I’m Gonna Eat You Little Chicky!

My kids and I regularly filk songs to song while we work.   It’s not a conscious thing,  just a wierd idiosyncratic family habit. My chicken feeding song comes from the BBC show Red Dwarf.  The reason this surfaced in my consciousness probably revolves around the division of livestock and pets for me. Chickens are not pets.

The whole back yard chicken movement has puzzled me many times.   I grow vegetables because I like quality food.   I grow chickens because. …I like quality food.   Now is that the only payback I get from chickens?  Heck no.

Last year a family of raccoons came up from the sewers while the river was high.   Over the course of a month,  they devastated my neighbor and my flocks.   It was heartbreaking,  frustrating,  and maddening.   After careful discussion with my husband I chose to not have chickens again until this spring.   I learned a great deal about why I value them during those months.   First,  the weeds!   Good Lord I thought the yard had a lot of work but I soon discovered that the chickens really carried their share of it.   The weeds went crazy.   All their foraging took hours and hours a week of my chore time.  I knew they helped but that is an understatement.   I can’t keep up without them.   Second,  I’ve eaten some horrible omlets.  Thankfully my neighbors restocked their flock right away and by fall I was getting some decent eggs again.   The free range chicken eggs at the store are that in name only.   No good.   Bland.   Ugh.  Lastly,  it was lonely.   When I go out in the morning they clatter around and beg for scratch and scraps.   My kitchen scraps no longer go to waste and the flock of chickens at my feet make me feel relaxed and centered.   I love keeping chickens.

So much so,  I texted my brother while waiting for them to be ready for the coop with “I rediculously love keeping chickens”.


This morning while letting them out I received a text back,  ” I ridiculously love keeping cows” with a picture of a brand new wet baby cow lying in a pasture.   Beautiful big round eyes starting into the camera from a creature just hours old.  Looking into that babies eyes, I know, however, that if it’s a boy he’s future steaks and hamburgers.  Is that sad?  Not if you ask my sister in law.  They only eat meat they raise so steaks and hamburger are an uncommon commodity.  In the city, we run to the store and pick up a tidy plastic covered package and take for granted the big eyed little calf that went into it.  Maybe we should all know our food and be given the opportunity to cherish it more.

Why aren’t they pets?   Well they aren’t bred to emotionally give back.   They have a function that is super important and that isn’t it.   Humanity developed domestic cows and chickens to meet a need.   Nutrition,  commerce, and sustainability are their function.   Humanity domesticated dogs for companionship.   Cats too, although maybe cats domesticated us.   My dog shares his day,  reads my moods, helps me or with protection and chores, and injects himself in my personal space when he thinks I need emotional support.   My chickens think maybe my toes are grubs.  They don’t weed because I like it.   They weed because they are eating machines.   They eat bugs because. .. hungry.   They cluster around me because I have food.  Racoons, cats, hawks,  and possums come to my yard because they are food.   Just like loosing fruit from my trees to birds,  I’m going to lose some chickens to predators.  I’m part of an ecosystem.  A style of ecosystem that has been around thousands of years as a matter of fact.  I would love if predators didn’t come in and think chicken tasted good.  It breaks my heart to loose any of them, but it is what it is and it’s natural.

I am often asked what the biggest thing a budding chicken keeper needs to know.  I always answer that chickens taste good to everything.  Even though they often seem like miniature dinosaurs roaming the backyard, they can’t defend themselves.  Roosters do a pretty good job and I recommend finding one that you can live with, but in an urban setting it isn’t necessarily possible.  Your neighbors might value quiet over your food security.  Most of the people around you aren’t really thinking about food security or the realities of the process.  The laws probably won’t be in your favor, so you have to wrap your head around some losses.  Just like with fruit trees.  The birds are going to take what they want.  With fruit it’s easier though.

Now, the second thing I’ve added to this list is DON’T KISS CHICKENS!  Seriously, I’m horrified that this has to even be said.

Kissing Chickens and Salmonella

Handling Chickens from the CDC

Honestly, they are cute when little.  They are eating pooping machines though that are hatched in a mass production incubator and you don’t know what kind of hygiene the facility you got them from has.  If you got them from the feed store, you don’t know what they have been exposed to.  Don’t kiss them.  Wash your hands.  Use common sense.  This is the type of thing that makes it hard to have open chicken laws.  It boggles my mind that people would think to do this.  I understand giving a chicken a bath (which I also find crazy) because I was in 4-H and understand showing animals.  Don’t kiss them.

