Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tomatoes 2011

Wind whipped, hail-damaged, and exposed to more than a week of 100-degree F temps, tomato season 2011 on our Chicago roof was one of extremes. Wish I'd taken the temperature during those hot-hot days and nights, as it likely reached 115 degrees up on the growing deck.

We ruminated about overwatering and blight, but in retrospect I'm satisfied with the explanation that tomatoes simply can't set fruit with high nighttime temperatures and big humidity. This photo shows  the courageous plants on Sept 2, bedraggled but still producing a remarkable number of tomatoes in the more moderate weather.

And as much as we worry the weather, it was nothing like some of our fellow growers faced on the east coast.

Someone asked if, in light of the summer's tribulations, it was still worth growing tomatoes. Of course it is, for the return every gardener understands that has nothing to do with pounds of produce and everything to do with soul satisfaction.
Paying about $3 for two tomatoes at the farmers market one Sunday (between roof harvests) does sharpen the question. But in the end, for hunting and gathering food...there's no place like home.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chicken Coop Tour Pictures

This past Sunday my coop was one of 26 stops on a citywide tour.  H2 came over and shot some pictures of the people who stopped by.


I spent a fair amount of time securing the coop and run against predators. My friend Blake came up with an ingenious design for a raccoon proof latch on the nesting box that allows me to simply collect eggs.  I bent the metal rod into shape; it works like a charm.

The idea is that the two spring loaded pins are farther apart than the armspan of a raccoon, so there's no way one could depress both latches at the same time.  Conversely, it is an easy reach for a person, and designed to work well even while using gloves.

Pinching the moveable pin down to the fixed stop disengages the latch.


Here's a copy of the FAQ sheet I put out for the Coop Tour --

What Kind of Chickens Do I Have?
I have eight Rhode Island Reds, now 7 months old. They’re a popular choice for backyard flocks because of their egg-laying abilities and hardiness.

Is It Legal?
In Chicago, yes. The only relevant ordinances are prohibitions against noise and smell, as well as a ban on slaughtering.  You can have as many as you like as long as they don't smell, make noise, and you don't slaughter them without the proper license. The smell is manageable with a supply of carbon material and the noise comes primarily from roosters, so they're out. If you want to eat your chickens, there are live poultry places in the city that will "process" your live chicken for you for a small fee.

Myself, I keep chickens for the eggs and the tiny ways they round out my life.

Where Did You Get Your Chickens?
This past February, I got them as two-day-old chicks from McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, costing about $3 each (including shipping). They came, via the US Post Office, in a 12" x 12" x 20" cardboard box that had one-inch air holes in it.  Baby chicks can survive a couple days on the residual nutrients from their yolks, and thus can be shipped inexpensively.  McMurray Hatchery has many different breeds to choose from--check them out online.

What Do They Eat?
The majority of their diet is a specially formulated organic Layer Ration containing soybean meal, corn, oats, wheat as well as several vitamins/trace elements, which costs about $ 0.60/pound from The Feed Store (located on Harlem Avenue just south of the Stevenson Expressway).  Each of the chickens eats between 1/4 and 1/3 pound of feed per day. Combine that with the fact that, at this stage in their laying lives, they each average about 6 eggs per week. That breaks down to $ 0.18 - $0.24/egg, just for the feed.

I also give them all my kitchen scraps, especially greens from carrots, turnips, and beets, and with a few exceptions they eat it all. This lowers the feed cost as well as providing them with a richer diet and returning to me more compostable material. In addition, I give them all the weeds I pull from my yard.

How Many Eggs Do You Get?
They started laying smallish eggs, about 45 grams, at roughly age 5 months.  Now they lay eggs in the low 50-gram range, considered "medium" by egg-grading standards. About once a week I get a double yolk, with the egg weighing over 75 grams, considered "jumbo." As they get older, their eggs will gradually get bigger, topping out at an average of 60 grams, or "extra large."

Each hen will lay roughly 1000 eggs in her lifetime, averaging nearly one daily from age 6 months to 18 months, eventually going down to one or two a week as she ages.

How Long Do They Live?
I've read as long as 12 years in rare instances.  More common is 5 to 7 years.

Are Chickens Afraid of Humans?
On the contrary, many breeds are very social. I made an effort to acclimate them to human touch as they were growing up, encouraging visitors to pick them up and say hello. They still enjoy it now, as adults.

Don't You Need a Rooster to Get Eggs?
No. You need a rooster to fertilize an egg, from which a live chick hatches. My eggs, like almost all those you buy, are unfertilized. The hens don't know or care--they'll lay anyway. If I wanted to hatch new chicks, I'd need fertilized eggs.

