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A flock of chickens is essentially a pack of little garbage disposal composting machines.  Food and yard waste goes in, fertilizer comes out.  But, they don’t eat everything.  Here’s what we’ve found our chickens like to eat.

First, what goes in each food/yard waste bin?

Chickens get:
fruits and veggies
grains, cooked and raw
bread
leftover meals
dairy (but not too much cheese)
But don’t eat:
citrus fruit and peels (taste bad)
meat, fish (they could, but this increases the chance that pathogens will end up in your fertilizer)
garlic and onion (makes eggs taste funny)
raw potato (poisonous)
dry beans (poisonous)
avocado pits and peels (poisonous)
rotten or moldy food
sweets and junk food
and eggs that look like eggs (they’ll wise up and start eating their own!)

Worms get:
moldy and spoiled food
coffee and tea
paper towels
tough peels
But not:
citrus
meat or fish
greasy, oily stuff

Food waste bin gets:
citrus
meat, bones, fish
greasy, oily stuff
houseplants (can be poisonous)
pits, peels, and egg shells (take forever to break down in compost or worm bin)

That gives you a general idea of what should go where, but chickens do have favorites, and some things that we throw into the run just don’t get eaten.

Favorites:

  • kale and swiss chard and broccoli leaves and other leafy greens.  we grow kale just for them- it’s super nutritious and they absolutely love it.  in fact, if you hold it up above their heads, they will jump almost a foot in the air to grab it.
  • yogurt.  i don’t know why, but they frickin’ love this stuff.  they’ll drink it out of a bowl, but when they were little we had to dip their beaks in it to show them what it was.
  • anything grain like- cooked rice, oatmeal, millet or wheat or barley or flaked corn or scratch mix from the grange- essentially anything that can be shaken out of a jar and pecked up.  they come running immediately.
  • mealy worms from the pet store- fantastic treats for young chicks that you are trying to handle and tame.  they won’t eat earthworms until they’re much bigger- worms are intimidating to little chicks.
  • moths, earthworms, grubs, bugs that click and jump around, etc.  if you want to see ancient dinosaur instinct come out in your chickens- watch them hunt bugs.  it’s actually rather scary.
  • beds of clover (crimson clover cover crop), wheat grass (harder to grow), pea vines (after you’ve eaten the peas), long grass, etc.

Not so much:

  • cabbage- i find i have to chop this up finely for them to eat it- otherwise it’s to tough for them to rip apart.
  • same with bread crusts- they’ll eat the soft inside, but i have to soak the stale crusts in water for them.
  • stems of broccoli, swiss chard, etc- they’re just not as good as the leaves.

Tricks:

  • try to clean out your fridge often- catch leftovers before they go bad so you can give them to the chickens instead of the worms.
  • chickens always eat the best things first, so if you want them to eat chopped broccoli stems, don’t put kale or grain out too.
  • they’ll eat more and less appealing things if their not free ranging.  if i want them to finish some wilted lettuce or chopped cabbage, or eat their weekly dose of crushed egg shell for calcium,  i’ll put it in the run when we leave them in there for the day- that way there’s nothing much better to do, like chase bugs.
  • for tougher stuff like stems, cabbage, and bread crusts, make them a smoothie!  i blend this stuff with yogurt, kefir, or just water and put it out in a bowl for them to drink.

Next spring i plan on trying out buckwheat as a cover crop- it attracts bees and makes more phosphorous available for the next crop- and i’m hoping that the chickens will enjoy eating it.  Gotta keep them well fed and entertained so they don’t destroy the lawn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Summer garden

The summer garden is finally in full swing.  We have ripe tomatoes!  We have cucumbers!  Fall beets and broccoli have been planted!

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Compost is exciting.  The act of composting takes care of food scraps and yard waste so they don’t end up in the land fill.  And using compost in the garden delivers much needed organic matter and nutrients to the soil.  Composting closes the loop, bringing your garden, be it containers on the patio and a worm bin or a full blown hobby farm, closer to sustainability.

Here’s how composting goes down in my garden, which consists of a few raised beds on a small city lot:

Kitchen scraps get sorted into bins 1) for the chickens 2) for the worms 3) for non-edible food waste (bones, pits, citrus rinds) taken to Cedar Grove composting.

For our yard waste,  cut grass and fallen leaves go into the chicken coop as bedding that will get scratched apart and pooped on.  Weeds like morning glory (the bane of my existence- it cannot be killed!!!) and shotweed go into the yard waste bin so that they don’t end up sprouting in the garden.

