Wednesday, November 23, 2016

About Chickens and Gardening...

Last night I tackled the teeny little hosta bed right behind the house, cleaning it out for the winter.  This isn't even a 'bed' per se, it's more of a place to plunk plants up against the foundation so I don't have to weed whack right up to the concrete.  The plants are used as a dust ruffle more or less.  

The north side of the house is a harsh environment for the hostas I plopped in there, most of them are splits off of my favorites found elsewhere in the garden.  The shade situation is perfect for the plants, but I often forget to water them under the eaves and most of our summer rainfall doesn't come from the north. 

But the harshest abuse the unfortunate hostas suffer is the Girls.  I thought I'd write a little more about life with chickens just in case anyone decides they'd like to add some poultry to their garden.

 When there's still snow on the ground, the first place that melts is right up against the house foundation and that's where the Girls go to play in the dirt.  They dig holes and wreak havoc on the plants, exposing all the roots. And yet, I can't begrudge them the opportunity to get dirt between their toes.  I feel the same way after a long winter.

 Our hens are free-range from the first frost of fall to June 1 when they are confined to their large pen so I can have my mulch in place for five seconds in the garden.  

We've had chickens here for many years.  I grew up with around fifty chickens on the farm every year; we raised them from chicks which Mom butchered in the fall for meat. Those chickens were Leghorns, a medium-sized white breed, very flighty and nervous. 

 Now I keep a small flock, rarely more than five hens at a time, and they are pets, only leaving the farm when they die of old age.  Most of them are rescue chickens from 4H projects gone bad or someone tiring of taking care of them.  Many of them have been other people's pets or were too old and  tough for the stew pot, so they ended up here with us.  They lay eggs randomly, mostly one or two a day, but enough for us.  

Every year I debate how long I'll keep chickens; I know all of ours are getting up there in age.  Winter is the hardest time, but with a heated dog water bowl and ample feed, they do just fine in the coop.  On the coldest nights they have a heat lamp.  The worst part is shoveling snow every day to get to them. 

Visitors here often fantasize about having free-range chickens, thinking it would be an amazing thing to do, but if they aren't familiar with poultry, there are a few things they might not realize.  
 Gardening with Chickens Factoids 

 #1: Chickens scratch.  It's what they do.  I had a visitor ask me why I didn't buy a breed of chicken that didn't scratch.  Huh, a chicken that doesn't scratch?   I don't know of any.  Couldn't they be trained to stop scratching?  Can you train a fish to stop swimming?  Nope, it's what they do.  If you don't want things dug up, including your prized vegetables and petunias, don't get a chicken.

   Below are pictures of the Girls in Action this afternoon, though it's hard to see, if you look closely, you can see leaves piling up behind them.  They take two steps forward, and then scratch backwards, moving the mulch or ground cover off of an area and quickly check to see if something moves. 

 Flying leaves.........
 See the leaves flying up in the air?  Yup, they'll do the same thing with mulch.  I have to go and unbury my hostas in the spring due to their exuberant work ethic.  But they also prey on slugs, snails and all manner of insects, including woodticks, which helps me immensely. 

#2: When they're done working over an area, all of the mulch will be in piles on the lawn.  Sadly they won't return the favor and scratch the mulch back into the flower beds.  Nope.  

#3: When you put the mulch back, they will return to remove it again.  (Immediately.)  The same thing goes for any seedlings which will be scratched out (and possibly eaten, depending on what the plant is.)

#4: You will soon grow tired of the Mulch Moving/Plant Destruction Game and confine your pets to a large pen for the growing season where you will deliver your daily weeds to them on an hourly basis and they will turn the compost for you.

#5: When the first hard frost arrives, they will return to the gardens, remove all your mulch and search out slugs, grasshoppers, and wood ticks until June 1st rolls around again.  If I had a pedometer on my chickens, I bet I'd be stunned to see the mileage; they are all over the property.

#6: Free-range chicken eggs are unbelievably tasty.  The yolks are such a deep color of yellow, almost orange, in contrast to store bought.  Our two big black hens lay eggs so large they do not fit into even a jumbo carton.  Winter is usually a downtime for egg laying unless you have lights in the coop, I guess.  I miss the eggs, but it's ok if they stop laying, too.  

