Grit Blogs >

The Peep Show

Preparing the Peep Show for Winter

Jen UbelakerWinter is coming and I got the first hint today. We've had a relatively temperate fall up here in the Inland Northwest. Up until today it's been a bit chilly, but nothing that would qualify as cold. We've taken it as a blessing and have been working like crazy to get everything in order as we transition from clotheslines to slow cookers.

The compost we'd been stacking in bins all year has been spread in the empty garden. That was like Christmas for the chickens. Hubby was forking out compost all over the garden plot and telling the girls that “this stuff on the bottom is older than you are.” They didn't care. Every bit has been thoroughly inspected and kicked around the garden at least twice by now. Hooray for chickens. They are my own personal little veloci-tractors.

It didn't take too much to winterize their coop. The second coop we built for them is in the end of our insulated shop, so the walls are thick and draft-free, the deep bedding is down and I have an emergency heat light all strung and ready to go. They are still in a bit of shock at the change in light and temperature, tempers are ready to flare in the tighter quarters, but we are making do. “Lady Pecksalot” – one of the Ameracaunas – has taken to sitting on other flock members heads for no apparent reason. If that's the worst we have to deal with, so be it.

The dog has abandoned summer pursuits as well. His daily chores are done as always, but he's much more inclined to sneak on the couch and under a blanket than spend an afternoon outside.


Our local weather forecasters warnings have come to pass. Today was quite chilly. I have been trying to rake up leaves for mulch, but I gave up after a few wheelbarrow-loads. Wind and chill and cold fingers made me wish I lived like my dog. Oh well, that's what tea and seed catalogs are for.

Yup. One eye on the thermometer outside and one eye on the seed catalog. That's probably one of the best positions to be in. It will be out second year at the Peep Show and we've expanded the garden, added berry bushes and raised beds, and we have a lot more accessible space to raise vegetables than we did last year. So we're looking forward to hearing the wind howl outside while we're hunkered over the kitchen table with notebooks and seed catalogs. I've already ordered some heirloom veggies, cucamelons (which I can't wait to try) and, as a practical joke on my pepper-growing hubby, some peppers that apparently grow to look like a part of the male anatomy? I laugh now but I'm sure I'll pay for it later.

Stay warm, stay safe, and “Peeps Out, Muthacluckas”

Sometimes They Live

Jen UbelakerThirty-one weeks into Operation Peep Show, and it's been quite an enlightening experience.

I decided to add chickens to our urban farm after a lot of thought and research. I do a lot of baking and use a lot of eggs, and I also care about the people I bake for and want to use the best ingredients whenever possible. Adding eggs from my own chickens would give me the hands-on knowledge that another one of my ingredients would be healthy and locally sourced. How much more local can you get than your own backyard?

But I am also a pragmatist, a worry-wart who analyzes everything and compares it to the comprehensive list of pros and cons that I have created prior to any project. So, for several months I read every book, blog post and Internet article I could find about chickens to make sure that I would be giving my chickens a fair shot at life. Would they be safe in our neighborhood? Would they thrive in a small yard? Would our dog be a chicken-killer? And on and on she goes ....

I studied the lists of chicken diseases and possible causes for fatalities in chicks, and came across a statistic that stuck in my mind. About half of all chicks hatched in factory setting will die due to disease, mishandling or poor husbandry. That seemed logical. I have been to the co-op before on “Chick Days” and seen the number of chickens leaving that one store, and there aren't that many roaming the streets, so it must be right. Pasty butt, scissor beak, spraddle leg, dehydration and coccidiosis all seemed to be lurking ready to pounce on any unsuspecting chick. But, what the books and articles fail to tell you is: Sometimes they live.

Armed with my preconceived notion that half my chicks would die, I set about building a coop for three chickens and then purchasing six. Meaning: Hubby built me a coop and I fawned over chicks at the co-op before bringing six home in the poultry equivalent of a happy-meal box. They were precious, and they were mine.

During the first week, I came into the office to check on the brooder and found one of the Leghorns flat on her face, wings spread out, and I thought, “Well, there's the first one gone” only to see the chick wiggle, dust herself off and go get a drink. Turns out Camilla likes to sleep on her face in the pose of an accident victim. She still does it to this day.

