Bees and Chicks!

We have many, many new animals now, all of a sudden.  The chicks were planned, but the bees were an impulse buy.  Here’s how it happened.  We ordered chicks, they had a ship date, we had some time to wait.  No big deal.  While waiting, I happened to be browsing on the “Farm and Garden” section of Craigslist – okay I’m addicted to the site – and someone was selling his beekeeping setup.  With bees in the hive.

How could I pass that up?

So, knowing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about beekeeping, we hopped in our pickup truck and got the hive and various boxes and frames and whatever the guy handed us.  He tried to explain what the parts were, but Jason and I just glazed over and smiled and nodded.  No clue.

It was evening, so the bees were asleep, and he trapped them inside, strapped it all together and loaded it on the pickup.  We drove home and unloaded by the light of the headlights.  We were basically trusting the guy that there were bees inside, because even after we unloaded the hive we saw not a one, it being night.  The next day we looked, and there were bees coming out!  Yay!  We decided to feed them (sugar water) since they had been through an ordeal, and since there are only a few flowers in bloom now.

But we had no beekeeping gear at all – how could we safely open the hive?  Then I remembered the mosquito netting I had purchased once upon a time (a misguided purchase as it turned out) that was up in the attic.  A hat for each of us, some long sleeves and gloves, some mosquito netting thrown on top and voila we were beekeepers!

And here is our tiny colony of bees (they are only taking up two frames of the 10 frame box) and their jar of sugar water:

We have since taken a class on beekeeping and found out we were not doing about a million things we should have been doing for the bees and were doing several things wrong.  But at least we have a little more of a clue.

When the shipping date came for the chicks, we were very excited.  We waited and waited, called the post office, and finally called the hatchery.  They sent them, but we didn’t get them.  Days and days went by.  The chicks would not survive all these days without water, food or heat.  We were not happy about the prospect of receiving a late box of dead chicks.  I got my money back and ordered from another company.  The first chicks NEVER came!  We have since concluded they must have been delivered elsewhere.  But no worry, we got our chicks from the other hatchery and they were alive and well – and cost less!

So we now have 41 happy healthy Barred Plymouth Rock chicks, a mixture of male and female, in the coop under the heat lamps.

We visit them several times a day, to adjust their heat lamps and change their water and so Sarah can pick them up and generally bother them:

So, we have our work cut out for us.  The chickens we feel fairly confident about, but the bees are going to have to endure our bumbling – no pun intended.  We won’t have any appreciable amount of honey until a year from September, but we’ll have chicken meat in July (we’ll “process” all the males but one or two) and many eggs starting in August.  Meanwhile, it’s looking a lot more like a farm around here!

– Lizzy


A Quick Summary

A lot has gone on since our last post, but before we can start writing about current events there are still a few things we missed from 2011 that need posting.  Writing about them all individually is starting to take up too much time, so I’m going to toss together some of our past accomplishments in one post, with minimal description.

Here we go. At the end of 2011 we…

…made lots of hard cider…

…learned how to process (read: kill and clean) chickens…

…had the trench filled (and we seeded for erosion control)…

…got our first delivery of hardwood for the wood stove….

…made neat Redwood Christmas tree ornaments…

…got our Christmas tree (which was a little taller than we expected)…

…put up a killer clothes line (yes, those are my boxers Lizzy is peaking out from)…

…had Solar panels installed…

…which are now finished (though not connected yet)…

…and we bought a ton of fencing material to eventually run the length of the property.

To be honest, there’s even more stuff we should have posted, but it’s time to forget the past and start living in the present. Next up: Bees!


A bit of a scare – that ended well

Valentine’s Day was as nice as could be – until after dessert.  We’d had a fine day, Sarah had exchanged valentines at school, and Jason and I exchanged lovely cards.  Sarah even gave her current favorite boy a small bunch of roses (so cute!)  I finished sewing Sarah a dress she had asked me to make her – using the treadle sewing machine given to me by our neighbor.  Jason and I saw a coyote in the back yard, looking at our black cat.  After taking a couple of photos, we made our presence known and it ran away (and the cat ran inside).

