Sunday, February 19, 2012

It's not February, it's Spring!

Well the snowdrops are up, the hellebores are in full bloom, my witch hazel has been going for a couple of weeks now and I have two prunus mume, Japanese flowering apricots, in full on pink riots of open flowers. Welcome to the winter that wasn’t! Not that I’m complaining as I loathe the cold, but my hydrangea buds are swelling, my daylillies are up, all my roses have started to push out new foliage and I’m not really sure what I should do.

I thought about sowing so mache lettuce weeks and weeks ago but didn’t because I was sure it was going to get super cold, now I’m kicking myself because I didn’t. Of course, if I had, we’d probably have had a blizzard, but for the last week or so every cell in my body is telling me that it’s spring time and it’s time to root around in the garden.
I’ve already bought all my seeds, I even got some sent to me compliments of Renee’s Garden so I can write and tell you how they work out, but how do you figure out when to start seeds when there hasn’t even been a first hard frost, let alone a last one?

I did start my Imperial Star artichoke seeds on my one windowsill with sun, but until I win Lotto and get a greenhouse, I’ve got to play it safe for a while with sticking things in the soil.  I must say the idea of having artichokes that can actually set buds their first year would be killer, as they just not meant to make it through the winter here. There are a couple of us trying to overwinter ones from last year, and this winter has been a godsend for us, but I’m excited to try the Imperial and I think I’ve got a source for organic Tavor artichoke plants, I’ve ordered 48! Woo hoo! I’m going to tuck them into all my flowerbeds.

But since I’m really itching to plant something, I made a quick round to the few nurseries that are still open and picked up some more hellebores, because who can have too many hellebores right? Shady loving, deer resistant, hard to kill and one of the first signs of spring – what’s not to love?  What most of the nurseries have right now are your basic helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas or Lenten Rose. Even during this mild, mild winter, none of mine were up at Christmas, but I heard tell of a few in a sheltered area of springs and I thought I spied one on Suffolk street, although I might have imagined it.

What was blooming for me before the holidays were my helleborus foetidus, or stinking hellebore. I happen to love these plants, mostly because I go nuts for green flowers, although I’ve lost a number of them to cold snaps when we have warm early winters and then the temperatures drop. I have just reestablished a nice grove of the variety 'Wester Flisk'; which has a thinner, more finely cut, ferny leaf; around my non disease resistant peach tree’s base, and I’m hoping the last of my straight species will set some seed this year, but if not I can always get more babies at Marder's when they come in at the end of the month. Anyway, the basic Lenten rose is wonderful, but keep your eyes out for the newer varieties which all have larger, more upright flowers. There’s one called ‘Jacob’ which blooms earlier then ‘Josef Lempur’ which is also very pretty and then there’s ‘Swirling Skirts’ which is a double so try and find all three varieties if you can.

The hellebores I truly can’t get enough of are the helleborus orientalis and it’s hybrids. The species self-seeds with abandon in my garden, which is brilliant. Unfortunately, I had to move a big Japanese maple smack into the middle of the oldest and most prolific bed, so the show this year isn’t going to be stellar, but I did transplant a bunch of them to other spots in the garden.

I know I’m always raving about there being no such thing as too many plants, but I really feel that way about hellebores, and their colors are getting to be amazing. From which really looks like true black to pure white, purple, pink, spotted, frilled, contrasting veins, red, green, doubles and now yellows and peach, the heart does little flippy flops just thinking about them.

‘Grape Galaxy’ is deep purple with black freckles and is to die, ‘Mrs. Betty Ranicar’ is triple layers of white that looks almost ranunculus like, ‘Blue Metallic Lady’ is a cool slate blue single while ‘Frilly Kitty’ is a double that ranges in shades from the palest pink to deep maroon.

The ones I want most desperately are those that were bred by Marietta O'Byrne and are distributed by a wholesale plant breeding company called Terra Nova, the same folks that are responsible for the whole heuchera craze. They breed plants with the “havetohave” gene. I need helleborus ‘Winter Jewels™ Onyx Odyssey’, with double slate, purple and black flowers the way I used to need Manolo Blahniks. 

And then there’s ‘Winter Jewel Cherry Blossom’ -- single and semi double anemone shaped flowers in soft pink with dark rose veins, with a picotee edging and a little starburst in the center. Be still my heart.

Paige Patterson must confess that the ‘portable’ chicken coop she purchased requires three people using all their might to roll around the garden.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The death of the $180 chicken

Last week when I went down to the basement to check on my livestock, one of my chickens was curled in a little ball and huddled as if trying to get warm. This is not normal chicken behavior. When I reached in and put their food down, the chicken only moved slightly and then she didn’t try and escape as I cupped her tiny frail body in my hand and lifted her out. In fact she tucked her head into my hand and sort of snuggled up to me. Definitely not chicken behavior, so I brought her upstairs, wrapped her in a dishtowel so warmth in my lap and sat down at the computer.