Fast forward to 15 weeks old. I realized that I had inadvertently beat the odds and was the proud owner of six fat and sassy hens who would be laying eggs in a few short weeks. In a teeny coop built for two or three hens. Family meetings had topics like “OK, no one died, what do you think our chances are of some of them being roosters?” which quickly evolved to “We need a bigger coop” and a weekend spent making a portion of our shop into Peep Show II. The hens transitioned easily (of course, I can't lose one or two to “shock”) and began laying in their happy new home.

We're gearing up for winter now, and I am reading a whole new set of articles and websites about how to best prepare the flock for the chilly days ahead. Gotta keep those cluckers happy!


Dexter and the peeps.




The Peep Show


Beautiful eggs!

Homestead Education

Jen UbelakerI first got the idea about some sort of 'homestead education' when a friend of mine called me. She's got her first flock of chickens, just like me, and mentioned that she thought she might need to clip some wings on her city birds. My husband and I had previously researched this very same thing and had clipped wings on the Peeps a week or so before. So when she asked for help I went over with my little kit and held a chicken while she trimmed the wings with my meager instruction. It was wonderful to hear from her a few weeks later that she and her daughter had clipped wings on their second flock of chickens (30+ birds) all by themselves. I thought “Yeah! That's what it's all about!” Learning and sharing our skills helps all of us live a better life.

After sharing this story and talking with other friends in the community, we realized that we all have some modest skill that we can teach one another; soap making, canning, etc., and after seeing that September was Homestead Education Month, we decided to take the month to host small gatherings and have “Homestead Ed” be part of our community life. We could provide education, and further support to encourage more sustainable life for our families.

We love our little urban homestead, but my Hubs put it best when he said: “When we have a bad day on 'the farm,' we can still have pizza delivered.” We're blessed to know a lot of folks with the same lifestyle and lots more who want to make changes and learn new things. We decided to open our home for the weekends of September to teach classes, hold demos and host teachers. It was a fantastic time and we only had to call for pizza once.

I taught the first group of women the basics of canning. We did a small batch of raspberry jam that (thankfully) set perfectly and was delicious. We sat around eating the jam foam on toast and listening for the 'ping' of our jars.

Homestead Education/Jam Pix

Next, V., a local spa owner, taught a class on making cold-processed soaps. We did a lovely lavender-mint soap that is currently curing and making several houses smell wonderful.

Homestead Education/Soap Pix

Hubby (and Dexter the Wonderhound) did a demo and class on making homebrew. The class got to see everything that goes into the brewing of making a porter, and we're racking it off to the secondary fermenter this weekend.

Homestead Education/Brew Pix

I held a demo on backyard chickens with A. (the aforementioned wing-clipper), and A. gave us the basics on backyard beekeeping while V. showed us more about making homemade butter.

Homestead Education/Chick Pix

I talked vermi-composting and composting in town so that you can still keep the neighbors on speaking terms before teaching a second canning class where we made salsa with some tomatoes and peppers that a friend gave me from her overflowing garden.

Homestead Education/Salsa Pix

P. showed us how to pick and steam concord grapes for juice, and gave us the low-down on taking cuttings and starting our own grapevines at home.

Homestead Education/Grape Pix

Through all of this we learned from each other. It was great to see everyone showcasing their skills, and even if it is something that we won't do for ourselves (as soon as I heard it took six weeks for the soap to cure I was like “yeah, right, I'll do that”), it is wonderful to have the knowledge that, if our lives depended on it, we could survive amongst ourselves and in our community.

The best part was that all these skills take time. While we're waiting for water to boil, we're sharing stories, connecting our futures to our pasts and gaining incentive to keep going. We're currently working on a plan to help revitalize our local agriculture museum by starting to have monthly classes with other friends who know how to card wool and make yarn, or make cheese, candle eggs, etc. I can't wait to see where this takes us all!

Friendship On The Farm

Jen UbelakerIt's been a busy summer at the Peep Show, as I imagine it has been for all of us. Loads of gardening, canning and weeding that keep us all outside instead of in. Being outside more, I have come to see the strange relationships that have formed between some of the animals on our little slice of heaven.

Our Great Dane, Dexter, has taken his livestock guardian duties very seriously since the day we brought the chicks home. He stays out until they go to bed, and when they don't go to bed quickly enough to suit him he herds them into their coop at night. We had the typical 'pecking order' squabbles as the girls were growing up, and it seems that poor Taffy ended up at the bottom of the heap.

