The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

A Druid’s Guide to Homestead Bird Flocks and Flock Happiness December 1, 2019

Baby ducks!

On the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have many feathered friends. I think a lot of people see birds just as livestock, but here, we see them a little differently. Thus, I wanted to create a short guide for people who were thinking about cultivating a relationship with a backyard flock of birds but they weren’t sure what kind of birds they might want!  Of course, this is my own druid perspective on homestead bird flocks, which might be a bit different than what you’ll find on more general sites.   In this guide, I’ll talk about a variety of backyard flock breeds, how they might help your garden and homestead, challenges, temperament, and more. I will also note that I haven’t raised birds for meat, so I won’t talk about that much in this guide. I’ll cover four common backyard flock birds: chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl.

 

Entering Into Relationship

Stemming in part from my post last week where I talked about seeing all aspects of nature as sacred, having agency, and the need to honor life, I think it’s important to start any conversation about backyard flocks from this perspective.

 

 

Before entering into any relationship, it’s important to start with your own intentions and think about these questions framed by relationship. What do you want from backyard birds? What can you offer them? For us, we keep our birds as pets, as companions, and as helpers on the homestead. Our intentions are to let them have long, happy lives and to build relationships with them. And we work to offer them plenty of free-ranging outside time, secure and safe coops and runs, healthy food, treats, and a variety of things to keep them entertained.  Like any other relationship: the more I invest, the more rich rewards I gain. Many of the backyard bird breeds, when offered good housing, shelter, food, and so on, can live many years and provide you amazing companionship and joy.

 

This relationship and intention might be different if you are raising birds for pets vs. meat.  For meat animals, I ascribe to the “one bad day” philosophy. When raising meat birds, those birds should have the best life possible up until their “one bad day.” Animals can have great lives even if they are intended to be eaten. Raising meat birds personally isn’t something I do but I support others who do so ethically.

 

Thus, these birds are living, breathing autonomous individuals with their own desires and capacity for love/friendship. Each one has their own personality and is unique. The more you treat them as deserving of this respect, the more rewards you will have from raising them.  And certainly, this kind of thinking I’m advocating here goes against much of the conventional wisdom about “barnyard animals” and their treatment.

 

Flock Overview:

Now that we are through the philosophy of raising backyard birds, here are some of the backyard flocks that you can consider raising.  We are currently raising all four of these flocks and have hand raised all from babies or eggs.

 

Chickens:  Most people are most familiar with chickens of the birds on this list. I love chickens and have kept them for most of my life. They are fun, quirky, entertaining, and sweet mannered.  I only raise heritage breeds because these breeds are older and live longer (8-12 years).  Some breeds of chickens today are genetically selected to grow quickly, have large breasts, or produce so many eggs that it soon destroys their poor bodies–these are battery hen breeds (and are only expected to live 1-3 years).  I will rescue battery hens, but never seek them out as peeps!   A good heritage breed chicken will lay anywhere between 200-300 eggs a year and live 8-12 years. They typically stop laying during the darkest and coldest months–some chicken owners will choose to put a light in their coop at night to encourage them to lay through the cold and dark parts of winter, but I prefer to let them have a break and work with nature.  If the girls want a break from egg-laying at the winter solstice, they can have it!

 

Good heritage breeds are Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, Black Copper Marans, Easter Eggers, Plymouth Barred Rock, Australorps, and Cochins.  If you are in an area with *any* hawk pressure, I would not recommend bantams or Silkies, but rather, full size hens.  If you want a rooster for protection, consider standard size hens and a bantam rooster–a larger rooster can be rougher on the girls, pulling out feathres, etc.  A bantam rooster can still protect but can’t be as rough.  One rooster is all you need for up to 12 hens!

 

Chickens scratching it up!

Chickens prefer to free-range and are omnivores. They also love food scraps and leftovers, and so, when I go out to eat, I always bring anyone’s unwanted leftovers back for them.  They are so happy to have anything to peck and scratch at.  They can eat almost anything except potato peels.  They adore moldy cheese!  So you can certainly have them help transition compost into soil and eggs!

 

The biggest problem with chickens can be their scratching behavior.  If you have nice garden beds, new seedlings, nice landscaping, or anything covered mulch, you won’t soon because chickens dig it up.  This digging action can be put to good use for fall beds and fall leaves but during certain parts of the year, keeping chickens out of beds and gardens is necessary.  I like to send the chickens into the garden in the fall, where they can dig up all the grubs and worms and help till the soil for next season and deposit their rich fertilizer!

 

Personality-wise, chickens are more independent than the rest of the birds on this list.  The flock may scatter often, with each individual chicken going off on her own to peck and scratch at what suits her fancy or small groups of hens may wander here and here. Thus, you will see them dotted everywhere when they are free-ranging.  This means its easier to lose a single chicken because they don’t stick together.  We have one currently have one rooster and eight hens, and he can’t stay with all the hens when they scatter, which is a bit of a problem when he’s watching for hawks.  But Pythagoras does his best!

 

Those same baby ducks much older!

Ducks are considered one of the best flocks for all-purpose backyard homesteads. This is because they don’t scratch up your mulch, are excellent at garden grubbing, and they lay almost as many eggs as a chicken. Ducks do need access to more water than chickens; ours get a kiddie pool filled with fresh water (usually twice daily in the warm months) and they are quite content.  The area around their kiddie pool will eventually turn into an absolute mud pit, so do be aware.  Wherever there is water, there is a muddy duck, however, so if you have water features on your landscape, this is something to keep in mind. In the winter, they get a smaller bucket that they can dip their beaks and heads into that sits on a heated waterer.

 

Ducks are great for gardens and the smaller breeds (like Khaki Campbells) are light enough to not damage garden plants.  On the other hand, our Pekins just stomp small plants down with their heavy bodies, haha!  There are many possible heritage breeds for ducks, but you want something less heavy if you are going to be having them eat slugs in your garden.

