The Ballad of Elliot & Frank: Or, Thoughts on Killing a Rooster

This weekend, we slaughtered our first chicken.  It wasn’t planned.  And the fact that it wasn’t planned is the understatement of all understatements.  You see, for the longest time, we’ve been a two rooster flock.  Elliot and Frank arrived with our first shipment of chicks just about a year ago.  Elliot started out as the dominant rooster.  He was larger, better liked by the hens and — all in all — the better rooster.  Frank was more docile, a quieter bird, though his personality had a hint of the temperamental.  If one of the roosters was going to get nervous, it was always Frank.

In April, we separated the flock.  As I preferred Elliot and wanted to definitely keep him another season, we elected to breed Frank to the majority of our flock, leaving Broody & Henrietta with Elliot for company (and breeding next year).

As soon as the breeding period passed, we attempted to reintegrate the flock.  Big mistake.  Though we took it slowly and tried very casually to let the roosters see each other again in the backyard, they puffed and proceeded to start what I can only describe as the most terrifying chicken fight I’ve ever seen.  Luckily, Jason was better prepared than I and quickly yanked Elliot out of harm’s way before I could intervene.  Frank’s maturation to flock leader had clearly changed his temperament.

I’d hoped that over time, we could reintegrate the roosters; however, after the fight, Frank grew increasingly more aggressive.  He flew up in my face if I got too close to his girls, and whenever one flock was free-ranging, the loose roo would go and harass whomever was still in the tractor.  Things came to a head on Saturday, when Frank attacked Jason while he was walking towards the garden.  There was no provocation; he had simply walked by Frank and the girls.  Sadly, enough was enough.  I’ve always held with the school of thought that roosters need to maintain their flock security but they need to be productive members of the family.  A rooster that attacks without reason is a rooster that needs to go to the stew pot, especially given the fact that in a few weeks there are going to be a lot of people at the house.

I separated Frank into solitary confinement and reintegrated Elliot, Broody and Henrietta with the flock, and after two more days of increasing aggression from Frank, we made the difficult decision to slaughter him.

Now, when I had our broilers slaughtered in September and October, we took them to the Amish; however, given that this was only one bird, it was a long weekend, and we felt that it was important to our flock management, we decided to dispatch Frank ourselves.  We used Ussery’s book as a guide, utilizing his chopping block method, and I must report that slaughtering our first chicken was a quick and humane process that took about 1.5 hours from start to finish. And while I’m sad that we’ve lost Frank, 28 of his offspring are currently in our incubator, and we’ll hopefully find one young roo who will discover a place in our flock.

My advice for those of you who need to remove a member or two from your flock: read up carefully and consider trying it yourself.  One of the most beneficial parts of the weekend was getting to understand chicken anatomy a bit more, while practicing herd management.  I’m hoping that this move will have the added benefit of de-stressing our hens a bit, as a 2:8 ratio of hens to roosters was a bit too high.


Planting the Gardens

It’s been a busy week in Northern Maine.  Jason and I are celebrating Memorial Day weekend with graduation at school (me), a great canoe trip (him), a big end of the year gathering at the house (both of us), and putting in our vegetable garden.  I love this time of year in Northern Maine because the sun rises at just after 4:30 a.m., offering me the opportunity to get up early, write and head to the garden, usually before six a.m.  The mornings are crisp and cool and the black flies are usually still cozied up wherever it is that black flies go at night.

Since Jason had Friday off, he spent the day preparing the garden with Abby.  Using my garden plan, he built raised beds by mounding the rototilled soil and hammered in the fence posts for our tomato fences (we had 2.5 row fences and a handful of old tomato cages).  He also planted beans and half of the carrots.

First thing Saturday morning, I was able to get outside early (5 a.m.) and plant 3/4 of our tomatoes before having to shower and dress for graduation.  Luckily, this early planting gave me the opportunity to realize that we had once again expanded our tomato operation and were a row short of tomato staking devices.  We decided that it would be in our best interest to just invest in another tomato fence rather than 10 – 15 more tomato cages.

We choose to fence with welded wire galvanized fencing because it allows us the opportunity to provide the plants with a stronger support system.  I’m hoping to include a tomato-specific post later in the week.

So, on my way to graduation, I swung by Tractor Supply and was able to secure 50′ of fencing (quite a bit more than we needed) and five fence posts for about $60 (just a bit more than what I would have paid for 15 tomato cages & totally reusable!).

