Counting Chickens

We transplanted our summer squash seedlings this weekend – nature it seemed, had provided the perfect combination of warmer weather plus forcasted rain. As I sat on our back patio the next day enjoying a brief moment of full sun in the backyard,  my thoughts turned to dreams of squash recipes.  In that moment, I quickly realized I was counting my proverbial “chickens” before they hatched.

In all liklihood, many of those seedlings will die. The ones that do live will become prey for the vicious hordes of squash bug gangs that patrol our raised beds every year. It’s literally a turf war – Team Elliott vs. Squash Bugs and the body count for squash bugs has sadly been very low thus far. If I didn’t hate chemicals more than I hate squash bugs – it might be a different story.

Such is life when it comes to growing your own food. However, I have a strong feeling that despite all the wrong turns, the first time we pull a full size squash off the vine and bring it inside to cook for dinner will result in a small celebration. And by celebration, I mean me, likely dancing around in my kitchen alone and marveling at my squash growing skills.

Squash transplants
Our summer squash seedlings were the easiest of all to sprout from seed – let’s hope at least a few of these babies make it to full size.

As you can see in the picture above, my husband added drip irrigation this year to all our raised beds – we’re hoping some supplemental watering will improve the harvest.

We planted our onion sets back in early February – they’ve survived a few nights of slightly cooler weather and are doing well.

Onion Sets
Onion Sets! I’m not sure what variety these are – we bought them at the feed store and noted they were only described as “white”. Hopefully they are also “tasty”.

We also started our potato tower again in February – last year we grew Yukon Golds and they did well. This year – we’re going with Red Pontiac potatoes. Our tower is made up of a straw exterior, but we planted the seed potatoes in a growing medium of 50% potting soil, and 50% compost.

Potato Tower 17
Red Pontiac potato tower – can’t wait to harvest these babies!

Speaking of counting chickens, I have some sad news to report regarding our chicken count.We lost our sweet red hen Lucy last week due to an unknown illness. She was still active and lively up until her last day, but she had stopped laying for a period of 4-6 weeks prior to her death. At first I thought she might be egg-bound. I tried two warm baths, which resulted in no eggs, and a bathroom covered in chicken feathers. So, I’m not sure what happened to her – but we are very sad about her passing.

On a lighter note – Phoebe would like to say hello. She’s in a cone as she had to be spayed again. That’s right – I said again. Did you know that was a thing? I didn’t either, but apparently sometimes all tissue is not removed correctly during a spay surgery, and the result is that your puppy will go into heat at about 9 months of age. This is quite disturbing when you believe your pup to be spayed. Anyway – the vet claims that this second surgery was successful. Here’s my sweet pup:

Phoebe cone
Sweet girl is sad about her cone – she wants to run around, and we are not allowing any strenuous activity for a few more days.

We’re working on getting the rest of our spring garden planted – more updates coming soon.


Urban Farm Fails – An Everyday Occurance

The past year of trying to grow our own food as taught me a lot – how important the soil is to plant health, the numerous types of organic pest control methods, and that nothing beats the taste of a fresh heirloom tomato right off the vine. The biggest lesson I’ve learned though – is to expect failure, and a lot of it. For every successful plant harvested – there have been at least 2-3 plant harvest failures.

I had such high hopes for our Lula avocado tree this year. It was finally planted in the ground this spring and grew big enough to bear fruit. These hopes of mine may or may not have included thoughts of guacamole and margarita parties every weekend during summer. Did you know that you can make avocado margaritas? You can – and they are creamy, delicious and insanely addictive. There’s a restaurant in our neighborhood that is famous for these (Austinites – Check out Curras if you’ve never been).

Anyway – our tree bloomed (yay)! And then a few of the blooms turned into tiny fruits- (double yay)! And then all the fruits fell off and died. True story friends. This is about as big as they got:

The tiniest fruit ever!
The tiniest avocado fruit ever!

Our Satsuma tree did a little better – it produced some fruit, but it was all very tiny and not particularly tasty. It was pretty dry in Austin this summer and I don’t think the tree got enough water.