Clean the coop.  Keep their living area clean.  After they stop laying cook them in wine and cherish their service.  We have these wonderful animals to help us on their journey.  Care for them ethically and value them.

When I see my chickens I may be a little cold hearted for our current culture of city living.  I grew up in a place and time where I feel I understood their cycle of life and purpose though.  I just can’t see these creatures as a thing to cuddle and pet.  It freaks most of them out anyway and causes them stress.  I want my chickens to be happy, healthy and well taken care of.  I want to eat eggs that explode with flavor.  I want to eat chicken that tastes nothing like the ones bought at the store.  I want the girls to survive and become a delectable coq au vin.  They have an honest wonderful purpose we don’t have to apologize for.

Peppermint Leaves and Apricots

One of the benefits of belonging to a group of gardeners that freely share is a motherload of excess produce occationally.  This week I went apricot picking with some friends.  It didn’t take too long so we went over to Handy Dan’s house and came home with some extra stuff.  First I made apricot habenero jam.   What a yummy treat!  I’m surprised at how many of my friends are disappointed I didn’t just make regular apricot jam.  One of my favorite suppers to make is chicken breasts slow cooked with jam and onion soup mix.  The habenero gives it the right kick to take it to the next level.


Jam and onion soup mix chicken

  • 1 half pint jam
  • 1 packet onion soup mix
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 6 chicken breasts

Mix all ingredients and cook in skillet over low heat until chicken is done.  Serve over rice.

This is an easy peasy week night solution to dinner.  So simple to make any jam can be used.  Most often I use mango chutney or apricot jam to complete this recipe.


The extras I came home from Handy Dan’s house with were a bushel of peppermint leaves and a large bundle of wild garlic.  The first night I filled my food dehydrator with peppermint leaves and came out with a half gallon jar stuffed with dried peppermint.  It didn’t even make a dent in the bushel.  I’m going to root about a dozen stems and plant them in the garden, but what to do with the rest?  Should I continue to dry them or make something better.  I know he has another two bushels of mint I could pick up so I’m searching for other ways to use them.  Here are some ideas:

Mint Candy Recipe

Fresh Mint Truffles

Candied Mint Leaves

Cilantro Mint Chutney

Lemon and Mint Salad Dressing

Mint wine

Mint pesto

Mint lollipops

Pea and Mint soup

This should use up the mint pretty satisfactorily!

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Now the wild garlic, what to do, what to do:

Pickled Garlic (the first thing to do with the bublets that I don’t replant)

Wild Garlic Recipe Collection

Garlic Jelly

Moving Forward

This spring was particularly rough on me.  The weather was crazy variable, hot to cold to hot and wet wet wet.  In the winter I decided to do a complete redo on the across the street garden.  Effectively being a single mom to two boys has made that a monumental task.  I chose to cover it in a layer of cardboard, a layer of burlap, a foot of mulch then berms made out of compost.  I have yet to get any decent produce out of it.  I’ve used this compost straight before, but not in variable weather.  This weekend, I have a group of about 20 volunteers to help me get the beds built and it finished up.  I can’t wait.  I’m looking forward to the summer planting and hope I can get things going.  The heat is proving to be a challenge for me, but I hope to start next week in a planting rage of productivity.

The other challenged faced this spring came when the river flooded and raccoons came up through the sewers and discovered the chickens here and next door.  They killed around 20 chickens before we got a handle on them.  No chicken coop was secure enough to keep those pests out and they ate like kings.  It provided some serious bonding for me and my neighbors.  We tried everything to get the mating pair to move on but finally succeeded.  I am not cool with running an all you can eat buffet for wild life.  Very expensive.  Fortunately for me the health department came through to inspect my yard about the same time which resulted in a reorganization of the chickens into some coops across the street.  The chickens across the street are stressed and not as happy as they were having the run of the back yard, but they are alive and I’m still getting eggs.

The farmer’s market is going well, Garlic Fest was a huge success, and even though I didn’t participate this year, the Sustainable Backyard Tour was wonderful.  I got to go on it for a change and loved seeing what other people were doing with their space.  Some were too neat for me and at least one was too much.  I got some great ideas though.