We were also lucky to get our window boxes planted earlier this week.  Given that the wedding will be at the house (in six weeks!), I’ve been paying a lot more attention to flowers this year, and I have a great tip!  If you’re still in the market for hanging baskets/bulbs, check out your local box stores this weekend!  I was able to pick up four huge hanging baskets for $40 because they had stocked them for mother’s day, not sold them, and then let them flounder a bit.  Granted, none of them are currently flowering, but once I trimmed back any dead foliage and hit them with fertilizer and water, the transformation was pretty impressive.

I need to get out to my garden, but I’ll try to update this post with a few photographs later this evening.

Have a great day!

Setting Eggs & Preparing for the Wedding

To say that this past weekend was busy is a tremendous understatement.  I woke up early on Saturday morning (4:30), hoping to get a friend’s quilt pieced and was semi-shocked when Jason appeared about a half hour later, ready to start the day.  Usually, he uses early weekend mornings to catch up on sleep, while I use them to catch up on … everything else.  Having had the flu most of last week (sorry for the disappearance!), I was woefully behind.  But the weather forecast was pretty phenomenal, and we had business in town later in the morning, so we started early.

While he painted trim, I weeded both the strawberry and blueberry beds.  I mulched the strawberries, and we’re waiting on a trip into the woods to pick up pine needles to naturally mulch the blueberries.  Meanwhile, the smaller flock (those not used for round one of breeding), followed at my heels, eating grubs and hay seeds left over from the winter mulching.

Chores done, we headed into town for two things I’ve been eagerly waiting for and (unnecessarily) dreading.  After really struggling to find the perfect engagement band to house my parents’ diamond (plus two that Jason added), I was terribly worried that we’d really struggle to find an affordable and beautiful wedding band to go along with it, particularly since my ring was a custom design made by a local jeweler.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  On our trip to rent wedding tuxes, we dropped into Kay Jewelers (at the suggestion of a girl from work) and after about ten minutes, we found my ring!

Going in, I thought that what I really wanted was a super-simple white gold band; however, after trying two on, they just didn’t look right with my engagement ring (a three-stone diamond set in white gold).  But after asking the saleswoman if there was something a little more elaborate, she brought us over to a new case, and I spotted my ring almost immediately.  I let her give me a few others to try on first (all more expensive and less ideal), but when I asked for the ring and  slipped it on, I just knew.  Of course, I wasn’t the only one to get my ring this weekend.  We used buying my ring as an opportunity to have Jason sized for his and then returned to a great, eco-friendly online site that specializes in wooden wedding bands.  Since Jason works with his hands in some fairly dangerous situations, he won’t be wearing his ring every day, but we wanted something special for when we got out to dinner or travel.  Simply Wood Rings was the simple answer.  After a lot of browsing, he decided on their Teakwood “Incorruptible” Model, and we were able to place an order specifying his size and our time frame.Our final stop on Saturday was the local tux rental shop, where we placed an order for the guys’ tuxedos.  The guys will be wearing Calvin Klein Legend Grey tuxes.  We’re keeping the grey vest; however, we are supplementing with a tie with a subtle stripe that will match the bridesmaids’ dresses.


Bridesmaids’ Dresses

Wedding tasks complete, we returned home and were stunned to find four eggs in our breeder pen.  That hatch looked like it might move a day forward, a fact confirmed by yesterday’s five eggs!

Last night, we placed 28 eggs in our Hovabator 1588, setting each one carefully into the egg turner.  As I write this, they are warming away over in the corner of our living room.  Given the difficulty I had finding a good clear post about incubation, I’m hoping to have something up later this week.

Also later this week, I’m planning on writing about our experience planning our honeymoon (a week on Prince Edward Island).  Posting in the earlier part of the week may be a bit light, as it’s finals week at school and I have a pile of papers to grade; however, once we’re past that hurdle it will be all things garden all the time until the wedding.

Have a great day!

Preserving Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads are the first vegetable that I preserve every year.  The easiest way to explain fiddleheads to those who have never encountered them before is that they are, basically, baby ferns, still curled and coiled up into small, tightly wound balls.  We’re lucky enough to have a small patch less than 100 yards from our house, but they tend to grow in moist, well-shaded areas in the Northeast (I’ve found them in both Maine and Vermont).  Having a very short season, fiddleheads usually emerge from the ground at just about the time that leaves start to unfurl from their buds.  We’ve found that we have to be particularly careful because there is such a short window between edible fiddleheads and nearly mature ferns (their fronds spreading up toward the sky).

