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04.16.08

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Photograph by Peter Doven

The Egg & I

In Santa Cruz and countless other cities, urbanites are putting the yardbird back in the yard.

By Will Mosher


Peter Doven is in his back yard, where he's just let his chickens out. He's opening the birds' nest and pulling out their small eggs. No, it isn't strange that he eats something produced by his pets, he says. He knows where they've been.

"I know what they're eating," he says, holding several small and pinkish teardrop-shaped eggs. "There's no preservatives, there's no stuff in there." He turns the eggs over in his hands. "That was just laid. That one's still warm."

Most people generally regard chickens as either farm scenery or food, but here in Doven's Westside Santa Cruz back yard, they're pets. He could never bear to eat one (though their eggs are, ahem, free game). He's just too fond of them. Raising chickens was once a major industry in Santa Cruz, especially in Live Oak, but the relationship between people and chickens changed as the city became more residential. Now all that remains of Santa Cruz's poultry-filled past are a couple of hatcheries, a few isolated egg ranches and a group of people that meet informally every month or so to discuss the care and feeding of their pet chickens. These last are part of a growing trend.

There is no census on pet chickens, but in cities across the country a movement is coalescing around sites like www.thecitychicken.com and magazines like Backyard Chicken. Locavores love them for their proximity, gourmands slaver over the rich flavor of their eggs and a lot of people seem to think they're cute.

Bantams, the toy dogs of the chicken world, are especially popular choices for city chicken coops. They're Doven's choice. At present he's letting his bantam, named Roadrunner, out of her run. She's a Silver Seabright, a brilliant white bird whose feathers end in iridescent black outlines that shimmer like the feathers of a peacock. Doven adores her. He's had her for years.

"If I let her just cruise-like if I leave the doors open in the summer-then she would love to get up on the counter and eat the butter," Doven says. "Or she'll also, and I don't know why, but she lays eggs in the laundry hamper. Like you're doing the laundry and there's an egg in there. And you go, 'What the heck?' Then you realize that the back door was open for the day for whatever reason and she just came in and laid an egg."

Chickens are radically unlike other pets, not only in the sense that they can lay eggs, but also in that their minds are very different from those of mammals. Chickens only seem to feel either contented bliss or blind terror. It's all their reptilian brains can handle. And in a city, there are plenty of reasons for a chicken to be afraid.

Doven has built his run so that nothing can get in or out. It's made of wire links that are woven together so tightly that it's hard to fit a finger in, which is important, because raccoons have been known to kill chickens by reaching through holes in the wire and grabbing them. So, to prevent the savage death of his family pets, Doven has become especially diligent about guarding them from dogs, cats, hawks, possums, rats and especially raccoons.

"They come by here every night trying to see if they can get a meal on wheels here. It's just a chicken dinner waiting to go," he says. "You've got to close it up. This little structure has to be tight." But it's not as if the food chain starts and ends with chickens. They're quite the predators themselves. They'll devour all that moves under the soil, which is great for pest control and even better for gardens. "Snails, they love snails; they'll eat earwigs, anything they can find," Doven says, adding their diets are of course supplemented with feed and cracked corn. But he says they'll eat anything, including their own eggs if they crack in the nest.

And another thing: chickens are more heavily regulated than other pets. The city of Santa Cruz has laws that inhibit the movement of chickens. They aren't allowed to roam in alleyways, for instance, although the city is very laissez-faire about enforcing laws unless there's a complaint. Roosters are another story. They're not prohibited, strictly speaking, but the nature of the beast and the exceedingly high probability of complaints makes it basically impossible to keep roosters inside city limits. People generally expect roosters to crow in the morning, but this just isn't true. At the age of about one year, roosters begin crowing in the morning and pretty much keep on crowing, even at night. They're a roaming noise complaint; they're also territorial, which makes them chase everything that moves (including children). And in a sad commentary on the relationship between the sexes of this species, chickens will follow a rooster wherever it decides go, even into traffic.

"Roosters lead the hens all over the place," says Doven, "but hens stay in one spot." He's had roosters before, and he says that they're fun before they reach maturity, but once they do they become dangerous to themselves and other chickens, so Doven has had to give his roosters away to families living in much more rural areas, where they're safer. When they aren't being a handful due to their dangerously limited intellects, chickens are being incredibly interesting. There are over 1,000 unique breeds, coming in forms ranging from tiny to large and dull to flashy. There are even furry chickens. Doven is discussing this on the way to Drew Allen's house. Allen is Doven's neighbor. He had chickens once, before raccoons got them. He's had none since. "They're a nice addition to a family," Allen says, talking about his ex-chickens. "They all have little personalities. Some are smart, and some are really dumb, dumb as a chicken."