Lesson learned – drip irrigation for everyone. Steven installed drip irrigation for our peach and pear trees a few weeks ago. It has since started to rain again – so we haven’t used it much, but if it proves to be successful and make our watering schedule a little less rigorous, I think we can easily expand and include our other beds and gardens.

We’re currently working on our winter garden beds – we’ve got lettuce successfully going. This tends to be one of the easiest crops for us and grows all winter long. It’s hard to fail at lettuce around here.

Romaine, Buttercrunch, and Red Leaf Lettuce Varieties
Romaine, Buttercrunch, and Red Leaf Lettuce Varieties

You can however, fail easily at other winter crops. For example, take a look at my broccoli plants. They have been destroyed by some garden pest – I suspect caterpillars. We’ve tried Neem oil, but it doesn’t seem to be helping:

The saddest little broccoli plants around
The saddest little broccoli plants around

While it may be hard to believe – you can also fail at cover crops. This year I planted Kodiak Mustard. It’s a “green manure” that is supposed to help increase the nitrogen in the soil. We did everything right – the seeds got plenty of water and grew quickly. But then – the chickens. Apparently these greens are super tasty when small and the chickens needed more dirt to take dust baths in. So – they cleared out several portions of my cover crops. Thanks chickens.

Look at that blanket coverage!
Look at that blanket coverage!

I could go on for a while with a few more fails, but will spare you all the details. Let’ s move on to something positive.

Two things we’ve done well that I’m super proud of:

1- Chickens

Of the 4 baby chicks we brought home from the feed store in May of 2015, all 4 are still alive and well! We’ve been through Fowl Pox, a suspected predator attack in the coop, and an unexpected bout of molting and these ladies remain happy and healthy and are still producing 3-4 eggs every day.

The girls enjoying some fresh melon on a hot summer day.
The girls enjoying some fresh melon on a hot summer day.

2- The Pup

We adopted Phoebe back in May of this year and she’s quickly become integrated into our family and wormed her way into my heart. I was worried about her puppy energy and the fact that she was instantly drawn to chase everything that moved. She chased the cats, the chickens, squirrels, other birds, herself…you get the idea. I’ve heard of so many instances where dogs and chickens just can’t co-exist, that I was worried that we were doomed to lose a chicken or keep the dog and chickens permanently separated.

I read a book that helped quite a bit and we worked with her on general obedience and she’s now responding immediately to commands and has learned that the chickens are not to be chased. She’s turned into a damn good dog if I do say so myself. Look at this face 🙂

Watching the GA Bulldogs on TV- best way to spend a Saturday in Austin!
Watching the GA Bulldogs on TV- best way to spend a Saturday in Austin!

Failure or not – you just have to keep trying. A great man once said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; It is the courage to continue that counts”. Thank you Winston Churchill for those wise words – now, to go vote! Happy Election day all



Spring Harvest

We planted 4 heirloom tomatoes plants months ago and have been anxiously awaiting fresh tomatoes –  and not very patiently in my case. After losing quite a few to birds, squirrels, tomato hormworms and the like – I was finally able to harvest some Black Krims and Brandywines. Fresh salsa for me!

In addition to the tomatoes – our perennial pepper plants are churning out tons of sweet peppers. Central Texas has been getting rain like I’ve never seen over the past 4-6 weeks. RAIN. LITERALLY. EVERY. DAY.

The large tomatoes are Brandywines, the smaller and darker ones are Black Krims. There are some Purple Beauty peppers at the top, as well as a few California Wonder peppers mixed in there.

The plants are enjoying the daily showers – and the husband and I are enjoying not having to water anything. We’re still getting sunshine as well – the rain has been occurring mostly at night, which is nice.

The artichoke plants are a constant battleground in which daily wars are waged with stink bugs. I hate those little suckers – and the chickens refuse to help out by eating any of them. Yesterday I pulled a tomato hornworm off the plant and offered it to all 4 hens. Nothing. But they are more than happy to tear apart a poor harmless toad that’s not bothering anyone. Murderous jerks.

