2021–In Praise of Chicken Excrement

Black Gold

When you get up early on New Year’s Day to feed the chickens, and the low temp is 67 F, something is seriously wrong. That something is Anthropogenic Climate Disturbance, aka Global Warming. It’s fine now, but the summer will be when the bill comes due.

There is one constant, however–the wonders of chicken excrement. Americans in general treat chickens like a protein machine, caged, abused, and thrown away and eaten at a very early age. Our flock of eight ramble around all day, eat greens and high protein food, and we get eggs by the dozen. Better, possibly is the giant piles of excrement, which I compost. I am just beginning to use it as fertilizer. It could be the GOAT (greatest of all time.)

Chicken excrement and I go way back. When I grew up on the old farm, that was our main fertilizer, and sometimes the only one. As it turns out, industrial scale chicken production produces industrial scale chicken stuff. We had tons of this stuff at a time, which means we had tons of vegetables, and pounds and pounds of beef–we fertilized the pastures with chicken stuff, and even had to buy a giant stuff spreader to be able to do it.

So the moral for this new year is, what goes around, comes around. I have been fertilizing my mustard greens with chicken stuff, and feed the greens to the chicks, and the egg quality just gets better. I composted my garlic plants (forty in total,) and they took off like weeds. I just layered my young asparagus patch with several inches of compost. I better get the asparagus steamer ready for spring.

Film at eleven.

Moocher’s Compost Bin

Mooched!

The mooching lifestyle is far more under appreciated in the US than it should be. A person could practically live off of discarded items, and I am certain that many people actually do. There’s no tax on throw aways, either.

I am only a part time moocher, but I have dumpster dived and mooched in numerous locales. I pulled a fancy desk chair out of a dumpster, worth several hundred dollars, and then spend my time at the computer sitting in an old post and rung oak chair, that I mooched for $5 at a flea market. My latest mooch could prove to be my best: a flat bed truck full of cinder blocks, and the wood pallets this compost bin are made of.

The story is this. We have been have been showering the in-laws with free eggs, and one couple had just had a retaining wall replaced, and needed to get rid of the left over and used cinder blocks, more commonly known in these parts as “see-mint blocks” (cement blocks.) As my mooching has become a valuable reputation enhancer, they offered us the blocks, and with free delivery. We countered with an offer of thirty eggs. It was a deal.

The sweetener was that the blocks are to used in the construction of a smokehouse, and we offered free use of that as well, once it is completed. The blocks arrived quickly after that offer. I helped unload them, and they had been sitting on two pine pallets on the truck. My brother in law asked if I wanted them. He didn’t know I been looking to mooch two wooden pallets as well.

Three deck screws later, and I had a new compost bin, attached to the back of the chicken run. It is now being filled with table scraps, leaves, and chicken manure in various states of decomposition. It will be half full in no time.

Free Fertilizer

Next spring we will have mooched fertilizer as well. Which reminds me that it is almost time to grab a shovel, and get to work.

Avocado Plants

Seedlings!

We try to never throw any food away. First there are leftovers, then dog treats, and cooked grains go to the chickens. Everything else gets composted.

We have random compost piles throughout our garden, though I did recently complete what I have been calling a “Moocher’s Compost Bin,” because my total outlay for the bin was three deck screws–everything else was mooched. Our reward for chunking all sorts of stuff into our garden was completely unexpected. We now have two nice Avocado plants.

These weren’t planted, but in the gardening lingo, were “volunteers.” We ate more than a few Hass avocados over the summer, and in true frugal fashion, composted the pits, aka seeds. Strangely enough, Mr. Hass, from just outside of Pasadena, CA, began with just three seeds that he planted. One turned out to be the parent of the now famous Hass avocado. They are tasty.

Apparently the Hass does not come true from seed, but people who get free plants can hardly complain. We will grow these in containers, where they are said to reach no more than seven feet tall.

Can you grow tender fruits in containers? Here are our first free falling Key Limes. As soon as they are ripe, they fall off, and go boink boink boink across the floor, usually in the middle of the night. No dead cat bounce here.

Key Lime Daiquiri, Anyone?

My favorite are the Meyer Lemons.

