Bird Migrations, Backyard Chickens & Avian Flu

This summer I was asked to register my “flock” (Do four birds qualify as a flock?) with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture as a prophylactic against threats of Avian Flu. I did so, but worried at the time what it might mean. Recently I was contacted by the NCDA which advised that the threat had passed. Then only days later, another contact telling me of another, more virulent, virus threat.

Avian flu has not yet migrated humans, so the threat is monitored by the US Dept of Ag, not the CDC. Their mission is to prevent the wholesale epidemics in the poultry business that have affected other countries. Although I am not a commercial poultry farmer, I am sympathetic, even though evidence of a local contamination would mean loss of my girls as a preventative. Why? Because of the way Avian Flu is primarily spread — though migratory birds.

Cornell University has been conducted a Backyard Bird Watch utilizing about a million volunteers, of which I have been one. Watchers record the date, time and type of bird seen in their backyard, along with notations about their environs. This information has been invaluable to scientists not only in charting the dwindling numbers of our favorite songbirds, but in mapping migrations which have been demonstrating anomalies due, it is thought, to climate change.

The result is a fabulous graphic showing the year round migratory paths. Enjoy!

Organic Corporate Consolidation

TheCornucopiaInstitute supports the excellent work of The Cornucopia Institute, the public watchdog for family farming and economic justice. Last year they reported on corporate consolidation in the Organic Foods Processing Industry, and they have just released an important update. For anyone who thinks of organic food that you purchase in your grocery store as somehow coming from small mom-and-pop local farms, let us educate you! According to CI, “Big Food” has been gobbling up small independent processing companies to the point where there are only 15 left! The same thing has occurred among organic seed producers. Take a moment to study the Chart and you will see such names as Coca Cola, Con Agra, Campbell’s Soup, Nestle and Cargill. A similar Chart on seed consolidation is truly shocking! Monsanto and Bayer dominate, and many “small” seed companies are actually owned outright or have a very cozy relationship with these giant promoters of GMO and Neonicotinoids, seed and plant treatments now irrefutably linked to Honeybee Collapse Disorder.

Please support The Cornucopia Institute. They are truly independent and provide unique and much needed research on the changing face of agriculture and the foods we eat. Membership has many levels from $30 up and is tax deductible. You can DONATE here.

Full of Beans!


Growing your own dried beans is easy – if you have the room. If not, buying organic dried or canned beans is a great alternative. Whatever way you choose, beans are the powerhouse vegetable – full of protein, fiber and many vitamins and other nutrients. But Americans do not eat enough beans. Why? Because of their reputation for, ahem, causing socially unacceptable odiferous bodily functions. This is too bad because the irony is, if you eat beats regularly and frequently, your gut’s microflora adapt, allowing them to aid in digesting the alpha galactosides which cause flatulence. Cool beans, huh?

I have been all over the map on the best way to prepare dried beans, and have researched and discovered that many of the methods touted as necessary to render the beans “safe,” are in fact unnecessary and diminish the flavor and consistency of the beans. So, if starting with dried beans, the most important question is, how fresh are they? They older the dried bean, the drier the bean, and the longer to cook. You will also see a loss of flavor in very old beans. This is where growing your own is so nice, as so many of the beans you might buy at the grocery are actually quite old, plus you will never find the extraordinary variety in the store, that you can grow in your own garden. Almost better to buy canned beans than old dried beans, especially if you can find organic beans canned in food safe containers. Canned beans are actually semi-cooked during the canning process, making your job as chef much easier.

Here is my easy recipe for FOUR BEAN VEGETARIAN CHILI

For 4-6 servings, use 4 – 15 oz cans of 4 different varieties of beans. Usually you can find Black, Pinto, Navy and Lima, which make a nice flavor combination. Or use an equivalent amount of dried beans, prepared by boiling for 1/2 hour and draining. If using canned beans, drain beans, but retain juices/gravy.

