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Backyard Chickens: Breed Selection and DIY Brooder Box

Raising chicks

It seems that GRIT editor Hank Will and I are “on the same sheet of music” this week. He put up a great post about saving money in 2009 by raising your own chickens on the same day I was planning on putting this one up, so I thought I’d give it a day or so before adding my two cents.

One of the first things that many small scale growers and aspiring “urban pioneers” decide to do after they’ve established their garden plans is to look into obtaining some chickens. I know a lot of the Grit readers probably already have them or have had them in their past so this may be old news to them. I’m guessing though, that with purse strings getting tighter all around the country and concerns over industrial food products in the news so regularly, that there’s probably a good number of folks trying to get a good idea about what it takes to get started with some small scale egg production.

Are Backyard Birds Right for You?

First off, and in my mind foremost, I have to say this; These are not just egg-producing fertilizer factories. They’re that too and much more honestly, but they’re also a responsibility as would be any other livestock that any size farmer decides to integrate into their operation. The scale may be smaller but the obligations are no less pressing. That said, I think the most important thing that any aspiring farmer should do, regardless of scale, is to make an honest assessment of what they want to gain versus what they are willing to give for this addition.

The second thing that you’ll need to be aware of — particularly if you’re like we are and live in a residential area with close neighbors and often times limiting covenants and restrictions — is whether or not you are even allowed to keep chickens. Take heart if you’ve already learned that they are not currently allowed, however, mine weren’t either when I first decided I wanted them, but with a good dose of persistence and some community involvement, laws can be changed, and anything is possible! And there you go … the caveats are out, chickens are great, but they are a commitment, so then, on with the fun stuff.

How to Select the Right Breed

There are a lot of websites and good books that can help you to make a decision on what kind of chickens would be the best for you to keep at your home so I’m not going to try and reinvent the wheel here. A couple I recommend would be “My Pet Chicken’s” Breed selector tool and, of course, GRIT’s Perfect Chickens, a guide to heritage breeds of chickens. This is another point where you’ll just have to be honest with yourself about what it is that you want from your birds. It won’t do you a lot of good to get a beautiful Bearded Silver Polish hen because you like the way they look if you’re looking to keep a family of five in eggs regularly or to be able to possible sell some at the farmers market. Do your research thoroughly and honestly. You’ll be happier later because of it.

Photo by Pixabay/pexels

Where to Buy Backyard Chickens

Now, once you’ve decided what it is that you’re looking for and how many of them you will need and can have, it’s time to look into the different ways of getting them. You may have a farm store near you or perhaps you’ve seen the cute little chicks at the pet store. These are both potential ways to get your chicks but you may want to check out some other possibilities. There are a number of excellent hatcheries out there that can provide you with day old chicks of almost any breed. Some have requirements that you order a minimum number of chicks however, so if you have a friend that’s also interested in raising birds, you may be able to split an order like I did with one of my neighbors.

It’s a good idea to order one more bird than you will ultimately be able to keep as it’s not uncommon for one to get sick and not make it to adulthood. You can also order fertilized eggs that you can incubate and hatch yourself. Either way, you’ll need to set up a brooder for your young chicks.

Possible cardboard brooder for baby chicks

Inexpensive DIY Brooder Box

You can probably find a company that’s willing to sell you some automatic self-regulating brooder setup if you’re so inclined but I’d say most of us are probably the make do with what you have type. I know I am! This is the brooder box that I used last spring to raise my two clutches of hens. I just lined an old computer box from work with some wood shavings and notched a piece of pvc so that it would hang from the top of the box. This allowed me to hang a light from the pvc so that I could elevate the light or lower it as the chicks required. Hank goes into the requirements of the brooders pretty well so I’ll defer to his article at this point.

And that’s the basics of getting started with Chickens in my opinion. It’s not rocket science, but it does take some thought and some planning. There’s a lot more beyond this though as the chicks start to grow; too much to cover in just this post in fact. Check back next week, and we can continue the discussion.

