Baby Chicks!

It’s Spring and things have been really, really busy.
In between planting and transplanting and putting even more plants under the grow lights, we decided to get an incubator and hatch out baby chicks from our own chickens.  Here’s the incubator with the eggs on “lockdown” — three days before they are expected to hatch when the temperature is to remain constant, but the humidity levels rise up to 80% so that the chicks can break through the membrane around each egg.


While the incubator was holding the hatching eggs, we set up the brooder in the Workshop.  That eerie red glow is from the heat lamp which ensures that the baby chicks are warm enough in their new home.  Although the heat lamp is on 24/7, the glow is only visible at night.  It looks spooky, but to chicken-keepers, it’s reassurance that the chicks will be warm, dry and not pecking at each other.2.jpg

Hatching is supposed to happen over 24 hours, but in our case, it was a “draggy hatch” that took more like 48 hours.  Here are our first four hatchings, resting under the heat lamp in the brooder.


Almost 12 hours later, we had 16 chicks in the brooder under the heat lamp.  It turns out that Londo, our rooster, is a Blue Ameraucana, rather than a Black which means he has one black feather color gene and one white feather color gene.  We expected mostly black chicks (since we didn’t realize Londo had any white genes), but we’ve been pleasantly surprised to have black chicks, yellow chicks, one grey chick and two striped chicks.


Here is a close-up of one of the White Leghorn/Blue Ameraucana crosses.  We’re waiting until the wing tip feathers grow out to determine each chick’s gender.  The pullets (girls) will stay here and lay eggs, while the boys will go to a friend’s farm to be raised for meat.
The quality of the photos varies as I was learning how to take chick photos AND how to deal with the red of the heat lamp.  Lots of learning curves!


The chicks don’t need to eat or drink for the first 24 hours as they still have the yolk sac in their abodmens to give them nourishment  However, it’s best to give them food and drink as soon as possible so that they know how to eat and drink when the yolk sac is used up and they need those nutrients.  The transition from embryo that already has plenty of food to chick who eats and drinks is a big one and I was very relieved to see the little chicks drinking on their own.


Here is yesterday’s photo of all 23 chicks (from 31 eggs).  To keep the chicks from filling up on items that aren’t food, for the first 2 days, one covers the bedding with cloth and paper towels so that they have something with traction to walk on, but don’t eat the bedding.  This morning, they were all eating from the trough and drinking from the waterer, so I took up the toweling and they are now walking on pine shavings.


Holding young chicks makes them more friendly as adults — email me if you’d like to come over and hold a cute baby chick!
I’ll be cleaning the brooder at least once a day and maybe twice — baby chicks are really cute, but gosh, they are also little pooping machines!   We’ll be composting their poop and adding it to our fallow field that could really use the nutrient boost.
Having baby chicks is really fun, but as a plant person, I had to finish off​ with this photo of our Pearl Bush.  With all the freezes and thaws of this Spring, I was sure that the blossoms would freeze and fall off as our magnolia and azalea bushes did earlier in April.  But the Pearl Bush prevailed and gave us this lovely display (which is dissapating with all the rain) which is all the more precious for having lost our other Spring displays.

Spring is here!  We do have asparagus, although the season is starting slowly with this wet and cold weather.   But it’s warm and dry in the Workshop if you’d like to stop by and hold a baby chick!

Getting the Gooseberries in the Ground

Gooseberries are one of the first fruits to leaf out in the Spring, so when Nourse Farms asked me when I’d like my Hinnomaki Red gooseberries shipped, of course, I said, “As early as possible!”

As early as possible meant they arrived this week.  I stuffed all 10 plants in the crisper drawers of the refrigerator, then went outside to prepare the ground.

No matter how early a fruit plant is, there is always a weed (or several!) that leaf out even earlier.  Although we’d plowed and cover cropped the Gooseberry Area in 2015, perennial weeds still poked through.  The ground was probably too damp to plow or till and even if we did, all it would do is chop up those perennial roots so that each piece would re-root as a whole new weed!   As growers who use organic techniques, we couldn’t spray anything, but we could yank all those weeds up and then feed them to the chickens as seen below:


As you can see, our chickens LOVE weeds and what they don’t eat, they will rip apart and toss around so that not even a piece of perennial weed root has a chance to grow into another plant.  This was also the week I was collected chicken eggs to place in the incubator for baby chicks — giving the hens these weeds means that they had access to extra vitamins so that they would have stronger and healthier baby chicks.
After the weeds were removed, we planted the gooseberry plants, then surrounded each plant with newspaper held down with wood chips.  The gooseberry plant is in the center – it’s not easy to see as the leaf buds have swollen, but the leaves have not yet come out.


