Monday, May 13, 2013

Spring at the Ranch

It's always a surprise to me when the entire back yard comes into bloom at once.  The grass looks greener, the irises glow like a Van Gough painting, and the potted gerbera daisies add a much needed burst of color to the patio.  It makes me realize not only how much I love my yard, and how much we have put into it over the years, but also how little time I actually spend out there enjoying the yard for what it is.

This year I'm looking at the garden and the yard with a different attitude.  We're leaving the White House Ranch and moving to the Bay Area.  We'll be renting the house out since we can't fathom selling it, but how could anyone love it as much as we do?  Will anyone appreciate the purple and orange dahlias that will bloom this summer?  Or make lemon curd out of the abundant Meyer lemons in the winter?  Will someone visit the garden after work each evening anxious to see what has ripened and can be added to the dinner?

I had to plant a vegetable garden even though we'll only be here for part of the summer to enjoy it's offerings.  There were two volunteer sunflowers left over from the seeds from last years garden; one along the fence line in it's original planting area and one in a pot on the patio.  Because the plant would be easily 10 feet tall by the middle of summer, I couldn't leave it in the 12 diameter pot.  So I transplanted it to the garden next to the other.
I stood staring at the wilted flower that afternoon after it had a chance to get acclimated...or so I thought.  It was droopy and looked like it would die.  Will it be happier in its new home?  Should I have left it in its pot with the potential of outgrowing its space?  How long until the plant starts to thrive and grow? 
I started to think of all of these questions as they pertained to me and to my family.  Will plucking us up from our comfortable spot where our roots are firmly dug in cause us to bend over lifeless after our transplant?  It caused me to ask an even more burning question:  When is the right time to make a major life change?  Is it when you're so completely fed up with your current situation that you beg for an escape route?  Or is it when, like me, you're so content with every aspect of your life that the change is everything in excess of uncomfortable? 
About to uproot all aspects of comfort, stability and routine to the seemingly boundless chaos of newness and excitement, I'm almost paralyzed by my questioning and unknowing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reading and Growing

The word "homesteading" was not really a part of my vocabulary relevant to my life here in my urban-ish Sacramento home before I had chickens, but as I read more and more books that pique my interest, I realize it's exactly what we're doing.  As you may know, homesteading has become more and more in vogue and there are quite a few newer books released on the subject.  I've been collecting and reading so much about gardening, cooking and chicken raising in the last few months and I thought I would share, compare and contrast a few of them with you.  Hopefully, some of these reads will inspire you to read them and in turn start growing your own food as well.  Becoming less dependent on the supermarket and the corporate food supply chain will improve your health, your community and I would like to believe, your karma.

Interestingly, the dictionary definition of "homestead" is "any dwelling with its land and buildings where a family makes its home."  There was no definition of the word as a verb, as in "homesteading" and nothing about living off the land, raising your own food, etc.  So therefore, it's contemporary use in many newer book releases as well as many from the 1970s I would have to believe are more avant guard.  This surprised me.

The first book I read was published by a magazine who I deeply respect, has a rich history and which I've seen evolve in the last few years to appeal more to my (Generation X) generation. 

Sunset magazine was originally published in 1898 for the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset Route as marketing on the train to come out west and reap the bounty of this great area and also to mitigate negative rumors associated with the wild west.  It is a magazine that is always on my nightstand and which, whether you live on the west coast or not, I highly recommend you read.

The One-Block Feast, An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True and the staff of Sunset Magazine is the product of a popular blog on the magazine's website in which the staff grow the ingredients for 4 feasts, one for each season on the Menlo Park property that houses the Sunset test home and gardens.  The book authors do a beautiful job of illustrating the garden layout and what to grow in each season as well as how to make the accompaniments to go along with the homegrown fruits and vegetables, such as homemade cheese, honey, beer, wine and vinegar.  The book includes a very nice section on raising chickens and collecting eggs as well as raising bees that are perfect for beginners.  Turns out they have a chicken named Nugget also!  Do they have a 3-year-old naming their layers as well?  The recipes are wonderfully fresh and authentic and of course are accompanied by lovely photography you would expect from a magazine publisher. 

Something I really loved about the book is that they told me what they did wrong or did not turn out as they expected.  For instance, the growing of hops, barley and wheat for beer making was not what they had expected and took at lot of effort.  "As we were thinking that perhaps what we should have done was bag up the grain and whack it like a pinata, or maybe run over it with a car, we found out - wheat- that we should have put the seed head in a large, strong sack and then danced the twist on it with rubber-soled shoes."  These moments of transparency in their journey into growing their own feasts, not only present ways to get the end product in an easier, more cost-effective or efficient manner, but also they show the reader, that these people don't know much more than they do and maybe they can do it too!

