Snakes in the Garden


I have a deep respect, but not really fear, of snakes. I know some of them can make me very sick, or even kill me, but most of the ones I am likely to encounter in my garden or near my home are harmless. That is why I am troubled by the reaction of many who immediately want to kill any snake they see. So when I walked out my front door this morning and saw two of my cats sitting astride a 12″ rough earth snake, I did not panic. Instead, I googled the appearance for my area (there are some excellent snake identification sites available online) and relaxed.

When I was a kid and we had just moved from the Baltimore suburbs to a country estate surrounded by old fields, woods and a graveyard, we found a beautiful snake near our house and called Mom to come and see. She went bezerk! She got a broom, which was the first thing she could grab, and she whacked it to death. Turns out, even without knowing what she was doing, she was right. That snake was later identified as a copperhead – not a pleasant encounter for anyone, man or beast (and we had a couple of dogs and kittens at the time).

Forward to my move to North Carolina, an antique house that had been neglected by its aging previous owner and whose grass outside stood at a healthy foot when I moved in. My stalwart male cat, Rusty (Trusty Rusty), who thought he had died and gone to heaven in this rural setting, explored the yard to his delight. One day, when we were about 6 days into the move, I saw him engaged in a battle with something near the house. I thought it was a mouse or vole and did not pay much attention. I went into my office, the window of which overlooks the same area, and almost fainted when a 3 foot rat snake waved to me from the ledge outside. I immediately contracted to have the grounds mowed and cleaned up. And since a rat snake is harmless and actually kills copperheads, I didn’t do anything else about it.

But, and this is the lesson, my cat Rusty got deathly ill a couple of days later. From a snake bite, said the vet. Why? Because even non-venomous snakes carry horrible bacteria in their mouths and can inflict a virulent bite that, left unattended, can quickly become septic. With a few days in the hospital, he recovered, but he definitely used up at least one of his lives in that encounter. We were lucky. And so, my dear gardening friends, know your snakes, treat them with respect and let the nice ones live, but should you wind up with a bite — get medical attention immediately.

Also, if you have chickens, even a “harmless” rat snake can be life threatening to them if they are big enough. So that is why you need to keep your yard and garden trimmed, and keep your coop raised off the ground and be watchful!

Chickweed for Chickens and Chicks

If you are not lucky enough to have this volunteer “weed” popping up in early spring in your garden grow it! It is loaded with saponins that detoxify the human body. Chickweed, also known as chickenwort, is commonly found in many folks’ gardens and is properly considered invasive. Yet, it is a wonderful, nutritious spring tonic that grows quickly and is a good candidate for growing indoors in pots. A low-growing succulent that can spread out into extensive mats, it is a winter annual (I can pull back snow and find it green and juicy underneath) that produces tiny white flowers and fruit pods and slightly fuzzy stems. Flowers and sets seed at the same time. Chickens love it too (hence the name) so you can grow as fodder. I have patches of it all over my garden, and my chicks favorite afternoon treat is a handful pulled fresh.


It is easy to grow – just broadcast over rich garden soil and keep moist until germination. Quick growing too – you will have a crop in less than a month! For we humans, simply pick, rinse and sprinkle the delicate sprays on your salads or add it to your juicing concoction. Or, dry for addition to any healing salve. It is especially soothing to psoriasis, eczema and poison ivy rash. Chickweed has been a valued medicinal for centuries, used to cure everything from mange, skin disease, bronchitis, arthritis and menstrual pain. But perhaps the historic use that peaks everyone’s interest today is that Chickweed water was an old wives’ remedy for obesity. I do not know if there is any scientific support, or ongoing study of this claim, but scientists are always the last ones to catch up! Right girls?



Gardeners Start your engines … er, I mean seeds!



The Washington Post’s Adrian Higgins has the best charts/graphics we’ve seen for when you should start/sow your seeds. The first part of this article focuses on the Mid-Atlantic region, but also includes an adjustment schedule for the rest of the country. The important thing to remember, however, is that if you have been experiencing quirky weather (and who hasn’t lately) you need to use extreme caution determining when to “harden off” your seedlings for transplants. A sudden cold snap will destroy weeks of patient seed starting and an early day of bright sunshine and warmth can literally fry your little tomatoes enjoying their first outing. [Note: If you are unable to load the graphics, just google your zip code’s last frost date and count backwards from the time required for the seed you are starting. Remember, you must allow for sufficient “hardening off” time before setting outside or in the ground. Hardening off is the gradual process of acclimating your seedling to outdoor conditions. It must be gradual – starting at 15 minutes only in direct sunlight per day, or you will lose your seedlings to the harsher (sun, cold, wind) conditions. You start the hardening off inside by running a gentle fan over your seedlings as they grow. This will produce thicker, stronger stems. Also, be sure your seedlings get 14 hours of artificial “sun” that is close to them — no more than 3″ away — to encourage stout and hardy growth.]

Keep It Clean Ladies!


