Monthly Archives: February 2011

Piling It On

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1995). Stein (who, sadly, died of lung cancer in 2005) tells the story of how she began to completely reinvent the way she gardened in her five acres in Westchester County, New York. Instead of endlessly struggling against the local ecosystems to create some kind of idyllic English garden-style suburban lawn, Stein began to garden with her local habitats, to restore biodiversity right there in her backyard and coax it into a more naturalized landscape.

The layers, from ground-level view, before I dug through them

One of the topics Stein devotes some attention to in her book is soil. Rather than tilling up the soil of her vegetable garden and compacting it down year after year, she began to try to mimick a forest floor with her garden—to help it become dense with layers of biomass that fall to the earth and break down into loam. Stein made like a tree: she deposited deep layers of leaves, along with kitchen scraps and other compostables, onto the soil and left it there for months on end. When she stuck a spade through the layers, she found rich, fluffy soil that was teeming with microbial life.

I own a tiller, but I have rarely used it after reading Noah’s Garden. Instead, every fall I heap leaves, chicken poo-soiled hay, and half-broken-down compost onto my garden beds. Last fall, before I spread the leaves, I also put down several layers of paper—mostly some old chicken feed bags, but those paper lawn waste bags work great, too—right on top of the soil after I had pulled out all the spent summer vegetable vines and stalks.

Here's a peek at the soil after I hoed through the layers to plant peas.

It went like this: a layer of paper, a layer of leaves, a layer of poo/hay and half rotted compost, then another layer of leaves. I kept piling it on, adding more throughout the fall and winter, so that the layers were about a foot deep. I have heard this method called “lasagne gardening.” It’s also called “sheet composting” or “no-till gardening.” Sally Wylde would have called it mulching. The woman did know how to mulch her garden.

A view of the rows hoed out and ready for peas. The layers of mulch will remain between the rows.

Whatever you call it, it is some kind of magic. Last weekend I planted peas, which meant it was time to send a hoe through those layers and see what was beneath. And what it was, was worms. Big, fat, juicy ones. The earth itself practically wiggled, there were so many earthworms in it.

Those earthworms basically do the job that the tiller would do—only they do it much better, without damaging the soil structure, without leaving the soil vulnerable to later compaction when you walk through in your garden clogs. They are also a sign of healthy dirt. And my favorite part? Throwing a bunch of paper, leaves, and poo down to grow the worms is much easier and less stinky than handling a tiller. It’s also, I think, a much easier way to get worm compost than with a worm bin. I am all about the lazy.

The other thing about all those layers is that they will stay there all summer long. They will slowly break down and become pure compost, too. Worried that your garden will offend the neighbors because it’s piled high with your recyclables? Consider this: in late summer, while your neighbors’ gardens are dessicated and pitiful and the weeds have taken over in the relentless heat and drought, the “trash” you piled in yours will be holding in tons of moisture and helping keep weeds to a minimum. Your garden will be thriving and green.

Here’s a little clip of me saying howdy to the worms:

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Filed under Conservation, Gardening

Fowl Language

Chickens have their own language for letting you know what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not limited to their “Bok-boks” and coos and cackles. They speak their minds with their bodies: the color and appearance of their combs and wattles, whether or not they are laying, the appearance of their plumage will tell you volumes.

Our chickens spent the winter telling us how hacked off they were with us, and understandably so. They suffered a triple whammy starting back in the late fall, when we switched their feed. They had been on Purina Layena pellets all their lives, but as organic feed became increasingly available and cheaper, we decided to make the switch. And that was our first mistake–not that we made the switch,  but that we made it too abruptly. One day the were happily crunching away on their Layena pellets, the next they were dubiously poking their beaks into what must have felt and tasted like sand. The organic feed is quite powdery with whole bits of corn and other grains. We should have introduced it gradually, mixing in an increasing ratio over several weeks. But we didn’t–and that was the first whammy.

The second whammy was just winter itself. We went from a gentle autumn to a brutal chill practically overnight. And while chickens have ways of keeping themselves and each other warm (they’re pretty much individually wrapped in down comforters), that kind of radical shift is no fun, especially combined with the shortened daylight hours.

