Posted in 1 Garden, 3 Chickens

One Year Anniversary: Every Garden Still Needs Chickens

It’s our one-year anniversary of having chickens, and we still can’t believe how fun they are, how easy they are to take care of, and how much they give us in eggs, compost, entertainment and even friendship.

"Minerva, Goldie, and Polly," copyright Jean Ann Eisenhower 2014

“Minerva, Goldie, and Polly,” copyright Jean Ann Eisenhower 2014

 

Almost all our visitors are impressed by the coop, so I’m reposting this article about building it and bringing in the girls.

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After two solid weeks of hard (desert summertime!) work, planting posts in rocky ground, building, insulating, creating and installing windows and doors, and building a predator-proof cage over everything, yesterday we finished the chicken house and coop, received the livestock inspector’s approval (“state of the art,” he said!), paid our fee ($25), and picked up the chickens at night when they would be calm.

Our friend Polly has told us, as do most of our chicken-owning friends, how much they love their chickens and often spend time with them; Polly often has coffee out there in the mornings with her “girls,” she told us.  And so we didn’t feel too weird this morning when we also had the urge to pull up our chairs to drink coffee in front of the coop!  And I took video.

Afternoon note:  All three hens laid eggs the first day by 1 pm!  See the video here, and hear me speak quite stupidly.

(Now, don’t get us wrong.  Both Greg and I have each kept chickens twice before in our lives, but this is still exciting.  And we’ve also both had children, so that’s not it.  Maybe we’re getting old and easily amused, I don’t know….  )

Chickens are important!  Chickens are a very important part of a sustainable home and garden, mainly for the excellent manure they produce, not to mention the eggs, meat, and entertainment.  Read my Permaculture page, or just scan down that page to the diagram about The Egg to see how important they are in our world, evolving (though slowly) toward sustainability.

Below I recount how we designed and built the coop, designed to meet the needs of chickens and the needs of humans who keep them.

We used mostly recycled materials, but the materials we bought still cost about $200 for a half-dozen 2×4’s, 50′ of 6′ poultry fencing, boxes of screws, OSB [God forgive me], and corrugated steel.

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Here’s the start:  an old hollow-core door became the chicken house floor (3′ x 6 1/2′), laid on top of landscape timbers in front and bricks on the existing stone terrace in back.  Raising the house like this gives the chickens more space to scratch on the ground, and more shade; and being higher makes gathering eggs and cleaning the house easier for us humans.  We placed the house on the north side of this area so it would get as much sun as possible in the winter; being high also helps solar gain.

Two walls are ready to put up next, fashioned of scraps of 2×4 made into 2×2’s (to go twice as far), with old pieces of house siding and left-over exterior house paint.

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Next we made the east wall with window glass scavenged from an old screen door.  The large window serves the birds’ need for light in the morning, but may be a little too much on summer days – so I will shade it then.

Beneath the window, we planned a vent with screen and hardware cloth (and three other vents besides this one).  Later we learned, too late, that the chicken house floor “should” be covered with 4-6″ of straw or other bedding (according to one writer at least) – deeper than I’d thought.  On this first day of chickens, we have just 2″ of bedding on the floor, and it seems sufficient.  We’ll report back later on this detail.  Still, it seems important for air flow to not only be great enough but also have equal amounts of vents located low and high for optimal circulation, so I hope this vent won’t be blocked by straw.

(Our driveway doubles as work space, with the van serving as lockable storage – very workable and space-efficient for living on 1/10th acre!)

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Next steps were installing the screen-and-hardware-cloth vents (both materials I’d actually gone to the trouble of saving from old projects) on the east wall and high on the west wall; stapling left-over bubble-foil for modest insulation; and installing “nailers” where we’d later need to attach roosts and nesting box/es.  The books we borrowed (Thanks, Jacque!) told us that chickens want to roost a couple of feet off the floor and have a couple of feet above their heads.  And they like their nesting box (1 box per 6 birds) raised a little off the floor, in the darkest corner, and not beneath roosts, so we placed a nailer in the back corner for that.

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The fourth wall we would build in place; it entails a large south-facing window for winter solar gain, a door for the chickens, and a door large enough for us to lean into for egg-gathering and house cleaning, and inside that door another large window for solar gain, also openable for ventilation.

Above, you see the finished interior walls – maybe not necessary, but not uncommon either, according to online photos we consulted after the fact, discovering that plenty of folks have built darling “doll houses” for their birds.  (We didn’t mean to do that – really!)  We created finished and painted interior walls to fulfill one writer’s dictum of making the house easy to clean in the event of disease.  You see I caulked every seam and painted every surface inside for easy cleaning, should it ever be necessary.

