Chicken Tractor

My chicks have been outside during the day since Saturday.  They love having more space to play, being able to stretch their wings and do their weird hop-fly thing.  They are really enjoying all the new foods.  They have no idea that this is work not play!

They are eating the compost crops I put down a few months ago.  The plan is they will mow down all the crops, killing them but leaving the roots intact to help the soil texture.  While they eat they will poo adding more nutrients, and they will mix everything up with their scratching.  Hopefully they will also eat some insects that I don’t want.

The structure is my own design.  I am very proud of it.  Woodworking is something that has always intimidated me.  It seemed expensive, complicated and scary.  So anytime I have needed something made I have asked Jeff, Erik or other friends help me.   But this time I wanted something done right away and I did not want to wait for anyone else.  So I just did it.  I mostly used scrap wood from the garage, thought I did buy a few 1 x 4s and  1 x 2s.  I only used tools I had (miter saw, screw driver, staple gun and a hammer).   It is not fancy, but it is pretty sturdy and will do the job I needed.  Puck (my husband, the guy in the super man pants) helped me put together some of it, but he knows less about woodwork then I do.  So we both learned new skills.

Of course once they were outside Donnie (the black Maine Coon) had to come out too, so he could keep an eye on them.  When I am outside he sits right beside their pen, and when I am inside he stays in the window looking out at them.  His interest in the chicks is so odd.  Last week the leghorn got out of the pen inside while I was giving them water. She ran away from me and hide behind Donnie.  They have almost no fear of him and he seem to have no urge to eat them.

At night I bring the chicks back inside, because I don’t trust this structure to keep them safe and it is not quite warm enough.  The hen house will be done this week and then they will be out of the house full time.  About 8 weeks from babies to living in their own apartment.  They grow up so fast.

Spring….I think…maybe

In Georgia there is a thin line between the weird unpredictable winter and blistering summer.  It is hard to actually call it a season, because it does not last nearly long enough to get that title.   The weather bounces back and forth across the line for a few months.  This year, January had days that got up to 70 degrees; last year Atlanta (yes, pretty much the whole city) shut down for a week of ice and snow.  I stayed locked up in my house eating french toast for 7 days.   Two weeks ago it got down to 21 degrees; today was the mid to high 70s.   I’ve decided to call it spring and hope for the best.  Granted, two years ago it snowed on the 1st of April, so I can’t guarantee anything.  But I figure I will go ahead and do my spring planting and other activities, because the gain I could receive in terms of harvest greatly outweighs the cost of a few seeds.   If it did frost again, the peach blossoms would die, but I have no power over that.   I think I might cry if that happened; summer tastes like peaches.

I did a lot of planting in the winter this year.  The plan was that hardy plants could go ahead and get started under a leaf cover, and I would be saved having to try to start seeds inside.  I am horrible at indoor seed starting.  Almost all my inside seedlings died last year due to fungus gnats.  A few of the winter plants got so big I harvested and ate them already (cabbages, chard).  But most are still small.   But it is a heck of a head start over where I was last year.

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I spent today removing leaf cover from the carrots and lettuce.  You should know I already did this once.  I was sure 3 weeks ago that while freezing might happen there was no chance it would drop below around 28 degrees.  Lettuce and carrots would have been just fine at 28, but 21 no way!  So I had a mad cat scramble to put the leaves back on.  At least I got the carrots thinned out the first time.  The lettuce got thinned today.  I took all the small plants that were being choked out and moved them to the back of the bed.  I find this method of broadcasting lots of seeds and then moving, eating, or composting the smaller plants to be much less work than starting seeds one at a time in a flat or pots.   As Scrooge McDuck says, “Work smarter, not harder”.

On some tasks I am really behind.  I only got around to putting compost crops in one bed.  And over the winter I let the weeds get really out of hand.  I spent most of my day weeding, but happily it is almost all done!  That which is left is only about an hour of work that I can do tomorrow.  It was getting dark and we found a snake, so it was time to go inside.

I got one more bed seeded with compost crops, which seems a little silly at this point.  The beds should be for food right now, not rye grass and clover, but the front bed was in really bad shape, so it could use it.   I am only going to let the compost crops grow a few weeks before I let the chickens attack them. I am really interested to see the chickens working in the garden.  I might take them outside tomorrow if I can make a safe enclosure for them.  I hope they enjoy the weeding more than I do.

There is a lot of work to be done over the next few weeks; ordering seeds, planting, hopefully getting time to build a few beds in the back yard.   This is the time of year that is all work and almost no harvest, aside from the never-ending salad (oh, that reminds me, I need to plant radishes tomorrow).

 However, I did have a nice little surprise in the front bed.  I found a wee lucky potato.  

Chicken Babies – First few weeks

I have been wanting chickens for years.  They are cute, good garden worker and they will give me eggs.  I have not gotten them before now for several reason but the big one is them not actually being legal here.   The people I have talked to in the government swear that is going to change this year.  But they have been saying it for years already.  So by getting chickens I am taking a risk.  Lot of people have them, everyone (government people and people who have them) says it should be ok, but it might not be.  If a neighbor complains I could loose them or get fined or something.  But part of getting the law changed is making it more commonplace for people to have them, so I have decided to go for it.

Playing Dead

I got my chicken in two groups, one week apart.  The first group was from Chattanooga.  It was a long drive and they did not bring the birds I wanted most (Americanas), which is why I had to get a second batch.  For the first few days they would just fall asleep randomly and fall over. Chicks are sort of delicate, so the first few times they did this I was afraid they were sick. But I figured out pretty quick that they were just sleepy.   The breeds of the group from Jan 28 are two Barred Rocks and two Buff Orpingtons.   One of each is for my friend Erik when they are big enough to live outside.  If I can bear to part with them.   I love my chicken babies.

