The Urban Farm Lost a Family Member

We got back from Mexico around 1:30 AM this morning. Porter was excited to see us and the bunny just hung out in her box. It was extremely strange to walk into our bedroom and not see Booger peeking her head out from her post. We've taken few trips longer than a few days over the years and this was our first week-long trip since our honeymoon in 2006. With a little mini-zoo of animals and a pretty large garden, it's been hard to do. Each time we plan a trip, three-quarters of the stress has been finding the right housesitter - one willing to take on the job.

Summer is a hard time to leave as the garden needs careful attention to water and heat. We simplified the job a bit by using a small irrigation system that only requires you to turn on the spigot right outside the back door. That said, you still have to know when to turn it on and how long to run it.

We use a lot of passive cooling and heating for the house too and that takes a bit of practice. In the summer, you have to open the windows at just the right time during the evening to let in the cool night air. The right combination of windows helps also. You have to leave the shades closed until the sun passes the windows and the exterior shades need to be pulled up when the sun goes down to let the breeze pass. If it rains, you have to pull up the shades too as they are bamboo. In the winter it's easier, just keep the shades drawn unless there's sunshine. The rest we do with a gas furnace and soon I hope we'll get a new wood stove.

There are all sorts of other minor things that we do regularly, but a housesitter doesn't have to do. Compost can just go down the garbage disposal so no cheese or meat accidentally get added to the pile for instance. Compost tea doesn't have to be applied regularly to the garden and not at all in the winter.

Then there's the pets. The rabbit box is pretty easy if you just add a handful of hay each day. Jovi makes up a second box that's ready to be used and the housesitter just has to switch this out once. I mean, changing it every other day would be even better, but this works just fine. PB does like to try to sneak under the bed though and this can wake you out of the deepest sleep so you have to keep the door closed.

The dog requires a person with a regular schedule or we have to hire a dog walker to let him out to poo in the evening. He is a pain in the butt to any would be late sleeper so our housesitter has to be OK with getting up around 6:30 for early morning pee time. He likes to test the resolve of "substitute teachers" too.

I can't tell you how many eager potential housesitters have had to decline because of an allergy to one of our pets.

In the past four years, we've had to juggle subcutaneous fluids too for Booger. With kidney failure, she's required these every 3-4 days. We often pushed it to a week and she lived well past the maximum predicted life-span of 3 years. We were told most cats die within a year or two of a similar diagnosis.

We also had to move her into one room completely dog free. This ended up being our bedroom as I had tried not allowing her to sleep with me when she was younger and wasn't going there again. When she was about 3 years old I tried for over a month to shut her out at night. Each night she would fling her body against my bedroom door over and over periodically throughout the night. I gave up on an allergy-free bedroom and we slept together every night after that.

Not every pet sitter is willing to sleep in the same room with smelly canned cat food and a litter box. Not every housesitter is willing to share a bed with tiny bits of food and cat litter that work their way into the bed over the week. Or to feed a kitty 4 times a day and mix it with just the right amout of water.

Over the last two years, as Booger developed a heart murmer and hyperthyroidism, I worried each time I left for a few days that something would happen to her while I was gone. It was with great relief that I returned each time to find her meowing for some food and to her insistence that I sit down so she could curl up on my lap.

When we booked our trip to Mexico over 7 months ago, I really never thought that Booger would still be alive when we left. I hoped so much that she would just go in her sleep sometime. That I would come home to find her happily curled on her heating pad or that I would wake up to find her gone in my arms in her sleep. I waited for signs that she was ready, everyone had told me I would know when it was time. She would have a day of being a little disoriented and I would think, "OK in the next few days." Then she would turn around and seem just fine - I mean climbing an upright queen mattress fine.

Over the last couple of months I had to make two unplanned trips back to Missouri. My mom went in for a colectomy on short notice and I flew home for that. I ended up being gone for a week and with my mom being diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. Six weeks later I met my mom and dad in Houston for a second opinion. This entire time I kept thinking, "Now's the time I need you most kitten." I knew she was OK because she at least had Jovi to cuddle with and Jovi would watch her closely.

You see, Booger has never really been just another one of the pets or an animal on our mini-farm. I guess this is one of the perils of an urban farm. As a kid, our pets weren't allowed in the house. We didn't snuggle with them at night. I remember watching our old dog Barney die naturally in our front yard. I was there with him and my brother and I buried him with my dad's help. It just seemed natural. I was sad, but it was his time. Booger, on the other hand, was an extension of my own self. She was my constant companion through my entire adult life up until now.