Why Do the Hens Lay in the Same Nesting Box All the Time?
Left to her own devices, a hen will lay her eggs in the same dark, quiet spot every day until she gets a clutch of 5 or 6. When that happens, and if she is "broody," she’ll sit on them until they hatch (in about 20 days).  Of course that couldn't happen here because none of the eggs are fertilized.  Also, one of the characteristics of Rhode Island Reds is that they don't go broody, meaning they lay the egg and walk away (at which I point I collect the egg). Something important to consider if, like me, you're keeping chickens primarily for eggs.

What Happens to the Waste?
I use the Deep Litter Bedding method. This involves nothing more than adding to the chicken run handfuls of carbon, in my case coffee chaff (available free from any coffee house that roasts its own beans) and/or straw a couple times a week to absorb the accumulated waste.  This keeps the smell almost non-existent, and the bedding ultimately becomes a large compost pile.

I do the same in the coop, but sweep the clumpy carbon/waste mixture out into the run once a month or so.  I keep adding carbon until the bed is about 8 inches thick, which takes about a year, at which time I'll move it to my compost bin where it can finish “cooking.”  Then it'll go onto my garden beds. In the meantime the chickens scratch and dig in the accumulated carbon/waste, effectively turning over and aerating their bed, causing it to compost even faster in place.

How Much Did the Coop and Run Cost?
I spent about $500 on materials and roughly 200 hours to build it.  I came up with a design after looking online and reading several books that outlined what sort of design criteria should be addressed--i.e., number of square feet per bird required in coop and run, ventilation requirements, number and placement of nesting boxes, predator (raccoon) proofing, winterizing, water supply, electric needs (if any), ease of cleaning, and so on.

The coop is 48 square feet, the run is 120 square feet.  Holding to the ratios suggested by experts, I could have up to 12 chickens in the space.

Do Chickens Make Noise?
Yes!  Even though I don't have a rooster, the hens make several distinct noises, some of them quite loud.  Most of the loud noise comes from hens wanting to go into a nesting box to lay and finding their preferred box occupied.  They make a loud ba-gawk! ba-gawk! noise to announce their displeasure and the hen inside the nesting box (sometimes) screeches like a cat in heat, expressing her alarm.  Eventually they double up, but there's a lot of drama along the way.  I've taken to spraying the ba-gawkers with water from a squirt bottle.  It seems to be having an effect.

I have read that you need just one nesting box for every four hens, so in theory this shouldn't be the issue.  I've tried adding another box, but they won't use it.

What Is Your Daily Chicken Routine?
I refresh feed and water every 3 to 4 days.  My waterer is an ordinary 5-gallon bucket with poultry nipples screwed into the bottom. The chickens drink by pecking at the nipple, releasing drops of water with each contact. This method keeps their water clean with minimum fuss.  In winter I'll put a special heater with thermostat inside the bucket to keep ice from forming.

I collect eggs every day. Several of my neighbors welcome the eggs, as I can't eat them all. As a (hopefully) short-term project, I also spend an hour or so each day with my spray bottle trying to get the chickens not to ba-gawk so much. My immediate neighbors claim it doesn't bother them, but I don't want to abuse their good will.

A couple of times a week, or whenever I can smell excess ammonia, I add carbon in the form of coffee chaff.

What Happens to Chickens in the Winter?
They'll stay outdoors in their coop.  It provides shelter from moisture and wind and they have down coats that they use to keep themselves warm. By puffing up their feathers, they loft up their down. Their egg production will drop as they spend more (food) energy staying warm rather than producing eggs.

Some people add a small light bulb to provide a little warmth on especially cold days. My understanding is that they don't need supplemental heat.

Can I See Your Chickens Online?
Yes, I write periodic updates on them at our rooftop vegetable blog, Green Roof Growers (google it).

Some great resources

Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts google group

I highly recommend this book:
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

Friday, September 23, 2011

Roofgrown Peppers

Jimmy Nardello and Carmen peppers from our roof and Bruce's, before and after the broiler.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The O'Hare Airport Aeroponic Vegetable Garden

O'Hare airport now has an aeroponic vertical garden in terminal 2 and 3 and the restaurants on site utilize the fresh produce. Check out the video below to learn more.

Salad to go please!

Mobile Garden Featured in Chicago's Art on Track

Early Saturday, Joe Baldwin of the Mobile Garden Project stopped by to pick up a SIP-ful of rooster spur peppers, hauled down from its rooftop perch and sporting a fresh label, all set for her first CTA train ride.
Art on Track is a mobile art gallery on board a CTA train. The Art on Track train circles just the loop elevated track. The public is invited to board the train in order to view the art work. Art on Track takes place Saturday, September 17th between 5pm and 10pm. 
More in-process pix at flickr. I like shots like these because you're reminded how stark the day-to-day version of these train cars actually is.
Final install shots

 Mr Brown Thumb made a nice vid of Joe's completed train car. Well done!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Upgraded Fruit Fly Trap

Doors open all summer, fresh produce being chopped all day...we gotcher fruit flies right here. When I started to see larvae in my easy fruit fly trap (at left) I knew it was time for a fresh start.
Debbie told me how to make the sleeker version from a recycled water bottle. Just slice and invert the top, add the elixir (water, cider vinegar, squirt of detergent), and make sure you tape the edge so they can't fly out. 

