist. I peered through the plastic and the jar to see if I might spy any mushroomy goodness emerging. What I did start to see was mycelium forming—a dense white web of goo reaching through the straw and the shredded paper to form a kind of wet mat. It pulled the straw away from the plastic and formed a coat inside the jars and colander. (Really, this stuff has to be from another planet!)

After about three weeks, when there was plenty of mycelium, I dunked the bags in a bucket of water and gave them a good soaking. I was really hoping to see some mushrooms soon after that, but not much seemed to be happening. I began to doubt. I began to give up hope. I began to wonder if I had somehow contaminated my field: did I sneeze on my spores? Did the dog drool on them?

And then, wonder of wonders, three days after Christmas, I saw them. They are called “pins,” and they are basically the tiny little heads of mushrooms that first emerge from the mycelium. I emailed Esther right away (because I was so excited), then gave the bags and colander another dunking for several hours and misted the jars. And wouldn’t you know? They suddenly started growing like crazy.

I harvested a couple of the almost-ready ones today just to taste them, and wow! Delicate flavor/fragrance poems. Here they are with some arugula and eggs I gathered at the same time — Southern winter blessings.

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Making Merry

As you may have read in an earlier entry here, I took up knitting about a year ago. It wasn’t pretty at first. I made a hot mess of some ugly, difficult yarn with some tiny needles I happened to have, cussed at my mother and sister-in-law for laughing at me, and quit in a huff.

But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And then one day in early January as I was running errands, I found myself inexorably drawn to the local yarn shop, where I picked up some beautiful dark chocolate-colored worsted yarn (yes, I am a yarn ho) and some #9 needles, all of which proved easier to manage. I started anew and quickly became addicted to the skill, and over 2010 I have been a crazy knitting fool. Lots of scarves, washcloths, caps, and fingerless gloves for starters. I found myself contributing to the return of leg warmers into fashion. And I upped the skill ante with two sweaters.

I really found my groove, though, with socks. Back in the spring my dear friend Dusty, a lifelong knitter, helped me master a few tricks (picking up stitches, knitting in the round, heel turning), and suddenly I was on a roll. There is something just plain magical about knitting socks. I think it’s the heel turn–you do a few funky decreases and slip-slips, and voila! There is a heel. So I started cranking out pairs of socks. (Sock projects are also marvelously portable, so I took them everywhere to work on them.)

This turned out to be a great idea for Christmas gifts. I found the coziest of baby alpaca sock yarn in bright, funky multicolors and went to town. Here (above) are some of the results of my two-month-long sock knitting frenzy.

Once the socks were ready, I turned to the jars of jams and butters that I had produced during this amazingly fruitful year. Dusty (she of the mystical knitting advice) also sent me a link to this marvelous blog for directions on topping and labeling jam jars. I got all crafty with my bad self, and here’s what the final product looked like.

Finally, I was especially glad to have found an excellent stash of straw baskets at a yard sale in my neighborhood a few months ago. I cleaned up a couple of the baskets and packed them full of Southern Urban Homestead goodies for my neighbors: fatlighter (seasoned sap-soaked pine my father collected last year), Mr. Pat’s sourwood honey, jam, and snuggly knitted objects.

Merry merry!

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Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree . . . Yet

When a big ole oak has an enormous gash in its side and is oozing black goo, you might suspect that it’s time for the tree to go. Since the tree in question was in the easement between the sidewalk and street in front of my house, the city sent over a service to remove it. It made me a little sad to see it leave in chunks the big truck, but it was also an opportunity.

A neighbor a few streets over has two apple trees in her front yard, right on the road, that are usually loaded with fruit every late summer/early fall. She sends out a friendly note over the neighborhood listserv inviting folks to help themselves.

I love the idea of sharing this kind of gift with one’s neighbors, so when I saw that the oak had left a nice, sunny spot rich with ground up stump matter, I ordered two dwarf apple trees to go into that little strip of earth. Three weeks before the trees were scheduled to ship, I went to work on the spot, testing the soil pH, mixing in some lime to neutralize the acid, adding in heaps of some marvelous chicken poo compost I’d been saving just for this sort of thing.

The trees arrived the week before Thanksgiving: one Gala and one Fuji — you need two trees of different varieties in order to achieve fruit. Pre-pruned (so that the newly planted tree will focus its energy in the root system), they looked like little more than twigs, about four feet high, with tiny stubs of branches off the main stem.

I followed the planting directions carefully, digging two generous holes to allow the bare roots plenty of space. I planted them about twelve feet apart. I gave  them deep waterings and piled up about eight inches of wood mulch at the base of each, taking care not to mound the mulch around the trunk, which might cause rot.

There’s little else to do now but wait a few years. Planting a fruit tree is a long-range investment. Next year, after the trees have grown a few inches and new growth has emerged, I might train the new branches to grow upward by clothes-pinning them to the main stem. In another year, I’ll do a little pruning. After a few more years of training and pruning and feeding, maybe I’ll start to see flower buds for my first crop of fruit. And maybe by the time I retire there will be enough to invite neighbors to share in.

Because that is a long time to wait, and because the trees are so little now that there is still plenty of sun between them on all that good soil the oak tree left behind, I gathered up some leftover seeds from my fall gardening and cultivated a little patch for radishes, winter salad greens, Swiss chard, and cilantro. The seeds came right up the following week, and maybe in early spring they will have wintered over and started to mature, and I will be able to invite my neighbors to pick a few greens and radishes for a salad.

Waiting for the apple trees, those few months don’t seem nearly so long.

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