Saturday, April 25, 2015

Seed Starting with Park's Biodome

I have not been very successful at starting tomatoes from seed since I've moved to my current home in Chesapeake, VA. My old place had no trees around it. One bedroom was very hot and sunny, so it was relatively easy to start seeds there. Our current home is blessed with beautiful, mature trees which shade in summer, but I miss the ease with which I started my own plants.

Park Seed Company may have answers for my seed-starting problems. I recently purchased a Biodome with "Whopper" sized cells. I went for the large size because I prefer to transplant my started vegetables straight into my garden, and I know from experience that tomatoes grow so fast that they often are crowded if I start them six weeks or so before the average last frost date, as is often recommended for getting the quickest start on the growing season. The Biodome is designed to keep the plants' roots separated from each other to make transplanting easier. The whole unit is designed to be reusable, although I'll need to reorder Biosponges (see below) from the company and disinfect the styrofoam unit that holds the sponges.

The Biodome comes with a premoistened growing medium called a "biosponge" that already has holes or dimples in it for planting. The germination rate is usually good enough, according to the company, that the gardener can plant just one seed in each hole. After planting and labeling, I put about 1/2" of lukewarm water in the bottom of the tray in accordance with the directions.


Park's Biodome all planted and labeled


Then I put the whole tray on a Kwik Grow Heat Mat, which I had patiently waited for, since it had been backordered. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants germinate much better in warm conditions, so I know we'll get many years of use out of this piece of equipment.


Par's' Biodome, all labeled, watered, and ready to sprout!


I also ordered a table top Grow Light to provide sufficient light for our plants after they germinate. We want them to grow healthy and strong, and they need sufficient light to do that. This light is full-spectrum so will be the next best thing to sunlight.


Park's Biodome with Kwik Grow Heat Mat and Grow Light, all ready to grow!


So what did I plant in the Biodome? Here is the list of seeds, all from Parks:

  • Salsa Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Amadeo Hybrid Eggplant (2)
  • Sweet Rainbow Pepper Blend (3)
  • Parks Whopper Tomato (2)
  • Beefy Boy Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Maskotka Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Parks Nectar Hybrid (2)
  • Astris Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Karma Hybrid Pepper (1)
I planted a little more than I need, but I have a friend who's looking for some of the plants. My only suggestions (so far) for improvement for the company are as follows:
  1. Label tomatoes as determinate or indeterminate with some idea of how tall they grow. This information is available on the website, but I didn't take notes. It would just be convenient to have it on the package.
  2. The Biodome comes with fertilizer for the seedlings. Somehow I doubt this is organic. Again, there's no labeling. I would prefer (and would even pay extra for) an organic alternative. Maybe I can do a little online research to see what might work. 
  3. I'm not too crazy about styrofoam from an environmental point of view. I suppose since it's reusable, it might be OK. Again, it doesn't seem right, somehow, for an organic gardener to be starting her seedlings in a styrofoam tray. Isn't it full of chemicals?
  4. Parks seems to offer more hybrids than other companies. When I shopped, I was disappointed not to find more heirlooms, but I'll see how these plants perform before making a final judgment on this. I don't save seeds, so this may not matter that much to me, personally, in the long run. I'm happy with the company's no GMO pledge and realize there's a big difference between a GMO (genetically modified organism) and a hybrid.
If readers have suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Please note that I am getting a late start this year. It's well after our average last frost date. But I am so excited about the particular varieties of seeds I purchased this year and still want to try growing these before getting plants from a local nursery or big box store. Many of these varieties offer superior disease resistance, incredible flavor, and other interesting traits. Plus I got a discount on some of my purchases by waiting until this late in the season to purchase.

**Update on 5/3/15:

It's been a busy week for the tomato, pepper, and eggplants I planted just last weekend. The Biodome kept the seeds very moist, but it was so humid, I had a hard time seeing through the plastic dome. Between the heat mat and the Biodome, the seeds sprouted much more quickly than the seed packet said they would. As a result, a few of my tomato seedlings got very "leggy" or thin-stemmed, because they were reaching for what little light there was in the room. I failed to see them and provide artificial light in a timely manner. My fault.

