Madeleine and Rachel helped us pick out seven new baby chicks at a feed store as we begin raising our fourth flock of chickens since 2005. This time we chose them by breed and future egg color. We came home with three Rhode Island Reds (light brown eggs), two Ameracaunas (pale blue eggs), one white leghorn (it will become our first white egg layer), and one Welsummer (dark brown spotted eggs). They provided a good eight hours or so of entertainment just over the first weekend that we had them. It reminded us that we have absolutely no need of a television in our house because our girls like to watch "Chicken TV."  This week we've had so many visitors coming to see the chicks you'd think we have a new baby in the house. The girls are old enough this time around that they are learning to be the main caregivers. At this point that involves transferring the chicks to a secure brooder outside during the day, bringing them into the house at night (where they sleep in a box, not wherever they please!), refilling their water and feed, and best of all, cleaning up their soiled bedding each day. They've named a few so far: Harry, Lulu, Puffy-cheeks, Agoogamay, and Road-Runner. We are taking suggestions for two more names.

As is our custom, we let our flocks live for three years before we cull them to make room for new layers. Two of our hens went via wagon ride to a Salvadoran neighbor's house the other day. They will become chicken soup this weekend. When the other hens quit laying this fall, they will meet the same fate. We feel grateful to know this neighbor and she is grateful to be gifted with the free meat. She has expressed surprise about the strange American habit of eating chicken without wanting to think about where it comes from or see the process of a live chicken becoming food for humans. We are glad the girls understand the circle of life in an intimate way so they have a greater appreciation for the value of meat. Madeleine hasn't had any desire to eat meat for a couple of years now, and although little Rachel would be quite the carnivore if I cooked it regularly, she has a true appreciation of it's source and it's sacredness.

Our main challenge in the world of urban farming on our small Bay Area plot is always one of square footage. After several years of packing more and more edible plants into our yard (currently 32 different edibles, including 6 dwarf fruit trees, in about 700 square feet), I think we've reached the limit of how much we can cram into our garden. Luckily this spring, while lamenting that I had run out of space in our garden, I hit on a new idea. 

Two houses down from us on the street corner is a lot with unfenced front and side yard space that hasn't been cultivated in the nine years we've lived here. Alongside the house, between the sidewalk and the street is a strip of land in full sun, 3 feet across by 55 feet long filled with knee-high weeds. I'd been walking and biking past this lot for years, often multiple times a day, but not until recently were my eyes opened to the gardening possibility there. 

I approached the home owner to ask her permission to garden in the sidewalk plot. She didn't exactly say "yes" but she didn't say "no," either, even as she agreed that she doesn't own the property between the sidewalk and the street - the city does. I decided to go ahead with the planting, figuring I had nothing to lose, only much to be gained. I mentioned the idea to our neighbor Dell, a fellow gardener, and together we began excitedly scheming about what to plant come springtime. Sarah and Gabe, our neighbors to the back, were thrilled at the idea of beautifying the space that their house overlooks, and they offered to let us use their water if we all shared the expense. 
At the beginning of April we had a work party to begin the formidable task of preparing and amending the soil which hadn't been worked in years and was a sandy strip full of weeds, rocks, and dog poop,  Paul, the girls, and I headed to the corner with our tools and a couple of our chickens to help till up the soil. Dell and his wife Pat came. Sarah and a couple of her friends came. A neighbor from a nearby apartment whom we didn't know stopped and asked if he could help. One neighbor who hadn't been on speaking terms with another following a yelling match years ago came over and made peace by contributing tomato seedlings and the biggest, sturdiest, best trellises I have ever seen. One family brought over extra stepping stones to place between the plants. The work was physically challenging and we were exhausted by the end of the afternoon, even though perhaps only 1/4 of the area had been planted. 

Over the next few weeks, Dell and his family finished the weeding, tilling, and amending, using compost from their bin and ours, as well as a few bags of horse manure I had. Peppers, basil, cucumbers, six tomato plants, scarlett runner beans, and several summer and winter squashes I had started from seed were slowly planted. Dell constructed a small raised bed and planted various leafy greens. 

Spring ripened into summer, and as our joint-neighborhood garden grew vertically, spread horizontally, and began fruiting, it drew more and more interest from people who stroll by, joggers, dog-walkers, and parents with kids on various forms of wheels: strollers, scooters, trikes, and bikes. Almost every evening that I have been out watering or harvesting, someone going past has struck up a conversation with me about the garden. Neighbors from Poland, Japan, Mexico, China, the Philippines, and El Salvador have stopped to comment on the improvement the garden has made aesthetically to our little corner of the world. I sometimes took those opportunities to pass off some of the abundant zucchini harvest. Hah! I also took great pleasure in dropping off produce on the porches of neighbors whom I know particularly appreciated the fresh vegetables, including the homeowner whose property we are bordering.  

