Problems Part I


The road to urban homesteading ain’t smooth and involves more than a few potholes along the way. Some of those potholes will swallow a bike tire while others are big enough for a Hummer. But with persistence it becomes easier to deal with the occasional bump, lessons can be learned and future mistakes avoided. With the popularity of our earlier blunders post, I’d like to begin regularly sharing problems as they develop. Here’s problem #1 for this troublesome July:

A Sick Chicken

Our Araucana hen became listless and depressed over the weekend, just sitting around, avoiding food and not engaging in the usual hen chatter. She also stopped laying eggs. At first we thought she might be egg bound, a condition in which an egg becomes stuck on the way out the cloaca. Warm baths and lubricants (I’m going to resist a cheap joke here) ensued with no results. The thought of inserting a finger into the cloaca, or worse, attempting to break an egg seemed foolish for inexperienced chicken owners such as ourselves. As of today we can feel no swelling in the abdomen, or butt dragging, both signs of an egg-bound chicken.

We began to think that our ill tempered Rhode Island Red, who had pecked the Araucana pretty badly last week, may have caused an infection to develop. On Sunday we borrowed some antibiotics from a fellow backyard chicken keeper, specifically a product called Terramycin which we added to her drinking water. As of today she is substantially improved, but not completely back to normal. As a friend of ours who grew up on a farm says, “chickens are either on or off.” Once they get sick they often don’t come back “on”. We’ll hope for the best.

This problem brings to mind two lessons we’ve learned in the past year of backyard chicken keeping:

1. When you build your coop think about creating an isolation ward. A real farmer would just cull a sick bird to keep the flock safe. For those of us with just a few hens this is more difficult and it’s great to have a place to separate, at a distance, a sick bird just in case they have something communicable. It’s better to figure out how to configure this ahead of time rather than at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Thankfully we’ve got a large dog pen for our Doberman that can double as a small chicken run. We’ve also got a small dog/cat crate that works well for bringing a chicken indoors at night to keep her warm.

2. Have medications on hand before you need them. A chicken first aid kit is a good idea. Here’s an article on what that kit should include. If our hen recovers we’ll have to follow up the Terramycin with a probiotic supplement to restore beneficial gut bacteria killed by the antibiotics. It would have been great to have these medications on hand rather than having to run to a feed store, rely on a friend, or pay to have them shipped overnight.

Stay tuned for July’s problem #2–an old friend–blossom end rot.

UPDATE: The Araucana (actually, probably a “Americana”) made a full recovery.

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.

Poultry Outlaws: Chicken Laws Around the U.S.

As the days get longer the chickens have started cranking out more eggs. In honor of our first four egg day, pictured above, we present a sampling of arbitrary and strange municipal codes around the country pertaining to chickens. Recent chicken controversies in Missoula (see our post on that dust-up) and Chicago, prove that urban poultry is still controversial.

Albuquerque: Zoning allows the raising of unlimited poultry if penned at least 20 feet from neighboring dwellings.

Atlanta: Up to 25 chickens may be kept if adequately housed, i.e. 2 square feet per adult bird, and their enclosure is 50 feet from the nearest neighbor.

Austin: Up to 10 fowl per household, but keep in an enclosure that’s 50 feet away from neighbors.

Boston: All residential zones in Boston forbid “auxiliary keeping of animals,” which includes poultry and other livestock. No person shall keep any live fowl of other farm animals, except in accordance with a permit from the Division of Health Inspections, Inspectional Services Department.

Chicago: May keep unlimited number of chickens for personal use, but their slaughter is forbidden.

Detroit: Unlawful to own, harbor, keep, or maintain, sell, or transfer any farm animal on their premises or at a public place within the City. [Despite this, we hear tell that there is some pretty progressive urban farming going on in Detroit, including plenty of livestock.]

Los Angeles: Chickens may not be within 20 feet of owner’s residence, and must be at least 35 feet from any other dwelling. Crowing fowl must be 100 feet from any dwelling. [Looks like we're breaking the law again!]

Madison: Up to four chickens per household. Not allowed to roam free. Keep pen 25 ft. from neighbors. $6 annual permit required.

