Friday, March 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning in the Basement

There's nothing like getting a big job out of the way to make you feel satisfied! Also, it's a really good reminder that big jobs often take less time and effort than you think they will, and that many hands make light work.

Last night Matt and I did a chore we've been meaning to do for quite some time, and finally cleaned and organized our basement. I don't think I've shown much of the basement on this blog, but it actually gets a lot of use, it's where our pantry shelves and laundry are and there is home gym equipment (which came with the house) that Matt and Elliot use to work out. We have really let the basement go over the last several months though, and it was extremely cluttered. We kind of just shoved things in corners when we moved in, and when Lisa moved in in October, we still hadn't organized much, and the only place for her to store her things was in a big pile on the floor.

Looking down the stairs to the basement (why someone decided to paint the stairs and floor that color, I do not know. Its attractiveness is only enhanced by the fact that it constantly chips off):



Our pantry shelves and Lisa's things, before:

And after:
 I organized and shifted a bunch of things that were in the elevated storage space to the right (and also got rid of a lot of things), then Lisa's boxes and bags were shifted into that cubby as well. The pantry shelves were inventoried and reorganized, and the clotheslines were taken down (we used them once before discovering that it takes about two weeks for any laundry to dry in the basement, and started hanging the wash up in the garret). The small box to the left of the shelves is our "to donate" box that is now full and ready to go to a thrift store. 

Matt has been home brewing beer for several months now, and started collecting empty bottles a long time before that. But seriously, this is way more bottles than he'd ever manage to fill at a single time!


The lack of shelves in our basement means lots of things stored on the floor (a technique Matt uses in every room, much to my dismay :). This is the area where his tools, our camping gear, and his outdoor toys are kept. Before:

  Not hugely different, but more floor space and a good sweeping helped a lot!

Everything tidy now!

The whole job only took us about an hour, and man is it nice to have that done, and to see a clear, clean floor when we look down the stairs now! I wonder how long it will last....

Thursday, March 29, 2012

When Life Hands You Tomatoes...

Inside the human house this week, lots of green things are living under the lights, and some of them are not so wee anymore. 

The strawberries are going to a community garden that Matt is helping set up at a local low-income housing site. 

Tomatoes! And a few peppers- the Serranos have come up, but I've only managed one poor little Jalapeno so far, and not a single Hungarian Wax or Aci Sivri has sprouted yet. 

I transplanted my first planting of tomatoes into gallon pots last night. On that planting, I forgot to use the spray bottle to water until the seeds sprouted, but watered directly and washed all the seeds around. I now have a bunch of mystery tomatoes that came up in pots labeled as peppers. Oh well, we'll get a surprise later in the summer!

With space under the lights at a premium, a tray of marigolds, chamomile and yarrow is hardening off on the front stoop this week, to be planted out into the garden. Flowers!

These starts are taking a bit of a beating today, because a spring storm has moved in and wildly windy (in that wonderful spring way) and pouring rain. But it's warm (mid-50s, anyway)! We haven't had warm rain in so long- it feels so refreshing outside right now. All this rain should help everything we planted last weekend come up in a hurry. 

Our camellia burst into bloom this week, surprising us with both dark pink and light pink flowers!

I went to take a closer look, and discovered that the ones I thought were light pink are actually varigated- how pretty is that!?

My spring break hasn't been as relaxing or productive so far as I had hoped, but it's been very good practice in going with the flow. In addition to starting a new job, this week has been full of surprises, including a family emergency on Matt's side, and an unexpectedly urgent root canal on my end. I had a big long list of chores and activities I wanted to do on my break, but life has reminded me that in times of stress it is more important to sit still and read the new issue of Mother Earth News than to wash the giant stack of dishes or clean the garret. I've gotten a lot done this evening though, and after dinner Matt and I are going to tackle the one big job we agreed to accomplish together this week: organize the basement, which has descended into disarray over the last four or five months.

A Chicken-Operated Door!

