Gardening with Delightfully, Daffy Ducks

A couple of years ago we adopted two pairs of Peking ducks – sort of.  In reality the ducks adopted us.  The children of a deceased friend put her ducks on the 56 acre lake behind us.  Soon after the ducks arrived on the lake they started showing up at our house.  At first they simply waddled up to the house, ate whatever fell out of the bird feeders and then went home.  However, it wasn’t long until they discovered the chickens (and all the food they wasted) and their visits grew longer. Now, two years later, these ducks are an adorable part of our daily routine.

peking-ducks

We truly love our adorable, adopted ducks

Each morning around daybreak the ducks line up single file and waddle up to our house from the lake.  They spend their days hunting bugs, eating bugs, breeding (they do a lot of this in the spring), laying eggs and finally resting.  Our favorite duck behavior happens each time we drive up to the house.  When they hear our car coming they run quacking to the driveway.  They sit outside the car and they quack and quack and quack and wiggle their little tails until we follow them to the coop and feed them.  After their evening meal they lounge around a little more and then finally line up again and waddle back to the lake.  Yes, my wife and I have really fallen for our adopted ducks.  Their goofy antics are just downright enjoyable to watch plus, their love for bugs and nut grass (I have heard they love to eat nut grass but I have not actually seen them do it), makes them just as practical and useful as they are adorable.

Each morning our adopted ducks march up from the lake in a single file line

Each morning our adopted ducks march up from the lake in a single file line

While I am sure this will bring some comments, we have slowly come to the realization that ducks are much better pets for gardeners than chickens.  Don’t get me wrong, we still love our chickens.  However, if you love your gardens and you have free range chickens you will quickly understand why I have come to this conclusion.

Over the past three years I have been shocked to learn just how much damage chickens do to gardens.  Most of the articles I read before we got our chickens mentioned their “digging and scratching” behavior.  However, the articles I read kind of glossed over this.  Some tried to sell the behavior as “soil aeration” and other made it sound cute. Let me assure you, it is not cute.   The first thing a chicken does when it leaves the coop in the morning is head to your vegetable garden or flower beds to dig and scratch and dig and scratch and dig and scratch some more.  While I had hoped that my chickens would be different, they were not.  A chicken is gonna do what a chicken has to do.  So, after three years of fighting to keep them from destroying my gardens, I am throwing in the towel.  I have finally accepted the fact that chickens and gardens really do not mix.

chicken-proof-garden

Here you can see some of the defensive measures I have empoyed to try and prevent my chickens from digging up everything in my garden

Over the last three years I have watched our chickens turn newly tilled and mounded rows in flat, shapeless messes.  I have seen them eat freshly planted seeds, new sprouts and dig up every ornamental and vegetable transplant I set out.  I have also watched them kick fresh mulch out of my beds almost faster than I could put it down. I quickly learned that if I was going to have free ranging chickens and lovely gardens I would literally have to change the way I gardened.

Despite the head aches they caused me, we really loved those silly chickens — so I adapted.  For the past three years I have built fences, I have covered my freshly planted rows with chicken wire to keep them from scratching and I have built wire frames to protect transplants and new sprouts.  While I understand this is what chickens do, I have finally arrived at the point were I am tired of trying to beat them.  The good new is, ducks don’t do any of these things.  All they do is roam our gardens and eat our bugs.  Because of that, if I switch to ducks for my free ranging pets, I will never again have to cover my freshly planted rows or build wire frames or temporary fences.  In short, if I confine my chickens and let my ducks roam free I can garden they way I used to.

buff-orpington

Sally and I love our chickens! However, since they are so destructive I am afraid their free ranging days are coming to an end

Before these four adorable birds literally arrived on our doorstops, my wife and I knew absolutely nothing about ducks.  However, since they adopted us, we have become such big fans of these gentle, affectionate and somewhat goofy birds that we have decided to let them be our only free ranging bug catchers and keep our chickens confined to the very lovely and luxurious coop and yard that I built for them when we got them.  If you are a gardener (and I assume you are since this is a gardening blog) and you are considering raising chickens, I highly recommend investigating ducks too.  You can raise and house them in almost the exact same way as you raise chickens.  They lay pretty decent eggs (which make wonderfully dense and moist cakes) and they eat your garden pests without destroying your plants or garden beds.  I have also heard they love nut grass!  If that turns out to be true then everyone I know should get themselves a whole flock of ducks!!!

