Keeping Chickens Out of the Garden

Posted by Mom on July 1, 2016

When we first set up our raised bed gardens we did not see the need for a fence – the height of the beds would keep out any of the nibbling herbivores who might visit our gardens. Fortunately, we do not have to contend with visit from browsing deer. For aesthetic reasons, we did put up a fence; an old picket fence from another location on the property that had already seen many years of use and copious amounts of weathering and rot. This fence lasted two years before a section of it was smashed into by a kindergartener driving our golf cart.

We came to realize the value of a fence when we set-up a free-ranging flock of chickens. Upon discovering the raised bed gardens, the birds liked to scratch about in the mulch between the beds and hop up into the raised beds to scratch around in that soil too; and with the missing section of fence, they could come and go from the gardens as they liked. This foraging is welcome (free pest control!) at any time other than during the planting season when our flock must stay out of our raised beds to give the seedlings an opportunity to sprout and grow. What we needed was a fence that would allow us to control when the chickens entered the gardens.

Mom saw a photo of a fence surrounding a vegetable garden in an article in Mother Earth News and showed it to Dad. The fence was comprised of rectangle frames and poultry wire, and while separating the garden area from the rest of the yard, it still provided an unobstructed view of the gardens. We are fortunate to have an uncle who knows Dad’s affinity to carpentry and gifted us with used cedar deck boards. Over the winter, this reclaimed wood became our fence. For this project I was conscripted to help Dad plane the wood; a noisy, dusty job; but one that yielded plenty of sawdust to line our hens’ nest boxes!

To enclose our raised beds, we built 16 fence panels of six feet by two and a half feet. Each piece is a rectangle frame made from the reclaimed cedar with a centre panel of hexagonal poultry wire with a 1 inch opening. We also have two gates on the east and west sides, as well as a removable panel on the south. The gates are each 4 feet wide.

Keeping the chickens from hopping up onto the top of the fence and then down into our gardens was a bit more challenging, especially since the birds were used to coming and going as they liked. Dad built some removable pickets and attached them to the top of the fence. Unfortunately, he used whatever available cedar he could find, which resulted in pickets that were still wide enough for some of the hens to fit between. We strung up some clothesline wire between the pickets to prevent the birds from hopping up. The picket-clothesline combination worked to keep out the larger Chanteclers, but the smaller and more tenacious Rhode Island Reds could still find gaps big enough to fit through. We finally kept these wily birds out when we stuck whatever we could find onto the pickets and through the wire: watering cans, buckets, rakes, shovels, bungee cords and Frisbees (the most effective). Very Redneck Chic!

Following the few tender weeks in spring, we removed the pickets. We can report that we’ve found fewer caterpillars and all the garden implements are back in their proper places. We like to know we are growing our produce within nature’s rhythms by making use of the food chain rather than creating an artificial environment stuck within a single trophic level and battling against any intrusions from any other levels.

Preserving Backyard Apples

Posted by Mom on May 26, 2016

We have an ancient apple tree growing next to our house that provides us with apples. The view from our dining room window is of this apple tree. In spring, when blossoms cover the tree, we can watch the orioles, warblers, and bees that visit the tree and anticipate all the apples that will hang from the branches come fall. However, an apple grown on our tree is definitely not the same as the one we could be buy at the grocery store.

Our apples are not super-sized, glossy, or spherical. Instead they are small, have brown spots and are asymmetrical. But you know what, they seem infinitely fresher, crisper and more satisfying. We have found many uses for our apples, besides eating them fresh: apple pie filling, apple pie jam, applesauce and apple butter. And whenever I serve a pie or preserve made from these apples, I am sure to inform the people about to partake that “these apples came from our tree.”

We are unsure of the age of our apple tree. But it appears larger in diameter than the trees we  have seen growing in orchards. It has undergone some chainsaw pruning in the past and has more of an oval than a round shape to its crown. The tree was never trained or pruned to make harvesting an easy chore. It simply reached for sunlight and grew up – it was likely a tree someone planted with good intentions, but for whatever reasons, the tree appears to have been neglected. As a result, we can reach only a tiny fraction of the apples by standing on the ground. Even a ladder propped on a branch provides only a small increase in our yield. Looking up, we can see beautiful, red apples hanging so temptingly from the upper branches.

In an attempt to use these “higher apples” rather than having them drop to the ground, bruise and rot, last summer we rigged up a net below the tree. Again, this increased our yield by only a small margin. I think we could make a better increase if we improved on our apple-catching device. Mom saw an image of an apple-catcher made from an old canvas tarp. The middle was cut out to fit around the tree and then a slit made from this hole out to an edge. Once around the tree, the slit was then stitched together to create a net to catch the falling apples. One corner of the tarp was lower than the others and caused the apples to gently roll into a bucket for easy collecting. Perhaps we will have enough foresight this year to rig up an apple catching tarp? Only time will tell. But if we don’t, I will pick what I can and scrounge up the least bruised apples and transform them into some preserves that we can enjoy any time of year.

Growing Organically Family Style

Posted by Mom on April 7, 2016

While some people’s wintery visions may include sugarplums dancing through their head or palm trees swaying in the breeze, come January, and the arrival of the seed catalogues, it’s visions of vegetables dancing through my head.

Of course, these vegetables look plump, glossy, and free of dirt, pests and disease. That is a vision we strive for, but by sticking to the principles of organic gardening, our harvest can be smaller or bear the evidence of dirt, pests or disease. That is the sacrifice we make for the uniqueness, the flavour, and the health of the food we grow for our family. In addition, we know that we are cutting back on our carbon footprint and food miles, while simultaneously involving our children in the growing, harvesting, and preserving of our food.