The fiddleheads we eat in Northern Maine come from the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris).  They are identifiable by a brown, tissue-paper-like membrane that usually covers the tight spiral of the fiddlehead.  They are often found in small clumps, low to the ground.

To cook fresh fiddleheads , I clean them (as described below), steam them for 10 – 12 minutes and serve them with butter (for Jason) or just a bit of salt/vinegar for me.

To preserve fiddleheads, I usually begin by submersing them in cold water for at least an hour.  Once this is complete, I use a wire mesh strainer under the faucet to wash away the papery-liners before separating the clean fiddleheads from those that haven’t been cleaned yet. If I was using them fresh, I would stop at this point and cook them; however, to preserve them, I follow the steps outlined below.

Soaking in the Sink

While I am cleaning the fiddleheads, I heat a large pot of water on the stove (my jam pot).

Once all of the fiddleheads are clean, I submerse them in boiling water for one minute to blanch before placing them immediately into ice cold water (back in the sink).  Once they are cold to the touch (when removed from the water), I place towels on cookie sheets and spread the fiddleheads on the towels, gently rolling the towels into logs and leaving them for about fifteen minutes to absorb the water from the fiddleheads.

Finally, I pack the fiddleheads into freezer bags, removing as much air as I can before placing them in the freezer.

To use the fiddleheads, I simply remove a bag from the freezer, pour the correct amount into a vegetable steamer and steam the fiddleheads until tender (about 10 – 15 minutes).

This Weekend in the Garden: Flower Beds & Mulch

For the last few weeks, I feel like everything has centered around the house.  We’ve stained the decks and replaced the roof and repainted the foundation and installed window boxes on the back porch where I hope to complete a novel this summer (in my copious spare time).  However, we’re finally at the point where we can look out into the yard and start taking care of the details that will be central to the wedding and people’s first impressions of our home.

This weekend in the garden, I’m hoping to get our flower beds under control.  They need to be weeded, de-burdocked, re-edged and mulched in preparation for a long summer of neglect.  Let’s be honest, as soon as the veggies come in, my time is spent in the larger, vegetable gardens, and I need our perennial beds to be self sufficient with only irregular weeding.

So today, we’re tackling the front garden and the herb bed (which has been left to its own devices way too long this year!).  We’re also hoping to get the blueberry patch weeded and fertilized.  Straw needs to be removed from the strawberry patch, where it has formed a nice frost blanket these last few months.  Finally, I’m hoping to drag down some river rocks to encircle the ranunculus bed that I dug last weekend.

If we have time, Jason’s going to try to get some of the trim painted on the house, but – really – this is a gardening weekend.

What are you hoping to accomplish at home this weekend?


Prepaing for Incubation: An Exercise in Anxiety

I’m a worrier.  If there’s something in life to wake up at three a.m. and stare and the ceiling in abject fear of, I’m you’re girl!  That said, on Wednesday night, I had a really vivid dream about exploding eggs.  And that folks, that might finally teach me to stop worrying about chickens before bed.

Today, we begin our first journey toward incubation, and as I’ve spent the last several months surrounded (literally) by pregnant women, I have no idea how they all seem so calm and collected when I can’t seem to relax about exploding chicken eggs in the early hours of the morning.

We’re hoping to collect about thirty eggs over the next 7 – 10 days.  After a lot of research, I am fairly confident that storage in our linen closet before setting will probably be ideal since we really are looking at a 10 day set and the temperature in there is a perfect, stable 58 (I’ve been checking regularly).

First Two Eggs

Yesterday, I collected our first two eggs.  I had been really nervous about what to store them in until I remembered a few clear egg boxes that one of my customers gave to me a few months ago.  These provided a great opportunity to record collection date (right above the egg in permanent marker (on the plastic!) and also allowed for some nice written instruction in regard to turning the eggs twice a day (rotating the box side from left to right to prevent the embryo from sticking to the insides of the egg).

Box Rotation

I made a nice little checklist for the refrigerator, so I can keep track of what we collect when and how often the eggs are turned (for those busy end of school-year mornings when it’s all I can do to get out of the house).

