Monday, February 1, 2010

Drought Tolerant Planting

Because water is at such a premium here--- being on a well in a drought-prone state--- my landscaping efforts focus primarily on efficient water use. Or more accurately, I try to plant flora that's able to get by on little or no water.

On top of that I try to plant stuff my bees will turn into honey. So, I installed a garden yesterday that consisted of False Heather; Rosemary ("Irene," a low-growing bunching version); Lavender (I primarily use French Lavender, a type called "Serenity,"); a type of Aloe we call "Mother-in-Law Tongue; and a couple variety of prickly pear cacti.

The beauty of all this selection is that it's easy to start new plants with cuttings; or in the case of the aloe, just taking some "babies" from a mother plant.

Obviously, the cacti are of no real interest to my bees, but they love the rosemary, lavender and heather. I've got that kind of stuff all over the ranch, consolidated into pockets where I can efficiently water it. On top of that, the chaparral hillsides are erupting with ceonothus blooms, so the bees are getting plenty of nectar. The beauty of SoCal is that spring sometimes starts in February, especially when we get some winter rain. That can mean an early, and abundant, honey crop!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Need Eggs? Add a Rooster!

A busy chicken day yesterday, as I went to a neighboring ranch and picked up a beautiful year-old rooster. I also grabbed three 4-month-old chicks from the feed store (Speckled Sussex). Here's a photo of what they'll look like full-grown...

I'll see if I can get some pix of them at their current age. The chicks are of course getting the crap kicked out of them by the older birds as the pecking order gets established. I acclimated them a little in an enclosure, and I give them a dog carrier to sleep in inside the chicken barn so they're away from the big girls, but there's no avoiding the bullying that happens for awhile until everyone gets used to each other.

As for the rooster: I trimmed his flight feathers prior to putting him in the yard, but evidently not enough. Within five minutes he'd taken off for the hills. I spotted him, and spent the next enjoyable hour chasing him all over, through gulleys and thickets, sliding down hills and climbing up rocks, all to no avail.

I decided to leave it up to a chicken's natural inclination to be around other chickens, especially when it gets dark and it's time to roost. So, I left--- and sure enough, he came around. I actually got him to walk back into the yard, and figured he'd go to bed with the gals.

Nope. He took off again, and spent the night roosting in a scrub oak where I couldn't reach him.

Come morning, he was under the tree, pecking around. I fed the girls, and got his interest. When he came over, a managed to lure him into the yard, and then I pounced on him. I held him while Leah (my wife) tied his legs, and we REALLY clipped his wings this time. I then locked him in the chicken barn for awhile, just to be sure he knew where "home" was. I let him out at the same time I gave everyone a really sumptuous afternoon feed, with old potatoes, lettuce, some cereal, you name it.

This time he stayed. Now, my only problem still left to solve--- as I write this, he's sleeping in one of the egg boxes, in the "egg shed." I was going to move him over into the barn with the girls, but I figured he'd had enough trauma for the weekend.

But the good news is, just above him is our first egg from this flock! Yay! Looks like adding a little testosterone to the dynamics got the girls' juices flowing :-)

PS- Don't know what breed (other than probably "mutt") the rooster is. I'll post a picture here and maybe someone will know...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lazy Chickens?

That flock I got back in the summer (see earlier posts) as chicks have reached maturity, and should be laying... but they're not, at least not yet.

Don't know if the colder weather and overcast skies have been discouraging them, or if they're just lazy bums eating all my feed and giving me nothing in return.

Egg-laying is triggered by light, I've learned. So again, maybe it's the gray days we've had through much of December. But the combs have grown full and there's leg coloration (the legs turn yellow on many breeds when they're ready to start laying), both indicators that they're ready to start earning their keep around here...

On other fronts--- been spending time doing some basic pruning of domestic plants and clearing. You can never do enough clearing, when it comes to fire readiness. And no, we're not in any fire danger right now, but it's easier to do some clearing when it's cool out; less sweat, less heat exhaustion, and no canyon flies. Canyon flies are incredibly annoying miniature flies that zero in on moisture; so they're always diving at your eyes and trying to get in your ears. They're dormant in cold weather, which is very nice.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More About Wells

We had the temperature drop below freezing for several nights in a row a few weeks ago, and it brought to mind another issue about wells--- or at least my well.

Our well pumps water into a small pressure tank prior to pumping it up the hill to our house. Which means there are several feet of exposed pipe. And, when it freezes... well, so does the water in the pipe, which means no water gets pumped.

