Monday, September 8, 2014

Goodbye Cosmo

We are very sad to announce that Cosmo, the rooster, is gone.

Cosmo joined Several Gardens Farm as a young rooster back in 2003, as part of a group of bantam chickens given to us by neighborhood children. We did not know his age at the time, but we estimate he was between 7 and 12 months.

He was our faithful rooster for eleven years. Few humans could have show the courage, generosity or loyalty he did. He never ate anything until his hens had been given first choice. He never ran from danger until the flock had made good its escape. Then he would run screaming from his predator, diverting them from everything but the red comet of noise he could become.

He never knew how tiny he was. He took on fights with stray roosters in the neighborhood, with a huge drake duck, with his own evil and ungrateful son. Never once in his life did he win a fight. We often had to rescue him. But he was always gentle with people, to the point of letting kids pull on his feathers or cuddle him like a baby.

He never abandoned his hens, even if it meant being constantly beaten by another rooster, or stalked by a cat. He knew his duty. Once a foolish hen flew into the neighbor's yard and was attacked by their dog. Cosmo went in to get her. I went in to get him, too late for the hen.

This summer he slowed down. He became too weak to climb up to the perch and began to sleep in a nest instead. He stopped leaving the barn, except to eat, drink or sit in the sunlight. Courting the hens was ancient history.

Then about a week ago, he started wandering off. He had a very strong sense of place, and never left the yard, but suddenly he was showing up at the neighbors. He was losing weight, and looking wrinkled in his skin. His crop was never full any more, as though he had stopped eating.

I began to lock him up at night, which I had never done before. Then we locked him up in the days, too, as he couldn't stop wandering. But it was a strange wandering - he would sit still for hours, then walk off to the fence line, where he would huddle miserably. I began to make plans for his end of life. I could see it was soon. While it would have been nice for him to peacefully pass, I was getting ready to bring him a quicker ending.

Then one day, I let him out to sun himself and went away for a bit. I came back and he was gone. Three days have past and we haven't seen or heard him.

A rooster doesn't hide. Can't hide. I am certain if he were alive, Cosmo would crow. I have hunted down every rooster cry in the neighborhood. I've discovered many, well loved roosters that I knew nothing about, but none of the crowing is Cosmo.

I have to conclude he has died. I never believed that animals 'went off to be alone to die', but I can see the logic for a rooster. As head of the flock, most roosters have a huge investment in the chicks that are their offspring, and in the well being of the hens who care for them. A weak, old, disoriented rooster could bring down predators on his whole flock. Walking away, letting them catch him far from his family, might be a last service he can give to the flock he has cared for so valiantly and well. I feel guilty and horrible for letting it happen but there's a certain sense in it.

To his great credit, Cosmo has made me a lifelong fan of roosters. I will find another one - many roosters need homes. I will try to find one as gentle, brave and devoted as our Cosmic Cosmo, and I will try to let him be his own rooster, instead of making him fill the giant shoes of his tiny predecessor.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lawn to garden conversion - first summer

I can now say with confidence, our front yard is starting to happen.

Last fall we cut up the sod, stacked it into rows to form gentle terraces in the hillside, and mulched with shredded cardboard, burlap and wood chips.

We planted trees in the spring, and I broke up lots of established perennials from other parts of the garden and stuck tiny divisions into the wet, pulpy soil in the rainiest part of spring.

Some of them looked so sad, so ready to wash away. Some of them probably did.

But we are beyond the green shoot stage now. Some of these plants have found their roots and decided to grow.

A plant that goes straight from a pot into the ground can run into trouble. If its roots had filled up the pot, they may have stopped reaching out and started curving around the edge of their little universe. When they go into the ground, if the soil is too compact it feels like the edge of the pot. The plant has learned about limits and doesn't try to expand beyond them. Whenever you plant a potted plant, break up the roots a little - just massage them hard. Break up the soil all around the hole, and fill it with water. Water the soil in around the new plant so it fills the cracks you made in the root ball. This helps the plant discover all the opportunities outside the edges it's gotten used to.