Thin stems are a problem, because they make the tomatoes more susceptible to certain diseases and pests.

As soon as I realized they were sprouting, I got the grow light going. I keep it as close to the plants as I can, just above the plastic tags that indicate the variety of plant. Everything I've read said to keep the light just an inch or two from the plants as they grow, so they get enough light and develop strong stems. I removed the Biodome lid when about half my seedlings sprouted and removed the heat mat as well. The remaining seeds germinated more slowly, but they still germinated. And the newer seedlings are growing straight, sturdy stems and turning beautifully green, thanks to the grow light.

I'm still waiting on the Parks Whopper and Maskotka Hybrid tomatoplants to germinate, as well as one of the Rainbow Blend peppers, but I suspect they will, soon, because I can see their swollen little seed heads starting to pop up toward the light.


Parks' Tomato, Pepper, and Eggplant Seedlings after one week in the Biodome


The seedlings will need a weak dose of fertilizer once they form their first true leaves. I talked to Don about this, and we are going to try using a very dilute solution of worm tea from our vermicomposting system instead of the fertilizer that came with the Biodome, because the latter is probably not organic. I told Don that I've killed seedlings in the past with worm tea, but he thinks I probably gave them too strong a dose.

So when the time comes, I'll put him in charge, and we'll give it a try. The worst that can happen is that we kill the seedlings and have to start over. In the meantime, I am saving toilet paper rolls. Another problem I've had in the past is cutworms killing my tender tomatoes plants soon after I transplant them out. I have read that if you plant the tomatoes inside a toilet paper roll, the collar around the stem discourages the cutworms. Worth a try.

I also read that tomato stems grow stronger if you simulate the wind blowing on them, either by gently blowing a fan on them for an hour every day or by gently touching them every time you walk by. I have a pen on the table and gently tap them every time I think of it.

Update on May 10, 2015:

Happy Mothers' Day! I feel like a mother to the baby pepper and tomato plants that have been thriving so far in my Park's Biodome. The Nectar and Beefy Boy Hybrids already are developing their first set of true leaves. This means I should be fertilizing them soon, but I don't feel I should until all or most of the other plants are ready for it. If I'd started a whole flat of the same plant, it wouldn't be an issue. The Maskotka Hybrid tomatoes are the only plants that have not germinated so far. I see little seed heads swelling, so I hope they'll germinate this week. They are really slow growers.

Tomatoes and pepper seedlings. Note a few plants have their first set of true leaves.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Preparations for Spring Garden Season

I found out at a family gathering that my cousin, Paul, is now president and CEO of a seed company. He put some catalogs in my hand, and I made the mistake of taking them home. Let's just say that I wasn't planning to put a lot of time, energy, or money into my garden this summer. Let's just say I changed my mind.

Or rather Park Seed changed my mind.

What do I like about Park Seed?

  1. It has been around a long time, since 1868. Experience counts in the seed business, and Park boasts of its superior germination rates.
  2. It has a GMO free pledge. I want to grow natural and healthy vegetables.
  3. Its seeds are grown in South Carolina. The company boasts many varieties of vegetables and plants that resist the heat, humidity, and diseases prone to the South. I live in Southeastern Virginia, so I like plants that resist powdery mildew, for example. Park boasts several of these.
  4. Park has exclusive and time-tested varieties of plants that I can't find elsewhere. I can't wait to try their "Park's Whopper" hybrid tomatoes, which the catalog tells me have superior flavor and unbeatable disease resistance.
  5. Park offers a variety of practical-sounding options for seed starting. 
I have had problems starting seeds since moving to my current home, partly due to a lack of sunlight in our front windows. Seeds haven't germinated well and have produced weak plants that developed problems due to too much moisture. I am hoping Park's "Biodome" seed starting kit with a grow light and heat mat will fix all that. I plan to use the setup to start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants indoors.