She weathered college parties, various boyfriends, a string of extra roommates, roommates leaving, move after move. She was there through my first marriage, my divorce, the loss of part of my vision. At one of the worst times in my life, when I would sleep for hours in the middle of the day, she was right there by my side. She wouldn't budge. I don't mean this in the way that a cat wants heat and any lap will do. I mean, she would chase people away from me and would hover over me as if to protect me and comfort me. She was on my lap as a wrote or read for countless hours all through grad school. She was with me when I met Jovi and came out. She moved to Portland and put up with having a new cat added to the house and then a rabbit and then a dog of all things.

Anyway, when we were planning a housesitter for our trip to Mexico, I grew increasingly worried about how Booger would deal with this trip. It was hard on her when we even just left for the afternoon. If she thought we were gone, I would hear her howling in her room. I couldn't bear the thought of her being held by someone else at the end of her life. I also couldn't bear the thought of making someone else choose if it were the right time to let her go. As we came to the week before our trip, I worried this would just be too much for her or any pet sitter.

I returned from Houston on a Tuesday night. On Saturday I called Dove Lewis to make arrangements for her care should she need to come in while we were gone. When they described their "living room like" setting and told me that one of them would hold her if the pet sitter didn't want to, I knew this wasn't right.

Saturday ended up being a beautiful day and Booger and I hung out together all morning. After the call to Dove Lewis, I opened the door to our deck and Booger, Jovi and I hung out for about an hour in the sun. Booger seemed extremely happy. She investigated the BBQ and entire deck. She sat in my lap several times. While she was walking around, I saw how often she sort of lost her footing. That night we slept together as always, me on my side and her stretched out across my arm with her head on my pillow and her face up to mine.

Sunday morning, she woke me up really early. She'd been eating and she slowly laid across my chest. She put her chin up close to me and meowed in a way she never had before. She sounded tired and uncomforable. I really felt like she was telling me she was ready, that it was time. Afterwards, she got back under the sheets and kept rubbing her chin against mine and purring. Eventually I had to get up to go to the bathroom and she bit me when I did. She left a bruise and a scratch that I'm honestly hoping will scar. When I came back into the bedroom, she was in her post, on her heating pad. I told Jovi it was time.

That morning we went to Dove Lewis together, the three of us and two of us came home.

Jovi and I left for Mexico two days later. I didn't really want to go. Jovi pulled me out of bed in time to catch the flight and reassured me we needed it.

Well, our trip to Mexico was the first time in a long time that I at least knew that Booger wasn't missing us, wasn't lonely without her cuddle partner. Seeing old friends and keeping busy with new sights helped. Our pet sitter had one less little one to worry about it and well, I know it will be easier to go at least on short local trips now.

Our house is so quiet now though. I sit here typing without a kitty trying to lay across my arms. No extra typing from her errant paws. No meowing from the bedroom for me to come snuggle some more. I know someday I will stop looking for her outside my morning shower, her waiting there for a daily drink of shower water. I know sometime I will not lay in bed at night waiting for her to come paw at the covers or my face. I know I won't listen late at night for the tapping of her paws. I know I'll be able to look into the refrigerator without looking for her food. I know I'll be able to sit on the couch with a good book and not wait for her to join me. Nineteen years is a long time.


Urban Advantage

OK so thank god for close by grocery stores, thai restaurants, mexican fast food, and close by rabbit food. Some weeks I have no menu and no groceries and I can get by with that. I want to end up in the country again, preferably on the coast, but there are advantages to living in the burbs.


My Basic Garden Knowledge for Spring

Heather, this is for you : )

First off, my thumb is sort of brownish green. Here's the thing. I kill a lot of plants, but I look at like what I've read photographers say they do. You take a thousand photos to get one good picture. I figure I'll kill a bunch of plants, but I'll get a few really good ones and I'll learn along the way. The real reason I garden is that I LOVE playing in the dirt and this seems to be one of the few ways we get to do that as adults. If I get some yummy veggies in the process, well that's icing on the cake. (Wait, that's the cake with the icing... I like icing better than cake so the veggies are the cake and the dirt playing is the icing.)