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Chicken-Coop

Don’t feel too sorry for the chickens that will soon be confined. They have a very nice coop, run and yard that is more than adequate for their needs

Our First Grand Chick

This past Sunday, Sally and I became grandparents – in a manner of speaking.  Our favorite hen, Chicken Little, hatched the first of what we were hoping would be a whole litter of baby chickens.  We started out with five fertilized eggs that we picked up from our friends at Yonder Way Farms in Fayeteville, Texas.   However, one precious little chick is all we got.

Chick-1

Our precious little chick on the day she was hatched.

And that is just fine with us.  We really don’t need a lot of chickens at our house.  Our coop is not set up for more than six to eight birds.  In fact, this is why we waited so long to let one of our hens sit.  We didn’t want a crowded coop.

Sally and I decided to let Chicken Little sit for a couple of reasons.  First, she is the hen at the bottom of the pecking order.  It is hard for us to watch the constant pecking and pushing around that she is forced to endure.  We read on a blog that a batch of chicks had a way of bringing out the mother in all of the hens.  So, we are hoping that this little chick will make the other girls treat Chicken Little a whole lot better.  At the very least we are hoping it will prevent, or at least delay, the bad treatment that Chicken Little is forced to endure.

Chick-2

Our baby is four days old and already getting pin feathers on her wings!

While Sally and I think Chicken Little is the sweetest, bestest hen of the bunch, she does have one little problem – she gets broody – A LOT.  In the past few months she has become broody four different times.  Each time this happened we were forced to quarantine her in a metal cage for a few days.  During that time she didn’t eat or drink much.  Plus it was just hard for us to watch.  So, since she is such a good girl –and she REALLY wanted to sit – we decided to let her.

Chicken-Little-1

Chicken Little is such a good mother! Here, she and baby explore their world.

While we had hoped for a few more chicks, we are absolutely thrilled with our one little baby.  She truly is precious and Chicken Little is proving to be a great little mother.  Plus, the other hens really do seem to be impressed (and they are treating her a little better).  They keep coming up and looking at the baby.  When they get too close Chicken Little blows up her feathers and clucks and they politely walk off.  I truly hope that that this new baby raises her mom’s standing in the flock!

BTW, this post has been shared on The HomeAcre Hop and the Homestead Barn Hop #173.  Be sure to check them out.  They are full of great posts from homesteaders across the web.

Harvesting Grapes at Paradox House Vineyards

If you drop by our house on most evenings, you will find Sally and I sitting in the backyard sipping a nice glass of wine and feeding blueberries to our chickens.  Sally and I really enjoy our evening glass of wine.  In fact, my love of drinking wine inspired me to learn to make mustang grape wine.  While we really enjoy making our homemade wine, it just doesn’t taste like the wine we are willing to pay for.  Our mustang grape wine making experience made us wonder if we could learn to make wine that tasted a little less like cough syrup and whole lot more like the “store bought” wine that we really enjoy.

blanc-du-bois-grapes-1

These Blanc du Bois grapes will soon be turned into a fine Texas white wine.

Thanks to a chance meeting, Sally and I recently had the opportunity to learn how to make good wine.  We volunteered to help Doug and Linda Rowlett of Paradox House Vineyard harvest their white grape (Blanc Du Bois) crop.  Paradox House is a small, family owned vineyard in Industry, Texas.  When harvest time comes, they rely on a small army of volunteers to get their crop to market.  In exchange for a morning of hot, sweaty labor the Rowlett’s provide the volunteer’s an absolutely fabulous meal, free wine made at the vineyard (which was excellent), access to several dedicated hobby wine makers and the opportunity to help Doug and Linda make 200 gallons of really good wine.

grape-harvest-1

Paradox House Vineyards relies an an army of volunteers to bring in their crop.