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Here are the two windows on hinges, the large one (also salvaged from the same screen door) held open by a short segment of a tree branch, the other glass (purchased new), hung in the door, held open by a huge nail that also doubles as a locking device with two eye-hooks.  Behind both windows are window screen and poultry fencing, trimmed with interior siding overlapping the window opening 1/3″ all around to serve as a stopper.  The sliding chicken door is on the far left, held open with a dowel that can also hold it closed.  The ramp is an old 1×8 board, with old paint in two colors, crossed with 1/4″ x 1″ strips.

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The books say one box per six birds, so we only installed one, but might add another.  On the other hand, another friend said all her birds like to lay in the same place for some reason.  Greg copied the general pattern from one we found in a local feed store.  Notice the “roof” (mostly hidden in this photo) which hens seem to like.

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For roosts, we used salvaged handrails.  (Yes, we both have a tendency to save “everything!” – and saved many of these items over the last few years, anticipating this day.)  We suspended them with clothes bar suspenders (also saved in our huge collection of junk) which were a little too small, so we shaved the ends of the bars to make them work.  We attached the bar holders to 2×2’s ripped diagonally down the middle and screwed to the wall and into the nailers.  The angle of the bars into the corners wasn’t a perfect 45 degrees, but it is close enough to work!  (The books we read said that chickens like bars about 2″ x 3″ in diameter- which seemed far larger than we’d imagined and thought necessary.  We felt very fortunate to have saved these old handrails.)

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Okay, now for the serious predator control.  We erected a cage over the entire thing, using the existing fence, adding a few 2×4’s to make it tall enough for comfort, and poultry fencing.

(The door came from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore – perfect 2-foot-wide, perfect height, with hardware cloth on the bottom half, a handle, and self-closing hinges – on the one day Greg went to shop!  What luck!  And a great price!  Thanks, Re-Store!)

Love my east window shading!  The cane (saved, yes, for years!) has turned gray, but is still useful for so many things in the garden.  I can see the entire inside of the house without going into the enclosure.

But that’s not all.  To deter animals from digging under the fence, we dug 2″ down 2′ out from the fence, laid down poultry fencing which goes under the fence and is secured inside the coop up about 1′.

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On the outside corners of the fencing, to keep it from flipping up in some places, I used tent stakes to hold it down (see my finger pointing), then covered the fencing with 2″ of gravel.  Other places, I coerced the gravel to stay down without stakes.

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Now it’s a pathway again, with an invisible barrier under the ground!

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Not easy work, but essential – and easier than the only other remedy I’ve heard:  digging 18″ straight down.  No thanks.  I did this all the way around except on part of one side that had plantings too close, and there I piled large rocks until I feel like doing more of that digging.

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Finally, we had these great branches (remains saved from my natural plaster work in the house, previously used for trellises in the garden), so we attached them securely to the fence, so the girls could exercise what remains of their wild natures.

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Sure enough, on Day One (today), the boldest was up there on every branch and the roof top!

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Most amazing, each bird used the nest box to lay an egg their very first day here!  Three eggs!  Here’s video of the “harvest.”

And here’s a video of our cat’s response.

 

 

 

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I hope I’ve inspired everyone to get chickens.  Get back to the Earth.  Get sustainable.  Support your garden.  Eat good food.  

Have fun.

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Posted in 1 Garden

Chickens Love Organic

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I feed my chickens organic.*

To buy organic feed lay feed (no hormones, just the right mix of nutrients), we make a trip from our little town to “the city” about three times a year – not a problem.

Then we supplement their lay feed with:
* a little (organic) chicken “scratch” now and then
* their own shells crushed small
* vegetable and fruit trimmings from the kitchen
* dandelion leaves gathered from walks around the neighborhood
* sunflower seed heads (their favorite!) we grow and enjoy first as summery greenery and flowers
* herbs (such as burdock root and nettles) mixed into animal fat
* grasshoppers off the highway during “plagues” (we can harvest a quart in a few minutes)
* free produce trimmings from the food coop
* and more – sometimes friends bring them things.

DSC04453Our girls are of various ages, all producing about equally, all pretty happy (no ugly hierarchy acting out) because they have enough space, and we get an average of over 2 eggs a day all year long for a total of about $100/year.  This means we get happy-bird, organic eggs for less than $2/dozen!

And sometimes the three birds have even laid four eggs in twenty-four hours!

And when we sing on the back porch, they jump up on their roof to look over the fence and watch.  They’re wonderful friends and great entertainment too!

* I’ve eaten almost exclusively organic food since the late 70s.  People tell me it costs too much, but I think eating non-organic food is very unhealthy, and will cost more in the long-run.

