HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I know what today's post is gonna do. It's gonna divide us, instantly into the "Gee, I wish I could do that" segment and the "Are you KIDDING me?" segment.
I know which one I'm in.
How about you? Would you like the life of Judy Dailey? She's a debut mystery novelist who lives in Seattle, Washington with four chickens, a dog, and her husband, the writer Tom Argentina. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Judy earned an MBA from the University of Washington and a certificate in compost management. She has been a pilot, skydiver, spelunker, bicyclist, skier and night-time sailor. She managed a multi-million dollar grant fund for affordable housing. She handcrafts artisan salami, beer, and ricotta cheese.
And now--she's a debut mystery novelist. Sounds good, huh? Sounds--terrific, huh? Well, read on. (You know I love you, Judy, but--chicken poop?)
JUDY DAILEY: The first year Tom and I were married, our lawnmower broke down. Instead of replacing it, in a burst of optimism we decided to tear out the lawn and start an urban farm on our city lot in Seattle. Our plan was to save money while eating high-quality, organic meals. Tom, a born scavenger, turned a tree house into a small greenhouse and a skylight into a cold frame.
In February, I overnighted day-old chicks from a hatchery in Missouri (http://www.cacklehatchery.com). For several weeks, the chicks lived happily in a box on my desk while I dealt with rejection slips for an over-wrought mystery with a great title (Chewing Glass).
The chicks turned into adolescents who fluttered out of their box and pecked the keys off my laptop. In a move that would occur only to a complete neophyte, I decided to let them free-range in our guest bathroom. I put down newspaper, food, and water , then shut the door. When I returned, it looked like a papier-mâché factory had exploded. Everything was covered with a goopy gunk that quickly hardened into cement.
Meanwhile, I’d left a voicemail for my sister, a much moresuccessful writer I was in the middle of scraping poop off the ceiling (Yes, the ceiling!) when Cathy called back. I whined about rejection. She said, “You have to write about what you know.” I said, “Right now, all I really know about is chicken poop.” Thus Animal, Vegetable, Murder was born.
Compared to dogs, children, and husbands, chickens might not be the most intellectually stimulating companions, but they have one outstanding virtue. They do not have to be trained, bribed or coerced into doing exactly what I want them to do: eat bugs, fertilize the garden, and lay eggs. They don’t complain when it’s cold and raining, they’re never bored, and they don’t have outdoor soccer practice in November. Because we live in the city, we can’t have a rooster but no matter. The hens are perfectly happy and productive without him. And since this whole experiment started as a chance to save money, I can report that our organic, free-range chicken eggs cost about half of what they do at the supermarket.
It was a different story, however, for our vegetable garden. Even without paying ourselves for digging, planting, and weeding, our produce was just too expensive. The main cost was water. Despite Seattle’s reputation, we have almost no rain between the Fourth of July and October 1, the prime growing season. Rates go up during the summer, so keeping our plants healthy and productive almost tripled our water bill. Tom decided we needed rain barrels—and more rain barrels. Currently we store about 1200 gallons of water, and we’ve never completely exhausted our supply. As a matter of fact, right now Tom is trying to figure out how to flush our toilets with rain water from the barrels.
The secret to effective rain barrels? Put them on towers high enough so the water flows freely. And the secret to rain barrel towers? Plant beautiful vines to cover them so your neighbors don’t call the zoning police. We use flowering jasmine.
Pictures of rain barrels plus updates from my urban farm plus a monthly book giveaway can be found on my website. I would love to add stories about your urban farming adventures.
And a copy of Animal, Vegetable, Murder to one lucky commenter!