Last night, I also put up our first veggies of the season: fiddleheads.  Fiddleheads are a local delicacy that you forage for in the spring.  Last year, I preserved some for the first time by blanching them in boiling water for one minute, suspending them in cold water until they were completely cooled, rolling them dry in towels and then freezing them in freezer bags.  We enjoyed them for almost eleven months.

Packaged & Ready for the Freezer!

Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide you with a tutorial later this weekend!  Happy Friday!

Swamped: A Mid-Week Update

Over the weekend, we managed to plant the peas, ranunculus (!) and onions, after setting up garden beds and fences.  Jason re-stained the garage and installed the new mailbox that his mom bought us for Christmas.  I cleaned out all of our planters and refilled them, then I placed all of our new window boxes on the back porch and got them ready so that when it warms up, planting them will be a breeze. I also baked my first successful loaf of sourdough.

But what I’m really taking a moment to write about, though, is daily life rearing up and reminding me that this week, I’m probably going to have to take a step or two back.  My AP class sits its exam next Wednesday, so this week is a riot of final prep evenings and grading to ensure that they go in at the top of their game.  I’m also responsible for making a vegan dessert for this year’s prom on Saturday — which I probably will blog because, though I’ve been experimenting with vegan baking for the last few months, I’ve never really done a serious vegan dessert before.  Coconut mousse, anyone?

So I may need to take a few steps back this week, but I promise to be back to regular posting next week.  And in three weeks…  when school lets out for the summer… I can’t even think of what that much time might do to the blog!

I will note that this Thursday, we’re going to start collecting eggs for incubation, as our fifteen days of rooster separation will have finally allowed us to decipher which rooster is siring which chick!   I’m hoping to do regular photo updates and a guided tutorial.

So stay tuned, and thank you all for your patience!  I’m really lucky to have such numerous and wonderful followers!

Today’s Goals

Because Jason had Friday off, we’re miles ahead of where we would normally be in the garden.  Both the old and new veggie gardens are tilled and ready for crops.  He even took the time to till out a bed for the ranunculus I purchased a few weeks ago in a fit of winter blues.

Today is the day.  I write this while watching the weak spring sunshine pour through our windows in a hazy blue sky.  They’re not predicting rain; they’re not predicting terrible cold.  We can get those earliest and least tender of spring veggies into the garden!

So what are our plans for today?

I NEED to plant ranunculus.  We have several frosty nights that will still spur these puppies into action, so they need to go in.  Today.

Once our ranunculus is safely in the ground, I’ll move onto the veggie patch.

My goal is to do the following:

New Garden:
1. Measure out space for cabbage (which will be started indoors today and transferred later).
2. Erect the bean fence and build raised rows with an old-fashioned hoe and rake (no bridal arm workout for this girl, today).
3. Build the pea fence (just a low row of snap together garden sashing).
4. Note where the pumpkins will grow and avoid that space for now!
5. Plant peas!

Old Garden
1. Measure out carrot and onion rows.  Marvel at how much space that leaves for my army of tomato plants!  Remember that we have many other things to put in the garden.  Panic a little.  Return to carrots and onions.
2. Supply Jason with the requisite carrot planter and bags of seed.  He is so much better with this uber-tedious task than I am!  My fiance, the man who can plant carrots that need not be thinned!
3. Plant onion sets.  I will note that while I was at the feed store a few weeks ago, not only did I get the yellow and red onions we’ve grown for the last few years, I also picked up a parcel of Walla Walla onions.  Because they looked lonely, and I have a serious vegetable problem.

What are you hoping to accomplish in your gardens today?

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes… The May Garden

This week, I walked into the back bedroom and was nearly knocked over by the aroma of tomatoes.  Even though we planted on March 24, a mere five weeks ago… are you ready for the progress?

March 24, 2012

May 3, 2012

About two weeks ago, we transplanted from initial trays to peat pots; however, things had gotten a little out of control while my attention was focused on grading rough drafts.  Since we’re growing four different kinds of tomatoes… some were still sort of okay, while others were sprawling in all manner of directions.  I remembered last year’s staking catastrophe, whereby I just waited FOREVER before staking and ended up with some really oddly-shapen stems.  I also remembered a temporary solution that I had come up with much too late.

I went to the kitchen and came back with a package of 10” bamboo skewers, the type available for about $3 at our grocery store that I use to make kebabs.  And for a mere $3, you can stake 100 tomatoes!  I drove each stake into a peat pot, about 3/4” from the base of the tomato and then used some left over embroidery floss to loosely tether the tomato to the stake, leaving plenty of room for growth!  Do note that over the next few weeks, until these girls go in the garden, we’re going to have to keep a close eye on their tethers and replace them if they get too tight!