We had a delicious osso buco and polenta dinner and for dessert homemade hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries.  Yum!

Then the trouble started.  Jason went outside to chop a little wood for the wood stove, and realized a cat was outside – in the dark!  We had forgotten to close the cat door!  So I went outside and wound up chasing our orange cat all the way around the house and finally getting him in.  Whew.  Closed the cat door and took a head count: one orange cat, one black cat, no calico.  Where was Sadie?

What followed was a frantic search both indoors and out for our favorite cat.  She was nowhere.  And this cat always comes when called, always stays near the house, never in a million years would run away or go exploring out of earshot.  We scoured the house, including closets, the attic, under beds, under covers, in the bathtub – everywhere.  Jason called and searched everywhere outside with a flashlight: around the house over and over, down the driveway, and up the hill behind the house where the coyote had been.

Where the coyote had been.

After half an hour, I lost hope.  She wasn’t inside.  If she had been outside while we called, she would have come.  The coyotes must have gotten her, and I felt I needed to get used to that reality.  And I felt I had to get Sarah used to that reality too.  I tearfully explained the situation to Sarah and then just sobbed.  Jason kept looking, outside and in, but I felt it was futile.  “She’s gone,” I told him.

I wasn’t in any shape to put Sarah to bed, so Jason took her up to her room.  Just before tucking her in, he made one last stab at looking for Sadie.  He looked into Sarah’s huge box of stuffed animals.  There she was, fast asleep, buried way underneath the stuffed animals.

What a joyful reunion – with many hugs and kisses for the groggy and confused cat, and tears of joy from me.  Why that cat slept through all our calling I will never know, but I am so relieved and grateful to have her with us, safe and sound.

Not half an hour later we heard the coyotes howl.  They sounded like they were right next to the house.  I double checked: all humans and cats inside, all doors closed and locked.  They got something else – this time.

– Lizzy

Burn Day

Hey guys – I’m back with a few more things that we forgot to post waaaaay back in late 2011.

We spent a couple of back-breaking months late last summer sawing down and dragging out scrub oak (and some mature trees) that made up a dense, impenetrable forest right where we planned to have the chicken yard. This was not fun; climbing up and down the hill in the sun, sawing off trees and branches, and hauling them down the hill by hand was quite a chore. I’m not exaggerating when I say that after only an hour or so of work I was barely able to crawl back to the truck. And this went on for weeks. Anyway, by the end of the summer we had staged enough brush to cover about a quarter acre down by the barn. Brush that, unless acted upon, would just sit there. Forever.

Which meant we were going to have to engage in one of rural America’s most time-honored traditions: Burn Day. I don’t know if you’ve ever done one of these things, but out here it’s a regular occurrence. Evidently no one can get through a year without removing vast patches of shrubbery and brush, piling it up somewhere on the property (preferably away from flammable matter like houses, people, and any trees that were lucky enough to escape the impending holocaust), and then lighting it on fire.

Burn season out here runs from around December to March, so we had a bit of waiting to do. Once the season started we called the Fire Department to confirm the day, settled on a location, grabbed a hose and some gasoline and matches, and got started.

As usual, Lizzy jumped at the opportunity to fire up the Kubota, so we tilled a ring around our carefully chosen spot…

…where we had arranged a modest mound of brush. We’d be feeding this small pile from our much larger brush pile located a couple dozen yards away, as apparently torching the entire thing at once is discouraged.

Once the tilling was completed and a source of water established, it was time to ignite!

I have to admit, though, that starting the damn thing wasn’t as easy as you’d expect. Judging by what I hear on the news I’d assumed that piles of brush go up at the merest suggestion of a spark. Not my pile of brush, though. I must have dropped seven or eight tall stick matches into the thing, along with several shots of gasoline, with barely a sustained flicker emanating from within. Embarrassing, really, when you think about the ease with which I used to light all manner of things on fire back in my youth. I guess that’s yet another skill that fades with age, like remembering the names of things and keeping off weight.