Sally and I had so much fun harvesting these white grapes.  While it was hot, we really enjoyed the work and visiting with all of the seasoned volunteers.  Since I do not know that much about grapes or the wine industry, the horticulturist in me truly enjoyed everything about the day.  I learned a lot, made new friends, ate well, sampled a variety of great wines and learned how to make “store bought” wine.  What more could you ask for?

blanc-du-bois-grapes-2

People aren’t the only ones that like these grapes. The little purple grapes have been damaged by birds.

The Rowlett’s grow two main crops – white Blanc Du Bois and red Lenoir (also known as Black Spanish).  They sell their grapes to some of the top wine makers in our great state.  If you would like to help them harvest grapes (and learn how to make wine) you are in luck.  They Rowlett’s will be harvesting their Lenoir grapes this weekend.  If you are looking for a fun and unusual way to spend your Saturday, use the contact info at the bottom of this post to contact them (you must contact them before you show up).  They will appreciate it and I promise you will have a great time!  Families are welcome so load up the car with kids, cousins and friends.  The more the merrier!  Just be sure and dress appropriately.  Grape production is Texas agriculture. Please wear close toed shoes and dress for the heat!

Doug and Linda Rowlett
paradoxhouse@gmail.com
Paradox House Vineyard, Inc.
8544 Bermuda
Industry, TX 78944
281-435-7227
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Bad End to a Good Year – RIP Goldie

 It is with heavy heart that I announce the passing of the first of our chickens.  Goldie was the middle sized Buff Orpington.  In the past seven months she has filled our lives with much joy and the lightest of brown eggs.  She has only been gone a few hours and she is already missed terribly.

Buff-Orpington

Goldie and Wendy Lou getting ready for bed

I don’t know what happened.  I came home from work yesterday and she ran to the car to meet me.  She, and all of the other girls, were in fine spirits.  I rubbed them and let them pick at my buttons and my ring.  Everything seemed fine.  Just another day.

Imagine my surprise when I went to the coop this afternoon and found her dead, cold and stiff just inside the door of the coop.  She had no signs of trauma.  I felt her tummy closely and she did not appear to be egg bound.  It appears that she just decided to die last night.

Buff-Orpington-2

This is our sweet Goldie just hours after she hatched.

If any of you have experienced anything like this I would love to hear from you.  My internet searches reveal that this is unfortunately not a rare occurrence.  However, my common sense tells me that nothing “just dies”.  There has to be a reason. 

Tonight the remaining five girls got a more thorough rub down/examination.  I do not want to lose another one.  For those of you that have raised chickens from hatchlings to full grown hens you know how attached you become to them.  While I realize I was not as attached to her as say a dog, I was attached nonetheless.  Her passing has left me feeling a little blue on the last day of the year.

I'll never forget your first night in the big coop.  You were so scared and your rooster was there to calm your fears.

I’ll never forget your first night in the big coop. You were so scared and your rooster was there to calm your fears.

We wrapped her in a pillow case and entered her body in a lovely spot that has a view of the lake, the coop and her friends.  I am sure hers will be the first grave in what will eventually become our pet cemetery. 

Rest in Peace Goldie.  You were a great little hen.

Chicken Update

I haven’t posted anything on my wife’s chickens in a while; mostly because there hasn’t been much to post.  Over the past couple of months they have been doing what young chickens do.  Unfortunately, during this time, they have fully established their pecking order.  This is very upsetting to Sally and me.  We really expected more out of our girls.  We read somewhere that the chicken on the bottom of the pecking order would become your favorite.  We can now affirm that bit of wisdom is 100% true. 

This is Tiger Lily.  Who could be mean to something this cute?

This is Tiger Lily. Who could be mean to something this cute?

Tiger Lily is one of our Ameraucanas.  She is the smallest of the six birds and as such they pick on her regularly.  When it is time to roost at night, they kick her off.  If she catches a nice, fat grasshopper they chase her down and try and take it away from her.    Because the other chickens are so mean to her, she stays pretty close to Sally and I when we are outside.  Not only does she know that we will protect her from the bullying, she has learned that we usually have something special in our pocket just for her. 

