May 31, 2012

Tea Time

I love to make sun tea, and the kids and I love to drink it. On ice, it's a perfect refresher when they come home from school--so much better than soda or sugar-sweetened juice.

Water + tea bag + sun = sun tea

Especially on a day like today, when the forecast is calling for nearly 100 degrees (hello, summer!), it's so simple to brew. Fill a glass container with fresh water, drop in one or two of your favorite tea bags (or fresh herbs?) and place in a sunny spot. In just an hour you'll have a beautiful pitcher full of tasty tea. On cooler days, set your jar on the cement or try putting a reflective auto shade behind the jar to increase the heat.

We like to experiment with types and flavors; Good Earth Original is the current favorite. If straight tea isn't your thing, mix the finished product with lemonade for something a little different.

Tea is ready after a couple of hours in the hot sun

Yes, I realize these days you can just buy a packet of Lipton's so-called "Sun Tea" at the store, mix it with cold water and ice, and--voilà--instant iced tea! They even have different flavors like Caramel (that sounds yucky) and Zesty Lemon and Lime.


I'm not going to knock it if the Lipton alternative is convenient for you, but there's something about doing it the old-fashioned way that I find satisfying.

Refreshing glass of iced tea

 Drink up!

May 30, 2012

March-planted Tomatoes

We are very lucky to live in perfect tomato-growing country.

Tomatoes transplanted into the garden in March

Davis' heavy clay soil can be a pain in the garden, but the tomatoes sure seem to like it, which is why acres and acres of them are grown commercially on the outskirts of town. The question isn't whether I'll plant tomatoes in my garden, but when, and to answer that question I take a cue from Terra Firma Farm in Winters. Terra Firma starts planting tomatoes in the middle of March, when there is still a chance of frost. Mind, they don't plant all their tomatoes that early, but they do risk at least one early planting, and so do I.

Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery disagrees and says that tomatoes planted too early "sulk and don't grow." I'm sure he must have had that happen or he wouldn't feel strongly about it, but in this little corner of Davis I've had the exact opposite experience.

Tomato plants already 5 feet tall 

For example, last summer was unusually cool and most people in town had trouble harvesting many ripe tomatoes, especially if--like me--they planted mostly heirlooms, which can take longer to mature. I started tomatoes from saved seed in January and put over 30 plants in the ground in the spring of 2011. Would you like to guess which plants were the only ones to produce a meaningful crop? You got it: the four I planted on March 15th. The rest of them--put in the ground in late April and May--produced about a colander or two full of tomatoes, total (with the exception of the cherry tomatoes, but those are always early and bountiful producers.)

So, I'm willing to take a chance on March-planted tomatoes in Davis, especially when I've grown the seedlings myself for almost no cost, and when I have another 25 seedlings stashed away in the greenhouse ready to take their place if we have a late frost and the first bunch dies. So far, the gamble has paid off.

Cherry tomatoes will start to ripen soon

This is now the second year in a row that my March-planted tomatoes are looking fantastic as we approach June. Yes, I might get burned one year if Davis gets a late freeze, but as long as I consider them a gamble in the first place, I won't be upset if I lose. If you're going to try planting tomatoes early next year, I'd suggest starting with just a few; then if we get an unexpected hard freeze, you won't have lost a large investment of time or money. (Of course, if you garden in a climate significantly different than ours in Davis, this advice on timing probably doesn't apply.)

And just to be clear that I wasn't on the ball with all of my tomatoes...

Roma planted a few days ago

This guy flopped over before I could get a cage around it

Still in the greenhouse

Are your tomatoes in the ground yet? (It's not too late to try planting some!) Does planting tomatoes in March sound crazy to you?

May 28, 2012

Tour de Cluck 2012

Bawk, bawwk, buh-gawwwk! Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous day for Davis' third annual Tour de Cluck: A Bicycle Chicken Coop Crawl.

Signage at one of the Tour de Cluck stops

We started the day at Tour Central (down at the Davis Farmers Market), where we checked out the silent auction art tent, listened to some chicken poetry and watched four city council candidates strut their chicken-clucking stuff on the "Courage to Cluck" stage.

Tour de Cluck headquarters at Central Park

After the opening ceremonies, we hopped on our bikes and headed out to ride the various coop loops. The south Davis coops were amazing, Rancho Layena being a particularly inspiring stop. Since Willowbank is outside the city limits, residents aren't limited by the city's six hen rule, so Rancho Layena--situated on a full acre with beautiful mature trees and garden paths to make me green with envy--had 13 lovely ladies in a sprawling coop next to a goat enclosure. I can dream, right?

