Category Archives: urban farming

Recommended Reading for Chicken Keepers

It’s the perfect time of year to start reading about projects you’re going to tackle next year. If you’re planning on adding a flock of chickens, this is the right time to start reading up on how to care for your feathered friends. A friend asked for recommendations of chicken books, so I compiled a list of five of my favorites. Do you have other favorite chicken books? Leave a note in the comments.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow

This is a solid reference book for chicken keepers. It’s comprehensive and the information is clear and helpful. The writing is straightforward, like talking to a rural veterinarian, although some might describe it as dry or clinical. Still, when you need a reference book for chickens, you don’t need a lot of romantic stories about sweet peeping baby chicks. This book is the authority on everything from coop design to maintaining the health of your flock.

A Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping by Robert & Hannah Litt

This book is by the people behind Portland’s Urban Farm Store. It is a great addition to the genre of chick(en) lit. The focus here is on the backyard chicken keeper, especially in cities, but the information applies to any small flock. This book provides a sort of quiet confidence (or maybe just competency), which made me feel better about our backyard flock in the early days. I’ve read a lot of chicken books in the last three years, and mostly I finished them feeling a little overwhelmed like, “Well, I guess I’ll mostly learn by doing.” After this book, I just felt excited.

Keeping Chickens by Ashley English

Keeping Chickens is part of Ashley English’s Homemade Living series. There are a lot of beautiful photos and illustrations in this book. This is like having a cool, knowledgable friend to walk you through the process – selecting a breed and acquiring your chicks, all the way through delicious egg recipes. There are some woodworking instructions, too, to help you build a nesting box and basic chicken tractor. Ashley also writes a great blog where you can follow her homemade adventures.

Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich

This is a favorite in my household. From the early days of puffball chicks, you can watch Jenna’s chicks grow through their first year. Along the way, there is information about food, housing, health, and other details beginners need to know. Since the information is presented in an accessible way with lots of photos, it’s great for younger chicken farmers in your flock, but it’s not only for kids. This is a useful book for grown-ups, too. Jenna’s also a blogger; you can keep track of her farm happenings here.

The Chicken Health Handbook also by Gail Damerow

Many city vets don’t care for livestock, so it’s important that chicken farmers are able to care for their own birds. This book has a lot of good information, including charts where you can look up symptoms to diagnose your bird. There’s detailed nutrition information, preventative advice, and way more than you ever knew you didn’t know about poultry health. We’ve been pretty fortunate with our birds so far, but we have a responsibility to be prepared. They’re dependent on us.

So, those are my favorites. I hope it helps if you’re planning on getting a flock next year. Raising chickens has been an extraordinary adventure for us. I love those silly birds.


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Filed under chickens, urban farming

Spuds growing up

It’s the time of year when we dig through our potato stacks, collect the dirty, jewel-toned potatoes and start to pick our favorite potato recipes. This year we grew six varieties in our stacking potato towers. We alternated layers of 50/50 compost/soil and straw. It was interesting to see the layers when we began to unearth the potatoes.

The chickens were super interested in the potato harvest. Pepper was the most involved. Of course, she’s very interested in all human behaviors.

I planted 1# of each variety in the stacking boxes. Here’s the yield:
viking purple – 2#
german butterball – 6#
russian banana – 1.5#
french fingerling – 5#
princess 1.75#
red thumb 2#

Conclusion: 99% of the potatoes were in the bottom box of our stacked wooden boxes. That means our shoveling, stacking, side dressing and work was for naught. We could have achieved the same yield by growing potatoes in the ground. I’m happy we grew potatoes, don’t get me wrong. Nothing beats the taste of a fresh-dug, homegrown potato. The yield of some of our ’11 varieties was good, but overall, the stacking method was a lot of work without a lot of benefit. We’ll be retiring the wooden boxes next year in favor of planting in-ground rows. It will take up more space, but we can squeeze ’em in since we added those 400 square feet at the community garden. Now, we have to figure out what we can reuse these stacking wooden boxes for…. Any ideas?


