Saturday, May 30, 2009
We really appreciated talking with Allison and Adrian, and were impressed with their knowledge and vision. Adrian followed up the visit by sending us this link to a great little zine, that tells the story of how easily, step by step, a real neighbourhood community can form. The drawings are whimsical, the words flow freely and beautifully, and the story brings inspiration. It's written by a fellow who is involved with the Riverbank Neighbours, a community group that acts as stewards of their neighbourhood river in Chicago. It's worth taking the time to read! (click on link below, and to read the zine simply click on each page to move to the next page). This is how the story begins:
Live somewhere. A house or apartment. And say hello to your neighbors. and borrow things. Here's how the saying goes: Always a borrower and a lender be. Lending and borrowin' makes good neighbors. Go to your neighbor when you need sugar. The next time they need bread they will come to you. Borrow onions. Lend popcorn. Borrow a leaf rake. Lend a baby buggy. Borrow some shoes. Everybody needs to owe. Everybody needs to be owed to.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Rhubarb Soda - from Culinate Kitchen
1 1/2 cups rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1) Place rhubarb, sugar and 1 1/2 cups water into saucepan and bring to a boil. Then turn down to simmer and cook down for about 15 minutes until syrup is bright pink.
2) Turn off the heat and allow to cool. Strain syrup into a large jar.
3) To make each soda, measure 1/2 cup syrup into a glass. Add enough sparkling water to fill the glass 2/3 full. Stir to mix. Add ice and sprig of mint if desired.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Busy day - but so lovely - it's 9:30 pm and we've just come in from all day planting out the seedlings that have been waiting since March and April. 22 kinds of tomatoes (2 large beds, and many many large containers), peppers, eggplants, 1 huge basil bed (5o plants for pesto!), rows of chard, carrots, radish, snow & snap peas, red fava beans, and more beds of bush and pole beans (french filet, cherokee cornfield, and more), 3 beds of lettuce, 2 beds of kale (green and red), plus potatoes sprouting in my 4x4 foot strawbale bed, 2 beds of onion sets a foot high, and one full bed of garlic getting ready to shoot up scapes, strawberry plants filled with green berries set to ripen, rhubarb ready for harvest, and the asparagus already almost finished. It's not June 21 yet, but feels like summer is here! Our meal today was a rich cream of sorrel & asparagus (from the garden) soup, made with the last cream from our raw milk and sprinkled with fresh garden chives. Divine!
1) to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;
2) to reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);
3) to simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)
There is an international movement called "Transition Towns", which aims at bringing communities together to seriously look at Peak Oil and Climate Change and answer the question
"for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"
Here locally, on Friday May 29 at the University of Waterloo, we have a guest speaker coming to address this topic. Here are the details:
Guest lecture: Jane Buchan from Hardwick Area Transition Towns
Friday, May 29th, 3:00-4:30pm
Environment 2, room 2002, University of Waterloo
You may have heard the buzz around local food, but what do some of the broader lifestyle changes we could be making look like?
There is a global movement of relocalization and sustainability transitions known as the ‘transition town’ movement. First envisioned in Ireland in 2004 and fully realized through citizen efforts in Totnes, England, in 2006, ‘transition towns’ provides an accessible and easily adaptable model for rural and urban relocalization. It involves building resilience into local communities by ‘powering down’ and ’skilling up’.
Transition-town culture fosters the assessment of local and regional vulnerabilities and suggests initiatives that will lessen the impact of climate extremes, fossil-fuel energy adversity, and global economic instability.Sound intriguing? On May 29, the University of Waterloo will host a talk by Jane Buchan on her involvement with the Hardwick Area Transition Towns (HATTs)...
Read more of this entry at: http://envblogs.uwaterloo.ca/blogs/
Sunday, May 24, 2009
If you committed to a diet of food that was grown within 100 miles of your house, what would you miss most? Coffee? Spices?
It's a valid question for Waterloo naturopaths Rachel VandenBerg and Michael Torreiter, who hope to round up 100 local residents to join them in eating "100-mile food" for 100 days.
Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, a B.C. couple, were the first to try it. They devoted themselves (with some exceptions) to eating local for a year, then chronicled their experiences in the much-discussed 2007 book, The 100 Mile Diet.
Smith and MacKinnon then took the idea to everyday folks in Mission, B.C., having six families there try 100 days of eating food that was grown and produced within a 100-mile radius. A TV report describing the results recently aired in a Food Network Canada program called The 100 Mile Challenge.
Torreiter and VandenBerg run the Healing Path Centre for Natural Medicine on King Street in Waterloo. They thought about their 100-mile idea a couple of years ago and were going to try it then. Other things got in the way, but fast forward to now and the two are ready to take on the task.
On Tuesday, they'll hold a recruitment session of sorts from 7 to 9 p.m. at The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery on Caroline Street in Waterloo. The event will be catered with locally produced food. All are welcome.
Region of Waterloo public health planner Marc Xuereb will give a presentation on local eating and growers will be on hand. There will be a Q-and-A session about how the project will work.
Though the 100 days won't officially start until Saturday, July 4 -- it's timed to coincide with the local growing season --VandenBerg says they're organizing now to help people to avoid the stress of being unprepared.
"This way we can paint a picture of what these 100 days will look like and people have time to figure out what prep work they'll need to do," she said in an interview.
Over the course of the project -- it wraps up at Thanksgiving -- there will be potluck events, organized farm expeditions and workshops.
VandenBerg says she and Torreiter are open to suggestions from participants as to how the experience can be enriched for everyone.
Local food growers and sellers are thrilled about the project and many are offering to help in any way they can. It will, after all, mean increased sales for those who run small food-based businesses and are constantly struggling to compete with commercial grocers and big box stores.
Asked what participants will find hardest to give up, Torreiter and VandenBerg offered a few thoughts.
"Coffee and chocolate," they both said, right off the bat.
"Sugar might be tough but we do have honey and maple syrup," added VandenBerg.
"Nuts and seeds might be a problem. And people pretty much can't have anything that comes in a package, so the loss of convenience will be tough. I think making everything from scratch will be the hardest thing."
Torreiter laughs at the thought of getting out a pasta maker late on a Friday night and telling the kids to wait a couple hours while he prepares and cranks out the dough.
The 100-mile diet is seen as a good way to reduce your carbon footprint while supporting the local economy. But Torreiter said he thinks the health benefits will also be well worth the effort as well. (One 100-mile eater in Mission, B.C. unexpectedly lost 42 pounds.)
"As naturopaths, we're interested in healthy eating and (in) anything that gets people back to a whole-foods-based diet," Torreiter said.
"The prevalence of processed foods is just huge. Giving that up will be hard for people."
If you think you're up to the Healing Path Centre's 100 Mile Challenge, visit the centre's website at www.healingpathcentre.com or phone 519-578-7000.
Or head down to the gallery on Tuesday night. Maybe one bite of those homegrown regional canapés will have you signing up on the spot.
Dinah Murdoch is a Kitchener writer. You can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
What an amazing, plant-filled, people-inspired day! We estimate we had more than 300 people come by to purchase seedlings today - more than 1500 seedlings were sold (not a single plant was left by 11:45!), and we wish all the city gardeners a super growing season as they move these seedlings into their new homes. It was great to meet so many wonderful people - many familiar faces and lots of catching up with friends, plus many new introductions and people who we hope to meet again at future seedling sales or other community events. We wished we would have had more time to talk with all of you! We were so inspired by all the enthusiasm for urban agriculture, homesteading, and urban sustainability from so many of you! We really felt like this event was not only about promoting urban gardening and the preservation of heritage varieties, but also about furthering community spirit. Thanks for all the patience everyone showed as they navigated through the crowds on our driveway, self-toured in our garden, and for all the help offered (Steve and Taarini for helping with seedlings, Tanya for taking a few photos for us, Jackie and Shawn for donating plants to the sale, and Mike & Julia for offering to help us run our till next year, and many others who offered to help next time!). Tomorrow we plant a few of our own seedlings into the garden and take a little time for rest...