Green Globe artichokes, Yukon Gold potatoes, and Belle of Georgia peaches.

Only two of our peach trees produced this year – I don’t think our Redskin received the chill hour needed to be successful with our mild winter. One peach tree was stripped of all its fruits by the squirrels before we could act. We draped the other in bird netting and it seemed to help. The peach harvest was decent from only one tree:

Belle of Georgia peaches – small, but delicious

In addition to munching on my tomatoes – the backyard critters have also stolen off with about 50% of our avocados – grrrr. I was really hoping the green skin of the avocado would camouflage the fruit and prevent it from being noticed. No such luck.

One of the last remaining fruits on my Lula avocado tree.

Any ideas for squirrel-proofing? We’ve tried bird netting around the tomatoes – its is effective for the birds and chickens, but the squirrels are just laughing at us. I can almost hear their little squirrel snickers…


Welcome to the Family Pup

A house without a dog is lacking – it’s hard to explain the type of void that exists after your dog dies, but you know that it’s there everytime you walk through the front door, accidentally drop food on the floor, or come across an old toy. It’s been a rough few months of transition in our house after losing Greta, and we were very hesitant about bringing a new dog into the family until just the right now.

Apparently, that time is now.

We just completed the adoption paperwork on the newest, and youngest member of The Elliott House – Phoebe!

Puppy smiles are the best smiles!

Phoebe’s story  didn’t start out as the happiest. She came into an Austin shelter as a tiny puppy with a wounded front leg, Demodex mange, and Hookworms. The wound on her leg was caused by some sort of bite, which became infected and spread to her bone. For a while, it looked like she may lose the leg entirely, but after months of antibiotics and a few weeks of physical therapy, she’s made a lot of progess. The infection has been cleared up and she’s beginning to put some weight on her leg. She still limps and forgets to use the leg at times, but it’s progress!

Phoebe is 5 months old and about 45 pounds. The shelter thinks she’s an Anatolian Shepherd mix and will eventually be 60-70 pounds when full grown.

Despite everything she’s been through – you couldn’t ask for a sweeter, or happier puppy. The downside – she’s still a puppy and because of her health problems is a little behind in obediance training. She can sit and she’s crate-trained and almost housebroken, but that’s where the training stops. We now have to work on the chewing problems, mouthing, barking, chasing the cats…and the chickens, etc.

Any helpful puppy training tips out there? The cats/chickens are not enjoying the constant games of chase…


Growing Peppers as Perennials

I’ve tried to grow peppers twice before – big beautiful bell peppers. I dreamed of eating fajitas, fresh salads, maybe even some stuffed peppers, but it was not to be…both attempts resulted in failure. The plants themselves do okay – they get tall and grow leaves. Sometimes they even bloom and the flowers appear to get pollinated. Then, disaster inevitably strikes. The peppers that do grow are small and spindly. Or they fall off the plant before maturity. Or they get devoured by bugs/birds/squirrels/insert critter. Either way – it leads to disappointment all around. All those fajitas that could have been enjoyed… I usually have to console myself with margaritas.

Earlier this spring as we were discussing our garden plans, my husband pointed out that while our pepper plants had survived winter, they weren’t looking great and he mentioned that he wanted to pull them up. My response was a very whiny and resounding “Nooooooooooooo!”. I wanted to give them one more chance. You see – winters here in Austin are notoriously mild. And my theory was that pepper plants that make it through the few cold spells we have exhibit stronger stems & deeper roots and are much more likely to thrive in the harsh Austin summer than a newly planted young pepper.

California Wonder Bell Pepper – a little over a year old and almost 3 feet tall.

I’m half afraid that writing this post will doom my pepper plants to failure, but so far so good! I’m holding my breath as I write this, but it seems for once that our pepper plants are producing like crazy. We have 3 bell pepper plants and one Serrano pepper plant. I use the Serranos in my salsa recipes – I just need some ripe tomatoes and a few onions. Delicious!