1 -2 Cups Fresh, Canned or Frozen Corn

Saute 1/2 – 1 Chopped Sweet (not yellow) Onion

2 Cloves minced garlic

28 ounces Small Diced Tomatoes (canned or fresh) with juices

1 Fresh Jalapeno Pepper (Green without striations and with seeds removed is mild; red with striations is hottest, but remove seeds; Adjust to your taste)

1 large stalk cleaned celery, diced fine

Chipotle Chili Powder to taste (Chipotle powder is made from smoked red Jalapenos but imparts a richer flavor than fresh Jalapenos)

1-2 Fresh/Dried Red Chilis, seeds removed

Salt & Pepper to Taste



Saute onion and garlic in 2-3 Tablespoons good oil over medium heat until soft. Do not let the garlic over brown/burn. I like to use Roasted Walnut Oil because of the flavor it adds, but you can use Olive or any other good healthy oil. Add celery and jalapeno and other pepper. Saute till soft.

Add drained beans, tomatoes, corn. Add sufficient of the retained bean juices (if canned) to cover the beans. [Hint: I also like to add some beer to this mix – the alcohol cooks off but the flavor is improved.] You can cover and saute at low temp or in slow cooker at this point for about an hour. Check seasonings / salt & pepper and cover and saute/slow cook until done. If stove-top, that would be another hour or two. If slow cooker on high 3-4 hours

Soooooooooooooo easy. Soooooooooooooo good and satisfying. Wonderful served hot with grated sharp cheddar & sour cream. Good sides are corn bread/muffins and tossed greens salad with vinaigrette dressing. Enjoy!




It’s Alive!

I often tell my seed customers that seeds are alive. Many seem puzzled by this, but it is true. They may be dormant, and some seeds require very specific conditions to break dormancy and germinate, but as long as they remain viable, seeds are living things. It has always been a source of fascination for me that something as small as a pinhead can hold all the information necessary to replicate its parent, given the proper conditions for growth, and assuming it is not a hybrid or genetically modified.

Hybrid plants are crosses of two similar plants, such as tomatoes, but can also occur within a plant category. For example, broccoli (a brassica) can cross with any other brassica such as cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts or collards. This can and does occur naturally, but is also the means by which plant breeders create new varieties, selecting for specific traits. It can take years and generations of such crosses to create the desired result. And if “grown out” for several more generations, a hybrid can become a stabilized “open pollinated” variety. In fact many heirloom varieties once were hybrids. Modern plant breeders are fond of patenting their creations, thus limiting dissemination (at least legally) of the variety. This is why heirlooms are so desirable.


Heirloom plants (and seeds) are open-pollinated. That is, seed saved from an open-pollinated plant will produce an identical plant. It is how our ancestors grew, saving the best of a crop for the following season, selecting for best taste or other traits. Such seed could be carried with them as they migrated to new environs. Many of the seeds grown by Thomas Jefferson, one of the great horticulturists of early America, were collected by him during his European journeys, or by the Lewis & Clark Expedition for Jefferson. It is gratifying that these varieties still exist, in their original genetic form, having been handed down through the generations.

The diversity of open-pollinated heirlooms is astounding! Sadly, dissemination of heirlooms is diminishing, as more and more seed producers/sellers limit their offerings of heirlooms to just a few, opting instead for hybrids, especially patented varieties. Why? Because customers must return each season to purchase such seed, whereas seed produced by heirloom plants can be saved by gardeners for the following year. Although many heirloom varieties are saved in seed “banks” we have lost 93% of the variety in our food crops in the past 80 years!

Our future as a species depends on seed diversity. There are growing threats, however, including climate change, corporate consolidation of seed suppliers, and breeders who select for uniformity and other commercially desirable qualities. A frightening example comes from Canada. USC Canada reports that “in the last 60 years, the average Canadian potato lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A content, 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, and 28 per cent of calcium. Most of the world’s potatoes are bred for French fries.”

And we wonder why there is an obesity problem worldwide. Food for thought.SeedDiversityGraphicNatGeo


The Virgin Blog

At 66 I have to admit that some of the newer forms of communication have me stymied. I have a Facebook page but not a clue how to properly use it; don’t have Twitter or any of the newer social media things; but what I DO have is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom (I hope) about gardening — why we do it, how we should be doing it, and what it means for the planet and ourselves.