The Good Earth

The newest thing in eco-savvy building materials is also the oldest.

By Steve Hahn


It had to happen. As natural, nontoxic building materials become more popular with contractors looking to score green points with homebuyers and inspectors, dirt is re-emerging from the dustbins of history to play an important role in how humans construct their living spaces.

Dirt is, of course, just about everywhere one might want to build a home. But when it comes time to actually build a house in this country, it's usually simply dug up, hauled away and forgotten.For Santa Cruz builder Mitch Slade, owner of Eco-Struction, this is a monumental waste. Instead of treating that excavated dirt as a burden, Slade tries to find ways to use it on the construction site.

One of the most popular ways of using dirt is to mix it with a small amount of cement and some straw or horsehair to create a form of plaster that can be spread onto walls, replacing materials like stucco. Slapping some of this dirt-infused material on the surface of walls, between the interior paint job and the wall itself, is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of a home.

"When we approach a house-building project, we try to look for simplicity," Slade explains as he leans on a wall at the house his company's constructing on Ocean Street Extension. "By using earthen materials, we are using something from the land, which reduces the use of high-energy-embodied cements. The transportation is also decreased since the dirt is already here and will be dug up anyhow. Lastly, any type of petroleum-based chemical component in the wall is eliminated."

Earthen plaster is becoming increasingly popular in areas where the clay content is high enough to make it a feasible building material. The result is a resurgence in an ancient art that was employed most famously by the Anasazi tribes of the American Southwest and by the people thought to be their modern-day descendants, the Pueblos.

Ram Tough
Spreading earthen plaster on the walls instead of concrete is well and fine, but what if one wants to really show off by building the whole freakin' wall out of dirt? Surprisingly, this is also an option. The most famous method of earthen wall building is known as rammed earth-a process that has been around for centuries but was most recently revived in the post-industrial era 25 years ago by Napa-based builder David Easton.

Easton, Slade and other builders use a careful, time-proven process when they build a rammed earth wall. Builders first set up two metal sheets held in place by a support system of wood or metal crossbeams. Once the first section of this "form" has been set up, workers begin pumping in earth using a conveyor belt, while other workers stand between the metal sheets and operate huge blunt tampers powered by air compressors to pack the earth as densely as possible until the clay in the earth coalesces and no water can get through. Under the immense pressure of these pneumatic hammers, the clay ends up stacked tightly, like layered plywood boards, 18 inches across so that no moisture can penetrate the surface of the wall. During this process, cement is intermittently added to the earth for structural support, eventually making up approximately 20 percent of the wall. In earthquake-prone areas, metal rebar is also added into the earthen walls. If even more support is needed, concrete posts are installed in the corners and concrete supports used on the top of the walls to hold the clay together. Additional sections are stacked upon this base until the desired height is reached. Once all the sections are done and the dirt has been pounded as tightly as possible, the metal sheets are taken away. And just like that, a rammed earth wall has come into being.

Compared to conventional wall building, rammed earth can be an onerous process and often requires a great deal of time and labor. For Slade, who frequently works on custom-built homes, this extra effort is worth it given the multitude of environmental benefits.

"Rammed earth reduces the weight on our forests, the greenhouse gas impact of transportation and the chemical components of conventional building materials," he says. "I feel that rammed earth construction will be the next big push for areas that have the necessary type of [claylike] dirt available to them."

The Dirt Ceiling
A dirt wall certainly grants its owner significant environmental street cred, but to really express a no-holds-barred love of nature to neighbors and passers-by, it's hard to beat a living roof. Not only will your house have a built-in garden, living roofs have also been proven to cool off a home during summer heat waves. This may sound too good to be true, but Slade points to an experiment conducted on Chicago's City Hall in August of 2001 that showed a difference of up to 7 degrees between a living roof and a tar roof.

"The idea is that the outdoor garden has a cooling effect since there is moisture under the roof and evaporationhas a cooling effect," explains Slade. "It keeps the membrane and roof line cooler. So on superhot days, the heat will gravitate towards the cooler air. Plus, who wants to look at a tar and gravel roof when you can have a beautiful rooftop garden instead?"

Gardening by Witchcraft

The looney wisdom of the Old Farmers Almanac.

