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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Chickens and fall garden chores

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By Kathleen Lamont

I have had laying hens on and off for the past 20 years. My first flock of White Leghorns came from my cousin’s chicken farm. I brought them home, and after a few months of contented pecking and scratching, one grave evening an unknown nighttime predator wiped out most of the flock and thus came my first lesson in predator proofing the coop — closing the trapdoor at sunset.

There was another lesson for me as well. I had two roosters in this flock, a White Leghorn and a Rhode Island Red. The Rhode Island Red, who had died in the attack, had wedged itself between the wall and a bale of straw. The Leghorn, which early on I named Jack the Ripper after witnessing the mating ritual for the first time, lay on the floor still barely alive. Jack taught me about the courage and spirit of a rooster. How he had stood between the hen and predator, fighting to the death for her survival!

After seeing this, I was determined to bring him back from the brink and for days after I would lay his little head in a pan of cow’s milk, and watched as he barely gasped and drank. Jack finally came around, regained his strength, and continued performing his biological imperative long after his near death experience.

After all the flocks I have had and experiences with mice, crows, rats, possums, hawks, raccoons, foxes, dogs, black snakes, turkey vultures, and just yesterday, a coyote, I think I could write an adventure book on how to raise chickens in the backyard.

A few years ago, after once again being overrun with predators, I decided to give away my girls, and shut down the coop. It was a shame too because I had one of the best selections of chickens I had had in years: Barred Rock, Egyptian Fayoumis, Rhode Island Reds, Silver Laced Wyandottes, and my two personal favorites, Dominiques and Salmon Faveroles.

Yearning for the fresh eggs, manure, and the pure entertainment chickens provide, I recently fired up the coop and began putting out the word that I was looking for one- to two-year-old hens. I settled on four 2-month-old juvenile hens I found in the Iwanna newspaper. These hens will not lay eggs for a few more months, but they are fully feathered and able to integrate with a flock.

I then contacted a friend who raises layers, and she was willing to sell me five of her two-year-old Aracaunas, the ones that lay blue and brown eggs. Now set for egg production, I still needed some day-old chicks to rotate into the flock. Chickens begin laying between 5 and 7 months of age. Their peak laying time is from 1 to 2 years of age when they lay an egg every one to two days. As they get older, they lay every 3 to 5 days and the egg gets larger.

My usual routine is to buy 25 day-old chicks from a hatchery which are then airmailed to the Waynesville Post Office. On the appointed day, I receive a call from the Post Office around 6 a.m. notifying me that they are here. I will have already set up my brooding box, which is usually a refrigerator carton snagged from behind Massie Furniture Store.

I cut it down to about 3 feet high, set a heat light over it, put some water, food, and litter inside, and it is ready to go. The chicks live happily in the basement until they are fully feathered and ready to join the flock. At night in the dark, I set them on the roost one by one. In the morning, they all figure out the pecking order thing and once again, order reigns in the kingdom. It is useful and infinitely more interesting for a brood hen to hatch a clutch of fertilized eggs and raise them up for you. However, this is another story for another day.

The value of having your own fresh eggs produced by free-range chickens is obvious. The entertaining part is just that. I let them roam free in the yard while I sit nearby in a comfortable chair and watch them frolic. Some have dubbed this activity CTV.

The vital part of raising chickens is using their manure. Collecting the manure is step one. My first coop was built using a design from the stalwart and reliable Reader’s Digest book, Back to Basics.

The roost, which is on hinges so it can be raised during manure collection, rests on a 3-foot by 6-foot piece of plywood which is raised on legs 3 feet high. When there is a good amount of manure, I collect and layer it into the compost pile. As chicken manure is extremely high in nitrogen, it must be composted before being added to the garden. Raising chickens and composting is an efficient way of disposing of kitchen and yard waste. With the exception of certain waste such as citrus and banana peels, chickens will eat most of your kitchen scraps. The rest can be put into the compost pile with your yard waste.

(Kathleen Lamont is the owner of Back to Basics. Her Web site is www.backtobasicsnc.com and her email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)


Chores for the garden

1. Clean up beds and plant cover crops like red clover or buckwheat for over-wintering. Get cover crop seed at Cline Bradley, Haywood Hardware, or Junaluska Feed.

2. At the end of September, plant garlic for harvest in June of next year. Buy hardneck or softneck garlic at grocery store or online at Seed Savers Exchange.

3. Plant lettuce and cloche bed to extend harvest. Get seed at local feed and seed or French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville.

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