Sunday, June 22, 2014

Return of A Little Red Hen

Reports of my death were an exaggeration.”

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clements)
The New York Journal, June 2, 1897.

At first I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps an onset of Alzheimer’s disease, when I stood at the kitchen sink where a window looks out toward the chicken house. I saw one of the little red hens, presumed dead two days before, walking into the west side of the chicken house. The two little red hens had disappeared from their isolation room in the evening, leaving behind only a wealth of red feathers. They were missing and presumed dead, as the saying goes. I had even written a blob post called, “Farewell To the Little Red Hens,” so my fear of hallucinations was not unfounded.

It was time for a reality check. “Dennis, I think one of the little red hens has returned! I swear I saw one walk into the big door of the chicken house.”

Dennis went to check and returned announcing, “It is true. She is sitting on that makeshift nest I made for them, apparently laying an egg.”

Where did she spend two days and nights? How did she escape the predator that killed her companion? Why did she come home to lay an egg? She isn’t telling.

Now I know how the editors of the newspapers that mistakenly reported the death of Mark Twain must have felt.

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer

Friday, June 20, 2014

Farewell To The Little Red Hens

For several weeks the eggs we collected from our little flock of hens were dirty, sticky, and coated with bits of eggshell. Cleaning the eggs was a messy task. Every evening Dennis would bring in a basket of eggs and say, “Another broken egg today.” Finally, when the nests themselves began to smell bad, we knew something had to be done.

I had a strong suspicion that the two red sex-link hens were laying the fragile eggs. Red sex-link chickens are a cross between two breeds, white leghorn and Rhode Island reds. They are called sex-links because, unlike other baby chicks, baby red sex-link males and females look quite different and can easily be sorted out. The red sex-link hens are rather small birds, but they lay jumbo brown eggs. No matter how much oyster shell we provided, the tiny birds’ bodies were so depleted of calcium that their eggs often broke when we picked them up or when other hens got into the nest to lay their eggs.

Dennis decided to isolate the two red hens from the flock to see if the fragile eggs were indeed theirs. He picked the birds off the roost at night and put them into a separate room of the chicken house together with food and water. Sure enough, no more broken eggs showed up in the nests and the red hens laid their fragile eggs in a little separate nest.

After the little red hens had been isolated for three days Dennis began to feel sorry for them so he opened the door to the outside so they could get fresh air and sunshine. Out they rushed, happy to be outside again. They roamed the yard looking for bugs.

These little hens were very tame and enjoyed being around people. When either Dennis or I went outside, they followed us everywhere. Dennis even allowed them to follow him into the fenced-off garden, where they continued their pursuit of insects but ignored all the growing vegetables.

Last night Dennis got home late and when he went to close up the chickens for the night he found a flurry of red feathers, but no little red hens. Obviously some predator had killed them and carried their bodies away.

We feel sad to have their lives end this way, but we’re glad that for two glorious weeks they got to be free-ranging chickens. This morning I ate their last jumbo egg for breakfast. Its shell was paper thin.

We remember these sweet birds fondly, but never again will we add red sex-links to our flock.

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Gooseberry Innovations

Mid-June is always gooseberry time. Gooseberries are native to Kansas, but they naturally occur in the woods or at the woods’ edge, where they receive little sunlight and consequently produce few berries. We never managed to find enough for even one pie until Dennis transplanted three wild bushes into our yard, where they get more sun and produce more berries.

Picking gooseberries is hazardous work because the branches are lined with vicious thorns that draw blood. My dad used to wear a leather glove to protect the hand he used to lift the branches, but he never manage to avoid being stabbed a time or two.

Traditionally in our family we picked all the berries, large and small, on a bush at one time. This year Dennis decided to pick only the largest berries, leaving the smaller ones to continue growing. He brings in a few berries every day or two and so far the little berries are getting larger.

Picking isn’t the only task involved in gooseberries. Every berry has both a stem and a brown “beard,” the dried remnant of the blossom, both of which have to be removed.

We used to sit at the table stemming gooseberries for hours, pinching the stems and beards off with our fingernails. Arthritis put an end to my participation in that task, leaving all the work to Dennis. Now, he, too, has arthritic thumbs, so we’ve changed with the times. We use tiny scissors to trim the stems and beards.

It will take more than arthritic hands to stop us from enjoying tart gooseberry pies and sauces. We probably will be harvesting and cooking gooseberries until we die.

For more gooseberry photos see “Gooseberry Time,” June 14, 2011:

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer

Friday, June 13, 2014

Whad'ya Know – Radicchio

This year I didn’t start spring vegetables such as broccoli from seeds, so we bought broccoli plants at a nursery. Then Dennis went to the Lawrence Farmers Market and stopped by a booth selling starter plants. He came home with an odd assortment of four-packs, including a heritage red and green, cos-type lettuce called Forellenschluss, radicchio, arugula, and cilantro. Set into the garden the arugula and cilantro shot up and went to seed before we could harvest them. We should have direct seeded those instead of buying plants.

The Forellenschluss matured in a more timely manner and was a good investment. Dennis harvested the heads by cutting them at the base and now the roots, which he didn’t disturb, are growing new lettuce heads.

One radicchio shot up and started a seed head, so that one went to the chickens, who pronounced it delicious. Yesterday Dennis harvested a radicchio that was, as Goldilocks would say, “just right.” I pulled off the outer leaves for the chickens and was left with this pretty rosette, shown here in a cereal bowl.

Here it is again, this time resting on freshly-harvested broccoli.

Radicchio is a perennial chicory. If we aren't too lazy we can double the output by digging up the radicchio roots, potting them in peat moss, and putting them in the basement to grow again. Like the lettuce, it also would re-grow in the garden, but it grows more slowly and wouldn’t do well if hot weather comes, which surely will happen.

My grocery store sells radicchio heads for $3.99, so I’ve concluded that Dennis made a couple of wise purchases at the farmers market.

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Counting Our Blessings

Once in a blue moon eastern Kansas has a cool, rainy spring. In spite of a few days of early hot, dry weather, our spring has changed its mind and is giving us cool days and plentiful rain.

The rain has saved the wheat crop, at least it has in Douglas County, and the fields of corn are shooting up.

Similarly, in our garden, tomato plants are three feet tall, there is an abundance of peas with more blooms coming, and flowerbeds are exuberant, like this bed by our patio, where an unexpected crop of blue and pink larkspur has superceded the iris. The thirty-year-old pink clematis completes the color scheme in this edge-of-the-woods garden.

We consider this weather a special blessing. Water is running in Chicken Creek below the house, the kitchen garden is flourishing, birds are singing all day, and beauty is all around us.

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Like Watching Fireworks

Late spring is like a fireworks display. One flash, succeeded by another and another. Spring flowers and vegetables come and go so quickly they blur together into one exuberant burst.  Tulips are a distant memory. Iris and poppies came and went too quickly. The last lettuce is stuffed into the refrigerator but now the broccoli is coming on strong.

The spinach has gone to seed, but now peas are waiting to be shelled and more to be picked. The potato plants are blooming, which means there will be little potatoes to harvest for one of our favorite spring dishes, creamed peas and new potatoes.

Today I made two batches of strawberry jam, but ran out of time to prepare the broccoli for freezing. That task will wait for tomorrow, but by the time it is done, two more will be waiting. This morning a strange pink sky promised rain, which came generously. No doubt even more garden produce will result.

Thank goodness I have a new reliable hip to keep me going through the exhilarating rush of spring.

Copyright 2014 by Shirley Domer