Our children are learning the value of hard work and tasting the fruits of their labours – literally! They witness and partake in all the steps of a home harvest:

  • preparing the garden beds for planting
  • starting seedlings indoors (and then later transplanting those same seeds)
  • planting seeds directly into the beds
  • caring for the plants by watering and weeding
  • reaping the bounty
  • cooking, preserving and freezing the harvest

The children are also coming to appreciate the fact that homegrown veggies and fruits are not the same as their supermarket counterparts. Our produce is ugly when compared to the standards of beauty you find on the supermarket shelves; our harvest can be asymmetrical, bumpy, and variable in colour. But, oh the flavours and nutrients – all present in the food as nature intended it to be. To grow such crops, we do our best to adhere to the principles of organic gardening.

The foundational principle of organic gardening is to work with nature; if we can provide an environment that nourishes growth and mimics the natural processes of decomposition and nutrient recycling, then we won’t need to use man-made inputs. And, if we can take measures to limit stress to our plants and to prevent pests, blights, and diseases, then we will not need to treat problems with the “icides” (i.e., fungicides, pesticides, insecticides or herbicides). Organic gardening makes sense if we want to sustainably grow healthy food.

Here is a list of some of the tenets of organic gardening.

  1. Feed your soil
  2. Replenish your nutrients
  3. Interplant your crops
  4. Apply companion planting
  5. Rotate your crops
  6. Know your insect and bird allies
  7. Use barriers to protect your crops
  8. Mulch your soil
  9. Use alternative pest control products

In following posts I will explain these principles in more detail and explain how we apply them at our country home.

Dabbling with Ducks

We have a large laying flock of chickens. We tried our hand at raising Thanksgiving turkeys. “Why not try ducks?” we asked ourselves. We’ve wanted to add ducks to our farm ever since we learned that they feast upon mosquito larvae. Since we are tormented by mosquitos and will not use any chemical controls, ducks sounded like our saviours. So last spring we tested the waters, so to speak, and became the owners of three ducklings. We did a bit of research into duck husbandry before we started, but mostly we learned as we went along.

First lesson to learn: ducks are not chickens. One cannot care for ducks as one would chickens. Chickens detest getting wet. Ducks love it! Chickens drink water by scooping water into their bills and tipping their heads back to pour it down their throats. Ducks put their entire bill into the water and shake it back and forth, splashing water all over. No dainty tea party manners for them! Chickens don’t need to get their food wet to eat it. Ducks do, and cause a slimy, soggy mess in and around their waterers. Chickens make a mess by scratching but ducks by splashing water everywhere.

Second lesson: chickens dust bathe, ducks bathe with water. Ducks love water, any sort of water, and are not turned off by mud or slime. I think they are happiest when they can splash around and dunk themselves under the water. As evidence or this, when I bring buckets of water to refill their mini plastic pond, they start quacking away and can’t stand still they are so excited. As soon as I leave it’s a shoving match to see who gets to go in first. And due to their propensity to get wet and grub about in the mud, the mini pond needs fresh water daily. Chickens, on the other hand, only like water to drink it. Their idea of keeping clean is to scratch themselves into a hole of dust and flick it all over their bodies. The sand particles work through the feathers and shed pesky fleas and mites. Flying sand from bathing chickens and splashing water from bathing ducks is a recipe for unhealthy 

Third lesson: you can herd ducks, you can’t herd chickens. Ducks have a strong instinct to stay in a flock. With chickens, it’s every girl for herself (unless there is a rooster to keep them under control). But even with a rooster, good luck getting them to go where you want! It is not a one person job. It takes forethought and strategy. Sticks help too. With the ducks, so long as you are behind them and driving them forward, (sticks helps here, too) they will waddle in a cluster and end up where you want them to be. If one gets separated, it makes every effort to get back to the others. We’ve even heard of people who can train ducks to obey voice commands.

Fourth lesson, ducks are creatures of habit and do not do well with change. When our ducklings were large enough to leave the brooder and heat lamp behind, we put them into the same run as our chickens in an effort to keep things simple. This was fine while the weather was warm and summery and the ducks spent their days free ranging outside. As winter descended upon us, it was evident that the chickens and ducks could not stay together. Chickens will do fine in cold weather, so long as they stay dry. That wasn’t going to happen with the ducks as roommates. As the ducks were outnumbered 80 to three, they had to move out. 

Within their new digs the ducks seemed to always be anxious as they paced along the fence and repeatedly tried to force their way out. If they did become free, they made a beeline for the chicken run, walked in through the open door and proceeded to make themselves comfortable and the chicken run a soggy mess. The ducks became increasingly adept at breaking out that we knew we needed to change something. After some thought, we determined that the ducks might just be lonely for the chickens’ company? When they did escape and the door into the chicken run was closed, they would settle down nearby where they could at least still hear the chickens. Letting them back into the chicken run was not an option, but what if we brought a couple chickens to them? We gave it a try and had instant success. Problem solved! Now our ducks are content to remain behind the fence with their chicken pals. 

Suffice it to say. We’ve been pleased with our duck trial. We learned some valuable lessons through our first year of owning ducks and are better prepared when more arrive. And more are coming, we’re planning on adding six more this spring. Our flock will spend its time in our orchard and earn their keep as lawn mowers and pest managers. They won’t scratch and make a mess like the chickens, but we will have to bring them fresh water daily for bathing. At least they’ll let us know how much they appreciate it.