Monday, August 30, 2010

Chickens at the homestead

As said before, we love our hens and they really have become an important part of our little homestead.  They sit under our bedroom window in the morning cooing to wake us up, they preen on the back porch waiting for sunflower seeds, they still like being held and petted, and are a great source of entertainment for us. Recently we had our extended family visiting us, and the hens were a big part of the week's activities for the kids.  I loved watching the kids leap out of bed in the morning, running out of the house in pajamas to see if any eggs had been laid yet!

There have been some questions regarding where to source chicken feed and supplies.  Here are a few ideas.  Locally, the easiest place to purchase chicks as day-olds (starting in February) is from Frey's Hatchery (in St. Jacobs).  They have an online catalogue, which talks about breeds and basic chicken care.  You can also purchase pullets from Frey's later in summer (pullets are hens, at least 20 weeks old, that have started laying but have not moulted yet).  Frey's offers white egg layers (Leghorn), brown egg layers (Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Barred Rock, New Hampshire x Barred Rock, Columbian Rock x Red, Red Shaver, etc), and "meat birds".   You can choose hens based on certain qualities such as winter hardy, friendly-disposition, good egg laying, and so on, depending on what you are looking for.  Frey's also offers roosters, turkeys, ducks and pheasants - if you have the space to raise these!

Of course there are many local farms where you would be able to purchase chicks as well.  There is one nearby farm that raises specifically heritage breeds and unique varieties - so if you are looking for something like a Buff Orpington, Australorpe, or Silkie, you might have to ask around a little more but you can probably find it.  Another old fashioned way to purchase specialty chickens (like blue or speckled egg layers), is going through a mail-order hatchery that will ship chicks by cardboard box across North America!  In any case, you need to have your pen or coop ready, with bedding, water, food, shelter, for the day your chicks arrive home.

When we first got our day old chicks they lived in a large hampster cage lined with bran as bedding, in our kitchen.  They cuddled up to sleep on a pile of old woolen socks, and when they had learned to eat and drink, and the weather was warm enough for them to go outside, we transitioned them into a smaller run and finally the larger coop with enclosed run.  Their nest boxes are still lined with fresh wheat bran, and straw covers the coop floor.  Most days they free-range around our yard and garden, and find their way into the coop for egg laying and at night.

As for feed, you can make your own, or purchase - there is a starter crumbles mix for young chicks, and then Omega layer rations, plus scratch grains (cracked corn, etc) which is more of an occasional snack.  To purchase these locally you can go to Jones Feed Mill near the Waterloo Market, or purchase an organic chicken feed through Bailey's Local Foods.  Of course, they also eat loads of fruit & vegetable peels and other food scraps that are destined for the compost, plus garden greens, dandelion, herbs like comfrey, etc. Some ideas of good food for hens are lettuce, greens (spinach, kale, chard), tomatoes, corn, bread, pasta, cottage cheese.  Bad foods are spicy, rotten, sour, processed foods, raw potato peels, cabbage (makes eggs stinky).  Hens also need constant access to water, and grit to help digest their food (e.g. crushed eggshells, crushed oyster shells, limestone).

If you are going to make your own feed, the book Backyard Poultry Naturally, by Alana Moore gives some recipe ideas for making your own chicken feed.  For example:
Recipe a) 
65 % mixed grain, 7% alfalfa meal, 8% soya meal, 6% ground oyster shells, 3 % bone meal, 1 % trace minerals
Recipe b)
2 parts wheat grain, 1 part wheat bran, 1/2 part oats or oat bran, 1/4 parts corn meal, 1 1/2 parts greens (alfalfa, comfrey)

Neighourhood fruit gleaning

This week we have been processing apples and pears, gleaned from the backyards of neighbours.  The pears arrived on our doorstep without us even needing to search for them!  Already picked, perfectly ripened, they were grown in the yard of a 70+ year old neighbour who has been pruning and tending his pear trees for decades.  He preferred to pick them himself, but needed to find homes for them to be used. We were more than happy to welcome the bushel into our home, in exchange for freshly baked bread and the promise to bring him a taste of something we make with the pears.  Seemed more than fair to us!  There are many urban fruit tree gleaning/harvesting projects across North America, some of which we've written about before.  These are wonderful ways to use up the bountiful often abandoned fruits that are available throughout our cities.  Check out: 
Not Far From the Tree (Toronto, ON)
Life Cycles Fruit Tree Project (Victoria, BC)
Portland Fruit Tree Project (Portland, OR)
Community Fruit Tree Project (Berkeley, CA)