Thursday, May 21, 2009
We were gifted with a surprise 2 litres of raw milk from a friend on a nearby farm (thank you Rosemary!) I was surprised to realize I had never tasted raw milk before in my life. The cream that rises to the top certainly is divine. It's currently illegal to sell raw milk in Ontario it's not that easy to come by (unless you find a farm family who will gift or barter it to you).
Many Ontarians will have heard about Michael Schmidt, the farmer from Grey County who tried numerous times to offer raw milk to his long list of customers who clamour for it. He set up a dairy co-op (Cow Share), with members "owning" their cow, while Schmidt housed, fed and milked them. Members would then be able to pick up their raw milk as necessary - a great arrangement, until the government caught up with him and shut that project down. He has been battling this out in the courts for years, even doing a hunger strike at one point to raise awareness about his cause and legalizing the sale of raw milk. When recently interviewed on CBC radio, he made a good point - we can purchase almost anything else in a raw state in the store (raw fruit, vegetables, meat, sushi, etc), not to mention cigarettes and alcohol (which have obvious health impacts), yet consumers aren't given the right to buy raw milk if they so choose. (see www.glencoltonfarms.com)
So we felt blessed by this unexpected gift of the precious raw milk. There are many theories about the health benefits of raw milk as well as other traditional foods (see, for example, www.raw-milk-facts.com). As we are not in the habit of drinking cow's milk, but do love to make homemade yogurt, I decided to make up a batch of yogurt last night. This morning, we had the richest, creamiest dense yogurt we've ever tasted! With canned peaches from last summer and homemade granola it was quite a breakfast treat, more like dessert really!
Here's the recipe (plus a few tips from my mom, who grew up on a largely self-sufficient farm in the 1950's). I'm going to attempt to make mozzarella with the remaining milk, something which is difficult to do with regular store-purchased milk as the high pasteurizing results in problems with cheesemaking (at least in the reading I've done, and the one dismall attempt at making mozzarella last year which resulted in something more like cottage cheese crumbs!). With the left-over cream I'm going to make butter.
Easy Dependable Yogurt (from Simply in Season)
4 cups (1 litre) raw or store-bought fresh milk
1/8 cup yogurt starter
1/4 cup honey or maple syrup (optional)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
fresh fruit (optional)
1) Put milk in saucepan and scald by heating until tiny bubbles form on edges of the milk, but do not bring to a boil. Pour into another container to cool. Insert cooking thermometre to measure temperature.
2) Fill canning jar or thermos with hot water. Set in hot water bath (in a baking pan). Wait for milk to cool to 105-110F / 40-45C.
3) Once milk reaches the desired temperature, stir in yogurt starter (we use 1/8 cup natural yogurt left-over from last batch, or live-culture natural plain yogurt from the store). Empty canning jar or thermos, pour in milk mixture and screw on the lid. Do not move this canning jar or thermos during incubation period.
4) After 4-6 hours, check yogurt for desired consistency. The canning jar/thermos should stay at aroun 105-110F / 40-45C for the full length of incubation. Tips on keeping the jar warm: - keep in warm water bath, and continue to top up the warm water during incubation time
- wrap jar in towel to keep insulated
- keep jar in oven with pilot light on (or lowest setting)
- keep jar in cooler/ice chest that's filled with hot water
- set jar in pan of warm water on the stove and occasionally turn the stove on briefly
- set jar under a tea cozy
5) Do not stir finished yogurt too much. Fold in sweetener and fruit. If you forget about the yogurt and leave it too long, pour off water (whey) that forms on top and add additonal sweetened if necessary.
I’m currently about half way through Bill McKibben’s new book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. I initially started reading this because the non-profit organization where my partner works is running a book club for staff members with this book as the first pick. I thought the book sounded exactly along the lines of other articles I had been reading lately (more posts on this to come), and I could read along at home and foster discussion with my partner on how to build a stronger local economy.
