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Urban homesteading

Homesteading Update: Chicken Mutiny

The homestead has been pretty idyllic with the days getting longer. We celebrated an unseasonably warm February by planting a long-sought-after fruiting red-leaf plum.

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Brave Irene, our Delaware hen, is keeping an eye on those blossoms for good things to come.

We’ll do some grafting and pruning so this lady grows low and bountiful. We popped her in the ground right next to the chicken run so that when and if we can’t keep up with the plum glut, they’ll be easy to toss in for the chickens.

Ah yes. The chickens. Those longer days have turned our 0 or 1 egg days into 3 or 4 egg days, so omelettes are back in season! But along with our egg bounty came The Mutiny. It started innocently enough. I peeked into our nest box one afternoon and found a cracked egg. While I sighed over the loss, I wondered if any of the girls had helped themselves to a sample. Somebird must have. In the following days, instead of eggs, I found yolky wet spots in the nest box.

I’d heard about this dreaded development–the Marxist chicken revolution. Apparently, once chickens get a taste for their own eggs and owning the means of production, the habit can be pretty hard to break. I tried collecting eggs more often and put some golf balls in the nest box as a decoy. This did not break their revolutionary spirit. Yolky wet spots abounded.

I suspected Mavis, our Auracana. She was the sweetest little sweety as a pullet, sitting on my shoulder and burrowing into my hair for comfort.

Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.
Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.

She tossed that meek fragility aside in her old age. These days, she rules the roost with an iron beak, so to speak. The ruthless glint in her eye says, “Given the opportunity, and if I had them, I’d kill you with my bare hands.”

So I couldn’t stop a satisfied “I knew it!” from escaping my mouth the day I caught Mavis in the act, gulping down broken shell with the glisten of yolk on her beak. After that, I stomped into the house and broke out the big guns: emptied some store-bought eggs and coated the insides of the shells with dijon mustard. I popped those little dijon bombs back in the nest box and thought I might have won when Mavis rejected the shells after a single, suspicious peck.

Instead, she got a recruit. The next day, Mavis and Rosie were at it together. And LemonCake might have been in on it too. Mutiny. I was incensed. I fantasized about slitting chicken throats to protect the daily food source for my lean, sunburnt family, just trying to survive out on the frontier.

Luckily, my smart homesteader friend R, the one who used to have the goats we milked, offered an alternative to death: the rollaway nest box.

IMG_3974AJ and I spent all of Sunday retrofitting, and I am proud to say that our frontier spirit prevailed! We set the nest box floor at an incline, so that once the deed is done, the egg rolls via padded board into a slot which empties into a padded aluminum paint tray.

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Brave Irene seeks out the camera yet again.

I am proud to report that our frontier spirit prevailed! No yolky wet spots for the past 3 days. Means of production successfully wrested from Mavis’ crafty beak.

Homesteading update: eggs

Let me catch you up on the chickens.

In short, they’ve grown up. Sometime in July, Goldie layed her first egg. She graced it upon our neighbor who was chicken-tending during our victorious summer of camping.

I’ve never experienced the chicken coming-of-age transition before, and let me tell you it is A Thing. In the days before The First Egg, the girls were small, skitterish, made little peeps and clucks, and made staying out of our way their main business. Here is what our neighbor relayed to me about The Day of The First Egg. Before she’d  even discovered it, she knew something was going on. The ladies were strutting and squawking like narcissistic high school seniors at prom.

Bless our neighbor for recounting this by shuffling around our front yard with her elbows angled just so, her neck bobbing out and in, and for saving the first few eggs for us to see. She intuited that this was also a very big moment for me. It was.

I crooned over them. They were so perfect and small. Little starter versions of real, live eggs.

First Eggs

And they were delicious. It was a miracle to see them sputtering to white in the cast iron skillet I inherited from my grandmother.

Over time, the eggs have gotten bigger, and now they’re your standard medium/large that you get at the supermarket. Except for the fact that they’re a sepia rainbow. And Mavis’ are always this amazing blue-green color and more oblong than the rest.

We’ve also gotten a few whoppers. Like one from this morning that we cracked open to find 2 yolks inside.