Posted in 1 Garden, 3 Chickens

Short Video of the Finished Multi-purpose Fountain!

Corner of the yard with apricot and fountain
Corner of the yard with apricot and fountain

I love this corner of the yard now!  Greg finished the fountain today, and it’s so satisfying to have the sound of trickling water in the yard!

We hooked up a cooler line (so another pump won’t go bad) to this Mother Mary fountain – to which I added some crystals.

The water runs over the lip and down a little fall, into a pond we created and lined with stone, then sideways down a chute and into a pottery dish inside the chicken coop!  (I love that the hens came into the frame for the video.)

The dish is tipped, so from there the water flows out into the well of the apricot tree with columbines and day lilies which love the water.

Peaches, our tabby cat is looking for a small snake she saw there yesterday.  She also loves drinking from the fountain, as do birds and lizards.

https://vimeo.com/95800339 – just 1-minute and 20 seconds.  Fun.

(Wouldn’t you know, just as I’m videotaping the mail truck comes by.)

 

 

Posted in 1 Garden, 3 Chickens

Garden weed/waste as nutrition for the chickens and other uses

Cleaning up the garden the other day was a delight, as so little was wasted, now that we have chickens.

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This sunflower quit being beautiful weeks ago, then poured the rest of its life energy into producing these sunflower seeds – a major treat and excellent nutrition for the chickens.  I pushed the outer leaves back to expose more of the seeds, and left a bit of stem on it so I could wind it in the fencing to support the flower head for aggressive pecking.

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The scores of sunflowers in our yard are not only beautiful, but they also add essential (and in NM too rare) nitrogen to the soil, and then they produce this otherwise-costly treat for the hens.

Other excellent nutrition from the garden all summer – and continuing – includes dandelion leaves.  We eat some of them, but give the majority to the birds, which seem to crave them over all other treats.  The roots, of course, are an excellent medicinal – just wash, dry, and put in a jar for later.

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We also pulled up all the stickweed – which goes by many names, but most recognize it as the one with bothersome seeds this time of year.  We left it in the garden until now because the flowers are pretty, and also because the herb, I’d heard, is a good medicinal.

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However, I find there are many plants with the name stickweed, so I’ll have to do more research before I report on this.  Anyone want to help?

 

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One site I read said that poultry loves it, but my birds didn’t; either it doesn’t compare to the other food we offer, or else it’s the wrong stickweed.

Also hanging today are catnip trimmings to give the cat in the winter or make relaxing bedtime tea (with flowers – a little late in the season for perfect tea, but still useful).  And a little Russian sage that had become bent and broken from hanging in the walkway.  I usually wrap it as a smudge stick before hanging, but dried as is for a dry flower arrangement later.

Finally, we harvested the last of the red flame grapes:

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Now, to relax, sit with the cat, eat some grapes, and share some with the hens – who LOVE to eat all those that we’d otherwise compost directly.  Now, they’ll go through a bird first.

 

Posted in 1 Garden, 3 Chickens

Composting Made Efficient and Beautiful

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Composting isn’t glamorous, of course, but it can be made as efficient and convenient as possible – and even pretty.

First, efficiency.  If it’s not efficient, we might slack or feel irritated.  Must avoid that.  We decided to design the chicken area with the compost bins nearby, all a short, easy walk from the kitchen door, since both the chickens and compost bins receive scraps from the kitchen.    

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Beauty is also important.  Since I’m becoming fussy about things in my visual space, especially near our main sitting area (a good thing, I think, part of consciousness of what serves us), I generally want everything visible to be of natural materials, mostly plants and stone.  Then, when artificial elements are necessary, I try to keep them out of sight, hidden or disguised, as far away as is still convenient, and if they have to be seen, then in colors that blend.

Materials also matter – very much.  In choosing what we purchase (or don’t – because we’re recycling) and where we place each item (for increased harmony or disharmony), we create our future.  And, unlike most “activist” activities, we get to make these decisions for the future without group organizing, meetings, promoting, or money.  We do this work of changing the future all by ourselves, on our own time, working by inspiration, day by day, creatively – It’s the best.  And so, when we realized we could make this happen mostly with materials we’d been salvaging and storing for years, we dove into this new project with gusto.

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Space – sometimes difficult in the city (and I’m on 1/10th acre).  The reason this design hadn’t come together for years was because I’d always thought I didn’t have room for chickens, and composting wasn’t that exciting, and my half-assed composting process was working “well enough” (not really, but I told myself that).  (Good reason to consult with others – to discover what we might be overlooking!)