I also bought flowers to intersperse around my vegetables to attract and feed pollinators and beneficial insects. I plan to intersperse some "Golden Guardian" marigolds with my tomatoes and peppers to discourage harmful nematode worms, too. "Golden Guardian" is supposed to be more effective than the chemicals that I refuse to use, anyway.

I purchased tomatoes and flowers for growing in containers on the sunny side of our house and other flower seeds to plant in a garden on the shady side of our house. The shady side has notoriously difficult growing conditions, so I will be pleased if any of the varieties I ordered will grow there. I looked for varieties that are very hardy and grow in partial shade, a tall order for most flowers.

Specifics about what seeds I ordered: Coneflowers, Park's Exculsive Tomato Seed Collection, Summer Glory Blend Lettuce Seeds, Thai Siam Queen Basil, German Chamomile, Calypso Cilantro, Dill, Amadeo Eggplant, Our Best Pepper Seeds Collection, Maskotka Hybrid Tomato, Astra Double Mix Balloon Flower, Finest Mix Astilbe, Rose Bergenia, Whirlybird MIx Nasturtium, Golden Guardian Marigold, Purple Hybrid Petunia, Sunspot Sunflower, Vinca Flower, plus a Pro Hand Seeder to help me plant all the seeds!

I promise pictures and details when my order arrives and I start planting. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite seed sources and spring gardening tips in the comments below.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

How to Cook Fresh Eggs

Post by my friend Valerie Jean Cudnick, posted with permission. Fresh eggs are hard to peel when hard boiled:

With Easter coming up the how to cook eggs posts are showing up again. When the topic came up last year, I did my own test: 

Batch 1: added baking soda
Batch 2 added vinegar
Batch 3 steamed (steam for 20 minutes, then plunge into ice water)
Batch 4 started the water at a boil and plunged the eggs in all at once
Batch 5 old boil & cool method with nothing added to the water

***Results*** steamed won out by far. Eggs peeled very easily, even super-fresh.

Baking soda & vinegar additions peeled about the same (better than traditional method with nothing added to the water, but not much), but the baking soda eggs were rubbery.

Method 4 resulted in no difference in ability to peel, was just more trouble.

Granted I only did 4 of each method, 'cause that's 20 eggs. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Where to purchase chickens in Southeastern VA

The question of where to buy chicks, hens, or pullets comes up frequently on 4 Chesapeake Hens' website, especially in the spring and early summer. Here is a list to get you started, adapted from a file posted by Hampton Roads Hens (borrowed with permission). A listing here does not necessarily mean an endorsement: this list is for informational purposes only.

Mermare's Cottage Farm in Virginia Beach
Lucky Duck Landing Farm in Virginia Beach
Little Blessings Orps specializes in Orpingtons
Hampton Roads Chicken Swap on Facebook

Speaking of chicken swaps, you can find these small animal buy/sell/trade events on Craigslist, through signs in farm supply stores, and through Pet Chickens of Virginia or Hampton Roads Chicken Swap.The advantage of chicken swaps is you can meet the people you're trading with directly and see the condition of the animals you are buying. One disadvantage is that biosecurity can be a huge issue at these events and you might bring unwanted diseases home.

Speaking of biosecurity, if you already have poultry, have a quarantine area set up for your new birds before introducing them to your established birds. Viruses take time to manifest themselves. Chicken Health for Dummies suggests keeping the flocks at least 30' apart for 30 days and making sure you feed and water the more established flock before tending to the new one. Other manuals suggest keeping the flocks apart for at least two weeks. The chickens may look perfectly healthy but harbor viruses, anyway. Signs are more likely to show up and the viruses more likely to shed when the chickens suffer stress due to moving. Live poultry, even those cute chicks, can harbor salmonella, so practice safe handling practices, including for your children. Here are ideas from the CDC.