Skewered Tomatoes

It also became necessary to separate out the tomatoes, as their previous trays had become way too crowded… so we split two trays off onto my writing desk for the time being (a nice, sunny window) and plan to work a rotation schedule together, so everyone gets a nice mixture of sun exposure and grow light.

The only problem we’ve had with the tomatoes is with the TCG variety (Costoluto Genovese Tomato).  With this variety’s leaves, we’ve noticed some serious curling, discoloration and withering.  I’m trying to keep a closer eye on things this week, but the phenomenon has me concerned.  You can see in the photo below that the leaves do tend toward curling back in on themselves.  I will note that as soon as I see signs of leaf-decay, I usually remove the affected leaves immediately, in the hopes of containing any bacterial/fungal issues, and we haven’t seen any signs of such decay on any of the other plants, so it may just be a problem with this specific tomato variety.

TCG Leaves

This weekend, we’re hoping to start our kale, squashes, cucumbers and other vining veggies indoors (with what little space we have left!).  Yesterday, Jason managed to get our garden rototilled in preparation for outdoor plantings of peas and ranunculus.

I also finished up this little project for my friend Kate’s baby shower!

The pattern came from the lovely little book Quilts, Bibs, Blankies, Oh My! by Kim Schaefer and was super-easy to amend to our particular needs (smaller, with a soft flannel backing).

Enjoy your weekend!

Building a Wedding Cupcake Tower

When we first started planning our wedding, I will admit that I had visions of a beautiful, elaborate cake, filled with some kind of fresh berry compote and cloaked delicately in a mixture of white and dark chocolate frosting.  Then I remembered: we live in Northern Maine and I’ve planned an outdoor wedding… cue reality.

When planning a budget wedding, it’s important to figure out what concessions you’re willing to make, and at the end of the day, I know that I can bake well.  It’s one of the things I’m known for at work and in my family.  And when it came down to the cost of the kind of cake I wanted that would taste the way I needed it to, it was easier to do this part… myself.  Yes, you heard me right.  I’m making my own wedding cupcakes.  140 of them, to be exact.  And I’m going to bake them and frost them and explain the arrangement to the wife of a dear friend, so that I can at least cross one thing off my list before the big day!

I will admit that people are skeptical. My mother was a particularly hard sell.  The secretary at school thinks I’m crazy.  Really, though, I can make the cupcakes on Thursday, frost them on Friday, and have them nice and cool in the fridge on Saturday morning, just waiting to be placed outside after the ceremony on their cupcake tower.  And in that respect, I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Jason’s dad is a really accomplished craftsman when it comes to projects that involve wood.  Just a few months ago, I sent him the photo below and asked if we (read: he) could do this.  After emailing a few bloggers and getting some responses on the instructions for their cupcake towers, I sent Jason’s dad my revised dimensions (listed below), and he was able to craft our cupcake tower.

L 30” x W 30” x  H 4” Base (holds 36 – 2-1/2″ cupcakes)
24 ”x 24” x 4” 2nd tier (holds 30 cupcakes)
18” x 18 ”x 4 ”3rd tier (holds 24 cupcakes)
12”x 12”x 4” 4th tier (holds 16 cupcakes)
6” x 6” x 4 ” Top tier (holds 2 cupcakes or one small cake stand)

Please note that these dimensions make for a much larger cupcake tower than the one pictured above.

We decided to go with wood because given that we’re planning an outdoor wedding, I needed something super-sturdy, something that wouldn’t blow over in the wind!  Beyond this, though, I wanted something that would last and that I could give away to another bride after my wedding if she wanted it (and that’s already been arranged!).

After Jason’s dad finished building the stand (which he built as a series of boxes from 1/4” plywood, screwed together for greater stability), I painted it with white interior paint that our local hardware store was giving away.

Initially, I had planned to run pink ribbon (the same color as my bridesmaids’ dresses) around the rim of each box; however, one of my bridesmaids made cupcakes for Easter using Wilton’s cupcake papers (available at our local Walmart), and I’m thinking of maybe just doing simple white frosted cupcakes in a pink flowered wrapper.  I have picked up a package of the wrappers and plan to try out a few cupcakes this way later in the week, just to see how it goes.

Would you try wedding cupcakes?