We placed heavy cardboard between each section of newspaper and held it down with more wood chips.  Normally, this would be enough for gooseberry plants, but with the snow and heavy frost coming on Saturday night, we covered the entire Gooseberry Area with straw like this:


There really are gooseberry plants under all that straw!  (The poles are marking where the pawpaw fruits were planted last year) While the straw will protect the plants from a light frost (such as we’ll be getting tonight), we’ll have to cover the entire area with tarps to trap a few degrees of heat on Saturday night when it’s supposed to get into the low 20s.

Sometimes in farming, you don’t have good choices.  The gooseberries were breaking dormancy and needed to get in the ground.  The rains from yesterday and next week will help them get over transplant shock.  However, this means they must be protected from the deep freeze that will happen on Saturday night.  We’re doing the best we can for these plants so that in 2017, we’ll be able to offer these very tasty (and very pretty) Finnish dessert gooseberries for sale.

In happier news, we’ll finish collecting chicken eggs from our hens on Saturday and will put them all in the incubator later that day.  21 days later, we should have baby chicks!







Easter is Coming: Need Eggs?

With the longer days and a drier barnyard, the chickens are laying plenty of eggs!


As we have a mixed flock, we have three different egg colors.  The Leghorns​ lay white eggs, the Rhode Island Reds​ lay brown eggs and Pilgrim, our Barred Rock, lays beige eggs.​

Email us if you’d like to purchase eggs for Easter or other times during the year.  Our flock lives in a converted horse stall in the barn, has a large barnyard to roam and scratch in and eats a varied diet.  The chickens love visitors, especially, those bearing mealworms, so if you’d like to see how the chickens that produce your eggs are living, just email to set up a time to see them.

​No one has “gone broody” (that is, decided to sit on their eggs and hatch out some baby chicks), but Londo has been doing his job, so if I can borrow a friend’s incubator, baby chicks are possible.  Here’s Londo:


Unlike the laying hens, Londo is an Ameraucana chicken.  Hopefully, he will pass along a blue egg laying gene to his daughers.

Pilgrim, our Lead Hen, was not too fond of Londo when he first came here in November.  However, they seem to have ironed out their differences and are spending quality time together.  Once I have my friend’s incubuator, there won’t be very many beige eggs for sale until I have some Londo daughters!  Here is a photo of Pilgrim:


We’re looking forward to having several egg-based dishes for Easter this year.  If you’d like Pilgrim and her friends to supply you with eggs, let us know soon — there will be a lull when I put eggs in the incubator, but having little baby chicks will be fun for everyone!​




















Galen Discovers The Heat Mat

We started out with 2 trays of 156 Precoce D’Argenteuil ​​Asparagus on the heat mat.  However, with germination, we now have 1 tray on the heat mat and 2 trays under the lights.
This means that there is extra space on the heat mat until next week when I start the next round of Precoce D’Argenteuil asparagus.
Well, there used to be space on the heat mat. . .


Last night, Galen discovered that the spot next to the computer is WARM and like most cats in winter, decided that WARM is GOOD.  He’s left the area only to eat (he may only be 8 pounds, but he’s a big eater!).
Meanwhile, here’s what the Precoce D’Argenteuil asparagus seedlings look like after a week or so under the lights:


These seedlings are healthy, but tiny.  One can see why it’s suggested to start asparagus seed in January so that one has decent sized plants to put out in May.
For the first round of trays, the seedlings took about 14 days to germinate.  The packet suggested a 70% germination rate and so far, we have an 81% germination rate.  Next week’s trays should put us at about 225 seedlings for a goal of 200 seedlings to plant after frost in May.
Galen has the weekend to enjoy the heat mat — Monday, the next round of aparagus seeded trays go on the heat mat and there won’t be room for him!​