BigEgg
When I first layed eyes on it, I audibly winced. I hope she did some deep breathing when that one was coming out.

Now, our gals are routine and established layers. We usually get 3-5 eggs per day. The bounty is amazing.

And of course I have slipped into the mundane routine of it all, but I still get shocked into awe by the cycle we’re part of. We throw our cast off cheerios and weeds and apple cores and rotting pumpkins into the run (in addition to their pellets and scratch), and in exchange, these birds make us food and fertilizer. Every effing day. That daily wheel of give and take brings me back to the human animal I am. And even though I can be found hemming and hawing in bed about having to go outside to let the chickens out, I can also be found whispering “thanks gals” into the nest box in the afternoon.

Really. Thanks gals. You’re doing a bang up job.

Homesteading update: the chickens have landed

I spent Sunday afternoon somewhere between extremely tired and blissed out. That feeling when something you’ve worked really hard for and toiled over is suddenly, actually here.

Chickens.

In case you weren’t aware, I’ve wanted chickens for a really long time. Remember, way back when I had those chicken and kale dreams? Well, it turns out that the kale was easier to realize than the chickens for a number of reasons. Among them, radical rent increases, pregnancy, buying a duplex, moving and becoming a family of 4.

But we stayed the course, and were regularly reminded of that way-back dream every time we had to haul this coop around over the last 2 years.

#frontyardchickens

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I’m pretty obsessed with these ladies. We chose 4 very docile breeds that are known for being good layers. From head placement in the photo from left to right, there’s the Black Sex-Link who Jo has already named Rosie, the Black Australorp who is still unnamed (suggestions?!), the brown and black mottled lady is an Easter Egger who I’ve already taken a particular liking to and named Mavis. And that big golden gal is a Buff Orpington, also, as yet, unnamed. So feel free to put some names in the hopper.

I chose to get pullets (teenager chickens) rather than baby chicks because I’ve had enough baby action around here, and it’s just less time and labor and material intensive. Pullets have their adult feathers and can sleep outside and eat out of all the adult gear, so no need for heating lamps or special feeders that you only use for a handful of weeks. We chose to buy our chickens from Dare 2 Dream Farms, a sweet and savvy outfit nestled near the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their website is a complete dream come true–organized, beautiful and delivering exactly the information you need instead of overwhelming you with 300 coop designs or a forum 6 miles long about how to keep pests from eating your layers. We got their coop-ready package which thrilled the pants off me, because it meant I didn’t have to strap the boys in and hunt around for feeders and food and wonder if the person at the farm supply store was giving the city girl a line.

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It probably sounds like they gave me my chickens for free so I’d write all these nice things about them, but no. I’m just a shameless promoter of things that I find helpful. And they were radically helpful from the breath of fresh air website to Jeremy (Dare 2 Dream farmer and co-founder) hanging out in our yard while the girls pecked around their new home. He checked out our coop, gave us tips on how to not freak the ladies out in their first few days with us, and we yakked like old neighbors about farming and New Zealand, as you do.

And then I just spent the rest of the afternoon sort of dopey and in love, staring fuzzy-eyed into the distance and listening to their sweet little croons.

I finally got my chickens.

**long, slow, satisfied sigh**

Easiest gluten-free carrot cake-bread-muffin recipe and 40 weeks pregnant

A lot of you has asked for our gluten free carrot cake recipe after I posted this picture of its production on the Facebook page.

Photo on 2013-04-17 at 07.35 #3It’s a fabulous recipe that I’ve made successfully many times, and I am no baker. It comes to me from my friend R, who happens to be a dreamy cook and baker. Luckily, this recipe is easy enough to translate into my culinary skill set. And it features buckwheat flour, which I love for it’s nutty, heartiness.