I wouldn't call our chickens spoiled (we certainly aren't overly attached to them- they squawk so loudly after laying that I'm sure they can be heard several blocks away, at least once a week one manages to escape from the run into the yard, and we tend to swear at them and tell them to shut up a lot. It never works), but they certainly act like it. We take good care of them, they get a nice varied diet, lots of space to roam, and lots of straw and dirt to scratch in. They earn their keep with eggs for our kitchen and manure for our compost, but since they are used to ranging around first the yard, and now their run, they are never content just to stay in their coop, unless it is pouring rain. So, at the crack of dawn every day, they start to crowd the door of their coop and pitch a (very loud) fit until one of us gets out of bed and lets them out. That wasn't so bad right after daylight savings, when it didn't get light until 7:30 AM. But come June, the sun starts to make its appearance around 4 AM, a time of day when we're not enthusiastic (and I'm sure our neighbors would agree) about getting out of bed because half a dozen chickens are squawking loudly and incessantly outside our window.

So, for a couple months now, we've been planning to rig the chicken coop so that the hens can let themselves out in the morning, and we finally got it to work! This was the second try- awhile back we had the idea and Matt built a pedal system so that the chickens could unlatch the coop door with their weight. It wasn't until he had it all set up that we realized the gaping hole in our plan: that any raccoon (the primary threat to chickens in these parts) with any sense could reach through the welded wire side of the coop and trigger the thing. Whoops. It was back to the drawing board, as we realized that we would have to rig the door of the henhouse, which is solid wood with no gaps for predator paws. I am terrible at anything involving engineering, but luckily Matt has a great mind for it, and a couple days ago he installed the new system.

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
(Matt asks that you pardon the funny expression on his face in this photo). Unfortunately our initial coop design wasn't the most practical for humans, and Matt had to take a section of wire and the roof of the henhouse off to do the job, and as he was stuck in the coop, I brought him tools as he needed them so he wouldn't have to climb out!

Inside the henhouse, the door is latched shut with a gate latch, and the string that opens the latch is attached to a pedal that releases the latch when a chicken stands on it. The door is spring loaded from the outside with a long screen door spring that is attached to the frame of the coop, so it swings all the way open when triggered. (The stick you see across this picture is one of the roosts).

So the hens can let themselves out when it gets light and they wake up, which is when the raccoons go to bed. And the door can't be opened from the outside, at least not without a lot of work. Humans can shut the door easily by pulling a cord that runs from the door across the bottom of the henhouse (under the straw) and out through a tiny hole in the back of the henhouse. And the system really works- the first day, we awoke to lots of squawking as the hens realized they were trapped in the henhouse, something they are really not used to. But as soon as I went outside and called them, they crowded the door and were released! After that, they've been letting themselves out and letting us sleep in peace. Mission accomplished!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Garden and Sun

What do you do when the first Saturday of your spring break is sunny and breezy and the first warm day in many weeks? You spend every waking minute outside, of course! Truly, I think I spent about seven hours outdoors today. As the clouds rolled back in in the evening, I'm really glad I did!

First thing in the morning, laundry was hung on the line in the backyard, for the first time this year!

I've missed this sight all winter!

We had planned to plant potatoes last weekend, but were thwarted by the fact that it was snowing...this morning we actually got to put our spuds in the ground- All Reds, Austrian Crescents, and Yukon Golds.

 The potatoes went here, in the border around our front lawn. Last fall, this was barren, compacted dirt. Six months of mulch, rabbit droppings, several trips around it with the turning fork, and a final dose of compost from our heap later, I have visions of this soil bursting with potatoes, tomatoes, chard, and flowers this summer! I was so excited by the soil quality around the front yard that I couldn't hold back- three broccolis and one cabbage went there, and in addition to the potatoes we put in a short row of beets, another of chard, and some radicchio.

My broccoli, cabbage, and onion starts have been hardening off all week on the front stoop, and finally moved into their new homes today. 

I had to re-start most of the onions, and the second batch are just now sprouting under the lights upstairs. I've never had great luck with onions. Next year I might go with sets from a nursery.