The next Friday I got another three chicks from a nice guy in Austel.   He only sold them if you bought at least three.  I have no idea why that is.  I got the the two Americanas I wanted and I also got a Leghorn.He had a few types to choose from but the leghorn was least like all the others I have.  She will be my only white egg layer, and my only white bird.  Leghorns are not as docile as the other breeds, sometimes they are insane.

When I put the groups together I was afraid there would be fighting, but it only took about 20 minutes for them to be a happy flock.  All seven do everything together now, I think there might only be one brain between all of them when it comes to some things.  I guess that is why they are called a flock.  The Americanas seem to be the smartest, the leghorn the most aggressive. 



Having chickens is lots of fun so far.  They mostly hate me and scream every time I touch them, but they will eat out of my hand if I stay pretty still. They are confused about freckles (which I have lots of) so they have pecked at them until I have bleed a few times.  I hope they don’t get a taste for human. I don’t want to be found dead in the back yard some day killed by chickens.

Right now they are all between 3 weeks and 1 month old.  I am amazed at how much they have grown and changed in such a short time. The biggest Buff is almost compeletly feathered now, and the others are not far behind.   I have a hen house for them but it needs some work (it was a children’s play house) but no closed in run area yet.  At the rate they are growing they will be ready to go outside in less than a month.

Joy in a Suburban Homestead

The time I spend working on my garden is precious.  From planning to harvest, each stage gives me new pleasure and challenges.   Every year I experiment with new varieties and placement,  new structures and supports.

One of my favorite changes this year is the bean tunnel.   It is made of livestock panel and some metal fence posts.   The idea is for the beans to climb up it, making this pretty covered tunnel that I can hide in.  Having a small yard in a dense neighborhood means very little of my yard has the private solitary feel that I like from a garden, and also almost no shade.  The bean tunnel is an attempt at making private space, no matter how small.   So far I love it.  The beans are growing exactly like they should with almost no help from me.   The ones climbing are mostly rattlesnake (Bountiful Gardens seeds), a very tender purple spotted bean with great flavor.  We grew it last year and liked it, so we decided to do it again.

On the ground you will see black weed block.   This is also new this year.  My front yard was all grass when we moved in.  And no matter how hard you try, grass is resilient.   I think I work harder killing all my grass than anyone in my neighborhood does keeping theirs a creepy green color all year long.  This year Erik had the idea to hoe up the first few inches of grass, staple down weed block and then cover with something.  The something you see here under the tunnel is rubber mulch.  I got it because it is recycled, rather pretty, lasts forever and nothing is going to grow in it.  The downside is that is sucks to walk on with bare feet.  The other option I tried, which you can see to the left, is sand.  Feels great on the feet, and not likely to get things growing in it.  But it will wash away over time.

Specially trained attack tomatoes

Speaking of structures, a new one is called for with these tomatoes.  They have bent this support and are about to take it down.  Tomorrow I am going to take some more livestock panel and make something to put around them that might be a little more sound. While I am at it, all the other tomato plants which are still pretty small might as well get the same treatment.  Lots of volunteer tomatoes this year, there is a one under the sunflowers that looks to be a roma of some type.

I am using the biointensive method, with increasing success.   My lettuce and radish area is just about perfect – almost no space at all between these plants.  That means no weeds, no mulch, and great water retention.  The idea is to make a mini-ecosystem  under a group of plants. I have found that growing close makes for much healthier plants, and that some plants like radishes will not even grow if too far away from others of their kind.   I need to eat all of this very soon.  With the super high temperatures (mid-90s everyday this week) lettuce is about to bolt, which will not be good eats.

Companion planting is fun, sort of like a game.   For the last few years I have been trying to get nasturtium and squash both growing at the same time, with no luck.  I killed every nasturtium I planted.   Which was sad, because I thought they would be pretty.  And they are!  This year they are finally working.  I have three plants living, one each red, yellow and orange.  Which is odd, because the seed package shows red, and I have always heard they are red.  I am happy they come in more than one color.  I like surprises like that.   I hope having the nasturtium helps with squash bugs.  Summer squash is one of my favorite foods when fresh.  Last year was a real disappointment for squash.  Between squash bugs, mexican bettles (tricksy bastards) and not enough water, we got maybe 2 meals worth of squash all season.

          Here are the two great friends- yellow squash and nasturtium. The leaves of the nasturtium are almost as pretty as the flowers.  This plant looks like it either came from the past and was a favorite of dinosaurs, or else from an alien world. No, I don’t know why I feel that way, I just do.  I have an active imagination.  Oh, fun thing about my squash.  I planted the seeds of several kinds at random, so until they have fruit I don’t know what they are.  This one is yellow straight neck. One of the others is getting its first fruit and it looks  like it might be a pattypan of some kind.

Sometimes I look at my tiny yard and I long for the future, when I will have a real farm with all the garden space I could ever want, with chickens and cows, and an evil mule.  But most of the time I am happy with what I have.  I am learning each plant’s likes, dislikes and needs on an intimate basis. Each plant is special. With a small garden I can take the time to care for them one at a time.   Also, a suburban homestead is a nice step.  A 5-acre plot might overwhelm me.  I might run around like crazy planting things at random, wanting to use it all, and making a big mess.   With my small plot I have to really think about how I am going to use every foot.   Until I started this garden I always thought of growing my own food as efficient, self-sufficient and utilitarian.  Having a garden in the front yard as taught me that a garden can also be a beautiful work of art.