Rancho Layena's coop

Then it was on to the east Davis coops, where we stopped at Charlie's teacher's house to check out her coop creation.

Charlie & Ms. Hansen

Ms. Hansen's coop was built with mostly repurposed and recycled materials, including a perimeter foundation made of pavers to discourage critters from entering the coop.

The Copper Top Kibbutz coop

Ms. Hansen had also rigged up a great compost pile enclosure using materials on hand in the garden. I took a photo so I could try to recreate it here at Banyan's End. You can never have too many different types of compost piles, in my opinion.

Compost bin

Chateau de Vieux Clucks, also in east Davis, is a sort of chicken sanctuary. Right now it's home to a few formerly feral chickens that were living on the Davis Cemetery grounds.

Luxury living for some lucky hens

On the central Davis coop loop, Stacie and Lucas Frerichs' coop proves you can raise hens even in a relatively small urban space (a temporary gate is put up between the houses during the day to give the hens room to roam in the side yard.)

Shepherds Close Coop

Anna Leslie showed off her coop and dog kennel-to-chicken run conversion. She has a solar-powered automatic coop door opener that runs on a timer, allowing her to go on vacation without needing to hire someone to let the birds in and out of the coop every morning and evening. Handy!

Anna and her "Hummin' Hens A Workin'" coop

By 2pm, we finally made it over to the west Davis loop and quickly checked out the four coops in that part of town. One interesting feature was this sand floor at Fort Chix, with a poop collection box under the roost (filled with wood shavings). Erica at Northwest Edible Life uses sand on her floor and you can read about that here, but I'd never seen one installed. The Fort Chix owners seem happy with its functionality and cleanliness.

All in all, it was a great day and a cluck-tastic tour! My only feedback to Tour organizers would be that it's difficult to make it to all 18 coops in the five hours allotted for the tour; we only saw fourteen.

It's especially hard if you're on a bicycle, break for lunch, bike with kids, like to ask questions of coop owners here and there, and have attended the opening festivities at the market and therefore don't arrive at the first coop until close to 10:30am. I realize it's a long day for the families whose homes are on the Tour, though, so I understand the decision to end at 3pm.

Sign at the Coop du Rhone

Did you ride the Tour de Cluck: A Bicycle Chicken Coop Crawl this year, or are you planning to snag tickets for next year? What was your favorite coop?

May 25, 2012

Davis-area Event: Tour de Cluck

Tomorrow is Tour de Cluck day in Davis! We'll be spending our Saturday riding bikes around town checking out the 18 chicken coops featured on the Tour.


The event is a benefit for Davis Farm to Schools, which supports the school district in offering fresh foods from local farms as part of its school lunch program. The Tour is in its third year and is loads of fun. We've ridden and visited coops both prior years and learned a lot in preparation for getting our own flock of chickens.

Maddie riding with the group to the first coop in 2010

Tickets are sold out, so if you don't have them yet, you're unfortunately out of luck. Don't despair, though! Some fun Tour de Cluck-related activities are happening down at the Farmer's Market starting at 9am, so even if you aren't traveling the coop loops, you can join in the fun.

Opening festivities at the Farmer's Market in 2010

Look for a report about the Tour on Monday's post, and don't forget to put this event on your calendar for next year!

May 24, 2012

Banyan Café: Roasted Roots with Sage

Earlier this week I wrote about growing beets and some of the ways we use them in the kitchen. Today I'm giving you a recipe, if you can call it that, that uses beets and other roots from the garden. Now's the time for harvesting not only beets but also potatoes, carrots and garlic (if you planted an early variety in the fall).

Ingredients from the garden

Combined with some sage, which is the herb I had on hand, these root ingredients make a tasty roasted veggie side dish, or even a main dish with a green salad on the side.

Sage growing in the greenhouse

I tend not to use recipes when roasting vegetables. Just chop them up into large bite-sized pieces, toss with some olive oil and salt and pepper to taste, and throw them in the oven. This time I tried a 375 degree oven and roasted until things were fork tender, close to an hour in this case. Sometimes I use a hotter oven, but because the full heads of garlic needed a longer cooking time, I went slightly cooler than I otherwise might for roasted roots.