By Steve Hahn


No doubt about it-dinner is getting complicated these days. People looking to banish eco-guilt and avoid sticker shock at the grocery store are increasingly gravitating toward localized food systems, and no food system is more local than a backyard garden. With spring in full bloom, now is the perfect time to cry "Food not Lawns!" and dig in.

It all sounds great on paper, but not everyone is born with a green thumb. Some need a little help, which is where The Old Farmer's Almanac comes in. In circulation since 1792, the almanac relies on a secret weather prediction system to estimate when crops should be planted. The Revolution-era tome also gets a little out there at times, drawing on the traditions of astrology and folklore to give advice on everything from when to battle pests to which zodiac sign is the best for cleaning out the garden shed.

In an era of ultraprecise soil monitors and roving weather satellites, waiting until the stars are aligned just right before planting corn might seem absurd. UCSC Agroecology Farm manager Jim Leap has spent the last three decades of his life toiling in the soil, so there are few as qualified as he to sort Farmer's Almanac fact from fiction. Leap is a skeptical man, laughing out loud at some of the suggestions offered up in the almanac, but when all is said and done, he thinks it's a valuable resource for the casual home gardener.

"For people just starting out it gets people thinking about it, it gets them excited about planting and it gets them motivated," he says. "For a backyard gardener, the Farmer's Almanac makes the process fun. It teaches people to become really aware of what's going on around them. You get dialed into your natural surroundings, which we have come so far from."

One of the themes running throughout the almanac is that the phase of the moon dictates when one should plant, prune or even fix a fence. For instance, when the moon is new, the almanac suggests planting above-ground vegetables, such as corn. When the moon is full, it's time to plant root crops, like potatoes or carrots. As Leap reads this passage, his eyes light up with recognition.

"This is standard lore that goes back centuries," he says. "I remember this from when I first started farming. It's true that the moon does affect the tides to a certain degree, which has to do with how water comes up and down in the soil, but there are so many other factors. For example, it's raining right now, so the ground is too wet to plant in. Well, what if the moon phase is just right for planting and next week is no good according to the moon? It might be that next week is the only time we can plant due to soil moisture, so you have to take that into account."

First, Catch a Squirrel ...
But the old lore does have its place. In the "Traditional Planting Times" section, Leap finds something that vibes with his long experience in the fields. The almanac suggests planting corn when elm leaves reach the size of a squirrel's ear and when oak leaves are as big as a mouse's ear (no help on how to actually find out how big a squirrel's ear actually is). As for tomatoes, the almanac advises waiting to plant them until the daylilies are in full bloom. Leap nods vigorously at these suggestions, noting that natural conditions will often tell you more than even the most sophisticated soil monitor.

"For example, say you're planting squash plants," Leap explains. "You're not going to harvest all the squash, so some of it will go to seed and the seeds will end up in the ground. Next year, when the conditions are just right, the seed will voluntarily germinate. When I see the squash plant germinating, that's a real good sign for me to start planting tomatoes, squash, beans and sweet corn. The seeds in the ground are reading everything for you."

One of the more entertaining sections of the almanac is the "Weather Lore Calendar," a series of proverbs that attempt to read the weather of one month as an indicator of events during another month later in the year. For example, under April it reads, "If it thunders on All Fools' Day, it brings good crops of corn and hay." Leap is less than convinced this is actually true, but he seems to enjoy the intriguing nature of the rhymes.

"These are just fun little things!" he exclaims joyously, before lapsing into thoughtfulness. "In reality, you'd only be able to make these kinds of statements in a specific geographical area. It's like the old saying 'Corn knee high by the Fourth of July.' Well, if you're in the Central Valley or the Midwest and it's not knee high by Fourth of July, it's not going to mature enough so it can dry down by winter. But over here in Santa Cruz, our first planting date for corn would be early May, so it typically will not be knee high by the Fourth of July."

All right, so maybe The Old Farmer's Almanac isn't exactly a slam dunk when it comes to accuracy, but as mechanized agriculture gets more expensive, chemical fertilizers leak into watersheds and certain pesticides wipe out beneficial species, a lot of people are starting to rethink the viability of modern agriculture. Taking a few suggestions from 18th-century scribes actually starts to look appealing to Leap and other ecologically sensitive farmers when weighing these considerations.

"Farming, when it's done well, is based on accumulated knowledge passed down from generation to generation," notes Leap. "It brings with it a whole complex of skills that go way back. In the last 50 years we have, as a civilization, ignored that and gone to this whole chemical thing. That system is not helping anything or anyone."


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