Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Eggs and I ..or, not.

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 ( 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

HANK: See what I mean? Which segment are you?


  1. Hey, Judy, nice to meet you! I used to teach composting classes and owned and operated a small organic farm, so this book is right down my alley. (The first in my Local Foods Mystery series comes out in May.) I hope to have chickens one day.

    But skydiving? The stuff of nightmares. You're a brave woman. I look forward to reading your book.

  2. Amazing . . . I’d guess Judy’s mantra might well be “life is nothing if not an adventure” . . . and her story is alternately funny, amazing, and filled with “Oh, dear” moments . . . best of luck with the book!

    Unfortunately, there are no urban gardening stories to come from here, although I have to admit that Judy’s are . . . well, fascinating. We always have a garden, but since we live in the Pine Barrens, there’s no worrying about complaining neighbors or the zoning police . . . and the water comes from our well, so that’s not really an issue, either . . . .

    I have to admit I’d probably have lost it right around the time of the guest bathroom chicken poop [that assumes, of course, that I managed to get past having the keys pecked off my laptop . . . I tend toward something resembling total obsessiveness when it comes to my computer] . . . and the skydiving is most definitely out.

  3. When I was a child we were given baby chicks as Easter gifts. Which quickly became ungainly, smelly bigger chicks, who drove my mother insane. I can still smell that eye-watering odor, 50+ years later, and can't imagine sharing indoor living space with them! Cleaning that mess would have done me in. Having the fresh eggs must be lovely, though. We have an actual farm, but my raised beds are only 300 square feet (which is plenty for two people). We only spend half our time there, and we're been trying to figure out how to keep chickens there, without exposing them to the predators.

    What a great idea, to store water in vine-covered rain barrels. Here in southwestern Ohio we usually get 44 inches of rain a year, but it's been very erratic for the last few years, careening between years of horrid drought and a year with 75 inches of rain.

    Judy, your blog on the plastic bags really resonates with me. Everyone in our family uses reusable bags if they can. There is a horrifying scene in the movie Slumdog Millionaire that shows a waterway absolutely covered in thousands of plastic bags.

    Best of luck with the new book. I really look forward to reading it!

  4. Hi, Judy! I love your personal story. What a trip. Can't say I've got a green thumb or a farming mindset, and I'm in awe of those who do. But I love buying from local farmers instead of the so-called farmers that churn out stuff that's more processed than anything else. Anyhoo, if your book is anywhere as interesting as your life, it's gotta be an entertaining read. Looking forward to it!

  5. Judy, your chicken story is hysterical! We have a big organic garden every summer and so enjoy the produce. I know the neighbors would go bonkers if we added chickens:). My sister kept them for a number of years and loved the eggs, but they kept getting murdered by marauding raccoons or fox, so they gave them away.

    Your book sounds delightful and thanks for visiting us today!

  6. Oh my, life certainly is an adventure! I am in awe... also in a puddle on the floor laughing. Will definitely be looking for your book.

    We once "hatched" a brood of hamsters in the bathroom -- fortunately we put the cage in the bathtub because when we checked the tiny little creatures had slipped through the bars and were in the tub. No poop on the ceiling.

  7. My 4-H project was a Holstein named Nilly, but my brother raised chickens. Ugh. The worst year was when my mother decided we could butcher them ourselves, to save $$.

    We had fresh milk and lots of eggs, but the price was high (in child labor).

    Gardens are a different story, and this book sounds like a great harvest.

  8. Oh, Denise Ann, you brought back a memory. Growing up in Beverly Hills my across-the-street neighbor had a chicken (really, Beverly Hills wasn't quite what it is today). And when it came time, I was there when Grandma chased that chicken around the yard and chopped off its head, and yes the chicken kept running. I thought it was fascinating... not even mildly grossed out. Go figure.

  9. How funny, Judy! I'd love to be able to have chickens, but Kansas City doesn't allow it, and I live right in the heart of the city. I have to fight each year to keep my herb and native-plant garden because I've a neighbor who thinks anything but bluegrass lowers property values. I can imagine what she'd feel about chickens!

    Your book sounds fun and funny. It's going on my list of books to read. Thanks for stopping by today.

  10. 4-H! Denise Ann, I haven't thought about 4-H in YEARS. It was very big at my (very rural) high school...

    And you know, Sue Grafton raises chickens!And she's very enthusiastic about it.

    Oh, Karen, we really wanted baby chicks for Easter (yes, we're Jewish but we celebrated everything) but even though we had a barn, my mother always refused. Smart woman.

  11. I loved that tV program THE GOOD LIFE about a couple starting a farm in their back yard. You seem to be living this. Good luck, and with the book.

  12. I'm still agog at the photo of the merry teenage chickens in the guest bath with all the splotches of guano. :)

    The stable where I ride keeps some hens that used to be free-range until one of the mares saw one in her path and decided to make chicken tartare. =:-o

    Thanks for sharing your story, Judy.

  13. Hi, Judy! (Waving from Montana.)

    We actually live in the country--in the woods--and I'm not willing to fight the foxes and coyotes for the chickens. Guano, I can handle. Dead chickens--not so much. (Why are dead bodies on the page so much more manageable?)