In Part 2, I cover caring for baby chicks and building a suitable coop.

Paul Gardener and his family live in suburban Utah, where they raise chickens, cook and bake from scratch, and grow much of their own food on a ¼-acre lot. Now they’re trying to help others see what’s possible by sharing their experiences. Read more about Paul’s journey at A posse ad esse, and read all of Paul’s GRIT posts here.

 All GRIT community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Grow Your Soil, and the Plants Will Come

A photo of Paul GardenerWhen we go about building the soil in our gardens, it's easy to think that we can just add amendments, till really well and fertilize as needed; that's been much of the standard thinking for many many years. It will grow plants, and it does work. The problem is that in our changing world, and by changing world I mean increasing fuel and food costs not to mention the increasing price of those very fertilizers and amendments we've depended on as demand for them increases, that same way of gardening will, and is, beginning to yield diminishing returns on the bottom line.

The way I like to combat this is to spend a good deal of my early season time in my garden working on "Growing my Soil" before I work on growing my plants and my main weapon is to add lots and lots of organic material throughout the year, and primarily in the fall. The complimentary component to adding to the beds in the fall, is turning those beds over in the spring.
Forking the Garden Beds 
This gives a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about. In the foreground you can see the remains of the broken down grass, leaves and compost that was added last fall and some earlier this spring (About a month and a half ago.) and the rich soil laying underneath it after it's been turned with my trusty pitchfork. You might think immediately, "How does laying a bunch of layers of organic material over the top of your bed help the soil underneath it?" and for that  I have another secret weapon that helps me to drag all that organic goodness down into the soil...
Life in the soil 
Worms... and lots of them! Where there is lots of orgnanic material, there will be lots of worms, it's just a matter of fact. And keep in mind, I added this garden bed as a "lasagna garden" only two seasons ago, prior to that there was nothing here but some unhealthy grass. As earthworms feed, many species move to the surface to have access to the rich matter found there. As they burrow back down into the soil they bring some of that material with them. They also excrete their castings (manure) into the soil, something often called black gold for it's nutrient rich qualities. A study by the New Mexico Extension Service found that earthworm castings "..often contain 5-11 times more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as the surrounding soils"
Worm aeration 
In addition to helping to incorporate nutrients into the soil, worms also serve a valuable purpose in helping to aerate the soil. If you look at the picture above, you can see one of the larger worm tunnels bored right through the soil. This helps to connect the sub-surface parts of the garden bed to the air above and bring needed air to the roots of the developing plants. It also makes for great little waterways for moisture to make its way deeper into the soil. Nurturing this web-of-life in your garden beds is a fundmental idea behind organic gardenening and is one of the most effective ways of moving beyond chemical additives and fertilizers. Besides, it's cheap!

OK, so you get that I love my gardens earthworms right, but surely there must be more to turning the garden over that just turning in organic material and finding lots of worms? Definitely.
Finding dormant weeds 
By taking the time to physically turn my soil over I have a one on one opportunity, so to speak, to take a look at the garden in general. One of the things I am able to take care of at that time is to find weed stock below the surface and remove them before they become a problem. The photo above looks like just a single stray root under the soil.
Weeding out roots 

After breaking up the soil though, I found it to be a network of rhyzomous roots from our most noxious local weed, Field Bind Weed. These roots, as you can tell if you look closely at their tips, will throw off tens of side shoots and more rootstock that I'll have to deal with later. Now's the best time to take care of it. 