Miami: May have up to 15 hens, no roosters. Must be contained at least 100 feet from neighboring structures.

Minneapolis: Must obtain permission of 80% of your neighbors that live within 100 feet. Must be kept penned.

New York: Health Code § 161.19 Keeping of live poultry and rabbits.
(a) No person shall keep a live rooster, duck, goose or turkey in a built-up portion of the City.
(b) A person who holds a permit to keep for sale or sell live rabbits or poultry shall keep them in coops and runways and prevent them from being at large. Coops shall be whitewashed or otherwise treated in a manner approved by the Department at least once a year and at such other times as the Department may direct in order to keep them clean. Coops, runways and the surrounding area shall be kept clean.

Portland: Any animal may be raised for noncommercial purposes with no animals kept on any lot less than three (3) acres or closer than one hundred (100) feet to any street or lot line.

Raleigh: No limit on number of chickens kept.

San Francisco: You may keep any combination of four small animals on your property (dogs, chickens, etc.) without permit

Seattle: Three domestic fowl may be kept on any lot.

Even if you follow the laws above to the letter, you can still have problems with the neighbors. See the excellent Hen Waller blog for their Portland poultry saga (and some snappy vélocouture).

Considering how loud our perfectly legal Doberman is compared to the hens, these laws are ridiculous. You’ve gotta fight the Man if you want this–backyard eggs with homegrown Swiss chard and Italian parsley served on home-baked wild yeast bread:
Reviewing the laws, it’s obvious that the Man wants us to shop in his crappy supermarkets.

An Araucana Egg

Our Araucana hen, the lowest hen in the pecking order of our backyard flock, took a bit longer to start laying. Yesterday we got our first egg with the distinctive blueish green hue Araucanas are known for.

And once we get over the nasty flu we’ve picked up (not the bird flu!), we’ll get back to regular postings and some big changes to the blog.

Do Hens Make Noise?

Yes, indeed hens make noise. Far less than a rooster, but when it comes time to lay an egg you often get the stereotypical hen vocalization, technically known as “cackling,” which goes something like, “cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCKAAAAAWWWWK!” Thankfully this only happens around laying time, which for our three productive hens is no more than once a day, and usually at a respectable time between around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some of our club hopping neighbors may get an early than wanted wake-up call, but so far nobody has complained.

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

For those who’ve never heard it, we’re pleased to present the postoviposition cackling sounds of one of our barred rock hens. Towards the end of the track you’ll hear the usual soft clucking. For the DJs out there, please feel free to use for mashups, mixes and Quinceañeras:

Get this widget | Track details | eSnips Social DNA

2008 . . . a year of luxury

2008 began with the sort of absurd juxtaposition we’ve come to expect from life in Los Angeles–loading 25 pounds of chicken feed into a $70,000 Jaguar (not our car for those keeping score). It was all part of a combination run to the feed store for chicken supplies and trip to the Getty Villa to scope out their Roman herb garden and ancient tchatzhahs.

The reason to hit the feed store was a return of schoolyard bully behavior from our pushy Rhode Island Red hen. We bought a bottle of Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion™ to keep her from pecking the araucana hen. Thankfully the lotion, combined with a few other measures we’ll post about, seems to have stopped the problem. The lotion has lessened the amount and severity of the pecking and turned the araucana’s butt into a matted tarry mess. Mission accomplished!

While at the feed store we also picked up a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. It’s a detailed guide to preventing and treating chicken diseases and problems. We’re new to poultry and, in just an hour of reading, have learned a lot from this book. It’s a must have for anyone thinking about getting chickens. Thanks to info in the book and our microscope, we’re looking forward to a year of DIY chicken fecal examinations and turning those parasite egg counts into a drinking game.

We’ll inaugurate a new year of posts with an entertaining excerpt from The Chicken Health Handbook,

Spontaneous sex change is a phenomenon whereby an old hen develops the characteristics of a cock, perhaps because an infected ovary has caused hormonal changes. The hen’s comb grows larger, she molts into male plumage, and she may crow or mount other hens. If the infection is successfully cured before the next molt, the “cock” will lay eggs. This phenomenon was once considered witchcraft, the most famous case being a “cock” named Basel who was burned at the stake in 1474 for laying eggs.”