Back to listings: Craigslist also has listings for chickens if you run searches for "pullets." You can search using other terms, but you'll tend to have to wade through lots of posts selling decorative items.

Farm supply stores stock chicks in the spring. Tractor Supply (various locations), Southern States (various locations), Epps Farm Supply in Suffolk, Farmer's Feed and Seed in Suffolk and Windsor, St. Bride's Feed and Farm Supply in Chesapeake, Currituck Feed and Seed in NC, all sell chicks in the spring. Some sell older pullets or young hens, too. Realize that many farm supply stores sell chicks they've ordered from hatcheries (see below), so if you are looking to buy local, ask questions before you buy.

If you are willing to mail-order chicks, here is a list of some hatcheries:

Hatcheries/websites:

Please keep in mind that being mailed is stressful, perhaps even dangerous, for the chicks. Some hatcheries will pack extra roosters around the pullets (sexed females), especially in the winter, to keep the girls warm, even if you specifically ordered females. Be aware of each company's policies. Also realize that there may be some humane issues with chicks that come from hatchery stock, whether you get them by mail order or not, a problem that is exacerbated by the demand for pullets over cockerels.

If you live in an area that does not allow roosters, realize that "straight run" means unsexed birds. You WILL have roosters included in the mix. "Sexed" birds in a farm supply store or from a hatchery mean that the chickens have been professionally vent-sexed, and there is a 90% chance or better that you are getting females. This still means you will be getting occasional roosters that you need to make plans for. If anyone guarantees the birds are pullets (female) but won't put the guarantee in writing that they will take roosters back, walk away. If you want to buy fertile eggs and hatch your own chicks, remember there is no way to sex eggs. You will still need a plan for unwanted roosters, which should average about 50% of your chicks.

Be responsible. The plan should NOT be to dump them somewhere. Be realistic. The plan should NOT be to eat them if you don't have the skills or the heart to do that. Some localities, like Chesapeake, prohibit slaughtering chickens in residential areas. The plan should NOT be to keep them if prohibited, either. They crow loudly and will quickly become a nuisance to the neighbors. Too many roosters will fight and will wear out the hens, too. They have a strong sexual libido. Some can turn overprotective of their females and attack people, especially children. The plan should NOT be to take them to animal control except as a last resort; excess numbers of unwanted chickens turned in can jeopardize the legality of chicken-keeping for more responsible owners. A responsible plan is to have arranged with someone out in the country IN ADVANCE to take unwanted roosters, or to have plans to eat them that are legal and you know you can follow through with, or to start with older pullets that can be sexed, young hens just starting to lay if you can find them, or sexed chicks.

Auto-sexing breeds of chickens are relatively rare. These are breeds where the males and females look different upon hatching. But hybrid sex-link chickens are relatively easy to find. These are crosses between two different breeds of chicken where the male and female chicks can easily be told apart due to differences in coloration. You can know with 100% certainty that you are getting females, and the hybrids are usually very consistent layers.

Be aware that some farmers will sell hens that are two years old or older or even spent hens (past laying age) as young hens. After the age of two, egg production slows down as the hen ages. Know who you're dealing with, and let the buyer beware.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to get backyard chickens legalized in Virginia's cities: one perspective

I am the founder of a grassroots network, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied the Chesapeake City Council to make up to six "female chickens" legal in the backyards of all single-family residential lots, with certain restrictions.

Bernadette Barber is a Virginia Farmer who is pushing for the Virginia Food Freedom Act. This act, if passed, would allow all Virginians to sell their homemade foods and baked goods legally to others under the following conditions:

  1. The sale is made face-to-face,
  2. The maker's name and address is labeled on the item sold,
  3. The list of ingredients is included on the label.
Right now Bernadette cannot legally make a pie with farm-fresh eggs and other ingredients grown right on her own farm and sell it to her neighbors. To do that legally would require government inspection and approval.

