Let Them Eat Mealworms

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So this isn’t going to be the prettiest topic, but bear with me.

One of the biggest questions about whether or not we would try ducks again, after last fall’s tragedies, was how to keep them safe. In reading backyard poultry or even farming literature and blogs, it seems like keeping predators away is fairly similar to airport security: One guy tries to light his shoe bomb on a plane, and a new rule specifically aimed at stopping that threat is implemented, but another issue springs up. It’s like an almost literal game of whack-a-mole. Unless we keep our ducks in a hardware cloth enclosure night and day, there’s risk. That said, we tightened security this year to keep the new girls safer.

We’re debating not letting them forage in the yard, but stay in their fenced enclosure, after the trees shed coverage, which leaves the ducks vulnerable. But that’s a post for another day.

In reality, last year I found the biggest threat to their safety was simply not always being able to get them put away before dusk, when the threat is its biggest. Last year we herded the ducks into their enclosure; sometimes it was a piece of cake, and sometimes I was fairly sure I heard the Benny Hill theme strike up. The night a predator killed two of our ducks last year, I discovered them on my post-nightfall fifth attempt to get them in their enclosure. Prior to that, Max called me one night, while I was traveling, saying the ducks wouldn’t go in their enclosure, and I spent the entire flight home envisioning the carnage I’d find when I got home. (In fact, the ducks were fine that night, and Phil and I worked together to wrangle them into their enclosure and coop around 1 a.m. when I got home.)

Enter mealworms.

Now, I’d tried mealworms on last year’s gals, but they didn’t like them the first time and I didn’t try again, giving our package to a friend with chickens. But going to my friend Sharon’s house was an eye-opener. Her baker’s dozen of backyard ducks and chickens can be scattered around the yard, and she just shakes a mealworm bag and they all magically appear. Around 5:00, when she puts them in their fenced enclosure, she just walks out the door and they follow her in a line, Pied Piper-style. It’s something. Shortly after we got the new ducklings, we got a bag of mealworms. The girls loved them when they were only a few weeks old. When they moved to the yard, we started training them by shaking the bag and then feeding them. After a few tries, they learned that a shaken bag meant treats were coming.

These days, we often clean out our local pet shop when we’re running low; if you’ve, for any reason, been in the Broadripple¬†Pets Supplies Plus and can’t find mealworms, my apologies. After the frustration and dread of trying to herd the girls last year, here’s how our easy-peasy evenings now go.

Mmmm. I like eating weeds.

What the hey? Did I hear… a mealworm bag shaking?

Must. Follow. Tommy.

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Benevolent Tommy, bestower of duck deliciousness.

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Safely inside their enclosure, before nighttime threats start prowling.

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We love you, mealworms.

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Green Garbage Salad

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So this is what I’ve been eating whenever I have the chance to: Green Garbage Salad. I suppose Kitchen Sink Salad would be a nicer name. At any rate, it’s about all we have from the garden right now, but it’s also about my favorite thing to eat.

Let’s start with the fact that I didn’t plant nearly enough mesclun this year. Or rather, what I thought was enough didn’t come up so well. So I have a small garden box with mesclan mixed with some kale and some mache I’d forgotten I planted, but we’re not overrun with salad like I’d hoped. One night, disappointed by my sorry harvest, I walked around the yard with a paring knife and grabbed pretty much anything green. Now I make this mixed salad constantly.

Whatever mesclun is ready goes into the salad spinner. And the mache (also known as corn salad), which is a great, low-lying green that you cut off close to the ground.

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I also take some leaves from the sorrel plants that are threatening to take over the yard. I love sorrel because it’s a perennial, so I don’t have to plant it again. Trouble is, other than pesto I really haven’t used it much. Until now.

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I also grab some kale leaves. The white moth caterpillars have decimated some of the kale, but I have a couple of plants that don’t look like Battenburg lace, so I’ve been eating off of those. My method for getting rid of those caterpillars is to pay the kids 5 cents a caterpillar to pick them off and drown them, which appeals to both their kid fascination with death and their greed. I need to get on that this year.

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I have some chard lining a spot in our front yard, and the leaves are still smallish and tender, so I pick a few of them. And some arugula; can’t forget arugula.

After washing all the greens, I rip up the mesclun, mache (really just separate the leaves of the mache), and arugula; and then I julienne the kale, sorrel, and chard. Then I toss on some dried fruit like cranberries or blueberries, some Parmesan, maybe some seeds.

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Although I started making this because I didn’t have enough salad greens, I love the different tastes mingling together: the spicy arugula, the almost tart sorrel, the heady kale. Mache and chard both have very gentle, fresh flavors. With a couple of spoonfuls of Nora Ephron’s Vinaigrette, even if a certain girl is feeling grumpy and tired from an afternoon of swimming, you’ve got yourself some good eating.