Recipes such as lemon-thyme ice cream sandwiches, egg and Gouda crepes, oven-baked steak fries with green chile mayonnaise all make you want to grow and eat.  I highly recommend this book especially if you live in Northern California. 

I will be reviewing more in this series of homesteading books in the days to come, so please check back soon and also make sure you check out these books on your own!  You won't be sorry you did. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More Room to Run

I was feeling a little guilty leaving the chickens locked up in their run and coop area during the day while we were at work because there wasn't much room to spread their wings.  The original run was about 3 by 8 feet or 24 square feet.  That's only 3 square feet per bird.  So while my husband was off of work for the summer, he built them a larger run that would attach to the old one.  It is 8 by 8 feet and made of the same materials and paint color as the hens' original home.

With the same type of wheels used on the original coop and run, we can still move the enclosures around the yard and continue with our rotational grazing, which means moving the coop every couple of days.  This does a few things; it keeps the ground from getting to worn from chickens scratching, less manure in one place which would be a messy environment for the birds and gives them fresh areas to forage for seeds and bugs. 

 It seems to work pretty well.  It's not the same as the rotational grazing practiced at Polyface Farm you may have read about in the Omnivore's Dilemma which was a system of grazing by cows on specific grasses and chickens systematically moving behind them to clean up the earth.  This is much simpler because we only have one species working the land.
Something I'd like to put into place with the birds this winter is allowing them graze in the empty vegetable garden.  Not only will they keep the over-wintering insects at bay, they will also keep weeds from rooting, stir up the dirt and provide the area with nutrition in the form of chicken manure.  This in addition to the lovely compost I'm continuing to make in the bin will hopefully make for a better crop of tomatoes next summer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Girls Needed a Rooster

Each week I drive from my home in Sacramento to my job site in Santa Rosa via Highway 12 through Sonoma and Napa.  It's a beautiful drive especially early in the morning.  Every time I pass Swede's Feeds in Kenwood, I see an enormous colorful metal rooster standing near the entrance to the rustic Sonoma valley feed store.  While I have no desire for a real crowing rooster in my yard, the thought of a lovely piece of yard art sounded amazing.  I was thinking of this rooster night and day!  I craned my neck to check him out traveling at 50 mph each week.  After stopping in and inquiring of the boy's price, I decided that $300 was too much to spend for him and that my husband would be furious if he found out the true cost.  I asked if there was one with a less hefty price tag.  A 24" high model is $100 plus 15% off.  PERFECT!

I love the way the hens seem to be bowing down to his highness.
Two weeks later after a rough day, I decided I needed a treat.  I took him home and placed him in a location that would receive the day's first light and is also viewable from the kitchen window.  At first the hens were afraid of him, but after I threw some chicken crack down, they warmed up to the old chap.  I'd like to find a nice name that fits this guy made of old oil drums and cars.  Any suggestions?

He looks great and I can't wait to see how he patinas over the years.  I'm thinking that the hens will take more of a liking to him and may even start pecking at the red painted metal.  It will make a lovely sound if they do!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Enjoying the Bounty of our Homestead

All four of the chickens are now laying which means I've got quite a few eggs!  We gather between two and four eggs each day which can pile up quickly with only three people in the household.  Today I decided to make one of my favorite recipes which not only uses up my farm fresh eggs, but also incorporates the dozens of cherry tomatoes and basil from our garden. 
Tomato, Garlic and Potato Frittata.
The light blue-green eggs are from Cleo, our Ameraucana.

Sun Gold and Isis Candy cherry tomatoes from our garden.  Our sweet 100 cherries were devoured by our chickens.

I found this recipe on and lists it as being from Gourmet Magazine from 2001.  I love Epicurious because their iPhone app is so user friendly!  I can search for a recipe by putting keywords, dish types or ingredients then prop up my phone in the kitchen and not have to print a recipe.  Here is the recipe:

  • 6 whole large eggs
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan (2 ounces)
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 2 cups grape tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes (6 oz)


Whisk together whole eggs, whites, 1/4 cup Parmesan, basil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in large bowl.
Preheat broiler.
Cook garlic in 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet (preferably nonstick and ovenproof) over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Transfer garlic with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
Add potatoes to skillet and sauté over moderately high heat, stirring, until just tender, about 6 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to bowl with garlic.
Add 1 tablespoon oil and tomatoes to skillet and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until tomatoes brown and skins split, about 4 minutes.
Add remaining tablespoon oil and potatoes with garlic to skillet, spreading evenly, and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Pour egg over vegetables and cook over moderately high heat, lifting up cooked egg around edges to let uncooked egg flow underneath, 3 minutes. Reduce heat to moderate and cook, covered, 5 minutes more (center will be moist).
Remove lid and broil frittata 5 to 7 inches from heat until set, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle top evenly with remaining 1/4 cup parmesan, then broil until cheese melts and frittata is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes more.

