Panthers Hollow

Hot Compost at Last!

Jennifer QuinnOne of my earliest improvements at Panther's Hollow was a real compost bin built out of old pallets that were lying on the property. I had it built in a convenient spot between my house and the storage shed.

Soon after, a visitor remarked that I probably shouldn't have my compost so close to the house (about six feet away), in case it would catch fire. I looked at her incredulously. "I wish I had to worry about that!" I said.

Despite my efforts, I had never been able to get a compost pile to heat up noticeably. I know you're supposed to have at least 9 cubic feet, and as an urban gardener my piles rarely approached that size, if at all.

But after moving to my homestead I was able to build larger piles, and still no heat. My friends offered various explanations, such as too little nitrogen, or too small a pile.

But with all the poultry litter and greens I was composting I didn't think nitrogen could be the problem. And the piles would eventually exceed 9 cubic feet, for a time, at least.

Occasionally I would feel a bit of warmth emanating from the pile while turning it. But the next time I turned it, I'd find it had cooled down. Still, the materials weren't breaking down fully, and I would end up putting half-finished compost on my garden beds, which is sometimes worse than not adding anything at all.

Finally, this year I've been getting really hot compost! Not hot enough to be a fire hazard, but when turning it I feel heat coming out of it — not just once, but on successive turnings.

When I open up the center of the pile it's like opening the door of a sauna. Steam comes out, and if I put my hand in there it feels hot — like a steaming bathtub. Plus the material that was in there is black and charred-looking.

The secret? No one thing, necessarily, but here's what I've been doing differently: First, I stopped using pine shavings for poultry litter, because it takes forever to break down. I still have some decomposing pine shavings on the bottom, but the top layers are straw.

Also, I've changed how I'm managing the litter. Instead of just turning it frequently and removing some every now and then, I've been scooping out any concentrations of manure every day, especially under the roosts, where most of it collects. That provides a higher nitrogen content to the compost, while leaving the litter cleaner.

Then, when it gets too smelly I rake back the straw till I find a layer of partly decomposed material caked on the bottom, which I shovel into a bucket and remove — usually four to six five-gallon buckets at a time.

Another thing that occurred to me was that I might need to build the pile faster. By the time the pile would reach a sufficient size I would find that much of the material was already broken down, which was probably why it wasn't heating up.

Removing all those buckets full of broken-down poultry litter at one time was a big help. Between that and the scooped-out manure, the pile began to have too much nitrogen, and was smelling of ammonia.

I was also making more of an effort to keep up with the mowing and weeding, and to collect any not-too-seedy stuff for composting. But to raise the carbon-nitrogen ratio I've also had to resort to adding leaf litter (even in summer!) or using yard cuttings that have been allowed to dry out.

And I've been turning the piles at least partially almost every day, so as to place the new material in the hottest part, with more finished material on top.

Here's my most-finished compost yet:

hot compost in bin

finished compost in wheelbarrow

... And another batch still cooking:

hot compost with chickens

Photos property of Jennifer Quinn.

I'm in chickens again!

Jennifer QuinnThe last couple of years have been very challenging when it comes to maintaining a poultry flock, let alone growing one. After major losses to predators in 2016 — largely due to young birds roosting in the trees at night — I was left with very few hens in 2017, and only one ever went broody (ready to set on eggs).

After a couple of failed attempts with the incubator, I finally set a dozen eggs under her, of which only five hatched.

chickens eating at feeder

new baby chicks outside

That produced four pullets (young hens), so things looked promising for this year. But the only one I was definitely going to keep was taken by a fox — with my cat Cecil in hot pursuit!

Fortunately the fox never returned. But meanwhile my two guinea cocks had become so aggressive with the remaining pullets that when they were ready to go broody they just didn't feel secure in the poultry house.

Two of them went off to brood in some undisclosed location and never returned. The third finally did go broody in the poultry house, but didn't stick to it and went back to laying. At least I didn't lose her!

Since my older hens had never gone broody until June, I decided to try again with the incubator, and so took delivery of two dozen Icelandic hatching eggs. But a momentary slip-up on my part led to the incubator overheating and ruining the whole batch!

In May Sandy went broody, so I set a bunch of my own eggs under her, in hopes of at least having more hens for brooding next year. But in the first two days she moved off the eggs twice, allowing them to cool, and only one (a cockerel) ever hatched.

