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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.

 
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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.

 
Now that the holidays are over, it's time to update some of our photo collection from the busy last few months. By the end of the year Rachel had hit 20 months of age and her early speech has begun. She says more words than we can count, but her repetitive favorites are Mommy, Daddy, 'Is (for "Sis"), 'Lilah (for her friend Delilah), Papa (Paul's father), cat, dog, baby (refers to any child she sees under the age of two) bubble, wa-wa (water), more, and robot to name a few. The vast majority of her conversations include one or more of the above. To our chagrin, she learned how to climb out of her crib in November and to this day still has not mastered the art of consistently taking long -- or even medium length -- naps. She is sweet and funny at times, happy and playful, or stubborn and mischievous.

Madeleine loves the holiday season as she is quite the liturgically-minded child. She asked if we could celebrate Hanukkah again (we did, with dreidel play every day), and Advent was another hit. She loves the ritual of the nightly Advent candles. This year’s Advent had the added excitement of preparation for her inaugural appearance with the children's choir at St. Columba's Christmas Eve mass. She was the youngest and the shyest during rehearsals, either refusing to open her mouth or just mouthing the words silently, but she surprised us by singing out proudly and confidently on Christmas Eve. Although we had never practiced it with her, she even sang along when the 12 year old soloist sang her "solo" verses during one song.  She just turned 4 1/2 and insisted for the second year in a row on a mini-celebration complete with a cake and 4.5 candles. January brought longer preschool hours for her: from 9:00-3:00 on M,W,F. Both she and Ann are thrilled at the addition. The new schedule enables the two of them to make the 1.25 mile commute home by bike, sometimes with the trail-a-bike, sometimes with Madeleine on her own two wheels pumping furiously while Ann pedals slowly behind her.

In other news, we do indeed have six new hens now, bought as day-old chicks in October. After much deliberation in the naming process we've settled on: Goldilocks, Fuzzy, Blackie, Roughpowder (a long story behind that one), Leafy-Leaf, and Buster Posey. We hope the last doesn’t turn out to be a rooster, but we just had to name one in honor of the World Series champs since they were hatched during the post-season that Ann and Paul so enjoyed watching with neighbors this year.
 
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Four days after we said goodbye to two of our chickens, we ate one if them tonight.  I made chicken soup with her, and all day long as I simmered old "Scramble," I was thinking of my paternal grandmother, Madalyne, who was said to be a master "neck-ringer." Then, as we sat eating the chicken soup made with carrots, onions, potatoes, swiss chard, left-over brown rice, and pasta, Paul and I had a conversation with Madeleine about who this chicken was. A friend of a friend had slaughtered it, plucked, and feathered it for us a few days ago.

Our preschooler didn't bat an eyelash at our explanation, and when we finished talking she said, "We should do it again sometime."  More conversation followed, so that by the end of dinner Madeleine was already planning the demise of our remaining four chickens to make room for six new baby chicks later this fall.  She also said rather cheerfully, "When we get our new chicks if there are some that grow up and don't lay eggs, we can kill them and eat them too." There was also the suggestion from her that we learn to do the deed ourselves so that someone else doesn't have to do it for us.

The chicken itself tasted good. Not tender, but not too tough either. I would say it had "character." 

Little Rachel has a terrible cold, and I felt so good about giving her truly homemade chicken soup with so many ingredients from our own backyard. She gulped down three bowlfuls.

 
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A couple of months ago Lori Eanes, a professional photographer in San Francisco who has done photography for Utne ReaderThe New York TimesSunset Magazine, and Parenting Magazine, just to name a few, contacted us to see if she could photograph our family and garden for a project she's currently doing. 

She came out at the end of July and photographed us for two hours, snapping away as we planted seeds for our fall garden, harvested squash, pumpkins, beans, strawberries, and plums, and the girls tended to the chickens. She came up with some incredible shots. We were struck looking at them by how lush and fruitful our small (only 750 square feet) and not-so-perfect garden came off looking. It really is amazing how much food you can grow in a tiny space.

We just got the photos today, which you can view in the slideshow below (or click on it to see the photos larger).

You can see some of the other photos from Lori's in-progress "Backyard Project" on her website under Portfolio > Projects.  We hope to see her collection of urban farmer photos in a local publication sometime soon!

 
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Ann is helping coordinate the second annual bicycle tour of Alameda chicken coops, which is scheduled for Sunday, May 16 at 1pm. It will also be stopping at our house.

The idea came up last year on the Alameda Backyard Chickens Group, and we had about 50 folks attend last year with no publicity. We're expecting a much bigger turnout this year, now that it's being promoted in area newspapers and blogs (it should be in the Chronicle's 96 Hours section this week).

The tour will start at 448 Lincoln Avenue, where a map will be provided. The route is about 4.5 miles long and will end at 1342 Grove Street.

Join us for a fun afternoon and spread the word!

P.S. Ann will also be teaching her introductory class on raising chickens this summer.  If you're thinking about getting chickens or know someone who is, it's a great way to get started.

