Tag Archives: root cellar

Scheherazade’s Chicken Story

I’m up on a ladder scrubbing the walls for painting when the Bearded One says, on his way out the door, “Oh, remind me to tell you a chicken story.”

Usually I write everything down, but I can’t write right now.  I express interest, but also a touch of irritation at this burden, and say “Oh, goodie,” which I don’t think he heard, which I’m glad for.  His chicken stories are always good, and he’s had a lot of them to remember lately.

The other reason I feel bad for my slightly bitchy “oh-goodie” is that the Bearded One fears for me up on ladders.  He is an ex-litigator who still sees disaster everywhere, but especially on ladders.  Perhaps he is thinking of the half-dead squirrel Garfield trotted into the house with this week, and how this would affect me 16 feet up.  He knows my hip’s been bugging me.  Perhaps this is his unconscious Scheherazade (pronounced Shuh-hera-zod) strategy to keep me extra careful, promising me a chicken story if I stay alive just as the Persian queen promised the king the conclusion of her stories the next day so he didn’t behead her.  Anyway, he leaves the house pronto so as not to distract me.

I finish cleaning the west wall of the living room and look out the window up at the aviary where the Bearded One is working.  He’s been there for days now, and he’s had a steady stream of chicken tales.  Again, we never knew they had personalities.  The chickens have been crazy this week.

Layers need 14 hours of light to stimulate the pituitary gland inside their eyes, which sends a hormone to the ovary with the message to produce an egg.  We’re losing five minutes of daylight a day and are under 12 hours now.  The hens will stop laying for the winter soon if left alone.

The eggs have already tapered off, but our ten hens still give us a couple of dozen a week.  We want to continue that, so we just started supplementing their light for 3 hours (using a timer) in the evenings.  This is tricking Mother Nature, which I don’t usually like, but that’s what it takes.  It doesn’t hurt them, but it’s an adjustment and must be contributing to their antics this week.

Yesterday the Bearded One was alone in the barn and heard a clucking and generalized chicken bitchin’.  Chickens are not allowed in the barn because they’ll foul the goat’s hay, but the littlest banty we have, Dusty, had wedged under the door and was nesting in the new corner goat feeder.

Cheetah went to the same spot the day before, but she snuck into the barn when I was raking out the spent hay and hauling it to the new gravity-fed chicken compost run, also known as the Chute.  The hens and goats are doing a great job of turning it as it makes its way down the hill.  I came back to close up the barn and there was Cheetah nestled down into Sage’s hay.

Our ten layers are all just over a year old except Kimber, the mama banty who came to us as a wild hen with seven 3-day-old chicks.  We still have four of those chicks — Dusty, Marilyn, Spot and Stevie.  (We sold the two roosters at auction back in January when they were five months old.  And we think a raccoon got Blackie.)  Kimber has been having an extra irritable week, and drove her daughter Stevie to the outside roost with her pecking.  Dusty refused to perch next to her mother, choosing instead to climb onto Jane and Cheetah’s backs.

Maybe it’s the full moon making the chickens act weird.  Native Americans call this particular full moon the Fruit Moon because of the falling apples, and we’ve actually got a lovely crop of red Spartan apples to be harvested.

The tree is four years old now, and this is its first real crop.  I plan to put the apples in waterproof plastic containers in the root cellars.

I step down from the ladder, and can see the Bearded One kneeling on the trail beside the smaller root cellar, patting wet cement into safety steps in the hillside where he saw me slip recently.

When he comes in, I tell him I love him and that I’m sorry if my oh-goodie hurt his feelings. I tell him I was very careful on the ladder, and I ask to hear the chicken story.

He tells me that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about but is very glad I was careful, and that here’s the story.  Leah, the Rhode Island Red and boss of the chicken yard, even over Kimber, saw him in the aviary and came hauling across the upper pasture toward him.  “Awwwkkkk!!  Brrkkk-brkkkkkkk–brrkkkkk–Awwwwkkkk!”

She then stopped and flapped her wings, and bobbed up and down repeatedly in a pattern, which impressed the Bearded One as some sort of never-before seen mating dance.  She kept it up and grew more frantic and insistent, and the Bearded One knew that she wanted something.

He looked closer, and her dance movement — like fake pecking — drew him toward a point of focus hidden in the middle of the pasture.

“It was a banty egg,” he said, laughing.  “She was calling me over to find it.”

I make eye contact with the Bearded One, put down my scrub rag, take off my rubber gloves, and give him the most coquettish chicken dance he’s seen in some time.  It worked for Scheherazade.  Heck — it worked for the chicken.

The Age of Shovelry

I’m standing at the kitchen sink peeling literally the 78th peach this week when the Bearded One approaches and touches my back.  I lean into his hand and request a scratch.  I’m on my last peach for the eighth and final tray of the new dehydrator, my hands are slimy, it’s hot and my back itches.  Ever chivalrous, he obliges.  Oooooo, I say.  To the left.  Yes, yes.  Down.  I shiver.  We now call this sex.