The chicken bedding (w/ torn up leaves, grass, veggie scraps, and chicken poop) gets put into a compost tumbler every couple months.  The nitrogen rich chicken manure heats up the material and helps it compost really quickly (so does the black barrel).  We spin the barrel on most days to aerate it, which helps the material decompose aerobically, instead of anaerobically (a process that produces methane gas, which is 30 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas… which is why we don’t want this stuff buried in a landfill).  When that’s done, it gets put directly onto the garden beds.  One potential problem with this is that we use pine shavings for bedding inside the coop, which can take a while to break down, and if put into the garden unfinished, actually take nitrogen from the soil to help them decompose.  This may be compensated by the super high nitrogen content of the chicken poop.  But once our bag of pine shavings is used up, we’re switching to timothy hay, which breaks down more quickly.  We use it as the bedding in the run, and it works pretty well- by the time we rake it out of the run to put in the tumbler, it’s 1/3 broken down already.

Worm bin.   We have a food scraps worm bin, and a dog poo worm bin.  Vermicompost from the food scrap bin goes into the garden when it’s finished, and the dog poo vermicompost will be used on our non-edible plants- an assortment of woefully neglected flowers and shrubs in the front yard.  Why a dog poo worm bin?  Never would have ventured in that direction, except that Inka loves to clean up after our chickens.  (Maybe that’s why she doesn’t hunt them- they have developed a symbiotic relationship; they provide her with delicious snacks, she protects them from would be predators, which, so far, just include the cat and friends’ dogs that come over.  We’re hoping she’d protect them from raccoons as well.)  Anyway, Inka is stealing the lawn fertilizer that the chickens provide, so i decided to reclaim it (and reduce dog waste going to the landfill) with a dog poo worm bin.  However, now that’s it’s been a few months since we got the chickens, the delightful novelty of chicken poop seems to have worn off, and Inka does not eat as much.  So….  we might not continue with this bin, unless it makes such fantastic compost that we can’t not continue.  We are saving more organic matter from going to the landfill… but it’s still gross.

With all of these avenues of composting, you’d think we’d be a streamlined operation here, but the compost doesn’t seem to come fast enough.  Half of our garden beds are in dire need of an infusion of organic matter, and by the time we have a few batches finished to feed them, the other half will be at that point.  We also don’t have a good sunny location to put our compost tumbler; the sun’s heat would make it go more quickly.  So we end up putting partially finished compost on the garden beds.  This releases readily available nutrients to the veggies, but finished compost contains nutrients in forms that are slower to break down and therefore are released to the plants over time- good for long term feeding and to avoid nutrient leaching.

We also never seem to have enough room or containers for all of the material we want to compost.  We’ve got four people total living in our house and producing food waste.  David and i have built worm bins one after another to hold everything coming out of our kitchen- we’ll soon be at number four- and the worms don’t seem to be munching quite fast enough.  Now that the chickens are full grown, they should be able to help us out with a good portion of the food scraps.  Someday we’ll find a balance… perhaps when we move to a place with a bigger yard with space for a real compost pile or another couple of tumblers… and more chickens… and a couple goats.

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Our garden seems to grow fairly slowly… but that’s likely because i check on it 3 or 4 times a day.  Turns out that going out of town for a long weekend helps the veggies get bigger much faster.   Upon our return we discovered both the runner beans and pole beans had started producing (half of which we ate immediately), we had one fairly solid cabbage, one slightly scrappy but surely delicious head of broccoli, and one giant zucchini (for which i cursed out Chris Rupp, as he is the protector of the squash- ensuring that none goes unpicked before it gets giant… which i guess is somewhat difficult from his current location in Boston.)

The pea vines were also starting to dry up, so i picked the last handful of pods and ripped out the vines and tossed them on the lawn for the chickens.  They also got lots of slug-damaged cabbage leaves.  But really, the thing they’re most excited about when we return from out of town is a good dust bath.

From the ‘rents garden in Kuna (Southwest Idaho, near Boise) we brought back a load of crook neck and zucchini, but none of the weird volunteer squash crosses that looked like they could taste like orange cucumber, green pumpkin… or bumpy ghostly nothing.  We also brought back a mint plant- in my carry-on luggage.  On the way to play at the Lucky Peak reservoir, we passed one of the many mint fields in southern Idaho and stopped to pick a few sprigs to freshen the car on the way up.  They smelled so amazingly good that we decided we must make mojitos that evening, and on the way back stopped to grab some more.  Instead of a few sprigs, this time an entire plant was accidentally ripped out of the field, and there was a mad scramble to get back in the car and squeal away- car door still open- from the scene of the crime.  The mojitos were delicious, and having a whole plant meant that i could take a clump and plant it here in Seattle.  We already have a “spearmint” plant from the Seattle Tilth plant sale, and i believe this one from Idaho is “peppermint.”  It smells so gawdawfully good that it nearly makes you sick.  We will make peppermint tea as soon as the poor thing recovers from being wrapped in wet paper towel, triple-bagged, and shoved in my backpack for several hours.  Yum.

