Here We Go!

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Like most of the country, it is definitely still winter here in the Pacific Northwest. While we do not have the blizzardy deluge of snow our Eastern friends are seeing, our yard and garden are a bit of a muddy swamp from the days and days and days of rain we have had this season.

As we see February on the horizon, however, we know spring is coming and it is time to get cracking if we are to have a thriving urban farming scene again this year. We’ve run out between rainstorms to work on pruning the fruit trees and starting to shore up the chicken coop and run–mending any raggedy parts from seasonal damage. Soon, we will be re-covering the run with poultry netting and while the gals have had free range of the entire garden for the fall and winter, they will be sequestered in their summer digs so we can start the cool season planting.

This also means that we have started the first round of seedlings indoors–under lights and with heating mats for extra warmth. Last year, we had good success with all of our heirloom seedlings started at home, so we’re hoping all the collards, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, and more we’ve tucked into little pots will provide an abundance of food in the coming months!

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And, of course, late January means new chicks here at Raggedy Hen Farm! We decided not to incubate eggs this year (partially because of the 8 hatchlings we had last spring, 6 turned out to be little roos!) so we figured out which breeds we wanted to add to the flock and marked on our calendar when they would be in at our local urban farm store. One of the strategies that works for us and our little city flock is to raise a handful of new chicks each year and “age out” the older gals. Last year, our oldest hens went to live on Kori’s mom’s place in Southern Oregon.

So far, one of our very favorite breeds is the rather utilitarian Rhode Island Red. Of our new little group, three of the chicks are Rhodies. Supposedly, they have all been sexed prior to coming to the store, so our chances are pretty good these pullets will be hens. Of course, this isn’t fool proof! We’ve ended up with a roo or two from store-bought chicks too.

Since it will be several weeks before the chicks are ready to live outside, we try to get them early enough that they are ready to go when our world warms up (but isn’t too warm) and the new chicks generally start laying mid-summer and, if we’re lucky, they young ones will lay a bit through the winter.

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Meanwhile, we are thrilled to report that, so far, our bees are still alive and well–abeit in a small winter bundle–in the hive! On warmish, sunny days, we look for activity and a few bees will buzz in and out of the hive entrance. They are taking a gander to see if there is forage before heading back in to wait out the rest of the winter weather. As you may remember, we did not take any honey from the hive last year. In our three years of beekeeping, we have yet to have a successful wintering over here in our cold, damp climate and we wanted to do everything possible to ensure their survival. Last year’s new Warre hive is working well and staying snug and dry, so our fingers are crossed! We’re not out of the woods yet, of course, but as of today, there are still bees in that there hive.

So…even though it’s not spring yet, there are the earliest of signs and our urban farm chores are picking up!

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Yes, this sunny yellow dandelion is blooming away in our damp January garden!

Loss, Birth, Eggs, & Rain

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The past week or so has been quite the whirlwind of bittersweet nature around here. Sheesh! I suppose there are always the ups and downs of reality to deal with, but our attempts at urban farming bring us closer in sync with birth, death, seasons, science, and the random.  There may be reasons why a favorite fruit tree comes down in an ice storm, but why one and not the other? Why this year and not last?

We lost our bees in the last big storm–after nearly a foot of snow, then freezing ice, and then days of torrential rain–the colony succumbed. We noticed that there wasn’t any flying and buzzing action during the first sun break after the storm and, upon inspection, it looked like some dampness had gotten into the hive and the colony was no more. Needless to say, we were bummed. As Teri said, “We were doing so well!” There is a temptation to  give up and abandon an endeavor once one feels the pain of failure, but for us, that just wasn’t an option. We love being beekeepers and we knew we were beginners–now we’re challenged to learn more about beekeeping in a very damp winter environment. Teri embarked on cleaning out the hive and we’ve ordered a new colony and queen to be delivered in early April. We’re starting over.

As we were discovering the loss of our beloved honeybees, we were also in the midst of the hatching adventure. We turned our eggs, took copious notes, and hoped for a successful hatch. In the chicken-hatching world, 50% is considered a passable grade. We only had three chicks hatch on this first time out of the shoot. We cracked open every other egg to do an analysis of what might have happened. For us and farming, this is a learning experience and every situation is an attempt to gather knowledge and prepare for a better outcome later. We remind ourselves that a mother hen does not fuss over the eggs that didn’t hatch, but turns her attention to caring for the ones that do and that is what we must do too; it’s nature’s way.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep two middle-aged-gals-with-day-jobs occupied, our six sassy adult hens have all started laying eggs like mad. We are gathering 5-6 eggs from the nests every day and have graduated from being able to tuck an egg in our sweatshirt pocket on the way back to the house to having to take an egg-gathering basket with us when we head out to the henhouse. This is good, but it is also overwhelming in its own way. We’ve been working to build a solid laying flock so we would have enough eggs to share and sell and now we have to make a plan for how to manage that!