The mean girls My wife found a treat on-line called Chicken Crack.  This stuff is amazing.  We have experimented with different treats for them, but this stuff is by far and away their favorite.  We used to share it equally with all of the girls.  However, when they got so mean, we mostly cut them off.  Now, treats for the five mean girls is plain old hen scratch.  While they are scratching away, we call Tiger Lily over and let her eat all of the Chicken Crack she wants right out of our hands.

The coop is finally done!  I think it turned out pretty cute.

The coop is finally done! I think it turned out pretty cute.

Even though our girls look all grown up, they are not yet producing eggs.  They are only 4 ½ months old so we are hoping for some October eggs.  Knowing that they will soon be laying encouraged me to make the final push to finally finish the coop.  Sally and I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon building their nesting boxes.  We also got the door painted and the outside lights installed.  It has taken me almost three months to get the girl’s coop finished.  However, I think it was worth the effort.

The nesting box that is currently completely unused

The nesting box that is currently completely unused

Working too hard!

Today marks 30 days in a row without a break from my real job.  Partly because of that and partly because I had a chicken coop to finish and an article due to Texas Gardener magazine, I have not had a chance to work on the blog.  So today, I am going to post a few random things I have noticed in and around my gardens the past couple of weeks.

First, since I mentioned working too hard, I would like to announce to gardeners around the world — YOU ARE WORKING TOO HARD!  I discovered this fact quite by accident.  If you look at the pic below you will see a “garden” that is full of castor beans, zinnias, dill, and datura.  I think it is lovely.  However, I didn’t grow it.  This lovely garden popped up this year on top of last year’s burn pile.  This “garden” has recieved NO SUPPLEMENTAL WATER, no fertilize and no weeding.  The take away?  If you want a no fuss summer color garden next year plant lots of zinnias and a datura or two for effect.  Back it up with a wall of castor beans and sprinkle some dill in for a filler.  Then forget it!

BurnPile1 Second, the chickens are consuming every spare minute.  If I have not been engaged in building them a palace, then I have been sitting in my yard with my wife watching them.  They are hilarious and interesting all at the same time.  Any way, while sitting in our favorite spot in front of a bunch of Maximillian Sunflowers, I noticed little globs of “snake spit” all over the sunflower stalks.  Ever seen “snake spit”?  It is a frothy white liquid that sticks to certain plants and looks a lot like , well, spit.  No other way to describe it.  Turns out though, it isn’t really spit.  It is the frothy protective covering of the nymph form of the Spittle Bug.  As soon as baby spittlebugs hatch they start feeding on the sap of their host and using it to make the “spit”.  They actually live inside the “spit” until they are big enough to fly away.  Turns out the “spit” keeps them moist, warm at night and cool in the day.

"Snakespit" on Maximillian Sunflower

“Snakespit” on Maximillian Sunflower

My buddy Bruce Leander is a dang fine photographer from Austin.  He can shoot anything but he specializes in Texas native flowers.  If I ever need a picture for an article he is the guy I go to.  I truly believe he has photographed every kind of plant and bug in Texas (and beyond).  He sent me these amzing shots of the ugly little bug that lives under all of that “snake spit”.

Spittlebug photo by Bruce Leander

Spittlebug photos by Bruce Leander

Spittle bug Since we’re talking “snake spit”, be aware that it is definately snake season again.  Last week my wife killed another coral snake in the yard and I killed a copperhead.  In addition to that I caught a rat snake that I chose to relocate.  So, when you go out in the garden make sure you wear good sturdy shoes and take a stick with you.  You just never know what you are going to find under those tomato bushes.

Poor coral snake.  he crossed the yard at the wrong time

Poor coral snake. He crossed the yard at the wrong time

 

Copperheads may be pretty, but they are mean!  I personally know three people that were bitten by them in Washington County last summer.

Copperheads may be pretty, but they are mean! I personally know three people that were bitten by them in Washington County last summer.

And finally, not only is it snake season, it is tomato season.  I have 17 plants and I am bringing in about 8 lbs of tomatoes a day.  My poor wife is so busy canning salsa, paste and whole tomatoes.  Below is a picture from Harry Cabluck of Austin.  Harry is a pretty famous photographer.  He is also a gardener and reader of this blog.  Check out the pic of one of his harvests and also take a minute to look at some truly amazing photgraphs on his website (http://www.harrycabluck.com/site/Home.html).