Hand Turned Garden Beds 
The finished garden bed after being turned over with a fork. Much like discing a field, the soil has been turned and incorporated with itself and is ready for any tillage that it might need.
After Tilling 
And finally, the tilled garden bed, ready for planting. It might look like I didn't till it well enough but I left it a bit chunky on purpose. When you till a garden, or a field for that matter, you don't want to till it to the point that it looks like soft fluffy potting soil with no real character to it. Doing that will, over time, break down what is called the "tilth" of the soil, which is to say its actual structure. If you picture a glass of sand, you can imagine how there is very little air space between the grains, that's because the grains are so small. The extreme example of that idea is clay, which has particles so small that they bond almost at a molecular level which is what makes it so hard to work with. Now imagine a glass of various sized pieces of soil; there's a lot more room for air, water and roots to move through it. That's the idea here. Besides, most of the rock looking objects in this photo are actually just dried soil clods that will, after watering and mulching, soften and break back down into the bed. Also, I wouldn't want to go overboard and drive off or kill off all those lovely little helpers I have in the garden beds would I?
Best of luck working your gardens this season and remember, "Grow the soil and the plants will come!"

You can reach Paul Gardener by email , or check his personal blog at A posse ad esse

Growing Potatoes 101: Preparing to Plant Potatoes

A photo of Paul Gardener Recently, I dropped by our local nursery to pick up a few additional items that we needed to have. One of those items was another five pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes.

While we were sorting through the 'taters, an older couple was there looking to get some as well and asked us if we'd ever grown them. I was actually pretty shocked, after we said "yes, many times." When they asked us, "what are tubers?" (The sign on the display referenced tubers) I guess I shouldn't be... shocked that is... but I was. I guess our disconnect from our food has been going on longer than I had imagined. We talked to then for a little while, giving them a basic primer in potato growing 101, and went our separate ways. It got me to thinking that this may be a really good time to go over some of the basics of growing potatoes. I Usually have my potatoes in the ground around St Patrick's Day, but this year it's been so rainy and wet – locally our watershed levels are averaging around 160%-170% of our normal level – that I haven't been able to get them into the ground. I probably could have squeezed them in at some point, but I think I would have suffered from a lot of rot if I had.

First of all, the potatoes themselves are the tubers; and tubers are "...various types of modified plant structures that are enlarged to store nutrients. They are used by plants to survive the winter or dry months and provide energy and nutrients for regrowth during the next growing season..." (wikipedia). Just needed to get that straight from the start.

Potato plant in hand 

Potatoes are plants in the Solanaceae family. That makes them cousins with plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. If you think about the way that those plants bear fruit, you'll have a pretty good idea of the way that potatoes bear their tubers as well. Many folks think that potatoes grow from the roots of the plant, an understandable thing considering the photo above, it does look like they've grown from the roots, But take a look at this photo:

Potato anatomy 

You can see the seed potato that was placed in the ground and can clearly see that the small potatoes are growing from the stem ABOVE the planted potato. Think again about tomatoes ... if you pay attention to them they actually grow from a small stem that grows from the main stem. Potatoes are the same, except that they only grow on the stem that is underground. Because of that, they are planted a little differently

Potato spacing 

This might look a lot like how you would lay out any other plant before putting it in the ground. The difference here is that I'm not going to plant them into the hills, but rather will bury them a couple of inches under the soil at the bottom of the furrows. I lay the potatoes out so I know how many I can fit in a row, then dig them in and leave them alone. Potatoes don't need to be watered in because the tuber itself is mostly water itself and is designed by mother nature to support this plant as it gets itself established. I let my potatoes grow until they are nearly a foot tall before I ever irrigate them. The spring rains take care of that for me. After the potato plants have grown up enough to be five or six inches above the ground, I will then rake or hoe the soil from the hills over and onto the plant itself. After this, I let the plant grow further. When it's another five or six inches above ground level again, I will hoe the soil up onto the plant again leaving furrows between the plants that I will flood irrigate once or twice a week.

aireal planted potatoes 

As the weather turns hotter and the plants are getting taller, I want to keep mounding over the plants as much as possible, and mulching to keep the moisture level steady and weeds down. Grass clippings work great for this. The reason, in case you were wondering, why I keep mounding soil and mulch over the plants is because, as I said, the actual potatoes grow from the stems above the seed potato, but only where it's covered. I want to make sure that there's as much stem underground as possible when the potatoes are growing. So, the long and the short of it is that with a little understanding about the way that potatoes grow and some of the ways that you can coax them along and get great returns for yourself.

