Wednesday, February 27, 2013

FRESH Food at a Local Restaurant: the Cutting Edge Cafe

Medi-Veggie Sandwich and Side: MMMMM!!!

One of my favorite restaurants in Chesapeake, VA, is the Cutting Edge Cafe. It is located near Walmart off of Route 64 and Battlefield Blvd, in a plaza right behind a car wash. Melanie and her husband, Matt, own the restaurant and run it. They are active in Hampton Roads' "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" movement. Their food reflects their passion for fresh, local food. I'm a vegetarian, so I haven't tried everything on their menu, but their "Medi-Veggie" sandwich, made with fresh cheeses, fresh bread, and grilled vegetables, is to die for! I like their sweet potato fries, their hummus side-order, their sesame noodles, their salads and salad dressings, their rich and flavorful soups...

Basically, everything I've tried there has been superior to anything else I've had in town. Did I mention that Melanie bakes the bread they use? It's so good, I'm planning to buy my bread from her instead of the store. Their restaurant is not a bakery, but their bread is just as good.

Matt and Melanie's passion for local food is how I found this gem of an eatery. It's close to where I live. So when it became a pick-up point for the Coastal Farms Online Food Co-op, I arranged to pick up my weekly orders there. Until that point, I'd never really noticed the place, even though I'd driven by there dozens of times. Originally, I stopped just for the convenient location to pick up my local food orders, but once I tried one of their entrees, I was hooked! I order there at least once a week now.

I also recently found out that the Cutting Edge will soon become a pick-up point for CSA orders from Mattawoman Creek Farms, an organic farm in this area. CSA stands for  "Community Supported Agriculture." A good explanation of how this works can be found at The basic idea is that residents can pay a local farmer in advance for a share of the season's crops, delivered each week. The food is fresher than what residents can find in grocery stores, and the farmer makes a fair living for his (or her) hard work. This system helps to keep smaller farmers in business! Don and I are adventurous cooks and eaters, so we're looking forward to whatever comes our way in our farm share order each week.

Our first farm share order should arrive in a week or two, depending on the weather. We can't wait! Thanks, Matt and Melanie, for making these opportunities available to us, and for running a fantastic restaurant!

Oh: one caveat: their hours are a little different. They started as a lunch place (open until 4:00) but have extended into some evening hours on Wednesday through Fridays. They're closed Saturday. Keep in mind their schedule before heading over.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Hens as Compost Turners in the Garden

Don and I need more garden beds. But we spent time, money, and a lot of muscle building the four raised beds that we started with, so we thought we would build our next four beds the lazy man's way, using a method called sheet mulching or the lasagna layer technique. It's a way to compost in place to build up soil for a new bed instead of digging down to get your garden. The biggest drawback is that you have to wait a season or so before planting.

Don and I recently set up some lasagna-layer beds, but I admit they didn't look like much. They looked like they'd take years to break down into something I'd be willing to plant vegetables in. Here is a picture of what we were starting with. It contains layers of cardboard, leaves, somewhat aged compost, and straw mixed with a week's worth of manure from our chicken coops:

Sheet-mulched raised beds before attention from our hens

Don and I know how much our girls love to scratch and forage for insects, seeds, and other food, so we wondered if we could use those skills to turn these beds and get the composting process going faster. Don built a pen that fit over our raised beds. There's a pop-hole that leads from our chicken tractor to the pen over the beds, as pictured and described in this post. We had already used the hens in this pen as herbiciders and pesticiders in our raised asparagus beds, but we wanted to see what they would do when we turned them loose on our future garden beds as well.

The first thing we noticed was that the new digs were a huge hit with the hens. They even ate about 50% less feed when on a fresh sheet-mulched bed, presumably from all the fresh food they find on their own. Here is a brief video of our girls having a good time working a bed this morning. It's the same bed I pictured at the top of this page, but it already is starting to look different due to the hen's attention.

Here is what the same bed looked like at the end of the day today:

Nike is pecking at something good in the compost pile!

Sharp-eyed Athena is begging for a treat-- got any meal worms?

After about three days of attention from the girls, the bed starts to lose the girls' interest, and they start eating a lot more feed. Perhaps they've found all the weed-seeds and bugs that they're going to for a while. They will be ready for us to move their tractor and pen to another bed or a different part of the yard. But this is what the bed will look like after just those three days:

Raised bed after three days of chicken-tilling efforts

There is no doubt about it: the chickens are speeding the decomposition process and composting our sheet-mulched beds into usable soil faster. They basically turn other people's garbage into the raw materials of a vegetable garden. And they do it without the noise, pollution, or expense of gas-powered tillers or other equipment. They literally work for chicken feed, and they are happy about it, and they add valuable nitrogen to the bed in the form of their own manure while they're at it!

One important decision we have left is how soon to plant after the chickens have turned the bed. Since they have deposited fresh droppings, and their manure can transmit salmonella, published advice is to wait for 90 to 180 days after the chickens have visited the bed to plant a food crop, depending on the crop. But we needed to wait at least that long before planting under the sheet-mulch system, anyway, so we have little to lose, and lots to gain, by having the chickens work the beds for us.