To combat that I use heat tape. Couldn't find any in the hardware stores around here (too urban) to I ordered some online. It works great--- it's just an electrical line encased in a plastic/rubber insulation which radiates heat. Not a lot, but enough to warm the pipe when you affix it with a loop of wire.

My understanding is that heat tape uses a lot of electricity, but I haven't noticed too big a jump in the bill, and it's not like we have a choice. One time when I forgot to plug it in and we got hit by a surprise freeze, my wife had to go down to the well and aim a blow dryer at the pipes so she could take a shower.

Needless to say, I never forgot the heat tape again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Water, Water... Everywhere But Where it Oughta Be

If you're seriously thinking about giving suburban ranching a try, chances are you'll be sacrificing a few things, some of the niceties that most folks take for granted.

Like water, for instance.

My ranch is only two miles away from a city with a population of 123,000, and yet we get no city water here. We rely on a well. Which may not seem like a big deal to people who live somewhere other than a desert--- but let's face it, that's what most of Southern California is.

The water issue becomes exacerbated greatly during long periods of drought. We're at about the 7-year mark in our latest drought, and my well is sucking at water like a little kid slurping up the last drop of a milk shake. There's just not much there.

So, we rely on a back-up tank situated on a hill behind our house. The water is gravity fed, and is primarily for fire control. However, when necessary I can hook a hose up to a bib on the hydrant and run it to a hose bib on the house, thus feeding the house with water when the well is not able to pump sufficient water. We have to use a pump truck to fill the tank; there's no other way to get the water up the hill.

Saturday I discovered that one of the "L" joints in the 2" pvc pipe from the tank had cracked, leaking about $275 worth of water from the tank onto the hill. Meaning, we had no water in the well, and no water in the tank. Bummer.

I fixed the pipe on Saturday, replacing it with (expensive) UV-Resistant pvc because it's exposed (most of the piping on the hill is UV-Resistant; the joint that cracked was not). It was a rather dry weekend for us; couldn't run laundry, had to take abbreviated showers, run one load of dishes...

The water truck came Monday and pumped 4000 gallons up the hill. Another $275. I checked my repairs, and everything held, so we're back in business.

I say all this because things like well problems can often be overlooked when you're thinking about how cool it would be to have your own ranch. But let me tell you, when your well runs dry you'll be wondering if it was really worth it, and if you wouldn't have been happier being able to take a shower and water your plants any time you want.

When you look into getting a suburban ranch, be sure the SYSTEMS of the house are in good order. Those are the things that you tend to take for granted in a neighborhood or apartment building, but can create nightmares for you--- and be a financial headache as well. Water; septic; electrical supply; heating and air... get a level of confidence in the working condition of all of them before you make the move.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chickens Just Drop Dead Sometimes

I've lost chickens to predators, sure, and I've lost 'em to Marek's (a sudden paralysis that they're typically vaccinated for as chicks). But this morning is the first time I've opened up the chicken barn to let everyone out for the day, and found a seemingly healthy 4-month-old bird dead on the floor.

Its head had a big, bloody wound on it, but I'm 90% sure that was post-mortem, as the rest of the chickens woke up. If one pecked and drew a spot of blood, the rest of them wouldn't be able to resist the incongruous red dot, and they'd all peck away. Chickens aren't known for their brains.

Anyway, as I say I saw no sign of disease, there are no poisons of any sort anywhere around, and it's too chilly for rattlesnakes. I don't know what the heck happened, but I'll need to keep an eye on the others.

Last weekend I installed new lay boxes in a seperate shed for them, as I expect the older birds will start laying in December. The "replacements" I got when the coons took 3 chicks a month or so ago won't lay until March or so.

This weekend I'm gonna take a nearby friend up on his offer for a free rooster. I want to have one around; next spring I'd like to incubate a fresh batch of chicks. Given the churn rate with chickens, you've gotta keep new ones coming!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tractor Newbee Lesson Learned

I took the tractor into a ravine yesterday to dig out a big rock that I thought would look great in my cactus garden, and got the dang thing stuck. Dug a huge hole with my rear wheel, and couldn't get back out of the ravine no matter how many rocks I put under the wheel for traction. I finally got fed up and just left it there overnight.

Woke up in the morning thinking, "Hey, I'll bet I didn't have the 4-wheel drive engaged." Checked the manual, and yep, that's what was wrong. I stuck a couple planks in front of the wheels, put it in 4-wheel drive, and motored right out of the ravine, no problem.

Almost embarassed to admit to that one...