Grit Blogs >

Panthers Hollow

My Cat "Family"

Jennifer QuinnBelieve it or not, when I was fourteen I dreamed of having six children. As it turned out, I was denied the privilege of having even one. But all was not lost — now, in my seventh decade, I’ve become a mother to five cats. And finally I understand why some mothers are a nervous wreck!


If someone were to bug my house, here’s what they might record on a typical day:

“Bobcat, leave him alone. He doesn’t want to play.”

“He wants to be your friend, Mahogany. Can’t you be nice to him? Yes, I know he’s annoying, but he can’t help it. He’s a sweet little thing. Can’t you just try to like him?

“I wouldn’t get any closer, Bobcat … you know how cranky he is. He’s going to swat you. See? I told you.”

“What’s the matter, Mahogany … what’s all this crying about? Here, come get on my lap. What’s the matter, dear?”

“No, you can’t get on my lap right now … not while I’m eating.”

“Don’t you dare jump on the counter. Don’t even think about it! Bobcat! You little rascal … Get away from my food!”

“Whaddya want, Squeaky … you just want attention? I’m sorry, Squeaky, I don’t give you enough attention, do I? It’s because you’re so polite … you just sit there squeaking instead of jumping onto my lap and climbing all over me like the others. And you’re so well-behaved — you hardly give me any trouble. You’re the nicest of all my cats — so loving and sweet-tempered.”

“Mahogany, are you being mean to Squeaky? How can you be mean to her when she’s such a good friend to you? You should be very grateful to have such a nice friend — so patient and forgiving. Now, stop bothering her, or I’ll have to separate you two.”

“Good morning, Bobcat. Where’s your brother? Maybe you can find him for me. Go on, Bobcat … see if you can find Spooky.”

“SPOOKY! Where've you been?? I’m so glad you’re home. Here, I saved some breakfast for you.”

“Cecil! Get out of the door … you know you’re not allowed in the house! Yes, I know it’s hard being outside all the time, and I’d love to let you in if you’d just be nice to the other cats, but I can’t have you terrorizing them.”


“I’m sorry, kitties … I didn’t mean to let him in. Is everybody OK? C’mere, Bobcat … he didn’t hurt you, did he? That’s good.”

“Cecil … are you chasing the chickens? Don’t you dare chase my chickens. Well, you’re scaring them. Come on … I think it’s time to shut you up in your house. Night-night, Cecil … see you in the morning.”


Mahogany  Sweaky portrait
Mahogany and Squeaky

Bobcat and Spooky 2
Spooky and Bobcat

Chicken-Proof Porches

Jennifer QuinnHen on porch railing 2

One of the drawbacks of having free-ranging chickens is the need to find a way to keep them off your porch, since they can make quite a mess. Awhile back, I tried to solve this problem by covering the railings with the prickly plastic I wrote about earlier with regard to my geese. This didn’t work any better than it did with the geese. It did seem to keep them from perching on the railings for an extended period, but it actually made the problem worse. Instead of staying on the railings, they would immediately jump down onto the porch and roam around it, pooping everywhere instead of just around the edges!

Finally, I thought of a solution that seems to really work. I strung wire a few inches above the railings all around, even across the gates. The latter required installing those plastic gate handles that are used for electric fences, so I have to unfasten that whenever I go in or out. But it works!

Back porch with wire

On the front porch, I had been propping up a baby gate I found lying around that was missing the hardware to attach it, but it would always blow over in a strong wind or the cats would knock it over. So, using the one piece of hardware that remained, some wire, and a screw-in hook, I found a way to attach it securely so I can open and close it and it stays put. What an improvement in my quality of life!

Front porch with wire

The one flaw I found on my back porch setup was a gap between the railing and the house where the chickens could easily slip through. For now I’ve propped up a metal plate to block it, and that seems to work unless one of the cats pushes it out of the way. I realized the wires might make it hard for the cats to get onto the porch. So now I have to remember to leave the gates open at night and close them in the morning. Just another thing to add to my routine. I said the simple life wasn’t simple, didn’t I?

Garden 2016: Mistakes and Challenges

Jennifer QuinnGarden NW July 2016

Well, this was to be the year my garden would really take off, but each year seems to bring new problems and challenges. What a steep learning curve!

First, the good news: I did really well with tomatoes (which I’ve never grown before) even though I started them from seed. I had no idea they were so easy to grow! Maybe it’s because my soil is so high in calcium. I did all right with bush beans this year after totally missing the boat with them last year, and I had a pretty good crop of cucumbers, too. Plus my strawberry bed finally began producing more than two or three strawberries at a time — sometimes as much as 7 ounces in a day! — while my third-year blackberry bushes began producing.

Ripening blackberries

Now for the mistakes: First, I planted about twenty seed potatoes in trenches that I dug over a period of a couple of weeks. What a job that was! I hate digging trenches, but planting them above ground would involve scrounging up all sorts of materials to layer over them, and I didn’t think I’d be able to manage it.