One of the other benefits I have had this spring is meeting more gardeners and helping with more gardens.  Garden D that I worked in last year has nothing planted in it from me and it is somewhat up in the air.  Garden B needs a few loads of compost and manure and is also sitting and waiting.  In order to deal with my fibro and my kids I’ve had to step back a little.  Hopefully the economy will improve and my husband will get a job back home soon.  If not, both kids go to school in the fall and that should help out my busy schedule.


Bug Class Preview

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Organic gardening is more than just not using chemicals on your garden.  To be successful, you need to create a healthy ecosystem.  On February 12th, Carondelet Garden Urban Farm is offering a class on Composting and Rebugging the Garden.  Come on out and check it out at the Carondelet Branch of the Saint Louis Public Library.

Class Handout:


Beneficial Insects and the Garden

February 12th, I’m teaching a short class on insects in the garden at the Carondelet Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.  Right now I’m working away at the handout and boy have I learned a lot putting this class together!

One of the main things I’ve learned is that to be a successful organic gardener, you need to do more than just stop using chemicals.  There are several things that come up again and again to create a healthy garden that doesn’t need chemicals.

According to Wikipedia, “Ecosystem restoration is the return of a damaged ecological system to a stable, healthy, and sustainable state, often together with associated ecosystem services.”

Our yards are a small ecosystem.  Chemical agriculture upsets the healthy functioning of that ecosystem on the promise of making our jobs easier.  The sterilization of that ecosystem actually takes away the benefits of it’s healthy functioning.

Steps to Good Garden Management:

1.  Choose the right plant.  Each cultivar of plant responds to the environment in it’s own way.  Save seeds, and swap seeds with neighbors.  Seed saving allows us to grow plants that are specially in tune with our neighborhoods.  Ordering seeds with special resistance may also help.  After several generations of saving that seed, the seed will be even more attuned to your yard.

2.  Rotate Crops.  Insects go through a life cycle.  Generally this means, egg, larvae, pupae, and adult.  Each of these stages require different places to live and grow.  By rotating crops, you break the insect life cycle by disrupting their tidy circle.  Additionally, if you have a serious infestation in a season, insects that overwinter in the soil may be stopped by tilling that soil before planting a different crop in it in the spring.

3.  Plant and harvest at the right time.  By planning the planting and harvesting at the optimal time, you allow the plant to be healthier.  Healthier plants resist diseases and predators more efficiently.  Some plants may be planted in timing with the expected hatching of an insect to allow them to gain as much growth as possible before they descend upon the plant.

4.  Remove plant residues.  Plant residues harbor parts of the insect life cycle.  They may also harbor pathogens.  Remove these residues and compost them.  Keep dead leaves cleaned from beds.  Composting will raise the temperature during the decomposition process and kill many of the organisms in there.

5.  Use proper amount of food and water.  Don’t over water or over feed.  Too much water can create an environment that allows pathogens to breed and multiply.  Too much water also increases the salt deposited in the soil negatively impacting the soil health.  Soil amendments may also impact the ability of the plants to grow effectively.

6.  Preventative devices.  Sticky traps, Foil Rings, Row Covers, and other innovative devices can work to your benefit.  Things that crawl need paths to crawl on, by understanding your insect, you can help deter them from filling their needs to thrive.

7.  Improve the soil.  Healthy soil is the foundation for plants to grow and thrive. Test your soil.  Use compost.  Soil needs not just good organic matter, but a replacement of what has been taken from it by the plants.  Compost your garden waste, kitchen waste, animal waste, etc.

8.  Mulch Mulch is an amazing thing to increase water retention and over all soil quality.  I use straw.  This has radically changed the strata in which I grow my food.  Mulch cuts down on my need to water and weed.  It is a double edge sword however.  While it allows beneficial insects to complete their life cycle, it also allows pests to as well.  I tend to turn it under every other year and that seems to be a good solution for me.

9.  Understand the insect life cycle.  Know your enemy!  Know your friends!  If you know what they need, you can break the life cycle or encourage it.  Also, if you know what all the stages of an insect look like, you can help yourself not eliminate something beneficial.  A couple of years ago I found a fascinating bug in the garden.  I had no idea what it was and I thought it was a spider.  Come to find out it was a stage in the lady bug life cycle.  Thank heavens I left it where it was.