And maybe I don’t know much about this stuff, but pouring straight gasoline on a pile of dry leaves and branches, and then dropping a lit match into the mix, doesn’t seem to me to be what you would call a plan without a flaw.

But eventually we got it to catch without immolating ourselves or the surrounding landscape. After that it wasn’t but a few minutes before we had ourselves a nice blaze. And once that blaze got itself settled in, it wasn’t going anywhere.

We then spent the next eight hours or so tossing brush into the pile, inhaling toxic fumes and struggling to keep our eyeballs from melting from the blistering inferno.

We did this on a weekend, so Sarah was able to hang around and watch the fireworks. We even had a nice little lunch out at the back of the barn.

And of course we couldn’t have a big fire like that without toasting a marshmallow or two. Kill two birds with one stone, I say!

It was a pretty fun day, taken all in all. Still, it wasn’t as if we were able to relax in reclining deck chairs while the thing took care of itself. Having your main brush pile thirty-or-so feet removed from your burn pile may seem the wisest course of action, but it certainly forces you to do more physical labor. Dragging this stuff and tossing it on the pile was almost as exhausting as clearing the brush in the first place.

By the end of the day we had a nice, smoldering circle of charred earth. Sure, our lungs – and the lungs of countless wildlife unlucky enough to reside withing a half-mile radius of our land – may have been filled with enough smoke to equal a carton of unfiltered Camels, but we had no more brush!

At least, that is, until next year…..

Bye bye for now!


Gaining Yardage

Sorry about the bad, football-related pun of a title, but the Super Bowl is only a few days away. Anyway, it’s time for some more catching up, though I have to warn you that, unless you happen to be one of those types who enjoy reading about someone else’s yard, you may find this one to be a bit of a snoozer. It’s not even very homesteady, when you really get down to it. Still, these things need documenting. They can’t all be about outrunning voracious wild animals or barely escaping death at the hands of heavy machinery (I know – machinery doesn’t, strictly speaking, have hands, but you know what I mean).

Still reading? Well good on you!

As you may remember from an earlier post, one of the first things we budgeted for when we moved up here was a new front deck. As useful and enjoyable as a deck is, fun wasn’t the only motivation behind the move. The front yard, as it was, was absolutely unfit for human life. You couldn’t go anywhere near it unless you were wearing knee-high boots and a body suit. It looked as if it hadn’t been maintained for a decade: packed dirt and thick, woody weeds shared space with tufts of painful thistle. Gopher holes were everywhere.  I mean, for God’s sake, a warren of rabbits were living there.

Here’s a pic:

While this may look to the average eye like a photo of a cat frolicking – okay, maybe not frolicking, but you get the point – by some arid patch of weeds by the side of a highway, in truth the terrible blight you see in the foreground is actually what passed for our front yard.

Putting a deck there took care of almost half of the square footage in front. The side, however, was even worse. In addition to the thistle and dirt, the ground here rose steadily to a heap in one corner where an unsightly, straggling Yew bush sat upon a mound of rust-colored volcanic gravel. It was horrible. And then, of course, we had a trench carved through it, which didn’t help.

I took this picture (at left) from the center of the side yard, looking over the ridge to the barn down below. You can’t tell how bad the yard was, because of the trench, but you get the idea. And see that exposed yellow pipe? That’s the gas line. Nice.

Once the deck was finished and the trench was filled (electricity having been run down the hill) we hired a landscaper to tear the whole mess of a yard up, grade it down, and till the thing to within an inch of its life. Add a layer of topsoil, rolls and rolls of gopher wire, a couple thousand square feet of sod and we’ve finally got a lawn!

Here it was post-trench and pre-grading and tilling…

…and now nice and flat…

…all the gopher wire is laid out, and the fence is shaping up…

…and finally, the sod!

Not bad, huh? Once the fence was completely installed we had a pretty nice yard. It’s a bit bare, of course, but we’ll be adding some shrubs and trees in the coming months.