The garden has brought tremendous camaraderie to the neighborhood in just it's first season. Even as we are still harvesting the over-abundance of tomatoes, I am already anticipating future plantings and future connections between neighbors nearby or farther flung. 
Our constant work in the garden (which we sometimes refer to now as Versailles Farm) has kept us busy; so busy in fact, we haven't found the time to blog about our doings for quite some time now. Some of the highlights of note in the past 12 calendar months have been our expanding fruit tree harvests. The trees a friend bought and planted for us as a wedding present in 2004 have grown significantly and are making a big dent in our weekly farmers' market bill. For three years now, our Fuji apple tree has fed us daily from the beginning of September until the beginning of December. It's as big as we want it to get, so we'll have to continue pruning it to size so that it doesn't shade the rest of our small backyard where we sow annual veggies. You can get a sense of it's size in the photo here - a little more than twice the height of a six year old. 

After many years of impatient waiting (and much grumbling on Ann's part) our original apricot tree finally started bearing fruit in 2012. While we waited - and waited, and waited - for it to produce, we planted another apricot into a corner of our front yard. Because of it's location, it will always remain particularly “dwarfed,” but it gave us apricots before it's elder sibling. We are hoping production from both of them will multiply exponentially this next year.

This was our first fantastic year of citrus production from the mandarin orange and tangerine trees we planted in the spring of 2009. The mandarin produced wonderfully sweet, seedless snacks from the end of November until the end of January, just when the tangerines began to ripen. We were thrilled with four continuous months of fresh citrus ready whenever we wanted it. These aren't big trees - twice the height of our four year old - but it's amazing how much fruit they hold on them. The tangerine tree in the photo to the right produced over 320 tangerines that looked like Christmas ornaments hanging on a tree. We tended to peel and eat the mandarins in sections, but the seedy tangerines we used more often for tangerine juice that was as delicious as it was beautiful. After a couple weeks of drinking unadulterated tangering juice, Ann began blending the juice with some home-grown kale for daily green drinks. Those were delicious too, tasting exactly like tangerine juice that simply happened to be green. 

Our other fruit tree addition in 2012 was a lime tree in a pot on our back deck. It will never be a huge producer, but it is a treat to have fresh limes for recipes occasionally. 

We continue to be thrilled and amazed at just how much can be grown in a very small Bay Area lot. If we count the dwarf lemon tree and the standard size Santa Rosa plum tree that were here when Paul first moved in, our eight fruit trees, raspberry and blueberry bushes, and two grapevines provide us with fruit year-round. As Rachel likes to say when eating something from the yard: “Thank you, apple tree, for growing us these yummy apples.”

We've just finished hosting the third annual Alameda Backyard Chicken Coop Bicycling Tour that Ann coordinates. It was a blast, yet again. This year we had 280 people sign in, and of those, probably 95% biked or walked to our house. This year there were 15 coops on the tour, double the number of coops shown the last two years. With this new arrangement, people could visit just the ones in their proximate neighborhood or bike to the other side of the island to see ones further away.

It is so thrilling to hear how much our Alameda Backyard Chicken group is inspiring people to raise more of their own food. I talked for almost three hours continuously, answering questions about our bees while Paul fielded most of the chicken questions and we each answered some gardening questions. Many people left our yard and the yards of other hosts inspired to build a coop, catch a bee swarm, or plant some seeds. 

Madeleine and Rachel had fun selling chocolate chip cookies that they baked. Our eldest once again wowed people with her knowledge of all things chicken/bee/gardening related. At one point, a tourist was exclaiming about our "corn" plants, only to be informed by Madeleine that they were looking at onions, not corn. She was also overheard explaining to someone what a queen bee cell looks like. (I had found some in one of the hives recently and she was proud to take it to her kindergarten show-and-tell last week.)

Before the tour we had posted a list of an annual harvest from our small (700 square foot) but prolific backyard and added up the value of what we raised. From the asparagus to the raspberries, the tangerines to the eggplant, the eggs, to the honey, it totaled $2,782.50. Even we were amazed.

On a humorous note, today Rachel was shocked to discover that they sell asparagus at Safeway. For some reason, she found it to be very funny. "Really? They sell asparagus in a store?" she asked incredulously. For all she knew, our garden was the asparagus supplier for the world.

As Thanksgiving passes, most of our garden harvests have ended or are coming to an end. We've just picked the last fruit from the Fuji apple tree which friends gave us and planted as a wedding present seven years ago. It is definitely a gift that keeps on giving. The tree produced just over 100 apples this year. We started picking and eating them the first of September and it looks like the few we have left will get us through November. 

The Italian blood on both sides of our family means we all enjoy pesto, and this year we had a bountiful basil crop for the first time. Besides using it for various recipes, we made 27 batches of pesto to eat and freeze. We finally got a bit weary of it when the plants were still bearing at Halloween, but it will be a nice treat to find it in the freezer all winter.

