Raccoon Proof Chicken Coop

Homegrown Neighbor here again:

Things aren’t always idyllic in the world of urban farming. Actually, they rarely are. There is literally a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into what we do.

I’m still recovering from a scare we had a few days ago. After two years of trying, the other night at 2:30 a.m. a raccoon managed to break into my chicken coop. My housemate and I were up there in our pajamas shrieking while the hens flapped and clucked wildly. The raccoon was racing about in the coop and as I ran up I could see feathers flying everywhere. I opened the coop and shouted at the raccoon to get out. Somehow, we got up there in time, because there was no visible carnage. One chicken lost a lot of feathers trying to escape, so it did look like quite a horrific mess. While my housemate held a flashlight, I picked up the frightened hens two by two and put them inside the house in my bathroom. But I couldn’t find Joan, one of my silkie bantams. It was dark and she was nowhere to be found.
I spent the rest of the wee hours drinking beer and reading, since the adrenaline rush and worry over the missing Joan wouldn’t let me get back to sleep.
Joan the silkie woke me up with a frantic clucking at sunrise. She had spent the night outside alone and was upset that the rest of her flock wasn’t there when she woke up. Bleary eyed, I put all the chickens back together outside and they had a joyous reunion. I was filled with joy as well. I feel very lucky that I had no casualties in this event. I know many others who haven’t been as fortunate with raccoons. I did loose two chicks to raccoons last year, but that’s another story.
Since Mr. Homegrown regularly rises at dawn anyway, I called the neighbors as soon as I made a cup of coffee. Have I mentioned how much I love my neighbors? Mr. Homegrown came over and helped me try to figure out how the ‘coon had gotten in. He suspected the roof. I had to go to work for a while so we regrouped again in the afternoon to do some shopping and alter the coop to make it more raccoon proof.
The coop now has a new roof, several new layers of hardware cloth where there had previously only been chicken wire, and lots of new nails. The previous roof was corrugated plastic with chicken wire beneath. Now there is chicken wire, plywood and corrugated plastic on top.
When we first built the coop, we used a staple gun and heavy duty staples. Mr. Homegrown explained to me that this metal is rather flimsy and can rust and fall apart. So we picked up some u shaped nails that I spent the afternoon hammering in. According to Mr. Homegrown, u nails (galvanized poultry staples) are the way to go. So now you know.
The hens have been sleeping safely and soundly for a few days now and thankfully so have I.

Cutting a Beehive Out of a Wall

Bees in a wall!

Last week, along with two other “backwards beekeepers” Russ and Sue, we relocated a hive of bees that had taken up residence in a garage wall in East Hollywood. It was a “cut-out” in beekeeping parlance. The property owners did not want to exterminate the hive and we were able to give them a new home in Sue’s idyllic garden. Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson sent us some tips via email. It’s Kirk’s view that feral bees have more robust immune systems than the pedigreed bees that most beekeepers order through the mail. So with good intentions we got about to, as Kirk puts it, “save the world.” Here’s how we did it:

Kirk told us to smoke the hive when we got there and smoke again when needed. Smoke makes the bees think their house is on fire and they rush to stock up on honey. Preoccupied with their sweet food stockpile they ignore the homo sapiens tearing their house apart. Russ got one sting, but the hive was pretty calm under the circumstances.

Next, we got all our tools ready and suited up in our white bee suits. A cut-out is a delicate combination of building demolition and surgery on a living entity. Like surgery, once you start you can’t stop. With a long butcher knife and some crowbars we peeled back the paneling to reveal . . . more paneling underneath! Thankfully it was ancient fiberboard that disintegrated as we tugged on it. The comb was not attached to the panelling and we were able to easily access the hive. Kirk had warned us to have the butcher knife ready in case we had to separate comb from the wall as we peeled it back. With the wall off we could see a mass of several thousand bees who had neatly built comb between two studs.