Tomatoes from MOH reader Harry Cabluck's Austin garden - Juanne Flamme, Porter(ish) volunteer, Early Wonder, Gregori's Altai (grafted onto Maxifort).

Tomatoes from MOH reader Harry Cabluck’s Austin garden – Juanne Flamme, Porter(ish) volunteer, Early Wonder, Gregori’s Altai (grafted onto Maxifort).

Almost forgot to mention the Chickens.  Our girls are 8 weeks old tomorrow.  They are still adjusting to their new home.  Each night I sit with them and help them feel more comfortable.  Sally calls me their “rooster”. 

rooster2

 

Chicken Update

5-12-2013 11-28-29 AM I am amazed at how much progress both our chickens and the coop have over the past two weeks.  Before Sally and I got our babies we read “Chick Days – Raising Chickens From Hatchlings to Laying Hens” by Jenna Woginrich.  This book was amazingly well written.  In it she stresses how quickly the little birds grow.  However, until you see it in person, you really can’t appreciate how quickly they mature.  In the past two weeks the birds have gone from fuzzy little babies to aggressive, active fledglings that are beginning to try to fly and already establishing a pecking order.  They have also learned to come when I call them (as long as I allow them to eat dehydrated meal worms out of my hand).

Chris is helping the girls adjust to the great outdoors.

Chris is helping the girls adjust to the great outdoors.

By the end of week one they had the beginnings of wing and tail feathers.  Now their wings and tails are very developed and all of that down is beginning to fall out.  Yesterday, since the girls are getting so big, we took them outside for the first time.  It is truly amazing to me that they do not need to be taught anything.  While they were a little nervous at first, they quickly began to happily scratch and eat all manner of weeds and grasses.  All in all I think it was a great start for them.

Chris's dog Ed wants to play with the girls too

Chris’s dog Ed wants to play with the girls too

Since they are growing so quickly, the coop has needed to progress just as quickly.  Luckily, it has.  I have been very lucky to have the help of our son Chris for the past couple of weekends.  Last weekend, we set the posts and started the framing.  This weekend, I paid a friend to come and add the roof and do the plumbing and electrical.  Here are some shots of our progress:

Last weekend's progress

Last weekend’s progress

Eventhough it rained on Friday, my buddy Ruben was still able to get the roof frame on the coop

 

Here you can see the the triangular topped door that is going to be very cute with the diamond shaped window that will go in it

Here you can see the the triangular topped door that is going to be very cute with the diamond shaped window that will go in it

5-12-2013 11-57-18 AM

 

Chickens!

photo3 After raising our own brood of children and enjoying five unfettered years of blissful empty nestdom, we have decided to forego the free spirited life and tie ourselves down again to a small flock of chickens.  We have talked about this for quite some time,  two years to be exact.  We have researched the topic well, visited Funky Coop tours and talked to friends and neighbors about their experiences.

photo1 Yesterday all the talking stopped and the action began.  We went to Ideal Poultry in Cameron, Texas and picked up our girls.  Our three Americuanas and three Buff Orpingtons were hatched sometime in the morning.  By three o’clock that afternoon, our babies were in our car and we were parents again.

The girls will have to be raised inside for the first six weeks.  After that, they will go outside into their very own palace that I will be building for them over the next few weeks.  I will be taking and posting lots of pictures as this whole process progresses because it appears people really like chickens and chicken coops.  And who can blame them?  As these pictures show baby chicks are absolutely adorable.

5-2-2013 7-48-40 AM Everyone that has chickens tells us that they all have their own unique personalities.  It was amazing to us that this personality was already beginning to show.  There is already a dominant Americuana and a dominant Buff.  Both of these little birds are much more active and inquisitive than their friends.

5-2-2013 7-52-58 AM Another thing we are very excited about is the opportunity to name them.  As proud parents, we want to make sure they have the perfect name to reflect their personality.  We can already tell that the Americuanas are going to be much easier to assign names because their unique colorations allow us to easily distinguish which is which.  Unfortunately, the Buffs are all yellow and very difficult to differentiate.  