And, the garden must go in…despite the daily rain showers. The temperatures are mild, all the bulbs and perennials are stretching above the winter mulch; and the fruit bushes are starting to leaf and bud–we can’t ignore the signs. So, as we plant out our cool season seeds and seedlings, we begin the slug battle too. Those slugs and snails love this mild, wet weather and can’t wait to slime all over our tasty young veggies.

It is a constant, dynamic roller coaster of chores, lessons, disappointments, and delights. There are cycles, seasons, and only so much time in a day. There are things we can’t control, some we can, and there truly is a fair amount of random luck thrown into the mix too. Our garden never looks like the photos in the magazines, nor does our chicken coop gleam with radiant newness. There are mud, poop, weeds, pests, and our own exhaustion to contend with. But, as Kori likes to say, “a person has to do something…”

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Seven Days of Snow

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The flock–all seven out of the run and enjoying a bit of snack.

We thought you might like an update on how things are going here at Raggedy Hen Farm after a full week of snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures.  Believe it or not, the hens actually acclimated quite quickly.  We raked up their run to remove some of the snow and have been making sure the water stays fresh and unfrozen, but after a day or two of staying close to or in the henhouse, they have been venturing out.  As far as they know, this is just the way life is now.

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Can you guess where the honeybee colony is keeping themselves during the cold snap?

While we are not about to go opening up the beehive box to see how the bees are doing, we feel  reasonably confident that they are alright in there.  We left them with more than a dozen combs of honey and notice that the snow has melted away over the end where we suspect the colony is huddled together keeping themselves (and, it looks like, the area around them) warm.

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Trudy is looking rather fine in her new feathers.

Our Jersey Giant, Gertrude, is nearly finished with her molting.  You might notice from the photo that her comb and wattle are still very pale.  They will redden up when she is all done and ready to start laying again.  Meanwhile, she is looking good and staying warm.

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Alas, Hilda just so happened to start her molt prior to the snow, so she is definitely looking a bit raggedy.

Hilda, on the other hand, (our Buff Orpington) is in the midst of her molt.  Like Trudy, however, she seems to be moving through it rather quickly.  During the cold nights, she has the other hens to keep her warm, but during the day, she is not her typical fat and sassy self.

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There really are carrots growing under this blanket of snow!

There are still edible vegetables in the garden: parsnips, carrots, Brussels sprouts–to name a few.  Of course, they are mostly buried under the frozen snow.  We haven’t done much harvesting while the ground is frozen but when things start to thaw, we’ll be able to gather some tasty carrots again!

And, that is how things are looking here on Cedar Street.  We’re not going to lie–we are a bit tired of the cold and the ice and the snow, and we imagine the other critters are too. Meanwhile, we just adjust and try to enjoy the beauty and magic of the season!

J-J-J-J Jelly Roll!

Another easy, delicious, and deceptively impressive dessert. It is a wonderful way to incorporate delicious fruit jam into your baking and a great recipe to have in your collection. Join Kori in the kitchen at Raggedy Hen Farm and check out all our delicious fruit jam offerings in the Raggedy Hen Farm store.

Here’s the Buzz

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As we are in our first year of beekeeping, we are still learning about the cycles and actions of the currently very robust hive in our backyard.  At a local beekeeper’s meeting last Summer, I learned that August 15th was the start of Fall for honeybees in our area.  That date stuck and when mid-August rolled around this year, I assumed that the bees should be done with their gathering, foraging and buzzing.  We imagined they would be tidying up and tucking themselves in for the Winter. Well, sort-of…

Our hive has definitely downsized and is not as copious as it was at the height of Summer, but there is still plenty of activity going on in there.  We harvested a little honey in August, but left them with the majority of combs they worked so hard to build and fill–since this is their first year and we want to make sure they have plenty to get through a damp Northwestern Winter.  Then, we assumed we would let them be until Spring.

On very rainy days, we don’t see a bit of action coming in or out of the hive but during this recent bout of warmer, gorgeous, sunny afternoons, the bees have been busy.  We went to take a peek in the hive a few days ago and those gals have sealed things up nice and tight with the thick propolis they use to as a sealant for cracks and crevices.  There was no way we were going to undo all that hard work and open them up to any unwanted Autumn breezes, so we just took a peek in from the back and saw that there hadn’t been much growth in terms of combs since August and that was to be expected. Standing at the front of the hive, we noticed that most of the forager bees coming in had bright orangey-yellow saddlebags of pollen. Aha!  So this is one of their Fall forager duties…

We have been lucky so far this year with the bees.  As beginners, we knew there was only so much studying and reading and then we were going to have to jump in and learn as we went.  Our hive grew quickly and we had a strong queen. Since we live in an older urban neighborhood, with a nice array of parks, river banks, etc., there is plenty of diversity of trees, flowers, and plants for the bees to forage. We notice there are Fall dandelions and other flowers our bees are still feeding from on sunny days.  While we don’t think they are raising the big brood they were earlier in the year, they are still working to make sure they have plenty to eat through the Winter.  Our fingers are crossed!