All of our garden beds have had a big batch of compost tilled in recently, and Matt added a layer of rabbit manure for another tilling. That stuff is amazing- high in both nitrogen and phosphorus, both essentials for growing veggies.

The brassicas now have cardboard sleeves around them to fend off cutworms, and a reemay tent over them for protection from weather and bugs until they are substantially bigger. 

Spending time amending and tiling your soil is probably the single most important garden task- the payoff is huge. Two of our raised beds didn't grow things particularly well last year. Having given these beds lots of TLC since then, we have high hopes for this season. We don't know the history of this soil, and we've put a lot of work into it (including a LOT of time pulling out rocks and gravel and garbage).

This bed did especially poorly last year. We cover cropped it with field peas all winter for nitrogen, added lots of egg shells for calcium and bunny poo for phosphorus, and the nicest, loamiest compost from the bottom of the pile, plus some composted bunny straw. Take that, poor soil quality!

The hens got several buckets' worth of weeds throughout the day. They can level a big heap of weeds in two minutes flat. They love finding bugs and slugs this way, and get good omega-3s from the greens.

We finally used up the last of the compost heap that was started last summer. There was a big pile of sticks here when we moved in, and we pulled out all the big ones before starting the heap, and hundreds more as we turned and used the compost. Now we've cleaned it out down to the bottom, scraped out all remaining sticks (and a fair few rocks), and it is ready to start another (stick-free!) heap. We'll keep the one on the left going for another month or so, then let it rest and begin again on the right. At the rate things break down with all the chicken and rabbit manure in, the bin on the left will be ready to use for plantings later in the summer. 

A nice fresh lunch on a quick break. 

This half bed will be a new planting space this year. It was in cover crops all winter, and we've pruned the tree back (a lot) and added compost and manure. It was so compacted here that it might take another season to get this bed in really good shape, but I'll try growing beets and flowers here this year.

Radish sprouts in the bed against the front fence. A prime example of the amount of gravel and garbage (see that piece of plastic right in the middle?) that rises up out of our soil constantly. At least when rocks "rise" to the surface like this, it makes them easy to scrape away into the paths with gloved hands. 

 The tent has come off the greens, which are all growing very well and now enjoying full sun.

Now if only we'd have more days like this-- spring seems awfully long in coming this year, what with all the snow and cold temperatures. Our winter wasn't bad at all, but now it seems to want to reassert itself. Anyway, I'm grateful to have had a day when I could work outside in short sleeves! 

Another couple sunny days, and the Asian pear will be blooming!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rabbits and Snow

These days, we have an explosion of cuteness in our garage.

Duchess' babies are three weeks old, and we can't quite get over them (clearly, we'll have to some day, but they'll be less cute then).

 They sleep in a big pile, and go hopping and frolicking around like crazy when they're awake.

 This was taken last week. They can't be held in one hand now- too big and hoppy!

 I didn't manage to get a photo of it, but right after I took this picture, several bunnies crawled on top of their mama and fell asleep on her back. Priceless.

Eight out of Duchess' original nine are still around (a couple weeks ago, one crawled away from the nest on a cold night and died of exposure), and all are healthy and hopping and starting to eat timothy hay and drink from the waterer. We're kind of amazed at the variety of colors, because mom is gray and dad is white. There are four black, two gray, one brown/gray, and one brown/white. We're going to start tracking the colors in each litter to see if we can determine where particular genes are coming from.

Princess is not proving such an adept mother. Long story short, she's down to two of the seven babies she gave birth to last weekend. All of her babies were either gray or white, so maybe no recessive genes there. We'll probably give her one more shot at raising a litter, and if she doesn't manage it, we might raise up one of Duchess' daughters to be breeding stock instead.