Another notable garden success of 2011 was our first season of asparagus. Our small patch yielded a pound of asparagus a week for 16 weeks. At the other end of the vegetable alphabet stands the zucchini, of which we harvested 85 over a four month period this year. Unbelievably, we never had a chance to try all the zucchini recipes we have, although we did try many new ones. The girls discovered they like zucchini cut into thick spears, grilled outside, and dipped in ketchup like french fries.

Cherry tomatoes fed us almost daily from the beginning of August through our Thanksgiving salad. Ann's first experiment at growing three different varieties of dried soup beans was a resounding success (black turtle, white European Soldier and scarlet runners) so we should have enough to feed us through the winter. Carrots, salad greens, pumpkins, green peppers, winter squash, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, raspberries, strawberries, and plums all performed somewhere in the range from mildly to very well. We even scored two small bunches of grapes, five apricots, and 20 tangerines from our youngest vines/trees. We did a rough estimate and it looks like our produce saved us more than $700 at the farmers' market, and that's not counting the honey we harvested and the hundreds of eggs laid by our chickens.

Lest you think our thumbs are perfectly green however, we should note that our onions, garlic, broccoli, eggplant, and yellow squash failed miserably. There's always something to improve upon, right? For now, though, we're thankful the heavy workload is over for the year and we're appreciating a slower season in the garden.

In the midst of a fun-filled summer, Madeleine turned five. Events of note preceding her birthday were her "graduation" from pre-school (she's headed to our neighborhood public school for kindergarten in the fall), her first camp-out with Ann in the backyard (she finally got to sleep at 11 pm after three trips inside to the potty and commenting several times, "I miss Rachel"), weekly outings with friends to the zoo, Fairyland, Redwood Park, etc. and Alameda's Fourth of July parade.

For her birthday party Madeleine requested water play in the backyard again, prompting Rachel to talk daily of her desire for a swimming pool party when she turns three next year. For her birthday present we risked life and limb hanging a rope swing from our birch tree in the front yard. She couldn't have been more thrilled.

Because we appreciated Madeleine being a toddler when she was baptized, we decided to wait until Rachel was two for her baptism. The big day was May 22, 2011 at St. Columba Church in Oakland. Madeleine was preparing Rachel for months, telling her, "When you're baptized it will be like the priest is washing your hair," to which Rachel would reply with great seriousness, "O'day."

Rachel loves, loves, loves the music at St. Columba and she enjoyed the entire mass that day, except for the baptismal rite. She cried when the priest, Fr. Karl Davis, OMI poured water over her head. She cried (loudly) when Paul lifted her up for the entire congregation to see her, she cried when she was anointed with oil, and she kept on crying when she was presented with her baptismal garment. The poor girl just didn't like being in the spotlight, especially once she got a bit scared. After the rite itself, though, she went right back to enjoying the mass.

That night during her bath, Paul discovered her pouring water over her bath toys and declaring, "Baptize, baptize." Now when she hears we're going to mass at St. Columba she asks us, "Rachel get baptized 'gain?" We ask, "Do you want to get baptized again?" and she says "Yes."

At 25 months of age, she still fit into the baptismal dress her Grandma Naffziger made for Madeleine when she was 15 months old.

Her godparents are Celeste and Brian Stanley, friends from St. Columba, and our friend Sheri Hostetler, pastor of First Mennonite Church in San Francisco.

(We're catching up on some older news...)

Our sweet, second daughter turned two on Good Friday and Earth Day, April 22, after a fun and busy spring. Rather than throw a boisterous party on a solemn church day, we celebrated quietly and happily as a family of four. Then we celebrated again two days later on Easter with Paul's family. Ann came in just under the wire and finished sewing Rachel's one-and-only birthday quilt by the second celebration!

Particular things of note in Rachel's previous few months included our trip the the midwest to visit her Naffziger grandparents at their new home in a suburb of Cincinnati, where she also had some time with her Aunt Ellen. After that, we traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to visit our friends Sharon and Randall -- also Madeleine's godparents -- who moved there from Alameda last fall.  Also this spring we planted Rachel's placenta as a family. It went into the ground to fertilize a lemon verbena plant we hope will bless us with its wonderful aroma for many years to come.

Rachel continues to grow in cuteness, and although she displays some typical two year old obstinance, we know how to manage it with more humor this time around. We appreciate her love of her 'is, which is short for "sis," which is short for "Madeleine." Rachel loves going to My Play Place once a week, but misses her sister when Madeleine is at preschool. She is already learning to ride Madeleine's scooter and is eager to be able to ride a bike with her too. Besides her sister, Rachel's favorite playmate is her stuffed dog which she named "Lulu." She makes us laugh every day regaling us with stories of other dogs throughout her world, all of whom are named Lulu.

A little over a month ago, Ann started writing for Busted Halo, an "online magazine for spiritual seekers" published by the Paulist priests.  She is answering scripture questions for their "question box," and you can see all of her articles here.  Feel free to submit some questions and see if you can stump her! This new job coincides with her teaching another section of her Intro to the Four Gospels class this summer at a local Paulist parish - Newman Hall on the Cal Berkeley campus.