Monday, April 30, 2012

Getting Bigger Everyday

We know, we know.  We are long overdue for a chicken update.  We’ve been doing our best to keep up with our little ladies but it’s been tough.  It’s just amazing how fast they grow!

They started out in a cardboard box that was about 2½ feet by 2½ feet.  We expected that to hold them for a while, but it turns out that we vastly underestimated them.  The three Plymouth Barred Rocks, our older chicks, quickly became curious about the world that existed outside of their cardboard box.  By the time the Barred Rocks were two weeks old, Helga made a very impressive escape attempt that was only thwarted because we happened to be standing right beside the box to corral her.

So they’ve since been relocated to a much larger cardboard/duct tape Franken-box that should (hopefully) hold them for a few more weeks.  As of this post, the Rhode Island Reds (red chicks), Buff Orpingtons (yellow chicks), and Easter Eggers (grayish brown striped chicks) are two weeks old and the Plymouth Barred Rocks (black and white chicks) are almost three weeks old.

Their appearance changes every single day, as they are gradually replacing their fluffy down with real feathers.  Most of the real feathers are showing up on their wings and tails, but the Barred Rocks are beginning to get feathers on their necks and backs too.  Their feet have gotten much bigger and they are starting to develop combs on the top of their heads.

And their behavior is just hilarious!  Our chicks peck and scratch at the bottom of the box almost constantly.  Then suddenly, without any warning or reason, one of them will sprint across the box flailing and flapping her little wings.  We’ve also been seeing some power struggles.  These mostly involve two chicks stretching up tall, puffing up their chest feathers, and dancing around in circles.  They’ve pecked at eachother a little, but none of their squabbles have gotten bad enough for us to intervene.  They are just working out their social order to decide which chicken “rules the roost.”

The chicken coop is really coming along now, but we’ve still got lots to do before the chickens can move in.  The walls are all standing and we’ve just about completed the exterior sheeting.  We’ve even had a couple of neighbors ask us about it.  It’s been fun to see their reactions; which have mostly been a mixture of confusion, surprise, and amusement.

So far keeping chickens has been loads of fun.  Building the chicken coop has been lots of work, but I think we’ll be pretty happy with it when it’s finished.  We’ll try to do a better job of keeping you all posted on the happenings with our little gals in the upcoming weeks.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why We Grow Radishes

We've already alluded to some of the appeal of the radish in the home garden or urban farm. Radishes can tolerate the cold temperatures of the early spring, and are typically the first plants of the year to sprout. On top of that early start, they don't take very long to grow to harvest-able size. The Sparkler variety that we planted says 21 days to harvest on the seed packet, but we let ours go for another week or so. It's easy to see when they're ready to pick by simply brushing away some of the soil at the base of the plant. If the top of the root is a good size, maybe an inch in diameter, you can go ahead and pull it. Here are a few we pulled just the other day.

Now, we've previously used the greens as a kind of garnish/side on the pork chops we recently made. They're pretty tasty: they start off tasting much like a chard or collard, but finish with a bit of a bite. We're hoping to use up many of our radish greens in that way, but the fact remains that if you're going to grow radishes, you better want to eat a lot of the roots too. And if we're honest about it, radishes aren't exactly our favorite vegetable.

You can put them in salads, but that's a very slow way to use up a whole harvest. You can eat them simply sliced and with salt on top; if you're one of those who loves the peppery flavor, this is probably what you'd do. And we'll usually do this a few times per harvest, but they just become a bit too potent that way. Thankfully, we've discovered the simple awesomeness of the radish sandwich. Probably a good three-quarters of our radish harvest will be consumed this way.

Basically, all you need to do is slice the radish into thin slices. A mandoline would make quick work of this, but a sharp knife will do the trick just fine. Then butter a slice of bread with a nice layer of softened butter. Probably the best way we've done this is with a good soft French baguette, but in a pinch when you have a great-looking radish, any bread will do. Arrange the radishes in a single layer on top, and sprinkle generously with sea salt. You could put another piece of bread on top, but experience has taught us that we prefer them open-faced. That's all there is to it!

Something about this just makes radishes so much more delicious. Salt and radishes are a well known combination, but the addition of the butter brings everything together. The creaminess mellows some of the fire of the radishes, but subtly; you definitely know you're still eating radishes. This combination adds depth of flavor to what can often be an overpowering one-note vegetable. Radish sandwiches have transformed this early-season staple from a mere harbinger of the growing season into a harvest that we look forward to.

