Monday, June 18, 2018

Chicken Coop Expansion - The Hen Palace Grounds

This past week has seen an expansion of Claire's Chicken Chateau, with an add-on to the side of the coop, complemented by a protected outdoor exploration yard. 

As you may recall, the Chicken Chateau was based upon the dog house that was originally with the property when we purchased it.  Re-using the dog house roof was a way to use what we had on site, and save some cost, as well as recycle materials.  This made a good, but narrow chicken coop.  Here's how it looked when it was in the initial construction phase, nearly completed.

Over time we acquired a few more chickens (now 22 adults and 6 nuggets), and watched their behaviour, especially on rainy days when they didn't really want to be outside, I decided it was time for a bit of an expansion.

My helpful local builder came and built out the side of the coop to the existing perimeter fence, using the fence as part of the new wall.

He installed a new roof portion as well.  This part of the renovation opened up some space for more indoor comfort, and space for another roosting bar. 

This picture shows the renovation partly completed, but you can see how it opened up a whole new area.  We used a lot of old barn boards and pallet wood that we already had handy.

On the weekend, he came to complete the renovation and add an outdoor exploration area.  Having lost two birds to hawks in our initial chicken days here, we knew that keeping them protected when foraging was critical.  The new chicken yard uses some recycled material from a metal barn structure, which holds up a plastic mesh cover material.  There's also a gate for me to go in and out.  The sides are wood and hardware cloth, which is more sturdy than chicken wire.

It allows for sunlight and air (and those yummy bugs) to pass through, but prevents hawk or owl activity.  The base of the outdoor area also has wood around the base to prevent raccoons or other predators. There is a hatch door with a ramp on both the inside and outside for the birds to use to access the yard.

The outdoor foraging area will only be accessible in the daytime.  At night, they are inside the coop with the door firmly closed.

There is also a brand new Mummy-and-baby suite for Whisp and her little ones, which can be used when needed for birds who need time to rest, recuperate, be mothers, or otherwise be separated but "with" the flock.

On their first afternoon in the foraging area, after some initial discovery of leafy plants and grubs in the dirt, they all selected an ideal dust bath location and dug out a shallow bowl-shaped area.  Everybody seems to get into the dust bath at once.  I am hoping it won't get too muddy and nasty when it rains, but for now, they are all loving it!

Here's Willoughby supervising the dust bathing area.

Buttercream goes bug hunting.

Jellybelly has a rest in the leaf litter and looks like a queen as always.

Shadow shows her fluffy pantaloons while foraging in the wild blueberry bushes.

I'm so glad that they have more space to roam and enjoy their environment while remaining safe from birds of prey.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Garden Update: Fruiting Plants

In addition to the raised beds I recently posted about, I have also been busy putting in some fruiting shrubs this year.  I wanted to get those planted as soon as possible this year because they can take a while to get properly established.  I'm a big fan of growing my own fruit.  When I lived in Iowa, the climate allowed me to harvest a wider range of fruit, but here in New Brunswick, the growing season is short, so my choices are more limited.

Blackcurrants are a family favourite - something that I grew up with because I have British parents.  Many people aren't familiar with blackcurrants, or think that they are related to "currants" of the raisin type, which are a different fruit altogether.  I had 8 different blackcurrant varieties in Iowa, but here I was having trouble finding any, even by mail order.  Fortunately I was at MacArthur's Nursery in Moncton a couple of weeks ago, shortly after they'd received an order of fruit-bearing plants, including 4 blackcurrant bushes.  I bought 2 of them!  I left the white hanging basket container in this picture to show the size - the hanging basket container is the "regular" size you see in most stores.

The blackcurrants are the Ben Connan variety, which is bred from a combination of Ben Sarek and Ben Lomond varieties, both of which I grew in Iowa.  I was really excited to see such big, healthy plants.  They have already been planted in amongst some of my existing perennials.

At the nursery, the blackcurrants were sitting next to some gooseberry plants, so I immediately grabbed one of those as well.  This is an old classic "Pixwell" variety.  Some people think they're sour but I think they're great!  As you can see, it's found a spot next to the tulips, which are almost finished for this year.  If we could just stop having overnight frosts, it would be great.  These late frosts have already wreaked havoc on our province's grape and blueberry harvests. 

I need to ensure the berries get adequate sunlight, so planting them in with the other perennials is one of the best places, since those beds do receive a reasonable amount of sunlight.  I was also able to purchase a small but relatively healthy looking red currant.  It is also already planted.  The leaves are a bit pale but I'm pretty sure it will green up quickly.

I was also lucky enough to find a jostaberry, which is not a well known berry here, but is another that I used to grow in Iowa.  It's a cross between the blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum), the North American coastal black gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum) and the European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa).  The flavour is somewhere between a blackcurrant and a gooseberry - kind of a milder version of a blackcurrant really.  Very nice for jelly and other sweet treats in the fall kitchen!

