Saturday, 19 August 2017

Using leaves as deep litter in the chicken pen.

We get seasons up here in the Hinterland! This means that we get lots of leaves on  the ground as well. This is a resource I haven't had before as living in Brisbane, there are very few deciduous trees around to collect leaves from. It turns out that some people up here sweep the leaves into big piles and burn them or collect them up into bags and take them to the dump!?

I have a friend who has an avenue of deciduous trees and he wants all the leaves off the grass. He was keen to blower vac them into a gully, I was keen to collect them all in the trailer and bring them home. It took about ten trailer loads to get the bulk of them home (and he thinks I'm mad into the bargain) but how could I pass up all those lovely leaves?

Here's what I did with them...

The first few trailer loads went into the chook pen on the floor. I piled all the leaves onto a tarp and then dragged them into the pen and upended the tarp. It made a messy big pile that covered the stump and branches and the bread crates that were to give the chook some dry space for preening, When we got up here it rained solidly for the first few weeks and they were always in the mud. The branches gave them a place to perch, preen and get out of the wet.

It didn't take them long to decide this was an amazing thing to happen to them and even though I really don't think then leaves were full of bugs and worms, the chookies thought that they might be in there and flattened the pile across the pen in less than an afternoon.

My reason for putting the leaves in the pen was threefold.

First I hoped the leaves would soak up a bit of the water lying around in the pen while it was raining.
Secondly, it give the chooks something to do. A bored chook is fairly destructive and sooner or later they will pick on the youngest, newest or weakest for entertainment. Mine are free ranged in the backyard each afternoon so its not so much of an issue for them but like anyone, they like new things, something to do and scratching through piles of leaves is, as Joel Salatin would say, letting the chicken express it chicken-ness - or was that Michael Pollan? At any rate, I like the idea of my chickens expressing their chicken-ness and bringing me to my third reason, they have turned over every leaf a hundred times with those claws, they are making great compost and mulch for my gardens!

I think deep litter for the chook pen is a good thing on a number of levels. It uses up a free resource that would be wasted otherwise. It brings more organic matter onto my property boosting the potential fertility of my place. It amuses my chooks for hours on end (and happy chooks lay much better eggs!) it soaked up all the excess water in the pen and eventually, it was raked out and put on garden beds and they were given another trailer load to play with and start the cycle over again with.


Another thing I tried this winter was deep litter in the hen house. As it didn't get that cold in Brisbane and the girls were all born and bred in the subtropics, I put a single cardboard layer inside the coops each winter as insulation and had the usual newspaper covered in sawdust or straw to soak up the droppings. Winter up here in the mountain is much, uch colder and Even though I put a few of the packing boxes to good use as insulation, I was still worried about how cold it was for them.

So I put a pile of newspaper on the bottom of the coop, followed by the usual straw and instead of cleaning it out when the poop levels get to high, I covered it with a thick layer of leaves. After a few months there is a substantial amount of compost fermenting away in the bottom of the coop producing a bit of heat (I hope) and insulation (Im sure!)

Normally I would be keen on keeping the poop from building up inside the coop but each time I put in the layer of leaves,the smell goes away. I know its not good for any animal to be sleeping in its own poop but once a thick layer of leaves goes in, there is no visible poop for them to stand in and the ammonia smell disappears too. I have read about American Chicken keepers who do this sort of thing in the Winter when their chooks cant go outside in the snow/storms/blizzards and they just put a new layer of straw/hay/whatever on top every few weeks and clean it out in the Spring once the chooks can go outside again.

This is the principle I am trialling for this coop this winter. The coop is a temporary one (like everything at the moment) and in time we will put in a proper coop and run for the girls when we decide on a more permanent  set up for the whole yard. If this works and I end up with some great compost and there is no detrimental effects on the chooks, then I'm guessing I'll be keen to set up the "proper" coop to do this for next Winter.