Now, for some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this particular bed might have the same drainage problem as the asparagus bed I wrote about earlier, though it’s at the same level on the slope. So I was rather dismayed when I saw water in the trenches after a good rain. Still, I kept watching for the potatoes to sprout until long after they should have come up. Finally I decided to do some digging, and sure enough, what few seed potatoes I found had rotted. Fortunately, I had a few potatoes planted in other places, so it wasn’t a total loss. But most of those were planted in first-year hugelkultur beds and turned out to be tasteless and watery.

After filling in the potato trenches, I decided to cover-crop the bed and save it for a fall crop of beets, since the few beets I had planted early got eaten by something, probably the groundhog, and the replacements were struggling in the heat. In August, I sowed not only beets but spinach in the former potato bed, but hardly anything came up. I believe it was a combination of the hot, dry weather and the fact that I had tried to improve the soil with half-finished compost full of undigested wood shavings. It really looked almost finished in the compost bin!

Then I made the dumb mistake of setting out my four butternut squash seedlings in the morning instead of waiting till evening. The poor things never recovered from the transplant shock, and I ended up with all of four very small squashes.

This year I decided to start my Brussels sprouts in July rather than in the spring as I used to do. Apparently this is impossible without using row covers. Every day I had to pick off the cross-striped cabbage worms, and the next day there would be more of them. Where do they come from? They seem to spring into birth fully grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. I think I’ve finally seen the last of them, but I don’t know if the plants will recover.

Brussels sprouts with caterpillar damage

In the spring, I had fourteen nice spinach seedlings growing before the groundhog (apparently) got in and ate them all down to nothing. Finally I got a hot wire installed around the bottom of the fence, but by that time the groundhog had disappeared — probably eliminated by the coyotes that have been hanging around and killing my chickens. So I don’t yet know for sure if my fence is effectively groundhog-proofed. Meanwhile, I’ve been plagued with grasshoppers, cicadas, and katydids almost defoliating entire plants at times.

On the bright side, I had sown some boneset seed (collected from my streambank) in a waterlogged area of the garden, and they’ve taken off amazingly:


What you can’t see in this blurry picture is at least a couple dozen bugs on the flowers, mostly mating, which turned out to be Pennsylvania leatherwings. Imagine my delight when I looked them up and read that the larvae eat grasshopper eggs!

A lot of things have simply suffered from the hot, dry weather, which has kept me watering two or three times a day when I’m able. With the water table as high as it is here, it’s amazing how quickly the surface can dry out! And I’ve discovered that, apparently, my soil has a too-high calcium/magnesium ratio, which, among other problems, could account for poor growth.

I’ve been reading Charles Walters’ Eco-Farm (not an easy read) and learned that certain symptoms I’ve noticed could indicate a deficiency of magnesium. Now, my soil report indicated more than adequate magnesium, but as Walters explains, it’s the ratios that are important. It seems it’s sort of a game of musical chairs, where the excess calcium knocks all the other cations off their positions on the soil colloid.

There’s a difference of opinion regarding re-mineralizing the soil versus waiting for the development of organic matter and soil organisms to restore the proper balance. (See Anna Hess’s The Ultimate Guide to Soil, which I’m also reading.) I’ve opted for sprinkling some Epsom salt on the beds most affected by the imbalance in hopes of seeing a dramatic improvement next year. Besides that, I’m planting everything with green manures like oilseed radish, mammoth red clover, oats, and Austrian winter peas, and gradually moving toward no-till gardening and raised beds. By building up the soil, I hope to have healthier plants that will thrive and be able to defend against insect attacks. And maybe next year I’ll have my head on straight and not make any more stupid mistakes!

Geese: A Mixed Blessing?

Jennifer QuinnGeese

This summer I’ve been hard-pressed to keep up with the mowing; I got the bright idea that maybe I should get some geese to help with that. A friend of mine raises Sebastopol and Cotton Patch geese, so I asked her if she had any to sell. As it turned out, she had a male and two females that have a twisted wing condition due to feeding issues when they were growing, and she was willing to give them to me. They don’t look so great, but I figured they’d do the job, so why not? Besides, the wing condition isn't hereditary, so I can breed them and maybe sell some of the offspring.

Geese grazing

Of course, as it turns out, they don’t really do much good with their grazing — they mostly eat the good grass and not the weeds, and what a mess they make! I figured if I bred more of them, maybe they’d really make a difference with their grazing, but then they’d make an even bigger mess. For some reason, their favorite place to hang out is on the ramp to the back porch, just outside the gate. So every time I came out of the house, I had to clean a mess of poop off the ramp. Besides being mess, it could be dangerous if I didn’t see it, because it’s slippery.

I started leaving a pile of straw outside the gate, so that when I came out I could just push that away and kind of mop up the mess with it. But coming in and dealing with the mess was a little more difficult.

