South and Souther

Dottie the chicken patrols the new chicken pasture
Dottie happily patrols the chicken pasture after spending the winter indoors. Next year we hope to house her in a greenhouse.

Guest post by Peter

The ancestors of our polka-dot hen, Dottie, came from the Basque region of Spain. It may seem odd that a southern chicken could feel at home as far north as Great Lake Huron’s Bruce Peninsula, but the two areas share some things in common. One is the almost identical seasonal light and day length: both coastal areas share the same 45-degrees-north latitude as sun-spots like Monaco, Bordeaux, and Tuscany. But in midwinter, there’s no way Dottie could mistake her current home for her ancestors’ on the coast of Spain, or for her more distant ancestors’ home in South-East Asia.

For our chicken’s winter comfort, we want to capture the daylight of southern Europe while insulating them from the frigid winds and temperatures of frozen Lake Huron. It’s not too hard to do–we housed them in our light-filled garage last winter, and plan to introduce them to shelter in a greenhouse next winter. But even poultry from South-East Asia can’t take the summer heat trapped in a greenhouse for long. Which leaves us with a nice problem to have: after evicting Dottie and her friends, what plants can we grow in an environment hotter than a balmy Bruce Peninsula summer?

Chickens eat snow during the winter
Chickens in the garage during the winter, dining on snow. Kinda looking guilty.

If we’re going to go south, let’s go a lot further south. How about to Mexico and Peru, two countries that bracket the tropics at the equator? We could grow their peppers and tomatoes. We like fruits and veggies like those and could sell some of them to help pay for the greenhouse/barn.

Skis allow the hoop house to be moveable
Skis allow the hoop house to be moveable

But an “ordinary” greenhouse barn isn’t enough for us. We want one that we can move around, yet still anchor to the earth so it doesn’t imitate a huge, expensive kite. Many greenhouses or hoop houses are linked to the earth with spiral ground anchors or big beefy metal stakes. This is a challenge at our site: the current depth of soil over bedrock ranges from 2 to 6 inches. What to do when you are surrounded by such boundless constraints? Get creative.

An article in Forbes magazine (July 12, 2013)  details how constraints drive genius. How did all-world architect Frank Gehry dream up his iconic billowing steel museum in Bilbao, the capital of Dottie’s Basque homeland? According to creativity experts including Gehry himself, it took constraints. Our greenhouse will not be a work of genius, but the amount of constraints leave a lot of room for creativity to sprout up. Stay tuned for the harvest.

Greens on my plate

Spinach starting to come to life
Spinach starting to come to life after a long winter

There is a time in late February when a little switch in my head clicks over and I am no longer content with the cabbage slaws that have gotten me though the winter. I want greens: vibrant, lively greens, on my plate and they better be fresh.

Nothing in the local grocery can satisfy my craving. Occasionally, I try the hermetically sealed packs of salad greens and spinach from California. Green, yes. Lifeless, also yes.

Last week, the spinach that overwintered in our raised bed under cover finally was of a size that we could pick it. Also, five of last year’s red oak leaf lettuces were shooting new growth. I gingerly picked the largest leaves from both, thinning where I could. I brought the pickings into the house like the Holy Grail. A quick rinse and we had a proper salad featuring our own hard cooked eggs. It was heavenly.

There is nothing  that can compare with freshly picked salad greens given a quick rinse and tossed with your favourite dressing.  At some point though, I do look for another way to prepare spinach. One of my favourite ways is to lightly blanch it and toss with a sesame and soy sauce dressing. This is also a favourite of my daughter who has become my dressing chef. See the recipe here.

The spinach that survives the winter is ready to bolt as soon as the weather warms up, which could be any day now. It will be several weeks until the new spinach seedlings are of a size that we can start picking. We will enjoy this abundance while we have it.

A tasty picking from the garden over the weekend
A tasty picking of spinach from the garden over the weekend. Look at the size of those leaves!

Time management and chickens

A hen exits the coop through the automatic door
A hen exits the coop through the automatic door

I spent a lot of time with the chickens today. More time than I expected. More time than is usual for a Saturday.

See, my usual school-day routine is to peek in on the birds before driving my daughter to the bus stop. When I get back, I fill feeders, check waterers and refill if needed. Usually I have a “treat” bucket of scraps from the house to disperse, maybe some dried crushed eggshells or sunflower seeds as well. I gather any eggs that are in the nest boxes. Check mineral supplements and refill. Then I hang out a bit and watch. You can learn a lot by hangin’ with the birds. I’m usually inside eating breakfast half an hour later.

Well, today is Saturday. I thought I’d allow myself to sleep in to the decadent hour of 7:45am. In my defence, I had had a fitful sleep, dreaming about making egg salad and waking to the realization that learning the ins and outs of blogging was definitely not coming along as easily as I had expected. I managed to drape a towel over my head to block the dawn and didn’t get to the birds until an hour later than usual. Continue reading “Time management and chickens”