Books on economics are not usually my first choice (often seeming dry or overly academic for my liking), but although this book assumes a general working knowledge of basic economics, it is highly readable, packed with useful statistics, and looks deeply into economic philosophy. McKibben’s style of writing is incredibly engaging, thoughtful and powerful. His basic premise is this: that the long-held economic ideal of constant “growth” is not viable; for one we are running out of resources to make the products to sustain our rate of growth (especially if developing countries, like China and India would want to consume at the rate of North Americans); secondly we are running out of oil, there will simply not be a way to create, trade and transport the products in mass quantities around the globe as we know it; thirdly we are running out of earth (long discussion on the impacts of climate change); fourthly this kind of growth economy does not trickle down to everyone – it only makes a slim margin wealthy at the top, and continues to increases global inequality; and fifthly even if we did have enough of all the above to go around, it has been proven that consumption does not make us happier. In fact, countries with higher rates of consumption and wealth tend to rate higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, fear, health issues, etc. Consumption breeds dissatisfaction.
After outlining his thesis clearly, McKibben’s book continues with chapters on topics like food, energy, and transportation, showing how ordinary people are doing incredibly creative things to improve their local economies and quality of local life.
And McKibben is right. Haven’t we all thought “if I would only get this or that, life will be so much better”, and then found that after a short while that item (book, clothing, houseware, toy) is left gathering dust on the shelf while a new interest has filled its place. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with mass media telling us we need things to be more beautiful, gain status, increase our intelligence, find romance, etc. It’s estimated the average TV watching Canadian sees between 300-800 media ads per day. How can we not feel constantly tempted to buy more! The Age of Persuasion on CBC Radio shows us just how much the advertising world insinuates itself into every aspect of our lives. Even environmentalists who “buy green” easily fall into this trap. The book The Rebel Sell shows how strongly marketed eco-purchasing has become, where we can believe we are buying all the "right" things but we are still consuming vast quantities of commodities needlessly. Eco-conscious and organic purchasing is a whole new niche that corporations have happily tapped into, including Nike, Nestle, Monsanto, Cargill and all the rest!
So how much do we really need? I remember being on a short weekend hiking trip a few years ago, thinking I had packed relatively lightly (a tent, minimal cooking gear, a few clothes) and feeling incredibly freed by carrying all the necessities on my back. My friend and I met an older fellow hiking along, and struck up a conversation with him. Turns out he had already been hiking for a month, and all he had with him was a tarp, some raingear, a little food, a knife and matches. He wild-harvested his meals, wore the same clothes, and slept under the stars (with the tarp as back up in case of rain). He didn’t even carry a backpack. He was certainly living freely. When we consider the majority of the world’s population lives – simple homes, simple food, simple clothing – and not to mention the sweatshop or slave-like conditions many workers face to make the cheap products we demand, we have no right to the dissatisfaction we sometimes feel about not having quite enough!
In any case, I proposed a Year of Buying Less to my partner. What I hope with this experiment is to reduce: our spending, our clutter, our plastic & garbage waste; and to increase: our free time, our family time, our creativity, our connection to the local community/economy, and our happiness. What will the Year of Buying Less look like? I proposed we try to live one year without buying a single NEW item of clothing, housewares, or toys. Instead, our options would be:
a) consider doing without
b) borrow or barter for this item
c) buy it used or made of recycled materials
d) make it ourselves
e) buy handmade
f) buy locally made
g) buy fair trade
There would be exceptions of course – toilet paper, groceries which we couldn’t buy locally or grow ourselves, essential building materials needed to complete our strawbale house addition (lumber, straw, plaster), one trip to Winnipeg to visit my family in the fall, and essential items for our Little City Farm business (B&B items, workshop materials, and soap making ingredients). Books and magazine subscriptions (my weakness) were still in question – but we could probably get most of the reading we needed from the local library. Any gifts for family or friends (birthday or other holidays) would also be handmade, recycled, or locally made. Since we don’t own a car, our transportation costs would be for using the local bus or our local car co-op vehicles. Entertainment costs – we could support our local independent movie theatre, get DVDs from the library, support local music shows, and allow ourselves the occasional meal in a locally-owned restaurant.
