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How to care for a Backyard Chicken Family

chickens-8If I would’ve known how easy it was to keep chickens, I think I would have started to raise my backyard chick-chick flock so much sooner. The truth is that I spend about 5 min per day on them, and they are three very happy and plump chicken ladies.

These are our girls and their eggs:

Tingeling (orange) is at the top of the pecking order, our mother-hen chicken leader. She is also the toughest and bravest of the three. She always comes running when she sees me, and she lets me take her up for a cuddle. She is an “Isa Brown”, a Sexalinks Hybrid. She lays one egg per day, all year around. One BIG pinkish brown egg with white sparkles. Delicious! Isa Brown chickens lay around 300-320 eggs per year.

Gittan (black) is a black Harco chicken (a Black Rocks breed), an excellent egg-layer of 280-300 eggs per year. She is a little shy, but has the same body build as Tingeling. They are BFF’s, Tingeling and Gittan. Her eggs are smooth and dark brown, she likes to spend hours before laying them. And she always lays them around my lunch hour, which stops me from eating fresh eggs for lunch. I don’t want to disturb her. She is usually done around 2 pm, so if I take a late lunch, I’ll get a warm, fresh egg on my toast!

Lotta (white) is the difficult one… She laid one egg, ONE egg, her first 6 month with us. We though something was wrong with her first, but after some research we understood that White Leghorn Chickens don’t lay eggs during the winter. Her eggs are really tasty, a real treat! And it’s so pretty to see her pure white and smooth egg in the nesting box. She is very shy, she doesn’t like to come near us, but she is much more relaxed now and has started to trust us. She does a funny little thing… The other two gladly lay their eggs on top of the other one’s egg, but not Lotta. Oh no, she gets really annoyed if there is an egg in the box when it’s her turn. She hides the other eggs by throwing straws on top of them, then makes a deep little nest for herself where she lays her egg. If we see a Lotta-egg in the nest, you have to dig around to find the other two eggs!

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chickens-6Daily Chicken Care:

Morning: We open the (big to stand in) cage where they have been pecking around in the hay since dawn. I give them about 1 dl each of chicken food (as they are free range chickens, they see to most of the food on their own. They have a huge space to roam around freely. I check that they have enough water (they can never run out of water!) and then I open the roof to the chicken coop, grab a small garden fork and start poking away the poop from the night. I put it all, straw and poop, in a pile next to the cage. Once a month I collect all the straw and throw it on the compost. During the growing season we keep them behind the garage, where a locked fence keeps them away from the vegetables, but during the winter they have access to the entire garden!

Lunch: I go for my first egg-collecting and to check that everything is ok. Most of the time it’s just in and out, as the nest is busy and I don’t want to disturb. I do like to sit down to stroke Tingeling for a while (she likes it too!) and to talk to them or give them worms if I find any.

Late afternoon: This is when I usually pick up the eggs of the day. Most of the time there are 3 pretty eggs in different colors waiting for me.

Before sunset: I trick them to go into the cage by throwing some chicken food into the straw (yes, the pooped down straw…) Once they are in I lock the cage, say goodnight and leave them. Just to be sure, I close the fence on my way out as well. There are a lot of foxes around and every neighbour have told me how the fox took their chickens! Our cage go underground as well, so I really hope we can keep him out…

The basics:

– They live in a small chicken coop, which is basically just a box with a roof, filled with straw. I always thought I needed to have a special place for the egg-laying (a nest box), but if I keep the routine of taking away the poop in the morning, I never have any accidents with soiled eggs.

– The chicken coop is located in a big metal cage that also runs underground (3×3 m wide and 2 m high). There is a tarp on the roof to protect from the rain. The food dispenser is attached to the cage, in perfect chicken height. The water dispenser stand right on the ground for now. I need to change that as there is straw in the water constantly… The cage is big enough to keep chickens in all the time, but I like to give them more space, which is why they have the entire area behind the garage. They love it! It’s their (and my kids’) play ground. This is where we have our composts, there is a bamboo bush that they love to play under, there is also a big pine tree, with loose, dry ground underneath, always protected from rain. This is where they clean up themselves. Chickens stay clean by “dust bathing”.

I just cut down all the ornamental grass, we are cutting it down to small pieces to use as straw in the chicken coop, but for now, my kids like to sit on this huge bed of dry grass and play with their feathered friends.

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chickens


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The Edible Garden Project 2015 – part 2

Cleaning up and building a compost.

