Monday, April 30, 2012


I got home in time tonight to putter a bit in the garden after dinner as the light waned and turned rosy. I finally dug in the two basil and two cilantro plants I picked up more than a week ago, planted two rows of mixed lettuces for cutting, some French Breakfast radishes and some Black Beauty zucchini. As I did, I realized that nearly every bed in my front garden contains certain plants that exist in those places either because they remained from last summer or because, like the fennel which has nearly completely populated one of the street-side beds, their parents cast seed far and wide.
That fennel jumped the sidewalk from where it reseeded last summer, in the same place I had actually planted it the summer before. It is keeping company with the cilantro plant (blooming in the center of the bed) which overwintered as a handful of leaves on a couple of stalks, kept warm and snug beneath a pile of dried oak leaves all winter--completely by accident.

In another bed, a gnarly shallot, another refugee of two summers ago, shares real estate with three new tomato plants:

In yet another, I have left in place something(?) from the mustard family which also overwintered, mostly exposed to the elements (tough guy!) and planted around it four tomato plants and, along the back of the bed, a row of peas. By the time the tomatoes get big enough to crowd out the peas (and they will) the peas will be long harvested and gone. Tonight I stuck a few radish seeds in around the tomatoes with a similar timeline strategy.
I've been pleased to leave the mustard, which I'm not terribly interested in eating, to serve as early food for some critter. I figure it's a fair trade--I leave the mustard for the critter and the critter leaves the rest of the plants for me. And now, the mustard is enjoying a last blooming hurrah:
butter-yellow flowers against the iron-colored leaves
Arugula, both civilized and wild, also overwintered and has re-seeded--hard to tell the parents from the children and the grandchildren at this point.
I've left it where it grows, tucking pepper plants into the same bed. And it is also flowering, beautifully:
the wild...

...and the civilized arugula
But the most nutritious survivor by far has been the chard. It soldiered through the winter, partly and carelessly sheltered by leaves. When the weather warmed, it sprang immediately to life, producing giant leathery leaves that have fed us several meals already this spring with another basketful harvested this evening. It is trying to go to seed but I keep cutting off the skyward shoots. 
the chard, post-harvest
We'll see how long I can frustrate it into producing more leaves. Looking to the future, I've tacked a basil plant to the end of its row and another in an empty spot in the middle--to go with the four basil plants behind the chard and looking a little cold burned from the near-freeze we had a couple weeks ago. Tonight I planted lettuces in the front of the bed.

It gives me great pleasure to watch the patchwork of my little beds emerge and transform, some at my hands but so much of it courtesy of the sun, rain, soil and the plants' own tenacious drive to survive and reproduce. It's truly stunning.
a gratuitous shot of pea blossoms, one of my favorite sights of spring!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

raise high the roof(beam)

And tack down the floor, while you're at it. That's what yesterday was all about. Ever since the successful move, I have been itching to get out there and finish the coop. But between the weather and my crazy schedule... I've been doing almost as many playing gigs in the past couple weeks as I used to do in similar stretches back in the old days when I was "only" a musician. And whenever I do have a free evening or weekend block of time, it rains. Or, like it eventually did yesterday, hails. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday did not look like a sure bet, weather-wise, but when it wasn't actually raining yesterday morning, we decided to seize the opportunity--a whole day off for both Hank and me. The first order of business was to get the floor in: sheets of 19/32" plywood, cut to fit the 6x6 square of the coop. Actually, I had started on the floor Wednesday night, figuring I could at least cut the boards to fit and install them another day. That turned out less than successfully. For my first cut (and the first time I'd used the circular saw since last summer) I needed to shear about 23 inches off the end of a 4x8 sheet. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, 19/32" plywood is quite heavy. I cut halfway across one direction and moved around the other side to cut the other half. As I finished the cut, the scrap fell (as it naturally would) directly on to my left shin/ankle, leaving a pretty impressive gash, which stubbornly insisted on bleeding in a manner that required me to deploy my Girl Scout first aid skills: elevation and pressure. So much for that effort. [On a side note, as I sat waiting for the blood to stop, I checked my email and, as long as I was stuck there, responded to a message. That response appears to have been crucial in favorably resolving a case I've been working on since 2008. So it wasn't all a loss.]