Filed under fall, garden, urban farming

Some hens work harder than others

Lenora Frigid has been hard at work while the rest of our free-loading flock just clucks around, eating their organic, soy-free, corn-free, locally grown, locally milled chicken feed. Lenora has laid 13 eggs in the last 14 days. I think that effort deserves a round of applause, especially since the other hens have collectively laid zero eggs. White leghorn chickens produce most of the eggs at the grocery store, and white leghorn chickens produce all of the eggs in my backyard.


Filed under chickens, urban farming

Mr. Rooster

This weekend we finally got a response to a Craigslist ad for a certain rooster.

this guy

So we took turns getting all emo and then prepared to say goodbye.

Jess kissed Cry-Baby.

Cry-Baby kissed Jess.

And then as Craigslist people are wont to do, they FLAKED. So, we still have a rooster. Know anybody who needs a really charming & handsome rooster? He is still really ineffective at crowing, so I’m holding out hope we just got a quiet rooster and maybe he can stick around. We are awfully fond of him.


Filed under chickens, urban farming

Grow up, Squash!

One of the coolest things about a community garden is seeing how people garden differently and learning from their experiences. We share a few collective plots in our garden for the food bank & shared harvests. One of these plots has turned into an experiment in vertical squash production. A fellow gardener built a trellis from salvaged material for the collective winter squash.

I have been peripherally interested in trellising squash for the past two years. The sprawling vines of a squash plant take up a lot of room, so growing it vertically saves quite a bit of space and I suspect the vertical space provides extra ventilation to help with the mildew that plagues squash. It just seems like a good idea, and the squash seem happy enough to climb up the trellis.

I am not a very tool-savvy person and I haven’t dedicated the time to engineering this sort of project. So imagine my excitement to watch squash growing like this on trellises we didn’t have to build.

There is some mildew on the lower leaves, but otherwise the plant seems healthy. Most other squash in the garden were 75% mildew at this point.

I am worried about that the weight of heavier squash might pull them off the vine before they’re fully ripe. So far, I haven’t seen many issues with this at the community garden so it may not be a problem after all. Plants are pretty smart about gravity, so they might know how to handle it. If you’re worried about the weight, you can fashion a little hammock for the squash. The trellis method is more labor-intensive than letting squash grow across the ground, but since Krista & I seem to have an affinity for making gardening projects more labor-intensive than other people (see: our potato stacks) that shouldn’t be a problem.

This method wouldn’t work with very large squash like the hubbards, but I can imagine acorn squash or sugar pie pumpkins getting along fine without ripping down the structure. A major limiting factor for how much squash we plant is always space, so I’m excited about the possibilities. Have you ever grown winter squash vertically? Share your experiences!



Filed under fall, garden, urban farming

The Mighty Amaranth

I probably read too many library books, but in the last two years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the idea of small-scale grain cultivation. I won’t pretend that I could grow enough wheat to keep my family in pizzas for a year, but I do think it would be nice if we could produce more of our dietary staples. Additionally, we have chickens now. We let them free-range for food and we feed them a Washington-grown, all-natural, locally-milled, mostly organic chicken feed, but I like to think that with a little practice, I could grow some of their food myself. So I decided to practice growing grain.

Back in the day: Baby amaranth seed head.

We live in the city on a big-for-a-city-but-not-a-farm-sized lot, so I started looking for grains that are easy to thresh manually and have a high yield in a small space. Stuck between quinoa & amaranth, I decided on amaranth for our 2011 garden for the following reasons:
1. It makes beautiful flowers.
2. I got more google results for “western washington”+”amaranth cultivation” than quinoa. Yes, I make gardening decisions by the whim of Google’s hive mind. It’s a big experiment anyway.

What do I know about amaranth? Not that much. It’s a gluten-free psuedo-grain, native to the Americas. It’s grown in many cultures for edible seed, stems, leaves & roots as well as ornamental purposes. They sell it at my local food co-op. I don’t know that I have ever cooked with it. That’s the extent of my amaranth knowledge. I like the unknown.