**Update on 1/18/14: We have been using those sheet-mulched beds to grow garlic, and I now have a fig tree growing very happily in one. I cannot believe how quickly the beds broke down into something usable and very fertile. I think the hens' manure and aerating-skills were a huge part of the success.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Automatic Chicken Coop Door

Automatic Pop-Hole Door for Our Coop
We got one of these doors for our coop:

It was an easy install, with only four screws used to mount the frame of the door to the coop.

We got the door with the light sensor so that we don't have to worry about programming, although we can program the door to specific times if we wish.  It can also be opened by manually actuating the motor.

This door has a "Last Chance" function which reopens the door for about ten seconds about one minute after the evening closing.  That gives any hens that dally a chance to get in.

I picked up a battery at Batteries Plus, fabricated a battery bracket from some fencing, and had it up and running in a few minutes.

So far, it has been flawless.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New to Backyard Chickens? What I Wish I'd Said...

4 Chesapeake Hens and Hampton Road Hens appeared at the Chesapeake Central Library last night. The library staff were surprised by how many people showed up! Many of them were adults looking for more information about backyard chicken-keeping. Families were supposed to preregister, but a front-page article in the Chesapeake Clipper hadn't mentioned that fact, so folks just showed up. The librarians were gracious about it, though, and managed to find a room big enough to hold us all.

Standing Room Only Just for the Adults! The Youngsters Got to Ask Questions, Pet a Chicken, and Go to Storytime
 Our time with the youngsters took about twenty minutes of our scheduled hour, and then the rest of the time turned into a question-and-answer and information sharing-session with the adults. It went well, and we talked up many of the great aspects of having backyard hens. But I wish I'd had time to answer some of the inquiries at greater length, and to warn folks of some potential problems to avoid.

Our Intrepid Team of Presenters Sport Our Hampton Roads' Hens New T-Shirts!
1. We told folks to read up. There is great information online. Hopefully participants picked up flyers that the library had printed up for us that had further resources. We also directed them to books that the library had available. My personal favorite book is City Chicks by Patricia Foreman. Backyard Poultry Magazine and Mother Earth News are great resources, too. Good websites are and a popular blog called "Fresh Eggs Daily." But here are some additional ideas or precautions I would have shared if given enough time:

2. Be sure you are getting hens. Roosters are illegal here in Chesapeake in residential areas. There are three ways to be sure you are getting hens:
  • get sex-linked hybrids if you are getting chicks. There is no mistaking the sex of the chick because the boys and girls have different coloration upon hatching;
  • get your chicks from a reputable hatchery and order hens only, but realize these hatcheries have *at best* a 98% rate of accuracy at sexing chicks, so plan out what you will do in case you get an unexpected rooster;
  • skip the chicks and get pullets or grown hens. These will be easier to start with than chicks are, anyway. Pullets are hens that are just about to lay or just starting to lay. You will get your eggs that much faster, and even though they cost more up front, they require less in terms of specialized equipment, feed, and care. You will also get your eggs faster. The downside is that you miss the fuzzy cuteness of chicks, and your birds might not be as tame or used to being handled as you would like.
  • if you decide to hatch your own chicks from eggs, read up on this process carefully, and decide what to do with the roosters that *will* turn up, because there's no way to sex eggs. 
  • DO NOT BUY "straight-run" CHICKS. This means these chicks are not sexed and will contain a large percentage of roosters;
  • deciding what to do with the roosters does *not* mean turning them loose, since they can't fend for themselves, nor does it mean keeping them, which will be noisy, illegal, and possibly dangerous if the birds are mean. Nor does it mean hoping for a farmer out in the country who will want them to raise and not to eat. Line someone up in advance, because it's not that easy.
  • While finding roosters a good, last-minute home sounds good, it's unlikely. Realize that unwanted roosters often become people's meals. Also, remember that slaughtering the birds is illegal in residential areas, so if you decide to slaughter and eat them, be sure to know how to do this humanely and where to do this legally. (And only eat healthy birds, not sick or diseased ones).
3. Chicks need specialized care: extra protection from drafts and predators, the correct levels of warmth, and specialized feeders and watering equipment. Again, read up on raising chicks before you do so.

4. Regarding coops, we mentioned a variety of websites and plans available online, and that coops can even be purchased online, but we should have taken time to go into more detail about basic coop requirements besides fresh feed and fresh water daily, including fresh water in winter, when water tends to freeze. Here are other ideas:
  • For optimal mental and physical health, be sure your birds have enough room. Here is a summary of my own research on this topic.
  • Your birds will be happier if they have perches to roost on. Be sure they are free of splinters, which can cause bumble foot.
  • Be sure your coop is dry, ventilated yet not drafty, and sturdy enough to provide protection from vermin and predators. This includes rats (at night, when the chickens can't see), possums, hawks, owls, raccoons, weasels, dogs, and any other creature that likes chicken because they "taste like chicken." Books and online resources have lots of advice on how to protect your flock. Harvey Ussery's book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock has some great suggestions. A pop-hole with a sturdy cover that locks up tight at night and hardware cloth across any openings, even small ones, should be standard on your coop. Chicken wire is meant to keep chickens *in,* not predators *out.* Dogs and foxes will dig under fencing and your coop, so plan for that, too, when you are thinking about protection.
5. If you plan to keep your birds as pets, line up a good avian veterinarian before you need one. I recommend Dr. Poutous at Midway Veterinary in Chesapeake. Even if you consider your birds livestock, you will need to read up on how to keep them well fed and healthy, how to administer basic medications such as de-wormers, and how to prevent and treat common diseases. If you wish to keep them healthy and not pay for veterinary services, you'll need to know how to do more yourself. Lining up an experienced local chicken-keeper as a mentor is a great idea!

