Chicken Coop & Garden Tour

So, here’s what’s been happening in our yard.

chicken coop construction

Here is the framed chicken coop, with the interior wall about to go in. All window and vent openings are covered in hardware cloth. The main thing you need to know about building a chicken coop and run, if you’re into that sort of thing, is that when they’re inside, the chickens must be surrounded on all sides by a solid surface (such as wood) or hardware cloth. That includes above and under the ground of the run portion — yes, you have to dig up some dirt, install hardware cloth along the ground and attach it to something, be it other hardware cloth or a frame) and then put the dirt back in. Otherwise, you might have wildlife or Rottweilers digging into your chicken run, and nobody wants that. We used 1/2-inch hardware cloth from Amazon, because it was the best price we found.  (When the coop is finished, I’ll let you know how much it cost and provide links to stuff we bought online. For now, I’m living in denial.)

chicken coop construction

The triangle on top here is a vent. One thing I learned from my extensive perusal of backyardchickens.com is that your chicken coop needs more ventilation than you might think, even in winter. So we (well, Ben) put in lots.

chicken coop construction

Here is a view of the beautiful linoleum floor Ben got from Habitat for Humanity. It’s always good to visit places like H4H just to see if you can score any materials on the cheap, or cheep if you’re a chicken. (Sorry.) I was partial to the blue floral linoleum tiles, but we figured a big sheet would be cleaner.

chicken coop construction

Back of the coop, also with a big vent area. The big open space is where the nest boxes will go.

chicken coop construction

View of the other side wall, featuring one vent and one window.

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Looking toward the run.

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Here are the framed and linoleum-ed nest boxes. We certainly don’t need 3 nest boxes for 3 chickens, but we can have as many as 8 chickens in Denver, so Ben designed everything to accommodate as many as 8 chickens.

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Side view of nest boxes. The nest box roof is a door that opens upward, so we can reach in to gather eggs.

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This is the current state of the coop. This weekend, Ben did the flashing on the roof, put in a ton of insulation, and installed the windows (there’s another window across from this one on the other side) and the outer walls. The windows are shed windows, installed so they can be opened and closed from the outside.

From here you can see the human doors to the coop and, on the right, to the run. Both have locks, mainly because we don’t want to risk any child we know opening a door on his own.

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Here you can see the coop and run, as well as the main plot of our garden. Here’s what’s in there:

  • arugula (in a container)
  • mint (in a container — always put mint in a container because it is super aggressive)
  • spinach
  • onions
  • carrots
  • 3 kinds of lettuce
  • kale
  • tomatillos
  • jalapenos
  • Joe E. Parker peppers
  • pepperoncini
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts
  • tomatoes, including several heirloom varieties

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This looks like ass, but bear with me. When it comes to gardening, we are passionate about two things: spending as little money as possible and using what we already have. This giant thing used to be part of a trellis that Ben removed to make room for the chicken run. Rather than throw it out, we’re using it to keep the dogs off our plants. Here we have several varieties of cucumbers (marketmore, lemon, homemade pickles, something else, and maybe something else — I want to make pickles this year and cucumbers are great for juice, so I wanted to have as many cucumber plants as possible); edamame; zucchini; and mini eggplants. Way in back are a few more tomato plants in containers — Ben put our favorites in containers: peacevine (which are little), red pear, and early girl.

I planted a few things in the front yard, too: garlic (Soren and I planted some cloves in the late fall and they’re all growing), a few more tomatoes, and more zucchini.

We still have a bit more to plant: more tomatoes, basil, oregano, corn, and some kind of bush beans.

A cool thing about this year’s garden! With the exception of a few jalapeno plants, everything was grown from seed or acquired for free at an awesome neighborhood gardening festival. So if all goes well, we’ll get tons of food without spending much money (for once)!

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As you can see, Sadie is really interested in the chickens all day every day. And we’ve been pretty busy!

Necklaces & Tomatoes

He's making a necklace

Earlier this evening, I made (another) necklace. Soren did, too. He loves necklaces and beads and I always start out telling him not to touch anything, but after a while I figure why not. (I should skip the “don’t touch nothin’”1 phase altogether, because what’s the point and it makes him (rightly) believe I’ll give in if he’s persistent.) I had no idea he could put a bunch of beads on a string, but he can.

My necklace was inspired by these little berries (we refer to them as “tree things,” because “berries” are something you eat and we don’t want anyone getting any ideas about eating things that grow in the yard and aren’t food, although even that has to be confusing because we grow food to eat in the yard, too) Soren picks from a bush in the yard. I’m not sure about it, but I’ll post a picture soon.