Our fruitful fig

Some of you reading here will remember the purchase we made last spring (2009) of a Chicago Hardy Fig.  We bought this tiny seedling from Richters Herbs, and were told we were guarunteed to see it bearing fruit by the second season.  True to their word, this summer our fig has been sprouting numerous fruits, and this past week the first ones finally ripened to a deep gorgeous purple skin, and were soft and sweet enough to eat!  I've never had a fresh fig before, given that they are not a common tree in these parts of North America.  Dried figs are already a delicacy in my books, but fresh ones are a whole other story!  Granted, we didn't have enough to make fig jam or preserves for the winter, but we have savoured every little bite.  Hopefully our fig will survive another winter, buried under mounds of straw in our greenhouse, and we'll see another crop of fresh beautiful figs next season.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

End of August, apple harvest, free ranging hens

Backyard herbal teas workshop

The most recent workshop at Little City Farm was on the weekend - and one of my personal favourite topics, backyard herbal medicinal teas.  Not only did we get to drink various cups of freshly brewed tea (and talk about making solar and lunar infusions and decoctions), share herbal gardening tips (such as how to plan an herb garden, what conditions herbs need, best ways to dry & store herbs, and how to bring your herb garden indoors for the winter), but I also got to pull out my huge stack of well-loved books on this topic, and finally spend an hour walking workshop participants through our herb garden sharing (tasting, smelling, touching) numerous medicinal plants growing there.  Best of all, the plants we were discussing are common plants (some would even call them "weeds"), easy to grow in our climate, and yet incredibly valuable!  This is knowledge we should all have at our fingertips - plants like catnip to promote sleep; fennel for nursing mothers; peppermint for indigestion; red clover to cleanse the blood; burdock as a spring tonic; lavender as a heal-all; nettle as a rich source of iron; wild rose hips as a source of vitamin C; feverfew for migraines...and the list goes on.  If you are interested in more details, please look for my upcoming article related to medicinal herbs for your backyard in the spring 2011 issue of Natural Life magazine.

A wee bit of Little City Farm history...

A whole week has passed since my last post - this tells you how busy life is here in August.  I think by far August ends up being the fullest month for any homestead, as we are all trying to get the harvest picked, canning stored away, extra crops planted, herbs dried, and also spend a little time relaxing and lingering in the warm days of late summer before fall arrives.

We've also been doing some longterm planning, looking ahead at projects and ideas for the coming year.  In doing so, we have reflected a little on the course life has taken at Little City Farm since opening in 2007 - and the end of July marked the 3rd anniversary of Little City Farm.  We opened our home as an eco bed & breakfast, as well as workshop space and urban homestead, in hopes of meeting and inspiring others who are interested in creating sustainable urban spaces, also reviving and teaching traditional homesteading skills that we were experimenting with in our own life. Read more about our story on our website here.

As we've looked back at the activities we've held here and re-read the beautiful comments in our guestbook, we continue to be astounded by the numbers of people we have met and the interest we have seen! By now we have hosted nearly 60 workshops related to urban homesteading/permaculture/organic gardening at Little City Farm, with 20 guest facilitators who had taken part in our workshop series since 2007.  Over the course of these three years we have had nearly 3000 visitors here - including guests staying at our B&B, workshop participants, public coming on tours, school groups, visitors during our neighbourhood studio tour, people coming to the annual seedling sale, and so on.  We have also learned and benefitted from each conversation and each new person we have had the chance to host here, and it keeps us on track when we wonder if urban homesteading is the life for us.  There is certainly a huge and growing interest from city folks in finding ways to live more sustainably and in communities that feel supported and connected to each other, so we hope we can continue to inspire.  A huge THANK YOU goes out to everyone who has participated here over the past 3 years!  We are currently planning our workshop calendar for 2011 so stay tuned for details to follow...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Garden harvest continues

There seems to be a theme these days - kitchen counters and fridge overflowing with tomatoes, zucchini, beans, basil, cucumbers...canning, drying, freezing...salsa, chutney, jams, pesto, zucchini loaves...and so many ways for our whole family to get involved (and of course the hens are in their glory, following us around happily everywhere we go)!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

We love cakes!

I take on custom cake orders from time to time - and I especially love to do this during summer months when edible flowers and berries are available for simple, elegant decorations.  Here are a few of the latest cakes that have left our kitchen...some vegan, some gluten-free, some sugar-free, some wheat-free - we can do it all!  The flowers for decoration are from our gardens...

In case people are interested in a few details - the first is a gluten-free flourless chocolate cake that is near the top of the list for most decadently rich that I have made - it's tastes like a chocolate mousse cake with a crisp brownie-like top.  The recipe is from an excellent blog with loads of recipes called the Gluten-Free Goddess.

The second is a vegan vanilla cake with raspberry filling and chocolate vegan buttercream icing, and calendulas - the recipe was adapted from a book all you vegan bakers will already be familiar with - Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.