Next time I'd put a rock in the bottom of the water bottle to provide some ballast.
WeI have a new batch of unfortunates already...

Friday, September 16, 2011


Here's a sunflower volunteer that sprang up from a random seed in our garden. The complexity is breathtaking.
One of the happiest flowers: swaying, dancing in the breeze, nodding their sunny faces. Apparently they're also volunteering for this heartbreaking duty at Fukushima ...
But there's also an effort to decontaminate and lift spirits. Fukushima is distributing 20m sunflower seeds to suck up the cesium radionuclides that have permeated the soil. The towering yellow flowers now adorn gardens, farm fields and roadside plots. Although they brighten the landscape, their stalks and petals concentrate the radioactivity and will later have to be burned or left to decompose in a controlled environment.
The sunflowers are the brainchild of Kouyuu Abe, a Zen monk who owns a temple just outside Fukushima city and is committed to the "fight against radiation". He allows people to dump the irradiated soil from their gardens on the hillside behind his temple, where it will be buried and covered with zeolite. He is also planning to decontaminate the forests with high pressure sprays so the leaves are less of a hazard when they fall in the autumn.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Windy City Coop Tour

I decided to include my coop in this event*, taking place on Sunday, September 25th. There are 25 different sites, all private homes, where people are showing how they raise chickens in the city.

Chicago chicken keepers invite you to learn from their personal experiences with backyard chickens! Visit their coops and hens, ask questions, and take photos.

Make your own route and visit any or all of the 25 locations between 11AM and 2PM.

MAP of locations and site info

* Please respect the privacy of our Tour Hosts and Their Flocks by visiting only on the day and hours of the Tour.
* Children supervised by adults are welcome on the Tour.
* DO NOT BRING DOGS or other pets.
* Stay within the boundaries around homes and coops that Hosts designate for visitors.
* If a given yard is full when you arrive, you may be asked to wait momentarily until the crowd thins.
* Restrooms, drinking water, and snacks will not be provided by the sites on the Tour -- so plan accordingly and bring what you need with you.
* Street parking may be scarce. Consider taking public transit and/or riding a bike on the Tour!

Tour Passports will be on sale at each site for $3 while supplies last.
Windy City Coop Tour t-shirts (very limited edition) are also available while supplies last.

*Despite thinking that proclaiming that I keep chickens in the city has a Stuff White People Like vibe about it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Planting Seeds for Winter Greens

We've been seed-starting, hopeful for a big crop of beloved greens this fall and winter.
Used the re-purposed spinach box travel SIPs--with spinach box cloche to prompt germination. Upstairs on the second floor they get plenty of south light and the ever-busy autumn squirrels aren't tempted to dig around in them.

We'll grow greens upstairs indoors as in previous years, but also we'll try a low tunnel over the raised bed Art built this spring against the south wall of a building out back. The compost we filled it with had sunk with all our summer rain, so Art scooped out some rough compost to raise the level.
I laid it in and topped it with some bags of mushroom compost.

The Red Giant mustard (via Hudson Valley Seed Library) we seeded in this travel SIP practically sprang forth overnight.

Some of the other seeds germinated spottily.

I went up to the roof to investigate a few of the SIPs we'd let go to seed and found that this Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress (Wild Garden Seed) had re-seeded itself, so I brought the young starts down to the raised bed to plant, along with some tiny baby bok choy starts.

Still awaiting our collection bag on the roof: lettuces, kale, and collards that have produced copious seed pods.

The seeds started in the travel SIPs have beautifully developed root systems--sub irrigation works.

In the photo below, upper left is a couple rows of Perpetual Spinach Chard (Bountiful Gardens) that I direct seeded. This spinach/chard is my favorite new green tried in 2011. Also direct seeded some upland cress (Victory Seeds--from 3 years ago). Both came up nicely, though a few other seed types did not.

Click to enlarge: tiny plants establishing already, drinking in the cool temps (as are we) and awaiting their tunnel covering later this year. I started a bunch more seeds in travel SIPs (aka portable microgardens--click here to see how to plant) this morning, which I'll transplant in a couple weeks.

Anyone have a recommendation for approach on the tunnel?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Rhode Island Reds: A Portrait

Such beautiful healthy girls, unperturbed by my opening their nesting box from the outside, via the egg-collection trap door.

And such individuals
Compare and contrast

We all know where this leads...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Folks This Ain't Normal: Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms

I don't watch many vids, so special thanks to Bruce for the refer on this killer-good one. Sit back with Joe Salatin and ponder how cocked up the food system is, all the while hoping his perfectly titled book sells a million copies and starts a real debate.

ps: focusing on approving a pipeline for toxic tar sands seems like the very antithesis of this.