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Hi there! Welcome back to our Edible Garden Project 2015, part 2. If you want to know what this is all about, please have a look at my first post which explains everything 🙂

This week has been all about cleaning up and harvest the remaining crops before planting a few new vegetables for our fall and winter garden next week. We have a ton of apples and lots of beetroots, some salads and of course the entire freezer full of courgettes (zucchinis). I also finally managed to get in touch with the handyman who is suppose to come with his excavator to dig up the awfully looking and weed-infested gravel path leading to the garage. Hopefully he’ll be able to fix a tap close to the growing area for the garden hose. At the moment I have to drag the hose aaaaall the way around the house and into the hallway! Not the best solution… Anyway, I’m so exited to get rid of all the gravel and to deep dig (adding well-composted horse manure and compost in deep trenches) or make a “lasagna preparation” of the soil for some serious planting next spring.

I have managed to clear out that horrible space behind the garage with promised bruises, nettle burns and thorn cuts as a result. But so totally worth it! Next week I’m heading to Brico (Belgium’s store for gardening and building tools etc.) to buy mi’self a fence for that area. I need to keep the neighbours dog blind for the chickens, plus save them from an ugly compost area. I found so much trash all over the place, I also need to take a trip to the recycle station to get rid of some wood planks and rusty tools that I found on the ground. I also found a metal structure that will be perfect for my cucumbers next year!

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This week I also build us a seriously big and useful compost! I used two old pallets against the wall of the garage and I will ask my nice husband to nail them down in the ground with some poles later on. I like the idea of having the compost open in the front. The chickens will use the compost as a playground when they are out and about foraging, hopefully they will poop on it a lot to speed up the composting. Having the front of the compost open will also help when turning it, which is something you should do pretty often. I find the above image useful for knowing what you can and can’t compost. I should actually print it out and put it in the kitchen 😉 I also decided to give that wet and gooey old compost a chance to recover. I’m sure with a little balance of more dry material (cardboard, straw, dry grass, dry leaves etc.) it will be alright and soil nutritious.

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Finally I have been hanging out with this little lady: introducing my 2 month old daughter Alva! After all my hard muscle work in the garden, it’s seriously nice to sit down for a while, nursing her and laughing at her toothless smiles. Can you tell I’m completely in love? She is helping us in the garden by watching us work from her stroller and by sleeping so good outside, letting her parents work undisturbed. If she wakes up in the middle of a nap, all I do is starting to whistle or sing (or talk embarrassingly loud to myself!!) while working. Digging and stomping around very loud next to her also works… she falls back asleep straight away. Neat trick, huh? 😉 All kids really want to know that we are close by and that they are safe, right? Anyway, next summer she’ll probably be crawling around in our edible garden, getting dirt on her knees and straight into her mouth, and taking her first steps of course!


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The Edible Garden Project 2015 – part 1

Our present garden.

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This is our garden. Welcome! It doesn’t look amazingly inviting, does it? That’s because our garden is far from finished. Let me explain:

We moved here a few months ago (in the middle of the growing season!) and when we arrived, I made sure most of my plants from my old vegetable garden came with me. It’s hard to move, to get your roots pulled up… literally! My vegetable plants really didn’t like to be moved, but with some heavy work and some fresh pot soil, they survived at least. Still, because of the move, we ended up having a pretty pathetic crop this summer so I focused on learning and studying about growing your own food instead. I tried to learn as much as I could about the plants I was growing, about plants I should try to grow and also what I could have done better. But what I realised after all this studying is that it is really easy to grow your own food! Much easier than I thought. So we decided to start this project for real and I am so exited to share this with you now:

The Edible Garden Project 2015!

Max and I have decided that we will make our garden as productive as possible for next summer (2015) and we are starting with a few fall-friendly vegetables already this fall! We don’t have a lot of space to grow on yet, but with a little planning we think we might be able to grow quite a lot and seriously cut our food expenses as well as decreasing our carbon footprint by growing organic and save the waste we would create by buying food in the supermarket.

The plan is:

– to try to grow as much food as we can by ourselves.

– to eat mainly vegetarian (although Max and the kids will eat meat occasionally).

– to buy what we can’t grow in bulk and locally grown (flour, oats, cheese, butter, milk).

– to have our own eggs (there is a chicken coop in our garden already!)

– to cook and bake everything by ourselves and really avoid processed food.

– to create a peaceful, organised and beautiful garden full of flowers and food.

So let me take you on a tour of our garden as it looks at present and let me explain what needs to be done to get started.

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First: this is what our vegetable garden looked like this summer… Not very impressive, right? I just planted them in pots, buckets and what-not … what I had available really.

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This is the second year I grow corn and still no success! The mistake I made the first year was not to give them enough sun and this year it was a combination of being uprooted three times (!!) and vicious slugs.

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I like to mix my vegetables in the vegetable beds. Not only does it look interesting, but they all grow in different speed (fast-growing radish is great to grow while you are waiting for a slow-growing cauliflower). It also helps to grow certain vegetables next to each other as companion planting repels and confuse pests. I’m growing potatoes in those big pots in the background.

