Monday, November 10, 2014

Gardening with Chickens

It dawned on me while writing a recent post how often I begin with the weather; what is has done, what it is doing, or what we are anticipating to happen. This makes absolute perfect sense when you take into account how much everything we do is affected by Mother Nature and her whims. We are always, ALWAYS preparing for the coming season and its unique needs.

In the winter time, between chipping out water buckets and keeping everyone as comfortable as possible, we spend time planning Spring gardens. Using the deep litter method, our various stalls decompose into a rich compost mix for those anticipated herb and veggie beds and serves double duty of increasing the floor heat in the barn and coop, too. Winter is the time to get ahead on our stores and stock up on making farm products like soaps, scents, and massage melts. Cozy in front of the wood stove or busy at my desk, I dream up and bring to life new eggshell jewelry designs for the summer markets.
March Baby, Jemimah.

June guinea keets and chicks hatching.
Spring thaw brings life. The animals who have hunkered down and endured the long winter months cooped up in the barn are ready to move to their seasonal homes- Ebony to her pig house and private yard and the turkeys to their roomy run. The goats leave off their accusing glares over the snow and cold keeping them inside and venture into their pastures once again. We are forgiven. In the woods, brush, scrub, and brambles bloom new shoots for the goats to enjoy and tame. The growth they strip leaves the ground below open and exposed for new grasses to take root. The young trees they assault with their hunger become kindling to heat our home through next winter's months. Goat's kid and milk begins to flow. Months spent without fresh cheese feed our appetite for fresh herb chevre, feta, and ricotta. Seeds are started in the greenhouse. The litter in the stalls is cleaned out and top dressed on our garden beds. As soon as the ground breaks, the hens begin working the garden beds for us- removing all the unwanted weeds that inevitably sprout and take root and mixing in the compost for us. When they are finished, our work of planting onions, beets, lettuces, peas and other early crops begin. CSA shares begin.

Harvest time!
Summer's warmth signals the time for nests to be made and set upon in earnest. Soon the peep-peep-peep of chicks, ducklings, goslings, and poults abound. Egg production increases and soon we are collecting nearly 14 dozen eggs each week. Seedlings get transplanted into the garden beds; tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, cucumbers, and direct seeding of corn, pumpkin, and beans begins. Our local farmer's markets are in full swing. Farm work increases, too. There is weeding to do, mucking stalls, checking fencing, adding fencing, repairing barns, building new coops or pens all to plan and execute. CSA shares are in full swing. We pick the veggies when they are ripe to distribute to the neighbors who have signed up for our shares. We preserve our supply as we go; canning or freezing as the need may be.

Sean manning our booth at Belfast Art Market
Leah and Rachel
And, then, just as suddenly as it came upon us, summer wanes and autumn takes over. The nights take on a pleasant bite. We keep a watchful eye for frost predictions. It becomes a game of calculated risk as to when to pull the last of the onions, carrots, pumpkins and beets from the garden. Wood cutting and stacking becomes a priority. Late babies need extra care. Places are prepared in the barn. It will soon be time to move Ebony and the turkeys back to the barn. We'll hold off as long as possible, but by early December, it will be necessary. Shops that carry our goods gear up for the busy shopping season. Keeping up with demand for our mosaic eggshell jewelry, bee's wax wraps, snapper towels, scent tarts, massage melts and soaps requires careful planning and diligent work. This is our busiest sale time, too, at local craft fairs and art market events.

And, this is where we were last week. We should have been working on getting the last of the wood cut and stacked in the shed. Instead, Mother Nature threw us a bit of a curve ball- a freak autumn storm with over a foot of snow and 40 mile an hour winds to take down trees and leave much of the state of Maine without power for several days- several thousand homes are still without as I write this. We fare better than many without power. We heat our home with the wood stove and that was unaffected. We cook on a propane stove and can still use the stove top. Our well overflows outside at the pump (one benefit of living in a swamp!) and we had access to fresh water to drink and cook with. We melted snow on the wood stove to heat to wash dishes and flush toilets. Internet was available on my cell phone, which could be charged with our van's battery.

The only real worry in our world, besides keeping the animals safe, was the danger of flooding in the basement in the aftermath. Our electric sump pump generally keeps the basement dry and with the addition three years ago of a supplemental battery backup to it, we have had no real issues with it- until now. No power and a foot of melting snow combined to create about a half inch of water slowly seeping its way across the basement floor. Not good. And, with power out, trees down, and roads unsafe, we were in a pickle. Sean tried to rig and use the new truck battery to run the pump, but that did not work. Then, he thought of the plastic hand pump attached to a barrel in the back yard. He removed the hand-pump section and cobbled together a system with a 5 gallon bucket to create a make-shift pump. Rudimentary, but effective while the power was out. Sean removed approximately 50 gallons of water using this method and saved any damage to the basement furniture. Once power was restored, Cait and the girls employed the shop vac and old work towels to suck up the rest of the mess and dry the floor. We will be adding a new backup system to the list of "must haves" before winter.

In anticipation for winter's arrival, we moved all the hens to the front garden area. Why use machinery or make time to care for this chore, when we have 60 hens willing and able to handle the job? Even the bucklings got into the action. Between them, our garden beds are looking bare and ready to be tucked in with some compost for its winter rest. This is how we garden with chickens:

Our Toms in the front: Aquila and Lazarus and the hens in the back looking on. 
Both Blue Slate and Red Breasted Bronze turkeys went for a bit of a "walk about" after the storm to explore and see what was new in the world. They wandered past an abandoned chick-brooder house and got as far as the pig pen yard. The snow proved to be an excellent distraction for them. They went no further and Sean returned them to their home upon his return.

Their necks and heads are bright and handsome, but those poor wet tail feathers!

I have been trying to buy out time to finish creating the video and upload images to go along with this post. With the shows, snow, and everything else we are pulled upon to care for, it has taken me a week. I hope you enjoy this update. I appreciate your company. Thanks for stopping by, friends.

Sean and Sonja ♥

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