Geese leaving

Finally, I got the bright idea of putting down one of those plastic carpet runners with the prickly side up. That would surely hurt their feet, I thought. So I went to work stapling the runner to the ramp and was very pleased with myself when I finished. I went back in the house for a while, and when I came out, what do you think I found? Three very contented-looking geese lounging on the prickly plastic. And more mess, of course!

Geese walking away

So I’ve thought about finding another home for the geese, but the thing is ... they do sort of grow on you. My neighbor said they’d basically be pets. No they won’t, I thought — they’re just here to do a job. I can’t afford any more pets. Guess what? They’ve more or less become pets. They’re such friendly creatures — they don’t avoid eye contact like chickens (even the clingy ones). They’ll gaze up at me with smiling faces whenever they think I might have some treat for them. And they’re hilarious to watch sometimes, especially when they come running up from the stream flapping their wings furiously. They make me laugh, which is a good thing, since too often the frustrations of being a single homesteader have me on the verge of tears or a nervous breakdown!

Here they are taking a bath in the stream:

Geese in stream 2

Looks like they're here to stay, huh?

Raising Guinea Keets with a Chicken Hen

Jennifer Quinn



Hen and keet

Recently I wanted to increase my little flock of guinea fowl, so I confined the birds for a time and started collecting the eggs. Since guinea hens are notoriously poor mothers, I was hoping for a broody chicken hen to set them under (though I had an incubator as an alternative). Fortunately, by the time I had six eggs assembled, one of my Icelandic hens had gone broody, so I set them under the hen. Meanwhile, the infamous raccoon got both of my guinea cocks, making my need for new guineas even more urgent.

At candling, four of the eggs appeared viable, but unfortunately only two hatched. This hen — like others I’ve had — managed to soil the eggs, and I’m sure that was the problem since two of them were very dirty. For some inexplicable reason, she rolled all the eggs out of the nest box early on and placed them next to the feeder and waterer, where she sat on them the whole time, standing up to eat and drink every day but never moving away from the eggs! This hen will not be offered a permanent position as a broody.

Still, two keets are better than none, and the hen is doing a quite capable job of raising them. I was anxious to see how this would work, since a friend reported giving young keets to a broody hen and finding that they couldn’t communicate — the keets just ran off and didn’t respond to the hen’s clucking, she said. But others have had success raising guinea keets with a chicken hen, so I was hoping for the best.

On hatch day I was a little concerned because the keets didn’t respond to the hen’s urgings to come to the feeder and waterer; they just seemed to poke around aimlessly until they discovered them on their own. But they do seem to have accepted her as their mother, and, even if they don’t follow her instructions very well, they tend to gravitate toward her. To be on the safe side I plan to keep them all inside, at least until they’re about four weeks old.

The situation is complicated by the fact that I currently have another hen raising chicks, and the two have to be kept apart or they’ll fight. So before I let the other birds in for the night, I have to get the hen and the keets back into their very small pen and not let them out in the morning until the others are out of the coop, which is then shut up for the day.

I’m afraid I may have to keep the keets in until the chicks are on their own, in order to keep the hens from fighting. But in the meantime I bring them fresh greens every day, and they have plenty of room to roam and try out their wings. They’re already beginning to look like very promising little guinea fowl!

Hen and keets

Differential Feeder Heights — A Caveat

Jennifer Quinn



Chickens with chicken feeder

In my recent post, Managing a Broody Hen, I mentioned placing a feeder for the hens high enough so the chicks and half-growns couldn’t reach it, since layer feed is harmful to developing birds.

Well, not so fast. After several days of thinking this was such a great idea—Why hadn’t anyone else thought of it?—I realized the catch when I saw my broody hen taking a few bites for herself, then dropping some on the ground for the chicks! I decided I’d better only allow them access under supervision.

As I continued to observe this, I realized the hen wasn’t really dropping very much of the layer feed. More often I would see both hen and chicks chowing down on the chick feed, which is more accessible. I’ve also observed the half-growns trying to hang on the edge of the grown-up feeder, madly flapping their wings while they try to grab some layer feed. Chickens are so curious—always wanting to try something different! But in the end they seem to prefer whatever’s easiest.

I don’t think they’ll be harmed by the little bit of layer feed they may get, when so much of their diet is forage anyway. But I have to warn my readers—it does bear watching!

Chickens and chicken feeder

How Do They Escape Me?

Jennifer Quinn



 Giant cucumber

I wonder if anyone else has this problem: I’m looking at a cucumber or zucchini plant and wondering why there are only a few little squashes on it that hardly seem to be growing. I know from experience that, when this happens, it’s because there’s a big one hiding somewhere that I haven’t noticed. So I scrutinize the plant from all angles, peering under leaves and trying to inspect every stem without breaking it or getting scratched up too badly. But I find nothing.

I repeat this regimen for a few days, then, one day — boom! There it is, staring me right in the face: one humongous cucumber. And I’m thinking, “How did I not see that?”