30 days of blogging, day 2

My chickens are laying again! Well, the one mature one is laying again. The eggs stopped coming when the days got shorter in early November, but for the past 3 days I’ve gotten an egg a day from good old Minerva. There’s something so satisfying about picking up a warm, fresh egg from a comfy nest of straw and having it warm your palm as you carry it to the house through – 20°C weather.

I love my backyard chickens. I can’t wait to get that first blue egg and that first green egg from two of my other colourful laying breeds. It will be a colourful Easter, without the food colouring!

Egg from a Black Copper Marans

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Overwintering backyard chickens in cold climates

Supplemental Heat

My parents had a rooster when I was growing up – Rodney the rooster. He had the nine lives of a cat, and survived crazy ordeals like being stepped on by a horse. One extremely cold day, my parents found him frozen solid to a piece of metal farm machinery. SOLID. Like, you could touch him and he was stiff and apparently unresponsive, or so they tell me. By the time the afternoon sun came out and started melting away the ice and snow, Rodney was reanimated. He had survived being frozen solid, or so the legend goes…

The moral of the story is that chickens can tolerate cold – or at least the cold hardy breeds can. Adding too much supplemental heat can mean that they are not acclimated to the cold, and may not go outside at all over winter. The worst case scenario is that if you have a power outage, your unacclimated birds will freeze (and may not be as lucky as Rodney). Although our chickens would probably be OK without any supplemental heat (as long as they had deep bedding and could huddle together for warmth), I want to minimize the risk of their combs getting frostbite, and, quite honestly, I want to maximize their comfort. They’re pets as much as they are livestock.

So, how do we take the edge off without making them wusses to the cold? Despite the fact that my wife insulated the hell out of the coop when she was building it, it doesn’t stay warm enough without adding supplemental heat. This is probably because we leave the door to the run open during the day and there are big vents at the peak of the roof that let warm air out and cold air in (ventilation is a top priority in a chicken coop to prevent disease/respiratory infections). When the door is closed at night, the body heat of the chickens alone make it just 1 or 2 degrees warmer inside than out. When it’s -20°C (-4°F), that’s really cold, even for cold hardy birds.
This is why we think it’s important to have electricity to your coop if you want to overwinter in a cold climate (i.e., where it regularly drops below ~-15°C/5°F). We just ran an outdoor extension cord from our shed (which we also added electrical to), along the fenceline, to the coop. An outdoor power bar is mounted to the side of the coop inside a plastic container (my wife’s genius idea). We can easily pop off the lid of the container to plug/unplug anything we want, and the connections all stay clean and dry. We choose to turn on supplemental heat when it hits -15°C. The heater we use is this one. It’s meant to be mounted to the underside of a desk to keep your toesies warm. It has a low profile, and never gets hot to the touch. If the weather is forecasted to drop below -15, I turn the heater on for the night.

To monitor the temperatures in the coop and outside, I use a weather station with remote sensors. There’s one sensor in the coop and one outside (and one in the baby’s room for good measure). On a -20°C night, the coop can be as warm as -5°C (-1°C if we leave the heater on all day before). I’d like to eventually get a thermostat outlet adapter for it so I can set it to only come on when the coop reaches a certain low, and to turn off when it reaches a certain high. But that’s on the birthday wish list for another year.

Water

We have a galvanized steel chicken waterer, and we bought this heated base to set it on. We leave the base plugged in in the winter and it turns on only when the temperature drops below freezing (which is every day in the winter here…). It’s barely warm to the touch so we’re not worried about fires or burnt chicken toes. And I actually found that I like it under the waterer in summertime too because it keeps the drinking trough elevated to keep out poop and bedding.

Supplemental Light

Eggs are a seasonal product. The eggs we buy in the grocery store in the dark, winter months are from farms that use supplemental light to trick the chickens into thinking they’re still in the long days of summer. There’s a lot of controversy of using supplemental light for backyard chickens. I don’t have a strong opinion either way, but we don’t use supplemental light, and here’s why. Chickens, like humans, are hatched/born with all of the (undeveloped) eggs they will ever lay already in their ovaries. One day they will run dry, just like humans run out of eggs to ovulate and go through menopause. Since we want to keep our hens as pets and don’t want to butcher and eat them after a year or two of good egg laying, we want to stretch out the eggs we get from them. If we used supplemental light, they would lay all through the year, but would dry up at a younger age. Since we don’t use supplemental light, they will only give us eggs in the spring and summer, but they should have many years of laying ahead of them. My mom has a hen who laid intermittently for 10 years without supplemental light. That hen is now senile (but still loved), and seems to have finally retired from her laying days.

 

 

4 Permaculture Tips that Saved my Veggie Garden

If you’re just starting out at vegetable gardening, you’ll probably be starting with the popular plants like tomatoes, zucchini, and maybe some herbs. Most people can successfully grow these, but sometimes the garden conditions you are working with (i.e., sun, soil, water) make even these common plants an uphill battle to grow. I’ve found that by applying some of the principles of permaculture to my backyard veggie garden, I’ve decreased my gardening workload and increased my yield. 