In addition to the berry bushes, I purchased two different varieties of dwarf sour cherries.

I love the zing in the flavour of sour cherries. Sweet cherries are nice too, but the flavour of the tart cherries is just superb in my opinion.  I bought "Romeo" and "Cupid" varieties, which both originate from the University of Saskatchewan dwarf sour cherry breeding program.

I used to grow "Nanking" shrub cherries in Iowa, so I'm hoping these will do equally well for me here.  I would like to find a couple of Nanking cherry shrubs here as well, but I need to keep looking because I haven't found any yet.  For now, Cupid and Romeo will, I hope, grow big and strong!

This perennial bed has now become a half fruit bed, with 3 currant shrubs and a rhubarb plant from my in-laws that I planted earlier this year.  I also received a lovage plant from a friend of mine who has a vegetable farm.  I've planted it on the left side near the rhubarb.  The same bed  has a white climbing hydrangea on the bird feeder pole, some yellow loosestrife, some cranesbill, daylilies, echinops, irises, and lavender, as well as the forget-me-nots that are in all my garden beds!  In the front left there's a submerged pot that has mint in it - the pot prevents it from taking over the garden, since mint can be so invasive.

I'm not sure whether I'll get much of a fruit crop this year, but the blackcurrant bushes do have a reasonable number of little green fruits already, so maybe I'll have enough for a little jar of jam!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Insect Appreciation: The Oil Beetle

This is an oil beetle.  I was completely unfamiliar with oil beetles until I photographed this one in my garden a few weeks ago.  I finally got around to doing some research on it to find out what it was. I have a fairly reasonable knowledge of common garden insects, but this one was definitely new to me, and naturally, I had to learn about it.

It's a fairly large beetle that belongs to the Meloe genus of beetles.  This is the beetle on the tip of my gardening glove finger.  It had an iridescent blue colour, but if you look closely, you will see that it has exuded some greenish "goo" (scientific terminology there!) from a couple of its leg joints on the right side, and also its back end.

I was under the impression that this was an injured beetle that was leaking goo due to having been attacked by some other insect.  However, when I looked up the species, that's when I learned that oil beetles exude droplets of hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) from their joints when they are disturbed.  I had disturbed it by picking it up.  Good thing that I was wearing the gloves though, because that hemolymph contains cantharidin, which can cause severe skin blistering.  This is why this family of beetles also have the name of "blister beetles" in addition to the oil beetle name.

Livestock exposure to cantharidin (by inadvertent contact with or ingestion of the beetles) can be a serious problem requiring veterinary care, especially in horses.  If humans ingest it, a dose as low as 10 mg can actually be fatal!  Yikes!  Fortunately, I'm not in the habit of licking beetles.

I'm not 100% sure, but based on some further research I did, I believe this is Meloe impressus, since it is one of the more common oil beetle species in North America. I must say, I find its segmented antennae to be most interesting, and it has an unusual shape that is quite distinctive.

So now you know, if you find yourself interacting with an oil beetle, do not lick it.  Just a friendly public service announcement from yours truly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Garden Update: Raised Beds

I posted earlier this year about having some raised beds built in my backyard.  They are now filled with a mix of wood shavings (which had sat in a big pile all winter covered by snow) from Marc's garage renovation using pallet wood...

...goat-and-sheep-poop-filled-hay (thank you Lucky Nickel, Twilight and Tucker) from cleaning out the barn from the past winter's "deposits"...

...and some aged compost from a local farm.  They looked great when they were finally filled on May 10.  The layers will mix over time and I will keep them topped off each year with new compost.

After the beds were finished, I waited a couple of weeks, and then put in some seeds, because I was unable to resist the gardening bug.  Then I ordered some new seeds, because most of my seed stock was from 2007 to 2010, before I left Iowa, and that's way too old for decent germination rates.  I can't believe it has been that long since I had a proper garden.  As usual when I order seeds, I find it hard to choose just a few things.  So I ordered a lot of exciting seeds.  I bought Nikki Jabbour's book, Veggie Garden Remix, to give me some ideas, and it was chock full of interesting varieties that I hadn't tried before. Meanwhile, we continued to have cold, frosty weather.  My pak choi seeds emerged, and fortunately they are quite hardy, so the frost didn't get them.  I have some carrots coming up as well.

Meanwhile, I realized that it would be best if I had an irrigation system for the raised beds, since that would save me time (given my busy work schedule) and it would improve my harvests.  I ordered the raised bed irrigation kits from Lee Valley Tools.  My parents visited a couple of weekends ago and we sorted out the hoses and attachments and realized that a few more parts were needed to complete the system the way I wanted it to work, so the hoses were laid out in preparation for completion, but things were on hold for a while.

The additional pieces arrived and I was excited to get it all installed, but that had to wait until I had some time this past weekend.  I dug the header lines into the ground so they don't interfere with the lawn mowing, and have lengths of header coming up the side of each bed.

