garden and coop

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It’s been a mild fall here so far; hopefully I didn’t just jinx Michigan.  Only a couple of nights where it got below freezing, and generally pretty nice weather for late October.  Makes for happy lettuce.

With the changing seasons in mind, I putzed around in the girls’ coop.  Picked up a roll of faced insulation to put on their walls.  I’m not sure whether they’ll bother it.  So far, so good.  But if they start pecking it, I’ll need to get out the drywall tools.

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I also found a junk piece of plexiglass in the barn (full of pretty letters and arrows) that went up over the windows for keeping out those west winds when the temperatures dip to minus 20.  Not sure how much warmth it’ll keep in because there are roof vents directly to the outside, but from what I understand, drafts can be dangerous, but ventilation is necessary.

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My little blueberry bushes are still plodding along.  I’m pretty sure they’re not growing as well as they should be.  Our soil is naturally very alkaline, and I added natural sulfur to it last year, but the crude soil test I did still says it’s in the alkaline range.  I decided to mulch with naturally acidic spaghnum peat moss and see if that helps.  I you have any hints for blueberries, I’m all ears.

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the chicken poop plan

I’m sure there are as many ways to handle coop and run litter as there are chicken keepers. But this is what I’m trying.

For a while I used pine shavings everywhere; in the coop, in the run and on the poop board under the roost. The method didn’t seem to fill my needs, and it ran through a lot of savings. Shavings also take a while to decompose in a compost pile.

A different solution that’s worked pretty well so far is a 3-pronged poop attack.

First, I’ve been using a product called Sweet PDZ on my poop board. It’s an all-natural, non-toxic product created for horse stalls, but it also does a great job of neutralizing ammonia smells and absorbing moisture in chicken coops. I just use a 1-2″ layer on the poop board and filter out the droppings with a cat litter scoop daily when I get the eggs.

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The droppings go into a 5-gallon bucket that I keep just outside the coop. Almost pure poop, and it’s easy to gauge amounts when adding to garden beds and mixing with browns in the compost piles. One bag of Sweet PDZ seems to last forever when used like this.

The second poop prong is the coop floor. Pine shavings seem to work best for me there as long as I keep them 5-6″ deep. Once the shavings are too pooped to pop any more, I shovel them out and move them to the outside run. This keeps the run from getting muddy and compacting (when combined with the third part of my poop party). It also continues to break down the shavings for the compost piles.

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In the run, mixed with the used coop shavings, I’ve dumped a thick layer of fall leaves. The chickens love to scratch through them looking for goodies. They do a better job of shredding and mixing than my mower, with less work and no gas (-oline). The leaves and shavings should help keep chicken toes warmer through the coming winter too.

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By spring, there’ll be a nice big pile of leaf/shavings/poop to goose up my compost piles.

evaluating the chicken project

My last forays into raising chickens ended disastrously, with chicken carnage at the hands…paws…of predators.  What made me give up was the loss of my daughter’s County Fair chickens.

Looking back I can admit that it was completely my failure. The the pen wasn’t secure. I know that I overlooked problem spots because it was simply too much trouble for me.

What retirement can do is wonderful. It lets you focus on stupid little things, it lets you obsess freely.  It lets you pay attention to things that are too much trouble.

Four months ago I delved back into chickens. And after living with the new arrangement, I grade myself 100% happy.

There have been no signs, zero, of attempted forced entry into the pen or coop.  I haven’t seen any signs of rodents. The actual construction (which seemed a huge project at the time) has worn well, and I find it really useful and convenient.

One of my biggest concerns was wasted food and dirty water.  Check. All good.  The heated 2 gallon waterer with horizontal poultry nipples is a joy. I refill it maybe once a week for six chickens.

I researched all sorts of homemade feeders, mostly made of PVC, before I decided just to roll with a commercial feeder with little dividers that prevent the chickens from flinging feed sideways.  It’s awesome, and I don’t notice any waste.

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The outside ramp was a little concerning, because it necessarily had to be really long.  The chickens took to it without even sneezing.

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Likewise, I,wondered whether the limited floor space would prevent the girls from having enough take-off and landing room. Again, they didn’t even have second thoughts.

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The poop-shelf works flawlessly at containing their night-poops.  It’s really easy to clean off. And the little chicken ladder I pounded together is happily used as a perch and as an access to their main roost.

The only real problem I had was keeping the girls from roosting everywhere except their roost. Even on top of the waterer!  That was solved easily with a chicken wire cone above the waterer, and some well-placed boards elsewhere.

I’ve probably jinxed myself by writing this, but I’m pretty happy.

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twiddling my thumbs

Yesterday was one of those brilliant warm May days that makes you wish it was two weeks later so that you could plant your tomatoes. Busy hands help distract short attention spans.

So out to the little woods to clean up some of the mess that Mother Nature rudely left over the winter.

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I was happy to see that not all of the big bass in the pond had been made into fish Popsicles over the past two miserably cold winters…

The little Isa Browns are feathering out and enjoying their digs. I added a ladder to encourage them to enjoy different perspectives (like maybe from the roost girls?)…

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And it looks like the extra grass clippings added to the compost piles has started working…

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all’s well with the world

It gets tougher and tougher to post things as the weather turns nicer and nicer.  It’s a gorgeous, sunny, windless day in the 70s, and hard to stay indoors.

Likewise for my Isa Brown chicks, who today for the first time went exploring down their ramp and into the pen.  They were a little awed at first…

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But after some quality alone time and then a big bundle of chickweed fresh from the garden, they warmed up to the idea…

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The early tomato and onion seedlings got a morning dose of sunshine too…

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All’s well with the world.