Tossing potatoes with oil, salt & pepper

You can toss the vegetables separately or all at the same time. Because I had so many pretty colors on the cutting board, this time I decided to make them look fancy in the baking dish. Plus, this way if there are kids who might eat the carrots and potatoes but not the beets and garlic, they can easily pick and choose before the veggies are tossed together for the rest of us.

Pretty food, ready for the oven

Spring root vegetables roasted with sage

Happy roasting!

May 23, 2012

Blooms for the Bees (and Me)

After all those horrible Black Widow photos yesterday, I figured you might like to see something nice and pretty today. (Click on the pictures for larger versions.)


How about a tour of the gorgeous flowers in bloom in the yard this month? Sometimes I get so caught up in food productivity, I forget to plant beautiful things just for the bees or just for gazing. Fortunately, Mr. English likes to photograph flowers and therefore he makes sure to plant them, so there are always lots of lovely blossoms to enjoy.

California Poppy

Bee visiting a Pomegranate tree flower

Joseph's Coat climbing rose

Santa Barbara daisies, Miscanthus & red roses

Echeveria (aka "Hens and Chicks")

"Hens and Chicks" and a spider

Don't forget to pick up some pretty plants for your garden (and for the bees), too!

May 22, 2012

Black Widow Factory

My fear of spiders is at near-phobia levels, especially when it comes to Black Widows like this specimen, which was lounging around in the open next to one of our rain barrels this week.

Black Widow spider showing her telltale red hourglass

They give me such heebie jeebies that Mr. English had to take these pictures, and I'm having trouble even looking at them as I type. We find these things in spades, at least 10 a week this time of year; they are all over the yard and not always hidden out of sight as you'd expect. Banyan's End is apparently Black Widow heaven.

For some reason, they particularly like to multiply in my greenhouse, which I don't understand given that it's pretty humid and wet in there at times. This morning I found an immature one living on the foliage of a tomato plant that is still in the greenhouse and had just been watered two days ago. These are the kinds of discoveries that make me very nervous!

In the greenhouse on the box that stores plastic garden pots

On the screen I use to dry onions and garlic

Black Widows basically show up anywhere around the homestead that is dry and somewhat protected. I've seen them in a crack in the house siding, behind the garbage cans, in a knot in the fence that holds our espaliered apple trees, squeezed between the wall and the metal hose holder, in the space underneath the wheelbarrow holder, under the handle of a plastic box lid, between the slats in my potting bench, in the tiny spaces between the boards of a raised bed, inside the handle of a garden tool, on patio tables and chairs, etc.

Web left behind by a Black Widow that has been "relocated"

Wheelbarrow home turned into a Black Widow home

No, nobody in the family has ever been bitten, but too often we've had scary near misses. Once a Black Widow took up residence in a shoe Maddie left for one day on the back step, once one came drifting down from the top of the sliding door track as I was about to close the door at night, and once after we came home from a long vacation we even found one in Maddie's clothes closet inside the house. (She had left her curtains and door closed, so it was very dark in there, but I still don't know how it got in.)

Intellectually, I understand the benefits of spiders in the yard and I don't mind when they're tucked out of the way somewhere gobbling up flies and such, but it seems like I have to constantly watch out for these suckers lest I grab one accidentally as I reach for a plant or a hose or a tool. Worse, I worry that one of the kids will be bitten as they play in the yard, which they do often. I know it wouldn't be the end of the world, but I'd prefer to skip a trip to the ER for a Widow bite.

Do other people have this kind of high Black Widow population in their yards? What do you do about it? Do you just educate your kids and leave the spiders alone, or do you "take care of them"?

May 21, 2012

Garden Haul: Beets

Beets have not historically been a family favorite around here, but that's starting to change and this year I planted beets in the garden for the first time.

First harvest of beets

My first plantings were chewed to the ground by some hungry pests (earwigs?) and I almost gave up, but then I saw a six-pack of beet seedlings at the nursery and realized I might have better luck if I started my seeds in the greenhouse where they were more protected from bugs. I had thought since they were root vegetables, they needed to be seeded directly into the dirt, but that's not the case with beets. My transplants did very well, so from now on that's how I'll grow them.