Using the leaves on the inside of the coop and outside in the pen has been great so far and I'm quite pleased with the results so far. Have you used this system before? What did you think? What were your reasons? Id love to hear what you think!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for using a natural resource that would go to waste otherwise!
Frugal-ness: Only the petrol cost. If the leaves were closer I would have wheel barrowed them home but 4km was a bit far...
Time cost: About an hour to get two or three loads a day depending on how we were feeling. Most of the time was in raking them all up.
Skill level: Raking, raking, raking...
Fun-ness: Flinging leaves at each other was great fun even if it wasn't getting the job done!

Friday, 11 August 2017

My free, chook proof (so far) scavenged garden fence!

Since we moved to the hinterland I have been keen on getting a vege garden up and running for a couple of reasons. One, because the shops are so far away and two, because the soil and weather should allow us to grow veges!

So I waited a few months to see where the sun fell, where the rain water flowed and what sort of winds we had - actually I had too much unpacking and rearranging to do to worry too much about anything else, but while I was hanging curtains and putting boxes in the trailer to go to the dump, I was noting the sunny spots, the drowned out tank over flow patches and the areas that never got any sun!

Once the inside of the house was sorted (well, lets say its liveable) I turned my attention to the prospect of a small herb and vege garden. I have no money to spend on this garden so it was going to be small by necessity rather than choice. I also have a flock of hungry chickens who think that all things green are for their dining pleasure (goats may be less destructive than my horde of chooks!) so it will need a chook proof fence. Permaculture principles state that a vege garden needs to be close to the house or I wont go and get the veges... So with these points in mind -

Here's what I did...

I decided to start small and expand - better to have a small success than a large failure was my theory - and chose a morning sunny corner. This bush was already there and has had a prune - you can see the dirt showing that it was much larger. My initial theory was that the shrub could stay - but I wish I had taken it out at this stage rather than when I was almost finished building the garden...

I collected bits and bobs from around the yard and our junk pile. Some Koppers logs from a defunct front garden and a couple of hardwood planks decided the garden dimensions. Four star pickets became the corners and an old piece of dog fencing became my base fence. I thought the chooks would be able to get through the wire - especially if they are motivated by the sight of fresh green lettuces and so I started cutting branches and weaving them through the wire to make the holes smaller.

I put the star pickets in to hold each corner and then wove the picket through the wire to hold it in place.

The Besser block is to raise the down hill corner a bit - partly for aesthetics and partly to raise the corner so the plants don't get water logged. I put one of the middle posts on the inside of the garden to keep the fence from sagging outwards. I started this fence with fairly robust branches.

I cut the dog wire to the right length and then curved it around a star picket gate post to fix the ends of the fence. I happened to find a bit of dog fencing wire from the fence that got taken out that fitted the wood base of my garden. So I ended up with four corner star pickets and two star picket gate posts that support my fence.

I haven't got a photo of it, but when I was filling the garden with an old compost heap that I dug out of a neglected part of the garden, the chookies could walk in and out of my garden at will through the branches and wire and enjoyed digging in the dirt I was putting in there. The gaps in the fence were big enough for the smaller chooks or the bolder chooks to get through. I started collecting skinnier stick to put in the gaps and then decided to put taller ones in as well to discourage the chooks from flying over the fence.

The stick that I used as the palings were reasonably heavy and this down hill corner was "sagging" a bit so I used a piece of wire across the corner (the bright shiny piece in this photo) to pull it together and provide a bit of stability. This fence isn't going to survive a decent storm but as a temporary, lets try a garden here fence, it will do!

The gate is the original door to the "hospital cage" that got an upgrade when the Quail spent a month in it waiting for their big cage to be erected. It was originally off a home made aviary. I put a few long sticks through the gate to discourage any chooks from flying over it too.

I used a couple of cable ties as the hinges and a coloured rock as the lock. Its a very light gate. A determined possum or wallaby would be able to get in but I'm hoping the presence of the dog and the six foot high chain link fence around the rest of the yard is deterring them from coming near my garden at the moment!