Interested in backyard chickens? A small flock is easy to maintain. You’ll probably spend more time playing with your girls then tending to them, and they are so entertaining! But there are a few things to keep in mind. Chickens poop (they don’t pee) and they like to scratch and peck, digging up every little germ and bacterium that might inhabit your soil or their straw, or their droppings, or other birds’ droppings. So it is important to keep your ladies and their environs as clean as possible on a very regular basis. Done every few days, it really takes just a few minutes. And following some basic protocols for your own safety is easy and habit-forming.

  • I use disposable gloves and a mask (you can breathe in dehydrated droppings which are still dangerous) when cleaning out the coop, which I do every few days. I also clean up the chicken “yard” of straw and droppings, which are heat composted under a dark tarp before being used in the garden.
  • I use a chlorine solution to clean the girls’ water and food dishes. I use paper plates for their daily treats.
  • I have my chicken clogs in a plastic tray by the back door that leads to the chicken compound. They are the only clogs I wear when tending the chickens.
  • I gather eggs daily (well most of the time) and only wash eggs that might not be perfectly clean when gathered before putting in the fridge, and I use them as soon as possible. Clean eggs keep their “bloom,” which protects the egg from pathogens entering, until ready to use and then are washed before cracking.
  • And, yes, I wash my hands faithfully as soon as I come in the house. Also, my dishwasher sanitizes in case there is any transmission in the kitchen. Finally, because my dogs traverse a section between my back door and chicken compound, which can be muddy when wet weather abounds, I use a chlorine solution to wash my kitchen floors.

Bacterial infections are often more deadly when we live in a sterile environment. My late father, a physician, believed it was important not to over-sanitize life in order to keep your immune system active. I agree with that 100%. I have a healthy gut, which is the foundation for immune function. Also, I haven’t taken antibiotics in years. Ironically, they can be destructive of your immune system because they destroy ALL bacteria, even the healthy ones in your microbiome. When I need a boost I take Berberine, a natural alkaloid found in many plants (any plant that is yellow under the bark such as Nandina, Oregon Grape, Goldenseal and many others. Berberine is anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing among its many properties. It doesn’t wipe out the good with the bad. There are many Berberine supplements out there — just be sure to use a trusted source.

So don’t be frightened off by scare stories of the health hazards of backyard chickens. Properly cared for, you will find their eggs the healthiest and most delicious you can eat, with enormous benefits for your body and mind, and well worth a little effort!

Avian Flu and Why We Must Worry


An excellent opinion piece in The New York Times by Sonia Shah, author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond” provides a first hand look at Asian poultry markets and tracks how rare mutations of the Avian Flu virus are making their way to America providing the breeding ground for the next global pandemic. This is important reading for everyone, but especially for backyard chicken lovers. There are things we can, and should, do to protect our beloved birds, ourselves, and our communities before it is too late.


Fresh or Not?


I have a too-vivid memory from my childhood of visiting a neighbor’s barn where I saw a goose egg. I reached to pick it up and before my neighbor could warn me it exploded all over my pretty frock. The smell is something I will never ever forget!

So when I was cleaning out my girls’ coop today that memory came racing back. I had packed the section of the run under their roost with straw during the very cold weather in January to help keep them warm. I thought it was too dense for them to go in, but I was wrong. As I pulled back the straw I found not one, but 16 beautiful eggs. And then I thought – do I dare remove them? How long might they have been there? Fresh or …

I called my neighbor who spent years raising chickens for Perdue. She has been my Go-To-Chicken-Guru from day one. She is also a nurse and rescued my Jane when her very first egg (a huge double yolker) got hung up in her little egg hole. She reminded me that putting an egg in a bowl of water was a pretty good test of how fresh. And I was excited to test all these eggs and find half of them very fresh and the other half fresh but perfect for hard boiled eggs. What a relief!


By the way, there is a BIG difference in longevity of fresh between store-bought and backyard eggs. Store-bought eggs are cleaned before packaging, washing away the protective “bloom” that the hen puts on her eggs when laid. The bloom is important is maintaining egg viability until she gathers enough eggs to sit on the nest for hatching, since a hen lays a maximum of one egg a day. (Of course, an egg must be fertilized before it can be hatched.) The bloom not only maintains freshness, it keeps out bacteria that might compromise the egg. When an egg is washed – even rinsed in cool water – the bloom is removed. This is why you see more salmonella in store-bought eggs than backyard eggs. So, if it backyard, you typically do not wash the egg until just before you use it. Doing so will allow the egg to stay fresh much much longer than a store-bought egg, which is already “old” by backyard standards when it hits the shelves.

And that brought to mind the quandary of having very fresh eggs that you’d like to boil for egg salad. Nothing beats the taste of egg salad made with very fresh eggs. But most say that eggs should be about 10 days old in order for the shell to peel easily. Now, most commercial eggs you buy in the store are much older than that (up to 30 days), so its not a problem. But for backyard chicken eggs, how to avoid the agony of sticky shells?

Pretty easy hack, actually. Boil the eggs as you would normally (although I recommend a hot water start). After you have boiled for 10 minutes rinse in cold water. Then, forget peeling altogether. Cut the egg lengthwise in half and scoop out the egg. You need a really sharp knife and must be careful it doesn’t slip, but you’ll get the hang of it. Just watch for any shell fragments and you are on your way to the best tasting egg salad ever – just add mayo, a really good spicy mustard, salt & pepper to taste!