Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Flying the coop

One of the garden volunteers, Dee, has started a new adventure at home, raising chickens...

Day One:  Today is the day!  I have been dreaming and planning of raising some chickens in the backyard for a couple of years.  Bringing the hubby on board was another matter!  I tried to explain we could have our own fresh, organic eggs and I wanted the manure for amazing compost for my organic garden.  He still wasn't interested.  "Buy the eggs from the store and get the manure from a farm or a bag", he said. "But they can be pets, too," I was trying all I could think of.  Then one day, he came home and said, "Did you know chickens eat ticks and stink bugs?"  Well, yeah, among other things….and that's all it took.  Huh, imagine that!  Who would’ve thought the selling point would be bugs?
I brought the baby chicks home in a box that was much smaller than I imagined I would need, like the size of a shoe box only a little taller.  The breeder said it needs to be that small so that they keep warm on the ride home with their body heat.  I kept the heat on almost full blast the whole way home since it was a cold day and the wind chill said 24F.   I came home with seven chicks in hopes that at least three or four will be hens.  The roosters will be going back to the farm.  I just don't want a wake-up call to all the neighbors at 5 a.m. every morning. 

I chose a variety of chicks and the breeder was very knowledgeable.  I chose a Australorp, a Buckeye, two Easter Eggers, a Silver Laced Wyandotte, a Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Chantecler.   She took her time with me to explain each breed I was interested in and their pros and cons.  I got a tour of her coops and pens as she showed me all the other chicks I might be interested in, which was invaluable to me since tours are not done because of biohazard reasons.  It was great for me because I could see what the whole operation of raising chickens looked like in reality, not just photos in a book.
I keep them in a large, appliance cardboard box in the basement and I tied a sturdy string from a nail in a beam to the clip handle of the light so that they can keep warm.  That way, it is easier to move the box around or the light up or down to regulate the heat.  I also put a thermometer in the box and taped over it with clear duct tape because the chicks tried to peck at it.  I spread really small shredded newspaper for bedding and spread some starter feed around in the bedding.  They just loved scratching around in there for the food!   I also learned that you can use old towels for baby chicks if you have a cage set up instead of a box.  The cage weighs the towel down so that it doesn't get "scratched up" by the chicks. 

At the other end of the box, I put their water dish.  You can buy them at feed stores, but I made my own out of recycled materials.  I used an empty plastic pretzel container with a lid, and the bottom of a plastic round Chinese takeout container.  Here's how I made it.
Step 1: Hot-glued the takeout container to the top of the lid. 

Step 2: Used a sharp knife and carefully made some puncture holes in the pretzel container just below the section where the lid screws on, being careful that all holes were below the top of the height of the takeout container.

Step 3:  Unscrewed the lid from the pretzel container and filled it with water, put the lid back on, turned it upside down, which is right side up for the waterer, and viola!
In hindsight, I would've glued the bottom of the pretzel jar to the bowl instead of the lid so that I can just unscrew the top to refill it if it is not dirty.

I did have to dip each chick's beak into the waterer for them to understand what it was.  Baby chicks are not too bright! After that, they had no problems getting a drink of water whenever they were thirsty.
Whenever it came time for bed, I was concerned that they would stay up all night peeping since the only light I have is a white one, not a red one, but when I snuck downstairs to check on them, they were all sleeping in a row.  I expected them to be in a ball huddled together, but not so.  Some were sleeping in a sitting position with their beaks tucked under their wings, others were laid out on their stomachs with their necks out stretched on the floor of the brooder.  That was a funny sight. And yes, I did check to make sure those were breathing! I think I will add a small dowel rod or twig as a roosting bar and cover the top with chicken wire or left over window screen.  I am happy to say that the chicks did not wake me at all throughout the night.

Day 3: Chicks are starting to come to my side of the box when they see me peak over the edge at them.  The Buckeye seems to be the "Mother Hen" of the bunch.  She is also about two weeks older than the youngest of the bunch.  I have some a few weeks old and some a few days old.  They all seem to be fine together.  I found an animal store that carries organic soy-free chicken feed in Pittsburgh.  It is called Animal Nature on Forbes Avenue in Regent Square. I am very happy to find a place to buy locally and not have to pay almost as much in shipping as in feed like you do when you order online.  The helpful lady I spoke to said they are ordering chicks soon.
The only pain in the neck thing is cleaning out their waterer.  It doesn't take long but you do become aware that chickens may be a little stupid.

They poop in their own water supply.
 I clean it once in the morning when I get up and once at night when I get home.  I check it one more time before bed, but it is usually OK at that point.  I am using finely shredded newspaper for bedding and they sometimes get pieces of it in their waterer when scratching for food.  I have the waterer sitting on two pieces of scrap wood to elevate it more to cut down on this happening.  I pour the water that has poop in it on the compost pile and refill it and it's done.  Then I scrub my hands with soap, use a fingernail brush and that's it. It really is so much more simple than I imagined.  Anybody can do this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wanted: Garlic Mustard

It looks innocent enough. But a delicate plant that's in bloom right now is silently wreaking HAVOC. Garlic mustard is a bully in the plant world. It was thought to have been brought over from Europe in the 1800's for cooking and medicinal purposes. Yep, it's edible and spreads fast, crowding out our native species. As a result, native insects that depend on native plants and flowers suffer as well.

We have some growing in the back portion of our property in the shade. It's a cool season biennial. The plant produces flowers in the second year of its life and then dies. So those plants flowering this year are in their terrible twos and will produce seeds.

Controlling this invasive plant requires timing and persistence. Year-old plants that will not produce a flower this year should be pulled up by the roots. Lay the pulled plants somewhere they can completely dry out before putting them in the compost bin. Flowers can be picked from the two-year-old plants. They will have to be burned or thrown away as the seeds can survive for quite a while.

For more info, check out the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center at