Before I planted anything in the garden, I put a couple of "bait plants" in there for a week or so. Nice big green seedlings in a pot were sitting enticingly in the sea of brown compost. I had the gate and fence finished and the chookies hadn't been able to get in for a while but I wasn't prepared to plant it out and discover that they needed the motivation of expensive seedlings to prove they could get in.

The chooks showed a lot of interest in the bait plants but after a week they hadn't got in. Nothing else had touched the plants and so I took the risk and planted out a punnet of mixed lettuce and Asian greens seedlings - so far so good. I haven't planted anything close to the edge as the chookies can still get their heads through some of the holes.  There's a couple of sprouting onions and potatoes in there too somewhere!

I think the tall sticks also deter the cockatoos and other parrots as they move in the wind and aren't strong enough to take the weight of these birds. So far they haven't shown any real interest in the garden and the few seedlings have remained unmolested.

Its certainly not a garden for the pages of "Better Homes and Gardens Than Mine" but if you are into rustic or interesting garden fencing, then this free, chook proof (so far) one might be the one for you!

It took a bit of time to collect the right sized branches and sticks. I weaved them through the fencing but found that they bunched up a bit and in some places I have five sticks in some places where I'm sure one well placed one would've been sufficient. I could have wired the branches in place or cable tied sticks to stay where I wanted them but I'm trying not to use plastics these days and didn't have an easy to bend wire to hand. This style works for me as I collected sticks on my afternoon walks with the dog and wasn't in a hurry. Its still cold at night here, around three degrees and so I wasn't in a rush to get the seedlings in, just in time for a cold snap or a frost.

Ultimately we will put in a large covered completely animal proof garden that (hopefully) will provide all our greens and a few other veges - but until then, this will be our place to learn and see what works and what doesn't. I'm sure you'll see a few more posts featuring this garden in the future!

What free garden fencing have you made? Post some pictures or links in the comments!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for using items that
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for not spending any money on the garden and fencing!
Time cost: About 2 weeks to get the basics in place plus waiting time to see if the chookies could get in. 
Skill level: Confidence and desire to do it!
Fun-ness: Great fun to see my veges growing on the inside of the fence and the chooks on the outside of the fence!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Small Scale Backyard Hugelculture!

I read an article, ages ago, about a woman who never let a shred of organic matter leave her property. She also collected as much greenery, dead leaves, left over food from a local day care and any organic matter that she could lay her hands on and turned her yard from a barren moonscape into a lush suburban oasis. This long-ago-read story has been my basis for not getting a council green bin and not allowing my husband to take a trailer load of anything organic to the dump - even though its free for us to do that!

So what do we do with all those random branches that fall during a storm? What happens to the bottom of the chook coop when it needs cleaning out? What do we do with all our prunings and rakings after a garden tidy?

What doesn't go into the formal compost heap gets put it in a pile in a hidden part of the garden and after a couple of years, its all composted down and is a really good place to plant new plants! It turns out that this "no waste / cant leave the property" policy that I have, is also called Hugelkulture in some circles!

Hugelkulture is usually a large scale gardening technique where you take whole tree trunks and put them in a pile and then cover them with progressively smaller and smaller branches and finally leaves and a covering of compost and dirt. The idea is to then plant out the top dirt layer. The plants draw their nutrients from the rotting branches underneath. The tree trunks eventually also rot out releasing their nutrients to the plants above. This system also soaks up water well, stays hydrated longer and is a really, really good way to absorb all those nutrients locked up in the tree and your garden waste!!

Here's what I do...

In our new place I wanted to revegetate the back third of the garden. Its heavily shaded by a giant Moreton Bay fig and a large number of other large native trees. A vege or flower garden wouldn't work in this heavily shaded space and it seems like a good place to grow trees to screen the fence and to enhance both our view, and the neighbours view!

So as I was taking out various weed trees, cutting back unruly bushes and attempting to eradicate the bamboo patch, I ended up with a pile of smallish branches that normally people might take to the dump or put in a green waste bin. Instead I used them to start my "garden beds" and piled them up in the areas I want to revegetate.