 
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On April 25th we had 540 people trek through our garden as part of the 7th annual Bay Friendly Gardening Tour. We spent six straight hours answering questions about our chickens, rain barrels, bat house, beehives, and greywater system, probably in that order. After that came questions about many of the 33 fruit and vegetable crops that we've squeezed into our small back and front yards. 

We got many comments about the enormous size of the strawberries in our patch as well as the prolific raspberry and blueberry bushes, and lots of questions about our asparagus and fava beans ("What is that plant? And what is that one over there?").

Many of the people on the tour are novice gardeners, and it was wonderful to hear their excitement as they noted what can be done in just a small space. We were gratified to hear so many people tell us that they were going to go home to put up a bat house, set up rain barrels, convince a spouse to let them get chickens or bees, plant a fruit tree, or build a raised vegetable bed. 

Overall, preparing for the Tour was a huge amount of work, but we are thrilled that the re-landscaping project we began a year and a half ago is finally finished (we think). Now that the weather is beautiful and we've begun to eat meals on our back deck, we can enjoy a yard and garden that is busy producing our summer crops without much effort on our parts.

(The top photo shows our Fuji apple tree in the foreground.  The photo below shows raspberries along the chicken fence, an apricot tree just in front and near the center, fava beans at the bottom and toward the center, and asparagus at the bottom and to the right.)

 
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Our yard and those of three of our close-by neighbors will be featured on this year's Bay-Friendly Garden tour on Sunday, April 25th.  The free, self-guided tour is sponsored by StopWaste.organd includes over 40 gardens in Alameda County, grouped in geographical clusters.  Pre-registration is required.

Our yard is pretty well qualified, with native plants, rain water catchment, gray water, chickens, bees, food production, and landscaping with salvaged materials.  We've been told to expect over 500 people (and perhaps well over that, since registration has been particularly strong so far).  There's also a need for volunteers to help out, so sign up if you're interested.

Here's a fuller description of the tour from StopWaste: "The 7th annual tour continues to celebrate the diversity of Bay-Friendly gardens. Urban farmers grow abundant harvests of fruit and vegetables, and keep chickens and bees.  Native plant enthusiasts embrace the local flora. Salvaged material aficionados blend recycled art into the landscape. Bay-Friendly gardens offer something for everyone—come and discover ideas for creating your perfect haven.... Gardens range from professionally designed postage stamp-sized lots in Berkeley to exuberant one-acre market gardens in Pleasanton."

We're pretty excited, although we have a bit more prep to do over the next few weeks.

 
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Our girls are growing up! Madeleine now vigorously corrects people when they assume she is three years old by telling them, "No, I'm three and a half!" She has definitely become a pre-schooler in terms of social maturity and independence, which is fun for her and a relief to us.

Madeleine often still asks us, "I forget, how old is Rachel again?"  It's hard for all of us to keep track when we count in months and they are flying by, but Rachel is almost 10 months old now. The two sisters are best of friends and it is beautiful to watch their interactions with each other. The more Rachel develops and learns new things, the more Madeleine roots her on and celebrates her. We love watching her develop too, although the early crawling (at 7 1/2 months) and standing up and now "cruising" have made our lives more complicated.

In January we took a trip to South Bend, Indiana to visit Ann's parents and introduce the girls to snow. Madeleine had some memorable quotes. On a day when the high temperature was 12 degrees she asked "Why are there clouds coming out of my mouth?" She spent about 4 minutes on the outdoor ice skating rink before calling it quits ("I'm getting cold and this is very hard") but she wanted to go back the next day. Making a snowman/snowpyramid was a big hit, as was Grandma's hot chocolate when she came inside.

Back in Alameda, we've welcomed three new chickens into our flock. Madeleine chose all the names: Scramble (named after the one who died last fall), Pancake and Waffle, now bring our flock up to six. We are enjoying glimpses of spring, time to work in the garden, and the prospect of Rachel's first birthday soon to come.

We've posted new photos here:

October 2009:

November 2009:

December 2009:

January 2010:

 
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So one day a number of months back, Ann asked a fellow customer at the Alameda Farmers' Market if she wouldn't mind parting with her carrot tops to help feed some local chickens.  After some conversation, the woman asked for our address so she could deliver us her vegetable peelings.

Now we often get big bags of scraps deposited on our front porch, with peelings from carrots, zucchini, potatoes, fruit, etc. and often egg shells.  The problem is that the chickens have a hard time pecking at the large uncooked peelings.  

So I have taken it on myself to dump it all in our food processor to chop it up into peck-sized pieces.  I call my creation, "Chicken slaw."  Doesn't it look appetizing? The chickens like it quite a bit.

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We also are appreciative of other donations we receive toward the chicken-feeding effort.  We get carrot tops and lettuce that is past its prime from various neighbors.  We sometimes get jars filled with snails (good protein!).  We recently received our first batch of spent barley from a beer brewer, and the chickens loved it.