Inspiration

*****

Our garden is a little behind schedule, if gardens have schedules. Nothing we started from seeds indoors worked (I’m never doing this again — from now on, we’re either getting plants or directly sowing seeds in the ground; you never get anywhere starting seeds indoors when you have 100 cats). We have some peppers that are close to ready, one yellow squash (sadly, the zucchini plant we bought isn’t a zucchini plant at all — we’re not sure what it is, maybe acorn squash), and the occasional cherry tomato (although I’m not really a tomato person, I love leetle tomatoes named for fruit: cherry, pear, grape). The non-problem problem is that Soren also loves leetle tomatoes named for fruit.

We’re working on educating him that it’s never, ever a good idea to pick baby green tomatoes before they’re ready. He tried this a few times. Despite being told they’re not ready, he’d pluck a baby green tomato from the plant, look at it, and then pop it into his mouth, where it would stay for a while before reappearing and being tossed into the garden. Now he presses his nose against the figurative window of the garden, waiting for the tomatoes to be ready. Every day, he goes out to see if any “matoes” are ready. If they’re “kinda orange,” he says “Matoes ready?!” No, not yet. They have to be red. The other day there were two red cherry tomatoes on the plant, right next to each other. “Matoes ready!!” They sure might be, but you have to wait for daddy. (Ben is more of a tomato person than I am.) The second Ben got home it was all “Matoes ready! Matoes ready!” Later, Ben picked the two tomatoes and they cheersed and ate them.

I suspected gardens teach kids good things, and I guess for once I was right. Responsibility (Soren helps water and is learning “good plant/bad plant,” which is a precursor to effective weeding), patience (oh man that’s a hard one with toddlers), and an appreciation for fresh produce. It’s kind of cool.

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Note
1. Without fail, “Don’t touch nothin’” makes me think of one of the greatest songs of all time. As does “You a cutie still,” which comes up in life more than you’d think. I’m songy lately, aren’t I?

Our Garden: March 2012

Remember last month when I was all excited about making toilet-paper-roll seed pots? Well, I did this. And I am no longer excited about it, not even a little bit. In fact, I recommend that you never make toilet-paper-roll seed pots.

gardeninggardeninggardeninggardening

Toilet-paper-roll seed pots are a great idea in theory — they’re free and environmentally friendly! However, they’re also a pain and don’t actually work very well.

Here’s why:

  • Even after you cut and fold one edge of each roll, they’re still too tall to be practical — they’d be too tall for our covered tray, too wobbly, and would require too much seed starting mix. We had to trim all of them to make them a better height. You probably could cut the rolls in half before assembling, but then they might be too short.
  • They’re wobbly as hell even after filled and wet.
  • Let’s talk about them being wet. They have all the drawbacks of being wet but none of the benefits. Normally when starting seeds, it’s nice to have some type of contraption such that you can put water in a tray and whatever you put your seeds in can suck up the water. These don’t suck up any water. Or, well, they do, but only the cardboard part soaks up water. Absolutely none of the water makes it to the seed starting mix. Then, when you water the mix after you put it in the pots, most of the water just drains out and sits there uselessly in the tray, where it makes the cardboard wet but leave the seed starting mix untouched. The cardboard, now that it soaked up a ton of water, gets super-duper soggy and floppy. I knew this would happen, but I figured it would at least share some of the water with the seeds. Nope.

I persevered and planted our “early” seeds (Does it even count as early any more? I’m such a gardening procrastinator.) (lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, rhubarb, onion) in these things even though I hate them. I’ll try to forgive these pots for annoying me if they at least function well enough for us to end up with nice little plants.

For our next round of seeds, I plan to reuse old plant containers we have in the garage — this is also a free and environmentally friendly option, and probably won’t annoy me (although you never know!).

I hope your early (ish) gardening is going better than mine is!

P.S. The composting is going very well! We’ve filled up our first bin and are giving it a good roll around the yard every weekend while we wait for it to do its thing and fill up bin #2.

Our Garden: February 2012

During the weekend of The Great Denver Blizzard of 2012 (don’t believe the hype — it wasn’t all that), my thoughts turned to our garden. That doesn’t really make sense, but this always happens to me in February. Nothing against winter, but after the holiday sparkle of December and the glorious2012 garden: February new year of January, by February I’m thinking about spring and summer. The good news is that there are some gardening-related things you can do in February. Here’s what I’m doing this month.

