Monday, July 28, 2014

A Dozen New Butterflies


Robb and I have now released twelve butterflies into the world.  We have a tankful of chrysalises, and no more caterpillars.  The fennel crop was a huge success in terms of butterfly-rearing, but a total failure for human consumption.  I don't know what's wrong with my garden. So much of what I try to grow turns out woody and stunted.  I can grow beans and kale and fruit trees with no problems, but I don't have luck with a many, many other plants.  I can't even tell you how many California wildflowers I've killed over the years.

Honestly though, if I never ate a single bite of homegrown fennel, that would be just fine with me.  Growing the fennel as a host-plant for butterflies, and having a small part of their growth is a magical experience, one that I wouldn't trade for anything.

If you want to read what the genuinely competent gardeners of the blogging world are up to, click here for the Daphne's weekly round-up.

For the record, I planted a dozen more roc d'or yellow bean plants, some white strawberries, and a self-fertile zucchini this weekend.  I really need to get the final scraping done on the garage, so that I can plant the flower bed in front of it. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Well THAT Didn't Work


Harriet, age ten days

Last night, after some rigamarole, I slipped two baby chicks underneath our dozing and broody hen Harriet.  The plan was to bamboozle her into thinking that she was their mother, taking advantage of her broodiness, sleepiness, and general lack of brains.  Harriet didn't fuss as the chickies snuggled underneath her. They all slept peacefully.

Then at some point in the morning, one of the babies fell out of the nest.  Robb replaced the chick under Harriet, who promptly and viciously attacked it.  After a few more unsuccessful attempts at re-introducing the chick, we took both babies away from Harriet. Chickens are social creatures, and we couldn't split up the pair of babies.

None of this was according to our plan.

In our ideal world, we'd stuff the baby chicks under Harriet, and walk away.  She'd raise them as her own, and we'd have a wonderfully integrated flock.

Instead, we've got baby chicks in the pantry and have no idea how we're going to introduce these young birds to our flock of grumpy hens. 

I'll say this for these two birds: they're incredibly friendly. When Robb and I got our other four birds, they acted like we were Horrible Chicken Murderers, screaming in terror and generally freaking out whenever we came near.  These two little birds spent the better part of the afternoon snuggled up with us.  The cuteness was overwhelming, and it almost made up for all this stupidity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New Baby Chicks -- Wish Us Luck!


Robb and I bought two baby chicks today in the hopes that our broody hen Harriet could be fooled into thinking that they were her own flesh-and-blood.  (That's what we were doing when we found the sweet ill-fated kitten.)

We realize that we're probably adding a whole lot more chaos into our lives by increasing the size of our flock. But we've never shied away from a little chaos, and anyway, it might be the best way to add some younger hens into the mix.  If the babies can be passed off as "family" hopefully there won't be a lot of conflict in the flock.

Fingers crossed.  We're hoping for the best, and preparing for bloodshed.

We had an elaborate plan about relocating Harriet into a private nestbox while she slept, waiting a while for her to settle down, and then slipping the two babies under her wings.  This is apparently a pretty traditional way of doing things.  Chickens aren't very smart, and have a strong biological drive to raise babies.

Harriet of course, was having none of this.

Robb fenced off part of the run under our henhouse, and when all the hens were asleep, I moved Harriet downstairs into her new nest. Much fussing ensued, but she eventually settled down.  I figured I'd wait about half an hour, and then slip the babies under her wings.

But in the mean time, Harriet somehow escaped through the fence that Robb had erected and had stalked back up the ladder into the henhouse-proper and had put herself back to bed in her own nestbox.  Back upstairs with all the other big hens, who might cause trouble for the babies. Great.  Who knew that Harriet was capable of tunneling under Robb's fencing? 

Oh well, the babies needed to sleep under a mother hen in order to stay warm.  Harriet needed to bond with the babies.  And I -- having been sick for the past few days -- needed to get to bed and quite mucking around with chicken sleeping arrangements.

So we unceremoniously stuffed the babies under Harriet, wrote a quick blog post, and when we last checked the chicks were yeep-yeep-yeeping underneath a dazed-looking Harriet.

Let's hope that everything goes smoothly in the morning, when the entire flock wakes up. 

Sadly, We Can't Save Them All.


Robb and I were at our favorite urban farm store talking to Birgitt (one of the owners) about what to plant in the late summer garden, when Robb noticed a tiny kitten resting behind a garbage can.  Robb picked it up, and realized what terrible shape it was in.  I've seen a lot of distressing eye problems in cats, but had never seen anything as bad as this.  This poor little fellow was a bag of bones, and Yolanda (the other owner) noticed that there was something amiss with his legs.

Robb and I drove over to our veterinarian, to see what could be done for this little dude.  The kitten curled up in Robb's arms and snuggled for all he was worth.

And when we got to the vet, the news was bad.  His eyes were the least of his problems.  His legs were so damaged that there was really no hope.  Even if we attempted to save his life, amputations and thousands of dollars of surgeries would be the starting place for his treatment.