Whammy number three was a mass molt that started in the fall and cycled through every chicken. Those down comforters? Considerably thinned. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones is a miserable affair anyway. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones in the cold when the food you like is gone—just gone—is grounds for revolt.

And revolt they did. We stopped getting eggs in late October. They spilled the new feed out of the feeder and scattered it all over the floor, refusing to eat it. Every time I walked back to the coop I was greeted by an angry chorus of chants for justice and democracy and decent grub (grubs, actually, would be great).

We backtracked a little and mixed in some pellet feed, hoping to ameliorate the situation. They ate it begrudgingly, but still no eggs. Neighbor Bill concocted some kind of chicken gourmet treat of all the people foods they adore–grits, cheese, greens–and served it on a giant platter. I gave them cat food. Still—nothing.

Finally, last week the pall began to lift. The molting seems to have passed, the days are getting longer, and we’re getting a few warm, sunny days here and there. And the egg production is beginning to bump up at last. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll stick with the organic feed, but if we get as many eggs as we did with the Layena, then it looks pretty good.

Here are a few questions that have come my way in the past few months from fellow urban flockkeepers:

Q: We got a couple of mixed breed hens last weekend. The woman I got them from was just feeding them a little corn feed because they were open range and mostly eating insects. I started feeding them the Layena crumbles and am still giving them a little bit of the corn feed. One of the eggs was really thin yesterday and then today there was only one and it was almost mushy.

They need calcium in their diet. Their bodies use it to form the shells. Give the feed time to work its way into their systems, but you can also supplement their diet with calcium rich foods. We give ours a container of cottage cheese from time to time. Lots of seed and feeds also carry crushed oyster shells which you can mix into their feed.

Q: I would like to buy some adult laying hens to start my flock. What is a good source to find them?

If you are a resident of Georgia, you are entitled to a free (I recently learned that the state now charges a fee, which is disappointing!) subscription to the Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin, now in its 94th year of publication! The ads are a great way to find chicks and hens, plus fun facts about Georgia agriculture. Also, chickens are more and more frequently showing up on Craigslist.

Q:  My neighbor thinks one of her chickens has an egg stuck. She says it hasn’t laid for at least 2 days and is standing still a lot. She also said she thinks it is in some discomfort/pain. I think she is feeling a bit unsure of how to proceed with “greasing the vent.” Do you have any advice for her?

Yes, it sounds like she might be egg bound. Another sign is that she’s kind of holding her butt down towards the ground. The most common remedy is to get yourself a very good but thin rubber glove, douse your finger with mineral oil (or ky jelly or olive oil–you get the drift), and lubricate around and up inside her vent. The best way to get a good hold of the bird to do this is to hold her like a football under your arm with her butt toward you. Push your finger up, and you should be able to feel the egg. But be careful not to break the egg. If the egg is right at the top of the vent, it should slip out. If not, you can try a warm bath. Water should be warmer than the chx body temp, and you need to hold her lower half down in there for 20 minutes (it really needs to be that long). The idea here is that it relaxes her muscles a bit, helping the egg along. It all sounds gross, I know, but we do what we must for our girls!

Q: Help! Our sweet little pullet Lola started crowing like a rooster!

And that’s probably because Lola (aptly named, thank you, Kinks!) is a rooster. This is an all-too-common problem for city chicken keepers. Roosters are loud, and they are loud early in the morning. In densely populated urban settings, this can make for a rude awakening, so to speak. Some roosters can also be aggressive toward people in their role as flock protector. Again, Craigslist is great for this. Place an ad and see if you can find someone to take that rooster off your hands. The Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group message board is another useful way to find a home for him. Let your experience, though, be a cautionary tale for others: when you acquire your baby chicks, make sure that they are sexed—this just means someone has gone to the trouble of separating the baby hens from baby roosters—if you want to keep the neighbors happy. Bribing them with fresh eggs also helps!

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Filed under Flockkeeping