1. Learn from last year’s mistakes.

Last year, I made some of the same mistakes I always make (this year will be different!). I ended up getting my seeds started too late. I started everything at the same time and wasn’t with it enough to start cool-weather veggies like lettuce early. The biggest mistake of all? Too much damn zucchini and yellow squash. No disrespect to zucchini, which is awesome, and yellow squash, which, truth be told I don’t like as much because it develops a pretty thick skin when you let them get big, which you’re bound to do when your shit gets all overgrown and you don’t even see the gigantic squashes lurking under all the foliage, but they kind of took over the garden, crowding out some of the other veggies like cucumbers, bless their hearts they never had a chance. As much as I enjoyed writing my “WTF to do with all this zucchini” posts, too much is more than enough. This year, I think we can get by with one (maybe 2) zucchini plants and one yellow squash plant.

2. Plan and get some seeds.

Our 2012 garden will be our 2011 garden +. The “plus” means we’re adding variety. We have leftover seeds (in the freezer) of everything we planted last year. I hope these work. I’m also planting:

  • moon cake edamame (edamame is one of Soren’s favorite things in the world; it’s also a fantastic snack to take to baseball games)
  • rainbow chard
  • De Cicco broccoli
  • Bloomsdale spinach
  • Hanover salad (spring) kale
  • Connecticut field pumpkin (good for carving)
  • Victoria rhubarb
  • valerian
  • calendula
  • evergreen hardy white onion (bunching)
  • wild garden lettuce mix
  • Cisineros grande tomatillo.

Oh, and I have some arugula seeds, too. This is quite ambitious for our limited space (and time), but I’m hoping for the best. My plan is to plan (that’s probably the point of a plan) well enough to get cool-weather veggies like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, lettuce, spinach, chard, etc. out there early. If they’re still hanging in there when the warm-weather stuff like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash are ready, cool; if not, we’ll have more room for the new guys.

I order most of my seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Also! I’m happy to report that I found some super-helpful and free info. about Denver gardening on the internet:

3. Start composting.

Okay, yeah, if you’re a good gardener and/or hippie, unlike me, you probably already do this. But we’re just about to get started (finally). Because we have dogs who eat things, we need something covered, but I was horrified by the cost of compost bins ($100-200, what?). So what to do? We bought two 32-gallon trash cans from Home Depot ($15.47 each) and we’re going to drill some holes in them and hope for the best (I’m thinking something like this or this — I like the second option because it doesn’t require screens and seems easier). I also got a little fancy and ordered this compost bin for the kitchen ($19.99). So, $50 and a little effort and we’ll be keeping stuff out of landfills and providing luscious compost for our garden soon. Yay!

4. Start making toilet-paper-roll seed pots.toilet paper roll seed pot

We usually buy one of those plastic seed-starting things with the little compartments and the cover. These are nice in theory and great for the early days, but I always run into trouble because plants grow at different rates and I end up with tomatoes and peppers that don’t fit under the lid and want to get outside in the sun and leggy little lettuce sprouts that aren’t ready for that madness.

Then I found this awesome post about using tp rolls to make seed pots. It’s environmentally friendly, free, and, well, fantastic. I’m not that good at it yet and mine don’t really like to stand up on their own, but I’m sure that once they’re filled with starter mix and next to each other on some sort of tray, it’ll all be good. Getting an early start on this project means I should have plenty of seed pots by the time I need them.

5. Be a total dork about gardening.

I think I have that one covered. I can’t wait ’til summer!

Hood Gardening Tips for your Front Yard

Now that Mother’s Day has passed, it’s finally safe to plant stuff in your yard. Yay! Here are a few tips on establishing and maintaining your front yard in a hood-appropriate manner.

1. This requires some unrealistic luck and planning, but if possible, buy a house from hippies. I don’t mean to stereotype, but hippies are often excellent gardeners. We were lucky enough to do this and our front yard is xeriscaped through no effort of our own.

If you don’t manage to buy a house from hippies, I recommend planting some perennials in your front yard. Perennials that do well in the Denver area (by “do well” I mean stuff the former homeowners planted that we haven’t killed) include: irises, false indigo, lavender, crocuses, and drought-friendly ornamental grasses. There are a few perennials in our front yard I haven’t identified (I will update here if/when I someday figure out what they are). Our front yard has passively acquired a lush crop of Virginia creeper from our back yard and the neighbors’ yard. Virginia creeper is all over Denver. I’d be happy to give you some for free. It’s great for dressing up a chain-link fence, but be careful, because it’s very aggressive.