This makes little sense to me.

Anyway, Bernadette says her group has been getting many inquiries about backyard chickens. She asked me to write a post about how to get them legalized in cities. I agreed, so here is my advice:

1. Have a thick skin. In the course of your efforts you will hear all kinds of negative comments about what you are trying to do, about how City Council will never listen to you because you're not a rich developer, etc. If you feel you are right, keep going. If you get answers from government officials, and they don't sound right because they don't jibe with your research (see below) or don't seem well documented by facts, don't give up.

2. At the same time, listen to people. If these same people are spreading misinformation, find out what it is so you can do your research and counter it. If there are valid concerns, work on addressing them.

For example, a Virginia "depredation law" originally required Animal Control Officers who caught a dog in the act of killing a chicken to kill the dog on the spot. This concern was unsuccessfully raised by those who opposed backyard hens in Chesapeake. And it has been one of the roadblocks thrown against our sister group "4 Virginia Beach Hens" in a neighboring town. This state law was disturbing, so our group combined with the Virginia Beach group to address this law at the state level. Once it came to several humane organizations' attention, we had no difficulty in getting this law changed so that ACOs had the option to seize the dog, instead. Problem solved.

3. Do your research. Our group has the reputation in Cheseapeake of being polite and extremely well-informed. This has gone a long way with City Council.

Start with actually reading the ordinances that address keeping backyard chickens in your community. Don't just call zoning: actually get the ordinances and read them. They are often available online through Municode or you can go to your local public library for help.

Read all you can about backyard flocks. Read the CDC and USDA websites on keeping chickens and disease prevention, too. Other good resources are Chickens and You, including 7 false myths about urban chickens. Pat Foreman, a Virginia resident, wrote a book called City Chicks that has good information and a chapter about changing city ordinances. Any information you can get from government or university publications should carry extra weight and be even more useful. We also found it helpful to research when and why chickens were first banned in residential areas in Chesapeake.

Did you know that, under Virginia law, chickens under the age of eight weeks of age can only be sold in flocks of six or more? This is a good example of doing your research before heading to council. A neighboring municipality only allows four birds, for example. Its residents are often frustrated when they stop at a farm supply store for chicks in the spring and are told they may only buy six or more. Research leads to better planning in advance to hopefully avoid these kinds of situations.

4. Network, reminding your supporters to be polite and well-informed every step of the way. Find ways of using your volunteers' strengths: whatever they are willing to give time and commitment to. Get them working together. Use online social networks, Change.org, etc., but don't discount the importance of face-to-face time. Those willling to take the time to meet in person will mostly be the backbone of your movement. Also reach out to those contacts within city government who are sympathetic to your cause, willing to listen, and willing to work with you. They will be crucial. It is especially helpful to find those in the mayor's office or on city council who will support your efforts. Here in Chesapeake we were lucky to have the support of Councilman Robert Ike early on in the process.

Part of networking is linking up with groups in your area that might already be working on legalizing or keeping or educating about chickens. In Southeastern Virginia there's Backyard Hens for Norfolk4 Virginia Beach HensHampton Roads HensPortsmouth Hen Keepers, and Peninsula CHicken Keepers, to name the most popular and active groups other than 4 Chesapeake Hens. There are active groups in Richmond and in Fredericksburg, too.

Another networking idea is to be willing to attend local educational events for public outreach. Bring some hens with you if you can for the public to meet first-hand. While you're at it, remember to network with other "chicken groups," especially in your region and across your state. If a neighboring community with legal chickens is having a backyard "coop tour," invite your local decision-makers to attend. Give them sufficient notice. Hopefully they will attend so they can see for themselves how little noise, fuss, or odor backyard hens make.

