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Panthers Hollow

A Hidden Egg Nest

Jennifer QuinnI've heard of free-range hens that will run off and make a nest in some hidden location, then reappear three weeks later with chicks in tow. Fortunately, I've never had that experience, since I'm trying to build my flock with outside additions and I need my broody hens to set my purchased eggs under. Besides, with all the predators around I'm surprised when any of my birds survives a night outside.

But when the egg collection from my two hens and four pullets dropped from four or five a day to two or three, and finally to one or none, I began to wonder what was going on. My first thought was that the hens were stressed because I noticed they were being harassed by the guinea cocks who share the same housing, and two of them had become very skittish.

Those two had begun staying away from the rest of the flock most of the time, and a couple of days ago two of them were running around in the coop all puffed up like a turkey and clucking agitatedly. I was especially worried when one of them, Demi, didn't show up at roosting time and couldn't be found anywhere.

After pondering this for a while I decided the best thing to do would be to try and move the guineas to another building that I've reserved for use as a chick nursery and brooding area. As I expected, that turned out to be easier said than done.

Guineas are harder to handle than chickens, and my efforts to catch the first one (by grabbing it off the roost after dark) resulted in its escaping and running out the open door. I managed to catch another one with the net and relocate him, only to realize that it wasn't one of the two aggressive ones that I meant to relocate.

Next morning the escaped guinea was nowhere to be found, so I assume something got him. Sad, and not what I intended, but at least it solved half the problem. When I let the remaining birds out of the coop I was amazed — not to mention relieved — to see my wayward pullet suddenly appear among them.

Now where could she have been? I guessed that she must have gone broody on a hidden nest somewhere, and set out to look for the nest.

Checking in back of the coop, something made me look up and notice a sort of hollow under a rock ledge, on the steep slope behind the building:

nest

Here's another view of the slope:

nest

So, I set out climbing up the slope on my hands and knees, sliding on the loose dirt and rocks all the way, and here's what I found:

nest

Fifteen little eggs, mostly recognizable as Demi's, though I think another hen might have laid some in there too. So I decided to replace them with some fake eggs, thinking she'd return and that night I could get her and resettle her in a broody box. I'm not sure how I was going to slide down the slope carrying a chicken, but as it turned out I didn't need to.

Because when I returned somewhat later with a bucket and the fake eggs Demi was nowhere to be found. She must have already abandoned that nest and started another, because that night she still didn't appear. Meanwhile, that night the other skittish pullet was also missing!

Besides, I've noticed several times lately that one of the pullets will come running up from a part of the stream bed behind the garage, making a hullabaloo like they often do right after laying an egg. So I've searched that area before, looking in all the accessible places (plus some not so accessible) where they might conceivably be laying, and have found nothing.

Next morning who should I see but Demi pulling the same routine. So I set out for the stream with hand clippers, pruning away the wild raspberry canes and vines and made a more thorough search than ever, checking both banks, behind the garage — everywhere — and still no eggs. All I can think is that some critter (a snake?) comes and grabs the eggs as soon as they're laid, so that I never find them.

As for the guineas, the confined one and the one outside spent the better part of yesterday calling to each other, with the confined one doing nothing but running back and forth in front of the windows in a state of great agitation. Apparently guineas can't stand to be separated, as I realized when I finally let the prisoner out and he ran immediately to join the other one.

Things did seem more peaceful in the poultry house this morning, and Demi even flew up onto the roost for a while, before disappearing later. Now if that other pullet would just turn up, and everyone would stop laying in the stream bed!

Photos property of Jennifer Quinn.

Seed Starting and Soil Amendments

Jennifer Quinn

Every year I feel compelled to start some seedlings for the garden, despite not having the ideal seed-starting setup. I'm on a tight budget, and I suppose it wouldn't break me to buy some bedding plants — in fact, it might pay off in harvest rewards — but I still have all this cabbage and broccoli seed, and I hate to waste it. Plus there's a certain satisfaction in having grown one's own plants from start to finish!

In the past I've tried starting seedlings in the house on a small heating pad, then moving them to the garage, where I have large, east-facing windows, supplemented by long tube lights. But starting them indoors makes such a mess! And I've found that even with the sunlight and the tube lights the plants become very spindly, since the lights are so high up and they're really supposed to be a few inches above the seedlings. The plants just keep stretching up, trying to get more light.