#7: Chickens provide fertilizer along with eggs.  But much of the fertilizer they provide will be right on the same garden paths you walk on.  Heads up, watch your step, chicken bombs abound.  They're merely trying to keep you nimble, can't have a clumsy gardener stumbling around.  And you can bet your visitors will not be happy to find their best shoes ruined, either. 

#8: Roosters crow and drive the hens constantly.  And some can become mean.  I only keep Girls.  Girls are nice and quiet and friendly and won't try to stick you with their leg spurs or attack you when your back is turned.  

#9.  Chickens are NOT for everyone. If you plant tomatoes in your garden, don't be angry when the plants don't produce strawberries.  

(Case in point: I had one visitor tell me his neighbor had recently purchased a flock of free-range chickens because he thought they looked cute in the garden.  The man became enraged when the chickens started scratching in his expensive 'dyed-to-match his house siding mulch', scattering it out onto the lawn.  After a week of chasing them around he went and got his .22 and killed every chicken he caught scratching in the wood chips.  Eventually they were all dead.  He told his neighbor he was going to replace those stupid chickens with non-scratching chickens. 

He'll have to find some chicken statues, because there is no such thing.

#10.  Chickens are wonderful, but they're work.   You will need to feed them a good quality laying mash, corn, scratch grains and table scraps, yes, they will eat just about anything, including meat!) and water.  You will need to clean up after them, you will need to protect them from predators, namely raccoon, hawks, opossum, fox and weasels, and worst of all, dogs.

A note about dogs: they will kill your chickens in record time.  Chickens run when they see a dog; a dog is by nature prey-driven and when prey runs, the dog chases.  Sadly, a frenzy of killing will ensue. I'll never forget the day the Girls were squawking frantically and I ran to find two stray German Shepherds in the yard, one in the coop itself, chasing terrified hens from perch to perch.  Luckily some of the Girls flew up onto the garage roof but one was already dead.  I chased the dogs off with a shovel and went and buried my poor hen.

 I trained our late Shih Tzus not to harm the chickens. Hard to believe, but even a ten pound dog can kill a chicken quite easily.  First I slowly walked Teddy, and later Pudding, on a short leash, allowing them to sniff the chickens from a distance, but when they showed signs of wanting to chase, I brought the leash up even shorter and sternly told them 'NO!'  

This lesson had to be repeated at least a dozen times, each time with a little longer leash until the dogs got the idea.   Once my dogs realized that the chickens were off-limits, they all peacefully coexisted, walking past each other without a second glance.   

 I do enjoy the Girls; they're with me all day long in the garden and have amazing vocalizations.  They've often warned me of stray dogs or cats and the approach of people with the sounds they make.  When there's nothing to fear their quiet clucking and chattering is very soothing to my soul. 

 Below, Ebony works on a small patch of interesting ground: 

 Do you see the blur that is her foot throwing the leaves out of the way?

  I do worry about them, though, especially if we're not home. They are vulnerable to all the varmints I've listed and a few more I haven't.  Chickens will put themselves to bed at dusk; once they know where their coop is, they will return there every night.  

But the sad part is chickens are blind in the dark, so if say, a raccoon or opossum enters the coop at night, the chickens are defenseless.  If we leave in the late afternoon, we try to lure the Girls in with a treat of a piece of bread or meat and lock up them up, but it usually won't work if it's broad daylight.  We're always on tenterhooks when we're gone after dark since you never know what you'll find when you go to lock the coop.  

A month ago I went out to lock the coop just as darkness was falling.  The Girls were up on their roost, all seemed fine until I noticed the hanging feeder was swinging to and fro.  I aimed my cellphone's flashlight into the coop and sure enough, trying his best to hide in the corner was a large opossum.  
We'd accidentally locked up the coop a few years ago with an opossum inside. When I came out in the morning I was shocked by the sight of two dead hens and an ugly varmint lurking in a nesting box.  Ugh, what a shame.  