Harvesting potatoes 

Best of luck with your tater growing!


Preparing to Start Seeds

A photo of Paul GardenerDepending on what part of the country you're in, it's getting to be the time of year when we will need to get started with some of our early seed starting. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and many herbs and summer veggies can benefit from being started anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months early indoors.

If you buy new planting trays every year, you can go ahead and proceed as you normally would. Fill with starting medium, maybe cover with plastic, and either set in a window or build yourself a seed starting set up and put up lights. If, however, you're like me and try to conserve a little bit of money as well as maybe not use as many resources, then you'll likely try planting many of your seeds in starter trays that you've kept over from previous years. There will of course be trays that have met there useful end and must be scrapped, but taking a little time to clean and store the ones that have not will go a long way to increasing the "bottom line" in your home garden in the long run.

There is one thing that must be taken into consideration when reusing planting supplies however. Sanitation. Just as germs and bacteria can be spread in our kitchens through careless sanitation, so too can they be spread in our gardens. Many of those bacteria and disease strains can be terribly harmful to our gardens if not devastating. Fortunately for us, as the gardeners and caretakers of our gardens, there is a simple way for us to mitigate this potential disaster.  

Soaking seed trays 

Each year before I begin planting, I pull out my trays, sort through those that have become unusable, clean off the cobwebs and give them a bleach bath.

I happen to have a dedicated sink in my garage workshop that I make use of for this, but a simple bucket of bleach water, a folding table or even a board over a pair of saw horses will work perfectly well. The point is that you want to kill off any harmful bacteria before you start new seedlings in these trays.  

Drying seed trays 

After you've cleaned the trays that you want to use, it's not a bad idea to give some of your other implements a dip as well before dumping out the water. Pruners, loppers, trowels and other tools come in direct contact with our plants and can also hold dormant bacteria or spores.

The long and the short of it is that with a little planning, and investment of a small bit of time, you can make sure to get your seedlings and your grand plans for this years garden off to a great start. 


You can reach Paul Gardener by email, or check his personal blog at A posse ad esse. 

Read more: Growing Possibilities 

Winter Chicken Coop Observations

A photo of Paul GardenerOften times, I think, our first instinct is to think that the cold temperatures of winter are always a bad thing, at least when it comes to our animals. Generally speaking I would agree with that assessment, but I've actually noticed something else that I think is interesting with respect to my hens.

Last year I was very good about making sure that my chicken coop was covered and kept from most of the harsh winds of winter. I covered the bottom sides of the coops walking area with plastic sheeting to keep out the drafts, and taped closed the top to keep the bigger gusts of wind and snow from blowing in as well. It worked well for the most part but I did end up with one thing last winter that I hadn't expected... mites.

Now, fast forward to this winter. I didn't cover any of the coop with plastic, allowing full exposure to the elements for everything outside of the roost house. What I did do was to spend a bit of time at making myself a good water warmer for the girl's water dispenser and set my heat lamp and warmer up on individual timers to optimize the heat for the coldest parts of the day. Now, I didn't do this because I was intentionally testing something, but as it turns out I did learn something interesting in the process.

Winter Chickens2 

As I think back, I believe the main problem that caused my mite problem last year stems mainly from the fact that while in the summer months the chickens get to move around the yard, regularly on new ground, in the winter they are essentially stuck in one place because of the snow and the permafrost. Because of this, and with the higher temperatures of a well insulated hen house, I think the mites had a perfect place to take hold.

