Tag Archive | chickens

Letter from the Algharb desert…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hello from the Algharb Desert. Today it rained. Unusual here in June. The thirsty plants put their little faces upwards and drank it in with a sigh of relief. It’s been months without rain and the garden is a dust bowl. But a good heavy shower has fallen and I won’t have to water the garden today, something which has been a nightly chore for a good while, despite all our water saving measures, as we still have the pots, vegetables and trees to water.The heavy rain has only penetrated a couple of centimetres of soil, but the smell in the garden of the wet on the dusty soil is heavenly and I am relieved. I have tied up my camel for the moment and the canteens are replenished. We live to fight another day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

More seriously, the garden is coming along a little every day. Using the grey water and plenteous sheep manure in the nascent orchard  is having some effect and the fruit trees have survived a cold winter and a drought and seem to be getting their roots down now, and although small are looking quite green and healthy. A quick spray of neem oil in nine parts milk seems be keeping the bugs down and I am experimenting with not putting the little organza bags on the peaches this year, to see if the chickens have done their job gobbling up any newly hatched fruit flies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our hard labour lifting and positioning flat stones in the hot sun all day to make the paths around the garden is complete and the hippy shed is in pieces in the garage waiting to be built by Senor Faztudo. I may get it before I’m 60! I have been thinking hard about how to keep it warm in the winter and the very important question of the interior design. Caribbean or Moroccan retreat? Zen or Heath Robinson? I can’t quite make up my mind. But that’s half the fun. I think the Shed of the Year competition should extend to the Algarve.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My little garden successes are some very pretty double aquilegia this year, which I grew from seed. I never thought they would grow here, but I chose a shady spot for them and they did very well. I have left all the seed pods to dry  on the plant so I can distribute them around the garden. I have also managed to produce some euphorbia rigida seedlings and some euphorbia cypressa. My success is a bit like the parable “and some fell on stony ground etc” as out of a whole portion of perennial seeds, I often end up with between 2 and 10 plants after I have neglected to water them, left them in a a place that is too cold or too hot or let the cats knock them off the wall. But even if I get one plant I consider that to be a success as I can generate cuttings after that. I have managed to keep one lavender Hidcote blue alive that I grew from seed and also produced enough Tansy plants to put around the citrus trees in an endeavor to deter the fruit fly since apparently they don’t like the smell. (Nor do I much!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Our globe artichokes, grown from seed. have been fantastic and we ate as many as we could be bothered to prepare, leaving the rest to produce their stunning seed heads. It’s so decadent to make a salad completely of artichoke hearts and I love doing it. There isn’t much in the vegetable garden at the moment, but I have managed to grow a few tomatoes and squash plants as well as some courgettes in this year’s lasagna bed. I know the vegetable garden is a long term project as until I  can improve the soil, it isn’t going to be very productive. But we manage to have something most of the year, although it’s always far from being a glut. But then who needs a glut really? A glut just sits there looking at you mournfully waiting to be dealt with,  making you feel guilty. And then when you tun it into jam or chutney it makes you fat!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have a fine new cockerel. I was waiting for one to come to me and he came through a delightful route, in the boot of a new gardening friend, who had also bought me a stirrup hoe from France after mine broke from overuse. It was my favourite gardening tool, but I’ve never seen one like it here, so I was overjoyed to get a new one. And a fine rooster he is too, proudly upright and very quickly taking possession of his hens. I’ve called him Phoenix. Long may he rule the roost!

Advertisements

I beg your pardon, Mrs Arden, there’s a chicken in your garden!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am going to write about my chickens. If chickens don’t float your boat, feel free to move on to look over someone else’s fence, although I aim to convince you that chickens are great  for the garden, although I am painfully  aware there are disadvantages.

The chickens have been part of our garden almost since we arrived. I’ve never kept them before, they weren’t allowed on our allotment in South London ( although someone kept racing pigeons which caused great consternation at allotment management committee meetings) and I always felt a bit sorry for the chickens that were kept as pets in plastic “Eglu” boxes  in the terraced gardens of friends. I just didn’t think they had enough space and they were often eaten or injured by hungry urban foxes, to the extreme distress of the children who looked after them. But now I’ve got  enough space for them to roam freely and foxes are shy around here and tend to stay on the Serra, so I can free range them during the day around the garden, although I live in terror of the Egyptian mongoose, the only predator I really worry about.