It would have been fitting to launch our Year of Buying Less on "Buy Nothing Day" in November. (Buy Nothing Day is the first Friday after American Thanksgiving, which generally has been the largest shopping day in the US. Buy Nothing Day is an annual attempt to draw attention to consumer frenzy and reduce needless shopping.) However, since this would mean waiting another 6 months, we decided it would be good to start immediately. There will surely be bumps along the way, things we have forgotten that we can’t get around not buying, and exceptions we realize we really believe we can’t go without. But hopefully this exercise will allow us to re-evaluate the constant pressures to consume more and live more freely because of it.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
This week has seen busy days of pruning fruit trees and rose bushes, transplanting rhubarb, cutting fresh asparagus and lettuce daily for meals, transplanting final seedlings for our sale, weeding the flowering strawberries for a more abundant harvest, mulching herbs, starting more lettuce, basil & kale flats, planting radish, carrot, chard, beets, harvesting nettles & sorrel, building a potato bed with strawbales, keeping an eye out under our hops patch for the daily fresh egg that our hen Buttons has taken to laying there (a nice safe nesting spot!)...and we also took some time to admire the beautiful blossoms in our yard and around the neighbourhood as apples, pears, cherries, and service berries are now in bloom. Urban foragers and fruit harvesters, take note now where the fruit trees in your neighbourhood are!
We received a long-awaited parcel in the mail today...plants from Richters Herbs. It's planting day tomorrow!
Various plants we had ordered from Richters Herbs (www.richters.com - near Goodwood, Ontario), included a wide selection of mints for my new mint tasting garden (apple mint, chocolate mint, ginger mint, and more), alpine strawberries (a ground cover that's going in our front yard and is said to bear the sweetest tiny berries, and be cold weather hardy), intensely fragrant creeping thyme for the front yard, and the most dearly awaited, our new Hardy Chicago Fig tree! We continue to expand our fruit & nut tree selection for this urban homestead, in the hopes that one day we, or future owners, will have an abundant harvest enough to last through the winter months. We have several apples, pears, an Italian blue plum, three cherries, a hazelnut, of course the black walnuts, and now this fig.
When we read about the Hardy Chicago Fig (ficus carica) we knew we needed to plant at least one. The fruits are described as a gorgeous brown-purple with a luscious strawberry-sweet flesh. The thought of eating local figs, let alone growing them in our own yard, was so tantalizing. Eating our own organically grown sun-ripened figs straight off the tree in late summer or savouring carefully dried figs with wine, honey and cheese in the winter, while we cozy up next to the woodstove. Mmmm, what a treat!
The Hardy Chicago Fig is one of the best for flavour and hardiness. It was said to have been brought to Chicago by Sicilians from Mount Etna many years ago, and has been grown in Chicago and elsewhere by dedicated fig fans ever since. Many people assume it can't be grown in North America, but with protection it can grow well as low as Zone 4. It is a perennial in Zones 8-11. It is hardly a tree, and can also be grown easily indoors, in an apartment or house, or in a container outdoors (and either protected for the winter, or taken indoors). We plan to grow ours in a container outside and then take it into the greenhouse over the winter months where it will be more sheltered, but hopefully not die back as much as it would if left outdoors. We have read accounts of fig harvests in the second year, and massive harvests by the fifth or sixth season. These trees can bear abundant fruit for upto 30 years if taken care of properly, so definitely worth the investment. This small 1-year old seedling cost us about $7.
By the way, there is a lot of information on the internet regarding care of the Hardy Chicago Fig (people LOVE this fig tree!). Garden Web also has useful posts on their "Fig Forum" discussion forum (www.gardenweb.com).