Hartman’s Giant amaranth propped up by a ginormous Jerusalem artichoke plant.

With that settled, I hopped over the Baker Creek to check out their Amaranth collection. (By the way – Baker Creek is awesome. Especially if you’re a plant nerd.) I picked the Golden Giant Amaranth for its alleged heavy yield ( up to 1 lb of white seed per plant) and the Hartman’s Giant Amaranth because it was developed in Oregon. If you decide to grow amaranth, make sure you get a variety that has been cultivated for seed production.

The seeds are unbelievably small. I had a hard time believing they would grow to 7′ or 10′ tall, but they did. I planted a little later than I’d planned due to some complications with the weeds at our community garden plot, but the amaranth seemed to enjoy our summer weather. It has been a delight to have amaranth in our garden. It is an exceptionally lovely plant and brings a lot of joy to my fall garden under the grim, gray PNW autumn. I already decided to grow it again next year. I’ve learned a lot this season: amaranth can withstand a lot of heat and dry weather without much water. I barely watered these plants once they were established because they’re far away from a hose. They are also top heavy once the seeds start developing; about 1/3 of my plants have toppled over. I need to stake them next year. When I thin the plants, the chickens are very happy to annihilate the thinnings for me.

We’ve yet to bring the crop to harvest, but I am tentatively hopeful that we will produce a yield. I’ve read that you should harvest the seed heads after the first frost. I’m not sure if that’s accurate in my climate, but I didn’t find any better information. So, hopefully you’ll see some lovely amaranth recipes here in the coming months.

Do you have experience growing grain or any amaranth recipes you can’t live without? Or do you have any advice about growing quinoa? We’re going to do that next year, too.



Filed under garden, urban farming

Seattle community garden with a side of Americana

While we were wandering around Seattle in search of a little roadside Americana, we found two of our favorite things together in one place – a community garden with a backdrop of a roadside relic that has been refurbished.

We went to Oxbow Park to see the old Hat ‘n’ Boots that used to be part of a Western-themed gas station built in the 1950s. I was struck by the beauty of plants growing with the towering hat and boots nearby.

I would love to have something like this around here, but I don’t envy the wait-lists and smaller plot sizes Seattle community gardeners must face.

tomatoes, hat, boots

I also saw my very first artichoke flower.

Kind of a shame not to eat something so delicious, but at least this honey bee got a crack at it.

We soaked up the sun.

I turned 35 this weekend, and can’t recall ever having a birthday so hot. Over 90 degrees in the northwest in September. We’re enjoying it while we can! For more photos from our visit to Oxbow Park, click here.

– Krista


Filed under family, summer, urban farming

The Hen that Wasn’t

We knew that being a chicken-tender had its share of heartbreak opportunities, even if you read every book, consult all the right experts and do everything “right.” Chickens get sick. Predators get wily. Life ain’t easy for chickens, even the coddled pets of vegetarians. That is to say, we have discovered our first chicken heartbreaker.

Oh, Cry-Baby Walker. We paid an extra $1 for her to be sexed at the hatchery. We were given a 90% hen guarantee for our tiny birds, although we always knew that chicken sexing is more art than science. We gave Cry-Baby a gender-bending name, knocking on wood and hoping that she would grow into it more gracefully than a boy named Sue.

You see where this is headed, don’t you? Little Cry-Baby has been displaying some unnerving signs of imminent roosterness: early comb development, thick legs, relatively large body size and “shiny” feathers. Krista, Levi & I have spent months comforting each other about these characteristics. We said things like: Buff Orpington chickens are a large breed. She’s big-boned. Lots of BO hens have very prominent roostery-looking combs. The gender-ambiguity of the Buff Orpington breed helped to perpetuate this grand delusion. We’ve been in denial because, of course, we love her. Er, him. We love him. Levi called us out this weekend. “Come and look at this chicken,” he demanded. Pointing at the adorable fluffy chicken butt, he said, “Those are saddle feathers. Those tail feathers are curling.”