Earlier we had both been in the garden digging up potatoes.  At this time of year especially, when there’s so much physical work to do, whether it’s digging potatoes or turning compost, we try to be sweet to each other, offer encouragement and praise, say thank you and please and make each other sandwiches.  I help adjust the TV antennae to get the football channel.  He vacuums the red rug.  The shovel may be the centerpiece of the farmer’s life, but it’s the chivalry that makes it all work.

Shoveling potatoes is tricky because you don’t want to stab them.  Just loosen the soil, then I use my bare hands to feel around in the trench for them.  The Bearded One wears gloves to just reach in and force them out.  It’s exciting and we shout and show our biggest and weirdest to each other, but it takes ages.  My back not only itches, it aches.

We had about the same harvest as last year, but half what we had the year before. Still, it's all the potatoes we need.

“Could you rub my left lat, Sweetie?” I say.  He kneads my tight, aching latissimus dorsi, which I hurt angling the buckets of potatoes into the root cellar.  I dug the shallow root cellar last year and the Bearded One made the lid.  It kept our potatoes and carrots and cabbage consistently in the 40’s and humid last year.  This year I’m using the recycled buckets because last year’s cardboard boxes disintegrated.

Hobbit hole root cellar

The compost didn’t completely cook this year (we only had maybe 2 weeks of summer — in the 80’s…), so shoveling it has been a huge pain.  You have to fork it because the straw and other garden debris is still interlaced.  It doesn’t smell, it just hasn’t completely disintegrated.  We’ve both been forking it out.  “Up,” I say to my masseuse.  “More.  More.  Right there.”  I lean back hard into his hand.

Shovel ready.

The Bearded One has designed a new compost system for next year which will include the straw with chicken poop.  We’ve spent many hours watching our new hen Kimber and the Seven Chicks, which have easily doubled in size in two weeks.  They run and flap and actually get some hang time, as the Bearded One says.  But the poop is starting to be noticeable.  It will greatly enrich the compost, but there’s another thing to shovel, load, haul, dump, turn, empty and spread.

The two Steves.

I stretch to the side, then to the other side.  I’m finally finished with the peach and am about to say my thanks and tell him how much I love him when he cries “Ouch!”  His own sore back has spasmed.  “Oh, Sweetie,” I say, “thank you for the back rub!”

He shuffles away, crippled and incoherent. “The gift of the Magi,” he mutters.

I laugh and wince.  Shovelry is not dead, but it could kill you.

The Cabbage Family

I lift the old straw and newspaper shreds from the bottom of the root cellar and pile it in a wheelbarrow.   Then I trundle the dead brown stuff down the hill to the compost to mix with the oldest strawberry mother plants I’ve uprooted.  Compost is all about mixing browns and greens.

The root cellar is not fancy. It is not big, but it works. I dug this hole into the hillside last August when I realized I had no place to store all of the garden's cabbage, potatoes and carrots through the winter. It keeps root vegetables fine, because they're okay with some damp. Mice and damp got the apples, so I won't do that again. I keep the hard storage onions separately in a buried, bathtub-sized Tupperware.

My goal is to get the strawberry garden converted to fall cabbage by next Thursday when I leave for a Montana family reunion and my Grandma Milly’s memorial.

I'm taking out the big 3-year-old mothers, and will transplant the healthy daughters in a contained bed in the hoop house to transplant next spring. Then I'll transplant some young cabbages from the Rings Garden and maybe plant some kale seeds.

Grandma died over a year ago at age 93, and this is her life celebration and burial of her ashes next to Grandpa’s in Helena.  She didn’t want a service.  Of course we’re having one.  No preachers, though.  We’re going to circle around the gravesite and each tell a memory and then lay a flower on her urn.  I’m remembering how much Grandma loved the entire cabbage family, all the Brassica, including cabbage, broccoli and kale.
Like them she was crunchy, full of vitamins, beautiful, and she gave all her heirs gas.  Half Irish, half Italian, she had a judging eye, spoke her mind, and believed that children should be given money and treats.  She also believed that no one who hadn’t lived through the Depression had a clue what hard times really were, that America worshipped the Almighty Dollar, and that cabbage and pork go really well together.  Cole slaw, kraut, steamed and boiled cabbage, she loved them all.  She was born in 1916 and married Grandpa in 1931 when she was 15 and he was 33.

