Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've kept chickens in town for several years now. I started with five. One turned out to be a rooster and 'went away' quickly. My favorite, a lovely Rhode Island Red, took up swimming as a hobby a couple of years ago and promptly drowned in a stock tank.

Alas...I'm left with Araucanas.

I got them because they're pretty. In retrospect, it's tempting to class this as a typical, stupid, guy-thing...my first relationship, etc. I promise to go for the smart, interesting ones next time.

I'm sure somebody out there likes them, but in my experience the Araucana's are just dumb and mean. My red would happily ensconce herself between my elbows as I weeded the garden so as to gobble up the worms I found. By contrast, after four years, the Araucana's remain convinced I'm going to murder them at every turn and generally keep their distance. That despite the fact that I hand fed one of them of them for six weeks after she lost half her beak to some marauding predator one night! The also Araucanas variously take turns trying to murder eachother. When Sarah (my Red) was still around, they collectively tried to snuff her out, a perfidy I suspect may have driven her to drink.

Chickens will be a continuing part of the big adventure here. I'm down to three now, across two legal lots, which means I could actually pick up a fourth (two per lot) and still be within city code.
Grumbling about my present coop aside, I really like chickens in town. They make fantastic eggs. They're a riot to watch. They make great manure for enriching compost. They're easy to keep. What's not to like about them?

My hens lay from mid-April until October. I've found that about a hen per person is sufficient to provide us with a modest supply of eggs. They start slow in the spring, produce mind-boggling numbers of eggs in the middle, and start to slow down as the summer winds to a close.

I've built them a truly posh coop, complete with cedar siding, elevated nest boxes, a ramp with traction bars, and a screen porch. They thank me for this effort daily by crapping all over it.

The interaction between chickens and gardens has been educational for me. The first year I foolishly let them loose in the spring just as my garden was getting started and they practically scratched the entire thing out of the ground. I tried fencing and whatnot, but chickens are remarkably adept at getting to the food they want. So, now I mainly keep them in their penned yard which is large enough anyhow. The compost pile is contained within that yard too, which means they have first crack at the kitchen scraps etc.

In future chicken adventures, I plan to make chicken tractor of sorts to enable me to use the chickens to maintain grassy areas which would otherwise require mowing. They love greens! In fact, they've loved the greens in their yard right down to nothing...another reason a tractor would be a big improvement.

Tractor or no, Araucanas notwithstanding, chickens seem like a no-brainer to me (cheapshot!) for the permaculture adventurist.


While in graduate school years ago, I indulged one of my childhood fantasies and kept bees for two or three years. Living in town and having a very small yard and very small children, I really had no place for them, so I put them on top of my flat-roofed garage.

The experience was fabulous. The honey my bees made was the best I've tasted, probably because unlike mono-cropped commercial bees, mine foraged on a wide variety of interesting species. They were amazing to watch too. Apart from having to chase and capture a couple of swarms in the spring on one occasion (a little unnerving) and, on another occasion, being stung quite badly on a hot and dry day, it was all very sweet.

Now I'm determined to do it again. I've considered bees before, but was leery of the various bee-spoilers like mites and colony collapse which have arisen in the time since I originally had bees. Now, however, I think I'm set to go again for a couple of reasons.

The mite situation just is what it is. Most beekeepers I talk to say you have to medicate. The good news is that there are a number of effective natural substances (mostly essential oils) that seem to work.

The colony collapse thing is scarier, but it's just as much of a reason to keep bees for me as it is a reason to not keep bees. For whatever reason, CC seems to not be much of a problem for amateur beekeepers. The commercial outfits have a much harder time with it. My simple interpretation of that (admittedly anecdotal) correlation is that commercial bees are under a lot more pressure due to relocation, honey robbing, etc. and as a result are also more vulnerable to disrupters (disease? poisons?) of any sort. However you want to explain it, the fact is that bees are vital to plant life and if only for selfish reasons, it makes sense to support them in any way we can. Apart from being fun and generating amazing honey, amateur beekeeping may help in some tiny way to make the world safe for pollinators.

So, I've scoped out a nice spot for a couple of hives and, as you may have already read in the water blog, plan to outfit them with a solar roofed shelter.

The last time I did this, it took me about a weekend's work to build the hives from kits and paint them. Getting started was pretty simple. Cost will be a couple hundred dollars. Depending on when queens are available this coming spring, I should be back in bees by mid-April or so.