5. Use the media to your advantage. Our group has used blogging, Facebook,  XtraNormal, Youtube, news releases, letters to the editor, Craigslist, and Twitter to advantage.  This has gotten positive exposure --free publicity!-- in our local and regional newspaper and local television station(s). Those who contact or talk to the media should always be aware that reporters may have biases. Talk to them anyway, but be cautious about what you say. Prepare some talking points in advance if time allows. Eventually you will know which reporters you can trust and which ones you cannot. Obviously, work with those who have a track record of being open-minded and fair (supportive is even better when you can get it).

6. Be prepared to appear as a cohesive, unified group in front of City Council on a regular basis. Get yourself on the agenda if you can. If not, most communities have regular times where open meetings or non-agenda items are scheduled for public input. Take advantage of these, but make sure a variety of speakers talk on various occasions on a variety of related topics. Have two or three speakers cover the evening's talking points, then invite the rest of the audience to stand at one point to show support. Get everyone in the group to wear the same color for the event. Group T-shirts or even stickers make a visual impact.

Research the rules for getting in front of council in advance. If your speakers must sign up in advance, do that. If only three minutes are allowed per speaker, be sure every speaker knows that and has actually timed the intended speech. Saad Ringa, a member of our group, has collected many of these speeches on his Youtube Channel for those who want to watch some sample speeches.

When you attend meetings, bring any supporting documents you want to submit, assuming your council allows them, and bring extra copies of these plus your written speeches to give to any reporters who show interest. Be sure they have the contact information of your group's leadership. Publish the speeches online through Google Drive and share them publicly.

If your item actually comes up on the agenda, find out how far in advance to submit any documentation you want council to consider and give them out within that time frame. Here in Chesapeake we were told two weeks in advance was good lead time, so that's what we did.

Another idea that worked for us was to have a "City Council Member of the Week" whose contact information we posted online. As a group, we all contacted that one council member with our talking points. We then moved on to another council member the following week.

Contact can be positive rather than confrontational. One time our group gave free samples of fresh, local eggs for Council Members' consideration. Another time we wrote them all thank-you notes just prior to Thanksgiving. Sometimes you can catch more flies with honey, as the saying goes.

If you need to make Freedom of Information Act requests to get information you need from city government to make your case, put in your requests, but realize these take time and sometimes significant money.

7. Keep at it. One of the biggest differences between "4 Chesapeake Hens" and similar efforts by individuals and community groups before us is that prior speakers took the city's initial "no" as a final answer. We never gave up. We never had to make backyard hens an election issue, but our group was prepared to do that if necessary. Any public official who says he or she supports the environment or individual property rights but is against backyard hens is not "walking the talk" and needs to be held accountable at election time.

If this seems exhausting and time-consuming, nevertheless this is probably what it will take to get change made. Our group had it easier than many other localities. We faced opposition but we were polite, well-informed, persistent, organized, and lucky.

As my husband and I shut our laying hens into their hen house at night, as we listen to their gentle and contented cooing when they lull themselves to sleep, or as we eat the best, freshest eggs we have ever tasted, we find these efforts completely worthwhile. So have many others who helped us: some of our original supporters have found the educational side of our efforts so rewarding that they went on to start Hampton Roads Hens, a group that continues advocacy, education, and outreach on a regional level. We all wish you the best of luck with your own efforts at chicken activism. If we can do anything further to help you, please let us know.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sexing Chickens: Some Sound Advice


Those who mail order pullets in the cold winter months might be in for a surprise. Many companies pack unwanted rooster chicks around the pullets to keep them warm. Ask about this potential practice before you buy.

The following was written by Carol Bartram. I posted it here with her permission. Her words are both well written and wise. Thanks, Carol!