New Fence, New Rooster

As we have slowly fixed up the barn, our goals have been for it to be a useful storage place and a shelter for livestock.
Since Hill Creek Farm is primarily a produce farm, the livestock needs to be fenced so that they don’t eat the produce (and plants!) we’re growing to sell.
Over the fall, Chris of Sandy Hill Construction, LLC, who has done most of our outbuilding work had some time, so we had him finish the third bay for goats.
Readers of this blog will remember that we have 8 chickens — which can be destructive enough to produce if they free-range, but nothing is as hungry of fresh, green growth as a few goats (never have just one goat — they are herd animals that need at least one buddy).  So, if we are going to get goats and have them share the barnyard with poultry, we needed a good fence.
Chris did some research and came up with a fence that should keep in chickens, turkeys and goats (the livestock we’d like to house in the barn).  There’s no point in doing a fence multiple times, so in November, Chris and his father, Tom, came out and put together this fence:


Note that there is no latch on the gate.  It’s held together by chains that wrap around the gate so that escape artist goats (and all goats are escape artists!) can’t undo the latch and help themselves to the herb garden beside the house!
Here’s how the fence looks from the front:


Experienced goat keepers will note that we’re not completely ready for goats yet.  The oak posts have to dry and get cut even, then a single wire electric fence line will be strung along the top of the fence and stone wall to keep the goats from climbing out and heading for the herb garden, front field, neighbor’s bushes, etc.  Chris will come back and do all that in the Spring, plus we’ll be taking out the random stones in the barnyard and grading it so that heavy rains don’t turn the area into a mud pit.

If you’d like Sandy Hill Construction to fix up your farm outbuildings or build a multi-purpose fence for livestock, you can contact them at  sandyhill_llc AT​

However, the fence is sufficient to take down the green fencing outside the second bay where we keep the chickens.  Since we have more space, we could get a rooster so that the most productive of our 8 hens can experience motherhood.

After Pilgrim, our lead chicken, put up a personal ad on various Facebook groups, we found another small farmer here in East Coventry Township ​who had 5 roosters to choose from.  My cousin Ed and I decided we wanted one of the white-spattered ​Ameraucana roosters, so all four of us ran after those two roosters until we caught one.  This is what he looks like:


Continuing the tradition of naming livestock after characters from the Babylon-5 TV series​, I named him Londo, since the Centauri have multiple wives.

Londo was purchased in August as a chick from the Pughtown Agway​, so at only 4 months, technically, he’s a cockerel, rather than a rooster.  He’s thinking about crowing, but hasn’t done it yet.  He and Original Leghorn​ are becoming friends, but, Pilgrim, a Barred Rock, after a week and a half, is still suspicious of him.​  This is Pilgrim:


Hopefully, these crazy kids will one day (soon!) fall in love, or at least lust and we’ll have some cute little baby chicks in the Spring.
Meanwhile, Londo has decided to spend his nights on the tallest roost in the coop.  Here he is, keeping an eye on the flock in the morning:


Chicken politics keeps us all amused, but hopefully, we’ll have our own chicks in 2016 that will lay a variety of colored eggs.  Stay tuned for more chicken photos!




Clearing the Asparagus Field

Asparagus is a perennial — every year, in early Spring, the shoots rise out of the ground, then by summer have fronded out into tall, ferny stalks that shade the ground.
By winter, the nutrients in the stalks have been stored into the roots for next year and the stalk dry out and wither.
To prevent asparagus diseases from gaining a foothold in the crop, we remove the stalks, shred them, then use the resulting mulch for chicken bedding and/or organic matter amendments for the rhubarb, which can’t catch asparagus diseases.
Today, the asparagus stalks were dry enough and the weather was decent, so we went out to clear the field.
Mochachino, the barn cat, came with us.  With the stalks removed, she had a better view of the meadow voles’ holes in the field and spent her time ensuring that their occupants wouldn’t be munching on asparagus roots this winter.


While all the stalks are cut, we only finished raking and shredding about a quarter acre of the half acre field.  If the weather holds this week, I’ll be raking and gathering the rest of the stalks into piles for shredding.







We Have Chickens!

Our next fall task after the garlic was planted was to finish converting one of the horse stalls in the barn into a chicken coop for some laying hens.

We had just finished layering sand, shredded leaves and tiny wood chips in the bottom of the stall (the “deep litter” method of chicken keeping), when a friend who runs a farm animal rescue received an emergency call from Philadelphia.

Chickens are illegal in Philadelphia and these four 8-month old pullets had been “dimed out” to the authorities.  The owners were heartbroken — they had cared for the chickens since they were chicks and wanted them to have a good home.  So, they drove from Philadelphia to Barto and reluctantly gave them up.