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Meet the New Girls

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(Dixie, Joe, Sally, Millie, Cocoa, and Isabella.)

As you might remember, our first season of raising ducks ended rather tragically. Diamond, the lone survivor, is still living the high life at our friend Sharon’s house. She’s now joined by five other ducks, seven chickens, and three dogs in their urban farm Shangri La.

This winter we debated whether our weak hearts could risk getting broken again, but we ultimately decided it was just too much fun to have ducks, and we succumbed. Our half-dozen girls should be laying by around July or August. So, armed with the kids’ duck portraiture, I thought it was time to introduce the new girls.¬†

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Joe

Joe is a Pekin and a few weeks older than the other girls. If it pleases the court, our hands were tied with Joe. We had ordered five new ducklings and innocently went to Tractor Supply to pick up their supplies. And it was Chick Days at Tractor Supply. That big bin of tiny yellow ducklings was too much for me and the three kids. We only wanted one duckling, knowing we had five more coming in a few weeks. Tractor Supply has a strict two-minimum rule on duck purchases, and the woman running the Chick Days area wasn’t going to bend it for me. But another customer was buying a raft of ducks and chickens at the time, and I quietly pulled her aside and asked whether she would take an extra duck if I bought two. So a clandestine exchange was made in the parking lot, and we came home with Joe. Tom named him because, unlike the sexed ducks we were getting from the hatchery, he (or she!) came from a straight run, meaning gender wasn’t determined. Tom figured we could call the duck Joseph or Jolene, depending on what ultimately emerged. We’ve continued to refer to him with male pronouns, but I’m starting to suspect Jolene is a more appropriate name.

I figured if Joe was a boy, we’d have fertilized eggs, which can last longer. If Joe was a girl, we’d just get more eggs. I didn’t want to risk getting two straight-run ducks, however, because having two males in a house of girls is just asking for trouble.

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Dixie

Dixie is also a Pekin. These are big ducks that are often thought of as meat ducks, but we’re not going to eat Dixie. Or Joe. We got her because we loved my friend Sharon’s sweet Pekin named Sasha, Pekins are stunning with their big white bodies, and Pekins are great layers; it’s rare to have a breed that is both good for meat and good for eggs. They’re lousy mothers, however, so in nature have been known to just lay eggs all over the place, never gathering them up and sitting on them. That factoid from our duck book has made Max and me giggle more than once. I’m hoping Dixie will learn what her nesting box is for and that I won’t have to forage for her eggs. When I describe the Pekins, I get blank stares until I say, “You know, the Aflac duck.”

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Isabella

Isabella is a Khaki Campbell, a lightweight duck that is one of the best laying breeds. Last year we had two Khaki Campbells:Khakadi and Anais. They were right as rain with the laying and had pleasant, albeit slightly skittish, personalities.

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Millie

Millie is a Gold Star Hybrid, bred to be a prolific layer. If the stars align, Millie could lay more than 300 eggs this year, which is hard to believe coming from her little body. She looks a lot like a Khaki Campbell, but has some interesting dark feathers on her wing tips, and the feathers on her head have a beautiful nuanced color play. Pretty Millie.

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Sally

Sally is a Blue Swedish. Last year we had two Blue Swedish ducks: Sophia and Diamond. Sophia died in the first predator attack, but Diamond is thriving in her new home. Blue Swedish are middle-weight and fairly laid-back ducks who, when they get past the flurry of new egg laying (when we were getting about an egg per day), lay about 100 to 150 eggs per year. We love Sally’s coloring: Her chest and face is speckled, unlike our previous Blue Swedish ducks who sported solid colors in these areas.

Cocoa

Cocoa is a camera-shy Chocolate Runner, a lightweight duck with a classic wine-bottle shape. Because of the way Runners hold their bodies, they don’t waddle so much as run. If you saw the movie Babe, you’ve seen a Runner in action. (Cocoa, however, doesn’t talk.) When Cocoa was a tiny duckling with tiny wings, she looked really comical next to her friends. While the other ducks sat lower to the ground and looked like ducklings, Cocoa stood upright, resembling a human with no arms. Cocoa is tiny, and it’s hard to believe she could ever squeeze out an egg, but Runners are also prolific layers, so we could see up to 300 eggs from her in a year.

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We’ve changed some of our security measures with the girls (more about that later) to try to prevent what we experienced last year. That said, we know that having waddling creatures in our backyard, which is right by a river, is a risk. It’s a risk farmers take every day, and one that almost every backyard poultry raiser has had to deal with in one way or another. We know we can mitigate the risk, but we’ll never be able to totally eliminate it. Seeing them forage in the yard or splash in their pool or come running for mealworms (our new herd-the-ducks method), and anticipating the wonderful eggs they’ll provide in the fall, I’m glad we took the leap and brought these girls home.