On the other hand, bare root plants are in danger from not having any contact with the ground at all. You can plant them and walk away, and they can be surrounded with pockets of air instead of nice soil. Always water them well, even if it's raining, and stamp or press hard on the soil around them to bed them in.

But when your transplant works, it's amazing. If you watch a new transplant, day by day, you can almost see the moment when the new soil becomes home. The leaf buds it already had when you planted it are all open. Suddenly a tree starts to form new leaves, or a perennial pushes out  a second shoot from its crown. The plant is no longer drawing from its reserves, but making new food for itself from the sun, soil and water in its new location.

Red currant from this year's bare root. Purple penstemon from a garden division

Our currants are ripening. We have raspberries.

While the bushes and brambles are fruiting, the new trees aren't making fruit this year. If they did we'd snip it off. They need more time to form their shapes. But they are leafing and growing. Most of the herbs are transplants from elsewhere and look pretty scrawny, but they have passed the moment where they might die. I even succeeded in transplanting a very young fennel which I will probably regret when it turns into a thicket of stems taller than I am.

There are three rows of 'retaining walls' we built out of the strips of turf cut up from the old lawn.  Stacked up five or six layers deep, it's now broken down in to fine soil and forms a long row of raised area that slows the water flowing down the hill and traps if for the plants. I planted it with divisions from plants I already had - sedum, aster, artichoke, thyme and other solid performers that will spread their roots into the retentive soil and hold it in place in the many rainy winters to come (I hope; this is at least the plan). These raised areas are the champions.

Artichoke has not been watered yet this summer!
Neither has the sedum. Just residual water from the swale-like hill structures

The trees are doing well too. They were put in bare root and I was worried they wouldn't make good enough contact with the soil. But as far as I can tell they appear to be expanding their roots into the soil beyond where they started. I'm especially proud of this shapely little quince. The persimmon appeared dead but I had already been prepared for that. They need a certain amount of heat units before they wake up, and transplants are often the last to start their first year. Now it's starting to leaf out.

I always include a pineapple sage in every new garden I plant. They smell wonderful. The leaves are nice in desserts and beverages.  More important from my perspective as a gardener, they also wilt immediately when the soil even thinks of getting dry and days before any other plants start showing stress. The are like living moisture meters; very convenient if you keep an eye on them. Late in the summer this plant will be about waist high and will suddenly cover itself with bright red flowers beloved by hummingbirds and also useful as garnishes.

There are still wide open tracts of wood chips.  Last fall I sowed oats, which died over the winter, fava beans which were mostly eaten by squirrels right after their first true leaves appeared (here's one that survived) and crimson clover, which made a miserable show but at least gave it a try. Wood chips aren't a great place to grow unless you're a mushroom.

There are spots where you can see the burlap bags we put down over the lawn, and there are a couple of places where grass and hawkweed have pushed through the layers of cardboard, burlap and wood. Here and there, a plant struggles with compacted soil.

But in this hotter, drier than average July, none of the plants here are showing drought stress and the soil even a few inches below the wood chips is rich, damp and squishy. I think the plants are digging it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A complicated goat season at Several Gardens Farm

This post has some sad and some happy parts, and some very graphic birth parts.

Last November, we brought Meggie and Lightning to breed with two bucks, and last week was their due date.

Lightning's story 

Lightning was due during Spring break. This would give Noah a chance to be with her, and me an extra reason to take time off that week.

We invited a school friend of Noah's to be there for the kidding. I thought if anything it would mean more to him than to Noah. He is a very gentle, sensitive young man; a guy who goes to a nerf gun party to be the medic.

We checked Lightning every 3 hours until she started showing signs of being near her term. Lightning has always been skittish but it was hugely exaggerated now. She needed rest and couldn't settle down if she felt like we were checking up on her all the time, so we tried to be discrete.

Once it was clear she would kid within 12 hours, we started just hanging out with her for a few minutes every hour. We didn't need to elevate her stress level but we needed to know what was happening.

