Mail Call: January/February 2013

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Ruby dutifully watches over the young chicks.
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Deb's chicken palace, from the chick'n'coop sweepstakes by GRIT.
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Deb's chicks are exploring thier new home.
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The question whether to till or not is always situational – if you have healthy, fluffy soil that is rich with earthworms, tilling probably isn’t a great idea. If your garden soil isn’t very friable yet and insects have been eating your crops, tilling in the fall is a great strategy that can help reduce the number of harmful insects that make it to spring.
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Lard lets any baker make perfect pie crusts.
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Virginia Norland hanging out in the yard with her chickens.

Chick’n’Coop Winner

The coop arrived a couple of weeks ago, all set up except for the run. Dan and the other dude from GreenChickenCoop.com were wonderful. They were a bit surprised that a dozen university students and friends were here for the official arrival of “Deb’s Chicken Palace” (their title, not mine!). Everyone pitched in to get it off the truck and situated. I served lemonade and beer, and everyone was happy. A couple of students brought an acoustic bass and a horn, and they played salsa and merengue, and other fun music — including a piece called “The Chicken Coop Waltz.” My husband, Reid Hamilton, is the chaplain of Canterbury House, the Episcopal Ministry to the University of Michigan, so the second call I made to tell about winning the chicken coop was to one of the graduate students. They are all so excited about the chickens. It was great!

Then a couple days later, we drove to Muskegon, Michigan, and picked up 14 chicks — two each of seven different varieties, all a week old. So that makes them three weeks old, today. Not ready to live in their new digs yet, but great. We don’t really want 14, but we’re pretty sure at least some of them will be boys. I took lots of photographs the first week, a few the next, and tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll get some three-week portraits. We’re starting to take them out into the backyard grass to play around every day — except that now it’s gotten much cooler, and we’re still trying to keep them warm. They’re double the size they were, and they eat so much! They’re an absolute blast. One chick had a splayed leg that my husband noticed the first night home, and in the middle of the night, after reading on the Internet about what to do, I woke him up, and we “hobbled” its legs using an adhesive strip. For several days he worked hard to get it off, so he didn’t eat as much as the others. We took it off four days later, and his leg was strong and well. A day or two after that, he was chowing down like the others.

In a week or two, we’ll have the run set up, and they’ll be big enough to move into their new home. We’ve been working with our middle dog, Ruby, a Border Collie/Boxer mix, on her herding skills, and she completely believes they are her responsibility to care for. She’s got one heck of a nudge, and the birds love her. Our oldest dog, Max, a pit mix who is 14, isn’t too impressed, but gives them a quick kiss on the head when he’s around. We work with them every day, and, of course, the chicks will never be loose with them or loose in the yard if one of us isn’t around.

Just as with dogs, we really believe the fun we get from the chicks will far outweigh the hassle of all the precautions.

Debra Garner
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Congratulations, Debra, on winning the Chick’n’Coop sweepstakes! We’re glad you’re enjoying your new chicks, poultry run and feed, and we hope that they’ll have happy, healthy lives with your family. — Editors 

Tilling Troubles

In the November/December 2012 issue’s “Wit and Wisdom” section, you suggested tilling gardens in the fall to expose insects to freezing. I really don’t agree with that because you would also bring up and destroy earthworms that are extremely beneficial to the garden soil. It would also cause soil loss. I feel it is best to just keep the garden soil covered over the winter with leaves, straw, etc.

On the subject of pollinators, you could try a “beneficial berm.” Lay out a narrow lasagna bed along the side of your garden in the fall (this will help turn the turf into soil without tilling). In the spring, plant flowers such as Larkspur, which attract the bees. I have tried a beehive that the bears destroyed, and found the berm to be as effective as well, and it doesn’t attract bears.

Also, from 10 Practical Uses for Eggshells in the blog Fresh Eggs Daily, you can also put them [eggshells] in a blender with some water for use as grit and moisture in a composting worm bin. I also use the ground-up eggshells around bulbs when planting, in the hope of deterring critters that eat my bulbs. In addition to chickens, I currently have three worm bins, and do a lot of worm-composting school programs.

As you can tell, I love your magazine and read it cover to cover.