Ingredients
1 cup buckwheat flour (R has also used teff flour, with good results)
1 cup rice flour
1 TBSP baking powder
2 TBSP ground cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup agave nectar
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 and 1/2 – 2 cups shredded carrots  (you can even use 3+ cups w/ great results!)
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 cup corn or canola oil
1 TBSP vanilla extract
I also add chopped walnuts b/c I love them and they make the end result more protein-y

Instructions
Preheat oven to 400
Sift flour, baking powder, spices, salt
Mix in all the wet stuff
Pour into a 9 and 1/2″ bundt pan (a loaf pan works just fine too.  Or a square. Or muffin tins…whatever)
Bake 40-50 mins, until top appear crusty and you can insert a toothpick and have it come out clean.
Cool for 10 mins, then carefully invert pan onto a wire rack and finish cooling.

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Enjoy!!

***

I’m writing this on what happens to be my due date with baby #2. And even though I know in my head that it’s normal to go past a due date, that I went 13 days past with J, and that I fully expected to go well into week 40 or 41 again this time, I’m feeling a bit deflated today.

Does my body really know how to do this?

Of course it does! says my confident, relaxed, birth-loving doula self.

But my 40 weeks pregnant self is a doubter. So I’ll leave you all (and my doubter self) with a little excerpt from an email that I wrote to one of my doula clients a couple of months ago:

Your body and this baby are on some mystical, goddessy, lunar schedule, and there’s some magic behind the mystery.

I really do find that births happen the way they do for a reason. It’s hard to know why before they happen, but there are so many things that have to come together for a birth–the right people, timing, environment. Who knows, maybe your baby is tuned into the time when the PERFECT nurse will be on call at the hospital. Maybe your body is waiting for the perfect day for everything to just start and work beautifully so that your labor is shorter and smoother. Maybe your kiddo is choosing a birthday that he won’t have to later share with some big douchebag in his kindergarten.
If possible, try to tap into any trust you might feel that there are larger forces at work here. And if that’s hard, go eat a doughnut. I find trust and doughnuts go together nicely.
I think it’s my turn for a doughnut.

Homesteading Update: I'm a cheese maker

So now that we’re knee deep in Pippa milk from our goat share, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it all. The whole notion of cheese-making made me nervous–I don’t usually have the patience for things that require adherence to absolute precision over the course of many steps. Turns out, it doesn’t have to be that way! There are naturally occurring bacteria in raw milk that will do all the work for you.

Readers, meet bonnyclabber.

Bonnyclabber, meet the readers.

If you want to know more than you ever thought possible about bonnyclabber, you can read this. If you want to know what you really need to know, I’ll tell you. Bonnyclabber is essentially what happens if you take raw milk directly from the udder, pour it into an air tight container and let it sit for anywhere between one-and-a-half to three-ish days. Apparently, my dear grandmother used to talk to my mom about bonnyclabber. She would pour it over cornbread and eat it for breakfast. She also used to talk to me about the ways they would get around having no refrigeration in the Texas heat of her childhood. And now that I’ve been goat-milking for a couple of months, I get it. When you have an animal in milk, you get a lot of milk. Everyday. The milk piles up. And if you happen to live in 1920s midland Texas, you can’t just pop the extra milk in the freezer. What you can do is sit a jar of the stuff out on the counter and let it go all bonnyclabber on you. And then you have a creamy cheese that you can spoon onto things to make them more delicious, like cornbread.

So here’s how I’ve been doing it. I start with a jar of goat-milk, still warm from Pippa’s generous udder.

I usually get 2 quarts when I milk, so we drink one and make cheese out of the other.

I bring the jar right home and put it on our stove top, where it’s kept consistently warm by the pilot lights. And in about 36 hours, it looks like this:

See how the milk has separated? And it did it all by itself! No rennet, no super heating, no starters. After we admire our impressive, spontaneous cheese through the glass jar, I pour it into a cloth-lined colander, and I put the colander over a bowl, to catch the whey. More about how fascinating whey is in a moment. Then I tie up the four corners of the cloth (in this case, I used a square of cloth that I cut from an old, clean pillowcase) and hang the little bundle on something, with the whey bowl underneath.

drip. drip. drip.

And then I wait until it’s not dripping consistently anymore, usually 3-5ish hours. I got all eager beaver at one point and decided to help the draining along by squeezing the whey through the cloth. Turns out this is not a good idea–it gets cheese into the whey and then the whey goes kind a funky and it didn’t make the cheese drain much faster anyway.

Once the dripping is done, untie the cloth and admire your cheese!

J likes to greet the cheese with a good old sniff.

And then I just scrape the cheese into one of my vintage pyrex containers with a spatula.

It just seems like bonnyclabber woudn’t want sit around in some new-fangled tupperware.

Oh, and the whey! You can pour all of the whey that drains off your cheese into a jar and keep it in your fridge. Whey is a great source of minerals, vitamins and probiotics, so it’s a great digestive aid. You can drink it straight–my friend R’s 2-year-old S can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. And you can also add a few tablespoons of the stuff when you soak and cook beans and grains. It helps to make them more easily digestible. I’ve been using a whey and water mixture to soak beans and rice before I cook them, and call me crazy, but I do feel less heavy and bloated after I eat them.

So there you have it. The easiest cheese you ever made in your whole life. I’ve been using ours in place of sour cream, cream cheese or cream fraiche, or eating it with nuts and a swirly honey drizzle over the top. It’s dreamy. And a cheese I have the patience to make.

Homesteading update: I'm a goat milker

I have always loved goats.

Spending time with goats during a trip to Greece in college.

I love them so much, that I was given this as a birthday present.

And I wear it all the time.

So it does seem like destiny – perhaps even my purpose finding me??! – that I would now be doing this:

Back in the spring, my dear friend R said that she might be interested in getting goats. After nearly peeing my pants, I assured her that I would do everything in my power to help her with said goats, if that would make any difference in her decision. Whether it did or no, she got them. And she made the whole venture delightfully communal, offering a small group of her (and my!) friends a share of her gorgeous milking goat, Pippa.

Isn’t she beautiful?

So now, on Wednesday mornings, I leap out of bed, grab my 2 quart jars and head to R’s for my morning milking.

After a few milkings, my hands have gotten into shape enough that I can milk the entire 2 quarts all by myself in one sitting! Then I filter the warm, foamy milk (thank you, Pippa!) into my jars.

I get a small thrill every time I go to the grocery store and leave without needing to buy milk. And when I think back to how far I’ve come since posting this. And every time J asks for “Pippa milk.” I also feel a deep connection to the whole process, since I am also a lactating mammal. Everytime I milk her, I thank Pippa profusely. Because after all, we’re harnessing her body’s amazing ability to produce milk for our own benefit. And when she runs to the gate in the morning with her udder bulging with milk, I croon to her–I understand. I remember what that over full, desperate-to-nurse feeling is like. And I share some of her relief when the first streams of milk spray into the pan.

And just in case this has been stirring some homesteading dreams of yours, I wanted to offer that R doesn’t have a palatial property for this whole operation. She does have a pretty big back yard. But more than that, I think she’s had the vision and done the work to transform her small space in the world into a thriving homestead (she has a garden and chickens too…swoon).

See? Doesn’t this make you think you could do this too? Or find a friend who would let you in on their operation?

Homesteading update: the status of my chicken and kale dreams

I’ve been craving more space for our little family. Daydreaming of 3 bedroom apartments with chickens in the backyard and a garage for our bikes. And then the universe promptly declared, “Put your money where  your mouth is, lady!” in the form of an unexpected and radical rent increase at our little cottage.

After recovering from my initial shock and terror, I realized that this was just the kick in the pants I needed to get moving. Nothing like the prospect of paying $700 more per month to motivate a hunt for new housing. So we’ve had to put the backyard chicken plan on hold for the time being. That is not to say that our coop isn’t getting plenty of use.

JoToddlerCoop

Please note the cool combo ladder/door that my naked child is playing with. I came up with the design and A hammered it out–this way, we don’t have to put out and then take away a separate ladder every time we open and close the door. What efficiency! That is, won’t that be efficient once we actually get chickens?

JoToddCoop

While our chicken aspirations are on hold, my kale dreams are coming true.

Perhaps I’ll go make myself a kale salad and go obsess over housing ads on Craigslist…

I have a crush on a blog: 6512 and growing

You know when you spot someone across a room and just desperately want to be their friend?