2. Take advantage of free shit. If you can be quick (Free stuff goes fast!) and are able to stomach the farm and garden classifieds on Craigslist (I have a hard time because there are horrible animal things, like bunnies for pets or food.), there’s often free stuff to be had there. Also, when you live in the hood, there’s a good chance someone somewhere wants to encourage and assist you in improving your yard. Look for programs like Denver Digs Trees (free trees for certain neighborhoods) or the neighborhood garden festival (free seeds and nice plants). If you benefit from any of these programs, consider giving back by volunteering. (Trust me, you’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling when you take a walk in your hood and see new trees you helped get planted.)

3. Find a cheap place to buy shit. You can buy dirt, plants, and planters from Home Depot or Lowe’s. If you’re a rich person who likes to support local business, you can buy your stuff from Paulino Gardens, which is very, very nice and has an amazing selection. Chances are, though, you’re not living in the hood because you’re rolling in cash. In that case, you don’t want to spend a lot on plants. This means you want to go to Al’s Pine Garden and Nursery. Like Paulino, it’s a local business. Unlike Paulino, it’s tiny and cheap as hell. Spikes and vinca vines for your planters are $.99. (They also have a nice selection of hot pepper seedlings you can’t find anywhere else.) Buying stuff here means you’re in for a little extra work. When you get petunias, for example, you get a bunch of petunia plants growing in one container (instead of one petunia plant per individual cell like you get at the more expensive stores). You’ll just have to dig out each plant with a little garden shovel, and the really tiny ones might not make it. It’s okay, though, because if you follow my next tip, you should have a few backup petunias, just in case you need them.

4. Don’t overfill your planters. In fact, you should underfill them. You want them to look sad and desolate at first. This is for two reasons. First, the fewer plants you have to buy the less money you’ll spend. Second, watching the slow, gradual progress your tiny plants make is a pretty exciting thing to do when you live in the hood and don’t have much money to do anything else.

5. Use only what you need. Okay, this tip is stolen directly from Denver Water. Look. It’s dry here and the people in charge of providing our water want us to use as little as possible. That’s why they’ve set it up so the more water you use, the more expensive it gets. Don’t be one of those people who calls up Denver Water when your bill is so high you can’t believe it and has a guy come out to check your meter for leaks and while checking your meter he has to squish squish squish through your waterlogged lawn, which, by the way, is the greenest lawn on the entire block and no you don’t have a leak. (Don’t worry. This isn’t us. We don’t even have a lawn.)

6. Be prepared for some annoying maintenance. In addition to the usual garden work like weeding and watering, you’ll be picking up your share of empty Flaming Hot Cheetos bags and the occasional chicken bone that your dog tries to eat so you have to pry it out of her mouth with your fingers even though you’re a vegetarian and that totally grosses you out. At one time or another, you’ll have a plastic bag stuck in your tree or a pair of shoes over your power lines. This is annoying but hey, it’s better than people judging you for the condition of your lawn.

7. Speaking of lawns, don’t bother having one in front of your house. If you live in the hood, chances are your front yard is pretty small. Fill it with drought-tolerant perennials and be done with it. If you want a little patch of lawn for your dogs or your kid, put it in the back yard where it won’t get pooped on by random dogs, covered in litter, or dug up by some bored kid while his mom watches and doesn’t say anything.

This is an improvement.

In the hood, this is acceptable.

8. Don’t get too fancy. This is the most important tip. If you live in the hood, there ain’t nothing wrong with a little bump and grind and a chain-link fence. Using old, partially broken, mismatched, and otherwise imperfect pots and accessories is encouraged — it’s cheap, environmentally friendly, and avoids filling your yard with shit that pretty much screams, “Hey, fancy, rich people live here! Rob us!” (Of course, anybody can be burglarized, even us.) If you fill your yard with nice planters, people will just steal them anyway, even if they’re empty. One year, our plain terracotta pots were stolen. They didn’t even have plants in them at the time. Terracotta pots aren’t exactly fancy or expensive, but somebody thought they were worth stealing. We replaced them with even cheaper plastic pots. Don’t get too aggressive with pink plastic yard flamingos or other artificial fauna. Although they’re likely to establish the sense of ironic kitsch you’d like to convey, they’re just going to be jacked unless you manage to snag one kind of sorry-looking flamingo from a thrift store for like $2. That guy will probably stick around.

In terms of how nice you want your house to look from the street, count the number of houses on your block and divide by two. For example, if there are 10 houses on your block, 10 divided by 2 is 5, so you want to be approximately the 5th nicest house on the block. This means you’re not the nicest house on the block, which is going to be broken into soon, and you’re not the worst house on the block, which has at least one boarded-up window, gang symbols on the garage, and sad Christmas decorations displayed year round.