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Realized that i haven’t actually written any posts about my garden, though i intended this to be an “urban farm” blog.  Will have to remedy that.  To start, here is a tour of my garden this summer:

First, many of my veggies get started in the basement under the grow light. Here are some kale and squash seedlings.  Starting seeds indoors takes a bit of electricity, but helps delicate seedlings establish themselves, helps your garden get started earlier in the season, and gives the veggies currently in the garden a few more weeks to grow before they are replaced by new transplants.  Seeding indoors is a great garden time and space saver.

Our original garden consists of three 4×8′ raised beds and one 2×12′ strip along the fence in the corner of the lawn.  This spring we have peas along the fence, beets and chard in one raised bed, brassicas in the second, and peppers and basil in the third.

The peas (Cascadia snap peas from Territorial) are still pumping out delicious pods; hopefully i won’t have to cut them off early when it comes time to replace them with fall broccoli and cabbage transplants mid-August.

In bed one, i made the mistake of not replacing the over-wintered swiss chard plants with new transplants as soon as it was warm enough.  We harvested from the plants all through last fall and winter, and they did continue to produce this spring, but bolted soon after the weather warmed up.  I cut as much as i could before the plants could flower and their leaves turn bitter, and shared it with several neighbors.  But then i had no transplants to replace them with!  Now, in July, the new plants are finally big enough to take leaves from.  Whoops.  Lesson learned.

In bed two, I transplanted two successions of broccoli and cabbage seedlings: the first has been eaten (by us or the chickens, depending on the amount of slug damage), and the second is taking too long.  Early in the season, i sowed radishes between the bigger broccoli and cabbage plants (as per Steve Solomon) because they are so quick to mature they don’t bother their slow growing neighbors.  Now it is time to replant this bed with rutabaga and parsnip…  which i again seeded between the rows of nearly mature broccoli, hoping that the timing will work out.  One thing i am learning in this garden is patience and slow-down-itute.  Cramming too much into the garden plan results in disappointment.

Into bed three went my home-grown pepper seedlings, two extra tomato seedlings that i couldn’t bring myself to toss out, and several basil plants from the Seattle Tilth plant sale.  This bed was covered with a plastic cloche to keep it warm, but several hot days- and me forgetting to open the ends of the cloche- fried the peppers.  I feel i have failed David, the main eater of hot peppers, but next year i’ll get those whiny little biatches to perform by starting them earlier and protecting them with wall-o-waters when they are first transplanted.  This year i have all but given up on them and have filled the spaces in between with more basil seedlings from the apocalypse room.

When we first moved in, there were two flower beds along the west side of the house growing ginormous irises.  Those promptly became veggie garden space as well.  The smaller patch is growing kale this year, which will mostly be split between our housemate Kate and the chickens, both of whom love kale more than life itself.  In the larger bed, i’ve grown runner beans along the house for the last two years.  If you have never had runner beans, you MUST. GROW. RUNNER BEANS!  They are the most amazing thing ever- huge pods that are slightly fuzzy and oh-so-beany.  They don’t get tough and stringy as they get even more huge.  The vines can grow to 10 feet tall and have beautious cascades of red flowers.  If you try them, you will never grow bush beans again.  The rest of this bed is growing successions of lettuce and spinach, and we have a mojito patch under the hose faucet, because that’s where mint likes to grow.

One afternoon last spring i tore out a 4×12″ patch of grass to make another garden bed, much to David’s surprise.  I just couldn’t help myself!  Or as Daniel would say, “No one was there to stop me!”  Into that bed went squash, followed by crimson clover over the winter, which was eaten by the chickens this spring.  Now the bed is a teeming mass of tomato vines.  Intent on getting a boat-load of tomatoes this year, i started the transplants out in wall-o-waters (some home grown and some from the Seattle Tilth plant sale), and then when the plants were too big, covered the bed with a plastic cloche that was open at both ends.  The plants did not fry and the air was still warm enough under the tunnel to grow huge tomato plants.  Now i just need to fertilize them with some phosphorous to get them a-fruiting.  (Nitrogen fertilizer induces leafy growth; phosphorous fertilizer encourages fruit setting.)  We had one ripe tomato already- a good sized Oregon Spring.  We gave it to our neighbor Becky, as per the Murray-Munger tradition of racing your neighbors to produce the first ripe tomato and then giving it away.

This year we built one more 4×12′ bed out in the parking strip (gawd that’s crappy soil) and filled it with 8 zucchini, yellow squash, and green and lemon cucumber plants.  I started the seeds indoors in cow pots and protected the transplants with the wall-o-waters that had just come off the tomatoes.  I think we could start the plants a little earlier next year- some of our neighbors have giant squash plants already, and ours are kind of puny… but they have little baby squashlets on them!

And that’s what we’ve got in the garden this spring and summer.  Fall/cover crop update to come soon.

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