Welcome, Girls!

The Backyard Ecosystem

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(A lonely side garden, which held two dead bushes and some scrap when we moved in, is now home to dozens of pounds of pending potatoes.)

When I was on a recent trip, I left Phil what used to be referred to as a Honey-Do list (who comes up with these things)?, with the top item, starred and underlined: Hill Potatoes.

We’re growing a lot of potatoes this year. Every year we grow a few more, and this year we not only have some thriving ones I rescued, sprouting, from our pantry in the spring, but a couple of official varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The one I’m most excited about is an all-purple number called Adirondack Blue. The four-year-old down the street who loves all things purple and sparkly was fascinated when we were planting it; she’s coming back to help dig them up in a couple of months.

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(See the touch of purple on the leaves of these Adirondack Blues?)

But hilling potatoes. If you haven’t planted potatoes, here’s the routine: You put a piece of potato, with a couple of eyes, in the ground fairly shallowly. The eyes start growing greenery that emerges from the ground, at which point you bury (hill) the greens to a couple of inches. You can do this several times to create a good mound that the underground potatoes can grow in. Later in the summer, two weeks after those greens have died, we’ll dig potatoes out of those hills. It’s all very exciting and treasure hunt-like.

So armed with his honey-do list, Phil went to our compost bin of aging kitchen scraps and our compost pile of aging garden waste and grabbed wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load of dirt to hill the potatoes. Because I went overboard on potatoes this year, it took pretty much all of our usable composted dirt to finish the job, but since compost is renewable, starting from ground zero is really what you want.

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(It’s not the prettiest part of our yard, but it the compost corner does a lot of hard work.)

A few years ago, when we were just starting to garden, I had about lost it with the huge pile of leaves Phil had been piling for years in our back corner. One weekend I was planning to finally deal with the pile in the manner I learned when I was growing up: Bag them and leave them on the curb for the garbage man to take to the dump. I was also planning to go to Home Depot and get hundreds of pounds of plastic bagged dirt to fill the raised garden beds I’d just made. But when we dug into the leaf pile, we found that just below the surface of leaves was the most amazing, loamy soil. I filled the garden boxes with that soil and crossed two big tasks off the weekend to-do list.

While we live on just a small suburban lot of around a quarter acre, I’ve started noticing that the backyard is slowly becoming more self-sustaining with fewer trips to a garden shop to support my garden habit.

  • All of our kitchen scraps go into our compost bin, get turned periodically, and produce rich black dirt, teaming with earthworms.
  • Likewise, all of our yard waste (leaves, pulled plants) go into that leaf pile I raged against and slowly break down into great garden soil.

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(Garlic Jungle: Thriving in beds fortified with compost and covered in straw for the winter.)

  • The used duck bedding, rich with nitrogen (IF you know what I mean) gets either added to the leaf pile or used as a kill mulch to break down over the winter. To expand our garden, in the fall we’ve been laying down about 10 layers of newspaper and putting a thick layer of duck straw or composting leaves on top. This matter breaks down over the winter, and in the spring, the plot is ready to be planted. The expanding strip of garden next to our driveway began as turned-over sod, but the last couple of installments have been accomplished with kill mulch, and the mulch is MUCH easier, believe you me.

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(Well, hi, there, Dixie. Thanks for the kill mulch!)

  • When I want to give the ducks a treat, I grab a couple of pitchforks full of garden compost, which is always full of the insects and worms the girls love, and let them go to town. Between their snuffling for bugs and tromping the pile, the compost disappears in their enclosure, and the protein goes to making richer eggs for us in the fall when these girls start laying.
  • We’ve been trying to plant more butterfly- and bee-friendly plants like butterfly bushes, lavender, and garlic chives to keep the butterfly population safe and to bring more pollinators to our garden.

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(A butterfly bush about to bloom.)

  • Because I’m not yet ready to have beehives in our yard, we’ve been putting out bee houses, like this Mason bee house, to attract more bees. Mason bees don’t make honey, but are apparently 100 times the pollinators of honey bees; and word on the street is that they’re very gentle and don’t sting. I’ll let you know.

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(A new Mason bee house, waiting for occupants.)

When I was sitting on a plane recently, I stared out the window and started daydreaming about the day when we get farmland. And then I realized no one but me and Sylvia wants a farm, and the desires of a five-year-old can be fickle. But even if we never actually have a farm with tractors and horses and threatening calls from the mortgage company about our late payments, I figure we’re sort of building a mini-farm here, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Starbucks.

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