Various workshop participants became inspired and took this very seriously! Several expressed interest in taking the more extensive beekeeping course offered every spring by the Ontario Beekeeping Association, joining a local beekeeping group, and even forming a beekeepers co-op. The beekeepers co-op could share the hive management, costs, tools, bee care, honey harvest, and share knowledge, etc. We've now heard of at least five participants from our fall workshop who have now taken the plunge and ordered bees for this season. The bees arrive in mid June, ordered from a nearby farm, and the rest of the beekeeping supplies can be found at a store in Cambridge (or possibly used through the beekeeping association). We hope to volunteer with one friend, and continue to research the feasibility of keeping bees on our property in the city. Very exciting! Congratulations to the newest K-W beekeepers!
If others locally are interested in more information on this beekeeping co-op, or have beekeepers information to share, contact us at email@example.com
Thursday, May 07, 2009
The Peak Moment TV has the goal of featuring "perspectives and initiatives for local self reliant living in the face of energy, climate and economic uncertainty". They have episodes featured online through their website/blog, with many useful insights and thought-provoking stories including one called "How much food can I grow around my house" (episode #87). Go to Peak Moment TV: http://www.wordpress.peakmoment.tv
Monday, May 04, 2009
We really count the beginning of the growing season when our asparagus is ready for harvest. Once asparagus season arrives, then new varieties of local foods begin again in abundance, week by week, both in our garden and the local farmers market. Last week there was new spinach, this week asparagus, and then it's fiddleheads, soon fresh lettuces, peas, chard, bok choy, cherries, strawberries, and other spring/early summer bounty. This week we noticed that the asparagus, rhubarb and cherry blossoms are all coming out in full force in our yard! Beautiful!
An urban homestead can feel like it consists of constant to-do lists, especially once the growing season begins, and warmer weather allows for outside construction and outdoor projects that have been put on hold over the winter. My partner likes to remind me that a homesteading life is not just about these to-do lists but also about savouring the moments, enjoying what we have already created, taking time to finding wonder in new discoveries, appreciating a slowing down of the pace of life, and finding joy in the process of doing the work (ie. the joy is in the doing, not only to be measured by end goals and results). We hope to take this approach to life this spring and summer, despite all temptation to leap into all the projects that are at hand. Some things will inevitably have to wait until next year or the season after that - after all to everything there is it's own season, and not necessarily when we plan for it.
Yesterday two mallard ducks landed in our little backyard pond. They swam for a while, rested and sunned themselves on the patio deck, drank water and flew off again. We've seen them again and it looks like they may be nesting in the field behind our property. It was a nice surprise to see them arrive in our yard, and a reminder of how valuable urban water features, even small ones, can be for migrating birds. We also have a regular visits to our pond and the gardens for seeds by goldfinches, chickadees, wood peckers, cardinals, mourning doves, and of course sparrows, crows, robins, and bluejays (not to mention that cooper's hawk who we hope doesn't visit our property too often). We hope to learn more about identifying our local birds and now keep a birding guide in the kitchen.
Friday, May 01, 2009
Consider coming out to our 7th annual seedling sale which is on May 23, from 9 am-12 noon. This year we are excited that there will be 3 vendors selling seedlings. Little City Farmers (Karin & Greg); Fertile Ground CSA Farmers (Angie & Mark), and another friend Sarah. This means:
- upwards of 700 tomato plants (more than 22 varieties - many are heirloom types - see older post under "heirloom tomatoes" for complete list!)
- various kinds of basil (purple, thai, pesto, sweet)
- other nightshade veggies such as hot & sweet peppers and eggplant
- curcubits like zucchini and cucumbers
- brassicas like broccoli, kale and brussel sprouts
- other herbs, culinary and medicinal
- some annual flowers like marigolds, zinnias, snapdragons
We also hope to have baked goods, some used gardening/vegetarian cooking books, and handmade soaps available for sale that day.
Rain or shine! Come early for best selection, and please tell all your friends! We would love to see all the tomatoes we've taken care of for these past months go to great garden homes!
The sale is hosted by Little City Farm.