  14. Wow, Judy, You are sure not afraid to try anything new! I applaud you and your patience. I'd have wanted to KILL the chickens for making such a mistake in my house!!!
    And I can't believe you're allowed to have chickens in Seattle--that's wonderful. Best of luck with your new book!

  15. Judy, you are obviously a multi-talented, confident, adventurous woman. And slightly insane. Chicks in the bathroom????

    Ah yes, the rustic years. Even before we bought acreage next to Granny, there was the great chicken/turkey ordeal. Granny wanted "her" birds in the freezer. So one sunny day the entire family gathered to harvest the birds. The kids squealed over the occasional headless chicken rush, feathers covered the yard, the kids, the adults. . . That would have been okay, but my now ex-husband ruined one of my best chef knifes trying to chop off a turkey's head. Hmmm, maybe that's when the idea of divorcing him was born.

    Then came acreage, cows, horses, more damn chickens (thankfully no more turkeys), ducks, quail, and peafowl.

    When I moved back to my desert home, I tried having a garden again. Didn't work, so I've fallen back to tomatoes in pots on the porch.

    And no more chickens!

  16. I'm in complete awe of their accomplishment--the kind of things I'd love to do but know I want. Not enough energy, creativity, sense of adventure. Don't know what segment that puts me in, Hank, but I think Judy and her husband show us a way toward the future.

  17. Judy, I immediately thought the same thing as Rhys--the wonderful adventures of Tom and Barbara Good on The Good Life.

    Love your urban garden! Cheers to you for being so adventurous! I might have tried it a good many years ago, but now I've even given up on tomatoes and just grow herbs. Keeping things alive at the height of the North Texas summers was more than I could manage.

  18. A woman after my own heart! I'd like to review this book at the Blood-Red Pencil. Making mozzarella in a few minutes from Barbara Kingsolver's book. I love the title similarity. LOL. As to skydiving - not the planting method of choice for me and that's probably what would happen. Eek!

  19. Congratulations! The three winners of the Sharon Wildwind books are:

    Jim Montgomery Jackson, Joan Emerson, and Lisa Abler


    Please email Sharon at
    cml at wildwindauthor dot com

    And Cathy Shouse, you won THE OTHER WOMAN! Email me at hryan at whdh dot com!

    ANd I'm walking around today saying chicken poop. Since I've never said those words before.

    I grew carrots in my back yard when I lived in Atlanta. I mean like, two. I was SO thrilled!

  20. Alber, I know that. I just copy and pasted from Sharon's email. Sigh.

  21. I would much rather read about chicken poop than live with it,so I will look for your book! If chickens pecked my laptop keys into oblivion,I would finally be able to write that 365 Ways to Cook Chicken cookbook that my brother-in-law thinks I should write. I would start with chicken soup!

  22. Chicken tartare! Rhonda, you;re so hilarious..xo

  23. Deb Romano, I bet we could do the Jungle Red Chicken Cookbook. We could all contribute a recipe.

    And put a red chicken on the cover.

  24. Welcome Judy,
    Wow, what an adventurous life! Good luck on your new mystery!

    Some day you will have to explain the secrets of composting to me. I get an F in composting.

  25. Wow and Welcome to JR. Some people pack lots of living into few years. My Mom grew up on a chicken a produce farm and I was lucky I even was allowed a dog!, although we always had a garden. I only have a green thumb for indoor plants. Around here we also have coyotes, so no chickens! Dee

  26. Thank you for the chicken stories. As far as neighbors--we carried ours around the neighborhood when they were cute and fluffy. Everyone fell in love with them. We also drop off six-packs of eggs when we're overwhelmed. Predators? Yes. The first day the girls were outside, a bald eagle perched in a cedar and watched them for hours until Tom covered their run with chicken wire--scavenged of course.

  27. I am busy being impressed :)
    I went to the website, and loved the pictures. Especially, two year old with poppy in soy bean field. I will be reading your blog now, for fun and info.

  28. Dani--I love Barbara Kingsolver's book. Hope the cheese turns out terrific and you have fresh tomatoes and basil to eat with it. I've tried making cheddar cheese and it was terrible. For some reason, my kitchen wasn't sterile enough. Hmmm.

  29. Deb and Rhys--How did Felicity Kendal ever manage to look that good mucking out the chicken shed on The Good Life? That's what I really envy.

  30. Diane--The rustic years? I love that phrase. Makes it sound like a bad case of chickenpox--and survivable. Last night we had chicken enchiladas from our own organic hens. I'm with Grannie. I like to know my dinner had a happy life prior to arriving on the table.

  31. We had a similar story when my parents decided to buy us baby ducks for Easter one year. They were cute but never cuddly and banished to the back bathroom where they turned it into a virtual wasteland! So your story brought back some great memories. Thanks for the laugh! If your book is as entertaining as your interview, it's right up my alley!

  32. Jayne--that's my goal: creating memories so my kids have something to talk to their therapists about when they grow up.

  33. Back from my speech--and thank you so much ! Judy, you are AMAZING! And I cannot wait to read the book. (Chicken poop, not so much.) Judy will choose the winner..and we'll announce the name tomorrow!

    Speaking of tomorrow...what's your favoirite national anthem? We'll be singing..and learning the inside scoop on short stories. And giving away a free book!