I sent the boys to get some shut eye, warning them they might be wakened at any time of night. I set my alarm to go off every hour, and lay down to rest. At midnight, she was just as before. By one thirty, she was looking more relaxed (I just peeked at her, didn't let her know I was there. At two thirty she was lying down, at three thirty she was sound asleep, her head hanging to the side. At four, I was wakened by a frantic sounding goat's bleating.  I sometimes complain about Lightning being loud, but this was not a goat being too talkative; something was up.

I went out to find her lying on her side, clearly in labor. I saw a little nose and a hoof.  There should be two;  one hoof was bent back inside. I hadn't encountered this before, but luckily I'd obsessed over the Fiasco Farm kidding information and knew exactly what to do; get on a sterile glove, reach in, straighten that leg so the baby could slide out. It went easily, just like the instructions said it would.

A few moments later, a gorgeous little baby doeling was born.

A few minutes later, Lightning passed the afterbirth, and a few minutes after that, she began to push another baby.

The delivery was very fast; it happened while Lightning was busy teaching her little girl to nurse and drying her off.

But instead of struggling to get moving, the second kid lay weakly. She couldn't organize her limbs, and couldn't breath correctly even after we held her by her hind limbs to let all the birth fluids out. As she got clean, we could see that she had a poorly developed upper jaw, and had some other issues with her facial development.

While I was working on keeping her airway clean and getting her dryed off and breathing, David was calling our friend Julie, who woke up immediately (4:30 am) and began walking us through the steps to get her going, clear any goo that was still in her mouth and lungs.  There wasn't much but I did it, hoping to help her feel better if nothing more. It didn't seem to be helping.

There's a point where it's clear that treating a situation as 'normal' isn't working. Noah's friend was upset, and asking if we should bring her to the vet. He was respectful but very persistent, a real advocate for the little goat. But it was dawning on me that she wasn't going to make it. Lightning was ignoring her.  Her breathing was getting less regular. She was getting weaker.

I wrapped her in warmed towels to keep her temperature up. Though it was a mild April night, I could feel her getting cooler and breathing less.  A few minutes later - sooner than we could have gotten her to a vet, she was gone.

We stayed with Lightning and her healthy girl till we were sure things were  stable there; then went in and sat at the dining table talking. Noah said he was very sad but didn't have much else to say. His friend said he had to figure out a way to think about it.

I told him I was very proud of how he handled himself. He stayed present, spoke up for the little goat and quite bravely stood for his convictions that she should be saved, when I was letting her go. He showed a lot of courage, especially in being willing to stay when it got sad, rather than stepping away.

Then both boys asked for breakfast, and then went back to bed. I could tell they were so disoriented they were best off going back to sleep. I needed to be doing something. Fussed a bit with Lightning, did laundry (we went through a lot of towels and sheets). In the morning we had a funeral for the girl we lost, and the boys went out and marveled at Lightnings adorable little girl. I called our friend's parents and told them the night had been much more intense than even a normal goat birthing.

Meggie's story

Three days later, Meggie was a day past her most likely due date, and huge as a house. She was still her usual, quiet, somewhat detatched self, but maybe even a bit more quiet.

A year ago, over Passover at friends, we had committed to hosting a Seder that night. I thought, even when we bred the goats: 'What are the odds of her giving birth during a Seder?'

Yeah. The odds turned out to be 100%.

I was taking the day off from work. There wasn't really much to do with Meggie but distract myself and not drive her crazy. I checked on her a lot, but mostly to keep busy I got the dinner ready, set the table, and did other preparations for the dinner.

Yay, a pre-birth goat vulva!

I checked back on Meggie every hour or so.

Around 3:30pm, I saw a little clear fluid starting to leak out of her vulva.

I taped a sign on the back door asking Noah to come back and meet me when he got home from school at 3:45.

By that time she was pawing at the ground, frantically digging to make a deep bed. She cleared out the 5" of wood shavings to get down to the dirt.