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Using a chainsaw is tiring but rewarding work. I fired mine up yesterday and took care of a lot of the leaning trees and winter deadfall in the woods before the poison ivy has a chance to come into its glory. A good feeling, cleaning things up and getting a jump on next season’s wood pile.

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The chicks look like junior high boys trying to grow beards. The Isa Brown feathers that will eventually cover everything are popping out randomly, making them look like bag ladies. I installed their big girl feeder (which of course was no problem for them to figure out) and the heated nipple waterer I made. I spied on them through the the window for a while and at least one enterprising girl has figured out what the red things are for.

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And finally, I moved another of the compost bins to its new spot down the front row of the garden. The only remaining bin is full of black gold from last year. One year old composted horse manure, black and sweet and full of home-cooked goodness. Bake at 140 degrees for three weeks and let it settle for 11 months. A decent supply that will be the source of contention between myself and my wife. “We got this from my friend’s horses,” the wife will say indignantly. “Why do you get so much and I only get a little freakin bucket?” “Wait, I was the one who lifted and hauled and checked temperatures and turned while while you girls were eating bonbons and painting toe nails”

Or something like that. Should go over fantastically. I know what women like to hear.

I’m pretty proud that I was able to hold back this much composted manure for that long. It’s really tempting to raid the till whenever some is handy, but then come Spring ya got nuttin. I love being able to add a scoop or a shovelful of compost as seedlings go into the garden, and planning ahead with restraint is remarkable for me.

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beginning and ending

70° F, sunshine, wow. And it so happens that it’s planting day for my main batch of tomato and pepper seedlings.

This year’s varieties from saved seed:
Moskovitch
Cherokee Purple
German Johnson
Mortgage Lifter

New to me:
Druzba (I love weird names)
Olpalka (I love weird names)

As well as Jet Star (a hybrid, planted earlier) and Amish Paste.

Everything’s ready, seeds out, pots full, labels made…

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And while it was dirty anyway, figured I’d up-pot my experimental pruned pepper seedling. Nice root system, ready to sprawl…

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Then out to the perfect day. Winter? Pfft. I don’t even remember winter (except for those still-frozen pipes). It was time to finally finish the never-ending chicken pen.

And it’s done.

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Even varmint-proofed the ventilation system….

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up-potting tomato seedlings

Spring tiptoes through my world, trying to slip in unannounced. But no dice, buddy. I hear you. I see the hyacinths and crocus flowers sneaking up under the dead leaves and I hear the geese (who are really bad at tiptoeing) circling the pond.

It’s refreshing to feel winter dying, gasping and wheezing, and it puts me in a great mood.

Time to up-pot the early tomato plants. My rule of thumb for tomato seedlings is to grow twice as many of each variety as I’ll actually plant. One for dropping on the floor and one for the planting hole.

I use cut-off half gallon milk jugs as my final tomato seedling pots. Lots of nice vertical room without taking up as much shelf space as gallon jugs would.

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Sometime after the seedlings develop their first set of true leaves, it’s time to fill the jugs mostly full of growing medium, leaving space for burying most of the tomato plant stem. New roots form along the buried stems, helping to grow sturdy plants.

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The original 4″ pots each contain a couple of plants, and I note the strongest from each. The pots get gently tipped upside down, with my fingers cradling the top of the soil, being careful not to crush the little seedlings as the rootball comes free. I put the strongest seedling in its new home and fill the rest of the milk jug with growing medium right up to the leaves.

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Then back under lights, just a couple of inches between the light bulbs and the tops of the plants, with a small fan running periodically to toughen them up.

These particular tomatoes will go into the garden early under a double layer of insulation. They’ve done surprisingly well in the past, but I’m always prepared to lose them to the cold.

As for Spring, I needed some more soil time, so out came the tiller and under went the rest of the cover crop. There’s a small area that I’m going to let sit covered in leaves as a no-till experiment.

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And the chickies went out to their permanent home this morning. It’s been a while since I started chicks, and I wasn’t very knowledgable about it even then. I just wanted to be sure my 250 W light would keep them warm enough in near-freezing outside temps. A quick search, a reliable source, I think we’re good:

The rule of thumb for overhead heat-lamp brooders is that one 250-watt heat lamp can handle 75 chicks at 50 degrees. If temperatures are lower than that, subtract one chick for every degree below 50 . For example, 20 below zero is 70 degrees lower than 50, so you would be able to brood five chicks (75 – 70 = 5) per heat lamp.

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What plans?

The plan was to finish up the chicken pen and then paint the poopable surfaces in the coop.

The plan was to let things settle, pick up some chicks this weekend and then move them into their new quarters.

The reality was that I ran out of lathe screws for putting up the fencing.

The reality was that the local hardware doesn’t carry them.

The reality was that my daughter got sick and we were suddenly in charge of our granddaughter.

The reality was that my wife said “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get chicks for Easter while Lily was here?”

The reality is that I’m impulsive, and we have an old pen and all of our chick supplies and a granddaughter.

So here they are, in our house, waiting for the paint to dry.

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The only breed Tractor Supply had on hand was Isa Browns. Never heard of them before, and I had envisioned picking only cool old heirloom breeds.  These are Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White crosses of some kind.

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I’m not complaining. From what I was told, and from what I’ve since read, Isa Browns are hardy, personable and great brown egg layers.

But the plans. The plans.

Plans are for suckers.

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