Taffy is a Rhode Island Red, and not the brightest penny in the change jar. She gets flummoxed by gates, doors, fences, plants, garbage cans, you name it. As she gets agitated, the rest of the flock would pounce on her and therefore make her more upset. Her answer to all of the frustration in the flock was to find herself a new best friend.

I was outside weeding when my husband said: "Jennifer, turn around." I turned around to see Taffy up on a wine barrel planter, eye to eye with Dexter, and happily clucking away. It seemed she was telling him all about her day, and, him being the gentle soul that he is, he was listening patiently.

From that point on, Taffy had found herself a new flock. When things get a little hot in the henhouse, she will just go hang out with the dog. They run through the sprinkler together, share popcorn and water bowls, and the dog even stands guard when she takes a dip in the wading pool to cool her feet.  

These two are such fun to watch. It's like our own barnyard soap opera and we can't wait to see where the story goes.

Drink time

Pool Time

Snack time

The Agony and Joy of Farm-Fresh Meat

Jen UbelakerVegetarianism and veganism are great for some folks, but it never appealed to me. I like real food, from real sources, and that includes my meat. The trouble is that I have a heart, and a conscience, and a subscription to Netflix so I have seen all the documentaries and read all of the articles about how factory farms are run and how some animals get treated. There are certain restaurant chains that we don't patronize, and grocery-store meat rarely (if ever) comes into our home. It's a choice we made and stand by.

I mentioned this to a friend recently, and she replied with the old cliche: “How can you eat something you know? Something you've named? It has a 'face'!” I told her that's exactly why we eat that animal. It has a face, and a history, and with the farmers and livestock raisers we give our money to? That animal has a terrific life and one marginally crappy day at the very end.

We met the woman who raises our pork at a farmers' market. She was selling vegetables but had a sign that she was also taking deposits on farm pork. My husband jokingly told her we'd sign on if he could name our pig. She agreed and we purchased “Kevin Bacon.” In the ensuing months, we got Facebook updates from her farm with Kevin tagged in the photos. He was a fine-looking guy. At every meal from that fall onward, we knew the animal that provided it. For my husband's birthday, we made ribs and our nephew solemnly ended grace with, “Thank you, God, for Kevin and may he oink in peace.” How many factory pigs get the recognition that they deserve? Not enough.

I think it also makes it easier if you are a person who has ever raised an animal. Animal husbandry isn't for the faint of heart. You smile at babies playing in the grass. You stay awake some nights in your soft bed listening for predators, and some nights you stay awake sitting on a hard floor listening for breathing sounds in a sick animal. What they eat is as important as what you eat, and you fret over things like clean water and shade. Sometimes it is the sweetest animal you have ever met, and sometimes it is a demon spawn critter sent to make you humble. When they finally do die, a little piece of you goes with them.

Growing up, we had a score of animals in that “ornery” category. Beef cows that would take off into the orchard, dairy cows that would gleefully pin you between the wall and their bony butts, a 4-H pig of my cousin's that could tunnel like nobody's business and made a great escape at least once a week, horses that could work latches like cat-burglars and be out of their stalls and in a hay pile in the time it took you to turn around.

I remember my grandparents had a cow, “Daisy,” who would jump the fence the moment that my grandfather drove off to work. No amount of cajoling, chasing, treats or threats would get that cow back into her pen. As soon as she heard my grandfather's car coming down the country road, she'd hop back into her pen and bat her long eyelashes. When Daisy finally hit the plate, we all had seconds. It was the same with “Tom” – the turkey who routinely drowned himself in the kiddie pool my grandmother kept for her ducks. I have vivid memories of my uncle pumping wet wings and performing turkey CPR. We laugh now but at the time those creatures were routinely making us late for work, extending our chores and making our lives miserable.