If you can't get excited about the notion of growing your own radishes, give one of these basic sandwiches a try. You might be surprised to find a new love for a veggie you never used to look forward to. They're the easiest thing to grow in a home garden, so why not give them a try?

This post has been shared at Simple Lives Thursday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Gang's All Here

We picked up the rest of the chickens today!

So, Meine Damen und Herren, Mes dames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen, we'd like to introduce you all to the now-complete Urban Farm Chicken Flock!

First off we have our trio of Buff Orpingtons; Lulu, Fritzy, and Sally.  Don't ask us which little yellow fuzzball corresponds to which name.  It's impossible to tell these three apart right now.  When they are all grown up, the Buff Orpingtons will be a pretty golden beige color.  We wanted to be sure to include them in our backyard flock, because they are known to be one of the most friendly and docile breeds.

Next up, are a pair of Rhode Island Reds; Rozy and Texas.  As their present coloration suggests, they'll grow up to be reddish brown adult chickens.  Rhode Island Reds are said be some of the most reliable egg layers, so we had to get a couple of them!

And we have Bobbi and Vicki. Or is it Vicki and Bobbi?  Kidding.  Unlike their namesakes, it's actually very easy to tell our Easter Eggers apart.  Bobbi, on the right, has a very prominent striping pattern, while Vicki, on the left, has more subtle stripes.  I can't say for sure how they'll look grown up, because Easter Eggers are hybrids that can have a variety of adult feather patterns.  We picked this variety because they lay light green or blue eggs.  No kidding!  We're excited to see their pretty eggs this fall.

And you've already met our Plymouth Barred Rocks.  Here you can see Frenchie sitting on the ground with Liza demonstrating how to sit on a roost.  Frenchie hasn't quite figured this out yet.  The Plymouth Barred Rocks will be black and white striped when they grow up.  They are a notoriously curious and clever breed, and everyone says they are a very entertaining addition to a backyard flock.

The Barred Rocks are actually almost one week old now.  In addition to learning to sit on the roost, they've grown bigger, and you can see on Helga's wing that they're beginning to replace the down on their wings with a row of real feathers!

If you're a fan of the musical Cabaret, you might recognize that we've named our flock after the Kit Kat Klub dancers (plus Liza Minelli of course).  You might have even caught the references to the show in this post.  If not, no worries, we'll now go back to keeping our Broadway nerdiness to ourselves. However, we will be sure to keep you up to date with the happenings in the backyard flock as all our chicks continue to get bigger, complete with lots of cute pictures!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The First of Our Flock

The chickens are here! The chickens are here! Well, some of them are anyway. As of Friday afternoon, the population of the urban farm increased by three. And the cuteness factor of the farm just skyrocketed. Because each of our new additions looks like this:

This is a Plymouth Barred Rock chick, just a few days after hatching. As you can see, she's pretty tiny, only a few inches tall. And she feels like she weighs hardly anything at all. At this age, a lot of that size is fluffy down. Chickens grow incredibly quickly though, and in a few weeks she'll start to look very different.

Even though our chicks are just a few days old, that doesn't mean we had to hatch the eggs ourselves. We purchased ours from a local feed store, which in turn bought day-old chicks from a hatchery 75 miles north of Des Moines. We wanted specific breeds, so we put in an order weeks ago, but at many feed stores you can simply walk in and buy baby chicks.

Of course, you can't just buy chicks if you don't have somewhere to put them. They aren't terribly high maintenance, but there are a few things they require. The basics are food, water and heat. Chicks eat pellets made from a blend of grains and protein, which we picked up at the feed store as well. This and the water are dispensed via gravity with some cheap containers also available at feed or farm stores. We put these in a large cardboard box with a half inch of soft pine shavings in the bottom.

Heat is provided by an infrared heat lamp. We adjusted the height of the lamp to achieve a temperature in the box of about 95 degrees. We'll change the height weekly to gradually lower the temperature as they get older, about 5 degrees per week. By the time they're okay with room temperature, we'll probably be ready to move them outside.

When we first brought these fuzzballs home, it seemed like they couldn't do much but peep. They were a bit wobbly even standing on their feet and seemed pretty scared. They needed a little help from us to find the water dish, and it took a little while before they felt like eating. In a few short days, though, they have really progressed! They're eating, drinking, sleeping and pooping, all the things a baby chick should do. And they've started to scamper around the box, giving their little legs a test drive. They've really come out of their shells, so to speak (har har), and seem really curious about their new world.

We led off by saying that some of the chickens have arrived. These three, cute as they are, make up less than half of the flock we intend to have. The feed store is getting in different breeds at different times, so it won't be until Wednesday that we have all our babies. It'll be hard to imagine having ten of these little peepers running around, but it sounds like a lot of fun, too. It's gonna be hard to wait!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Eating our Pig - Seared Pork Chops

You may recall our excitement when we purchased a half hog from a local producer, Crooked Gap Farm, back in January. We talked all about what cuts we were getting, what a great deal it was, and how important it is to us to be able to support a small farmer. Then we haven't mentioned it in over three months. Well, don't worry, we've been eating from our half hog, just not necessarily writing about it. That can end today as we document what turned out to be a delicious and mostly local meal.

To start, we thawed out a package of bone-in Iowa Chops. These are a really nice cut, but it sometimes feels like we're stuck in a rut when it comes to pork chops. For some reason we always default to a bare-bones salt and pepper seasoned chop with a plain pan gravy. With nice pork, this can be tasty, but we figured we ought to know enough about cooking to be able to jazz it up a bit.

With that in mind, we headed out to the garden to see if anything was close to ripe yet. In our lettuce/spinach/radishes box, we were met with this kind of growth.

Those guys in the middle are the radishes we first planted on March 10th. Some of them are almost there, but they're just not quite to size to pick. But, did you know you can eat radish greens, too? That meant we got to have...

Our FIRST HARVEST of the year!!!

With a pair of scissors,we snipped off a leaf or two from each of the biggest and healthiest looking plants. As you can see, this didn't exactly amount to much - 1 ounce altogether. That's fine, since these were always intended to be a garnish or a side, and not a main part of the meal. But keep in mind if you do try radish or any other kind of green that they do cook down a lot, so this one ounce got pretty small by time we ate.

Also, if you have a batch of radishes with their tops, you might feel the leaves and wonder how on earth anyone could eat them. They're very prickly, which would probably be painful to eat raw. Rest assured, once they're cooked, those little spines are no longer discernible, and the greens feel just like spinach or kale.

So we had a vision of pork chops with a small batch of radish greens on top. From there, we just brainstormed with what was available, and what we've enjoyed in the past to make our "recipe." We ended up making pan-seared rosemary pork chops with sauteed radish greens and a sherry demi glace on a garlic cauliflower puree. If we ever open a restaurant, we'll certainly need to shorten that name! But though it sounds complicated, each piece is very simple and better yet, adaptable. Once you've got a few basic methods down, you won't even need a formal recipe. Let's get started!

First we chopped up about a half head of cauliflower. It's a little early yet for these to be in season in Iowa (except maybe with the aid of greenhouses?), so it's from California. We also smashed a few garlic cloves with the side of a knife, which is always fun. And since we don't have any homemade stock at the moment, we used some good boxed stuff. We threw the pieces into a pot, poured in just enough of a stock and water mix to cover them, and simmered.

Like so (but covered), for about 10 minutes or until the cauliflower pieces felt soft when poked with a fork.

Meanwhile, we got the pork out of the fridge, and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and a lot of dry rosemary. Sadly, our rosemary plant from last year didn't survive a winter of neglect indoors, otherwise we might have had fresh rosemary available. We'll have to hope we're more responsible this year.

 It's actually good to let meat get to room temperature before you cook it, so we kept these guys on the counter for a bit while we got the cauliflower up to a boil. Aren't they beautiful chops?

Next it was time for the main action of the meal - the searing. The concept behind searing is to cook the outsides of the meat at a pretty darn high temperature to seal the juices in, then finish the cooking process either in the oven, or in this case, on the cooktop. You can brown cuts of meat okay in a regular nonstick pan, but for a real sear, we love our All-Clad. Basically, you get your pan plenty hot and throw in some sort of fat/oil - in this case a tablespoon-sized pat of butter per side. When you put the chops in, you should hear a nice sizzle.

The chops will probably stick where they are initially, which might freak you out a bit if you've never used a "non-nonstick" pan before. Don't worry, once each side sears properly, it should release and allow you to flip it. Sometimes it will need a little nudge, but it shouldn't end up being stuck too badly. If memory serves, this took about 3-4 minutes on a side.

By this time the cauliflower was nice and soft, so we pureed it in the blender. We didn't use all of the stock from the pot - just poured in enough to get the right consistency, little by little. It didn't take much blending to get the cauliflower very smooth.

Keep in mind that hot liquids like to expand/splatter when you blend them, so be sure to hold down the top of the blender as you run it. We like to throw a towel over the lid, and hold down on that, so any escaping liquid gets the towel and not your hands (ouch!).

So, a sprinkle of salt and the cauliflower puree was all set; the chops had now been seared on both sides, but the insides were probably still a touch rare. We pulled them out of the pan and deglazed it with a little bit of sherry wine (maybe a quarter cup - it was whatever we had left in the bottle). Here it's nice to grab a whisk and mix in any of the little tasty browned bits from the searing process to get them into the sauce. We had some red onion handy so we minced that and added it, plus enough stock to create a nice amount of sauce.

With that made and mixed up, we put the chops back in and simmered them a bit longer.

Again, with the lid on, when we werent't taking pictures. This took about another 5 minutes maybe.

Then it was time for our garden contribution - the radish greens! These are so easy. Heat some olive oil in a pan, throw in your greens (we tore them a bit to get better sized pieces), and stir them around. But keep an eye on them! It will literally take less than a minute or so to get them cooked down, and then you need to get them out of the pan to keep them from shrinking down to nothing.

These looked about ready. The last step was to add a little bit of a cornstarch slurry (corn starch plus a bit of cold water) to our pan sauce to thicken it up. You can use roux (flour and butter) if you have it, to feel more chef-y, but either method yields the same result. Our sauce was just a touch too thin, so a very small amount was needed to keep it from running everywhere.

Then it was time to plate! We put a good-sized dollop of the cauliflower puree in the center of the plate, placed a pork chop on top, and arranged the greens on the chop. We tried to be a little artsy, drizzling the sauce around the edge of the plate rather than on top, but it all gets mixed up when you eat anyway.

By the end of the process (forgiving the amateur photographer), it looked pretty fancy!

And it tasted amazing! It helps when you start with great ingredients, like woodland pastured pork, and home grown garden greens, but what a tasty dinner! We had just enough garlic to kick up the cauliflower puree, the rosemary flavor had seared into the perfectly cooked pork chop, and the radish greens added a touch of earthiness and bite. The demi glace was phenomenal; adding a little sherry to a plain pan gravy sure added a depth of flavor we don't always see in our sauces. Paired with a tasty Four Vines Naked Chardonnay, it made one delicious meal.

And that's part of the fun with cooking with fresh ingredients. We had no idea what we were going to do with our chops to liven them up, so we played with what we had. A puree under a cut of meat is a bit of a modern cooking cliche, but hey, it works. We've done it with sweet potatoes or turnips before, under anything from salmon to chicken. Once you know how to sear a piece of meat and either finish it in the sauce or in the oven, you can make pretty much anything. If it's in season, fresh, or looks great, why not give it a try and see if you like the result. It might not always work out, but when it does, it can be a hit right out of the park!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Space Invaders!

By this point, we've become pretty familiar with most of the yard as we've dug it up, planted seeds in it, or maintained it in some way or another. But one place that we haven't much dealt with yet is our back fence. From afar it looks like an overgrown row of shrubs and small trees, and from up close, well, it doesn't look much better. So yesterday morning we were strolling along, trying to figure out what to do back there, when our neighbor's nephew (the horticulturist we've mentioned before) appeared.

"Are you trying to figure out what you've got back there?" he asked. We had pretty much identified the whole thing as a mess, but accepted his help. He listed off a few plants, including mulberries, maples and wild raspberries, when he concluded with a chilling statement. "That right there is a Tree of Heaven."

In case you haven't met this beast, let us assure you, the Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus, is nowhere near as pleasant as it sounds. Here's a description from the National Parks Service (link)
Tree-of-heaven is a fast-growing tree and a prolific seeder, that  can  take over sites, replacing native plants and forming dense thickets. Ailanthus  also produces chemicals that prevent the establishment of other plant species nearby. Its root system may be extensive and has been known to cause damage to sewers and foundations.
Also lovingly nicknamed the Ghetto Palm, this is an invasive species, not native to the US, and it has a history of choking out indigenous or desired plants. Oh, and if you cut into it, it gives off a smell of rancid peanut butter. Quite a charmer, really. And we had a major infestation of it.

We certainly didn't want to harbor an invasive fugitive on our half-acre, so our first thought was to cut it all down. Fortunately we did a little research online before we took action, because Tree of Heaven, again from the NPS, "resprouts vigorously from cut stumps and root fragments." If we'd taken our shears to it all, it would have just returned with a vengeance. That meant it was time to go nuclear.

You know we don't like chemicals in our garden or even in our lawn really.We're trying to garden organically, building up the soil with natural compost. But in a case like this, where the invader literally could pose a threat to all our plants, we had to take drastic measures.

Concentrated Glyphosate. You probably know it better as RoundUp, the herbicide that will kill almost any plant it touches. This particular product is 41% the actual herbicide, and in nearly any application, it would be significantly diluted. This was no ordinary application, however.

