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




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…


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.

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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.

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In case you were hoping for a close-up.

Any other tips from experienced beekeepers out there?


Putting the chickens to work

We got our chickens for the sole purpose of enjoying some fresh eggs from happy backyard chickens. I’m convinced that the nutritional differences between eggs from chickens that forage naturally versus those in a commercial factory farm setting justify the extra work that comes along with caring for chickens. All day long.

But, what if the chickens could pull their weight by doing more than just laying eggs?

Chickens naturally love scratching around in the dirt looking for delicious worms and grubs. If you can harness this energy – it can be used in a constructive manner. If left to their own devices, chickens generally become major nuisances, preferring to tear up all the mulch around your roses, fruit trees, and garden beds.

What to focus this massive amount of destructive chicken energy on? THE COMPOST!

Steven loves working outdoors, but for some reason, avoids the compost bin like the plague. Our compost bin was built over a year ago and has literally only been turned once – and that was a partial job that was interrupted by mouse. Luckily, chickens are not scared of mice like husbands.

Compost Chicks2
Chickens at work in the compost bin. Ethel is supervising.
We opened up the bin and placed a few chickens inside and they went to work immediately! I’ve never seen chickens so excited without a treat bag nearby. They found so many worms, I’m afraid our worm population may need to be replenished.

Compost Chicks
Isn’t there a song somewhere about eating worms?
Anyway – Steven is happy that his job of turning the compost bin has been reassigned. The chickens are happy to find a source of fresh worms. And the mouse…well, I’ve never actually laid eyes on it. Steven swears it’s living in our compost, but I have my doubts 😉

Goodbye Greta – an Era has Ended

The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven not man’s – Mark Twain

Greta, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on things, like whether or not you should be allowed to stand on my kitchen table…you were a very loving and loyal dog and you will be missed. Read more about Greta’s shenanigans here.

Going for a ride in the new truck

I love you for loving my husband so completely. You waited by the door for hours every time he left the house and you loved nothing more than simply sitting with him, waiting for a scratch on the head. You loved eating cat food, going on walks, having your paw held in someone’s hand, getting into the trash and looking out the window.

You hated only 3 things in life: crates, thunder, and being away from Steven.

Greta sharing her dog bed with her best friend Pearl.
Greta sharing her dog bed with her best friend Pearl.

Although the past few months were rough – and heart disease slowed you down, I truly believe you are at peace now. You shared a lifetime of memories with my sweet husband and you won’t be forgotten. Just this morning, after finding the cat food bowls had been knocked over and emptied during the night, I thought of you and smiled.

Chickens and The Pox

We’ve had a rough animal week here at TEH. Hank, our outdoor cat, got into a scuffle with something (cat, raccoon, who knows) and had to go to the vet to get an abscess lanced. It was really gross.

And then, our chickens came down with the pox! Fowl Pox, that is. This is the first time we’ve experienced any problems with the chickens – they’ve been relatively low maintenance and healthy thus far. Anyway – after a little research, it turns out there isn’t much you can do to help your chickens through this type of illness. Fowl pox is a slow moving virus that can infect backyard flocks through contact with mosquitos and wild birds – and unfortunately all of our chickens are already affected, so quarantining won’t help.

The ladies don't mind modeling - even with Fowl Pox
The ladies don’t mind modeling – even with Fowl Pox

The main symptom of fowl pox is small lesions on the chickens’ combs and wattles. This should clear up in a few weeks. Outside of general lethargy – the other potential symptom shows up as reduced egg production. Our 2 Rhode Island Reds (Lucy and Rhonda) have continued to lay pretty much every day so far – apparently the Barred Rock hens (Ethel and Phyllis) have decided they do not want to contribute any eggs and will continue to live as freeloaders for as long as possible.

If you have any experience with Fowl Pox, or have any advice – let me know!

The First Egg

Five short months ago, we brought home 4 fluffy little chicks from the feed store in hopes of eating farm fresh eggs from our backyard.  After weeks of impatiently waiting (all me, Steven is super patient) the day has finally arrived – one of our chickens laid an egg! Rhonda, one of our Rhode Island Reds, has been exhibiting all the classic signs – submissive squatting, exploring the nest box, and her comb has been growing larger and darkening over the past week. Today she entered the nest box and sat for almost 30 minutes and then squawked like the coop was on fire – I was slightly concerned she was dying, but apparently this is normal?

Anyway – she ran out of the coop and over to the other chickens and I went to check the egg box and there it was! A tiny little perfectly shaped brown egg. So exciting!

Rhonda –  congratulations. You are officially my new favorite chicken. Now, go lay another egg.

She looks pretty proud of herself doesn't she?
She looks pretty proud of herself doesn’t she?