One could make a good case to either keep or eliminate a rooster, and we have gone back and forth about this in our family. One of us sleeps flip-flop schedules for work, and no one likes to be woken up by a rooster if they went to bed at 5am. He hasn’t started to crow yet, but it could start any day. We’re squeamish about fertilized eggs in the omelets. He likes to cuddle now, but our charming cockerel might attack his beloved humans to defend his hens. Ultimately, I think the adults in the household agree that there is not room in our hen house for a rooster.

Having decided that we won’t keep him, our options are slim. We’re hoping to find a home for him in a flock with more open-minded owners. Do you know anyone who would like a very sweet pet rooster? Speak up.


Filed under chickens, summer, urban farming

Adventures in Vertical Potatoes

In 2009, we grew poatoes in stacked tires on a lark. That was fun. The potatoes were delicious and we were converted to enthusiastic potato growers. Occasionally, I come across something about how important potatoes are for self-reliance gardening and I think that we really need to grow more of them.

In 2010, Krista built wooden stacking potato boxes. I wrote about why we switched from tires to wooden stacks here. We also grew potatoes in burlap bags from local coffee roasters, although apparently I have never blogged about that. I found burlap bags to be an unsatisfactory way to grow potatoes. The burlap bags were free though, and I composted them afterwards. No harm, no foul.

I buy our seed potatoes at a local nursery. I wrote about the varieties we planned to grow here if you are interested. We planted them in our faithful wooden stacks again this year, but we have been more attentive about mounding the plants regularly. Hopefully our diligence will be rewarded with a better yield. We haven’t harvested yet, but the plants are much taller and heartier than we have ever grown before.

The neighborhood deer have been voracious this summer, causing serious damage to the potatoes a few weeks ago. We covered the stacks with deer netting and as you can see, the plants grew back with a vengeance. The wooden stacks work well with deer netting because you can tuck it all around the edges.

This is a sort of experimental method, so we’ll report back when the plants die back. We planted late this year so we have weeks to go before harvest. And then? Potato salad, potato tacos, potato soup, roasted potatoes and colcannon for us, and maybe some of our hard-earned tips for growing vertical potatoes for you.



Filed under garden, summer, urban farming

Summer Progresses: Strawberries

I’ve planted at least 75 strawberry plants in our yard since we bought the house. The squirrels dig them up, so we don’t have 75 left, but the survivors are doing pretty well. We grow a mix of Shuksan, Firecracker & Quinault strawberries…. and the occasional alpine strawberry. Most of the berries are in a former flower bed near our back patio, so I check on them often. I greatly enjoy watching them through the seasons.

Our second-year harvest amazes me. Krista has made some amazing strawberry salads this week with organic mixed greens, balsamic vinegar, walnuts and crumbly cheeses. Last night we topped vanilla ice cream with strawberry slices and I sat with my nose over the bowl, inhaling the smell of summer. I’ve managed to keep the birds away this year with a combination of netting & a cat who naps in the strawberries. The slugs are eating too many berries, but the chickens don’t mind eating the ugly slug-nibbled strawberries. Then the chickens look like little feathered gladiators with blood (strawberry pulp) all over their faces. Adorable.

Strawberry crown (bare root) before planting.

The crowns grew into little strawberry plants. I nipped the flowers the first year.

The second-year plants made little flowers. Several species of bees visited the flowers. (not pictured)

Flowers grow into green berries.

Green berries turn red.

Red berries get picked & eaten — every day! Or they go south. This is the danger of growing delicate strawberry varieties.

It is fun to see our garden knit itself together and change over time. We have such an infinite “to do” list of projects for our little garden, it is important to take time to admire what we’ve accomplished in under two years. These strawberries are a metaphor, a delicious, delicious metaphor. I try not to think about how I want to dig up all these strawberries and move them! And someday I will grow enough berries to make strawberry jam from my backyard. I’m not sure that it’s possible on 1/5th of an acre, but I will try!


Filed under garden, summer, urban farming