One day, realizing my frustration of wanting chickens I didn’t think I could have and acknowledging that I really did need to upgrade the compost situation, I walked outside the fence and realized that I’d made the parking area larger than it actually needed to be, and that poorly-used space could be the solution!  My partner and I measured closely and recovered a 20-foot long space, 9 feet wide at the far end, tapering to 4 feet at the near end where the existing gate to the yard would be removed, making the narrow space feel wide.  (The gate would be relocated from the side to the near end of the 20-foot area, easy access to and from parking.)

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The new chicken coop (See “Every Garden Needs Chickens”) is now at the west end of this space, farthest from the house.  The other elements here were located according to priorities of function – and, of course, beauty, because feeding the soul is essential and pretty simple.

And I’m not talking expensive beauty, of course.  I’m talking color and relationship, mostly, and a little “intuitive feng shui,” I call it.

Nearly everything here is found and recycled, some so old that anyone else would have tossed the pieces into the landfill long ago, but I selected and kept them because I saw they still had functional possibilities – and were in colors that work for me.  (I never throw anything away (to recycle or trash) until I’ve tried to think of every potential use it might have.  Some might call this unnecessary or even neurotic, but I enjoy it and feel that it’s simply respecting the life force in everything.  Then, later, it saves me money and time.  I feel my way is appropriately and responsibly adaptive to our current culture, overflowing with material goods yet impoverished in so many ways.

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Notice that we designed this space around sitting and watching the chickens!  Yes, chickens are wonderfully entertaining, and sitting there for a bit each morning gives us a good opportunity to become familiar with these living beings for which we’re taken responsibility.  And so we sit and watch them a lot, morning and afternoon, learning their personalities, learning about their relationships with each other and with their space, and we’ll probably notice if anything’s ever not well with them.

Left of the chairs is an old, but rain-protective trashcan filled with straw for their house and coop floors (the rest is outside the fence).  Note that the straw will be kept dry, as mold is dangerous for chickens.  On top of the straw storage is an old basket for the cat to hide in while watching the chickens with us.  Above the basket on the fence is a shelf for a higher watching post for the cat and easier access for her to the roof of the coop.

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In front of the enclosure on the right is another rain-protective trashcan (hidden behind the black compost bin) with the birds’ feed in it, a blue trash bucket (here because it fits, is convenient to the street where most trash on the property unfortunately originates, and the blue plastic is hidden from the patio), and a white bucket bucket of dirt (also hidden from the patio) to cover certain compost items for fly repression.

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Next to these items is a commercial compost bin, obviously plastic (not the beautiful wooden item we’ve designed on paper) – which we inherited and had stored for two years.  This day, we decided to use it, rather than build our more-beautiful design because we really felt like putting together a new bin, were tired of building after the weeks spent on the coop, and didn’t have all the materials needed.  So, we decided to try this thing since we had it.

We placed the bin on an unused sheet of corrugated steel, sloped so we can capture the garden-nutricious fluid that leaks out the bottom into a repurposed plastic planting tray (with a pie tin toward the back to capture any juice that might otherwise be missed coming off the back corner where the tray is too short).

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The space in front of the bin is large enough to do most compost tasks, and we can make more space easily by moving the chairs when we need to bring in the wheelbarrow.

Right of the bin used to be a used, plastic “Worm Factory,” which we also inherited, but shortly after I originally posted the blog, I remembered it was very heat sensitive, so I moved it to the shade of the apricot tree on the other side of the fence and covered it with a wet gunny sack.  With a thermometer inside, I’ve watched the temperature stay around 70 degrees and notice that the worms seem to be thriving on the coffee grounds, kitchen scraps that the chickens don’t care for, and newspapers – “highest and best” use turning them into good growing soil.

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The wood piles contain scraps of lumber for construction projects or outdoor fires, limbs for indoor fires and garden stakes, and smaller pieces for kindling and mulch – and other pieces for bug-habitat in the chicken coop!

“Highest and best use” is always the rule – and there are so many ways to use and reuse things, it’s fun to think about all the possibilities, organize toward those possibilities, and then one day find that you’ve turned that “resource pile” into a chicken coop or something else valuable, saving a trip to the lumber store and saving serious money.

Above the steel wood shelf is a plastic planter in a color similar to the  terra cotta color in the floral-patterned chair cushions.  I’m giving it a try, since it adds life – in the form of baby lettuce and cilantro – which I’ve dedicated to the birds.

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The hollyhock (in the green vase above the chairs) was broken accidentally when I was weeding near the street, so I put the top in the vase, and it’s been blooming now for five days.  It also seems a perfect addition to a space devoted to recycling things to create more life.

It satisfies another “rule” – to make things pretty.  We feel better when we see beauty, even the simplest.

And since all life is sacred, even compost and recycling centers deserve flowers.