Chicken Guantanamo

So you want your own backyard hens? Some time ago Homegrown Revolution reader Toby asked about what it takes to keep chickens. While we’re far from being experts we thought we’d share what we’ve learned so far and welcome comments and suggestions from poultry keeping readers to add to and amend our advice. In our opinion the first step in keeping a backyard flock is to figure out where you’re going to house them.

We’ll get into more detail over the next few months, but for now we thought a few pictures might help explain what we’ve come up with. The two main purposes of chicken housing are to protect them from predators and to protect your garden from destruction by your chickens. The more room and foraging area your chickens have the happier they will be. Give them access to your whole yard however, and they will munch and scratch down every plant they find edible behaving, as the Petaluma Urban Homesteaders put it, “like a pack of delinquent teenagers”.

Our chicken housing consists of three zones. Zone one is the hen house–that aluminum structure on the right in the photo above. It contains a roost for the chickens to sleep on at night and a nesting box for the hens to lay their eggs in.

Zone two is a secure run covered in 1/2 inch hardware cloth–the area left of and below the aluminium sided hen house. We used hardware cloth because chicken wire will not prevent raccoons from reaching in and eating a chicken through the fence (we can’t help but admire the fact that chicken wire isn’t really good for keeping chickens). And as our doberman has been known to tree large families of raccoons, we took no chances and ran the hardware cloth across the entire bottom of the run buried a foot underground to keep these critters from burrowing underneath. The run also gives our hens access to dirt as well as a way for us not to have to be around to lock them up in the hen house when it gets dark.
Zone three is a mobile structure made of PVC pipe covered with bird netting and butted up against the coop and secure run so that the hens can move between all three zones. We used to let the hens free range around the yard, but a recent near miss with a hawk, the general devastation of our herb bed, and chicken poo all over the back porch where they took to roosting on lazy afternoons, convinced us to restrict their movements at least while unsupervised. This PVC structure can be shifted around a bit to let the hens work different parts of our small backyard. It will keep out hawks but it’s not raccoon proof, so the girls must be back in zone two’s more secure run (nicknamed “chicken Guantanamo”) when it starts to get dark or we’re not around.

The PVC structure replaces a more permanent enlarged run we built out of scrap wood we found under the 101 freeway. As you can see from the photo below, this structure was an aesthetic disaster, with all the appeal of a dirty mid-town mini mall. We took one look at it after it was complete and decided to demolish it the next day. If only all those mini mall developers in the 80s would have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll describe our hen house, run and “zone three” in more detail once we know everything works out. So far, we’ve got eggs and no raccoon, skunk, owl or hawk casualties. For those looking for detailed plans check out Judy Pangman’s book Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. We loosely based our coop and run on one of the designs in Pangman’s book. Stay tuned for more details including our ongoing attempt to stay one step ahead of those bad-assed LA raccoons.

Breaking News

Today at approximately 11:50 AM, after a morning of god-awful screeching, our Rhode Island Red, Stewpot–who is in the foreground of the picture above–laid her first egg–that is, our very first homestead egg.

Go Stewpot!

Of course this event would happen when Mr. Homestead is out of town & in possession of the camera. The lay site was a difficult to access cranny behind the coop. It may not have been photograph-able anyway, but I will report that the egg was deposited quite attractively in a shallow bowl of yellow and brown leaves. I got it while it was still warm, having come out to see what this most recent and particularly loud round of screeching was all about. Stewpot walked away from her egg with nary a look back. The egg was amazing in the hand–warm and heavy and almost pulsing with life.

To mark this historic day, I did what I could to record the blessed egg: I scanned it alongside a Trader Joe’s grade A brown for comparison, which resulted in the mysterious, murky image you see below.

Stewpot’s egg is smaller than the commerical egg, but it is her first. Her egg looks the same color at first, but close up it is covered with tiny brown speckles, whereas the Joe’s egg is more monotone.