I was concerned that once fledged the young chicken wouldn't have any companions, so I bought four guinea keets around the same age, hoping these would turn out to be better socialized to chickens than the older ones. For a while Sandy more or less adopted them, though they weren't very attentive to her, and she'd get really mad and peck at them when they wouldn't mind her (Chickens and guineas don't speak the same language, so they can't communicate).

chickens eating at feeder

Once Sandy abandoned her little family, the young cockerel failed to hang out with the guinea keets and spent a night by himself under the main poultry house. I left a radio playing in the shed all night, and apparently that kept the predators away, because he survived.

The next day I managed to shut him up in the chick nursery with the keets, where they all stayed for another few weeks.

Meanwhile, I decided to make one more attempt with the incubator. Surely, I thought, if I'm really attentive and do everything right I can get this to work!

So I set another bunch of my homestead eggs, plus two that I got from a friend, and — notwithstanding an 18-hour power outage — believe it or not, five healthy chicks hatched!

baby chickens

Here they are on their first day out:

new baby chickens outside

About a week later I was at Tractor Supply getting chicken feed and found they were selling black sex-link pullets. These are chicks that have different plumages depending on the sex, so the pullets can be separated from the cockerels.

The mothers are Barred Plymouth Rock, and the fathers Rhode Island Red, or something else — all heritage breeds, I think. And Barred Rock hens are said to have good mothering tendencies, which are supposed to be hereditary.

So I picked up four of these (for $3 each!) and put them in with my other chicks, since they were only a few days younger. I now have ten young chickens and four young guineas, in addition to my six older birds.

I plan to cull the two older guineas, the hen that wouldn't stay broody, and the cockerels (young roosters), which look to be three in number at this point. That will provide me with a good supply of poultry meat (a welcome change from venison!), lots of eggs, and — hopefully — some good broodies to raise my new chicks next year!

Photos property of Jennifer Quinn.

Planting a Willow Cutting

Jennifer Quinn

This winter I wrote about successfully rooting a willow cutting I had collected in the fall with the hope of starting a new willow tree on my stream bank. Since it was late January by the time the first one had a good root on it, I wasn't sure when would be a safe time to plant it outside, so I just potted it up for the time being. I did the same with a few smaller ones that later began to root.

For some reason, on February 15 I decided it would be a good time to plant the first, larger cutting. (Maybe it was the balmy weather?) Anyway, I thought planting them in late winter would give them a chance to grow their roots a bit before the arrival of warm weather and bright sunlight. When freezing weather returned I began to worry this might damage the roots, so I scrounged up an old laundry basket with the bottom out, and used it to mulch around the cutting with several inches of dead leaves and weeds. Meanwhile, I had planted the other cuttings nearby, but mulching them seemed impractical, so I just let them be.

Come springtime I began anxiously watching for signs of life on the larger cutting, and — sure enough — soon there was a green shoot at the top. Now, as of April 23, it's really leafing out:

willow cutting

The others still have little reddish buds on them but haven't as yet shown any signs of life. I expect they will in time, but no matter — at least it looks like I'll have one new tree!

Photo property of Jennifer Quinn.

A Hidden Egg Nest

Jennifer QuinnI've heard of free-range hens that will run off and make a nest in some hidden location, then reappear three weeks later with chicks in tow. Fortunately, I've never had that experience, since I'm trying to build my flock with outside additions and I need my broody hens to set my purchased eggs under. Besides, with all the predators around I'm surprised when any of my birds survives a night outside.

But when the egg collection from my two hens and four pullets dropped from four or five a day to two or three, and finally to one or none, I began to wonder what was going on. My first thought was that the hens were stressed because I noticed they were being harassed by the guinea cocks who share the same housing, and two of them had become very skittish.

Those two had begun staying away from the rest of the flock most of the time, and a couple of days ago two of them were running around in the coop all puffed up like a turkey and clucking agitatedly. I was especially worried when one of them, Demi, didn't show up at roosting time and couldn't be found anywhere.

After pondering this for a while I decided the best thing to do would be to try and move the guineas to another building that I've reserved for use as a chick nursery and brooding area. As I expected, that turned out to be easier said than done.

Guineas are harder to handle than chickens, and my efforts to catch the first one (by grabbing it off the roost after dark) resulted in its escaping and running out the open door. I managed to catch another one with the net and relocate him, only to realize that it wasn't one of the two aggressive ones that I meant to relocate.

Next morning the escaped guinea was nowhere to be found, so I assume something got him. Sad, and not what I intended, but at least it solved half the problem. When I let the remaining birds out of the coop I was amazed — not to mention relieved — to see my wayward pullet suddenly appear among them.

Now where could she have been? I guessed that she must have gone broody on a hidden nest somewhere, and set out to look for the nest.