We needed to kill this tree dead and then some. So we weren't interested in just spraying the poison at the base or on the bark of the tree. We needed a direct route to the roots, and the best way there is through the plant's own phloem and xylem. So we did end up using our pruning shears...

Followed immediately by a thorough application of the herbicide. Notice the use of protective gloves to keep this dangerous poison off our hands. If you ever are forced to use this stuff, be very careful!

The brush method worked well for all the smaller shoots and suckers, but unless we killed the parent tree, there would continue to be more. This became complicated because of two factors. 1) The parent tree was about 8 inches in diameter so the loppers couldn't possibly cut through it. And 2) It was literally growing through the fenceline, so ownership of the tree is a bit of a gray area. We opted to go for the hack-and-squirt method from the safety of our side of the fence.

We drilled a row of holes with the biggest drill bit we had, deep into the center of the tree. We angled these slightly down to ensure that they could be filled.

With the holes neatly drilled, we then proceeded to pour the concentrated glyphosate into each until they couldn't hold any more. This is a pretty big tree, and it's possible one dose won't do it in, so we also left plenty of room for a return attack. Hopefully this process is successful, and we can rid ourselves once and for all of this stinking (literally), invasive pest.

Keep in mind, this was truly a desperate effort, and our hand was forced into using chemical means by the vicious nature of the invader. We were loath to buy an herbicide, but truly felt we had no other choice to protect our homestead and the surrounding ecosystem. We won't make a habit of using this stuff, so don't expect to see much more written about it here. We'll be back to organics by our next post - promise!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Planting the Perrenials!

One of our favorite things arrived the other day. Greg came home from work, and there it was, leaning against the porch. A brown paper package, tied up with, well, staples. But close enough! This package had Miller Nurseries printed on the outside, which led to even more excitement, because that meant our perrenials had arrived.

Most of the plants we're growing in our garden are annuals; that is, they grow over the course of one year, produce leaves/fruits/roots/whatever over that time, then go to seed to propagate new plants the following year. With the first frosts of winter, these plants typically die off, relying on the seeds to carry on. Perrenials, on the other hand, can survive winters, and keep producing food from the same plant for many years. Like annuals, many perrenials can also be grown from seed, but this takes time. Many of these plants require several years to mature to a harvestable state, so buying plants already started gives you a major head start.

We unwrapped our package to find a giant tangle of roots, consisting of some of the most popular perrenials you can grow in our climate. We'd ordered some of everything, including strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and raspberries.

The nursery we ordered from (and many others) made a point to ship our plants at the proper time to plant in our hardiness zone, so once we'd opened the bag, we knew we were ready to get them in the ground. They also shipped the plants with damp roots and some moist packing material but even so, it's still a good idea to soak the roots before planting. We filled up a couple old 5-gallon buckets with water, and submerged the roots for up to an hour to get them ready.

From there, there's really not much to it. If you've got a plant, you basically need to dig a hole, put the plant in the hole, and fill in the hole. Most of ours went into raised beds like we've shown before, ones that had been prepped for these plants. We filled our boxes with a mix of topsoil, coconut coir and compost to create a healthy, fluffy soil mixture. That's especially important with perrenials because this is the only opportunity to work up the soil. Once they start growing, they're staying where they are.

The asparagus crowns were planted the deepest (as recommended by the nursery). Here's how they all looked lined up in a trench in the raised bed.

Up close, they look even cooler. A touch reminiscent of the face-hugger from Alien, no?

The only plants that didn't get the raised bed treatment were the raspberries. Raspberries grow rather tall, so they might shade the garden. Also, they like to send out "runners" - shoots that grow from the existing canes, which leads to a dense berry patch that we didn't want to invade the rest of the garden. We situated the berries just beyond the garden itself. First we had to tear out a long narrow patch of sod where we eventually want our berry hedge to grow.

Then it's back to digging holes and putting plants into them. Raspberries are to be buried an inch or two deeper than they were grown at the nursery.

When you're finished, you end up with a row of twigs sticking out of the ground. Trimming these off to a height of 3-4" above the ground is supposed to help stimulate fresh growth. We'll probably also want to put down some mulch between the canes to help discourage weed growth. Cuz as you can see, we have a lot of them back there.

 And that's all there is to it, in a blog post anyway. In real life, this was a pretty solid days work of digging, placing and watering. But with any luck we'll eventually be rewarded with crops of raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus. And now that the hard work's been done, these crops should keep coming back, year after year.