We started off with the cockerel, Nando, a gift from someone who mistook him for a hen and then bought four pullets, ready to lay. We have three of these original hens, Yoko, Mother Clucker and Lady Henrietta. The other hen, Chicken Licken sustained an injury to her neck from a weasel or cat when we were on holiday. Sadly, we had to cull her on our return and that wasn’t easy. Although it was necessary, we didn’t enjoy the experience, but it’s something you need to think about if you keep chickens. (I still have the terrible sound of the terrified squark she made just before she went to meet her maker ringing in my ears) I expect the vet could do it, but it would be expensive and probably unheard of here in rural Portugal. Or maybe a neighbour would help out. It is something to think about. I also have a hen donated to us as she has a tendency to go broody. We call her Mrs Chicken and a right fusspot she is too!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are endless sites about how to keep chickens, but I won’t go into that here. I really want to talk about how chickens are compatible and incompatible with gardening.

My original plan was to allow the chickens go everywhere in the garden all of the time. Some sites on the Internet suggested that this might be possible. Believe me it isn’t!  There are several reasons for this. The most obvious reason is that chickens eat plants and absolutely love newly emerging seedlings, but even worse than eating them, they are enthusiastic and very diligent diggers. if you haven’t watched a hen scratching at the ground, it’s very amusing. They  do a sort of quickstep shuffle, inspect the ground for any tasty morsel, gobble up whatever they find and then repeat the process. They also love to dust bathe, and generally like to do it at the base of a new shrub you’ve just planted, with no regard for the damage they might do in exposing the roots. But whilst of all these behaviours are damaging, they are also useful. I have placed the compost heap close to the chicken coops so they can turn it over, although I have sectioned off an area where worms can hide, otherwise they would all be eaten. I also take the chickens into the vegetable garden in the Autumn, where they do a great job of eating all the bugs, including the snails’ eggs. They have a voracious appetite for anything that moves, which is also useful in orchards. The Mediterranean fruit fly is endemic here, but for a brief period in its life cycle, it is a helpless newly hatched fly on the ground, when the chickens have a chance to gobble it up. Even small mice are not safe from my chickens, who once stole an unfortunate shrew from my cat’s jaws and gobbled it up! I have one hen, Mother Clucker, who is only interested in eating bugs and she is my chief gardener. I allow her into the vegetable plot with me when I am digging the ground over in the Autumn and she follows me, happily seeking out all the nasty bugs (and probably gobbling up some of the good bugs too unfortunately) She makes appreciative little noises as she follows me around and I enjoy her company. But we never tell the others where she is. Four chickens and a cockerel in my vegetable garden is too many.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next, there is the wonderful benefit of chicken poo. It is the most weed free of manures and although quite strong and not to be used neat on young plants, it is very useful in the garden, I use it in several different ways. In the Summer, when it dries quickly, I go round collecting it with my trusty children’s beach spade and put it in a bucket to mature. I either mix this with water to use a feed to the roots of plants, or use it as a compost activator. I use wood chips as bedding in the chicken house and empty the whole thing once a month to put on the compost heap. I have read neat chicken manure should never be used in the vegetable garden for health reasons, but it is fine to put on lasagna beds that will rot down for six months or so before you use them. However, you can put it neat at the base of fruit trees and water in well. Señor Faztudo hates chicken poo with a vengeance and in order to avoid any danger of it getting on the patios, has a super soaker water pistol to hand to discourage the hens from coming near the house. Chickens hate getting wet and he only has to pick it up nowadays and they run off squawking, although we have noted that one particular hen always raises her tail and deposits a present whilst retreating. And they say hens are stupid!

We have separated the garden into two halves, the back of the house for the vegetables and plants which chickens like to eat or which are poisonous to chickens and the front of the house for an orchard and garden area with aromatics, grasses and plants which chickens don’t tend to eat. I think this might be different chickens might have their own preferences, but our hens don’t eat thymes, rosemaries, lavender, geraniums and other aromatic plants, most ornamental grasses once they are established, roses or canna lilies, or irises. Oleander, Datura and Avocodoes are poisonous to them, so I keep an area for those plants around the back. (These plants are poisonous to people too)  I do have a young avocado tree in the orchard, but I hope they aren’t silly enough to eat the fruit or leaves.

Chickens are also great natural lawn mowers. They keep the grass down pretty well. I don’t say they eat all weeds, but they eat a lot of them, which is a wonderful bonus. They love the wild spinach which grows liberally in our garden.  On the other hand, they scratch all the stones up out of the ground and I am perpetually raking them up. They also make holes, which every now and again, you need to fill in or till over as the ground becomes very uneven.