Checking in back of the coop, something made me look up and notice a sort of hollow under a rock ledge, on the steep slope behind the building:


Here's another view of the slope:


So, I set out climbing up the slope on my hands and knees, sliding on the loose dirt and rocks all the way, and here's what I found:


Fifteen little eggs, mostly recognizable as Demi's, though I think another hen might have laid some in there too. So I decided to replace them with some fake eggs, thinking she'd return and that night I could get her and resettle her in a broody box. I'm not sure how I was going to slide down the slope carrying a chicken, but as it turned out I didn't need to.

Because when I returned somewhat later with a bucket and the fake eggs Demi was nowhere to be found. She must have already abandoned that nest and started another, because that night she still didn't appear. Meanwhile, that night the other skittish pullet was also missing!

Besides, I've noticed several times lately that one of the pullets will come running up from a part of the stream bed behind the garage, making a hullabaloo like they often do right after laying an egg. So I've searched that area before, looking in all the accessible places (plus some not so accessible) where they might conceivably be laying, and have found nothing.

Next morning who should I see but Demi pulling the same routine. So I set out for the stream with hand clippers, pruning away the wild raspberry canes and vines and made a more thorough search than ever, checking both banks, behind the garage — everywhere — and still no eggs. All I can think is that some critter (a snake?) comes and grabs the eggs as soon as they're laid, so that I never find them.

As for the guineas, the confined one and the one outside spent the better part of yesterday calling to each other, with the confined one doing nothing but running back and forth in front of the windows in a state of great agitation. Apparently guineas can't stand to be separated, as I realized when I finally let the prisoner out and he ran immediately to join the other one.

Things did seem more peaceful in the poultry house this morning, and Demi even flew up onto the roost for a while, before disappearing later. Now if that other pullet would just turn up, and everyone would stop laying in the stream bed!

Photos property of Jennifer Quinn.

Seed Starting and Soil Amendments

Jennifer Quinn

Every year I feel compelled to start some seedlings for the garden, despite not having the ideal seed-starting setup. I'm on a tight budget, and I suppose it wouldn't break me to buy some bedding plants — in fact, it might pay off in harvest rewards — but I still have all this cabbage and broccoli seed, and I hate to waste it. Plus there's a certain satisfaction in having grown one's own plants from start to finish!

In the past I've tried starting seedlings in the house on a small heating pad, then moving them to the garage, where I have large, east-facing windows, supplemented by long tube lights. But starting them indoors makes such a mess! And I've found that even with the sunlight and the tube lights the plants become very spindly, since the lights are so high up and they're really supposed to be a few inches above the seedlings. The plants just keep stretching up, trying to get more light.

Then I got the idea that maybe the lights could be lowered, but after a little investigation that turned out not to be feasible. Finally it occurred to me — Duh! Couldn't I just find a way to raise up the plants? So, first I took a small table from the house that I had been using to try and keep a thyme plant alive in front of a window, and put that on top of the work bench that's under the tube lights. That brought the seedling tray a couple of feet closer, but I still wasn't satisfied.

Finally I ended up with this setup:

seedlings setup

As you can see, I later added a lamp to the bottom shelf for seedlings that were ready to be put in individual pots. Anyone who saw pictures of my leggy seedlings last year can appreciate the difference:


Then I read somewhere (I was sure it was on Anna Hess's blog Waldeneffect, but now I can't find it!) that "stump dirt" is okay for starting seedlings, but once in pots they do better if it's mixed half-and-half with compost. That's because the stump dirt is good for the texture but not so much for nutrients. I figured the same would probably apply to commercial seed-starting mix, which is what I was using, so I started worrying about the seedlings I had already potted up. I rarely succeed in producing compost that's even finished enough for use as a soil addition, let alone for putting in little plant pots, so what was I to do?

Just then, I found the time to mend my rain barrel, which had frozen and fallen over during the winter, splitting at the bottom. I had procrastinated doing anything about that, since I didn't see how it could be fixed. Then I got the idea to use some leftover caulking strip that I had in the house to plug up the crack and then cover it over with duct tape. Here's the result:

rain barrel

(That's some leftover caulk strip sitting on top.) I should explain that the rain barrel isn't connected to anything — in fact, I lost my roof gutter on that side a couple of years ago, so the rain just drips off the roof into that and a collection of buckets and things. The barrel has a large opening, which I covered with row-cover fabric, so that the water could run through without breeding mosquitoes. Here it is, back in service:

rain barrel

What I hadn't expected was to find a clump of compost (with some weed sprouts in it) caked on the bottom of the barrel. I had forgotten that I had thrown some half-finished compost in there with the thought of making compost tea. As I was scooping it out I realized this was just what I needed for my little potted plants! All it needed was a good screening to get the weeds out, which I accomplished with an old, broken window screen. So I scooped some of the seed-starting mix out of the pots and replaced it with that, which is what you see in the picture.