Now then, that being said, the interesting observation that I made recently was that I have had no problems nor even signs of any mites this year and in fact, my girls seem to be even healthier than they were last year despite my best efforts. They are all laying very regularly, I've seen no evident of mites at all and their feathers are much thicker than they were last year. The only significant difference I can see is that they have not been as sheltered from the cold this year as they were last year. From that I'm making the assumption that the cold has been enough to stimulate them to adapt as they are genetically programmed to do, while also being too cold to allow the natural pests to develop. In closing, I guess I would say that while the cold weather can bring a lot of challenges, it also can be less detrimental than we may be led to believe.

All seasons in nature are there for a reason and winter is no exception. While it may not bring us the excitement of spring, the lush growth of summer or the beautiful colors of fall, it allows the garden... and the livestock a time of renewal. Otherwise difficult to deter pests are laid bare to buy us some time before their annual assault on our gardens, livestock carry their young to be birthed just in time for a full season of feed and even the gardeners are given a few months off to mend achy backs and re-plan the garden for the next season.

Have you found any surprising benefits to winter where you are? I I'd love to hear about them.


You can reach Paul Gardener by email, or check his personal blog at A posse ad esse. 

Read more: Growing Possibilities 

Spring Fever and a Market Garden

A photo of Paul GardenerWell its official, spring fever has set in. I've been sort of bouncing around ideas in my head for the direction that I want to try and set for the garden this year, but after finally getting down a few ideas on paper last night, and then getting a start at entering them in on the GRIT magazine food garden planner, well like I said it's official spring fever has sprung in me.

This year we've decided that we want to try a little bit of a departure from the purely kitchen garden direction that we've always taken, and focus at least a part of the garden towards growing for the local farmers market. it's not that we're going to make a business out of the garden (at least not at this point...), it's really more of a toe-dip into the market growing world. We love going to farmers markets, but quite honestly have been pretty disappointed with the ones up in our neck of the woods. It always seems like all the growers that we see there all have essentially the same stuff; peppers, tomatoes, cukes and zucchinis. we want to have those staple items of course, but there are so many more great veggies that can be provided, we feel like a small grower like us, doing it only for fun, might be able to bring some to the table and shake things up a little. Worst case scenario we spend a morning outdoors and don't sell a thing... we'll just bring it home and eat it ourselves. Either that or open a front yard farm stand like I've seen done before.

Another idea that we've been toying around with its that of getting a plot at our new local community garden. What we're thinking is that we could use that piece of ground to grow crops that take up a lot more ground than others, or that we'd like to grow more of. For instance potatoes, squash, pickling cucumbers or melons.

Things will start going pretty fast here soon. I reviewed my garden journals from the last couple of years this afternoon and can tell that seeds will start going into starter trays here in the next couple weeks. And that’s not even counting the work we’re hoping to get done in the yard before spring. I’ll do my best to keep you aware of how things are going.

Anyone have any experience with growing for a market garden and want to pass on some suggestions. I’d love to hear them.

Till next time.


Looking Forward to a Good 2011

A photo of Paul GardenerWhew, my word what a year 2010 was!

Between work obligations and health problems, trying to keep up with just the basics of our back yard farm was a real challenge. About half way through the year we honestly just threw our hands up and wrote the year off as a general loss. We did still manage to get a fairly decent harvest, but at only a little more than 400 pounds it was only half our best year, and a shadow of what we had hoped for.

Things have slowed (a bit) for us, and the wife and I are feeling a LOT better than we were this time last year. In the next few weeks I'm hoping to finish up a few chores that have been lingering over the winter, make some hard and fast plans for the garden for this year, and try to get some of our slower starting plants, like peppers and tomatoes, started indoors. I also really look forward to digging into GRIT's Food Garden Planner and putting it through it's paces for this year.

Of course we have lots of other plans for this year too, and a wishlist that's just too long to possibly all come to fruition, but that's the beauty of new years ... one can hope against hope for all the great things to come.

How are things going for you so far this year? Got any big plans? Any small ones? Looking forward to getting re-acquainted with the GRIT family readers again this year.

Here's to 2011!

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