Basically, you want your yard to look nice, but not too nice. Everything in moderation, especially in the hood.

Happy gardening!

flowerssome sort of tulipsAn exceptionally modestI need to startTeeny plants!Iris
Braaaaaaaaahhhhhh!This is whatFlowers have arrived!our treeirisesearly summer

Preview: Our 2011 Garden

Song: Back Up Pistol by Wick-It the Instigator
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I can’t wait to start our garden this year. Seriously. If you look at our house, you’ll see me standing there with my nose pressed against the window of the back door, gazing longingly into the yard, pining for the days when it’s warm enough to be growing peppers and other delights. Those are also the days of baseball, and let me tell you, I can’t wait for that to get started, either. The White Sox are coming to Denver this year! That’s just about the most exciting thing, ever!

tomatoes and lettuce

This is from last year, which wasn't our best gardening year ever.

You won’t be shocked to hear that we’re not master gardeners or anything. What usually happens is that I plan for an elaborate onslaught of vegetables and herbs and choose and implement a color scheme of flowers for the front yard. I’m all about getting the seeds started and planting everybody, but soon after that, my interest tends to wane. In the garden, I like creating more than destroying — I love planting and hate weeding (and good lord, we get some terrible weeds here in Colorado, the likes of which I’d never seen in the midwest). As usual, I’m good at planning and big ideas and poor at follow through. This means approximately half of the vegetables don’t do very well and Ben ends up doing all the maintenance, most of which involves watering. This year, I will be better! You heard it here first!

Soren isn’t old enough to appreciate a garden, but I think that good, home-grown veggies are especially important now that we have a kid. When he’s older, I hope he’ll appreciate the work that goes into growing your own food, and I also hope that will make him enjoy the food we’ve grown more than he’d enjoy vegetables bought from the store or whatever. Maybe he’ll be more likely to enjoy tomatoes he picked out and help grow, you know? I could be full of shit, but this is my veggie-friendly vision.

Our soil is questionable. There are soil-contamination issues in our neighborhood; all yards were tested and those that had an “unacceptable” level of whatever were dug up and replaced. Our yard did not require replacement of soil, but I’m still (reasonably or unreasonably) bothered by the fact that there’s some sort of questionable shit going on out there. This means we do everything in containers, which also means we don’t have all the room in the world. If I do a good job of not flaking on the garden this year, maybe we can put in a raised bed next year. That would be fantastic.

In any event, I’ve been spending some time on the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange website, lovingly filling my cart with what will become this year’s crops. Here’s what I have so far (you’ll note we’re partial to peppers, which grow very well in sunny, hot, dry Denver):

  • Catskill (Long Island Improved) Brussels Sprouts
  • Lemon Cucumber, Pickling
  • Spacemaster Cucumber
  • Salad Bowl Lettuce, Looseleaf
  • Slo-Bolt Lettuce, Looseleaf
  • Anaheim Chile Pepper, Hot
  • Hungarian Wax (Hot Banana) Pepper
  • Jalapeno Pepper, Hot
  • Serrano Tampiqueno Pepper, Hot
  • California Wonder Pepper, Bell, Sweet
  • Early Prolific Straightneck Squash
  • Zucchini, Dark Green Squash
  • Basil, Lettuce Leaf
  • Yellow Pear Tomato (these are fabulous if, like me, you’re not a big tomato person — they have a nice, light flavor and aren’t too slimy)
  • Large Red Tomato
  • Mountain Princess Tomato
  • OTV Brandywine Tomato
  • Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin

    Yay for pumpkins!

    We grew these!

The tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, red bell pepper, yellow squash, and pumpkins are heirloom varieties, which I think is very cool.

We might add a few more things. Last year, we went to a little community garden event where they gave away a few free plants to everybody. We got pear tomato, eggplant, and pumpkin plants from that (these all did very well and the pumpkins even threatened to take over our whole yard — we planted them in the ground because we weren’t going to eat them). (I’m not sure if they’ll be doing this event again this year, but here’s where I found out about it last year. It was a lot of fun and they even served vegetarian tamales. I’ll let you know if I hear anything!)

I’m still working on the color scheme for the front yard. I think I did pink and white last year, but usually, for whatever reason, I’m drawn to purple and orange. I should try to do something different this year. Maybe blue? I’m not sure. In any event, I know I’ll post way too many pictures of the yard, because apparently taking 900 pictures of everything (and being hyperbolic with numbers) is my thing these days.