Or “It’s All Fun and Games Until Somebody Tears Up My Walking Onions.”
I love chickens. I fondly remember my very first batch of chicks from the summer of 1997, and I recall hours spent doting on each one (whether they wanted to be picked up and cuddled or not). I still have photos and feathers from some of the most beloved chickens I’ve had over the years, and get a lot of mileage out of a funny story starring one of my favorites, a sweet little hen named Blanche.
It should come as no surprise that I’m pretty indulgent when it comes to my girls. We have thirty hens and two roosters, and I try to make their little chicken lives as happy as possible. They get trays of microgreens from the greenhouse once a week; treats like leftover grits and, occasionally, the ridiculously expensive “Harvest Delight” chicken treat mix from Tractor Supply; and have the run of the pasture and the woods.
Most of the hens are homebodies, sticking close to the chicken house on the edge of the woods. But I have a few more adventurous souls who like to sneak into the barn to lay eggs and scratch for bugs in the sand floor. I’m especially fond of one hen named Bernice; her quirky personality amuses me to no end, and I’ll often hold the gate open so she can scoot into the barn behind me.
Generally, the chickens ignore the garden areas that lie on the other side of the fences around the barn–they’ve got plenty to keep them occupied within the confines of their paddock. But as soon as I bring out the bales of straw mulch, all bets are off. They can zero in on fresh mulch like laser-guided missiles; I guess tossing straw around is the chicken equivalent of video games. It’s an obsession. They’ll do anything to get to the magical land of fresh mulch so they can scratch around for the bugs hiding beneath.
And even though they aren’t after my plants, the chickens inflict an enormous amount of collateral damage on the garden. This is where I draw the line.
So when a band of four troublemakers got loose in the freshly-mulched perennial bed this week and tore up my newly divided and replanted Egyptian walking onions, I decided to do something about it.
It’s clearly time to move the chicken house up the hill a little bit–to a location I call their “summer home”. It’s further from the barn, so they’ll be less likely to make the trek down there. But in the meantime, those little boogers were easily flying up to the gate and hopping down to the other side, and to freedom.
I’ve tried clipping wings before, but even so they’ve got enough lift to get up on the gate. So I decided to give them an insurmountable obstacle (in addition to closing the barn door, though that will have to be opened again this week when our spring broiler chicks arrive and go in the brooder).
I’m taking a willow trellising class at the Organic Growers School in Asheville, North Carolina next weekend, so someday I’ll replace this rather garish solution with beautiful natural willow branches. Until then, this will get the job done.
Now I can turn my attention back to wrangling all the other runaway tasks I have on my hands this time of year: seeding, watering, potting up, weeding, mulching, getting beds ready to plant. I’m close to falling behind on our home garden, but we’re still on schedule with seed starting for on-farm sales beginning in mid-April and for plant sales at the market beginning in May.
All of our pepper seedlings made the journey from the seed house to the greenhouse this past week, and we’ll be seeding two dozen varieties of tomatoes this Wednesday. In between, I’ve got cool-weather herbs like dill, chervil, cilantro, and parsley popping up in the seed house, and the first sowing of calendula is ready to pot up.
These plants are intended for production here on the farm, but I have a second sowing up in the seed house for plant sales. Calendula is one of my favorite herbs to grow and harvest. I used to dislike the smell of the leaves and flowers, but now I’m thoroughly in love with the resinous, earthy, and slightly bitter scent that emanates when I gently run my hands over these young plants.
Meanwhile, the overwintered perennials in the greenhouse, like mimosa, marjoram, and lemon verbena, are really starting to take off. And the perennial herbs in the garden are emerging from dormancy, stretching out, and reaching for the sun. I made the first herb harvest of the year this past week: parsley and chives. It was just a little bit of plant material, the first of the new growth, but it was enough to whip up a batch of compound herb butter to take to the Stone Lake Garden Club in Greenville on Wednesday. I had a lovely time talking about herbs with the ladies there, and the butter was a hit!
And speaking of plant sales, we’re having some grading work done on the driveway so that we’ll have permanent designated parking rather than the makeshift parking we’ve relied on in the past. We’re also using this opportunity to get some driveway erosion issues corrected. The permanent puddles in front of and behind the barn are fast disappearing!
Although we’re in for some cold temperatures in the week ahead, make no mistake: spring is well and truly here! It won’t be long before I can start traipsing around in the woods to continue my survey of our native plants. I was able to identify a number of interesting and desirable herbs growing wild last year, but after I herniated a disk in late April I wasn’t able to get back out and see the real show. I can’t wait to see what I can find this year!