Now, by its nature, gardening takes years in the same plot to really perfect the growing. So don’t worry if you’ve just bought a tomato, a zucchini, and some herbs, plunked them in the ground or in a pot, and were hoping for the best. It might work out pretty great for you, or you’ll find some things that worked and some things that didn’t. Gardening – especially veggie gardening – is art on a canvas that gets wiped clean every winter. You get to recreate and try new things every year. Hopefully these lessons I’ve learned in permaculture techniques will help you as your garden grows and changes over the years to come. 

1. Pollinators are everything.

If you follow gardening, agriculture, or environmental news, you’ll know that populations of pollinators (like bees) are declining because of pollution, pesticide use, and loss of habitat/food sources. Without pollinators, most of the fruit and vegetables we eat will never form on the plants. Over the years I have learned that doing nothing to attract pollinators has had a detrimental effect on the amount of food I can grow. For example, I have 6 tomato plants in excellent, rich soil, I fertilize them, I water them, they get full sun, and they are properly pruned and tied to supports. The plants are extremely healthy and grow sometimes 5 feet tall. But each year I’m lucky to get enough tomatoes to eat in a few salads. Ideally, that many tomato plants would stock my freezer with tomato sauce to last all winter. In my neighbour’s garden, small, wimpy tomato plants are interspersed among a large wildflower garden. You should see how full with fruit these little plants get. They are so weighted down they look like they’re about to collapse. Unfortunately my neighbour’s front yard wildflower garden is far enough away from my back yard veggie garden that the pollinators she attracts don’t often find their way to my side. So on my list of garden to-do’s is to plant more flowers in and around my veggie gardens. There are a lot of flowers that are reportedly great companions to vegetables, and many are even edible. They also don’t have to take up a lot of space if you plant them interspersed among your veggies. 

    2. Plant for the sun you have, not the sun you wish you had.This raised bed only gets ~6 hours of sunlight a day, and peas, carrots and beets do best here.

    This has been a tough one for me… I have a big back yard and raised beds that are situated right in the afternoon sun. But if I look realistically at my yard, very few of my garden beds actually get full sun (i.e., ~8 hours a day), and the outside perimeter of my yard is pretty much in full shade all day. I also planned my garden when we moved here 6 years ago, and since then a neighbour’s tree has grown enough to completely shade the berry garden I had planted (the annoying part of gardening in the city…). If you plant plants that thrive on the actual light that your gardens get, you will be rewarded. If you plant high sun requirement plants (e.g., tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries) in insufficient sun, you will get leafy green plants with very little payoff. Waste of precious space when you’re trying to feed your family from an urban or suburban yard. I’ve started to adjust my garden to meet its changing light patterns. I no longer try to grow sweet bell peppers or eggplant, and I devote my two sunniest raised beds for the produce I know we will make the most use out of (like tomatoes). I also plan to move my asparagus this fall out of a spot that has become shaded thanks to tree growth, and I am slowly replacing my berry garden (currents, strawberries, yellow raspberries) with a wild native black raspberry that grows in the shaded understory of farm hedgerows around here. The berries are smaller and the thorny brambles are bramblier, but they taste amazing and they should grow like wild in my backyard. Which brings me to my next tip… 

    3. Plant native. 

    The young, curled up fronds of the wild Ostrich Fern are the culinary delicacy known as fiddle heads.

    I have been doing my research on native edibles and slowly changing my veggie garden from high needs annual vegetables (many from the Mediterranean, which is a long way from Canada!) to low maintenance native edibles from, well, right in my own backyard, so to speak. It’s amazing to discover what edible plants grow wild where you’re from, and an adventure in culinary creativity to learn to cook with them. For example, fiddle heads are a delicacy to buy in the produce aisle, but it turns out they grow rampant where I live as Ostrich Fern. I now grow Ostrich Fern in a shaded part of my backyard and have amazing stir frys with home grown produce as early as late May. The wild black raspberries, as mentioned above, are another example. There’s also a native perennial version of kale, called sea kale, that I plant once and eat from for years to come. So many hidden native treasures out there… 

    4. Mulch.Mulching is permaculture 101, and it’s not just for the fancy shrub or ornamental grass garden you see in posh neighbourhoods. The right kind of mulch holds moisture, provides nutrients to your plants, suppresses unwanted weeds, and will even attract beneficial insects (back to that point about pollinators!). I’m lucky enough to have a local organic mushroom farm that gives away a spent horse manure and straw combo that works GREAT as a mulch and as a tilled in compost for soil amendment. We can also use straw from our chicken run now. 

    These four points are some of the most important concepts of permaculture, and I’ve been able to apply them to my backyard veggie garden to make my life a lot easier. Gardening is always easiest if you can find a way to work with mother nature. Humans will never win in a battle against her (a fact I have to constantly remind myself every time a squirrel decimates my strawberries or my corn…).