So yesterday I was feeling decidedly mortal and a little anxious as we set to work. The floor went in without incident and looked terrific:
Next came the rafters:
I should say right now, in the unlikely event anyone reading this might be tempted to use these photos as some kind of a guide to coop construction, this roof structure is decidedly improvised. I have done lots of construction projects over the years, but somehow I've managed to avoid ever having to do a roof. I knew I wanted a corrugated aluminum shed roof but none of my resources really gave a good model for how to design and construct one. So I spent a fair amount of time imagining and drawing. But even then, there were things that ended up different from how I had imagined them--mostly because materials didn't perform exactly as I had imagined they would. It's a good lesson to remember.

Part of the rationale for putting the floor in before constructing the roof was the idea that we could place a ladder more easily and safely on the floor than on the soft dirt around the coop and work on at least part of the roof from inside the coop. I'm glad we did, but even that did not prevent me from having to climb up the giant ladder (not seen in any of these photos) with a drill to drive screws through the aluminum roof at the tallest point of the coop (which towers over the yard at about 10 feet at its peak). 
This shot gives a sense of the coop's majesty
I was not thrilled. As I get older, it seems likelier and likelier to me that I will seriously injure myself doing one of these projects. That whole drill-12-feet-in-the-air maneuver seemed precisely calculated to land me on the ground with several broken bones. You may be relieved to hear that it didn't. Still, as my enthusiasm for risk flagged, Hank stepped up and, capitalizing on his superior height (at least that's what we told ourselves), did the lion's share of the scary work.

At one point, the skies darkened, thunder rumbled and great big raindrops started to fall. We retreated inside for a pause, but when that storm cell passed, we resumed work. By the end of the afternoon, we had both floor and roof in place:
And then Hank went off to coach a high school reed trio and I picked up the tools. And not a moment too soon. Around 6:00 the tornado siren sounded. I looked outside, listened, sniffed the air. It seemed fine, so Max and I didn't immediately head for the basement. A few minutes later, I looked out the window and then back at the clock--it was dark as night to the north and west. At which point I grabbed phone, computer and fiddle (and Max, of course) and hustled into our basement "closet room"--a windowless space on the northeast corner of the house outfitted as a large closet/linen storage area. I checked the radar map on my computer and Max quelled anxiety by scrolling through funny pictures online on his. After a few minutes we heard what sounded like Maddy's nails clicking on the floor above. Maddy is terrified of storms and I had assumed she was already in the basement, where she tends to flee as the barometric pressure drops. Then I realized the clicking we were hearing was more than just Maddy's nails. I popped out of the closet room to call her down to us. As I did I could see it out the basement window--massive chunks of ice, like demonic ping-pong balls, falling from the sky, bouncing as they hit the driveway. 

We were lucky. We lost a few branch tips from our plums and the hood of my car has four distinctive new dimples. But no windows were broken and no one was hurt. And the coop, with its shiny new roof, was not blown away by a coop-snatching tornado!
as seen from the back porch...which, incidentally, has been tapped as the next project!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

the (not so) big move

As it turns out, the building department was right: my "practical difficulties" were nothing that couldn't be overcome with the help of a few good friends willing to risk life and limb and extreme muddiness in the service of code-compliant chicken habitat.

We had set Saturday as the moving date, mostly because my friend Susie, upon hearing at rehearsal of my coop-geography dilemma offered to help after the next rehearsal (which, of course, was Saturday) and then my other friend Cynthia chimed in that she'd help too and it started to seem like we might have a critical mass. Other friends had already volunteered: Alex and Becky, Matt and Liz, Thomas--and all, miraculously, seemed to be available Saturday at 4:30. I promised refreshments and, at some future time, an eggy bounty.