Then I got the idea that maybe the lights could be lowered, but after a little investigation that turned out not to be feasible. Finally it occurred to me — Duh! Couldn't I just find a way to raise up the plants? So, first I took a small table from the house that I had been using to try and keep a thyme plant alive in front of a window, and put that on top of the work bench that's under the tube lights. That brought the seedling tray a couple of feet closer, but I still wasn't satisfied.

Finally I ended up with this setup:

seedlings setup

As you can see, I later added a lamp to the bottom shelf for seedlings that were ready to be put in individual pots. Anyone who saw pictures of my leggy seedlings last year can appreciate the difference:

seedlings

Then I read somewhere (I was sure it was on Anna Hess's blog Waldeneffect, but now I can't find it!) that "stump dirt" is okay for starting seedlings, but once in pots they do better if it's mixed half-and-half with compost. That's because the stump dirt is good for the texture but not so much for nutrients. I figured the same would probably apply to commercial seed-starting mix, which is what I was using, so I started worrying about the seedlings I had already potted up. I rarely succeed in producing compost that's even finished enough for use as a soil addition, let alone for putting in little plant pots, so what was I to do?

Just then, I found the time to mend my rain barrel, which had frozen and fallen over during the winter, splitting at the bottom. I had procrastinated doing anything about that, since I didn't see how it could be fixed. Then I got the idea to use some leftover caulking strip that I had in the house to plug up the crack and then cover it over with duct tape. Here's the result:

rain barrel

(That's some leftover caulk strip sitting on top.) I should explain that the rain barrel isn't connected to anything — in fact, I lost my roof gutter on that side a couple of years ago, so the rain just drips off the roof into that and a collection of buckets and things. The barrel has a large opening, which I covered with row-cover fabric, so that the water could run through without breeding mosquitoes. Here it is, back in service:

rain barrel

What I hadn't expected was to find a clump of compost (with some weed sprouts in it) caked on the bottom of the barrel. I had forgotten that I had thrown some half-finished compost in there with the thought of making compost tea. As I was scooping it out I realized this was just what I needed for my little potted plants! All it needed was a good screening to get the weeds out, which I accomplished with an old, broken window screen. So I scooped some of the seed-starting mix out of the pots and replaced it with that, which is what you see in the picture.

Meanwhile, speaking of screening, I invented a new use for the big plastic tub I had made into a chick brooder a couple of years ago, since I had come up with a better idea for that. I used to screen compost for my little urban garden, but found it to be such a time-consuming, labor-intensive chore I didn't think I'd ever try it for the large volume I have to deal with here. But then I found a trove of stump dirt where there were some rotting boards and logs behind the garage. So I set to work digging that out and screening it into my re-purposed tub:

stump dirt

And here's the finished product, which I added to a no-till bed that needed more organic matter:

stump dirt

Another material I've added to a couple of beds this year is something I think of as alluvial soil. A recent flood deposited some of this stuff at the entrance to the big creek, where the ford is:

soil

Though I'm sure it's completely devoid of organic matter, I admired its fine-grained, sandy texture — not to mention the likely absence of weed seeds — since my garden soil is so clayey and plagued with weeds and stones. So I used it to top off a container where I plan to grow carrots:

carrot planter

Now I see that it tends to get rather crusty when dried out, so I'd better use it in moderation and mix it in well.

All of this pales in comparison with the three buckets of well-composted horse manure that I just got from a friend. Guess that will be the subject of my next post!

Photos belong to Jennifer Quinn

Rooting a willow cutting

Jennifer Quinn 

When I bought my home there was a scraggly old willow by the stream in front of the house, which has since died. I wanted to replace it, so in the late fall I took some cuttings from a willow on a neighboring property, following directions in the Rodale Ultimate Encylcopedia of Organic Gardening. I had heard that willows are very easy to root, and according to Rodale all you had to do was leave the cuttings in water for a while. It said to take 4- to 8-inch cuttings from 1-year old wood, a few inches from the terminal bud. I wasn’t sure how to identify 1-year-old wood, but that’s what I tried to do, and took a few in different sizes. I even added some 1-inch pieces of leftover cuttings to one of the containers, since I’d read that pieces of willow can be used to make “willow water” for rooting other kinds of cuttings.