Meggie, frantically digging herself a nest

Her back was starting to hunch up with a contraction. I asked Noah to time them. They were fairly strong, every one to three minutes, but very irregular. I don't know how often they should be. I mostly wanted something for Noah to focus on. He was fidgety and it was distracting Meggie.

By 4:00 there was lots of clear fluid, but no other progress for the next hour and a half.

It should happen any time now.

At 5:30, her water broke. More contractions. She was getting up and lying down, panting.

Then a bit of hoof appeared, only to go back in. At 5:30, guests began to arrive. Every time someone came or went, she got more freaked out. David went in to spend time with the guests and keep them out of sight.  Her contractions were weaker than half an hour earlier.

David started the Seder. Meanwhile, I was starting to freak out. I kept seeing one hoof, but no progress whatever, and Meggie was getting tired and losing interest. It was as if she had just decided to stop trying.

I called Julie and asked whether I needed to do more.

Yes. Reach in and grab both front hooves and start helping. "Like pulling a banana out of its peel" Julie told me. I thought it would be just like helping Lightning's baby with her hoof, but this was a whole different thing. The arm was pulled way back with one elbow tucked behind Meggie's hip bone. That goatling was going no where till the arm got unbent.

One hoof-tip. Kept showing and dissappearing.
My birth coach, when I had Noah, told me "no one wants to be the mom who asks for drugs or the mom who yells at people or the mom who poops while having a contraction, but you don't get to bargain and you don't get to choose."

I didn't want to reach into Meggie, but she not getting her kid out on her own.

David came out to hold her front end while I reached in and located the hoof, and started coaxing it forward. And pulled. And pulled. Whenever Meggie pushed, I pulled. I smoothed the head out through a cervix that was way too small for it. Meggie was not happy. She never makes noise but she was bellowing by now. I had no idea how hard you would have to pull. The diagrams don't really explain that part. And you have to pull at the right time - pulling when there isn't a contraction can hurt Meggie.

The kid wasn't being passive. It was pulling its leg back in as hard as it could. That was actually really encouraging. The kid was alive and healthy and had a mind of its own. I could do it!

I realized suddenly that "kidding" and "pulling my leg" are both synonyms for tricking someone. I wasn't sure if this made sense to me or not. It was just a turn of phrase I suddenly thought of at this moment.

Too bad there was no one to take a picture of the kid when his head first crowned. His eyes were open, he was looking around and as soon as I cleaned his nose, he was breathing. I must have snagged my finger in his mouth; he had a slightly bloody lower gum. But he looked so bright and curious, I knew he was eager to see the world.

Once his head was out, the rest of his very long, floppy body followed. He was HUGE!

And that was that. He was the only one in there.

I'm barefoot because I got so much bedding and straw in my shoes. And it's a warm April evening.

As soon as she saw him, Meggie's whole manner changed completely. She started licking him, stamping the ground, calling him, and looking for some water to drink. It was like nothing happened, and like he appeared magically instead of through several hours of hard work.

Her backside must have hurt like crazy. But she was happy as a lark to be with her new son.

This is what I bargained for when we got goats. Somehow the first few times we dodged any complications, and it seemed like the easiest thing on earth.

"goats have instincts" we thought "they just have their babies, no fuss, no problems. We try to be there so they will bond with us, not cause the mom needs us".

In Lightning's case, there was nothing we could do to help. We lost a kid, and Lightning and her other kid were never in any danger.

I think Meggie and her kid would have been in trouble on her own, though. I won't take this process for granted any more.

One thing I heard a number of times - first from the parent of the boy who stayed over for the kidding, then later David said something similar, is that this was very 'real'. The whole week of beekeeping and goat care and hosting events that don't go as intended has been very much about things right in front of us but often hidden.

Part of me thought 'well, isn't everything real'? But I know what they were talking about. Sitting in a pile of wood shavings at night helping a goat have a baby, and letting it die while I held it, did feel very close to things as they really are. We aren't full farmers - our lives or livelihood don't depend on the animals we take care of, though once in a while it's clear that they are interwoven.

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