Pie on the Menu

If you want the world’s longest Christmas song, finish “On the Twentieth Day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Twenty Meyer Lemons….” I’ll have a drink instead.

Fall Blooming Camellias

Camellia “Yuletide”

We’ve had the best Fall weather in memory, despite the fact that three hurricanes have blown through (we only get the rain). The result is that our Fall blooming camellias are spectacular.

I don’t even know how many varieties we have, so this is just a sampler. That first one is “Yuletide,” which usually blooms later. It is obviously one of the Camellia sasanqua hybrids, as are most of the rest.

Singler Flower

A pink version of Yuletide, which reseeds like crazy. We have enough volunteer seedlings to create a camellia grove. Now we get to the fancier hybrids.

Double or Triple?

I think pinky here is triple petaled, but it also reseeds. There’s going to be some serious transplanting this fall and winter. This is the really fancy.

Multi-petaled

These really fancy hybrids never make seed, and have to be grown from cuttings. We also have a double petaled white, that is twenty years old and very large.

We grow these Fall bloomers because our notorious late frosts kill the buds on the more famous Spring bloomers, which have enormous blooms. It doesn’t hurt that these require no fertilizer, and very little water.

Pepper “Poblano”

With Hardy Begonia

Unbelievably, there may be more Hoya! about Poblano peppers on the interwebs than there is about any other pepper. (For those not familiar with Hoya!, it’s the stuff you don’t want to step in while in the horse barn). First, it is sold under two names–Poblano and Ancho, though the name Ancho is usually (but not always) reserved for dried ground, red, Poblanos. Secondly, it is said to grow in zone 10 and further South, and be no more than 25″ tall. Guess again–I’m in zone 8, and this plant is 52″ tall and still growing.

Ocular Proof

The last and third pile of Hoya! is that these are a mild pepper. Actually, Jalapenos can be also, if you buy one of the varieties that has had all the heat bred out of them. The worst case of pepper burn I have had all summer was from Poblanos I cut up to freeze. I bought them from one of our best local Hispanic farmers, and she neglected to tell me they were really hot. Let the buyer beware.

In short, be skeptical. Grow some yourself, and see what result you get. I am mixing up a seed mix with upwards of ten varieties of hot peppers for next year, so I can see which ones are best. It’s called evolution in action. That is, as long as I survive the pepper burns.

Pepper “Royal Black”

Or is it Black Pearl?

I bought these seeds from the greatest seed seller around, J. L. Hudson from California. He has kept me in seeds for years, and this one sounded primo. It really is.

The black fruit, which ultimately will turn red, contrasts with the purple leaves. The blooms are also purple. It is a type of pequin pepper, a variety that originated in the pepper famous state of Tabasco in Mexico. Though the peppers are upright like a Tabasco pepper, this is actually listed as a different species.

The question: Should it have round or Tabasco shaped peppers? Most photos on the inerwebs show plants with Tabasco shaped peppers. However, they are all black, and quite hot, even up to the level of a Cayenne pepper on the Scoville scale. In short, they are hot to quite hot.

My father, who was a notorious seed thief (he called it “collecting”), would have walked away with at least one pocket full of these. He even stole all the lily seeds from a college that was attended by my three oldest sisters–only the college happened to be housed in a convent called Sacred Heart. I know that because I was there when it happened.

Sage “Berggarten”

If it does this in Six Months . . . ?

Due to the ever increasing vagaries of our climate, no doubt caused by Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (the technical term for Global Warming), our herb gardening is now confined to containers. We have one sage plant that is at least ten years old, and it has to be root bound like nobody’s business. Then I saw this plant, with the German name of Berggarten (Mountain Garden), at our local plant seller. That made it a done deal.

Yikes! I planted it in this giant Mexican terra cotta container with a white Martagon lily, and the sage began growing like it was trying to escape back to the mountains of Deutschland. (I probably should add that the plant is in fact named after one of the gardens of Herrenhausen Palace in Hanover, Lower Saxony, which is not on a mountain). The interwebs descriptions call the plant “compact.” Draw your own conclusion.