Russ and Sue then began to carefully cut out the comb from the wall cavity with the butcher knife and put it into wooden frames, using string to tie it in place (see Kirk doing this at the end of this Backwards Beekeeping TV episode). We focused on saving the comb with brood (bee larvae). These frames were then placed into a “nuc” box, a cardboard box that holds five frames in which we could transport the bees to their new home. We also had two garbage bags: one for empty comb and the other for honey comb to feed back to the bees once they got to Sue’s garden. The next time I do this I’m going to get some buckets for this purpose as the trash bags tend get stuck together with honey. Another lesson I learned is to bring a tarp. Taking a hive out of a wall leaves a huge mess of spilled honey, construction debris and dead bees.

Once we had the brood comb in the nuc box we noticed worker bees returning from field massing where their hive used to be. We put the nuc box with the frames of brood in it next to the wall and took a break. Russ gave Kirk a call and he suggested we spray the mass of workers with sugar water and use our bee brush to push them into a dust pan. The sugar water occupies the bees with cleaning themselves and makes them easier to move. Once in the dust pan they are easy to dump into the nuc box where, we hoped, the queen had taken up residence.

After scooping up as many workers as we could we taped up the nuc box and got ready to put it in the back of Sue’s hatchback. Recalling the story of a friend of a friend who had a nuc box full of bees overturn while driving a sedan, Sue and I decided to drive the short distance home wearing our bee suits (a truck would be handy here!). Even on the streets of freaky East Hollywood, the sight of two bee suit clad folks in a car attracted curious stares and laughter. During the short drive I noticed, through the screen of my veil, public access TV star Francine Dancer, in her wheelchair, going through a box of junk on Virgil. It’s moments like these that reveal Los Angeles as far more like the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than the celebrity spectacle the media disseminates.

Russ, Sue and property owner Jen

When we got back to Sue’s garden we put the frames into a hive box and dumped the loose bees in. While we won’t know for a while if the hive will take to its new home, we all felt a great sense of accomplishment. Hopefully, other urbanites around the world will take up beekeeping and put more exterminators out of work.

For more info on Kirk Anderson’s natural beekeeping methods see www.beehuman.blogspot.com.

Got a beehive that needs to be removed from your LA area residence? Get in touch with Kirk at kirksurbanbees.com.

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Chicken Coop Deconstructed

Homegrown Neighbor here. I volunteer at a local high school with an agricultural program. Remember that we are in the middle of Los Angeles and agriculture is largely a thing of the past here.

This school is one of the last public high schools in the area to have space devoted to an orchard, garden and farm. Right now it is home to a goat, a Vietnamese pot bellied pig, dozens of rabbits and two hens. As can be expected, the program hasn’t gotten the respect and resources it deserves in the last few years. Things look a little scraggly, the orchard is filled with weeds and most of the barns haven’t been touched in thirty years, now housing only spiders.

This program is special of course because it allows city kids to have access to green space, get outside and get close to a pot bellied pig- all rare experiences around here.

My current project is rehabbing the old chicken coop. I brought in my friend Justin, curator of the local arts space Echo Curio and a fellow master gardener to help. He has the building and construction skills that I lack.

This week the students took off all of the old plywood, chain link and chicken wire.

The students loved destroying the old structure. They got to use crowbars and hammers after a little safety lesson. Dust and spiderwebs flew everywhere. They practically had to be dragged back to the classroom at the end of the period because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop.The old chicken coop is now stripped down to the studs. As soon as we can get the supplies, we will start rebuilding. The students will get some real hands on construction lessons and get to build it themselves. Once the paint drys the school will be ready for a big flock of chickens. I think the coop could handle about 20.

Next we’ll rehab the big barn and get mini goats and dwarf sheep. This is going to be a jewel of an urban farm and a great educational space!

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grub


Why start the day with the Wall Street Journal when the real excitement is to be found in periodicals such as Backyard Poultry Magazine? While our broke nation can’t afford missile shields or moon trips anymore, at least it’s comforting to read in the pages of BPM that the citizens of Bonner Springs, Kansas can visit the brand new National Poultry Museum. This month’s issue of BPM also has a fascinating article by Harvey Ussery, “Black Soldier Fly, White Magic” on raising black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) grubs as poultry and fish feed.

“If we offer the grubs 100 pounds of food wastes, for example, they will reduce it to 5 pounds of residue usable as a superior soil amendment, in the process generating 10 and possibly up to 20 pounds of live grubs that can be fed to livestock; in addition to liquid effluent (how much depends on the moisture content of the feeding materials) which can be used to feed crops. Hey, wait a minute–what happened to the “wastes”? There is absolutely no waste remaining after this conversion–it has all been transformed into valuable resource.”