10.  Plant Borders   Borders allow insects to complete their life cycles as well.  Beneficial insects like flowers with spikes, umbrells, and daisy like heads.  Because they are omnivorous, they lack the long mouthparts needed for large deep flowers.  By inter-planting mints, queen anne’s lace, and echinacia like plants, you can keep the beneficial insects near your crops and increase the likelihood that they will be there to stop your pest.

11.  Keep your landscape plants in good shape.  Keep your landscape healthy and cleaned up.  This will allow your insects that need it to utilize it to complete their life cycle.  This will also allow other creatures to use your landscape as well.  Native plantings will work better in your little ecosystem than exotic ornamentals.

12.  Monitor for insect damage.  Know when you have an infestation.  Know what is in your yard.  Use IPM to tweak everthing to your advantage.

13.  Keep bird feeders in the garden.  Feed your local birds.  Build birdhouses, anything to attract them.  Birds will not only eat the seeds, but come into the garden and help you clean it of insects.  Between plantings, I allow my chickens to go through and clean in the garden.  They aren’t allowed there all the time because they also love greens, but they do a great job getting grubs.  Your native wild birds will also pick those pests off and help you just the same.

14.  Try to encourage amphibians and reptiles.  If you see a snake, leave it.  If you see toads, leave them.  These will also diminish your populations.


Try to keep things natural.  Don’t give into marketing tactics that promise an easier time of it.  Many of them are short term solutions and not long term.  If you are going to do one thing from the list first, my recommendation would be to mulch, mulch, mulch.  It has made it possible for me to garden without going crazy.  I hate cultivating.  I hate weeding.  Good luck!


Plant of the Month – Mustard

Anxiously awaiting for the cold to break drives me crazy every January.  The cabin fever resulting from being indoors gives me a chance to plan and plot for the coming year’s garden.  It also makes me horribly anxious to get planting.  So anxious, I felt it wouldn’t hurt to get a jump start on some herbs.  Things I can grow in pots on my windowsill.  The herbs have sprouted and with them my hopes for the garden.


This is the month to plant cole crops if you want to push the season, but the best plant in my opinion is Mustard.  Mustard is an amazing plant to me.  I get giant leaves and after it goes to seed, I find mustard growing in every nook and cranny around the yard by fall.  I have some in a pot on my porch that have survived the cold of winter.  I noticed one yesterday in the cracks in my brick sidewalk.  So easy to grow and excellent for cold weather.  Tasty too.


Mustard can be harvested young for salad greens, or for sauteing or stewing.  Large leaves should be cooked in a good stock or with a ham bone.  Flowers can be used as edible garnish.  The seed can be ground to make your own homemade mustard.


Plant mustard in flats or in rows 1/8th inch deep.  Mustard will last quite a while before bolting in cold weather.  In warm weather, it can bolt in as little as 30 days.


This is by no means a complete list, but it should be enough to send your imagination soaring.  I tried not to include hybrids, please forgive me if I did.  Kitazawa Seed Company seems to have the biggest selection of greens out there.

If you want to try something different, make your own mustard.  There are many recipes out there for mustard sauce.  I have had a lot of luck with this one that I redacted several years ago for a food festival.  Amounts of everything are really flexible.  If you want to start with the ground mustard seed and experiment with the amounts of other ingredients you will probably find interesting combinations that suit your pallet more than this one.

Medieval Mustard

  • 1/2 C Mustard Seed
  • 1 TBS honey
  • 1/4 C red wine
  • 1/4 C vinegar
  • more wine as desired

Toast mustard seed in a dry cast iron skillet until it begins to pop.  Grind it in a mortar.  Add honey, wine and vinegar to make a thick paste.  Thin as desired with more wine.  If you prefer a sweeter mustard, add more honey.  Substitute vinegar and wine as desired to alter flavor.

(Based on recipe in “The Forme of Cury”  ca. 1390 Lumbard Mustard)

Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth

I read A LOT.  It occurred to me that it might be helpful to pass along some of the things I have on my bookshelf.  Last summer my brother sent me a copy of “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith.  What a fantastic book.  The information is astounding and seems to be well researched.