Meanwhile, speaking of screening, I invented a new use for the big plastic tub I had made into a chick brooder a couple of years ago, since I had come up with a better idea for that. I used to screen compost for my little urban garden, but found it to be such a time-consuming, labor-intensive chore I didn't think I'd ever try it for the large volume I have to deal with here. But then I found a trove of stump dirt where there were some rotting boards and logs behind the garage. So I set to work digging that out and screening it into my re-purposed tub:

stump dirt

And here's the finished product, which I added to a no-till bed that needed more organic matter:

stump dirt

Another material I've added to a couple of beds this year is something I think of as alluvial soil. A recent flood deposited some of this stuff at the entrance to the big creek, where the ford is:


Though I'm sure it's completely devoid of organic matter, I admired its fine-grained, sandy texture — not to mention the likely absence of weed seeds — since my garden soil is so clayey and plagued with weeds and stones. So I used it to top off a container where I plan to grow carrots:

carrot planter

Now I see that it tends to get rather crusty when dried out, so I'd better use it in moderation and mix it in well.

All of this pales in comparison with the three buckets of well-composted horse manure that I just got from a friend. Guess that will be the subject of my next post!

Photos belong to Jennifer Quinn

Rooting a willow cutting

Jennifer Quinn 

When I bought my home there was a scraggly old willow by the stream in front of the house, which has since died. I wanted to replace it, so in the late fall I took some cuttings from a willow on a neighboring property, following directions in the Rodale Ultimate Encylcopedia of Organic Gardening. I had heard that willows are very easy to root, and according to Rodale all you had to do was leave the cuttings in water for a while. It said to take 4- to 8-inch cuttings from 1-year old wood, a few inches from the terminal bud. I wasn’t sure how to identify 1-year-old wood, but that’s what I tried to do, and took a few in different sizes. I even added some 1-inch pieces of leftover cuttings to one of the containers, since I’d read that pieces of willow can be used to make “willow water” for rooting other kinds of cuttings.

When no roots appeared after about a month I was beginning to lose hope. I consulted a few other sources, which recommended larger cuttings and included other instructions that only confused me. But one source included the words “eventually they will root.” I concluded that “eventually” meant it could take a long time, and that patience was the key. Sure enough, after 56 days I found my largest cutting had grown a nice little root:

willow cutting

Over the next week or so two others began to root. I now have them all in pots with seed-starting mix, and will probably plant them at the edge of the stream whenever there’s a good thaw—maybe this week? And since I wrote this, one that had green buds on it has put out a little root as well. I wonder if a frost would kill the buds at this point?

A Curtain for the Coop

Jennifer Quinn



One of my fall projects that got put off until January was to make a curtain for my new poultry house, to keep out cold drafts, especially when it snows. I know that ventilation is more important for chickens than keeping them warm, but I’ve also read that ideally the coop should be facing south, and should not be drafty. Since mine is up against a north-facing slope and gets almost no sunlight in the winter, I thought it best for the coldest nights to have something covering the large north-facing window, where I had replaced the glass with rat wire. (I was also thinking of my outdoor cat, who spends nights in there. He does have a cubbyhole with a warm blanket in it, but it still gets pretty cold in there.)

So I devised a cover made from an old cloth shower curtain, lined with one of those emergency blankets made of thin metallic foil. I reasoned that the holes in the shower curtain could be used to anchor the bottom with hooks so it wouldn’t blow. I then found a strip of wood around which to wrap the top edge, to hold everything together and to help secure it to the window frame. I also hung ropes over it in two places and secured them with safety pins, so I’d have a way to tie up the curtain when not in use.

Conveniently, the strip of wood I had chosen already had three holes in it, so I figured that would make it easier to screw the whole thing into the window frame. (I had to put pins with colored heads in the holes so I wouldn’t lose track of where they were after it was covered with the fabric). I thought I could drill right through the curtain and into the window frame to make the holes for the screws. Nothing doing! The fabric got all caught up in the drill bit, even after I made holes in it with a roofing nail.

Then I got an idea: Maybe I could just secure it with roofing nails instead? I wasn’t sure the nails would be strong enough, but it worked perfectly! Then, instead of hooks I decided to try three roofing nails for securing the bottom, and that worked fine too. So far, it seems only to keep it a few degrees warmer inside, but at least it will keep out the snow and the north winds. And I can finally cross this off my list and move on to the next challenge: covering the small gap in the door to keep out snakes and weasels!

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