When no roots appeared after about a month I was beginning to lose hope. I consulted a few other sources, which recommended larger cuttings and included other instructions that only confused me. But one source included the words “eventually they will root.” I concluded that “eventually” meant it could take a long time, and that patience was the key. Sure enough, after 56 days I found my largest cutting had grown a nice little root:

willow cutting

Over the next week or so two others began to root. I now have them all in pots with seed-starting mix, and will probably plant them at the edge of the stream whenever there’s a good thaw—maybe this week? And since I wrote this, one that had green buds on it has put out a little root as well. I wonder if a frost would kill the buds at this point?

A Curtain for the Coop

Jennifer Quinn

curtain

curtain

One of my fall projects that got put off until January was to make a curtain for my new poultry house, to keep out cold drafts, especially when it snows. I know that ventilation is more important for chickens than keeping them warm, but I’ve also read that ideally the coop should be facing south, and should not be drafty. Since mine is up against a north-facing slope and gets almost no sunlight in the winter, I thought it best for the coldest nights to have something covering the large north-facing window, where I had replaced the glass with rat wire. (I was also thinking of my outdoor cat, who spends nights in there. He does have a cubbyhole with a warm blanket in it, but it still gets pretty cold in there.)

So I devised a cover made from an old cloth shower curtain, lined with one of those emergency blankets made of thin metallic foil. I reasoned that the holes in the shower curtain could be used to anchor the bottom with hooks so it wouldn’t blow. I then found a strip of wood around which to wrap the top edge, to hold everything together and to help secure it to the window frame. I also hung ropes over it in two places and secured them with safety pins, so I’d have a way to tie up the curtain when not in use.

Conveniently, the strip of wood I had chosen already had three holes in it, so I figured that would make it easier to screw the whole thing into the window frame. (I had to put pins with colored heads in the holes so I wouldn’t lose track of where they were after it was covered with the fabric). I thought I could drill right through the curtain and into the window frame to make the holes for the screws. Nothing doing! The fabric got all caught up in the drill bit, even after I made holes in it with a roofing nail.

Then I got an idea: Maybe I could just secure it with roofing nails instead? I wasn’t sure the nails would be strong enough, but it worked perfectly! Then, instead of hooks I decided to try three roofing nails for securing the bottom, and that worked fine too. So far, it seems only to keep it a few degrees warmer inside, but at least it will keep out the snow and the north winds. And I can finally cross this off my list and move on to the next challenge: covering the small gap in the door to keep out snakes and weasels!

Shelling Black Walnuts: An Update

Jennifer Quinn 

Recently I posted about the difficulty of shelling black walnuts. Then a reader who’s a more savvy Internet user than I am sent me this link to a Youtube video, How to Harvest and Crack Black Walnuts, which is a lot more helpful than the instructions I got from neighbors:

Unfortunately, it turns out they usually only bear every other year, so I guess I’ll have to wait two years to try again. But I was interested in the author’s method of washing the nuts immediately after hulling them, then hanging them in onion bags to dry—only a few weeks, he says, instead of months! And snipping at the shells with wire cutters is an interesting approach for getting out all the meat. He says you still have to go through them and pick out any shell fragments, but his end results sure look better than mine! And he doesn’t even worry about the hulls having bruises, or having some pulp sticking to the nuts after washing.

A Bigger, Better Hugelkultur Bed

Jennifer Quinn 

I’ve written before about my forays into building raised beds with hugelkultur — using wood, especially rotting wood, as the basis. So far I’ve built three of these: one as a sloped mound, which is the usual form, and two as flat-topped, rectangular beds. The first has now been in service for two seasons, and has produced some decent carrots, green beans, and potatoes, now that it’s mostly broken down into a nice, humusy soil. The second — built in fall 2016 and cover-cropped with rye, then clover, then oats and Austrian winter peas — will be planted with bare root strawberries in the coming season.

The third (the sloped mound,) will be planted this season with a spring crop of spinach on one side, and will hopefully produce some garlic on the other. I planted the garlic in December, but found the mound mostly frozen and full of big holes at the bottom. Plus I had absentmindedly left the garlic sets outside in freezing weather, so that some were visibly rotting, and even the ones I planted didn’t seem in the greatest shape. So I’m a little dubious about the garlic, but I’m hoping there’s enough soil near the surface to grow some spinach.