 

Ducks are very social with each other and form a tight-knit community.  I have never seen any of our four ducks stray more than about 10 feet from the other ducks.  When they move, they move as a unit, like a quacking, waddling school of fish. They have a great deal to say and constantly will run commentary on anything you are doing (or anyone else is doing).

 

Geese are my favorite of the backyard flock birds. When I was a kid, I was chased by a flock of mean geese and cornered on my uncle’s porch for almost an hour till my father rescued me. Thus, I never considered them an option for a backyard flock, but my partner talked me into it and I’m so glad he did.  Some breeds of geese are the most friendly and intelligent of all of the birds listed here. The breed that we raise right now is called American Buff, and they are beautiful, super friendly and curious. One gander can mate (for life) with several geese. On our homestead, we have a mated pair and they are always together–and usually following one of us around as we work on the homestead.

 

Geese lay about 20-30 eggs a year, but each egg is enough for a meal for two people (and if you do pysanky, goose eggs are amazing). They are vegetarians, eating grass as their primary food source. Our geese are on the lawn all day, grazing it and chirping in joy. Like ducks, Geese need access to pools of freshwater–our geese have a large tub that we fill up daily for them. We also give them the smaller tub in the winter for their heated waterer when necessary.  They aren’t filthy like ducks though and don’t make a mess of their water.

Our happy geese swimming in the back creek

 

Both geese and guineas (below) are excellent “guard birds” in that they sound a loud alert when someone comes up or driveway or they see a predator. The geese will also aggressively chase something off if they can. This can be useful for the homestead as a whole, and also keep you apprised of the overall situation (especially if you don’t have a dog for these purposes). Geese are quite loud, especially when they get their adult voices, so this is something to keep in mind.  When my geese want something (like grapes or chestnuts, their favorite treat) they will honk quite loudly.

 

Geese will go in the garden, and while you can get them to weed grass for you, they will also likely take a big bite out of some of your ripe fruits and veggies, so keep that in mind.  Also, coming in at 18-20 lbs a bird, they are heavy and can crush seedlings and small plants.

 

Geese are also by far the most intelligent, curious, and personable of the birds listed here.  They enjoy playing with cat and dog toys, chewing on anything they can (including your hair, clothing, etc) and getting themselves into trouble.  I love them so much and if you are looking for a companion bird, I would suggest a pair of geese.  Some people do bring their geese in the house and train them with diapers!  I wish I had thought of that when mine were young!

 

Guineas are the least domesticated of the flocks present here, in that they won’t want cuddles or to be pet, but they are still very friendly and fun. They are loud, with a range of different calls and honks, which help scare away predators and alert you as to what is going on.  I think they are by far the most aware of their surroundings and hence, you can learn a lot about nature observation from watching them.  Like the ducks, they move like a school of fish and stay close to each other. Particularly in their first year of life, they are pretty jumpy, and you’ll often hear them doing their loud alarm calls. They also have other lower whistles, which they use when they want you to do something (like offer them treats or mealworms).  Guineas are powerful birds, and even though they are the smallest of the birds on this list (weighing only 3-5 lbs) they are able to fly and move very quickly.  If a guinea doesn’t want to be caught, the guinea will not be caught! We have trained them with hand signals and mealworms–with a single hand signal, we can get them to move in a certain direction or go into their coop (our independent-minded chickens would never do such a thing).

 

Our adult guinea flock

Guineas are fantastic tick control. With the rise of tick-borne illnesses and radically increasing tick populations, we got the guineas to help us address a growing tick population. Since getting the guineas, the ticks have been far less and our lives have been more joyful because the guineas are such fun. The guineas are excellent in the garden for bug control of all kinds–bugs have no chance with an army of chickens and guineas let loose!

 

One of the things about guineas is that they want to roost in trees at night.  Thus, we always make sure we put our guineas away at least 45 min before dark or they will be 50 feet up in a tree and we won’t be able to get them down.  Roosting like that keeps them away from some ground predators, like foxes or coyotes, but makes them easy to pick off by owls.  A lot of people around here raise up a guinea flock and just let them go once they are about 10 weeks old–they rarely live a year (and often much less than that) with that approach. One friend raised up 10 and lost them all within 3 weeks. I don’t think it’s safe or ethical to raise and release in that way. Rather, we lock our guineas up with our chickens when we aren’t home and at night. The guineas have their own separate run during the day for when they are in the run, and they roost with the chickens at night. Thus, our guineas are two years old now and should live their full lifespan of 8-10 years with protection and night safety.

 

Happy ducklings taking a trip to grandma’s house!

Raising Peeps, Keets, Goslings, and Ducklings

Once you’ve committed to getting some birds you have to make is whether to get peeps or raise them yourself.  Remember that all of these birds are flock animals and cannot be raised alone, so you will want to think about how many you want.

 

Hatching Eggs. We raised up two of our four ducks from eggs our friends had given us–the incubator with seven eggs sat on our counter for a month.  One peep hatched successfully and my partner had to intervene and help the second hatch–they are now our large and beautiful Pekin Ducks (white) that you see in the photos here.  I loved that experience because you got to be the only one the ducks had ever seen–they’ve been here since they were eggs. We sang to the eggs, cuddled the eggs, and welcomed them to our lives before they were even born.  If you have a broody hen, you can also get her to hatch some eggs for you (she will hatch anything but a goose egg–it is too big for her to sit on!) The problem with hatching eggs is that it is what is known as “straight run.”  You may get all males or all females or a mix of both.  And the gender balance in your flocks can be the difference between a flock with fighting and a peaceful flock (as a rule of thumb, too many males equals trouble).  We have that problem now–too many male guineas and ducks, which means either we cull the flocks (which we will not do) or get some more females in the spring (which is our plan).

 

Baby guineas less than 1 week old! So cute!

Young Peeps/keets/goslings/ducklings:  You can also get peeps locally (around here our feed store carries them in the spring) or through the mail. I’ve done all of these options and all seem to work fairly well.  We had to get our geese via mail because we are raising an endangered heritage breed and nobody around here carries any geese, much less American buffs. They are overnighted within 24 hours of being hatched (they don’t need to eat or drink for the first 48 hours of life) and you call the post office and let them know about the birds coming in. They are usually tired from their journey for the first day and then perk up after that. I prefer to get local stock when I can, but it’s not always possible.

 

Flock cohesion: One of the things that we have found is that a flock that is raised together, stays together. If they aren’t raised together, they will form separate flocks, even when living in the same area.  Sometimes they can become friends, but often, they will always be separate. Case in point, we raised our guineas about 5 weeks ahead of our chickens and started to integrate them as soon as we could.  Even though they spent their adolescence and adult lives living and roosting in the same area, they are always two separate flocks and the guineas are a bit aggressive with the chickens (hence their separate run).  We suspect that if we had raised them together, they would live together and get along a bit better.  Same with our geese and ducks.  The ducks were about 3 months older than the geese, and the ducks picked on the geese when they were little and they were out together.  Now the geese are not taking anything from anyone, and they are a full 8-10 lbs heavier than even the ducks….but I wish sometimes they would get along better.  In talking to other friends who have these flocks, if we raised the ducks and geese together, we would not have this problem.

 

Needs for flock raising:

All of our flocks required fairly similar setups for incubating and raising babies, but each has its own needs and nuances.

  •  Chickens are very easy to raise, but by comparison to geese and ducks, grow much more slowly (assuming heritage breeds).  They take a while to get large enough to have their full feathers and be outside (about 12 weeks)  A heat light, source of food and water, and clean bedding are essential.  I also like to give the little ones lots to explore and peck at, so I give them fruits, veggies, scrambled eggs, etc. Chickens are very tame when they are little and the more you handle them, the better.  They are so much fun to cuddle and hold when they are little.

    Chicken on a tortoise!

  • Guineas have very similar requirements to chickens, but they are wild and will want not to be handled. From the beginning, they will likely avoid you and freak out when you are near the brooder; that is part of their wild nature. As they get older, they can be worked with and you can develop a great relationship with them–but they are not birds to be cuddled.  They also can fly out of the brooder really easily.  Guineas don’t do well with change–once we moved them out of the brooder and into the coop, they stayed in the coop for about 4 weeks solid before being willing to come out.  They eventually did!
  • Ducks are the most difficult by far to raise because they are obsessed with water and poop a lot!  They make a horrible mess of their brooder almost immediately.  Finding some way of catching the water before it goes into the bedding is essential; if not, you will be cleaning the brooder literally 3-4 times a day.  A setup like this one works well!  Ducks are fun to handle and mild-mannered; you can put them in your bathtub or sink and let them swim.  They don’t have their own oils till their feathers grow in though, so you have to limit swimming time to 10-15 min till they are older.  They are really personable and friendly when they are little.
  • Geese are super easy to raise–they don’t make the water mess that the ducks do and will bond with you quickly and follow you everywhere.  They also enjoy swimming.  They also have interesting tastes, and you can hook them on some veggies and fruits early in life (which will keep them coming back to you as they get older).  Our geese basically followed us around for 3 months while they were growing up and wanted to do everything we were doing.  It was a blast.
  • All of these little ones need to be kept warm; ducks and geese need less warmth than guineas and chickens.  Basically, the rule is to keep them at 95 degrees the first week, 90 degrees the second week, 85 the third week, and so on.  Geese and ducks want their temperature dropped a little faster; I think its due to the thicker down they have.

 

I prefer to raise little ones later in the year (starting in early June) so that they can see the sun and get outside as soon as possible. That way, they can start to eat grass, see the land that will be their home and so on.  If you raise them in the summer months, they can go outside early because it is warm.   That’s important to me–that they see the sun.

 

Predator Protection

Rooster and happy hen

One of the things I tell my chickens every day is “Be careful girls.  You are made of chicken!  Everyone wants to eat you!”  They ignore me, scatter across the property, and proceed to eat bugs.  Predator protection is a serious issue and you must take it seriously from day one or you will lose birds quickly. During the day, it is often hawks or neighborhood dogs that cause the most problems.  We have found that hawks get more desperate for food in the dark half of the year, and thus, we usually have to let the chickens out only with supervision during the months of November through March. Most of the birds have a good sense of self-preservation (except the chickens who seem oblivious to the fact that they are made of chicken) and the flocks are alerted at the first sign of an overhead hawk. Our geese are good hawk deterrents and we’ve seen a lot less hawk activity since they grew up and started honking.

 

At night it might be a fox, raccoon, weasel, or fox that is trying to eat your birds.  For this, you want really carefully constructed coops that provide day and evening security (especially for when you aren’t home). For our ducks, guineas, and chickens, we have covered runs so hawks can’t fly in.  The entire run is wired together and we also sunk the wire in an L pattern into the ground, several inches deep, to prevent raccoons or weasels from burrowing in.  Within each of those secure runs is a secure coop that gets locked up tight each night with a raccoon-proof lock.  Whatever you do, don’t purchase one of those cute looking cedar chicken coops they sell at the big box stores and online.  They are all much too small reasonably for birds and their security is non-existent (a raccoon can open any of the latches on those coops) and they are super flimsy (something could break it open easily).  I can’t tell you how many people have lost birds who have started with one of those cheap coops.  You are better off building something on your own if you can. Paying attention to your security will ensure many years of happy flocks.

 

I will also say that we have lost birds over the years.  The last bird we lost was Chickweed, one of our Australorp hens, about this time last year.  A hawk got her when she was on the other side of the house and away from our other flocks.  Rather than driving the hawk off, we put the rest of the birds in the run and then let the hawk have her meal, recognizing that this was the cycle of life.  We held space. After the hawk was done, we took her out into the woods and left her there with a chicken funeral.  We recognize that, as druids, the cycle of life is part of our existence.  While we do everything we can to be vigilant to minimize losses, we also realize that sometimes they are inevitable, and we honor all life–even the hawks.

Geese playing with pinecones!

Treats and Training

Treats can help you train your birds and bond them to you.  All four of our flocks, even our vegetarian geese, love mealworms.  You can grow them yourself or get them dried in bulk.  The mealworms keep the flocks happy and always coming to our door.  Other treats depend on the birds themselves.  Our geese prefer grapes and will come looking for grapes multiple times a day; I feed them grapes one at a time and they sit in my lap while they enjoy their grapes.  Our chickens like dairy, meat, bugs, and eggs the best of all.  The guineas prefer mealworms and also like millet, which we throw in the run for them when they are locked in.  The ducks prefer slugs and mealworms.  Different individual birds may also have their own preferences and so you have to figure out what everyone likes the best.

 

We use the mealworms to train them–when the flocks wander into the woods, we call them back with mealworms.  When we want them to go into their run, we train them with mealworms.  If there is an altercation between one or more birds, tossing a handful of mealworms into the fray immediately ends in it many cases. Pretty much, mealworms keep the peace on our homestead.

 

Conclusion

Me and my roo, Pythagoras!

I hope some of you found this guide useful!  I really can’t imagine my life without these wonderful companion birds.  It is amazing to have them come up to you, fly around you, and communicate with you.

If you are interested in birds and flocks, I have one more suggestion: watch the Nature show called  My Life as a Turkey. This was recently recommended to me by a friend, and it taught me a good deal about animal communication and is useful for anyone who wants to learn more about nature.  Blessings of the feathered friends!

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

Homestead Updates – Early August 2014 August 5, 2014

With all my discussion of everything else, I have failed to do any reasonable update about the homestead in the last few months.  So here’s an update of what’s happening around the homestead!

 

The Druid’s Organic Vegetable Garden: Veggies, Pests, and Interplantings

One of the things I’m learning about organic gardening is that each year, the challenges of pests are quite different, and basing this year’s garden off of last year’s successes and tribulations isn’t always a sure bet.  My first year, I had potato beetles, hundreds of potato beetles that I had to hand pick and feed to my peeps.   The next year, it was the year of the squash bug and borer; I lost nearly all of my squash and zuchinni crops to them (the only squash I got came up in my compost pile!). Then it was blight and wilt the 3rd year.   This year, it is the year of the slug.  Slugs took out a good 25% of my crops before I resorted to buying some OMRI certified Sluggo (which uses iron phosphate to disrupt the slugs).  And Sluggo works, even if I applied it a little too late.  I think its all the rain and no heat. This lovely pumpkin patch has taken a beating recently, as have most of my squash. Slugs are literally eating the bottoms of the vines, like where they go into the ground.  Its very different than the other kind of bug damage from previous years!

Unhappy Pumpkins eaten by slugs

Unhappy Pumpkins eaten by slugs

Unripe pumpkin grows!

Unripe pumpkin grows!

But regardless of this year’s challenge, the garden is going great.  I am still working on planting enough that I can harvest fresh and have enough for canning and preservation but yet not too much that I’m getting overwhelmed.  This is not an easy task.  I have a great bean harvest, but I’ve already canned what I wanted to can, and now I’ll be freezing some because I’m kinda overwhelmed with beans!

Wall of Beans!

Wall of Beans!  Trellising is working well here 🙂

I also planted too many zucchini.  I went with three successions of 4 plants each this year, planted at two-week intervals, because the last two years, I didn’t have any at all due to the squash borers.  This year though, since the borers are nowhere to be seen (perhaps killed off by the hard winter), I ended up with 12 healthy plants.  Its worked out well, as I’ve been teaching at a local community organization that has a soup kitchen and free food table, so the extras are going there each week.  And I eat zucchini and beansnow at least once a day.

Zuchinni and Kale

Zuchinni and Kale

In the photo above, you can also see my row of kale and potatoes on the right (I am experimenting with various interplantings this year).  The kale remains one of my absolute favorite crops–it rarely has serious pest damage, it produces for longer than any other crop due to its cold resistance, it is incredibly healthy and tasty and versatile, and it is extremely easy to grow.  I consider it one of the best plants for beginner gardeners to start out with!  The interplantings also seem to be going well–except that to harvest my potatoes, I need to pull up some kale. So I think in the future I won’t do long, thin rows but blocks of potatoes and kale.  Other interplantings were radish and zuchinni, carrots and lettuce, and basil and eggplant/peppers/tomatoes. All seem happy.

Another crop that I’ve been super pleased with this year is the three sisters garden (another interplanting).  Two rows of popcorn, two rows of sweet corn, and one row of beans and squash on the edges of each.  I used bush beans this year, and in future years, I would use climbing beans instead because they are starting to get shaded out.  The squash are working their way through the beans and corn…everything is very, very happy and abundant and wild, just how I like it!  You can see a squash hanging from the corn in the 2nd photo on the right. I am going to add this as a staple in my gardening in the future.  The one thing I will say about this interplanting is that it is not early season planting, so you’ll want to think about adding other things in other parts of the garden that are earlier season, rather than go with all three sisters (which I’ve heard of people doing).

Three Sisters Gardens

Three Sisters Gardens

Three sisters

Three sisters

Since its been so cold and damp, the celery is also growing really well this year.  Interestingly enough, its super mild this year (and it was sooo strong last year, especially after frost, that I could only use a little at a time).  I am very much enjoying cooking with the freshest of celery!

Celery

Celery

Here are a few other shots of the garden and awesome things growing!

Various Cabbages and Chards

Various Cabbages and Chards

Cucumber almost ripe

Cucumber almost ripe

I am growing these cukes an old bedframe–this trellis works great!

Tomato trellis (only sorta working)

Tomato trellis (only sorta working)

The photo above is of my tomato trellises.  I saw this done at another farm last year.  I had hoped to use it to trellis tomatoes…I think I needed stronger rope and I needed to be more on top of it than I was.  Its sorta working, but its sorta not.  The idea is that you pound in stakes, and then you string rope, and then weave the tomatoes up it.  But my tomatoes didn’t want to seem to grow very high up, they prefer instead to go out.  So I’m not sure what to do about that.  I’ll just be glad to get the tomatoes :).

 

The Bees

I discussed beekeeping first a few months ago.  The bees are enjoying the last major nectar flows of the year–the clover is mostly done for the season, but now the spotted knapweed/star thistle and the goldenrod is coming in.  They bees are still quite busy and the hives now have 40,000 to 50,000 bees each, and I have honey supers on both hives.  I’m hoping I’ll get at least some honey–and that’s looking likely, although how much it will be is not clear yet. Here’s one of the magical hives–the fourth box (on top) is the super!

Happy hive!

Happy hive!

Close up of bees

Close up of bees using their upper entrance hole

I want to say something about spotted knapweed.  Its one of those plants that people often get upset about, that its a ‘terrible invasive.’  I’ve heard of people dumping Monsanto’s Roundup on it to get rid of it…there are so many things wrong with dumping Roundup anywhere for any purpose, in my opinion. I’m working on an extended post on invasive plants and the concept of invasion, but for now, what I can say that as a beekeeper and permaculturist, I am happy to see the knapweed growing.  It is only growing in highly disturbed soil, so its one of those “opportunistic” species; other things grow in those same soils in other parts of the year.  In my many forays into the abundant wild fields to gather medicinals and food, I see it thriving in an ecosystem with other plants including St. Johns Wort, Yarrow, Mullein, Milkweed, and Goldenrod.  And every time I see it, its covered in bees, butterflies, and other things.  The beekeepers around here call it “star thistle” and, frankly, it is one of the most delightful tasting honeys you will ever enjoy.  Not to mention, the plant has medicinal value itself.  So while my bees live off of “invasive” star thistle and sweet clover, the hives grow strong.

Brood

Brood

This final bee photo shows the comb where the bees are raising brood.  You can see the white larvae in the brood chamber.  It takes about 25 days for the egg to turn into a larvae, then pupae, and then emerge.  I got to witness a pupae emerging when I was doing a hive inspection recently–she chewed her way slowly out of the capped chamber, then turned right around and cleaned out the chamber so a new egg could be laid inside by the queen.  The whole thing was amazing and incredible!  When you look in the hive, you can see the bees at all stages of growth.  The oldest bees are the foragers; they leave the hive to bring back nectar and pollen.

 

Chickens

I lost a good deal of my chicken flock to a raccoon in December.  My magical rooster, Anasazi, managed to survive and he was living at a friend’s house with a friend’s flock for the last six months.  In June, right around the solstice,. his crowing, which I love, got to be too much for my friends.  He needs to bring the sun up every day, so of course he is going to crow quite a bit!  And so I brought him back here and bought one large hen (a rescue) and then have been raising up a bunch of peeps for his flock.  You see, one rooster prefers to have about 10-12 hens, so that’s what I’m trying to give him (the things I do for that bird…lol).  Two weekends ago, I hosted a permablitz through the Oakland County Permaculture meetup, taught people about raising chickens, and had a bunch of help building an awesome new coop and enclosure for the growing flock.  Here’s a photo of the mostly-finished project:

Chicken Coop

Chicken Coop & enclosure

The new little ones arrived in mid-July, and they are growing so fast.  Here are a few shots of them from their first week of life!

New peeps don't want to pose for the camera

New peeps don’t want to pose for the camera, but they will poop on the stairs.

Young and old chickens

Young and old chickens; Anasazi the rooster is not interested

I am raising two adolescents birds as well, who I picked up in early june as peeps.  They are “clover” and “dandelion”; and they just joined the two older birds in the main coop.  They’ve been getting along well, but the two little ones refuse to go in at night so I have to go out, pick them up, and put them in the coop till they go on their own.  The adolescent chickens have, for no reason I can understand, taken a liking to my cat (who, up until a few weeks ago and they got too big, wanted to eat them for dinner).

Clover and Grimalkin hang out

Clover and Grimalkin hang out

Other Life on the Land

The land is bursting with so much life, so many beautiful herbs and plants, so many sacred tall trees.  I am so happy to see monarchs in the yard, hummingbirds, and even a bluebird this week!  I’ve been thinking about “if you grow it, they will come” as a philosophy behind the wildlife and butterfly sanctuary.  And that truely is what is happening here!

Coneflower

Coneflower

Burdock and the Honeybee

Burdock and the Honeybee

After each of my herb weekends, I come home to discover more medicinal plants growing here.  Just yesterday, a friend and I were walking around the property and came across a whole patch of boneset–an herb I had on my “to find” list.  And across from the boneset was a crampbark tree!  The bounty and beauty of this land amazes me each day, and I feel so honored to call this place my home.

 

Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth December 16, 2013

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

Sprouting lettuce for spring planting

There is so much magic in a tiny seed. Dormant, still, silent, the seed speaks of unimaginable potential. The seed is the first—and last—step in the cycle of most plant life; they complete the circle of life. Seeds can lay dormant for years, decades, and in some cases, centuries.  When parched earth finally gets rain, when the fires die down and only ash remains—the seeds carry new life forth.

 

Growing a plant from seed is a magical experience. Through this process, a magical transformation takes place both in the druid gardener and in the seed. You nurture and support the seed, giving it rich soil, light, warmth, and water. The seed nurtures you, providing lessons, healing, and strength. In the briefest of moments, the seed sprouts, sending tendrils up into the heavens and down into the earth, uniting the solar currents of the sun and the telluric currents of the earth. For some fast-growing plants, you can literally see them growing early in their life cycle. This same process is mirrored within the soul of the grower, hope and life are born anew.

 

As the seed springs forth, its first two leaves (called cotyledons) are not “true leaves” but rather represent the seed’s first tender steps into a larger world. Once true leaves develop, the plant takes on the characteristics of its variety.  Like a human infant, springing forth is only the first step of the journey of growth and development.

 

Sorting seeds in December!

Sorting seeds in December!

I know that for many, the period between Alban Arthan and Imbolc can be challenging because of the darkness and cold. But I, sitting near my warm fire with the seeds of hope and life, enjoy such times. As a druid gardener, December and January are times of such joy, for these are the times when I return to my seeds. I spend weeks sorting through saved bags of seeds, remembering seeds given to me from friends, re-establishing relationships with seeds I have been saving for years, or studying new seed packets I purchased.  Part of this is just to reconnect to the plants, to look forward to what is to come.

But, this is so I can plan how much seed I need to start and when I need to start it. For the seeds I’ve saved, I think about the relationship I’ve shared with that plant, that strain of seeds. Now in my fourth year of serious organic gardening, I have strains of kale, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, and herbs that I have had many years of friendship with—the seeds represent a way to carry our connection through the darkest of times before it begins anew.  As I sit with my packages of seeds, I reflect upon our past history and look forward to future harvests.

 

This year, dear readers, I suggest that you sow at least a few seeds. If you have the space for a larger garden, consider sheet mulching an area in the spring  and planting some vegetables. Create a sacred garden space for growth—of the druid and of the garden.  Growing a bit of your own food puts you in a sacred relationship with the land and its cycles—and all of it begins with the seed that you grow. If you only have room for a few pots on a porch or a windowsill, you can still experience the magic and teachings of the humble seed. I suggest starting some herbs (mint, oregano, or chives are all very easy to grow) or growing some vegetables in containers.

 

Once you start your seeds, consider your relationship to the plants.  I have found that plants really enjoy music, and I play my flutes and panflute for them often.  I speak to them, listen to their stories and secret tales, and open myself up to their teachings.  This is a very personal process, but you will your way. Meditation with the seedlings can provide great insights.  Connect with the spirit of that plant—each species has a spirit, and you can see that spirit out and learn from it.

 

If you decide to start seeds, ask around.  Chances are, someone you know has seeds and is willing to share.  If you are purchasing seeds, it is important to know that not all seeds are created equal.  The seeds of our ancestors were all what is now known as “heirloom” and “open pollinated” and could be easily saved from year to year and were adapted to the localized climates that they lived in. The seeds of today—including nearly all you would purchase in a big box store—are often genetically modified and hybridized. GMO and hybrid seeds are modified so that you can’t save them, and often have other modifications to the plant and/or are treated with chemicals. Energetically, these seeds represent the worst of humanity’s shattered relationship with nature, and buying them supports industries that are actively causing harm to our planet.

 

For seeds that are open-pollinated and heirloom, you can visit the Seed Saver’s Exchange, Horizon Herbs, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, or High Mowing Seeds.  For information on how to start and save seeds, the book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners (Ashworth and Cavagnaro, 2002) is a wonderful reference and one that I have used for many seeds.  I also have a post on seed saving spinach and lettuce seed this blog.

 

There is no greater magical gift in the world than that of a seed, and no greater magical act than that of growth.  If you have questions about seeds, seed starting, or magical gardening please feel free to contact me or respond here.

 

*I’d also like to acknowledge that some of my insights gained in this post came through mediation from the first knowledge lecture in Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system (which I have been studying for the last 8 months).

 

Embracing the Sacred and Understanding the Druidic Garden: Growing and Preserving Your Own Food September 7, 2013

Some recently canned foods--this whole cabinet is full!

Some recently canned foods–this whole cabinet is full of hundreds of jars of jam, sauce, and pickles!

When I was a child, I used to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In her books, Laura spends a lot of time talking about food preservation–slaughtering the pig, making maple sugar, making “head cheese”, sowing crops, cutting hay for the animals, cutting and storing ice in the ice house, threshing wheat, making butter, digging potatoes, and so forth.  This was an incredibly important part of the lives of the Ingalls family. The book about Sam Gribley, who runs away to the mountains to live off the land, My Side of the Mountain is very much the same–although its set in a more modern time, Sam spends most of his time talking about providing for his own needs through foraging and trapping.  And in each of these books, I’m struck by how much of each of the books are devoted to the basic necessities of human survival: food and shelter.  But it wasn’t just that they were preserving food and surviving–it was the manner in which they survived.  When Sam talks about his relationship with the wild strawberries, and the loss when the old woman comes and makes him help her pick them all, he describes a sacred relationship.  When Laura writes about her relationship with their family’s horses, horses the family depended on for plowing and transportation, the relationship is sacred. When Laura’s family asks neighbors for help for building their home, their home becomes rooted in that community.

 

The last few generations of Americans–certainly my own– have typically not lived in a society where we have the knowledge (or, often, desire) to physically provide for our any of our own needs. When I grew up, we occasionally ate venison that my uncle hunted, we ate zucchini and other veggies from the garden when they were available, we ate some of mom’s canned sauce or beans, but most of what we ate we purchased.  The relationship that most of us have with our food was one of an exchange–hard-earned money in exchange for this or that preserved, packaged good. I think my experiences of our home garden were less common than most children who grew up in the 1980’s–this was the real start of “convenience” foods that required very little work or preparation (TV dinners, heavily processed fast foods, etc.). The 1980s, as John Michael Greer reminds us in his newest book Green Wizardry, were the backlash era against the progress/appropriate tech/homesteading movements of the 1970’s, and unfortunately, pushed Americans further down the path of consumption.

 

I, like many of my generation and the generation before and generation after me, have grown up in a time where we depend upon others (often, large agribusiness or corporations) for our food (and clothing, shelter, heat, transportation, and livelihoods).  And while most of us don’t engage in labor-intensive food production, we are also depending upon a system that has removed our sacred relationship with food. We also exchange our time for money in other kinds of work; some of which is much less fulfilling than growing one’s own food. The food we eat is often mass produced with unacceptable ethical standards, from pesticide use to shipping with fossil fuels to genetic manipulation to migrant worker rights violations.  When we eat that food, we eat of all of the energies that produced it.

 

More jars--this is before I've canned apples!

More jars–this is before I’ve canned apples!

The spiritual dimensions of this cannot be understated.  When one is eating food that one has not grown/foraged/slaughtered, one is bringing in unknown energetics and processes into one’s own body.  That food, if it comes from a big grocery chain, is likely 100’s, if not 1000’s of miles removed from the land one inhabits, which creates energetic distance.  Further, one’s relationship with that food is often a constructed image, a brand name product (I’m now reading Chris Hedges’ book, Empire of Illusion, where he talks about the illusion of the image/brand at length).  The sacred relationship with food is lost.

 

I have come to understand that gardening, especially using druidic principles, is all about relationship building; building a sacred relationship with your food. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February to the early growth of the plant in March while the cold winter continues outside, to the planting and mulching of that plant into my garden in late May.  This relationship continues as I

Ears of corn!

Ears of corn!  The most beautiful sight to behold!

nurture it as it grows into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and later little green peppers start to emerge.  Finally, I wait for that pepper to ripen in early September.  At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that plant.  When I eat that pepper, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it.  When I can that pepper and turn it into salsa or freeze it for later, I am sustaining that relationship over time.  When I save the seed for next season, the relationship becomes all the stronger.  We are connected; that connection is sacred.  That sacred connection extends and extends to all the land–everything becomes more sacred by the simple act of growing and eating one’s own food.  The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence of you and the plant.

 

This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing–and preserving–my own food.  This is a lesson that I’ve come to over a long period of time.  I think that people who grow up in a culture where providing for one’s needs is common and where reliance upon the land allows that sacred connection to form from birth.  If you read any stories or myths from Native American tribes, you see this in everything that is written.  But for someone like me, someone who did not grow up in a culture that nurtured that sacred connection, I had to seek this out and discover it on my own.  When the sacred connection occurs, the shift is striking.  I’m amazed and filled with wonder each time I set foot in my garden and watch my plants growing.  I am filled with reverence and respect with each egg I pull out of my chicken coop.   When my tomatoes blighted this year (which I will write about soon), I felt their suffering.

 

As we move into forty or so years of convenience foods, fast foods, and the like, the skills of food procurement (through growing, trapping, hunting) and preservation (through fermentation, canning, drying, smoking) are not practiced by most of our population.  Even for someone like me, who wants to know the skills, learning the old ways requires a lot of resources that aren’t necessarily easy to come by.  I think about my meager skills, and despite years of hard effort and learning everything I can, I’d be unable to provide for all of my needs.  But as I continue to grow, my sacred connection with the land takes on a new meaning.  I am her caretaker, as she is mine.  When I take her fruits into my body, I am nourished and blessed.  This is the most sacred of sacred connections, and it makes you respect the food down to the last bite.

 

Gardening into December: Hoop House Updates, Chickens, Composting, and More! November 17, 2012

I wanted to post another update about the progress of the hoop houses and other gardening activities in mid-November in my Zone 6 climate in South East Michigan.  As I wrote about in earlier blog posts, I have been experimenting with hoop houses for season extension.  I posted a picture of my mid-April harvest in my earlier post; now I’m going to show you what is going on in the hoop houses in late November.  Most of these crops would have gotten zapped by a 20 degree evening about two weeks ago, but they are going strong in the hoop houses!  So here are some photos from today (its a bit warm today, so I lifted up the hoop houses to see what is growing inside).

Cabbage, kale, and spinach...oh my!

Cabbage, kale, and spinach…oh my!

Most of the veggies in these photos were planted in late August (except the Kale and Leeks, which have been going since spring).  Next year, I think I’m going to start them even sooner, as once the weather gets cold they don’t really grow.  Hoop house gardening extends the harvest season moreso than the growing season.  Here are a few more photos.

Arugula, Minzua, and more spinach!

Spinach is amazing this time of year!

These are a little small...I planted them too late, I think!

These cabbages are still a little small…I planted them too late, I think!

So yes, there will be fresh greens through December. I will be serving a salad at our Thanksgiving meal next week, and even with me picking some greens every few days for a meal, I should have enough greens to last till Yule!  The hoop houses last year made it till New Years (when I stupidly forgot to close them and the arugula and spinach I was growing got zapped).  We had such a mild winter that I wonder if they could have lasted longer.  This year I will do more experimenting and find out!

A family that I am friends with asked for some garden space, so we also got their garden established this fall.  They’ve planted winter wheat in part of it as well as some garlic. We are also in the process of laying down some newspaper and cardboard as weed suppression for the rows.

Winter wheat!

I also have some winter rye growing as a cover crop in part of the garden (one one of my newer beds to help establish the soil).  I’m going to get my chickens to till it under in the spring for me :).  The chickens enjoy nibbling on it this time of year.

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Winter Rye – chickens love it!

A lot of what I’ve been doing in the last two months, especially now that the leaves have dropped, is composting and preparing my beds for next season.  I drive around the neighborhood and pick up as many bags of leaves as I can.  Most of these go directly into the garden, but I also save some for projects I know I have planned for next year (since fall leaves happen but once a year).  Fall is an excellent time to collect yard “waste” (and its anything but waste to a gardener).  My neighbors are always so kind to bag it up for me, stick it on the curb for me to pick up, and sometimes, even mulch it.  This year I collected about 40 bags of leaves as well as raked up a massive pile of my own.  These will all be used before next fall–for mulch, for sheet mulched beds, etc.

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves--ready for next season!

Garden beds with layers of compost and shredded leaves–ready for next season!

Lots of composting happening!

Lots of composting happening!  The pile to the right is my main pile for next year; it has coffee grounds, leaves, yard waste, food waste, etc.  Its about 5′ high now.

I’m also just about finished establishing a few new beds and tree planting.  Fall, again, is a great time for this because of all of the copious amounts of material for your new beds.  Trees that are planted in fall can have time to establish their root systems over winter before the hot, dry days of summer come back.  I’m also doing some experiments with other kinds of garden beds, such as the hugelkultur bed.

Hugelkulture bed in progress

Hugelkulture bed in progress, complete with chicken inspection.

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants like comfrey, mints, in the spring)

New trees planted, protected, and mulched (mulch will be planted with beneficial plants to help the tree, like comfrey, mints, false indigo, in the spring)

I also do a bit of indoor gardening, mainly for plants that can’t handle being outside in Michigan winters.  Here are my three citrus trees (one has oranges, very tart!) and a lemon-scented geranium.  The geranium I found at the bottom of a big bag of leaves, along with some other plants on the curb.  Fall is also a great time for what I call compost diving.  In addition to neighbors putting out leaves,  I find all sorts of stuff, and surprisingly, a lot of live plants :).

Citrus in south-facing window

Citrus in south-facing window

Lemon-scented geranium

Lemon-scented geranium

The chickens enjoy free-ranging every chance they get (which is anytime that either I or my husband are at home).  They are now all grown up (hatched mid-July).  We also took in a stray rooster who was kicked out of a neighbor’s flock.  I’ve had hens before, but never a roster.  But for free ranging chickens, the rooster is a great protector of the flock, not to mention being beautiful to look at, and I’m happy to have him with the girls!

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Lentil and Pinto pecking and scratching

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Chickens near their chicken tractor/coop

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

Anasazi, our stray rooster that is now part of the flock

 

Chickens and Sustainability October 7, 2012

Chickens as part of a sustainable system.

Raising chickens has become an activity of growing importance within permaculture/sustainability movements.  Most backyard chicken owners raise their birds for eggs, meat, companionship, manure, happiness, and natural pest control.  Chickens can form one piece of a larger sustainable system–and I want to stress that when thinking about sustainable transitions, we need to think in systems, not in solitary activity. Its all about how the pieces fit together as a whole and how each piece fits together (for more information on how to think in this way, see Thinking in Systems or Gaia’s Garden).

Our chickens, week 10

Our chickens, week 10

Chickens can serve a lot of functions in a backyard homestead – their manure is excellent for your garden. You need to compost it down first; it is too nitrogen rich when it first comes out of the chicken and will burn plants if directly applied. I especially enjoy the fact that chickens are like “living composters”; I throw my food scraps to them and they break down that food in a matter of hours, leaving wonderful droppings (and they are wonderful–wait till you see your plants growing in composted chicken manure!)

Chickens also provide excellent pest control.  I let my chickens roam free in the garden during a lot of the year to scratch and eat bugs.  They eat slugs, squash beetles, potato beetles, earwigs, Japanese beetles, and many more. And what do they do next? Turn it into glorious manure!

Chickens can also be used to turn soil and till the ground.  Place them in an area that has been planted with green manure like winter rye, and watch them scratch and peck!  In less than a week, they will have mowed down your green manure and you’ll be ready to plant (this is seriously exciting stuff, especially if you work 1600+ square feet of garden by hand like I do!)

Chickens are wonderful companions and bring happiness to your life. I have had chickens throughout my life, and I have always found them to be wonderful companions. Their gentle spirits and calm natures bring peace and tranquility as you watch them go about their chicken-ey business. I have found few things as peaceful as sitting nearby while my peeps scratch in the dirt in my organic garden and take dust baths! Free ranging chickens are so happy with life–give them a few slugs and you’ll watch them experience bliss.

Perhaps the most obvious uses of chickens are for eggs and meat.  And certainly, they can provide either in abundance!  Our current flock is a laying flock, so we won’t be eating them. But they will faithfully lay about 200 eggs each, per year, once they start laying (which is around 26 weeks old).

 

The Lessons of the Chicken

Chickens have many lessons for us, if only we heed them. Chickens spend much of their time observing and interacting with nature–they miss very little.  Yet their focus isn’t always on survival, a good dust bath, nap in the sun, or simply jumping up on a lap to be given attention is all things that they enjoy. We, too, need to focus not only on our survival, but also remember the simple pleasures in life.  Chickens aren’t waste-oriented creatures; everything that they produce is useful, from their droppings to their eggs to their feathers.  So too, should we strive to live in harmony with nature and be producers, not just consumers.

Running flock!

Running flock!

 

The Story of Our Current Flock

We ordered our four baby peeps way back in January of last year to be delivered in mid-July.  I had chickens as a child, and I wanted to make sure I got some of the breeds I wanted.  Because we wanted layers, I also wanted to have my peeps sexed. You can get peeps locally at your feed supply store, but they aren’t always sexed, and often are quite a bit older (and not always very well socialized).  A lot of mail order chicken places ship chickens in lots of 25 or more, which is way too many for the typical homeowner.  We could easily have a flock of 25 on our land, but we have no need for so many!  So I ordered chickens from mypetchicken.com, who had a wonderful selection of peeps and could ship as few as 3 standard-sized peeps (or 5 bantams). I ended up with 2 standard sized chickens and 2 bantams.

In the days leading up to the peeps’ arrival, I built a cardboard brooder in my garage.  This included making an enclosure from some salvaged cardboard boxes, several small food dishes made from paper egg cartons, a small waterer, pine shavings to keep them sanitary, and a heat lamp to keep them warm.  There are lots of great directions online for how to build such a brooder and keep your peeps warm and happy.  And nearly all of this can be made from repurposed/salvaged materials.

Peeps in their travel box!

Peeps in their travel box!

The day before the peeps arrived, I contacted my post office to let them know that they would be coming so that I could go and pick them up.  The peeps came in a small hay nest box  which kept them warm and safe.  Since day-old peeps need to be kept at 95 degrees, the hot days of July were perfect for this!

Its been amazing to watch them grow as the weeks and months go by–they were scared and unsure when they first arrived and huddled together in your hands. Now they are bold, friendly, roaming and free!  I’m ending this blog post with some photos week by week so you can get a sense of how fast they grow.  They have become a flock of lovely ladies, pecking and scratching, each one with her own personality.  They are friendly and active, and have already, in their 11 or so short weeks of life, made such a positive impact on our lives.

Here are some more photos of the peeps as they grow up!

Peeps. Day 1

Peeps. Day 1

Lentil, Day 1

Pinto, week 2

Lima, week 3

Lima, week 3

Peeps Foraging, Week 3

Peeps Foraging, Week 3

Peeps getting bolder, week 5

Peeps getting bolder, week 5

Lovely lentil, mostly grown up!

Awesome pinto, getting so big!

Awesome pinto, getting so big!

Lima Bean is a Lap Chicken!

Lima Bean is a Lap Chicken!

Azuki Preening!

Azuki Preening!