It’s that time of year to start thinking about seasonal gardening jobs – in our part of the world, jobs for the Spring garden. This weekend that means starting seeds, caring for hens, and making plans for a fruit tree before I run out of time.
Caring for chickens
Sunday morning dawned foggy and chilly, but soon cleared to a sunny but cold day. It was also chicken coop cleaning day, so I let the little marauders out of the pen while I mucked them out.
Chickens are pretty easy pets to keep. We have four ISA Browns, which were the only type of hens we could get during the pandemic chicken frenzy of 2020. My goal has always been to have Australorps, an Australian heritage breed, but I could not find them at the time we were looking for hens.
ISA Browns are a hybrid hen bred for egg laying. Our four cluckers do lay really well. They are in their third year and are still going strong. They are also curious, cranky, naughty little dinosaurs that love to rampage through my veggie patch if I let them.
The four main things you need to care for chickens are:
- A fox-proof coop and run: We purchased our neighbour’s shed (he built a new Cluckingham Palace, and sold us his old coop for $100). He helped us to re-build it on our side of the fence, and we got a solid coop for less than we would spend on materials to build a new one. They have a large space to run around and dust-bathe outside, as well as occasionally free-ranging in the backyard. Don’t think you can get away with not securing the coop. Foxes are a legitimate pest in most urban and peri-urban regions of Australia, and they will take out a flock of chickens very quickly;
- Bedding straw, and time to clean them out regularly: I clean the run and coop out every two weeks, raking out and replacing their bedding with fresh straw. I buy a bale of bedding straw for $9, which lasts me (well, them really) two months;
- Good quality poultry food: Our hens prefer Red Hen Free-range Layer Mix. We buy a 20 kg bag for $33, which lasts four hens a couple of months. Their food is supplemented by kitchen scraps and green feed from the garden;
- Time: Healthy birds take a bit of time. I need to spend about two hours every two weeks cleaning them out. We also obviously have to feed them daily, water them, put them to bed at night, make sure they are kept safe from foxes, and generally keep an eye on them.
I check on the birds’ physical health every time I clean the pen by picking them up to see if they have healthy feet and feathers. I also check in their pen when I am cleaning it for any signs of mites or lice. So far, we have not had any problems. That could just be dumb luck, but I do think chicken hygiene plays a part. Regular cleaning of the coop, fresh water, and giving them only as much food as they can eat in one day prevents other pests visiting their coop.
Why have chooks?
I have chickens because I like them. I’m not a furry animal type of person (we don’t have dogs, cats, rabbits or any other fluffy creature), so chickens fulfil my need to have non-human creatures about the place. They are my favourite animal – I find them soothing company. However, there are some other good reasons. Because we have the space, chickens contribute to our little organic gardening ecosystem: they reduce waste by eating a lot of our kitchen and garden waste, their manure becomes compost, which in turn feeds the garden. They give us eggs in return for their food and space. We eat some eggs, but not as many as they give us, so we usually give some away.
However, if I did not have the space or if I was renting, I would not have them. They do require effort and time, and some expense. In the twenty years we rented, we only had chickens one time, because we had a very chilled landlord.
Seasonal gardening jobs – late August
After cleaning the hens and turning the compost, a job I do at the same time (with some help from the chickens), I did some weeding and reviewed the garden.
It’s been an extremely wet and cold few months in our area. The brassicas have not grown quickly, and I was starting to feel concerned I will not get anything before Spring hits and they go to seed. But walking around the patch this morning, I could see that many plants are starting to shake off the Winter doldrums and are putting on some growth. I plan to pick a bunch of collard greens this week – I am very excited about this.
We picked the last of an Autumn batch of Cos lettuces last week. These were in a raised garden bed, so I refreshed the soil with a bag of potting mix and watered it in well. Then I planted new lettuce and spinach seeds, hoping for a quick Spring crop of both before it gets too warm. Spinach has been my nemesis this year, so I’m not holding my breath. Lettuce has been an absolute winner though. This time I planted more Cos Paris Island, a lovely red Cos lettuce, and my favourite, Marvel of Four Seasons, a red butter lettuce. I’m sure I mostly plant it because I love the name, although the lettuce is tasty too. If you are in southern Australia, you will have time for a quick crop of lettuce, chard, spinach, or Asian veggies like Pak Choy or Tatsoi before the hot weather causes them to bolt to seed. Just plant ASAP now that the sun is coming out and the days are longer.
I started the first of the Summer veggie seeds last week on the heat mat. I’m going in hard on eggplants and chillies this year, as I mentioned last week. But I’ve also started more Spring Onions (Red Candy Stick), bulbing onions (Barletta), some more Chard (Rainbow), Capsicum Golden Marconi, and Green Zebra tomatoes. Next on the list are all the eggplants – this season I’m growing four kinds. I completely caved when I saw the seed catalogues, and bought a heap of different varieties to try. I bought my seeds from Happy Valley seeds and so far I have been really happy with the price and quality.
I’m not banking on seed-raising like I did last season. This time, I’m treating it as a fun hobby. If I get to the first week of October and I don’t have enough homegrown seedlings to plant out, I will go to a nursery and fill in the gaps. I don’t want to lose any precious warm growing months.
Bare-rooted fruit tree
It’s almost time out for planting a bare rooted fruit tree (apples, quinces, nectarines, etc). In some parts of our State, I wouldn’t bother – it’s too late. But in my area, we are usually about six weeks behind the weather patterns of the rest of the State. Therefore, I’m going to take a punt and buy a bare-rooted fruit tree next weekend. I have a spot where Audrey II, the ill-fated boysenberry cane used to be. Her trellis remains, and I want to plant a tree that I can espalier. My plan is for a Quince, but I will settle for another Apple. If I don’t get it in the ground next Sunday though, I know I will have left my run too late and will have to wait another ten months.