5-2-2013 7-58-58 AM In addition to my usual garden posts, I am going to try and post pictures of both the chicken’s progress and the progress of the coop on a weekly basis.  So, if you want to watch our chickens grow with us, check back often.

Gardening With Chickens

Based on all of the press I see, I am convinced that almost everyone in America is either raising chickens or gardening.  Notice I said “either”.  While both activities are a ton of fun, they are very difficult to do together.  You see, chickens will eat anything and everything; especially fresh produce.  Because of this, most people that have both chickens and gardens do everything possible to keep the chickens far, far away from their plants.

Carol and Andy KMetz in front of their root cellar. This cellar was a labor of love given to Andy by his son for Father’s Day. Note to my own children: THIS WAS A VERY GOOD GIFT!!!!!

I recently met a couple that has overcome this problem.  They have created a way to combine their love of chickens and their love of gardening in a way that is equally beneficial to the plants, the animals and the people.  I was so impressed by this very simple and ingenious method that I had to share it.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to moat on the other side!

Andy and Carol Kmetz of Sapulpa, Ok are avid gardeners that have developed a unique way to use their chickens to improve their garden and their gardening experience.  Andy grows vegetables and berries in a 60’X40’ garden that is enclosed by two fences.  The second (or outer) fence is an incredibly brilliant idea that allows him to use his chickens as a natural pest barrier, weed barrier and garden waste disposal system.  This second fence creates a 6’ border (or run) around the outside of his garden.  This run is connected to his chicken coop by an underground tunnel he calls a moat.  This buffer space between the plants and the chickens is beneficial to both he and his hens.  The chickens patrol this area and eat any insect that dares to try and move through it. They also eat all of the weeds that try to pop up.  This creates a very effective barrier that keeps weeds from encroaching from the perimeter of the garden.   In addition, as Andy works in the garden, he can quickly and easily dispose of weeds and over ripe produce by throwing it over the fence to the hungry chickens that will literally eat anything that hits the ground.

The girls enter the trench that connects their coop with the vegetable garden on the other side.

This moat idea took a while to get just right.  Initially, Andy dug a trench and placed a concrete conduit in it.  The chickens didn’t like it.  Turns out chickens are “chicken” of the dark (why is that when I write about chickens I am compelled to use bad chicken puns).  When he discovered this he dug another trench, walled it up with two deep cross-ties and covered it with heavy gauge welded wire.  This open topped design was all the chickens needed to make them “cross the road”.

The girls are in the moat. Note how the edge of the fence by the garden is almost devoid of vegetation

Andy’s chickens aren’t the only thing special about his garden.  Each year, Andy grows tons of produce on plants that are so healthy they look like they were grown in a greenhouse.  His skill as a gardener surpasses his families ability to consume and Carol’s ability to can.  So, each year he and Carol distribute the fruits of their labor to their friends and those in need.  Andy achieves these results through a combination of diligence and organic growing methods.  He credits his success to three things:  a very special compost, mulch and drip irrigation.  Every year, before he plants anything, Andy feeds his soil with a humate mixture that that he gets from Humalfa.  This compost is made from feed lot waste and blended with composted alfalfa to create a very nutrient dense mixture that is great for the vegetable garden.  Andy is so in love with this stuff that he makes a 500 mile round trip every spring so he can buy this product in bulk directly from the manufacturer.

After Andy feeds his soil, he makes sure that all of his plants are serviced by his drip irrigation system.  Once the plants are up he mulches them with grass clippings and pine needles that he gathers from his yard.  His efforts do two things; conserve moisture and they extend his growing season.   Andy has gardened in this plot for many years.  Before the mulch and drip system went in, his garden was done each year by July 4.  Now, his deep mulch and drip system extends his garden production well into August.

Andy and Carol were excellent hosts and kindred spirits.  My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend with them.  In my opinion, their chicken moat borders on genius.  It is a simple solution to a problem that vexes many gardeners across the world.  I am so thankful that they allowed us to learn from their experience.  I was so impressed by the chicken moat that I am willing to bet, it won’t be too long until I get to write a post about one at my house!  Many thanks to both Carol and Andy for taking the time to teach this old gardener a few new tricks!

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  These Hops are a source of great information from some of the top homesteaders and gardeners across the web.  Check them out!