At one time, anyone could keep chickens.  People like my PA Dutch grandfather kept chickens on the Iowa farm where he grew up and in the town of Mount Pleasant, PA that he moved to after he married my grandmother.

Unfortunately, he told me, “a wave of so-called ‘civic pride’ swept the towns and they took pride in that they ‘weren’t rural.’  And the biggest way they could prove they ‘weren’t rural’ was to ban chickens in the town.”

Supposedly, the Mt. Pleasant Town Fathers made a personal visit to my grandfather to let him know (supposedly with great glee) that his chickens would soon be banned and he would have to get rid of them.  “It was the stupidest law ever,” my grandfather said.

The Town Fathers may have gotten rid of my grandfather’s chickens, but to their great consternation, he refused to take down his chicken coop.  As a child, when we were working in his garden, he’d point to the chicken coop and say “One of these days, people are going to realize how good it is to have chickens around.  And they will let chickens in town again.  And on that very day, I will fill my coop with chickens.”

Unfortunately, that day never came for him — when he died the mid-1970s, his chicken coop was still standing, waiting for the chickens the Town Fathers wouldn’t let him have.  I’ve always loved the urban chicken movement on his behalf.

But I did take his words to heart. Whenever we looked at properties for our future farm, we never made an offer until I looked up the zoning codes for the municipality on PA Ecode and made sure I would be allowed to have chickens.  (We let several properties go, one as large as 4 acres, because chickens were not allowed.)

After a week in quarantine, our friend brought the chickens here. The best of the four is this Barred Rock who is friendly and easy to handle:


We also have a white Leghorn, who will probably always be flighty.


We also have two Rhode Island Reds, which are in the back left (smaller one) and front right (larger one)


Here’s the best I could get with all four of them together.  They had only been here an hour or so — it will be easier to take photos once they are used to their new coop.


Luke, our English Shepherd, seems very excited about the chickens.  He likes going to their stall and watching them peck and coo.  Once they are used to their coop, he’ll start learning to herd them so that we can use them around the farm to eat insects and weed seeds in season.

I’m excited too — and hopefully, my grandfather is happy that I finally have chickens, like any gardener or farmer should











Stay Warm!

The polar air has us finding excuses to work indoors.  Vir (top) and Galen (bottom) decided that snoozing in a warm spot until the weather changes is the best course of action!


Vir’s full name is Vir Catto, after Vir Cotto, a character in the Babylon-5 fictional universe.   His mother was a Philadelphia stray taken in by a friend. When the kittens came, we had an opening for another cat, so added Vir to the family.  His mother was a tiny thing, but due to the wonders of pre-natal nutrition, both Vir and his brother are very large cats!

Galen is named after the Greek physician and after a Technomage in the Babylon-5 universe.  He helped heal our hearts after our elder kitty, Lindsey Valen, died at 17 years old.   He was found in Bechtelsville, PA at about 4 weeks old with an upper respiratory infection and nursed back to health by the rescue society, Cat NAPS of Pottstown.  If you live in the area and are looking for a kitty companion or two, we highly recommend Cat NAPS.

Meanwhile, stay warm and be sure to snuggle with someone you love!


Processing Garlic with Friend and English Shepherd

Garlic in Southeastern Pennsylvania is traditionally planted on Columbus Day, so I needed to get my seed stock processed and ready.
It was supposed to rain today, so it seemed like a good day to work on the Place command with Luke, the English Shepherd, and spend some time with my friend Denise, who also enjoys cooking with plenty of garlic.
When we restored the barn, we made sure it had plenty of ventilation so that the garlic, which is harvested on the stalk, could “dry down” with an abundance of air flow.  Denise is cutting the stalks and roots from the bulbs; Luke is practicing his Place on the blue blanket.
We plant over a dozen varieties of garlic and are working on building up our seed stock.  Hopefully, next year, we’ll have enough both to plant and to sell!



Pepper Guards the Kitchen Garden

​Pepper, our 12 year old Border Collie and either Shiba Inu or Schipperke, (she’s from a West Virginia rescue, so we don’t know), enjoys keeping watch over the plants while we work.

Here, she is keeping an eye on the Kitchen Garden, where we care for most of our annual heirlooms.  The trap is to catch whatever varmint is eating those Joya de Oxaca tomatoes!

Let us know if the comments if you think she’s part Shiba Inu or Schipperke!