All week long I watched the weather forecasts. It was supposed to rain on Friday but to mostly stop raining by Saturday. I felt confident we'd be okay, but that's also typical of me. Twenty years ago I planned our wedding to take place completely outdoors in the gardens of an Indiana historic site with a reception under a marquee on the lawn at my mom's farm. Mom could barely contain her anxiety about what the weather would do. I, on the other hand, was always sanguine, which only seemed to fuel her anxiety. In the end that late-June day could not have been more perfect, weather-wise and pretty much every other-wise, too. Which only reinforced my meteorologic optimism.

But last Friday and Saturday brought us a biblical deluge. Again and again on Saturday morning it would ease up a little and the sky would briefly lighten, only to darken again with heavy curtains of rain. The foundation we had laid for the coop looked like a tiny muddy swimming pool. Around 1:00 Matt texted: "We still on for moving or did the flood waters take care of it for us?" When I headed out to rehearsal shortly after that, about four inches of water stood in the clear plastic bin I had used to cover the basil earlier in the week when the nighttime temperatures made one last plunge into the thirties.

When I went into rehearsal it was still gloomy and drizzly. I was glad when Susie said she had brought boots for herself and for Cynthia. At break it was still pretty gray. But when we emerged at the end of rehearsal the sun was gloriously shining and the pavement nearly dry! The weather gods apparently support chicken husbandry.

I drove home in a hurry, knowing that folks would already be there and wanting to make sure Hank had laid out the snacks as I had instructed. I had made guacamole and some mango salsa and intended to put out some cheeses and bread. I had also imagined a festive centerpiece using a wonderful vintage egg dish from our friend Kit and some Easter candy markdowns:
When I pulled up, there were a couple of extra cars out front--a good sign. As I came through the front door, Max, who was lounging on the sofa, cheerfully informed me: "We already moved it! It's already done!"

Sure enough--I burst through the back door to see the coop frame, perfectly and wonderfully positioned on its new foundation (no longer looking like a swimming pool) nearly in the middle of the yard, a cluster of friends milling about admiring their handiwork and the sun streaming down through the trees on the entire scene.
photo by Becky Homan (thank you!)
I got a full account of the move, how they'd checked to see just how heavy it was and determined that the 7 of them (Alex, Becky, Matt, Liz, Thomas, Hank and Max) could lift it just fine, how Hank had used a rake to clear the cable line, how they'd shifted it to the new spot and had a momentary concern about whether it was oriented properly, how there had been only one injury (Matt barked a knuckle). It took a while for the done-ness of it to sink in to my brain. For a while, we all stood about chatting and Thomas' son Claus (sensibly shod in adorable rain boots) played contentedly with a stick in a Maddy hole that had become an impressive mud-puddle. In a little while Susie and Cynthia appeared at the gate, superfluous mud-boots in hand.
Claus and Hank
I gave a tour of the herb garden and a tour of the ruin of the old summer kitchen, including its colorful fireplace:
Eventually we adjourned inside for refreshments and conversation about chickens and music and food. It was a truly wonderful stretch of afternoon with a wonderful sense of community. Thank you, friends!

Of course, now I can no longer put off completing construction!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

earthworks, déjà vu

So I probably should have been documenting the progress of the Richmond Heights chicken ordinance as it happened but the truth is that I became so disheartened at the way it all fell out that I started to question whether the whole chicken venture was folly. But here's what happened: in early December, the City Council finally voted to enact an ordinance allowing residents to keep up to five chickens. 