Hi, Chicken People,

The Chicken Chick has brought together a wealth of information about sexing chickens in this post:

The references at the end are also worth checking out! One of my faves that I didn't see listed is an article from Backyard Poultry Magazine (June/July 2011), also dispelling many of the myths you may come across in feed stores or elsewhere (thanks to Kathy for sending me this article):

In my opinion, one of the most important take-homes is that even professional vent-sexers are not 100% accurate, so please think ahead of time about what you will do if you do end up with a rooster and can't keep him. Unfortunately, you can't assume it will be easy to find him a good home where he will eat off of China plates, or that someone will pay you big bucks to purchase him. Ideally, you will have scoped out some options ahead of time, but if not, the LAST thing to do is to release him somewhere for him to become someone else's problem and give us backyard chicken-keepers a bad name. The SECOND TO LAST thing is to take him to an animal shelter (where he will become someone else's problem, etc...). A MIDDLE thing is to ask me to send out an e-mail looking for a home, or for you to post him on the Hampton Roads Hens Facebook page, where you'll reach a wider number of folks on the Southside who have room for roos. (There are also people who can, relatively humanely, process roos for you, if you choose to go that route. Old Dominion Hay in Smithfield has hosted classes to teach this skill.)

Hopefully, someday residential areas will get rid of their anti-rooster inclinations so that a bit of crowing won't be such a big deal, but I guess we have to get hens accepted first, and I think our efforts at being good neighbors will help a lot. I recently had a good talk with our newest neighbors about our rooster, and to my great relief they said they used to hear him, but now the only time they notice the sound is when somebody new comes to visit and asks if someone has a rooster. Whew --Quercus' lovely crow has faded into the background for them! I can see how a lot of roos talking to each other throughout the day in close quarters might be a different story...

Cluck and cock-a-doodle-doo,
Carol Bartram
Peninsula Chicken Keepers (PeCK)
peninsulachickenkeepers.weebly.com

Friday, August 1, 2014

Chickens and Grubs

Don and I are avid composters; Don probably more than I am. He reminds me of that old nursery rhyme about "snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails." Sometimes the more disgusting a project is, the more he seems to enjoy it. He likes to take care of and feed our kitchen composting worms, for example.

Actually, a properly-managed compost pile is far from disgusting. When well managed, compost piles do not smell unpleasant at all. But they do harbor a variety of bugs, microorganisms, and other things that I am not enough of a scientist to explain. Don seems to revel in this, particularly in the grubs.

Honestly, I think he revels in the grubs for their own sake ("snakes and snails..."). But he also likes to spoil our pets, and our four laying hens love nothing better than insects, particularly goodies from the compost pile, and especially grubs.

We are lucky that our climate is in "Zone 7" on the climate maps, which means that we are in the northernmost range of the Black Soldier Fly. These flies are voracious at eating up kitchen scraps to the point of being scary in a B horror-movie sort of way. And they make fantastic nutrition for the chickens, converting the kitchen scraps to fat, protein, and calories, which our dear hens then convert to eggs for us and fertilizer for our compost piles and garden.

Then the garden waste and kitchen scraps go into the compost pile, which then grows new larvae right up until the weather gets too cold for the soldier flies in the fall. Don has discovered that if he puts a big pile of "green" type kitchen scraps in the compost bin when the weather is warm, then covers that with a good layer of sawdust so it doesn't smell, then puts some chunks of fresh pineapple with the moist side down on top of the pile and the hard shell of the pineapple up toward the sky, then he can harvest black soldier flies by the handful (I shudder) to feed to our "girls," as folks in the U.S. call their chooks (a British or Australian name for backyard hens).

Black Soldier Fly Larvae Wriggle in the Remains of a Pineapple


I jokingly call Don their "rooster," because he brings them the choicest (to them) morsels and tries to make sure all the girls get their fair share, despite their jockeying and pecking order. And, believe me, they watch him closely and follow him around the yard, especially during composting season.


The Hens Watch Don Carefully During Composting Season


Don Makes Sure All the Chickens Get Their Fair Share
 Disclaimer: There is some risk of botulism, or "Limberneck," to chickens that eat fly larvae, especially if the grubs have grown in anaerobic conditions, such as in carcasses. For more information in general on raising Black Soldier Fly Larvae, check out this blog.