That’s it for now! Well, now that I look at it this post wasn’t so boring after all – there was even mention of some wild animals. Just because they’re the cute, hoppy kind with twitchy noses and cottony tails doesn’t mean they’re any less exciting.

And they did seem voracious. Well, a bit.


Catching Up

Happy New Year, everybody! I know, I know – 2012 has been around for almost a month now. It’s been a while since we’ve posted, what with the holidays and all, so let me start by saying that I promise to update this blog more often. In fact, in the spirit of the New Year, I hereby resolve to not only post more often, but to make my posts consist of shorter, more day-to-day updates rather than the less frequent, wordier, general-state-of-things kind of post.

So I’ve got some catching up to do…

First of all, we finally finished the chicken fencing!

Don’t let the trench distract you – it’s long since been filled, which means that the coop now has electricity. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is to power the lamps that will provide controlled warmth to the chicks we’ll be ordering (newly-hatched chicks are unable to maintain their body temperatures and thus need to live in a controlled, warm environment for about seven weeks called a “brooder box”). Another reason is to power the electric fence, which should, in theory, keep the fowl from getting gobbled up prematurely.

I was also thinking I could pop the old Slow-Cooker in there,  just in case one of the little guys feels like hopping in and closing the lid himself. You know – cut out the middle man and all that. (Gotta check with Lizzy on that one…)

It’s a pretty good fence, notwithstanding all the trouble we went through to get it constructed to our liking. We still need to upgrade the electric wiring, though. It seems our verbose, frequently shirtless contractor installed something that produces a laughably benign, intermittent pulse. Now, I don’t know much about these kinds of things, but I expect that an electric fence is supposed to repel, via the infliction of some significant amount of pain, any medium-to-largish beast or bird of prey. Not this one, though. This thing wouldn’t even repel a small, blonde little girl. Trust me – I tried it.

It covers about a half an acre, which is more than enough space for the forty-or-so birds who’ll be interned there. They’ve got some oak and apple trees for cover, fresh grass to snack on, and, I’m sure, plenty of bugs and grubs. We’ve also planted an apricot, cherry, Snow Queen nectarine, and Asian pear tree. A regular Eden, I tell you!

There are three entrances, one of which is wide enough to accommodate our tractor, pickup truck, or me if I keep putting on weight the way I’ve been.

The fence was completed, more or less, before Halloween, which should give you an idea of how behind we are on this blog.

So that’s it for now. I’m afraid this post turned out a little longer than I had planned, but don’t hold it against me. I don’t know how these blogger types do it – being succinct isn’t easy!

I’ll post again later this afternoon or tomorrow. Stay tuned!


Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

I thought I’d pick up on Jason’s “Farm of Horrors” theme and write about the truly frightening animals that live out here.  And by “here” I mean our own land – sometimes very close to the house.  Luckily, we knew ahead of time about these creatures, and immediately upon moving we confined our house cats to the indoors every night from dusk till dawn.  Forever and ever, amen.

But I will start this list with the large, numerous animals that are not predators.  Our white-tailed deer.  Every evening (and occasionally during the day) we will have several deer in the apple orchard in front of the house:

These two bold ones didn’t even wait until dusk.  Here’s a closer photo:

And here’s a pretty good photo taken another day:

By now you’ve figured out that we’re not the best nature photographers.  In our defense, they usually come by at dusk and run away when they see us.  Just imagine three or four of these lovely creatures ambling about every evening right down the short bluff in front of the house.  Now that it has started raining more often, we can see the hoof prints EVERYWHERE on the property.  And the forested areas are criss-crossed with deer trails.

The only problem with that is, the more deer we have, the more predators come who’d like to eat them.