Lethargic chickens — the internet is overwhelming with it’s helpful suggestions: lice, injury, birth defect, coccidiosis (no diarrhea so we probably are safe there), worms, botulism, cancer, bacterial infection, egg bound (too young for that), crop impaction (nope, that I could check) arrrrrggghhh, I don’t know, I don’t know. They also say that most chicks that get sick don’t recover, but I don’t want to hear that.
So off to the vet we go. At this point you must know that I have failed as a farmer. I know that there is nothing as silly as taking a chicken to the vet, but this chicken is another living, breathing, sentient creature and it’s unhappy. And I just can’t deal with that. I’m a girl who will scream at the little mouse on the PBS nature program to,  "Look out, behind you, it's the cobra!" I loathe the deer that destroy my garden, but was thrilled when my husband found a desperately weak and sickly fawn and took it to the wildlife rehabilitation center. I cried hysterically when someone sent me a link to a video of a tiny white dog that appeared vicious and was going to be put down but was just and needed a hug. Sobbed. I can’t ignore animals in distress, so off to the vet we go.

My regular vet has said they don’t do chickens, but has recommended another around the corner. The chicken, Eeny, I am toting around in a red and white Igloo lunch cooler since I don’t have a spare cardboard box or a small enough pet carrier, and the vet’s assistant gives me a little bit of a hairy eyeball stare when I place it on the counter.  Soon enough however, Eeny Patterson is in with the doctor. $90 dollars later Eeny has received subcutaneous fluids and an inconclusive diagnosis. It’s not the vet’s fault, there are no obvious telltale symptoms, no sneezing, no mucous, no running eyes, no diarrhea, no swelling, no punctures, no breaks, no signs of infection, no compaction of the crop — no real leads. However, he does add that he’s not a chicken specialist, and that he could recommend someone locally who is.

I wish he had told me that before the $90 bill, but I did rush over with my chicken instead of waiting for the doctor to get to the office and call me first.  So it’s my own, anxious, fault. Besides I’m game, I mean once you spend $90 on a pet chicken, and you still don’t have an answer, you go the next step right? So we make the appointment that has to be late in the afternoon.

I’m bummed, and frankly Eeny is tired of driving around in the car and I have to go to work for a while (to pay for all these chicken bills) so Eeny got to hang out in her cooler in the warmest office at the nursery with Cathy who takes care of the nurseries chickens. I was also hoping she might have an idea about Eeny’s issues, but she’s stumped too.  I have a meeting, I talk plants for a while, and I explain to everyone at work that yes, I know, for ninety bucks I can buy a whole bunch of chickens, but I have a suffering creature in my care and I can’t just let it suffer without trying to help.

We have an appointment with the second vet at 4:30, but again, I’m an anxious gal, I thought the fluids would have perked Eeny up a little more, but he’s still just curled up in a ball, so I call and ask if we can come earlier and for thirty additional dollars I can call Eeny’s situation an emergency arrive whenever I want. So off we go to the second vet.

Dr. Grosjean is quite lovely, but he too has no specific answer. More subcutaneous fluids, some antibiotics and instructions on how to force feed Eeny, that’s what we leave with after another $90 bill. I was really hoping for a diagnosis, I wanted a problem we could fix, but we’re just sort of shot gunning Eeny’s treatment instead as the answer is, no one really knows.

When I bring Eeny home my husband is lovely and doesn’t point of that for $180 we could have bought over 100 new chickens and instead volunteers to help me force feed Eeny the baby food the vet recommended I try. I’ll have you know I stood in King Kullen and obsessed over which food to feed her, but finally settled on organic sweet potato and apricot with a switch up with some cranberry applesauce I made this fall. I demonstrate the technique of forcing a chicken to open it’s beak and Eeny shows a surprising amount of resistance for a chicken in distress, I can only imagine that someone shoving a syringe in your mouth and forcing liquids and baby food into your beak is not a pleasant situation. The doggies can’t believe there’s a chicken in the living room, but I have to keep Eeny separated from the other chickens, so he stays in her Igloo swing topped lunch cooler but is placed high on top of a cupboard where he’ll be warm and out of cat jumping height.  Hugo, the largest dachshund keeps wandering to the base of the cupboard and sighing – if he could talk it’s very easy to understand what he’d say. “Mommy, listen, listen, listen, if you could just get that box down there’s a chicken in there who really needs to be kissed a little, no really, listen, listen, listen, up there, it’s a chicken, and I know this sounds crazy but most chickens really like to be licked. I promise.”

Over the next five days the dogs whine and cry when I feed Eeny twice a day at the kitchen table. My husband takes over for me the day I drive up to Boston but I come home that same night due to concern over Eeny. Regardless of all our efforts, there really is no change. Eeny is not getting better. The other chickens in the basement show no signs of any similar issues, so perhaps it is something inherent in the way Eeny is built. This is something Dr. Grosjean tried to explain to me, telling me sometime birds will fail to cohere as they mature. I don’t understand how a creature could get so far along in the process of becoming and then fall apart, but then there is much in the world I don’t understand. All I know is that I hold Eeny as often as I can and I feel the heartbeat in the base of my hand as I cup the small chicken close to my body for warmth.

When Eeny dies, it is not an easy passing. It involves death throes and flailing and vomit and a contorted body position that makes me wonder why such pain and fear is necessary. It makes me understand why death is sometime seen as scary. No gentle passing in her sleep for my chicken, which off course makes me terribly sad. I wrap her in a paper towel and bury her in a part of the garden where I will not exhume her by mistake in the coming months and years, and I think of something to say but fail.

When he gets the text that says Eeny has died, my husband tells me it’s for the best and that it’s better that the chicken is no longer suffering and I know what he says is true. I however had wanted a miracle, I wanted the storybook ending, and I’m crushed that it didn’t happen.