As Winter progressed, I met people who were getting rid of Autumn leaves (?) and discovered that people will generously reward you for arriving with a trailer and a rake and taking the leaves away for them! These, I added to my piles of branches! (The leaves, not the rewards - I drank them!)

Another neighbour took out a tree and didn't need it for firewood or garden edging and over the period of a week we removed the whole thing, branch by branch and piled it into my Hugalkulture piles in the back yard and also covered them in a trailer of leaves.

At the moment they just look like a pile of sticks and leaves. I need to have another go at them with a pair of loppers and break the branches down a bit more. My husband sometimes just puts his boots on and stomps all over them - its a crude but effective method of breaking the branches down I have to admit!!

The way I make Hugalkulture beds isn't an instant system. I'm attempting to mimic Mother Nature, but in a slightly faster time frame! She knocks a tree or two over and then slowly they break up and disappear into the mulch and eventually grow new trees where the old one stood. I'm just breaking the branches down quicker and bringing the mulch to the tree. If I had access to dirt or compost, I'd be adding that too!

You cant really see them in this picture but I have started planting native tree seedlings that I've collected off neighbours and friends and have been making a hole for them, filling it with compost and planting my wee tree in amongst the mulch. Hopefully they will start to grow and create a forest of native trees on my side of the fence... soon?

The soil here is pretty good, being volcanic and we also have a fair bit of rain here too which helps! I think the tree branches and mulch will help protect the seedlings as they grow and eventually provide them with all the nutrients they need to get bigger.

Its not a "pretty" gardening method, I have to admit, but works for me in that we are trying to recreate a natural looking forest with paths through it, not a parkland. I have also noticed that the chooks don't like to climb on top of the piles as they aren't solid and so aren't digging too much up at all. If you need a more aesthetic garden bed, put some wood chip or other cover as your top layer and don't let the chooks near it!

I have been putting grain on areas that asparagus fern weed grow and this encourages the chooks to scratch at the roots and if not eradicate it, certainly weaken it. I'm a bit worried that my light version of Hugelkulture wont smother the asparagus weed but nourish and cosset it and it will grow like the weed it is! So I'm putting the girls to work on it before I start on my mulch piles in that spot.

According to the little bits I've read about this gardening method, the idea is to make a huge pile of trees/branches/organic matter, cover it in dirt and start planting. The insides of the pile will rot and collapse over time allowing you to plant deeper into the layer of composted organic matter that gets deeper each year. I don't have huge trunks to put on the bottom of my piles, nor trailer loads of dirt for the top so, again, taking my cue from Mother Nature, I just put whatever comes to hand on top of the pile and let time do its thing with minimal help from me.

I wish I had photos of the places in the old place that we piled fallen branches, garden pruning's and grass clippings. We picked a spot each year and made what were really just informal rough compost heaps and then after a year or so found a new spot to  put all this garden "waste". We popped a plant into the top of the old informal "compost heap" and within a short time the plant grew too big to see where the pile had originally been. The photos would all just be of happily growing plants if I did have them!

If we had a bare paddock in the blazing sun and access to dead trees on a large scale, I could see the sense in using Hugelkulture they way it was designed but as I have a small shaded backyard, this light version of Hugalkulture is working really well for me!

If you are keen to explore this concept a bit more, these websites have been really helpful for me to learn about Hugalkulture from.

Let us know what your experiences with Hugalkulture have been like in the comments below. If you know of a great Hugalculture site, link to it in the comments and we can all go and have a look at it.

Happy Hugal-ing!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for not letting anything organic leave the property!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for getting mulch for free!
Time cost: Whatever time you have. Its a long term commitment this Hugalkulture stuff...!
Skill level: Just raking, dragging, piling skills with a lot of patience!
Fun-ness: I'm really enjoying collecting branches from around the garden and its been a great way to get to know the neighbours - especially the ones with deciduous trees!
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