Tiny beet seedlings back in March

I've never bought beets at the store--mostly because Mr. English said he wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole--but for a long time we got a weekly CSA box from Terra Firma Farm that sometimes included beets, so we were forced to start experimenting with them. (That's one of the great things about a CSA box--it pushes you to try new things!) I will admit that, especially in the early years of our CSA subscription, the beets often languished in the fridge for weeks on end until I finally threw them in the compost pile.

Beets thriving in a wine barrel

Then one day I made borscht and it turned out that, surprise, the entire family liked it! I suspect it had less to do with the beets and more to do with the pretty pink color and the massive dollop of sour cream on top. For a couple of years that was the only beet dish I knew how to make. The turning point in our family's relationship with beets was the day I found a recipe for beet cake, with generous amounts of cream cheese frosting (think carrot cake, but with beets).

Kid-approved beet cake with cream cheese frosting

Yesterday I took a fantastic ravioli making class and found a new use for beets: beet pasta. The pasta consisted solely of roasted beets, flour and a touch of olive oil. The color was stunning and the flavor was surprisingly mild. I will definitely be making this at home soon! Incidentally, the class was part of a series of spring food craft classes offered by Slow Food Yolo; there are two more in the series, so check out their website if you're interested.

Beet pasta ravioli with smoked salmon

These days I look for more ways to include beets in our diet, because I know they are both tasty and super healthy, especially the tops, called "beet greens". Turns out beets are also great for the digestive tract (you'll have to ask me later how I know that). And the great thing is, they are very easy to grow and are relatively quick from seed to table.

Do you grow beets in the garden? Have any beet-phobes in the household?

May 18, 2012

In the Mood to Brood

Do I really have to explain the "birds and the bees" to a...bird?? Apparently, yes I do. Yesterday, one of our hens, Professor McGonagall, decided that she wanted to become a mother.

The broody professor

This is known in the chicken-rearing world as "going broody." She planted herself on a nest full of everyone else's (non-fertile) eggs and sat there for the next eight hours straight. Not a good situation for a few different reasons, not the least of which is that the chance of success is zero. The way it works, honey, is that ya need a mate to produce viable eggs, and all you've got is sisters!

The only way to explain that to a broody chicken is to "show, not tell" her; in other words, take action to remove her from the nest, repeat as needed, block access if necessary, and hope she gets the message. In this case, Professor McGonagall fluffed up her feathers and made some "don't-you-dare-take-me-off-these-eggs" noises at me as I tried to coax her out. Eventually she caved, without even a peck at my hands, and I extracted her from the nest box.

Don't even try to move me!

Now I love my chickens and their individual chicken personalities as much as the next chicken keeper, but I won't argue that they're smart. They have excellent instincts which serve them well in a variety of situations ("lookout, it's an airplane--take cover!!"), but that's not the same as intelligence.

For example, after I blocked the entrance to the coop house, I watched the not-so-smart Professor jump onto the ladder, walk up to the sealed pop door, decide there was no way back in to the nest, jump off the ladder, and then turn around and do it all over again...and again...and again. All afternoon. That is one stupid persistent chicken!

Should I try again?

Huh, imagine that, the door's still closed!

At some point Professor McGonagall took a break from checking the pop door, wandered outside the run, stared up at the locked egg door we use to collect eggs from outside the coop, and stood there looking for a way in (okay, that did seem kind of intelligent, actually.) I started to feel a bit sorry for her, but then I just had to laugh. I think that's what the rest of the chickens were doing, too.

"What the heck is she doing in there?"

In all seriousness, broodiness can be a real problem in certain situations (assuming you're not looking for a mama to hatch some fertile eggs, in which case broodiness is a fantastic trait!) For one thing, it's hard to collect eggs when they're pinned underneath a hen hell bent on turning them into chicks. Fortunately for me, the Professor didn't get too nasty. Also, a broody hen stops laying eggs for about a week, assuming you break the habit quickly; the longer you allow a hen to sit in the nest, the longer it will be before she starts laying eggs again (up to a few weeks.)

Most troubling, though, was the fact that the Professor was forgoing food and drink in favor of keeping the eggs warm, and hens can't survive long without water. When I consulted my favorite chicken book, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, I read that in extreme cases a particularly stubborn hen can actually starve herself to death if she refuses to leave the nest. In our case, the Professor just had a frustrating afternoon searching for those missing eggs.

All fluffed up and ready to be a mama

Ever had a hen go broody? Or maybe you're expecting and can identify with her nesting behavior? Any advice for the next time it happens (or in case she's still at it tomorrow?)