Thursday, July 26, 2012


We picked the bigger heads of rye and left the rest for the turkeys and deer. Now it will hang upside down for a bit to make the heads easier to grab – then we'll try the chicken-wire-and-plywood winnowing technique. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Instant Chicken Tractor

Well, not so instant. i've been working on it for what seems weeks.

The top went together pretty easily. My neighbor gave us her old coop - a Ware Chick-N-Villa.  I was sure I could transform it into a chicken tractor ... a moveable coop you reposition each day to give the ladies access to new weeds and bugs. With a tractor, you get all the benefits of free-range birds without the constant danger from predators.
Raw materials.
It needed a bit of reinforcement here and there but it was largely intact. The previous owner had built a small extension which makes the coop just big enough for four birds.

After thinking about design for a day or two, I settled on fastening the whole thing together with two 10-foot deck planks. I repaired the missing bits of cage wire and wired the bottom with four-inch fence to keep the raccoons and foxes out. The four-inch holes in the fence are plenty large for the birds to scratch and peck in the organic lawn.

The finished tractor.
To make it mobile, I added a pair of wheels from Harbor Freight – $12 for the pair. That was the tricky part. The challenge is getting the wheels out of the way so the tractor sits flat on the ground when you're not rolling it. Otherwise the chickies have a harder time walking around the fence material and the gap invites predators.

Went through several design ideas, none worked. Finally settled on a rotating arm arrangement which allows the wheels to swing out of the way when the tractor is stationary.

So far, so good. The chickies are so happy to be out of their brooder – and since the coop has a built in light bulb, they'll be toasty overnight after the temperature drops.

My goal was getting it all done for under $100. Total came in around $75.

Ready to roll.

Laid flat.


Here they are ... our newest addition. Two Americanas and two Brown Layers. They are growing like weeds. In this photo, enjoying the organic lawn – hanging out in a repurposed dog kennel. (Coop under construction.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Last Wheelbarrow

I just shoveled 20 yards of compost – and boy are my arms tired.

Having 20 yards of compost delivered was a great idea because it saved hours and hours of driving the trailer to the landfill and waiting for the bulldozer.

It wasn't such a great idea because it meant I had to shovel 20 yards of compost.

But - it gets the upper body in tone after a winter confined to desk work. There's always ibuprofen for the lower back.

And the lawn has never looked better.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Emerald Waves of Grain

Sometimes a good idea turns into a great one.

Last fall, I was checking out at the feed & seed store. Saw a sack of seed under a hand-scrawled sign. “Rye. Great winter cover.”

From a distance I assumed it was some kind of ryegrass. Moving closer, I grabbed a handful. As a baker and brewer, I’ve had enough food grain in my hands over the years to recognize it. It wasn’t turfgrass seed, it was rye – Secale cereale, the grain used to make bread and whiskey.

“You guys sell rye?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Oh yeah. Folks love it in their gardens. You let it grow all winter then plow it under in the spring,” came the store guy’s response.

Wheels turned. I’m thinking harvest, not cover. Bread, beer, who knows?

“When do you plant it?” I asked.

“Right now,” he said. 

I grabbed two pounds. I had visions of using it to create a no-mow strip right in the middle of the front yard. But since we’d never grown it before and had no idea what to expect, the Mrs. was less than enthusiastic about that plan. So I opted for the spot that I knew couldn’t possibly get any worse: the backyard desert.

My backyard has a strip of bone-dry death, about 150 feet long and 10 feet wide. Next to nothing grows there. Not even crabgrass. About all that could get footing in that spot was the occasional broom sedge and wild lettuce. Mostly it was just hard, ugly, barren dirt – a haven for burrowing wasps. 

I scattered the rye there, expecting zilch. After all, I had scattered grass seed there for years, eventually giving up on it as nothing after nothing took root.

I irrigated on and off – not as much as I should have. Fortunately we had a decent amount of rain that fall. And within weeks, this barren scar of sterile desert was greening up. I could scarcely believe my own eyes.

I’ve since learned that rye is a great thing to plant in bad soil. It has fairly strong roots that break up compacted soil. When the annual stalks die off, the roots and straw add biomass to the soil. It does better in crappy conditions than its cousins, barley and wheat. And farmers use it as a natural weed control, since discourages weeds from getting a foothold. It’s also remarkably resistant to pests and diseases. No wonder grain grasses like wheat, barley and rye formed the backbone of human civilization. They’ll thrive just about anywhere. 

By Thanksgiving, it was lush and green, maybe six or eight inches tall. It stayed that way all winter. Frost and snow didn’t seem to bother it. Come spring, it was off to the races. The stuff grew like weeds – from inches to feet in just a few weeks. It really dressed up that formerly arid strip of yard, spawning a small meadow of green. (I challenge anybody to sit near it on a breezy day and not find meditative calm in the sight and sound of the gently swaying fronds.)

Then, it did what rye does: form heads. Holy cow! I might even get my harvest out of it. In hindsight, my reaction was kind of silly. What did I expect it to do? It’s rye, for Pete’s sake! 

I don’t know. I guess I had no expectations – so every little advance felt like a miracle. 

And it was.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why didn't I think of this sooner?

Well, to be fair, I thought of it. Just never acted on it.

One reason I dreaded the annual compost top dress was how tedious just getting the compost is. (Not to mention days of manual labor moving it around.) I'd been driving to the county dump with my little Jeep-towed trailer, buying it a yard at a time. Getting just one load rarely takes less than 45 minutes. A half hour if all the stars align.

This yard is way too big. It needs around 15 yards of compost for the annual top dress. That probably cost me 10 hours or more, just driving back and forth to the dump and waiting my turn.

I'd always wondered about delivery but never inquired until this year. The price per yard is the same, with a 20-yard minimum and a $50 delivery charge. Sign me up!

It arrived. In a big way. Gotta go. I've got some compost spreading to do.

Spring Report (early)

Spring sprung rather early this year. Well, technically, it didn't really 'spring' at all, as we didn't have much of a winter.

And this year is do or die. Year three of Tukey's three-year plan. If the lawn turns to proverbial excrement this summer, it's going to be serious soul-searching time.

I am cautiously optimistic. First, the clover has never looked better. I am fairly confident this is related to the 2011-12 non-winter. Normally the snow and ice does a number on it. It rarely comes up this strong in spring (and I can't reseed this time of year since I'm also spreading pre-emergent to discourage the crabgrass seeds from germinating.) But this year it's thick and lush, at least in some spots.

Second, I bit the bullet and had the 'builder's grade' irrigation system repaired. No offense meant if you're a builder. But our builder's sprinkler contractor was a team of Keystone Kops Knuckleheads. They didn't bother to review the property plan – simply guessing where the borders were. They installed the wrong kind of head nozzles. And they did not optimize the well pump for irrigation. Nice work, guys.

The result - desert-dry swaths throughout the property. So, this year, I've finally corrected all those blunders. Even though an organic lawn requires way less water than a chemical one - it needs some. All those bone-dry, drought-prone swaths grew mainly crabgrass and black medick, no matter how often I watered. We'll see how they do this year.

Stay tuned.