The bird cake was an attempt at a vegan, wheat-free, sugar-free cake for our 2-year old's recent birthday.  The bird and nest were shaped out of vegan pie dough, and the icing made of sweet potatoes and maple syrup (so the colour of the cake was a light orange, not quite what I had in mind but it was ok).  The cake was made with cooked millet, which doesn't sound like it would be tasty, but the grain actually made the cake quite moist and there was enough vanilla in it to give a nice flavour.  The cake and icing recipes come from a cookbook filled with simple healthful recipes for the whole family, called Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods.

The fourth cake is a vegan triple chocolate layer cake, again adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (basically make a triple batch of cupcake batter, but bake it in 3 large cake pans).

The next cake was a sugar-free carrot layer cake, with icing made of cream cheese and agave.  This was also a birthday cake - it's decorated with bergamot petals and violas.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Micro-Eco Farming and the growing urban homestead movement

Urban homesteading and backyard farming/urban farming is a movement that has really taken off in recent years.  There have been numerous books published, blogs written, websites set up, media features done, and homesteads established, in the attempt to share the inspiring projects that these folks are upto.

We wanted to highlight some of the most exciting ones we've found, including first of all this book entitled Micro-Eco Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth, by Barbara Berst Adams.  Sounds good?  This book documents a wide range of backyard to small acreage farmers, who have established successful businesses using the resources from their own land.  In the book you meet small seed saving companies, tiny CSA's, folks raising heritage breed animals, growing heirloom crops, farming worms, multi-cropping biointensively in small spaces, building compost, wrangling worms, harvesting rainwater and creatively recycling greywater, and generally redefining what it means to be a "farmer" in our times.

Here are just a few of the favourite urban farms/homesteads that have inspired our own ventures here at Little City Farm.  What's most exciting is that, generally, this is a group of people who are not doing these projects in isolation but specifically attempting to collaborate, teach skills, share resources, build connections, and try to increase liveability in our urban areas with creative longterm sustainable affordable solutions.

City Farmer
Path to Freedom
Homegrown Evolution 
Rhizome Collective
Sustainable Urban Homestead
Diggin Food
SPIN Farming
SPIN Gardening
Fairview Gardens Centre for Urban Agriculture
Farm City 

This mid August weekend...

ere goes another summer weekend at the homestead...watching more of those lovely bees in the bergamot patch; making salsa; harvesting calendula, red clover and arnica; harvesting tomatoes, beans and zucchini (who knew that pattypan squash were such great entertainment); enjoying cups of homemade herbal tea served by our wee one with her new teapot (a recent birthday gift); weeding in the garden; tending the chickens; cooling off with a nap in the shady tent; dipping our toes into our pond at the end of another hot day; and finally, a wood-fired pizza dinner on the back patio...

A friend mentioned we had quite a few more photos on the blog lately of our daughter - and yes, we admit our 2-year old is becoming the focal point of our daily routines, as any of you with wee ones out there know that the wonderful "twos" are busy, exciting, eye-opening, helpful, curious, full of wonder, hilarious, wise, beautiful, and oh so tempting to capture by camera...

Salsa Canning Session

We held our annual Salsa Making Workshop here today - of course it was a hot and humid day as it usually is when food canning takes place!  The heat of the day is just breaking now with a late evening thunderstorm, and I'm heading out to the back porch shortly to cool off in the refreshing rainy night air.

For the workshop we used a very tasty and simple Spicy Salsa Recipe from Bernardin's website, which included loads of fresh jalapenos, dried chilies soaked and pureed into a paste, minced garlic, red onion, and cilantro.  Bernardin, for those of you who may not be familiar, is the major name in Canada for most of the mason jars, canning lids, pectin and other canning supplies - and these products are usually found in grocery stores or the local hardware shop.  They also have very thorough resources and recipes related to all manner of food preserving (i.e. jams, jellies, pickles, sauces, salsas, chutneys, etc).  Other books I recommend are "The Busy Person's Guide to Canning & Preserving", and "Small Batch Preserving"

A few quick canning tips:
- always start with high quality fruits and vegetables
- when reusing mason jars, always check for chips or cracks
- second hand stores can be great locations to find mason jars or even canning equipment 
- never reuse the lids, though rings can be used multiple times unless they have rust on them
- follow your recipe regarding ingredients, acidity, and processing times (in particular tomato products need enough vinegar and/or lemon juice to bring up acidity to a safe level)
- if using heirloom or low acid tomatoes make sure to adjust the acidity levels by adding enough lemon juice
- sugar in fruit canning or jams helps retain colour, texture and sometimes flavour of the fruit, but can be substituted with honey or left out entirely (depending on what you want your finished product to look like)
- a wonderful low sugar pectin like Pumona is available and still allows the fruit to gel properly
- crunchiness in pickles can be helped by adding grape leaves, oak leaves or black currant leaves to jars, plus scraping away the "blossom" end of each cucumber
- always check that your finished jars have sealed before storing!