I then used a short length of header that comes into each bed and is capped off.  Three 1/4" hoses lead from the capped header to sprayer heads in each bed.  Each sprayer head has up to a 2 foot radius.  I have adjusted them so that they keep the water to the inside of the bed.

The sprayers keep a fairly low flow so they have a flat profile and won't spray loads of water wastefully onto the ground.

I also bought some white plastic "dividers" which seem to be some kind of strip that is used to join thin panels together, such as one might use in paneled walls. One must be creative when it comes to garden uses of non-standard materials.  These are going to be a test for my floating row cover that will keep insect pressures down as the season progresses.  We'll see how it goes.  My pak choi is looking good as you can see in the row in the bed below.

Here's the same bed with the floating row cover on it.  Working well so far!

I also had a spare cattle panel.  I used to use cattle panels for 'cheap' fencing in Iowa, but here in Atlantic Canada they are extremely expensive and not easy to find.  I am using this one as an archway for climbing plants.  On one side I have planted cucamelons, and on the other side I have planted Poona Kheera cucumbers.  I hope both will grow well on it.  This picture was taken before I had completed installation of the header hoses, which is why you can see one on the ground.

My parents also helped install a couple of pieces of wood lattice that I had on hand.  We planted "golden sweet" peas along the sides, which will grow up through the holes and make for easy picking of peas later in the season.  The peas have germinated extremely well and are already approaching the lattice holes.

Planting thus far includes a variety of carrot types, parsnips (my favourite!), pak choi, peas, herbs, Superior potatoes, Scotch curly kale, cabbage, beets, fennel, zucchini, winter squash, cucumber and melon.  It's so wonderful to have a good garden again!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Garden Update: Apple Tree

Last year we bought a 4-in-1 apple tree from a local nursery.  It was quite small but healthy looking and it wintered well.  I must give it some fertilizer soon.  A 4-in-1 apple tree is four different apple varieties that have been grafted onto a single trunk.  When we bought it, they said that it would not bear fruit for 3-4 years, but one has to start somewhere!

I was excited to see that 3 of the 4 different limbs have flowers this spring.  I don't know if any of them will end up bearing fruit or not, but the blossoms smell lovely and they are so pretty.  I love how the blossoms have a delicate touch of pink on them.

The four varieties on the tree are:

All are flowering except for the Chehalis.  It would be so exciting if we actually had a few apples form on it this year.  I will keep hoping!

The 4-in-1 apple is planted next to a crab apple tree that is currently absolutely glorious.  It is just covered in deep pink blossoms.  I am so happy every time I look at it!

The bees love it as well. 

 Some blossoms have yet to open.

But most of the buds are fully opened.  The scent is heavenly and the colour is so vivid and rich.  It is no wonder that winter makes me so gloomy when spring delivers such a riot of colour that brings such happiness! Maybe I need to find more indoor flowering plants for next winter.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Helping a Vole

Today our cat, Mitten, had a small vole in his clutches. I, being the sort of person I am, and knowing that Mitten is perfectly well fed, was compelled to rescue the vole. I was able to grab it and put it into a bucket. It was a very young vole, not even close to full size. I named it Voley-vole.

I'd say it was about half the size of a standard vole (unfortunately I know this from a few that I didn't manage to rescue in time).  It is a southern red-backed vole (Myodes gapperi) as one can tell from the colour of its fur, and since there are only a few vole species that live here, that is a distinguishing feature.  Its fur was a bit bedraggled after having been mouthed by a cat, but it will dry off.

If you are not familiar with voles, you might be thinking that I'm talking about a mole.  Moles are quite different from voles.  They are larger and have bigger feet for tunneling under the earth.  They make little dirt mounds in your yard, if you have them.  Voles make little tunnels under snow, which are obvious as the snow melts. 
Image result for vole vs mole
Voles are approximately mouse-sized, or a bit bigger, but they are not mice.  They have shorter tails and smaller ears than many mice, and a more rounded nose, whereas mice have pointy noses.  Then there are shrews, which are even more pointy-nosed, but they have extremely tiny eyes. 

Anyway, after rescuing Voley-vole, I put it into a bucket with some chicken grain so it could replenish its energy.  It ate heartily, and did some cute little face washing with its paws.  I'm such a soft heart when it comes to little animals.  I had to pet Voley-vole while it was in the bucket.  No, it didn't bite me.  No, I will not get rabies.  Or fleas.  Or the plague.

After it seemed to have eaten all the grain it wanted, I released it into the woods where I know the voles like to live.  I put the bucket on its side and Voley-Vole came to the edge of the bucket and hopped out onto the ground. 

Then, it promptly ran over to my shoe and hopped up on my toe.  It sat there for a good 15 or 20 seconds before hopping down again and running under the leaves and making its way in the world.  I felt, with apologies for my anthropomorphism, that it was saying thank you. Be well, Voley-vole.  You are much loved.