Don't Fence Me In

"A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes."
--Mark Twain

If there is one thing you can say about expectations, it is that they are always, without fail, met. With what they are met, now that is what makes the story interesting, or perplexing, and sometimes even frustrating.

This can certainly, perhaps even especially, be said of expectations relating to co-habitation with animals.

Let me preface all of this by saying that I realize, of course, that a chicken is a chicken....

and a human is a human.

You can read all of the books you want, then want all the things you want based on what you have read, but at the end of the day there is nothing like experience.

We really didn't know for sure what our 17 hens would want with respect to space. I built a reasonably sized coop (about twice the advised minimum for them at maturity) on the edge of the drive last fall, with bumped out nesting boxes (more for us than them).

There is room for at least ten more on the pine branch roosts, though floor space would get tight during feeding time in the winter.

I built the coop on 4x4 "sleds" so that I could move it to its permanent location. The info I read & based the coop design on, I must say, was spot on.

In the summer they would free range all day, and only use the coop for eating/drinking, afternoon naps, and nighttime.

With a ratio of 3.4 hens/acre, there would be plenty of room for them to explore.

Our extensive landscape plantings, and more importantly, 1.5 acres of vegetable ground, were always a concern, but I thought we could work it out.

Unfortunately, chickens prefer the same light, fertile soil as plants, only for their dirt baths, and its inhabitants (earthworms and grubs) for their snacks.

It was not a worst case scenario...yet. The annual mulching has not been done, and hardly a thing has been planted outside our first spring plot, which is protected with chicken wire. It has been effective, for the most part, so far.

It has become increasingly apparent that our optimistic expectations about free range hens were not spot on. Even though it may not always be obvious to the eye, depending on what project we are in the middle of, I do like to have things in their place, from tools and materials (like mulch) to plants, desirable and less desirable, and it now appears, hens.


with all this in mind, and knowing that good fences may very well make good neighbors,

our ladies now have slightly less range.

I did try to give them a mountain range, made of composted mulch and dead grass plumes, for climbing, dirt bathing, and digging for bugs.

Further testing is sure to come, but at this point, the plan (expectation?) is to add two more runs, so we can rotate them around, as I assume (expect?) that this grass will soon be gone.

We just saw a video where a woman let her birds free range for just an hour or two before dusk. Maybe this solution will work for us.

I will try and keep my expectations to a minimum.

It's Easy Being Green

"Being is the great explainer."
--Henry David Thoreau

There are many good things about St. Patrick's Day. Unfortunately, since getting into landscaping about 12 years ago, I have more often than not found myself raking leaves, pruning shrubs, or even spreading mulch. I have endured blustery winds, unending rain showers, and even a flurry or two. Sometimes, my efforts to get home and enjoy a celebratory brew are further delayed, like last year when I had a blow out on my water trailer.

This year even started on a rough note, as I discovered that the hoophouse had had it's first overnight guest, a field mouse I'm sure. The damage was minor (though I am a little on edge tonight as I write this) as he or she only devoured some early experimental cukes and the casings from the okra and sage, both of which seem to have survived after an emergency operation.

But I refused to give up on this year. I had planned to stay home and work and enjoy a celebratory brew (or two), and it was going to be a good one.
I spent the next few hours tending to starts and transplants, and then moved out into the 65 degree sunshine to work on a much needed construction project with Sarah. I'll get to that later, or tomorrow.

Now is the time for life on the farm to shine.

Mustard Greens

Swiss Chard

Early Mizuna




Red Leaf Lettuce


Bronze Arrowhead

Sanguine Ameliore

Red Stars...

and Wrigley...

and Rosie and Pee Wee

It was a good day.


"Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way."
--Edward de Bono

Sometimes we find solutions to our problems in unexpected places. My love for growing food has evolved alongside my disdain for plastic. Plastic, along with one of its primary components, oil, are at the forefront when considering our impact on the environment on which we depend. The list of problems that are exasperated, if not caused, by our dependence on oil is long. Its not exactly rocket science.

But is that really the fault of oil or plastic? I think not. The problem is with management. When cars became affordable, everyone got one, regardless of actual need. As long as gas prices stay below $3.00, there is little talk of downsizing, regardless of actual need. I suppose it is human nature on some level, but it is far from the human nature of two generations ago (or two generations from now) when conservation was (will be) necessary for survival.

I have often found myself perplexed when confronted with images and stories of organic farming operations that use a product referred to as plastic mulch. It is not exactly mulch in the wood/straw sense, although it does control weeds and conserve moisture. It is really just a sheet of black plastic that is stretched over a raised bed, then buried along the sides so that it doesn't blow away.

Besides the plastic (about 4 sq.ft./linear ft. of bed), there is the diesel fuel that transported it and was used in the 30ish HP tractor that is required to lay it. Oh, and then at the end of the season you have a huge pile of plastic that many farmers choose to burn. Sounds organic to me. And all to save the work that a team of well-trained ten year-olds can pull off in a good twelve hour day.

Growing (and eating) food in Illinois, and many other parts of the world, presents a peculiar issue with regards to oil consumption. We can only grow certain crops for a limited duration, unlike California, for example. Until recently, I didn't think there were any real benefits to be gained by using plastic to grow food, with respect to the ecosystem as a whole.

My discovery of four season growing has changed that. Plastic film is stretched over a metal structure to create a micro-climate that can be used to extend seasons. Hoop-houses, or high tunnels, are not a new idea, but with the increasing focus on fuel conservation, I think it makes sense to take advantage of this technology in our area. I also use a secondary layer of mini-hoops inside for the really cold nights (see the top picture). Operating on a purely experimental basis, we were able to grow lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, spinach, and assorted chois, throughout the winter without any supplemental heat.
On sunny days in January, with six inches of snow on the ground and daytime highs hovering in the mid-twenties, it reached a balmy 55 degrees inside. This heat is trapped by the soil and slowly released overnight, so that the ground never freezes inside.

When considering impact, the amount of fuel saved by not transporting these vegetables across the country is surely more than what it took to manufacture and transport this plastic. As of last month, I can say that I will soon have actual data to back up this assumption. We, along with eight other farmers in Union County, and many more across the country, have been pre-approved to take part in a 3 year USDA study on the benefits of using these systems for season extension, erosion control, and pesticide reduction (synthetic or organic). This program has created a variety of possibilities for farmers interested in producing food to be consumed locally.

The plastic on this year's hoop-house can be used for the mini-hoops inside next year
if it is weakened too much to be the primary protection. It can also be used on small hoops throughout the property to warm the ground and for shorter periods of season extension, though they alone generally won't hold the weight of snow.

In my mind, all of life is an experiment. Slight variations in materials and techniques can lead to wonderful realizations. Sometimes we use things that we once considered useless. The results achieved thus far have given me a whole new outlook on farming, year-round.