Fortunately, the taste of this plant equals its magnitude. No holiday around here is complete without some cornbread dressing that tastes of sage as much as it does of cornbread. I can see a serious herb drying project in my near future.

Hot Stuff!

Can’t Get Enough

Like every addict, you have to eventually confess about your addiction. That plate tells you that I am addicted to pepper flakes.

This year I am drying my own, with a nice mixture of kinds hot and really hot. Really hot include Cayenne, Tabasco, and Royal Black. Serrano is hot, but not like the first three. The mildest is the old standard Cowhorn pepper. These are all local.

After they are dried, they take a couple of trips through the old Enterprise #602 grinder.

Pizza!

What does MJ do but dive into a scrap pile cabinet of hers, and comes out with a pepper flake shaker–THAT HAS PEPPERS ON IT. Nothing to do this weekend but fire up the brick oven.

The Chicken Run

Things to do

Our chicken run is 16′ by 24,’ or 384 square feet, which is the size of an apartment in some cities. It houses eight hens, and they make sure to inspect every inch of it daily.

I just completely cleaned out both coops this weekend, and added ten gallons of pine shavings to various places. MJ was mowing with our electric mower, and added three bags of grass clippings and dried leaves. Those birds will be busy for days.

We have four sections to the run, the junkyard/compost bin, the run itself, and the large and small coop. I’ll describe each in turn.

Junk Yard/ Compost Bin

Junk in the Run

By far the favorite place for the birds to hang is the compost bin and junkyard combination. It’s small and shady, and the compost draws in bugs and worms. I did upgrade the mailbox nest by putting a scrap 2×4 in front of where the door once was, to keep the birds from scratching out all of the shavings as soon as I put them in there. It worked, as I found three eggs in there this morning.

Junkyard Chicks

The Run

Chicken Run with Running Chicken

The run itself takes up about two thirds of the enclosure. It has three watering stations, and the ground is usually covered in shavings and clippings at this time of year. There’s room here for the birds to run, flap their wings, and scratch for hours. In dry weather I also dump out various food for them to scrounge around and find. If I want to start a real chicken riot, I’ll stand on the outside, and throw small chunks of various goodies in there, one after another. To the fastest bird goes the spoils.

The Big Coop

Snack Time at the Big Coop

This decent sized pre-fab coop easily houses six grown chickens at night, and we fill it with four Barred Rocks and two ISA Browns. The browns have taken over the top part of the coop, which leaves three quarters of it to the Rocks. This coop is also right next to the junkyard, so the birds can pop in for a quick bite at any time. My two additions are a homemade PVC feeder, and a one gallon watering jug made from a Sterilite container, which has been drilled and fitted with five little automatic, spring loaded watering devices. The foundation is 4×4’s, another addition of mine, so this thing is not going anywhere.

The Small Coop

Cozy for Two Birds

The small coop is a snug fit for two grown birds, but they have food, water, and a comfy perching area in the top section. This doubles a rabbit hutch, so it didn’t come with a nesting and perching area in the top section. I made both out of wood from my scrap pile. the next step is to double the 4×4 foundation, which will give an extra 3 1/2″ of head room in the lower section.

Any future plans? No more layers in the near future, unless a dog breaks in again, and kills a few. Plans for next spring are tentative, but the idea is to have another pen, with a door into this one, to raise that famous meat bird that originated in Bresse, France, that has blue legs. I would also like a breeding population of those. so I can hatch out my own. Fortunately, a farmer in Mississippi has a good genetics line from birds he imported from France. It may be time for road trip next spring.

ORANGE Tabasco Pepper

Peppers Galore. The View from our Deck. Sage in the background

Everyone who has used the Southern classic Tabasco Sauce knows that it is dark red. Imagine my surprise when I went to our local vegetable plant seller in the spring, and found that he was selling orange Tabasco pepper plants. I can never resist growing strange new crops–I also have a row of red broom corn, which is actually a plant from the sorghum family.

This was the result.

Future Pepper Flakes

That little reddish orange pepper is the first ripe Tabasco. It’s probably as hot as that whole Serrano that is right below it. I don’t know how this will work, but my goal is to dry all these, and make multi-colored pepper flakes with them. Then I can make some psychedelic sausages.