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Broad beans, Cresse, Sunflowers and Lemon Balm, extremely productive courgettes in the background.

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A yellow zucchini plant and popcorn (!!). My kids played around with popcorn for fun and they actually started growing! Although no cobs grew, they were still decorative.

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I grow garlic and peas in wooden wine crates on the terrace. It always worked fine for me and it gives a little space in the precious vegetable beds for other goodies.

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I grew my first tomato plant this year and at first it looked very productive as about 20 tomatoes started to show. Unfortunately I learned at harvest time that there is something called “Blossom end rot” and all my tomatoes had it 😦 Apparently it is due to a lack of calcium in the soil. You learn by your mistakes is what they say …

To continue our tour, here is what we have to work with and ideas I have to change or re-make to the better:

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1. The entrance: This used to be a little gravel path leading to the garage you can see in the background. This will all be made into a lawn and growing beds. The garage has flooding problems, so the only thing we can store there are pots and maybe a seed growing table and a shelf. The ornamental grass hedge is gorgeous! It looks like Fountain Grass and will have featherlike flowers in the end of the summer. I’m planning to dig up the ground here to create a long vegetable bed along the grass all the way to the garage. That should give us about 20 square metres of growing space. I’m thinking that I will build a tall trellis structure with beans climbing between the house wall and the grass, creating a pretty entrance into the garden.

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2. The chicken coop: If I was a chicken I wouldn’t want to live in this coop… It’s dark, disgusting, dirty and it needs a big clean up! I have already removed some old and moulded wood planks that was covering and weighing down the roof, plus taken down a scary looking tarp that looked like that sail on the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean! I’m planning to wash the entire coop, inside out, add wood shavings all over the ground and make a “dust bath tub” out of an old tire. I also need to add a door to the coop to protect the chickens from all the foxes that are running around in our neighbourhood at night. The cage can be closed, but I heard incredible stories about foxes. They can get in anywhere! So another door to the coop itself would be a good idea I think. As you can see the coop stands inside a cubic cage, so we could technically keep them shut in that cage with still some space to run free. I’m not to fond of the idea to close an animal in a cage though, so I’m planning to let them run around in the back area surrounding the garage. There is a closed fenced to “the house garden”, so they won’t be able to get to the vegetable patches and mess around, so I’ll be able to control their free range to the closed “garage garden”, the chicken coop area and the composts (where they are more than welcome to play!).

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3. The compost: To continue the tale of dirty and disgusting … well, the present compost is the most disgusting compost I have ever seen. Apart from lots of flies there was no sign of life, no worms, no caterpillars, no beetles… I thought that was  pretty strange for a compost, so I decided to … ehh … have a look inside. And as I suspected, after some turning of the wet and gooey material, I found whole egg shells, plastic pieces, bones and even better: the remains of a pig foot with some rotten flesh still on it. yup. So I think I’m going to make a big hole and bury the remains of this compost, and start a new one. With crushed eggshells. Here is a great list of what you can and can’t compost.

Around the garage is a really wild area, full of nettles and thistles and facing the neighbour’s garden. I think this could be a great area to make a few composts actually. We also need to put up some sort of fence as the neighbours have a dog, I’m scared his constant barking will scare the chickens to death… Anyone with experience of barking dogs and chickens? Please tell me about it in the comments below. Anyway, the first task here is to pull up all them weeds by the roots. It’s gonna sting and cut me, but it will be nice and clean once it’s done 🙂 And then I’m going to build a huge compost.

ediblegarden-214. The ornamental grass: The first part of this grass hedge is so pretty! And then the above happens. Thistles, nettles, wines and un-trimmed lavender has taken over! I actually feel exited to arm myself with a long-sleeved sweater and garden gloves and get it there to pull! There is life in there though… I’ve heard a mouse (please don’t let it be a rat!) running around in there squeaking and also some angry buzzing from what I believe is a wasp-nest. Gulp. You can imagine how nice it will look once there is a lawn and vegetable patches in front of this hedge instead of weed-infested gravel.

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5. The good things that needs some tweaking: There are two fruit trees: one apple tree and one cherry tree, both very productive. For seasonal thinking it’s great. We can harvest the cherries in June and the apples in September-October. Both can be stored, canned or frozen and will give us a big supply during the winter.

There is a semi-shaded spot against a straw fence/ hedge next to the apple tree. I’m planning to plant strawberries and herbs there. We have a small citronella tree standing in the middle of the lawn, I’m moving it here as well. The citronella is a mosquito repellant so it will be a good idea to put it next to the terrace.

There is also some bamboo next to the chicken coop. Great for those important bamboo sticks to create growing structures.

So there you have it! Our garden. I’m so exited to do this project and I hope you want to follow us and see what happens and how we progress. Now I’m off to build a compost!