But I’ll work up to that slowly.  Next up on our list is Bobby the Bobcat.  This summer we saw it about every other day, mid-morning, also in the apple orchard.  Bobby did NOT run away when it saw us.  Bobby ambled.  It didn’t give a damn.  Very unnerving when one’s cats are outside.  After all, the sun was up and they theoretically should have been safe from predators.  Luckily the cats mostly stay close to the house.  I didn’t take this photo, but it shows a bobcat beautifully:

Next I’ll show you the creature who is going to eat our chickens, once we get them.  Well, I shouldn’t say that.  There are LOTS of creatures who will be trying to eat our chickens, and it will be an interesting experiment to see if we can keep any alive at all.  My (foolish?) hope is that the fence with electric wire around the top, plus the bomb-proof coop for nighttime will take care of all but one main predator.  But that predator lives on the property.  Not far from the coop.  The fence won’t help at all against:

The red-tailed hawk.  Since moving in we have seen it in its redwood tree, soaring across the property, or circling something on the property almost daily.  And we hear its cry, of course, that high descending note that I now associate with dread.  I have (again: foolishly?) decided that our chickens, when we have them, will be in a large, fenced, but uncovered yard during the day.  Their only defense against hawkie will be running under a nearby tree.  Wish us luck.

We have only seen this next friend once, but it was memorable.  It was 8:30 am on a sunny Summer morning, and we were in the driveway getting ready to take Sarah to school.  Jason saw a glimpse of something near the back of the house and I ran to take a look.  It was one of these:

Except ours was much skinnier, and skulking away quickly.  Again, the cats were out.  We have only heard coyotes howling at night three times in the five months we’ve lived here.  But just a few days ago two guys working on our land said they saw a big one down by the barn.  During the day.  We were down there today and there are HUGE paw prints in the mud.  How big do coyotes get, anyway?

The above shows one of the many huge paw prints down by our barn.  It isn’t the neighbor’s dog; I checked.

On a lighter note, here are two friends whose fates are intertwined.  Predator and prey:

Here is the gopher snake, one of which I actually saw and almost raked up while raking grass this summer.  I’m not afraid of snakes, but these guys are rather large and it was a bit of a shock.  I decided to leave him alone.  After all, he will hopefully eat lots and lots of gophers.

I think I need to explain about the gophers in this area.  There are GAZILLIONS of them! Everywhere!  I mean, you can’t walk two steps on any part of our land without twisting your ankle on a hole or bump of dirt caused by the digging of said hole.  And who did the digging?  Yes.  The gazillions of gophers.  And we foolishly think we’re going to grow a garden in the spring.  Similar to the chicken situation, we are going to find out that our garden will be almost completely at the mercy of these vegetable-killing creatures.  Sigh…

Last week a buck was hit by a car and killed, and it wound up on our property.  The coyotes had started chewing on it, and we heard from the neighbor that it was our responsibility to deal with the carcass, so we hauled it on to the back of the pickup and plopped it on the upper pasture.  The coyotes made short work of it for two nights, and then the next two days we got to see these guys cleaning off the bones (not my photo):

We had three turkey vultures, not four, but they were still really cool.  And really big!  When we got too close, they flew away over us and they flew really low so we got to take a good look.

Anyway, on to the coup de grace: the thing that can eat PEOPLE.  When I first heard these lived in our county I thought: “Oh not near us, surely.  Maybe farther into the protected forest lands, way up away from houses and such.  But not near here.”  Turns out I was wrong.  Someone working on our spring saw one in our upper pasture.  And then another day Jason, Sarah and I found and collected these:

Bones from a six-point buck.  The femurs are broken in half.  This buck met his fate some time ago, but still it’s an unmistakable sign.  Then last month Jason was walking to get the morning paper and he saw a killed and freshly EATEN fawn right by the driveway.  In fact, down by the road.  I will spare you the photo I made him take.  The consensus among the neighbors was that it was the work of this noble creature:

The mountain lion.  This is the biggie.  Forget about house cats, this one could eat ME.  I really hadn’t planned on having this guy on our land.  Luckily, there are plenty of deer around for it to eat, but hopefully it won’t make a habit of eating its dinner at our place.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really love living in the country and seeing the native wildlife.  It’s still a thrill each time I see a deer even though I should be bored with them by now.  But I hope that I myself don’t become part of this wonderful “circle of life” I keep telling my daughter about!

– Lizzy