This blog will share my experiences, including my Year One with my first backyard chickens: Jayne (Mansfield), Marilyn (Monroe) Betty (Grable) and Blondie (I am a big Deborah Harry fan). I hope you tune in often for gardening and chicken tips.

Chickens in the Snow

Winter Storm Jonas has completely cooped my ordinarily adventurous girls! They have refused to come out of their coop for two days now. First I believed it was the freezing rain which was distasteful, but today there is just a bit of snow coming down and an occasional gust of wind, yet they stay coop-bound. Here in North Carolina’s Piedmont we had a pretty good storm — with no mail in two days and Church cancelled tomorrow.

Chickens need extra protein during times of stress, so I have been feeding them high protein meals of finely chopped hard-boiled egg (shell and all), chopped brussel sprout greens, dried meal worms, chopped spinach and cauliflower, chopped whole cranberries, raisins, oats, chia seeds, chopped pepitas, in addition to their layer feed and scratch. An Ulu Board (a wooden chopping board with center depression) and Knife (curved blade to fit the board) make this an easy “chore.” It is also extremely important to make sure their water is always available and not frozen (which requires several visits a day). There is no easy way for me to add a heater to this. The coop is limited in size. I purchased one of those basic made-in-China coops online last year, added my dear departed bunny’s hutch and an extra run to it and it is still cramped for my four large and beautiful Buff Orpington ladies.

Hoping for the best after warmer temps return this coming week. The first picture shows them framed by my blueberry bushes, which are budding beautifully due to the extended warm spell we had up until a couple of weeks ago. I have no idea what impact this weather will have on them and whether I can look forward to berries come summer. One of the pleasures of my day last year was sitting with my girls in their compound and feeding them blueberries from the bushes.

The chickens, I am happy to report, have weathered the cold well. I insulated their coop by covering with some NASA space blankets, tacked with a staple gun, and then surrounding it with straw bales put in contractor bags to keep the elements out. The garden is sleeping now under a thick coat of snow and ice and the snow provides additional insulation for the coop.

Walking is an effort, and I had to dig out the gates to the coop this morning with a spade, chopping the icy crust to free it. My body feels its 66 years after just a short time trudging through this, as it requires more effort (and muscle mass) than I am used to this time of year. Can’t wait for warmer weather so I can begin (finish) my garden cleanup. I used to clean up fanatically in the fall, but now I leave much of my garden to the birds, literally, and the helpful insects. The chickens take care of many of the unwelcome bugs in warmer weather. My back yard and garden are certified as wildlife habitat, so I am always mindful of leaving enough underbrush and seeds to help the creatures that visit and live there.

Birds thrive in such an environment, and I enjoy watching the many visitors that come to feast on my winter garden. I do not put out bird feeders because this past Fall all backyard chicken owners were asked to register with the State of North Carolina because of the threat of Avian Flu Virus, often carried by migratory birds. Recently we received the “all-clear”, but it was quickly followed by another alert for a different version of the virus. I am always concerned because of the number of wild birds that visit around the chicken coop. But I have decided that there is only so much in Nature that you can attempt to control, and believe that all creatures need habitats in order to stay healthy and viable. I have participated in the past in the Cornell Backyard Bird Watch and I recommend it to all those who are concerned with our diminishing bird populations.


The wind is picking up now, so I must go check on my girls and retrieve any eggs. When Fall set in, and the number of hours reduced, so did their egg production, down to 1 a day. I often wonder how that happens — do they elect among themselves who will produce that egg each day? Is there just one gal who is laying? It makes me chuckle to think of a confab in the coop on whose turn it is to give their Mama Hen (me) the egg today. Recently, as the sun is starting to set later and later each night, I have gotten an occasional second egg a day. I will be so happy when we are back on our 4 a day schedule.

Well . . . they’re out! And looks like they had the same case of cabin fever as did I!