Contact us for more details - firstname.lastname@example.org
Raising Chickens in the City - from Ode Magazine
Urban gardeners are flocking to chickens to keep bugs away and provide eggs and compost. Keeping backyard birds is easier than you might think.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Beatrice, Gertrude and Zelda, three butterscotch-brown Buff Orpington hens, are having a field day in Jennifer Carlson’s Seattle back yard. A landscape designer and organic gardening expert, Carlson has placed a floorless chicken coop––or “chicken tractor”––on her lawn, where the hens methodically search for bugs and worms, taking an occasional break for a dust bath. Once the birds have excavated one area, she moves the tractor to a new piece of turf.
The remains of the chickens’ excavations—a rich mixture of dirt, chicken manure and grass that’s sprinkled with oak leaves to help decompose the droppings—gets a second life as compost for Carlson’s organic vegetable garden, which features basil, raspberries, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes. “The vegetables we grow then provide scraps for the birds, who produce delicious eggs and great compost for the vegetables,” explains Carlson, who has raised chickens in the city since the 1980s. “It’s a really cool cycle.” Carlson, who spent her early childhood among Wyoming and Colorado ranchers, now lives in a cheery red house on a corner lot in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. “Chickens make ideal pets,” she says. “They like being around people, and they’re very curious, comical and ungainly. Yet they’re contained, so they’re not chasing the mailman.” With a cup of coffee in hand, she makes a daily round of the garden every morning. “It’s relaxing seeing the chickens and garden thrive.”
Recycling Bins That Cluck
The municipality of Diest in Flanders, Belgium, gave 2,000 households an unusual gift: three chickens each. Why? The birds are supposed to recycle biodegradable garbage.
Chickens are omnivores who love leftovers, according to Kippenmail, the digital newsletter of the Dutch animal-rights campaign Adopteer een kip (“Adopt a Chicken”). In one month, a chicken can consume approximately nine pounds of kitchen garbage. In return, it will lay eggs. And what’s more, its droppings can be used to fertilize the garden.
Officials in Diest see the chickens as an economical solution to the costly problem of recycling biodegradable trash, which costs the town about $600,000 annually.
“I make the mistake every now and then of ordering an egg dish at a restaurant, and I regret it...
A homegrown egg tastes just like butter. It’s fantastic.”
From Seattle to St. Louis, hens are the latest trend in natural gardening. The Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, the country’s largest supplier of two-day old chicks, sends about 1,000 chicks a week to people in urban and suburban areas. (Five years ago, the number of urban buyers was so small the hatchery didn’t even keep track.) Reversing decades-old laws against urban chickens, advocates across the country are lobbying city officials to permit backyard hens, while community gardening organizations are hosting overflow crowds for chicken-coop tours and chicken-raising classes.
“People have lost touch with what used to be considered common knowledge about animals,” says Pam Karstens, who teaches Backyard Chickens 101 through the Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit Mad City Chickens. Most attendees are well-educated urban professionals in their 30s and 40s. “Many are parents trying to teach their children where food comes from,” she says.
As the number of city chicken owners increases, chicken-coop entrepreneurs have sprung up to meet the need. Many cater to the custom-built sensibilities of urban professionals, including Egganic Industries in Ringgold, Virginia, which sells the $1,300 (plus shipping) luxury Henspa, complete with an automatic egg-retrieval system. A British company, Omlet, sells the Eglu, which resembles an iMac computer and is made from recyclable polymers.
For most people, however, hosting a couple of backyard chickens is neither high tech nor high cost. Carlson’s henhouse, a regular stop on Seattle’s annual chicken-coop tour, is a 3-by-18-foot modular coop painted bright orange and yellow. The wooden structure, which Carlson designed and built herself, sits on six inches of gravel, topped by concrete pavers. “The pavers protect the wood from rotting and discourage burrowing by predators—and you will have predators,” Carlson says, noting that raccoons and possums pose the biggest threats to urban fowl.
A storage unit under the nesting box contains feeding and cleaning supplies. Carlson points out other useful coop features: plenty of horizontal space for birds to move, good air circulation, sunlight in the afternoon and a spot for shade. The chicken tractor, a portable cagelike structure without a bottom that is meant to be rotated and moved on a regular basis, gives birds daily escape from the coop and access to new scratching space, while restricting yard destruction to a designated area.