There are more and more signs of spring around, with the cherry trees blooming all down our street (so lovely), and this persistent tulip pushing its way up, in spite of the fact that it keeps doing this:

It has snowed twice so far this week, which is highly irritating (I can't plant things as early as usual) and really unusual for Portland. We usually get a couple snowstorms per winter, but this year we've had about five, and four of them have been in March. I wonder how much of that is just regular variation in weather patterns, and how much of that is the effect of climate change. As my environmental science professor pointed out, climate change actually means climate variability- more extreme heat, and more extreme cold. Whatever the case, March is, so far, much colder than usual, and predicted to remain so for most of the rest of the month. 

At least Maggie is still enjoying herself when the sun comes out:

I am now down to three days left before spring break. I just have to weather a lot of studying, one presentation and one final exam, and I'll be free for a week and a half. During which time I'll be starting a new job! More on that later, but it is such a relief, after a year and a half of temporary, tenuous, or complete lack of employment, to have found permanent, part-time, benefited work that I will enjoy and can manage with school.

Have a great week, everyone!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Garden Artifacts

I took these pictures a few weeks ago and forgot to post them. This is the collection of interesting items we (and the chickens) have unearthed in our yard and garden over the last eight months (not including about a million shards of glass and plenty of other plain old garbage).

(Click to Enlarge)

Sparkplugs, keys, a drillbit, nails, hinges, a hoe head, matchbox cars, you name it, we've got it! While in reality I know this stuff is now trash, I like thinking about the history of this place and wondering how long ago someone might have dropped something random for us to find, or when there might have been children living here to drop their toys (or whether those were thrown over the fence by the kids next door). And maybe some of these things hark back to a day when trash was just piled in the backyard or an empty lot before the house was built. Who knows? We have found umpteen key blanks, and finally solved that puzzle when we received a piece of mail addressed to a former resident with "Locksmith" after their name. And this afternoon when I went to visit the chickens, I found a new artifact, and it took me ages to realize what I was looking at- a small porcelain doll's head, from the 50s or 60s!
It was very cold this morning when I walked to the bus stop, but this afternoon it was 60 degrees and gorgeously sunny! I took a good long walk around the neighborhood in the late afternoon to soak it up- the first time this year that I could be outdoors in short sleeves and be entirely comfortable! We're headed back to rain tomorrow, but it's supposed to stay warm. After a hard frost two nights ago, I'm looking forward to some mild weather, and I'm sure the garden is too.

We lost a baby rabbit this morning, it had managed to crawl away from the bunny pile to a corner of the nest box and got too cold. The mama rabbit didn't intervene- unfortunately they're not the best mothers. But all the other babies have opened their eyes, and are extraordinarily cute now. There are gray ones and black ones, and one that is white with light brown patches! Our second doe was due to kit last night, but didn't. She is showing all signs of being pregnant, except for the actual having babies part. We'll see.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Garden Day

The weather this weekend has been amazing- both yesterday and today were about 55 degrees and sunny, and I even got a bit of a sunburn! Such a nice dose of sunshine. I spent most of yesterday doing garden-y things, planting and planning and helping Matt mend a raised bed. The boards in our garden beds are all in various stages of rot, and this bed had reached the end of its rope. Last week I leaned a shovel against it, and one whole side fell off! Luckily, we have an amazing landlord who is happy to have us do repairs and take the cost off our rent. So we went down to the lumber store on the corner, and walked home with a few 2x6s and a big 4x4 to replace the corner posts.


Matt taking off the rotted pieces:

 Whoever built these beds lined them with plastic, which was nice for us because it meant we could take the sides off without all the dirt falling out!

 The finished product. Not the best looking or particularly even, but we were only going for practical. We were going to cut off the 4x4, then realized it might be handy to have a post there to string a trellis to. If we decide we don't need it, we can cut it off later.

I planted starts of the hardier tomatoes and peppers and a few flowers, and planted some radishes and a second round of hardy greens into the garden.
I use garden tags cut out of a plastic milk jug. It's funny the things we do automatically- this is what my parents always used, so I never thought to make tags from anything else. 

Planted and basking in their fake sunshine upstairs:

A baking of bread fit in between other chores.

 We uncovered the greens outside so they could soak up the sun. 

 And later, we ate the first salad of the year entirely from our garden!

Have a great week, everyone!