Milly Mancini, first communion, Catholic church, age 12 (1928)

Grandpa was a butcher, and then a school janitor, and then a butcher again.  Grandma kept a store and lots of children, fostering and babysitting for extra money.  I remember Grandpa doing slightly-drunken handstands at a wedding when I was 10 years old.  I think Grandma was mad.  Years later when I was 22, they took me in when I was in a life crisis.  I went back to my roots, to Grandma Milly’s aqua and yellow kitchen, and learned how to cook.
I whistle to the Bearded One from the strawberry garden.  He’s been sawing pieces of styrofoam in the barn, and now I hear a series of squeaking hinges and latching gates and know he’s on his way to fit the custom insulation into the walls and doors and ceiling of the chicken house.  My whistle means I’m coming up.
We plan to paint the stark white styrofoam with warm happy colors, perhaps even a stick man mural…

I breathe in the sweet pea perfuming the entire backyard.  I open the gate and walk up the hill past the root cellar which is still wide open and airing out.  Past the huckleberry bushes and their tart red jewels shining in the long-awaited sunshine.  I’ll miss this place for the four days I’ll be in Montana, but I just figured out my idea for the memory I’ll share at Grandma’s memorial.

See, Grandma went to church regularly, but wasn’t a religious woman.  She loved to party.  She loved people and gossip and bawdy jokes.  Her spirituality was practical.  She once told me, I remember this clearly, that like her Irish mother, she believed that when you die, you become what you hate in this life.  If that’s true, she is now either a cat or a spider, but happily not a cabbage.

Crop Circles

The Arab world is blowing up, state and federal governments are crumbling, and there is a world food crisis upon us.  Our only real local crisis here an hour south of Seattle is that we had just 15 days of 80+ temperatures for ALL of last year.  Every plant was stunted.  We talk about the weather a lot. 

Neither my husband nor I grew up producing our own food.  The America I grew up in is far removed from nature.  But it feels fundamental to me to know how to grow food, to know what animals I eat and how they were raised and treated.  So this farmlet is for my life NOW, not in some post-economic-collapse future.  My husband is a bit more of a survivalist than I am.  He talks about the coming collapse, especially of the distribution systems that require cheap gas, and it motivates him. 

We’ve lived here for 4 years.  We built the gardens the first year, hauling in two dump trucks full of soil and digging out countless roots.  You can see our three circle gardens from outer space.  They total about 3,000 square feet.  The Google Earth satellite image of our forested farmlet clearly shows the Rings Garden and it looks like a bull’s-eye target, a bit disconcerting since we’re so close to Bangor and all those nuclear submarines.

Crop circles sighted in south Puget Sound area

Last year, when President Obama came to Seattle stumping for Patty Murray, a float plane violated air space at Lake Union, so jets tore up here from Portland and broke the sound barrier right over our house.  Scared us to death.  It was like lots of dynamite going off just outside.  The house jumped.  We figured at first it was an earthquake. We didn’t know what it was.  When it dawned on us that it was a sonic boom, we assumed it was the mail lady coming down the road.

Our Twenty-Somethings appreciate our small life, they just don’t want to stay here for more than two nights.  We get only one bar of cell phone reception, and did I mention we talk about the weather  a lot? 

To lengthen our growing season, we’re building a hoop house in the largest circle garden.  Hoop houses are relatively inexpensive greenhouses made with bent pipe or PVC tubing and covered with clear or opaque plastic.  My friend Sheila agreed to let me post a picture of her recently constructed hoop house, which was our inspiration.

Sheila's hoop house

The idea is to keep it cheap, so we are using cedar branches instead of tubing, because we have so many of them.  Our hoop house, which we’re actually calling the hot house, will be 20′ long and 10′ wide.  Currently we’re debating the plastic purchase — Home Depot plastic for $100 or special UV treated greenhouse plastic for $250.  I argued for the expensive stuff last night, but today I’m not so sure.  Will the plain plastic disintegrate in a year or two?  Is the expensive stuff just hype, especially since UV protection really is not our issue?

Hoop house layout in the Circle Garden

Meanwhile, infrastructure work continues.  This week, latches on the barn doors, and trenches for the chicken pavilion’s predator-proof fencing.  I’ve been spending several hours a day on the computer with this new blog, finding out repeatedly just how much I have to learn.

High tech map of property

After the crop circles, we built the barn using wood from the 2 huge cedar trees we cut down to make the Circle Garden.

Goat barn

We dug the 350 foot long electric/plumbing trench, and then built the chicken coop.

Chicken coup and 30'x30' tarp-covered pavilion

Last summer I dug two small root cellars.  They’re like hobbit holes in the side of the hill with a big wooden trap door.  Nothing fancy.   One has a Tupperware in it the size of a big cooler for dry storage — onions and apples.  A mouse got into it and ate all the apples.  I’m still using the small, hard storage onions, though.

The other root cellar has a lining of straw and holds the potatoes, carrots and cabbage.  We’ve gone through all the carrots and cabbage, but still have potatoes.

Three different neighbors on our road have come to see our root cellars…and one is getting her son to dig hers with his backhoe.  Smart lady.  When we’re ready for chickens, a neighbor is giving us our first hens from her flock.  Lou next door keeps us supplied with Golden Retriever books from the used bookstore, and we give him jam.  I look at the satellite photo now, and it’s a surprisingly hopeful world.

Thanks for all of your encouraging comments last week!  This is fun.