The book is set up into chapters based on all the different arguments you hear when you are a vegetarian.  This author has apparently heard them all and remembered them.  I spent time as a vegetarian and I never felt better.  It is part of my discovery of my love of food.  Being a vegetarian opens you up to so many things out of necessity.  I don’t feel like there is enough time in the world for me to eat everything I want to eat.  Getting married and having children caused me to rethink and incorporate meat back into my diet.  All these arguments covered in this book were said to me at one time or another.

These are the major chapters:

  • Moral Vegetarians
  • Political Vegetarians
  • Nutritional Vegetarians
  • To Save the World

What was I?  I was a vegetarian because after moving into the city I started having horrible skin conditions.  It took me a long time to figure out that I react poorly to meat additives.  I like meat, I love sausage.  I can’t stand fake meat.  It wasn’t that I was opposed to the morals of eating things with eyes, I was opposed to being sick all the time.  Eating a locally produced organic diet serves me just as well.  Many of the points covered in this volume emphasize this understanding.

I enjoyed this book.  The writing style often belabors the points being made, but there is good information available to the reader.  I also like the endless resources to back up the authors claims.  It’s an easy read and doesn’t take long.  If you are interested in food security issues and diet this is an excellent read.  Bear with the author, the journey may seem a bit long at times, but overall the areas of thought that are opened up are well worth the time.

People interested in Geoff Lawton’s permaculture and Joel Salatin’s ideas will also find this fascinating reading.

Happy Reading!

Click on the link above to purchase this book and support this blog!


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The side yard went through some radical change last week.  Two of the principle players of the Carondelet Urban Farm, Mark and Handy Dan came over and set up this lovely functional pig pen in the side yard.  The farm has a pair of pigs at another location breeding for food.

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In about an hour and a half, Spiderpig was in his new home!  What am I going to do with him you ask?  I don’t know.  My main concern was a constant source of manure.  The rabbits and chickens just don’t provide enough.


He’s a neat little guy, a micropig.  We feed him restaurant scraps and help the community be more sustainable.  He couldn’t be easier to take care of and he is enjoyable company.  I keep straw for his bedding which keeps the smell down and look forward to cleaning out the hog floor for the garden.

The chickens like him too.

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Adding livestock to the garden increases the output of vegetables and makes gardening a more satisfying experience overall.

This is what I am reading this month. (Click on the picture to buy and help support this blog!)  Hopefully I can get a review out soon.  It’s really geared to raising regular hogs in a hog operation, but I think it will provide useful information to having a pig in the yard.

Planning Your Garden

One of the topics that seems to hang most people up about gardening is how to go about planning it.  Last night at Iron Barley, I spoke to a packed house on this issue for the Carondelet Community Urban Farm.  It was a blast, but unfortunately we did not make enough handouts to meet the demand.  To rectify that for those that were there, here is the handout:

Garden Planning


We had a lot of great questions last night and hope to be able to go more in depth in future installations of our Urban Tech series.  Stay tuned for more classes!  If you have any questions about garden planning, or would like some time with a consultant please contact us at the garden on facebook and we will see what we can do.  This is all volunteer and we will be able to help as we have time.

One of the main pieces of advice I can give you is know yourself and start small.  Make a list of common vegetable you can eat.  Start with the easy ones.  Find a style of gardening that works with your mental state.  I don’t like a lot of work but don’t mind putting in some effort to get it off the ground right so I choose biointensive planting.  I really hate to water the garden.  Some people hate to dig more than water so Lasagna Gardening might be the way to go.

This is the time of year that seed catalogs come in daily.  Sit down with them and fantasize.  In addition to a few standards, pick something that looks fun.  After you get the basic garden planned out, think about crops that might fit in the beds before the tomatoes are out or after you harvest your broccoli.  But remember each step adds complexity, don’t get carried away.

Keep a journal.  Hobby Farm has a great printout available on line to help you in that endeavor.  When the season is over, think about how much you can comfortably expand next year, try to keep it small enough to be fun and not overwhelming.

Good Luck.

Click on the pictures below to purchase helpful books on this topic (and help support this blog):

Chickens are dumb

Perfectly good chicken coops and where do they roost?  On the roof.  Never mind the perfectly good and plentiful roosts.