6. If you have young children or family members with compromised immune systems, realize that hens can harbor and shed some diseases, most notably salmonella, while showing no symptoms. Supervision of young children, gloves and hand-washing, and other common-sense precautions should be followed. This is especially true of handling chicks, which tend to shed salmonella more than grown birds. All birds will shed the virus when stressed, however. Gail Damerow's Chicken Health Handbook has loads of information about chicken care. Harvey Ussery's and Pat Foreman's books have suggestions, too.

7. I almost forgot! Be a good neighbor, and make sure you only feed your hens what they'll eat during the day. At night, pick up any uneaten food. Store scratch and feed in vermin-proof containers, such as in a heavy metal trash can with a bungee-cord on top. Mice and rats are not naturally attracted to chickens, but they can be attracted to leftover feed, to food scraps lying around, and to the warmth and darkness of a coop. They can also slip through very tiny holes. And rats will sometimes attack chickens at night. The hens can't defend themselves because they are night-blind. Be a good friend to your neighbors as well as to your hens, and keep the place clean (updated 5:31 PM).

If you're an experienced flockster and  notice that I forgot anything basic and important for beginners, please post a comment for our readership. Thanks!

**Update on 4/15/13: We DID say this at the meeting, but this bears repeating: there is a three to five foot setback from the coop to the property line. Be sure to be a good neighbor and implement the setback. The hens must also be kept in the backyard.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gardening with Chickens

Clover sprouts are nutritious and a big hit with our hens

Now that the excitement of our first egg has settled down, Don and I are enjoying the benefit of having our chickens help us with our gardening chores. Don has built a portable pen that fits over our raised vegetable beds. Two of the beds were mostly bare, just mulched with leaves in preparation for the spring season.

Our chicken tractor links up to a raised asparagus bed in winter

Don built a pop-hole on the coop and a pop-hole in the pen over the raised bed. Then he built a narrow wooden tunnel to connect the two pop-holes. The pop-hole to the coop has a wooden cover that fits tightly at night to deter potential predators. But during the day, the chickens get more room to range, quite legally because the law requires we keep them penned. The pen also keeps them out of my winter vegetables growing undisturbed in nearby beds. Most importantly, it protects my hens from hawks that might attack them from above. We have a sturdy chain link fence around the yard, but we need to protect our birds from raptors.

The same coop viewed from the rear. Note the attached nest box.

The cover for the pop-hole to the pen

My girls have deposited some of their valuable, high-nitrogen manure in these beds, which will be much appreciated by my asparagus plants, which are heavy feeders. They've certainly found all kinds of bugs and weed seeds. I am hoping they have found any asparagus beetles and their larvae that might be overwintering in these beds. I'd like these pests to be converted to nutritious eggs while reducing my feed bills, not hatching in the spring to feed on my asparagus!

The chickens have also spread some vermicompost from our worm bins all over the bed. All we had to do was pick out the worms that we wanted to save from their voracious appetites, dump the compost in the middle of the bed, and spread a little scratch on top to encourage the girls to scratch.

The hens are checking out their new digs

A hen inpects the tunnel to her coop; pop hole visible at the rear

The girls LOVE clover! There was no trace by day's end

Friday, February 1, 2013

Our Very First Backyard Egg!

Buff Orpingtons on the Left; the Delaware on the Right

Our new pullets, two Buff Orpingtons and a Delaware, are a delight. We've had them a little over a week, and they are settling in beautifully. Their names are Athena, Minerva, and Nike. One of the three-- they won't tell me who!-- laid an egg this afternoon. It's the first since we got them.

I cannot describe the wonder and excitement of finding this light-brown beauty in the nest box when I got home from work. Don and I took turns having our pictures taken with it, and then we cooked it up and ate it.

Both of us said there is nothing else like it. We have never had an egg from any supermarket, in any restaurant, or even fresh-bought from any farm, that tasted as good as this egg did. I can see why residents in many municipalities will ignore the law to have eggs as fresh and delightful as these! It made all the hard work of getting laying hens legalized in residential backyards in Chesapeake well worth it. 4 Chesapeake Hens rocks!

I'll post some picture below.

Yours Truly with Our First Egg

Don is serious-looking but just as proud!

The Orange Yolk and Thick Whites of a Fresh, Pastured Egg!

We Wish We Could Post a Taste Online... Incredible!