Purple Beauty Peppers – gorgeous color right?
California Wonder Bell Peppers
Serrano Peppers are fairly spicy and turn red when they ripen.

Crazy Texas weather is finally good for something! Any other pepper tips out there?

The Dutch Wine Box

I can’t think of anything but nights with you. I want them warm and silvery, when we can be together all our lives.

-Zelda Fitzgerald

What exactly is a Dutch Wine Box you ask? Well, I shall tell you. It is my VERY favorite wedding gift.

Almost a year ago, I married my very best friend, love of my life, and favorite person in the entire world. It was a very special ceremony conducted by one of our mutual very best friends. Seriously, if I could adopt a grown-ass adult into my family – it would be this guy.

Look at these handsome fellas!

This same amazing and wonderful friend that married us gave us a Dutch Wine Box as a wedding gift and explained the custom, which I am just in love with. His family is from Holland and apparently this is a very popular tradition.

The idea behind the Dutch Wine Box is that when two people get married, they are presented with a wooden wine box (containing a bottle of wine) by loved ones, friends, or family. Ours is handmade, and therefore, just that much more special to me. The newlyweds are instructed to seperate briefly and are each given a pen and paper. The idea is to each write a letter to the other – to be sealed in the wine box along with a bottle of wine. Hopefully the wine box is never opened and the letters remain unread.

My gorgeous wine box – it’s just missing some letters.

However, in the event that there are problems in the marriage – and by problems, I’m not referring to the fight over who gets to clean up the cat vomit on the rug again. I’m talking about the cant sleep, can’t eat, can’t stand to look at each other, don’t want to be married anymore type of fight – then the wine box is unsealed and the couple shares the wine, while reading the letters.

In doing so – the idea is that each are reminded of the love that brought them together in the first place. Passions are renewed and the relationship is saved.

Who wouldn’t want to have that type of insurance card in their back pocket, right?

Here’s the downside to the whole idea of the wine box…in a perfect world, YOU NEVER GET TO READ THE LETTER!!!! Agh – maddening.

Here’s the other thing:

We are quickly approaching our first wedding anniversary – and we still haven’t written these letters! Yes. We are slackers, and we acknowledge it.

So – here’s the idea I came up with. The first anniversary is a paper anniversary. You know what’s made of paper right? LOVE LETTERS! What a perfect solution!

So, you know what I’ll be working on for the next few days. No pressure right? It’s only your entire marriage that’s hanging in the balance 🙂

Honeybee Swarm

I was planning to enjoy a much needed half day off work this afternoon with a quick trip to Whole Foods and lunch at home with the husband when we noticed what looked like a crazy level of bee activity near our hive.

It turns out – our bees have swarmed. We haven’t inspected the hive yet, but I’m assuming the swarm contains only some of our bees. I hope it’s not all – I would be so sad to lose our bees before we’ve ever collected any honey.

Anyway, the swarm has now congregated in a tall tree in our backyard.

2016-03-25 13.26.21.jpg
Bee swarms love tall tree branches for temporary homes.

I immediately grabbed my bee bible – literally it’s The Beekeepers Bible (and it’s awesome) to see what we should do.

Here’s what I’ve learned about swarms:

  • Swarming it totally natural behavior, but can be prevented with some careful action by the beekkeeper.
  • Swarms are generally very docile – they have no honey or egg cells to protect.
  • Swarming occurs in spring or early summer and is usually predicated by queen cells that can be seen during an inspection. Queen cells are a bit larger than normal worker bee cells.
  • Multiple queen cells put you at risk for an afterswarm. It’s best to entinguish all but one queen cell.

Our swarm will send out scouts to look for a permenent new home, and they will then return and perform a dance to tell the hive of the location they’ve selected. This may take a few hours, or a few days.

In the meantime, we’ve posted on a few Austin area beekeeping forums to see if anyone is interested in capturing and rehoming our swarm. This is generally preferable as it ensures survival of the bees, which is not always the case when they self-select their new home.

2016-03-25 17.03.37.jpg
In case you were hoping for a close-up.

Any other tips from experienced beekeepers out there?