I have that crazy Must Save All Animals gene, but this was a kitten I could not help.  I'm just heartbroken about this, and feel a terrible sense of guilt. There was no hope, and we opted for euthanasia, which I know is painless (Robb and I were present at the end of our kitty Niobe's life, so we're familiar with the process).

I know that sometimes death is the kindest option, but I feel terribly conflicted for being responsible for ushering this kitty to its end. 

Please everyone, cuddle your beloved pets extra hard.  And if you see a sad stray animal, stop and see if you can help it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More Butterflies -- Blue Ones This Time


Our tiny urban backyard is something of an oasis for butterflies.  And once in a while, we'll see a new kind.

I think this is a Common Checked Skipper. It's a small butterfly with a furry blue body.  It was feeding on our asters, which are always buzzing with insect life.

How about you? Have you noticed any new creatures around where you live?

(For those keeping score, Robb released a fifth Anise Swallowtail butterfly yesterday.)


Monday, July 21, 2014



Our chicken Harriet has gone broody.  She has parked herself in one of the nest boxes in the hen house and is determined to incubate eggs.

There are just a few problems with this plan.  Chief among them is the fact that we don't have a rooster.  No rooster means no nookie, which means that our hens lay unfertilized eggs that will never develop into baby chicks.  The second big problem with Harriet's egg-hatching scheme is that neither she nor any of the other chickens have laid any eggs  at all for over a week.  Harriet is dutifully sitting on ... nothing.  And her behavior has apparently thrown all of the rest of the flock into such an uproar that they have all forgotten how to lay eggs at all.

There is plenty written about what to do when a hen goes broody. The advice ranges from the bizarre to the downright cruel.  ("Alter your chicken's hormonal urges by dunking her in a barrel of ice water!")

Robb and I tend to let animals be animals.  If nobody's getting sick, if everyone is eating well and not acting too crazy, we tend to leave things alone.  We do lift Harriet out of the nest box a few times a day so that she can drink and eat and do chickeny things.

Harriet is pretty grumpy about our interference.  She keeps up an irate monologue of fussy clucking, and has her hackles raised.  If you've ever seen a male turkey during mating season, with all of his feathers puffed out, you'll have some idea of how our chubby Harriet looks.  Except that instead of having a majestic turkey tail to display as a symbol of sexual prowess, she has diminutive chicken tail-feathers atop an ample booty.  Harriet is many things, but majestic is not one of them.

As Harriet's broodiness enters its second week, Robb and I are starting to consider buying some fertilized eggs or baby chicks to slip into her nest.  We really don't need any more animals, but the lure of baby chicks is pretty tempting.

Hopefully, Harriet will come to her senses before Robb and I take leave of ours.

For a glimpse into other gardens around the blogging world, visit the weekly round-up at Daphne's place.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Brand New Butterflies!


I've been insanely busy at work, trying to keep a particularly lovely project on-schedule.  And during this time, my tank full of caterpillars has mostly all morphed into silent mysterious chrysalises.  I find these fascinatingly enigmatic.  I watch, wait and ... wonder.

Watching is one of those quiet activities that I think we could all do a lot more of.  How much do we notice the world as it swirls around us?

Only a very keen observer would notice the changes inside of this seemingly lifeless object.   Only a weirdo like me would spend so much time peering at chrysalises, looking for changes.

If you compare the two images of the same chrysalis, you'll notice that in the lower photograph the shell seems more translucent.  You can discern patterns of a butterfly's wing through the walls of the chrysalis.

Twenty minutes after I took that photograph (and after I gave Robb a particularly boring lecture about how I thought this butterfly was about to hatch) I walked past the holding tank and saw this newly-emerged butterfly.

It takes several hours for a butterfly to inflate its crumpled new wings. Robb and I went for a bike ride, and when we came back the butterfly was ready to fly off into the world.  This particular creature did not linger.  We opened the top of her enclosure, and off she flew.

Later this afternoon, it occurred to me that I had better do something about the one caterpillar who had escaped the tank and built her cocoon on one of my indoor orchid plants.

I wandered back to the pantry, and found a beautiful butterfly perched on my plants, slowly moving her strong straight wings. Thankfully this was a calm butterfly, that I was able to carry outside without any drama.  Neither butterfly nor transporter were adversely affected by the trip from pantry to back yard.

The butterfly did not fly away immediately.  She clung to the orchid that had supported her chrysalis for the past few weeks, allowing me an opportunity to take a few photographs.  Did I seem like a looming monster, to this newly emerged butterfly, or did she even notice me at all?

The day was getting late, and I was somewhat concerned that this butterfly would be warm enough to fly so I carefully placed the potted plant inside the tank (something I should have done weeks ago).  At one point the butterfly faltered, and fell off the plant.  She crawled, dragging her wings on the floor of the tank.  I held my breath. She struggled to find purchase on the slick glass walls, and so I offered her a hand. She climbed onto my finger, clasping gently with the ends of her delicate legs. I slowly lifted her out of the tank.  She held on for a few moments, and then flew off to our neighbors' magnolia tree, where her wings blended perfectly with the foliage.

 I'll never tire of releasing winged creatures into the wild.

(For those keeping score, we've now released four butterflies in the past two weeks.)


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