The main reason for having them of course is for their eggs, which we get in plentiful supply. I get great satisfaction eating them and knowing that In essence, I am eating recycled garden bugs and weeds! I keep all the eggshells to bury under the roots of the tomatoes, which makes for strong plants, as tomatoes need calcium for good growth. The crushed eggshells are also good for making a circle around tender plants to deter slugs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have now caught the chicken bug and want to expand my flock. I think my garden needs about eight chickens and the cockerel. Mrs Chicken sat on a clutch of eggs patiently for 21 days, but none hatched. I am afraid Nando may be too big for the little chickens as he falls off frequently and hasn’t managed to fertilise the eggs. So  I have bought four new chickens from a local pet shop, which have been quickly dubbed “The Peepers”  as that”s all they do at the moment, peep and poo. This is quite a dangerous thing to do, as there is the strong possibility of bringing disease into your flock. But they are in quarantine at the moment and seem fine, so far.  I promised I wouldn’t name this batch, in case I had to do the dirty on them somewhere along the line, but that didn’t last long and I have called them Ory, Weed, Pea and Badass. (just add the word Chick to the front of the back of the word and you’ll get the general idea!) They were quite young when I got them and it wasn’t until they came  home, I realised I’d purchased the ugliest chickens on earth, a breed known as the Turken, as they look like a cross between a chicken and a hen. They have a genetic mutation which means they  are born without any feathers on their neck and when fully grown look very weird. But I love them anyway. I have seen quite a few in farmyards hereabouts and with 30 per cent less feathers, apparently they do very well in hot weather, which is a good thing as my bigger hens have looked very uncomfortable in summer. I also hope they grow my bigger than the little hybrid hens I have at the moment, so Nando doesn’t fall off any more and I can breed from them, using Mrs Chicken as a broody.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The  chickens themselves provide delightful entertainment when you are working in the garden. Nando enjoys cussing the other cockerels in the village and its quite funny watching him stand guard over his harem. Although not unduly aggressive, he has a job to do and he does it well.(The guarding bit I mean, he isn’t so good at the fertilising bit!) His beak is sharp, his talons are like razors and I wouldn’t like to be a cat after his girls. He is easily as big as a small dog and very fierce when anything challenges his flock. He lumbers around like Road Runner and raises a lot of laughs. Most of the Portuguese villagers on seeing him laugh and say “Muito bom com batatas” or “Very good with potatoes” and I guess he would be. But I love him, I have to confess.  For the moment, he’s safe, although I can’t guarantee that will be the case for his sons, sadly. That is unless one of them is good at pushing wheelbarrows up and down very steep hills.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Gardening in Portugal- Chicken Coop Capers

 

Lady Henrietta looks on

Lady Henrietta looks on

It’s been an interesting week in our garden, mostly punctuated by engineering and logistical problems relating to the law of physics. It’s also been a week where our marriage of 33 years has been seriously tested, along with the realisation that we are approaching 60 and we have our limits. The fact is, we had to move a new chicken coop from the garage to the bottom of the garden. And the chicken shed was very heavy, heavier than we could possibly carry, even though we are both still quite strong.

Señor Faztudo built me the chicken shed in the garage for my birthday.  It’s hard to find a suitable building here. Chickens usually sleep in barns or old paint buckets, but I wanted a state of the art des-res. My marido was down there for days, banging and swearing and his CSE  woodwork skills (Grade 1 mind you) were all coming into play. It was a very romantic birthday present and much better than a bunch of flowers or a bottle of perfume, to my mind. When the chickens first came, he made a chicken coop that was really only meant to house the cockerel, who came first. We had to build in a hurry and the old coop is groaning at the seams now as we have five hens in addition to our very fine and now very large, gallo. The new coop is a beautiful feat of engineering,  with perches and egg boxes and all sort, but it had one design fault. It was built on legs, with no wheels and had to travel  150 metres across the garage, down a very steep slope and across rough terrain before it was installed in its final position. Muitas Problemas. Muitas rubbing of chins.

The new Chicken coop on its journey

The new Chicken coop on its journey

But we like a challenge. It was like the great egg race. I kept thinking of the line in the song “Just what makes that silly old ant, think he can do just what he can’t, anyone knows an ant can’t, move a big rubber plant, but he’s got higghhhhhh hopes” Well we did have high hopes. To begin with anyway. Until we got stuck.