The process was pretty ghastly, with a fair amount of uncivil nastiness from the anti-chicken council members toward the pro-chicken folks. And those anti-chicken cretins managed to load the ordinance up with lots of deterrents. The setbacks for chicken coops and pens are far more onerous than for any other kind of structure one might place on one's property (20 feet from any property line or 25% of the width of the property; 40 feet from any residential building or place of business on an adjoining property). One must also obtain a permit to keep chickens, applying for which "authorizes City officials at all reasonable times and in a reasonable manner to enter upon and inspect the property with respect to which such permit is applied for to determine whether the keeping of chickens violates this section or any other applicable ordinances" and for which distinct pleasure I get to pay $25 a year. 

None of which criticism is meant to undervalue the tremendous efforts of the people who managed to stay with the process (even after I lost the stomach for it) and get it passed, especially Linda Haynes Lieb and the Friends of Richmond Heights Sustainability Committee. She did yeoman's work and has earned my gratitude and respect.

Some of you may recall that we had begun, last summer, to construct a new coop and had gotten as far as framing it out when it began to seem doubtful we'd ever get a chicken ordinance. The new coop frame, which was terrifically sturdy (and heavy), was erected in the old chicken yard, much closer to the western property line than 20 feet or 25% of the width of our property. 
remember this?
No problem, I thought. The ordinance includes a provision whereby one can apply for a variance of the setbacks "if there are practical difficulties in compliance and proof of notice of the variance application is sent to all adjoining property owners." And one submits "written consent by all adjacent property owners directly affected by any encroachment." The neighbors to the west are super supportive and were quite happy to give their consent. Surely, the burden of having to move the partially constructed (and did I mention heavy?) coop through a fence to a different location in our decidedly un-level back yard would satisfy the "practical difficulties" test.

So, after considerable back and forthing in my own mind and quite a lot of insistence on Max's part that he was still traumatized and not ready to try again with chicks, I finally resolved to at least get the permit, leaving open the option that we could, collectively, decide the time had come.

Last Monday morning I stopped off at City Hall with my completed permit application, written permission from the neighbors, a (very lame) drawing of the backyard depicting the location of the coop and my $25 check. I was directed to the "chicken person" who seemed doubtful about my "practical difficulty" which gave me a sinking feeling. He promised to go look at it, though. After a couple of calls which were necessary to clear up confusion about which nascent structure was the chicken coop (don't ask), I knew I was in trouble when the chicken person informed me that it was his boss who made the final decision about whether or not to grant the variance. He was already shifting the blame for what he knew was going to be an adverse decision. Ugh.

Sure enough, the call came back from the chicken person: denied. I asked to speak with the boss. He was unsympathetic to my plight. He asserted that granting my variance would be "against the spirit of what the City Council intended" and suggested that maybe I should have waited to start building until after the ordinance was passed and I got my permit. Well, duh. He also seemed unmoved by my suggestion that the City could lend me a forklift to help with the relocation.

I contemplated, for about 45 seconds, an appeal. I considered how the Missouri Administrative Procedure Act might apply to my particular situation. I envisioned introducing legislative history to counter the claim that my variance would somehow defile the spirit of the ordinance. I sighed heavily. Then Hank, ever the voice of reason, said, "Let's just move it and do everything by the book. That's how we win." And of course he was right.

I've had several volunteers to help move the coop and it looks like we'll have a coop-moving this coming Saturday. I figure with 8 strong people we can shift it without too much injury to anyone. We'll have to take down a section of fence, which is manageable. But the question remained: where should it go?

Yesterday, Hank and I took the tape measure out into the yard. We chose a spot where it will still get a good amount of sun during the winter and will be well-shaded during the height of summer. We will orient it the same way, with big windows facing south and east. And the run will still go off to the north. And it will be fully compliant with the setbacks.
But the new spot was far from level, of course. 

So today we were out again with our shovel and rake, digging out and leveling the new coop site. It was a familiar exercise. Maddy once again reveled in our presence in her yard, engaged, for once, in something she could totally relate to. Again, she did some digging of her own, in solidarity. 
And when we were through, this is what we had: 

If any of you are free on Saturday around 4:30 in the afternoon, come on by and help with the big move. Refreshments will be supplied!