My latest (and probably last, for now) hugelkultur project is the most promising so far. This involved building up a 4-by-12-feet bed that has always been compacted and prone to water-logging. Here’s the first layer, consisting of old and rotting wood, with a few leaves and greens thrown in:

hugelkultur

Hugelkultur is a natural for me, since I live in the woods and even have a pile of rotting lumber on my property. It’s hard to see here with all the leaves, but — trust me — that’s a stack of slowly-rotting wood:

hugelkultur

The next step was to add a layer of dead leaves, then a layer of the goose-litter compost that I wrote about earlier [Repurposing an Old Structure]:

hugelkultur

Finally, I found a good source of partially-composted horse manure, which was just the thing to top it off, and something my previous projects lacked. Here’s the final product:

hugelkultur

I then cover-cropped it with winter rye and fenced it in so the chickens wouldn’t tear it up. After the rye matures I’ll cut it down and sow some kind of legume in it, and in 2019 I’ll look forward to putting it into production — my biggest and best hugel bed ever!

Shelling Black Walnuts — Trickier Than You Might Think!

Jennifer Quinn

walnuts

Recently I wrote about finding a bumper crop of black walnuts on my property and learning how to remove the hulls and prepare them for shelling [An Overlooked Bounty]. Well, that was only the beginning. Two months or so later, after trying as best I could to get them dried out in front of my garage windows, I decided to tackle the job of shelling them.

The truth is, they really weren’t very dry. But by the time I got them collected and hulled, there wasn’t enough sun in my yard to dry them outside. The garage windows are the sunniest indoor location I have, but by late fall they only get a couple of hours of sunlight, and often very hazy sunlight at that. Not to mention that by late November the temperatures were dropping near freezing in there!

The first problem was that about half of them had gotten moldy. I decided to tackle those first. I was concerned about transferring the mold from the shells to the inside, so I began by scrubbing them with a toothbrush, scraping them with a fork, and rinsing them, then drying them in the oven for about a half hour. After all that, I found that they still had a peculiar odor, which I hoped hadn’t affected the meat inside.

The biggest problem was how to shell them. I had been warned that they were harder to crack than English walnuts. Boy, that was an understatement! The nutcracker did no good at all. Then somebody told me — in fact several people have told me — that you have to hit them with a hammer. (Everyone around here seems to know what to do with black walnuts!)

Well, I tried hitting them with my heaviest hammer, and that didn’t have any effect either. The only thing I found that worked was smashing them with a sledgehammer. First I had to find a large, shallow box, line it with paper, and put it on the concrete outside, since I was reluctant to inflict that kind of stress on my laminate floors, and I wanted to keep the nuts clean.

The trouble with the sledgehammer approach is that you end up with all these tiny shell fragments mixed in with the meat. And if you don’t break the shells in several pieces it’s impossible to dig it all out. I had to go at it with a paring knife, and couldn’t help poking myself with it a couple of times.

When I finally ended up with a couple of cups of shelled walnuts, which I had carefully picked through to remove any shell fragments I could find, I had another problem: The nuts had the same unpleasant smell (and taste) that I noticed before they were shelled. Kind of a fermented odor, I would say. I assumed this was caused by the mold that had grown on the shells.

A few weeks later I got around to tackling some of the non-moldy ones. (Or at least not visibly moldy, though they were thoroughly black on the outside.) Disappointingly, the results were no different from the first time.

Possibly the taste-odor problem is due to my not having thoroughly removed the pulp from the shells and not having dried them quickly enough. I learned along the way that it’s important to collect them promptly, and the earlier batches included some that had probably been lying on the ground for several days and had some brown spots. The fresher ones did come out more cleanly, though they all still had a bit of pulp on them after shucking. Maybe next year if I’m really diligent about collecting and shucking them every day I can avoid this problem, though I’m still not sure where and how I’ll dry them adequately.

The real challenge is the shelling. Despite my best efforts (and a huge amount of tedious, time-consuming work) I still found shell fragments in the finished product. Someone will have to show me how on earth you do this, or else do it for me!