Natural Perspectives: Life in our urban farm

Thanksgiving is upon us. Traditionally, this is a time to celebrate the season's harvest. In our yard, we grow fruit, vegetables and eggs. But unfortunately, our November garden is not providing Vic and me with the feast that we had hoped for this year.

This time last year, I had just finished redoing the backyard. My three new raised beds were just beginning to produce. They were orderly and attractive. The coop was built, but the chickens weren't here yet. All was peaceful and beautiful in back. Spring was spectacular with newly planted iris and narcissus, and summer was bountiful with tons of tomatoes.

Now, the raised beds are filled with the leggy remnants of spent summer veggies, and our chickens aren't laying. Who knew that they quit laying when they're molting? And did you know that they molt twice a year, not once? They cluck and complain, wanting me to come outside and visit them.

They expect to be fed, and of course I still have to clean up after them. But they're giving no eggs. Last November, my garden and coop were filled with hope and promise; this November, they contain only memories of summer past. What a contrast.

Two of the hens were mature hens when I bought them last February. Now I've learned that chickens lay best during their first year and slow down after that. Once they turn two, as both Henrietta and Henny Penny have done, they slow way down on egg laying. Oh, swell.

Henrietta, the Black Australorp, at least has a personality. She is the friendliest of the three hens and holds still for petting. I can't lay a hand on the two Black Sex-linked breed hens. To say that those two are aloof is an understatement. Their sole interest in me is whether or not I have any food for them.

About that, they have a great deal of interest, jumping up and down like dogs when I approach with food in my hand. But even if I'm offering worms from the compost bin, they still won't permit me to pat them.

Chicken Little was a pullet when we got her. She has been my most reliable layer and is the only one who has given us any eggs at all this past month. And even so, she is laying only two to three eggs a week. The flock is not keeping up with our egg needs.

Henrietta hasn't laid an egg since mid-October, and Henny Penny has not graced us with one of her precious ova since September. Even then, she was no great shakes in the egg production department. Her eggs were few and far between and often broke.

Henny Penny is such a poor laying hen that she'd go into the stewpot if I were a real farmer. Fortunately for her, I'm not. She isn't friendly, she isn't laying eggs, and at this point, she has almost no feathers. She isn't even attractive any more. I'm going to change her name to Worthless.

So far, we've managed to reduce our egg needs to correspond with what the chickens are producing. But with a "harvest" of only two to three new eggs a week, I really have to plan ahead. I have to think about whether we'll have huevos rancheros for breakfast, which takes four eggs, or pancakes, which takes only one egg. These days, it's pancakes.

We're less than four weeks away from the winter solstice. Shortening of day length causes the hens to cut back or cease laying eggs. Lengthening days signal the approach of spring and a renewal of egg-laying. I expect egg production to pick up in January or February.

Meanwhile, we're going to try to get by without buying eggs from the store. But with the season for holiday baking upon us, I'm not sure I can hold out.

Actually, the lack of productivity from our urban farm is not causing us any distress about Thanksgiving dinner. We're eating out this year, joining our son Scott, his wife Nicole and the three grandbabies.

That means that I won't have to depend on my garden to provide the holiday vegetables. If I plan ahead, I should be able to have something for Christmas dinner besides chard and kale. And some of the things growing now may be ready to eat by then.

For example, I tried growing yams this year for the first time. Not having enough yard space, I grew them in a Smart Pot in the driveway. I keep feeling around in the soil to see if they're ready to harvest yet. Last time I checked, they were the size of my biggest thumb joint. I'm hoping they'll get bigger. Another few weeks should do the trick.

I also grew sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) and German butterball potatoes in Smart Pots this year. Both of those crops are ready to harvest. If we were going to have Thanksgiving at home, they would have been on the menu.

Also, there are still some red and yellow onions that haven't been harvested yet. And we still have a couple of tomatoes desperately clinging to life, waiting for a warm spell to ripen. So my garden isn't completely bare.

There won't be time to grow cauliflower or broccoli for a Christmas harvest, but I should be able to harvest some radishes and lettuce by then. But one thing that it looks like we'll have to do without for Christmas dinner is a platter of deviled eggs. I need some younger chickens.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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