This time I yelled for Carl to come to the rescue.  I've done some reading about opossums and apparently, they are woodtick vacuum cleaners.  I guess they groom themselves obsessively like cats and can attract and destroy an amazing amount of ticks.  For that reason, and that reason alone, I've declared a moratorium on the usual death sentence for being a chicken coop intruder.  Carl went in the coop with a long stick and chased the opossum out.  Surprisingly, they apparently have short memories, because two days later he/she was back again. Carl gave him a resounding whack on the back and off he scurried.  He hasn't been back since.  

Chickens are also smarter than people think, and if you want some fantastic aerobic exercise, try to catch one.  They can run close to nine miles an hour (per a web search, I haven't actually clocked one) and know just when to zig when you zag.  If all else fails, they can fly to a fairly high perch to avoid you, too, but their flights are short-lived.  The best tactic for capture is to wait until after dark.  
But never underestimate the power of a treat; our hens will come when I call them and are always looking for a tasty morsel.  Sometimes you can persuade them to go in their coop if you're patient.  Any fast moves on your part, though, and you've lost.

 I guess that's about it for my experience with chickens over the years.  

Winter's coming, they'd better get their work done soon!  

(At least I'm not the only one.)


Sue said...

Karen, this post brought back some wonderful (and maddening at times!) memories for me of having hens. I loved my girls--they were beloved pets. But yes--mulch and chickens go together , no doubt!
They are great compost pile turners, though! None better. And the BEST sort of entertainment on earth. I miss having them, but we are still traveling types and it's hard enough to get someone to water the plants once a week.
I lost all my girls when I unknowingly locked a racoon in the coop with them. He must have been hiding under their nesting boxes when I locked the girls up for the night. I was devastated.....and blamed myself for that slaughter. It was an accident, but I felt terrible for months afterward.
Have a terrific Thanksgiving!

El Gaucho said...

Great chicken stories and information, and your pictures are just terrific. I've always halfheartedly thought about getting chickens, but always realize that they're going to be a lot more work then I think. Plus if I even mention getting chickens around my Mother-In-Law, she gets pretty angry and says "I HATE chickens". She grew up on a farm and had some apparently traumatic experiences with chickens as a youngster.

outlawgardener said...

Your girls look very sweet! My eldest niece keeps chickens, ducks, and a goose or two at her place in Alaska. Whenever I visit, and wake to the crowing of her rooster (actually a fairly nice character as roosters go) I think of getting a few to play in my garden but finding a place for a coop and making the commitment to daily care stops me. This is a great post! Your sense of humor and care for your girls shines through.

Karen said...

Sue, I can't tell you how many times I've put out calls to our two sons asking if they could swing by and lock up the Girls at night. I often receive texts, '4 chickens, 0 possums' in response, and then I can relax. If we traveled, we'd be unable to keep hens, too.

Raccoons are the worst; I have no love for them at all. I know just how you felt; when I opened the coop and saw the devastation, I was mortified thinking I'd locked the Girls up with a killer. The possum blended in with the recently molted feathers so well that I didn't see him. Now I use a flashlight every night and check those nesting boxes, too. You never know what you'll find lurking.

They do a fantastic job with the compost, I heartily agree!

Karen said...

El Gaucho, Yes, chickens are a hoot to have in the garden, but they're definitely a big commitment. Though I don't know your mother-in-law's story, I would put money on her having come into conflict with a rooster somewhere along the line, especially as a child. Some roosters can be unbelievably aggressive. Usually hens are docile, though they can resent you digging under them for eggs when they're setting; at the most I've gotten a few pecks here and there, nothing serious.

But there are a few people who find chickens to be revoltingly prehistoric-looking, and I guess I can agree when I look at it from a bug's point of view. I'd hate to see them looming over me if I was grasshopper!

Karen said...

Peter, you're right about the commitment part. Unfortunately I've met many people who assume they're maintenance free and the ending is tragic for the chickens. They do need to be tended to day in and day out, year 'round, no matter the weather. They're definitely not a 'get it and forget it pet', but what pet is? Your niece's rooster sounds wonderful; a friend of mine had a pet rooster who followed her wherever she went and had a perch in the basement. She said he used to sit on her shoulder and was very gentle, so I guess my bias toward roosters is due to personal experience, ha. The ones we had on the farm were cantankerous and downright nasty at best. And noisy! I have no experience with ducks or geese but have been told they make excellent watch 'dogs'.

