On a whim…

Life without whimsy is not much of a life at all; without it, a walk in the dark is no laughing matter.

Archive for the ‘urban farming’ Category

Chicken… really?

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OK, now for something a little different. Well, ok, a lot different. My favorite niece has asked me, “Should I keep chickens?” Actually, she said that the new home she is buying in an upscale community has a coop with tenants. She wants to know if keeping them is “over her head?”  You bet! But there’s more to it than that. I already have a vision of the scene and I cherish the opportunity for her to bring that dream to reality. Here’s what I have told her so far.Chicken for dinner?

According to her there are a dozen chickens so in many ways, 12 are no worse than having two or three in terms of effort. It’s more a question of the ‘net effect’. For example she can expect to average around 6 eggs per day if they are laying well.  In fact, I think chicken breeds lay one egg about every 27 hours.  (I am sure my daughter Maribeth will correct me). Of greater significance than eggs is ‘poop’.  Oh boy!  Years ago I kept two dozen Rhode Island Reds. They were great layers (and poopers).

I had converted an old tin utility shed into their coop and kept a bed of sawdust on the floor to reduce the effort to collect poop, er, droppings. The shed was WAY back on the edge of the property (nearly 100 yards from the house). Soon I found that the, ahem, droppings were heavy; Shoveling them out was a bigger chore than I expected.  (By the way, is cleaning out a coop like cleaning out a stall? If so, was I mucking the coop? That sounds far more disgusting!  Anyway, I digress from my primary digression… ) It was too much work to haul the manure from the coop to the garden. Besides, in my ignorance, I thought it was too ‘fresh’ and would burn my precious plants. I needed a simple solution and I found one.

I just piled up the waste near the path that led from the house to the coop. Quite a pile, or piles, they turned out to be. The blended wood shavings (sawdust) and fresh manure seemed made for each other and from a distance it looked like I had a lovely stone wall lining the path down to the coop. My late wife, Beth, did not find the “stone wall” charming from any distance but I, as usual, had a vision that was not firmly rooted in reality. I forged ahead with my birds; I was a keeper of poultry, a rooster rancher, a hen hustler, a . . . well you get the point. I was proud of my pioneering spirit and self sufficiency.

One day some old friends not seen in years came to visit. Jim and his wife, Tina Cunningham, were from a neighboring state and they adored my late wife while graciously tolerating me. The afternoon was filled with conversation devoted to catching up and narrowing the gap of years that separated us. Meanwhile I, absorbed in my new found self sufficiency, was eager to ‘move on’ and invite them on a tour of my chicken chalet. I waited as long as I thought I could stand it and finally prevailed on them to follow me across the lawn, to a muddy path lined by my ‘charming’ stones to the the coop.

Jim had on a pair of Allen-Edmonds loafers. Those fine shoes with their leather soles didn’t belong on the muddy path. So I pointed to the margin where the grass, a bit long, offered the assurance of a drier trek. Instead, Jim, spry for a man in his seventh decade, leapt instead to the nearest stone… and thrust his right foot clear through.

Poor Jim, clearly unsettled by the nature of my rocks, felt his understanding of the material universe unraveling. Maybe, he reasoned in a nano second, his right foot was already passing through the earth’s mantle and descending toward the core. Indeed, his dexterity on one foot was beautiful as he elegantly leapt again… to another stone with his left foot.

Seemingly, he had acquired a ghost like capacity to pass through solid granite; He leapt again, and again. Each foot preceded the next, one stone at a time, until he transited the entire length of the adjacent path. Gasping for breath while grasping for an explanation he struggled to speak; How, what, who… why, Jim sputtered without resolution, without explanation… ever.

I never heard from Jim again after that day. I remember little of the aftermath other than it was filled with finding spare socks, clearing ‘granite manure’ from his sad shoes. I have vague memories of the fierce looks from Beth in response to my belated apologies and clumsy attempts to suggest she find some humor in the moment.

Since then I have often wondered how Jim, or anyone, from the coastal plain of Georgia or the sandy flatland of Florida could imagine a path lined by a New England stone fence could find its way to the marshy verge of my yard? One thing I have never forgotten is this: if you keep chickens you better plan for the prodigious production of poultry poop.

Yes indeed, dear niece, chickens need food, water, extra light in winter, and occasionally need to be treated for minor things.  But of all the things you consider consider this: You may enjoy eggs benedict for breakfast. Perhaps you will find an Emeril Lagasse recipe for a quiche, but for poop, well for that you need a plan all your own.

Written by David Wilkerson

14 March 2012 at 5:38 pm

Getting Started in Beekeeping

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A friend asked, in a recent comment, for some tips on getting started.

The first thing to do is find out about local beekeepers. In the case of my friend in Savannah, the Coastal Empire Beekeepers Association looks like a good bet. I didn’t see a web site for them but there is a public email address listed at UGA

Many associations offer ‘bee school’. This is what we did through the Seacoast Beekeepers Association in New Hampshire. These programs can be excellent because they reflect local realities, season specific tips, and often provide a well structured approach for introducing the novitiate to the art and craft of beekeeping.

Beekeeping is not a cheap hobby but it need not be horribly expensive either.  In general a beginner needs a good understanding of the vernacular that describes equipment, methods, and the bees themselves. Books abound and are helpful but may not be sufficient. Web sites are helpful too but, as one commentator said, getting advice from the internet is like asking a stranger to guard your wallet (or your purse).

This shot if from April when we started our colonies.

In our case we purchased supers, frames, wax foundation, a smoker, a bee hat, and feeders.  Our plan was (and is) to start with two colonies placed in two hives.  (See there, I am passing on some jargon already. A hive usually refers to the habitation while a colony refers to the organic ‘collective’ consisting of a queen, a gazillion workers, and a small number of drones.)  To get things going we purchased two packages.  (Jargon alert!) A package consists of a queen and a nice cantaloupe sized ball of workers shipped in a box that looks a LOT like my Dad’s old cricket cage.

From that point we followed the process suggested by our mentors at bee school and, with a lot of luck, our colonies should be ready to survive their first winter. Yep, that’s a fact. It takes all of their best effort to ensure that there is (1) enough comb (2) enough brood -future bees (3) enough food to make it from late October to late March.  For my friend in Savannah this is not nearly as much of an issue but I am sure he will discover that even the lush gardens of his home and the traditionally mild winters are the bright side and some other threat looms periously over the future of his colonies if he decides to take up this practice.

One final (for now) note. Beekeeping has changed in HUGE ways in the few years since I first considered getting into it. Twenty years ago, a box and some frames would have been sufficient. Not anymore. If you decide to keep bees, do it right. There’s a lot you can do wrong and it won’t just harm your bees, it may well do harm to many others as well.

Written by David Wilkerson

4 June 2010 at 10:18 pm

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