I feel that way about the blog 6512 and growing and the gal behind it. Everyone, meet Rachel. She lives in my hometown. I’ve known of her for quite some time, in that way that you know of most everyone in the small town where you’re raised. I watched over the years as she and her partner transformed a very “normal” looking house in our neighborhood into what most “upstanding” members of our community would call a hippie commune. With every top-heavy sunflower that sprang up in the front yard, I silently cheered. As if that wasn’t reason enough to be friends forever, she is a sensational writer, has refreshing things to say about parenting and relationships, can teach you an easy way to make yogurt, and writes magazine articles about fermentation that read like sonnets, driving J to such distraction that he forgets to eat breakfast. (You can read it too, flip to page 30 here.)

I took this picture with the hopes that Rachel’s kids will see it and decide they want to be friends with us, since J has the same taste in local food quarterlies as they do.

Here’s hoping.

Sadness and succulents

Honestly, it’s been hard to know what to say after my sadness project post. The flood of wholehearted comments you all wrote knocked my socks off. Reading your sadnesses lifted me off of my solitary sadness island and dropped me down in the middle of a feast. And we all belonged. What a sweet, sublime relief to connect with the deep, dark, real parts of other people. It reminded me of PostSecret and had me dreaming of other projects where we could all be anonymous and really let it rip–The Jealousy Project, The Tell-Motherhood-Like-It-Is Project, The Things-I-Can-Hardly-Admit-To-Myself Project.

Thank you.

Part of me wants to admit that now I’m cured. Writing about my sadness and connecting with all of you fixed me. But I know that’s a load of crap. My feelings all have a purpose, a season, and they pass through like summer storms. But no matter how mindful I get, I still return to the impulse to cut away certain parts of myself and throw them into the deepest pit of the ocean. But after loving all of you so much for your sadnesses, I’m reminded once again that I just need to pull extra seats up to the table when I’m feeling these things. “Hey there Crippling Jealousy, would you like some more mashed potatoes?” How many times will I need to re-learn this lesson?

In other news, our walnut tree finally decided to join the spring party.

I’m blown away by the tenacity of succulents. This was a leaf that J ripped off of a neighbor’s plant.

I put it in a dish of water and every time I walk by our kitchen windowsill, it reminds me, I’m more alive than you can imagine.

Gardening by the moon

Since posting this, lots of people have been asking me about gardening by the moon. While it would be fabulous, it does not mean that you’re digging around on your knees in the dead of night. What I’ve been doing, and what I learned from my mother, is to consult ye olde Farmer’s Almanac. Turns out there are quite a few out there, so let me know if you have any knowledge or experience of which is better and why. I wanted to like The Old Farmer’s Almanac the best, because I tend to trust old things. Instead, I’ve been using the Farmer’s Almanac which has been published every year since 1818. It’s not as old as The Old one, which started in 1792, but I like its layout better. I bought both and have been comparing them. They disagree on auspicious dates for various things, which 1) make me wonder if this is all a bunch of malarkey and 2) makes me curious about the secret formula each one uses for its calculations. And it is most definitely a secret formula. This from The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

Based on his observations, Thomas used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a secret weather forecasting formula, which brought uncannily accurate results, traditionally said to be 80 percent accurate. (Even today, his formula is kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.)

According to my trusty Almanac, on Easter Sunday, I planted seedlings. As my friend C says, it was an auspicious day to plant seedlings.

The kale sprang right up, 3 days after I planted the seeds. Don’t they look jurassic?

Thursday the 19th was a “Favorable day for planting root crops, extra good for vine crops. Set strawberry plants. Good days for transplanting.” So I transplanted into our new driveway planter boxes.

I planted my seeds in eggshells, which was recommended by my friend R. It was a dream. And also, delightfully seasonal, if you’re into that whole Easter egg thing.

Once it was time to plant, I just broke the shells apart and plunked the seedlings in the ground. The next morning, when I went out to check on these babies, they looked like they were flexing their little seedling biceps into the sky.

Extra super lunar power seedlings? Perhaps.