“It’s kitty TV,” Carlson laughs, noting that the family cat spends hours watching the hens peck in the tractor. Zelda, Gertrude and Beatrice are unruffled by the feline attention, she says. “That’s what I love about this breed; they’re so mellow.”
Ordinances governing city chickens vary from city to city. Bill Finch, a Mobile, Alabama, newspaper editor who has written several articles on the subject, says laws prohibiting backyard hens often can be traced to the suburban development boom in the 1950s and 1960s. “As bedroom communities incorporated, they overturned codes allowing animals so they wouldn’t appear to be podunk towns,” he says. “But in older cities and towns, the codes were never updated.”
Mobile, for example, allows a liberal 25 chickens per household. Finch himself keeps seven backyard Ancona hens—a good breed for hot weather—that make the rounds of his oversize vegetable garden in a chicken tractor. “It’s the only nitrogen fertilizer I need,” he says.
As the “buy local” food movement gathers steam nationwide, activists are working to loosen more restrictive chicken codes. In Madison, Karstens says interest in backyard birds was so high that a fairly active “chicken underground” was developing until last year, when she and several others persuaded local officials to pass an ordinance permitting backyard coops and a maximum of four hens. The group prevailed with support from affiliates of the University of Wisconsin Poultry Science Department, who helped convince city officials that reasonable regulations could deter potential problems. “With a flock of 40 chickens, manure is a concern,” Karstens says. “With four, it isn’t.”
In Providence, Rhode Island, the Southside Community Land Trust raises urban chickens to educate the public about safe treatment and how to use chicken manure as compost. The organization also is working to combat the myth that you need roosters, the chicken world’s noisemakers, for egg production. You don’t. Although females need to mate with a male to produce a fertile egg, hens lay edible eggs as part of their ovulation cycle.
Every once in a while a male can sneak into a backyard, unannounced. A few weeks after Cranston, Rhode Island, resident Joanne Rich got her first hen—a Polish Golden Lace she dubbed Mrs. T because of a crown resembling a mohawk—she awoke to an unexpected surprise: a 5 a.m. wake-up call in the form of rooster crows emanating from the coop she had fashioned from her daughter’s swing set.
Mrs. T., as it turned out, was actually Mr. T—a gender mix-up that got the hapless male whisked out of Rich’s yard to an urban farm operated by the Southside Community Land Trust. “I didn’t want a run-in with my neighbors,” says Rich, an avid organic gardener who tends a vegetable patch and grows five kinds of berries. “And I wanted eggs.”
For Carlson, eating eggs straight from the source is like nothing else. Between March and October, Beatrice, Zelda and Gertrude each lay about one egg per day. The rest of the year, Carlson gets an average of one or two eggs per day from the trio. “I make the mistake every now and then of ordering an egg dish at a restaurant, and I regret it,” she says. “It’s like eating cardboard. A homegrown egg tastes just like butter. It’s fantastic.”
Aren’t Chickens Unhealthy?
Talk of chickens inevitably brings up two big health concerns: salmonella and Asian bird flu.
Emilio DeBess, public health veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says his department occasionally sees outbreaks of salmonella associated with chickens in Portland, where hen-free neighborhoods are becoming the exception, not the rule. These outbreaks usually occur around Easter, when families get baby chicks and keep them inside, DeBess says. “Keep chickens outside, wash your hands and don’t allow kids under 5 to handle them,” he says. “If you follow these guidelines, you’ll reduce salmonella exposure by 100 percent.”
First-time chicken owners often raise questions about Asian bird flu. Like mad cow disease, avian flu is largely a product of limited resources, overcrowded conditions and cross-contamination between species—and thus has little to do with managing one or two chickens in a yard. The fear among world health officials is that the disease will spread to migratory birds; if and when that happens, urban chickens will be a bit player in a catastrophic global epidemic, not the cause. Echoing DeBess, organic gardening expert Jennifer Carlson says: “It’s a matter of being mindful and keeping clean.