Elaine Nordmeyer
Hubbardton, Vermont
Master Gardener, Master Composter

Those are great ideas, Elaine! The question whether to till or not is always situational — if you have healthy, fluffy soil that is rich with earthworms, tilling probably isn’t a great idea. If your garden soil isn’t very friable yet and insects have been eating your crops, tilling in the fall is a great strategy that can help reduce the number of harmful insects that make it to spring. Along with crop rotation, it can help you cut down on pesticide use or avoid it entirely. — Editors

Perfect Pie Crust

I have always made pie crust with lard, never, never anything else; my Aunt Eliza taught me how to make the crust.

She added the lard to flour and cut it in until the mixture stuck together when gently squeezed in the hand. Then she added just enough cold water to form a ball, being careful to not add too much water. I usually cut the lard and flour in a big batch and keep it in the fridge — when I want to make a pie I just take what I need for that pie and add the right amount of water.

It is the flakiest, most tender crust one can make — with very little practice you can make a perfect pie crust.

Agnes Conway
via email

Agnes, we definitely agree — for pie crust, lard is certainly the way to go! — Editors

Gift of Chickens

My mom, Virginia Norland, turned 90 years old last May; she is still very active and loves being outdoors.

For her birthday, my brother Tom gave her three little Bantam hens, and my son Steve built her a pen in the backyard. Mom was delighted!

She named her girls Martha, Molly and Matilda; when Martha was trying to keep her eggs to set, my brother then brought her four fertile eggs from his farm for Martha to set on. Two of the eggs hatched, and Mom’s little family grew. Melvin and Marilyn were added, and then she recently acquired Margie and Myrna; her once-small family is now a flock.

Mom cleans their pen every morning and gives them fresh water and special treats like cantaloupe, watermelon or lettuce. She goes out several times a day to check on the girls and talks to them — sometimes I think they understand her, as they all come running when they see her coming.

About dark, Mom goes out with her flashlight and closes the roost box, after making sure they are all inside.

When Myrna came, she would not go up the ramp to the roost box, so every night Mom would pick her up and help her “walk” up the ramp to the box. After several nights of doing this, Myrna now goes up the ramp by herself. Who says you can’t teach an old chick new tricks!

Judy Massey
Topeka, Kansas

Awesome story, Judy! Thank you for sharing it with all of us. We find that raising animals is often its own rich reward, as your mother has undoubtedly discovered. — Editors

Under Pressure

The recent article by Linda Heitman you printed in GRIT (Save Money by Canning Food at Home, September/October 2012) was excellent.

I’d like to comment on the subject of pressure canners. In 1976, I made the mistake of opening the canner before all the pressure was released.

I spent a month in the hospital, another month at home recuperating, and it took six months after that before I could work an eight-hour shift! I have just taken up pressure canning again after a 36-year hiatus, only doing open kettle canning for all those years. I used to put by 500 quarts per year. Now the family size is smaller, but my freezer only holds so much, so I’m back to pressure canning.

My point is that you need to make sure that all the pressure is gone — I mean down to ZERO — before opening the canner.

Robin Schneider
Burlington, Wisconsin

Excellent point, Robin! We’re glad to hear that you’re giving it another shot. Many pressure canners manufactured recently have a number of safety features, one of which is that it won’t open if there’s still pressure, to prevent just that type of accident. When canning, the best advice around is always to use common sense and to follow the instructions exactly. — Editors

Fun, Easy Recipes

Your September/October 2012 issue was great! The article Save Money by Canning Food at Home by Linda Heitman was packed full of great ways to put up the fall harvest, especially the Honey Apple Butter recipe that you make in the crock pot. I made it using pears, too, omitting the cinnamon and adding some lemon juice, and it turned out great! My friends all love it as well.

Also the Heirloom Spaghetti Sauce was fun and very easy. I plan on doing the lard next. The pressure canner information and instructions were nice to have as pressure canning seemed intimidating to me. She made it sound so easy that I am ready to try it. Thanks, Linda!

The recipe for the Bean and Sausage Soup was very good and easy to make. I used fresh tomatoes from my garden.

This issue has found its way into my favorite canning and cookbooks since I haven’t been able to file it away!

Gina Stack
Blue Mounds, Wisconsin

We’re glad to hear it, Gina! We hope you continue to enjoy those recipes for years to come. Let us know how the pressure canning goes! — Editors

Share your thoughts

GRIT welcomes letters from our readers. If you would like to comment on an article or share your opinions, send a letter (with high-resolution photographs, if available) to GRIT, Mail Call, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609, or email us at Letters@Grit.com.

Published on Nov 26, 2012

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