I currently share my life with a Great Dane and six chickens. The dog has his moments but overall he's a pretty cool guy. The chickens are chickens. “Camilla” is a veritable Houdini. She can escape their pen, and we have yet to see how she does it. The only thing we can figure is that she levitates and does a 'thread-the-needle' maneuver worthy of a Navy pilot to get through a gap in the roof that technically she shouldn't be able to fit through. I will be out working in the garden (also fenced) and hear a cluck at my feet. There's Camilla. Just hanging out and seeing what I'm up to.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Taffy” who is dim – even for a chicken. If it is possible to get stuck in it/around it/under it – Taffy is your girl. So, at least once a day the air in our yard is punctuated with “Darn it, Taffy!” “Camilla, you little !&#%*$!,” and we wouldn't have it any other way. I took my camera out with me when I did chores tonight. Camilla says hello.


Berry Days Ahead

Jen UbelakerI-pick, U-pick, we all pick ... yeah ....

One of my favorite things about more sustainable living is the solitude. I work in my garden daily, and of course the hound and the chickie-babies need tending so there's always something for me to do. It's infinitely calming and therapeutic for me to just be by myself. My husband laughs that I'm happy as a clam just standing in the yard, hula-hoe in one hand, surrounded by chickens and basically being the queen of all I survey. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.

Because it's our first year at the new house, and because our strawberry bed is in its infancy, I had to find some alternatives to stock up my pantry. I could go for a season without strawberry jam, but who can deny children? My sister lives in a pretty arid part of the country and when she told me her kids actually prefer Aunt Jenny's stuff to candy? I always make double so I can see these little smiles.


In order to make the amount of jam we're going to need for the year, I was going to need to find some berries, and quick. Our valley is pretty agricultural, so finding a place wasn't too hard. I could very easily have just loaded up and gone by myself for a little bit of 'dirt therapy,' but I had mentioned to a girlfriend that I was going and she wanted to go too. It must be the rural version of “going out for coffee” that the girls do in the city; we pair chores and girl-talk and it works!

Our little adventure turned into a whole new kind of dirt therapy. We must have cleaned out a half-dozen rows of berries, all the time talking about our chickens and how our gardens were doing, dogs, kids, food and plans for sustainable living in our own families. As you can see, the view was horrible. We couldn't help but think out loud, “Gosh, this place is the pits.” “Who can live with a view like that?” “Wonder if this guy is single?” and laughing like bawdy girls do.


So, for all the peace and quiet that solitude will get you, there is probably an equal space for company and laughter. I made this batch of jam by myself, but I am also looking forward to the work parties where we make sausage and can peaches all day long with our friends and family. So today I have a balanced life, an aching back and a shelf full of goodies to show for it.


The Unexpected Guard Dog

Jen UbelakerThere are a lot of benefits to being an Urban Homesteader, but the main advantage we have found is that with an Urban lifestyle, we have more flexibility in how we get the job done. Whether it's shorter distances for tool shares or having a CSA to support produce needs that we can fulfill on our small space, we love thinking of creative options to solving our problems.

One recent problem was “How are we going to raise chickens in town?” After doing lots of reading, finding out what our town's rules were in regards to city livestock and warning the neighbors, we purchased our flock. The surprise benefit came in the form of our Great Dane. This breed is known as a “gentle giant" and not necessarily a LGD (livestock guardian dog), but unwittingly we have trained our dog to recognize the birds as his 'flock' and guard them.

Traditional LGD training will tell you first to introduce your dog to the stock in a safe environment. We had the chicks brooding in the office – and a Great Dane dog kennel is roughly the size of a Smart Car, so it doubles fantastically as a brooder! We allowed the dog access to 'the girls,' and he was curious but respectful. It took one night for the dog to give up his space in the bedroom in favor of sleeping by the brooder. We can attribute some of that to his lazy nature and the fact the chicks had a heat lamp, but it got the job done.

New Peeps

New Peeps2

sleepy peeps

Secondly, trainers will tell you that you should take your LGD out with you when you do chores, secured to you by a leash or under owner's control. Our dog follows me around like a 150-pound shadow anyway, so the chicks' routine just became his routine too. Lastly, trainers will tell you to praise things that you see in your dog, positive reinforcement for things like submissive posture toward the flock and the “dog statue” guard position.

guard dog

stare down

Being in town, our only real nuisances and predators are crows, stray cats and Chihuahuas. However, our dog has become a magnificent guardian of the tiny flock. With the constant exposure, the chicks aren't afraid of him at all, and I have even caught them all napping together in the sunshine. Nature AND nurture worked to help our little homestead.

Dex n Peeps

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters