Sunday, April 20, 2014

To till or not to till?

My friend (and garden blogger) Megan Cain recently wrote an entry titled "Stop tilling your vegetable garden!"

I was amused that I read her blog the day before I rented a massive rototiller. Megan's point is to not till every year, a premise I completely agree with. There are many good reasons not till every year, and you can read all about them on her blog. However, sometimes to make an omelette, you gotta break an egg. 

During the last 12 months, I have placed our permanent raised beds in a number of locations in our backyard. In good permaculture fashion, I did a lot of observing before finally deciding to locate them at the far back of the yard, where we have the most sun. This area of the yard had been completely compacted over the years, was a fairly weedy mess, and I kind of just wanted to nuke it and start over.

So I rented an 8-hp rear-tine rototiller and a trailer and brought it home. Within an hour Jay and I frothed up the soil so much it was inches taller than the surrounding compacted ground. 

We then spread many wheelbarrows of a wood chip + coffee ground compost I had been making all winter over the tilled soil. We even put down a plank so we wouldn’t compact it. I then tilled in the compost and returned the equipment within my 4-hour rental time. 

I then dug paths, throwing the soil into where the beds would be. Our paths are going to be filled with gravel to help move water throughout the garden that will be collected from a future shed roof.

As I filled the beds in, the soil was really piling up. Once the paths were dug, I measured the beds at least 14 inches above ground level. Now I know that they will settle, but I’m going to build our raised beds 14 inches tall to leave room for lots of mulch and to be able to continue to add compost to the beds.

The three chickens we were taking care of were out the whole day and LOVED digging in the freshly tilled soil (and pooping in it too :)

Since I’m not going to reinforce the beds with walls for a couple of weeks, I covered them with a huge tarp we had leftover from a roofing project years back. Glad too, the rains a few days ago would have set back a lot of the digging and tilling work!

Photo of week-old chicks

From what I read on the hatchery's web site, our girls were born on Sunday night, so they are a week old today. We've been cuddling them daily, and they already are showing their personalities. Jay's buff orpington (called the golden retriever of chickens) is by far the calmest, and even falls asleep while Jay is holding it. Very cute.

I took their box outside the garage to get some natural light for photos, and got one good one. They are starting to grow out wing feathers already, but still have lots of fuzz on their heads and bodies.

We're going through a lot of feed, mostly because they are really messy eaters. I mean, are they bathing in the stuff? Most of our clean up is just sweeping up food crumbles they have scattered about.

Friday night Jay, Matt, Marissa and I had a lovely dinner and we continued our coop planning. We're all finding it difficult to figure out where to start, so we wrote down a bunch of our "requirements" and will likely take a big trip to the lumber yard on our first building day (May 17!)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chick Update, Day 4

Here's a guest post, while Josh is out of town on business. I had fun on Facebook Monday, posting, "I never thought I'd hear myself say, 'my husband just left town to go pick up some chicks!'"

The girls are growing quickly! A couple of them already have feathers on their wings. We have two blond and three darker chicks. I assumed the larger blond was Prissy (Lady Priscilla d'Ova), my Buff Orpington. However, the other evening Matt stated that the Silky has five toes while the Buff only has four. Indeed, the largest of all the chicks in the Silky! Confusing, since it was supposed to be the smallest of them all. I wonder whether they hatch them early so they get a head start.

Marisa and I cleaned out the bin this morning, and I put the paper, poop and food in our compost. We checked for "pasty butt" and they're all ok. So far they're very nervous about being picked up by us. With some hand feeding and repetition, I expect they'll bond with us.

So far, three of Josh's and my Facebook friends have posted this video from YouTube and tagged us, suggesting that this will be us. Indeed, I'd love it if that were the case! This is one of the sweetest things I've seen in a while.

One of the booklets I have states the bin should be cleaned out twice a day. Marisa and I have decided that they will do evenings, and we will do mornings.

The co-parenting project is an interesting one. Coordinating with just one person (Josh) requires little effort. It will take more communication and consensus to do this with another couple. And doing this in community is just what we wanted.

Sorry no pictures this morning—more to come soon!

Guest correspondent over and out.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Five chicks

On Monday, I drove to Waterloo, Wis. to pick up five chicks. I found myself getting nervous - would they be warm enough, did we have a good brooder for them, would they all live?

When I arrived, I first saw a counter with little cartons and the sound of cheeping chicks filled the room.

There were several people in line before me, so I scanned the boxes and found ours.

We recently learned that the hatchery can't gender identify the silkies because they are so small. So on Sunday, Jay, Matt and Marissa and I decided to ask if they had another silkie. Unfortunately, they were all sold.

While I was waiting I looked around. I spotted these baskets of eggs, I'm guessing the next batch for the incubator.

Just like in the movie Mad City Chickens, I spotted the warm incubators that rotated fertilized eggs and kept them at just the right temperature.  

I paid for the birds and scurried out to my car. It was COLD and I didn't want them to get a chill. As soon as I got in my car and started it up to get the heat going, I opened the box. Inside were five fluffy cotton balls cheeping away.

The chicks are now in our brooder, a large plastic bin in our garage. Matt and Marissa have a key to get in, and I'm sure we'll all be paying many visits to ooh and ahh. They really are that cute.

Our instructions are not to handle them the first day, but then to start having them eat our of our hands and pick them up to have the imprint on us.

More to come, I'm sure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dust bath

I can't explain why, but I find watching the chickens take a dust bath highly amusing.


They make a little bowl in the ground, roll around in it, kick it up onto themselves (and sometimes onto their sisters) and generally look like they are having a very good time.

The practical thing is the dust get rid of or prevent mites and other external parasites.

And - it's just so "happy chicken time."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"Where do you find them local chicks?"

As we started doing our research on getting chicks, we were surprised to find that you can mail order them! One of the reasons is because within 72 hours of hatching, chicks do not need to eat or drink. Shipping by priority mail is conveniently within that threshold.

However, after talking with Susan at Cluck the Chicken Store and reading some advice on (oh my I could spend a lot of time on that site!) we found both were emphatic about "Do not let your children open the box!" due to occasional shipping mortality. We wondered what our local options were.

Susan recommended we get our first batch at Abendroth's Hatchery in Waterloo, Wis. - just  35 minutes from Madison. They may not have the world's largest selection of chickens, but they certainly have plenty for newbies like us. And we don't have to worry about our first experience with chicks arriving with a few casualties.

At this hatchery, chicks hatch on Sunday nights, and are available on Mondays. When I spoke with someone at the hatchery, he was pretty insistent on picking up on Monday so the birds were fresh and healthy.

So Jay and I and our neighbors did some math with a calendar, and after learning that our chicks would need to be in their brooder for 6 to 8 weeks before moving into the chicken coop, we realize that we could easily order them now to be picked up on April 14 and they would be ready to move into our coop sometime after Memorial Day.

I ordered our five pullet chicks (females) to pick up in a week. Anyone want to guess how much a baby chick costs?
  • Pullets are females. You do not need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs, just to lay fertile eggs.
  • Straight run is you get what you get (they haven't been separated by gender).
  • Cockerels are makes - they'll become rosters.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chicks ordered - time to prepare the nursery

We did it. We ordered five chicks. If all goes well, we pick them up Monday, April 14.

Following our field trip to Paoli, Matt, Marissa, Jay and I were excited about ordering our chicks. I started reading my new book, Gardening with Chickens by Jessi Bloom; Jay paged through his first aid guide; and Matt and Marissa read through the book they bought at Cluck the Chicken Store. We exchanged a few emails over the week, and settled on getting five chicks. 

Five? The city of Madison only allows four. Even though we're getting them from a local hatchery which will dramatically reduce mortality, just in case one of the chicks doesn't make it, we want to have four the same age in our flock. And as I said to Matt, “Five is okay as long as our neighbor doesn't complain” :-)

We decided that each couple would pick out a pair of birds, and of course I decided to throw in that third. Unlike going to the pet store, we simply called an order into the hatchery. The following images are what they will look like when mature; photos and descriptions are from the hatchery.

Matt and Marissa chose to get an Americana, also known as an Easter Egger, known for their bluish and greenish eggs. 

They also chose a Silkie, a smallish hen that has five toes, lays smallish eggs but are the cutest thing you ever did see.

Jay chose to get a Buff Orpington. It's a largish bird, but is quiet and is supposed to have a friendly disposition.

Actually, what we've learned is that if handled gently and with love, most chickens will become friendly.

I decided on a Silver-Laced Wyandotte. It has beautifully-tipped feathers, lays large brown eggs and will get to about five pounds.

Our fifth chicken, which I'm going to say doesn't belong to anyone in particular, is a Black Australorp, which has glossy black plumage with a greenish purple sheen, and weighs about 5 to 7 pounds.

While we read that indeed, birds of a feather flock together, we also learned that in a flock where no one looks the same, no one in particular gets picked on because everybody is different. We're hoping these birds look sufficiently different from each other that they all end up getting along.

I will write a little more about the hatchery in a future post. For now, were very excited that we made the phone call to order them.