It started out well enough. We couldn’t lift the thing, so we put an aluminium ladder underneath it, put one end on a sack trolley that we bought a while ago and put some wheels onto a makeshift axle and duck taped it to the ladder. It wheeled out of the garage like a dream. Great!  But that was going straight on a flat surface, now we needed to turn it around the corner on a sloping path and then somehow get it down the drive, which is very steep and bumpy.  With much heaving and shoving we got it around the corner facing downhill, then I had the brain wave to use the car. I don’t recommend you do this at home, gentle reader. It’s very hairy. But we took the ladder, opened the back doors of our little red van and used the sack trolley on the back. Because of the incline it worked and before we knew it we were at the bottom of the hill, near the car tuning circle.  Elated (we are nearly 60 you know) and clapping each other on the back, we retired for a celebratory glass of Alentejo red.

 

On its way out of the garage

On its way out of the garage

 

 

IMG_3821

Off down the drive with the help of the car

 

We celebrated too soon. The next day we struggled again with a Heath Robinson idea of sliding the coop along a ladder, propped up on paving stones, but we had to keep heaving the paving stones about and in the hot sun this was exhausting us. We had a big row, Señor Faztudo said he might as well do it himself, I slammed down a paving stone and broke it and we didn’t  talk to each other for several hours. Come to think of it, we were both too tired to talk anyway.  We got too big for our boots and nearly injured ourselves (I still can’t walk straight) . I think we were both chastened by how close we came to permanent damage, so we decided we had to ask for help, something neither of us are very good at.

I was doubtful anyone could carry the heavy weight, so emailed a neighbour with a tractor (my brother has a tractor and offered to pop round,  but he lives in Wales unfortunately.) However, I was sure you would need a poky thing like you have on a stacker truck and I wasnt sure our neighbour had one.

We also have a younger friend (most of our friends are as old as us and many, although willing to help have back and knee problems) and he was kind enough to come round after a hard day’s work. I was doubtful two men could lift the coop, but using the ladder underneath it, Señor Faztudo and our young Tarzan made light of it, with me steadying it on the ladder. As we set it on the hippy shed base ready for it to go into its final spot our neighbour arrived with the tractor. We felt very blessed to have people we can call on for help after a year and a half of life in the village. The chickens are very curious about their new lodgings and eyed it supiciously making those lovely Oooerrr noises to each other that signify curiousity. Being creatures of habit, it will be a while before I can get them all settled in, but I am very happy with their beautiful new edifice and hope they will enjoy it for many years to come. I have dubbed the new building “Cluckingham Palace”  Long may King Nando and his wives reign in it.

  IMG_3824

Gardening in Portugal with chickens

Image

I’ve  always wanted to keep chickens. Why, I am not quite sure, especially since I have had my chickens now for nearly a year and they drive me crazy on a daily basis. I think it must have stemmed back to a childhood memory of the magic of finding new laid eggs in the coop. I love the idea of food for free and chickens seem to me to be the ultimate in garden recycling.

Chickens are much more interesting than I thought they would be. They are social creatures and studying their behaviour has been a revelation to me. In many ways,  I think they are better socially organised than many groups of people I know. I have four chickens and a cockerel. Nando, the rooster is a very Big Bird. He was a freebie, as the people who had him before thought he was a hen and they didn’t want two cockerels.  He is meant to be a Cuckoo Maran, but in fact he’s more cuckoo than Maran. His wives are plain old hybrid egg layers, bought from a local Portugese pet shop for seven euros each. Mother Clucker (excuse the play on words) is chief hen. She has a partner in crime, called Yoko. They were the first hens we had and the young cockerel was ecstatic when he first saw them.  The second two came a few weeks later and were named Chicken Little  and Lady Henrietta. Chicken Little is a pest. Lady Henrietta is meant to be the bottom of the pecking order, but interestingly, she doesn’t care….she just wanders around in her own little world and does her own thing. Confucius Chicken, she says, “It is only a bad thing to be the lowest in the pecking order if you give a damn”

Image

Despite giving them names and enjoying keeping them,  I am reasonably philosophical about the chickens. They have a job to do and  I may put them in the soup in the end when they have stopped laying eggs.  I’m sorry if you think this is shocking, but I am a farmer’s daughter. However, I want my chickens to have a healthy and happy life. And if you have ever seen chickens flapping their wings and flying 20 metres down the garden, or running full tilt after each other when one catches a worm, then you wouldn’t want to lock them in a cage. The  dilemma is how to keep a balance between the freedom of the  chickens and the planting  when you are trying to make a new garden.