Alison said...

What a fun and very informative post! And great pictures too!

Pamela Gordon said...

Your post on chickens was interesting and informative Karen. I've never had any experience with or around chickens so at this stage I guess I won't start! Have a great day and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

susie @ persimmon moon cottage said...

I enjoyed reading all about your chickens and seeing the photos of them. They definitely look very well fed. I think the patterns on the feathers on some of them are so pretty.

I had a pet bantam rooster and hen when I was a little kid. They were hatched in an aquarium set up to be an incubator that was on the dining room buffet, so we could watch them hatch when the time cam. I watched as they pecked through the egg shell. They grew from cute little chicks to chickens. The rooster had beautiful plumage and the little hen was reddish brown. She was always quite nervous and not affectionate, but provided one little egg each morning which I went out and picked out of the nest, and had for breakfast. I was a little kid, 5 or 6 years old, and still remember how that warm little egg felt in my hand. We had a collie who served as body guard for those chickens. The little hen spent nights in a little miniature size dog house that had hay in it, and the rooster insisted on roosting in the peach tree.

The rooster loved my dad and would lay on its back in my dad's hands or sit on his shoulder and always come to be petted, like a dog or cat. But the rooster considered me prey. The moment I would step out onto the back porch, every time, that rooster would come tearing after me, kicking and slashing at me with his long leg spurs, jumping up in the air to be at my face level. I always managed to outrun him, until there came the time when I tripped and fell while outrunning him. My Mom looked out the kitchen window just in time to see Ruff the rooster jumping up and down on me, spurring me and flapping his wings as I lay on the ground screaming. I think my mom had to rescue me from him. A few days later Ruff the rooster, and Reddy the hen were rehomed with the teenage boy who mowed our grass. My Dad missed that rooster, and I was sad to see my chickens go, but Mom wasn't having any more of an ornery rooster in the backyard.

Karen said...

Alison, glad you enjoyed it!

Pamela, probably not a bad idea, they are a lot of work. :-)

Susie, what a story! I loved it, well, not the part about Ruff attacking you, that was awful, but an amazingly accurate portrait of what a rooster is capable of. I hope you weren't hurt too badly. How do you feel about chickens now? I wouldn't blame you if you wanted nothing to do with them, especially roosters!

Missy, John & Ros said...

I really enjoyed seeing and hearing about your chickens. We had to leave ours behind when we left Missy's garden. I miss them. They did make a mess sometimes but they were great entertainment and therapy.

Pam's English Garden said...

As someone who really wants chickens, I love this posting. Unfortunately, it makes me realize that my husband is right and they are not for me. At my advanced age I just don't need any more work. And the local foxes and coyotes would be thrilled. Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful, Karen, as was mine. P. x

Donna@GWGT said...

You have very pretty chickens, Karen. I always wanted chickens for slug patrol, but your list of chicken ownership concerns really brings home how gardeners might want them, but the chickens can make a real mess, not to mention keeping them in a snowy climate.

Roz Corieri Paige said...

Karen, you have the absolutely, most beautiful chickens! I would love to raise chickens simply for their fresh eggs only, but even though we live on an acreage, it is a subdivision of acreages with codes that do not allow chickens. So I can live vicariously through your wonderful blog!

Karen said...

Ros, yes, I can well imagine you miss your chickens. They are so cute even if they do make messes. :-)

Pam, yes, I know how you feel. Chickens are fun but they're not for everyone. I'm always debating if I'll keep on with them after they eventually pass or not.

Donna, very true. Snow brings on more challenges in poultry keeping.

Roz, Thank you! Yes, some areas do not allow chickens which is a shame. Thank you for visiting!

Bonnie K said...

A great post. We had chickens growing up and I am afraid I have no desire to have them now. I do love fresh eggs. Your chickens are beautiful and your post informative. Thanks for sharing.