There are a few things I've learned from all my messing with our little plot over the last few years. Heather asks if she should be planting already so, in my typical fashion, you get ALL my advice : ) Here it is in a nutshell:

We live in the Pacific Northwest so there are a few things that don't take much effort to grow year round. Now, that said, you have to get a feel for your particular "microclimate". For instance, if you are on the coast, it's a little milder there all year and you might get away with planting even earlier than me in Portland. However, if you are in the coast range, you probably have a very short growing season as you're at higher elevation and with a little less daylight each year. Bottom line, plant a little bit and see how it does! Just don't plant all your seed and then you can replant a few weeks later if everything dies.

I think I've been waiting way too late each year to plant and I'm learning that I should actually prepare my beds in the fall rather than the spring - ie till in all the dead plants in the fall so they can compost into the soil over winter. If you didn't do that last fall, like me, then as soon as you have a couple of dry sunny days get out there and work up the soil - getting it ready to plant. If your soil clumps together or you can even squeeze out water - then DON'T do it. It'll dry into a brick the next sun you get.

Right now it's cold season planting. Look on your seed packs, it will tell you what the ground temp should be to plant. Remember that the ground temp is always warmer than the air temp as it holds in the heat better, especially if you have raised beds. Your beds also don't have to be contained in anything - they don't have to have a wooden frame or anything fancy like that. You can just dig a "grave" - piling the dirt up to the side and, voila, the pile you leave is your raised bed! This is what we do every few years in our fenced garden.

Here's what seems to be doing well in our garden - so far, but I haven't seen it in a few days - lettuce, radishes and chard. I think peas will be good soon and we've tried broccoli too. I am also realizing that I've been waiting way too late to plant peas in particular. They like it cold. Speaking of peas, inoculant is a little expensive, but it does really seem to help and a little goes a long way.

I also put out little cat food cans (well cleaned) with cheap beer in them all over the garden. This seems to be working with the slugs, but you have to top it off when it gets low or it rains a ton. You bury the cans in the soil so that just about the top 1/4 of an inch is above the soil. The slugs go in but they don't come out. This is VERY important to do while it's still pretty rainy out - the slugs LOVE this weather and they will eat all your baby plants.

If you buy perpetual chard this year, you may never need to buy the seed again. Mine has self sown for three years, maybe four in a row.

I have also heard that planting garlic and onions throughout the garden will deter some pests. I'm trying that, but have no idea if that really works. We like garlic and onions so why not! If you plant them right now, it's a good time to do it, you won't have them this year, but maybe next year. Oh, salad onions/green onions though can be planted now and throughout the summer and you'll have them this year. Chives too.

Lastly, if the temp is going to drop at night below freezing or if you're going to have ice, you want to protect the plants. I've heard you can even just put a sheet over your bed for the night. Or take some of that window plastic and make a "cloche" or a cover for the bed.

OK, that's it for spring knowledge. Like I said, pretty basic!


It's spring and I refuse to believe otherwise...

Jovi and I have adopted a new "urban farm" marriage survival plan this year. We will play one weekend; work around the house the next. The deck project last year had us tied up almost every nice weekend, frantically trying to complete the thing. Of course, half the battle was figuring out what we were doing - a good plan is a good thing.

Another piece of the battle was a nasty case of strep throat that plagued me for a good chunk of the nice weather. After about an hour of work, I would complain I was exhausted and retire to the couch for a two hour nap. We both thought I was just being lazy and trying to get out of the damn project. It wasn't until a visit to the doctor for what I was absolutely certain was a sinus infection, that we discovered I had strep. Of course the summer also started with a minor foot surgery for me too and that slowed us down much more than we had anticipated.

This year we are starting out fresh and with a fail-safe plan to balance work and pleasure. So far, it's working out. Last weekend we spent some lazy time at the beach, the weekend before we hammered out a new garden bed and planted two of the six existing beds. The weekend before that we went for a hike at the beach. This feels much more balanced and so far, we've gotten along pretty well too! No more bickering over projects and staying in bed until mid-morning dreading work on the urban farm.

Oh, I should also mention, we've taken to working on separate projects. Jovi actually built the new garden bed and I prepared and planted the two existing beds... The garden bed went 10 times faster than any other project and no disagreements over exactly how we should do it! It's a pretty cool bed too. Jovi used boards from our old deck... a little ironic no?