I should have planned it better. The chickens should have been part of some great permaculture design and been brought into the garden last. But I didn’t know too much about them when I started out. The gardening pluses are that chickens eat up bad bugs, unfortunately though, they also eat worms; they provide lovely nitrogen rich poo, but they don’t mind doing it on your patio or paths;they turn over the compost heap beautifully with their busy, scratchy feet, but they also dig up all your newly planted iris corms or make big holes at the bottom of your shrubs.  They love to dust bathe in the mulch you just put around your fruit tree, throwing it to the four winds and they keep the weeds down but tear your newly planted brassicas to shreds. Swings and roundabouts, gardening with chickens is.

On balance though, I love having them around. I just can’t help it. Watching the cockerel lumbering down the steep slope to the bottom of the garden,  like Foghorn Leghorn or hearing the hens coos of delight as they turn over the compost heap for tasty morsels brightens up my day. A Portugese saying is “Solta o frango!” a saying which means “Release the chicken in you!”  or “Be creative and full of joy” And when you let them out in the morning, you can see the meaning tangibly. So how to make a garden and combine it with these little blighters?

Well, I have had to create chicken free zones. I have caged up the vegetables, not the chickens, and left them to have the run of the rest of the garden.

Image

We are lucky here in the Algarve, not to have to contend with too many predators. The three main predators are the fox, the Egyptian Mongoose and the Bonelli’s’s eagle. The fox is very shy and doesn’t come into the village too much. There have been losses on occasions, but not too many. A neighbour’s chicken escaped and lived in the wooded back path behind our house for a week and wasn’t eaten, that would never have happened in South London, where I used to live. The mongoose is quite a big creature and more dangerous. It can hunt in the daytime and can get in anywhere and likes to bite chickens heads off for the corn in their croups. But the Portugese farmers are ever vigilant around here.  They don’t like anything eating their food and so I guess the predators  tend to go further away into the hills and eat the big snakes we have around here (none of which are poisonous, but some of which grow very big). Speaking of snakes, I guess they could eat a young chicken, but I think my girls would be more likely to eat them. We have the occasional eagle and as the fruit trees are still too little to provide much shelter. I worry about the threat from the air.  But all in all, they are very safe. There is a wall all around the garden with fencing and our boundaries are very clear. So they strut around like a little tribe, fussing and clucking and as happy as Larry. (whoever he was!)

Image

Fruit trees and chickens are a good combination. The chickens eat any bugs that overwinter under them, and eat any fallen fruit. I do have a  young avocado planted this year, which is supposed to be poisonous to chickens, as are the leaves, but I am afraid I am not a chicken helicopter parent, it’s their lookout and if it doesn’t kill them, it should make them stronger. I also apply this philosophy to the cats, who have learnt that trying to eat toads or black geckos makes them pretty ill, so they have stopped doing it. So the chickens have the run of the “orchard” (which is no more than a collection of twenty sticks hanging on for dear life at the moment)

I have found that chickens don’t eat roses, echiums, aromatics like Lavender and Rosemary, tall grasses, iris leaves (although they did up the corms) cistus or salvias. So I have planted lots in the gravel mulched area . On the whole, the chickens don’t like scratching in the gravel…it is sore for their little tootsies, so that helps.

I have also tried to distract them by making a giant compost heap close to their run. They do a sterling job of turning it over and all the scraps go on it. (EU law says you can’t put vegetable scraps on the compost if you are not a vegetarian and you have prepared them in your kitchen) Which is why I prepare all my vegetables for dinner outside.  Hmmm….

Señor Faz-tudo gets his adrenalin pumping every morning by chasing the chickens off the patio with a broom, much to the bemusement of the local villagers, but they don’t come on the terraced areas too much as there is no food  (the chickens I mean, not the villagers!) There is one chicken, Chicken Little, who is hell bent on upsetting my husband by pooing directly in front of him, and whilst he does threaten  her regularly with beheading, it gives us an opportunity to use the chicken pooper scooper and collect manure to water down or dry  for the fruit trees.

And every day, I clean the night chicken poo mixed with wood shavings out of their sleeping quarters and  mix it with the compost. What riches!  This is a great gift, along with the eggshells that I keep to put into the planting holes I bury  the tomato plants  in, for the calcium, along with a sardine.

I adore  the chickens and would love to have more…and ducks and geese and maybe even rabbits. But at the moment we are just about balanced. The cats, the chickens, the garden, Señor Faz-tudo and I all have to be in harmony. And I am sure even one more fowl would tip us over!

Image