Life has become very chicken-orientated.
The day begins by opening the coop, lifting the feeder to release soaked and fermented corn, and letting the hens run wild.
It ends by gently encouraging two or three hens, though ideally all of them, back into the coop and lifting any remaining ones into their nest for the night.
And of course, there’s everything in between. I’ve found myself watching YouTube videos of chicken noises to try and interpret what they are saying. Is Giddens crying or expressing contentment? Is Shiva actually an alien or is that just a low gargling sound?
It has been so wonderful to have them in the garden. Before they were in the rented piece of land called La Veiga, which is about a 15 minute walk from our house, where they lived in the chicken tractor.
In the last few weeks, however, it had been really hot, and La Veiga gets the sun for more or less the whole day. Chickens like shade, and because of this egg production was down to one or two a day, sometimes none. I felt bad for them, but we hadn’t finished making the garden coop yet so that project was moved to ‘most urgent’.
We made the coop out of the recycled materials from the old windows and doors. So shutters became doors, doors became walls. I had a vague design in mind but ended up making it up as I went along and building it in-situ so it fit to the uneven land. It’s very ramshackle.
Nik put up the fence around it. It’s a very subtle black gridded fence, so that you can still see the garden through it, and from far away it’s barely noticeable, but high enough that the chickens can’t fly away. In an ideal world the chickens would be free range, but our garden is next to a forest full of martens, foxes, boar and more, so this is for their own safety. We also don’t want them to come and peck all our precious veggies.
Last Sunday, we had a full day working in the garden. Ideal weather of sun and breeze. A neighbour had given us some tomato seedlings that had sprouted up next to his compost heap without his intention. He said they were very hardy and will grow anywhere. Following Charles Dowding’s advice, I planted them on top of some twine leading up to a high wire across two cherry trees, where they should eventually climb to and fruit.
Midway through this activity, I heard frantic and delighted clucking coming from the chicken run. The egg song! Simone was very pleased with herself indeed.
I went to congratulate her, and found not one but five eggs in the coop! The first time they have all layed on the same day, and all before lunchtime.
After just one week of living in the garden, we’ve now gone from about 10 eggs per week to two dozen. Perhaps this is the chickens’ way of saying ‘we like it here’.
When they are not scrabbling to get food and have calmed down, they’re really nice to watch as they explore the terrain. Taking dust baths together, nibbling on a plant, digging for worms and looking at a spot in the garden like it’s the first time they’ve seen it in their lives. They are very hilarious animals.
As well as finishing the chicken coop and run, the garden has seen vast improvements in the last few weeks. We planted lots of berries on a very steep slope that would otherwise be abandoned; physalis, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and blueberries. We finally emptied the cattle feeder of the rubbish that had accumulated there and refilled it with rotting wood, straw, earth and well-composted manure, then planted it with cascading cherry tomatoes and bush basil from a friend.
Nik attached some climbing beans to strings connected to the fence of the chicken run, which will hopefully be a successful trellis if they can stay far enough away from hungry beaks.
Finally, we bought a 4x50m sheet of black plastic to put on La Veiga, covering the land up and smothering the weeds until we are ready to plant into it. It’s more efficient than mowing, digging or plowing. Even though it is made of an undesirable material, it should be a more sustainable solution to weeds as it can last for years and requires not much more effort than rolling it down on top of the land.
The idea is that the black plastic stops light from getting to the plants, and after a few months they die and rot into the soil, adding fertility and subtracting backache.
When we got back from Portugal there was a massive pile of shit on our doorstep. Which, in any other situation, would be taken as an offence. But when it’s from a local farmer who knows that you grow vegetables it’s a very thoughtful gift.
It wasn’t literally on our doorstep, but about ten feet away.
We’ve used it to prepare this year’s squash bed and make more hot compost.
Lisbon was great. Amazing food and people. We had a good time driving there and wild camping along the way, though didn’t end up selling any food because it was hard enough to make sure we had time for lunch alongside doing hundreds of kilometres a day. This will be next project though. Just one thing at a time!