Slide onto a platter and cut into 4 wedges.

A couple of changes I made were that I added pancetta and only used two cloves of garlic.  I just felt that 4 cloves were too much with the great flavor of the farm fresh eggs.  I also reversed the order of adding the potatoes and tomatoes to the pan.  It was counter intuitive to me that the tomatoes would cook longer than the potatoes. 
So tasty!  Fresh out of the oven.
 A simple, lovely recipe to share with your brunch guests that makes the most our of your summer veggies and herbs.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chicken or the Egg?

This question is not a mystery.  I know the answer.  The chicken comes before the egg. 
Two of the four chickens are laying now.  Rosie and Sarah.  Rosie's eggs are slightly bigger and darker than Sarah's.  I knew from reading the many chicken books I've accumulated over the past few months which ones were laying.  There are some telltale signs.  First one is the deep red color of their combs and wattles.

This is Rosie, my first layer.
 Second sign is that they get a little disheveled looking.  Their normally shiny coat gets a little dull and dirty.  They also do this strange little squatting thing when I approach them, but I haven't read anything about that yet. 

The beautiful and smart-as-a-whip, Sarah, layer of the cutest little buff colored eggs.
 Third sign is that these gals can seriously chow down!  They'll eat virtually anything I give them.  But their favorites are fallen apples, nectarines and pears from our trees, corn cobs from our homegrown corn, some of which I left on the stalk too long so was only suitable for beaks, cherry tomatoes stolen from my struggling crop while I chase them shaking my fist, cucumber peals, and best of all, grub worms that I pull out of the compost bin for them.  Yum yum. 
They nearly always have their beaks in the ground, except of course when they are chasing either my daughter or me around the yard when we shake a container of hen scratch, (which we lovingly call "chicken crack") a mix of various bird seed and cracked corn.
Today I noticed only three birds were out wandering in the yard so I checked the coop.  Rosie was nesting so I decided to shoot some photos of the action.  It was exciting to witness a chicken actually laying an egg. 
As you can see, she lifted herself up a bit and the feathers on her back separated and raised then suddenly "PLOP!"  She panted a bit, scooted the egg around with her comb and wattled away.  I quickly snatched up the warm egg. 
A perfect egg.  Tomorrow at around the same time of day, this will happen again. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Urban Chickens

What do you imagine when you think of urban chickens?  A beautiful coop with chickens happily feasting on all of your backyard pests to protect your bounty of strawberries and tomatoes while you sit in your Adirondack chair barefoot sipping a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc?  That used be my image and it was fact when the hens were still young, but I'm telling a different story now that my girls are getting a little hefty.

You can forget running barefoot in your yard ever again since their poop is everywhere, in fact, we are only allowing one pair of shoes per White House Rancher in the back yard which are left at the door when the dinner bell is rung.  And for the Adirondack chairs?  You'll occasionally see a hen roosting on the back perhaps dropping a special load right onto the seat or concrete patio.  And those Strawberries?  They LOVE them more than the slugs that once infested them.  I finally raised one of the pots of strawberries up so they couldn't reach them.  And my first 3 large tomatoes that went ripe were nibbled by the little pea-brained chickadees. 

It seems like this would all be fine if I were getting eggs, but they haven't started laying yet.  I'm estimating another month.  They are looking quite mature and their combs and waddles are turning red, which I've heard is a sign that they are getting ready to lay. 

Don't think that I don't love the girls, because I do.  And I'm not ready to lock them up in their pen 24/7 either.  I just can't do it.  They're still fun to watch, provide great manure for my compost bin, are super low cost to raise, and have become so friendly.  Following all of us around the yard hoping for chicken scratch, which we've nick-named "chicken crack", a mix of cracked corn and seeds that they are completely crazy for.

I wouldn't give any of this up and we'll definitely have to make some changes to our yard if we want to keep it looking presentable...for now.