To raise Hermetia illucens you put vegetable and fruit trimmings in a container with a small opening for the black soldier fly females to fly in and lay their eggs and a method for the grubs to climb out of the compost. You can also feed them small amounts of fish and meat but they can’t digest cellulesic materials. A company called ESR International markets a black soldier fly growing system called the BioPod™ at www.thebiopod.com. A spiral ramp in the BioPod™ allows the grubs to scamper out of the feeding materials and launch themselves into a bucket. Each morning you empty a bucket full of grubs for your grateful chickens or fish, making sure to reserve a few to ensure future black soldier fly generations. Adult black soldier flies don’t bite and are only interested in flying around looking for sex and, in the case of the females, to find a good place to lay eggs.

At $179, the BioPod™ is above our humble slacker budget level, but you can make your own out of the ubiquitous five gallon bucket. While I haven’t tested this design, there’s some simple plans on this informative blog devoted to the black soldier fly. The author of this blog, “Jerry aka GW,” cautions that growing grubs requires attention to detail and will be easier in warmer climates such as the southeast and west coasts of the US where soldier flies can be found in the wild. While you can buy black soldier flies to populate your composter, it will be easier to grow them where they already live. Here’s another DIY grub composter. If any of you have experience with building one of these please leave a comment.

And while you’re ditching the Wall Street Journal, why not skip the Netflix this evening! Here’s a video on grub growin’ complete with a dramatic musical conclusion:

The crank in me has to add that simple ideas like becoming a grub cowboy are more exciting, and have greater potential than all the Priuses and algae fuel schemes combined. Growing grubs is an activity many of us have done accidentally. Making use of those grubs is just a matter of inserting ourselves into one of nature’s clever recycling schemes.

New Chicken!

I just couldn’t wait to announce the arrival of my new hen. The Chicken Enthusiasts club I started had our first meeting on Saturday. Twenty five people attended. Not too bad for a group that just started a month ago. The meeting was really fun, much chicken knowledge was exchanged and we all got to enjoy meeting other like minded folks.

At the meeting, this chicken arrived in need of a new home. Since I recently lost a hen, it made sense that I offer her a new abode. She is in a cage inside the coop for a few days, at the recommendation of a more experienced chicken keeper in the group. Today I let her out for a bit and the other chickens instantly attacked. Even my tiny silkie bantam got in on the
aggression. So back to the little cage she went. I’ll let her out again tomorrow when I can spend more time supervising. Hopefully they will establish the pecking order and everything will calm down.
She is an araucana type chicken and seems very sweet and mellow. She lets me pick her up and seems to enjoy being hand fed. Upon being attacked by the others, she instantly submitted, crouching in a corner.

She laid an egg yesterday and it was a pretty pale green color. I’m very excited about the new addition to the flock.

Urban Chicken Enthusiasts Unite!

Creating community is a vital part of the urban homesteading movement. For why should one make jam or grow zucchini without people to share it with? In a big, crazy city like L.A. there are lots of interesting people doing inspiring things, you just have to find them. I’m always excited to meet new people who are interested in all the things we write about here at Homegrown Evolution. I was lucky to move a block away from Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown and find instant community. Now the neighbors and I have been thinking that we would like to meet more local urban chicken folks. As our flocks age a lot of questions come up and we’d like to learn from more experienced chicken keepers. And we often meet people who would like to know more about urban poultry. So I’ve decided to create a group of L.A. urban chicken enthusiasts. I used meetup.com to create the L.A. Urban Chicken Enthusiasts group.

I like Meetup because the point is to organize face to face meetings. Our group will get together every month or so, eat eggs dishes and talk about raising chickens, local food and sustainability. The L.A. Urban Chicken Enthusiasts meetup group is just for people in the Los Angeles area. Not to worry if you aren’t in L.A., I noticed a lot of other urban chicken groups on Meetup and if there isn’t one in your city you can easily start your own. So if you are local and into chickens, join our group. If you aren’t in L.A. or not a poultry person, just go forth and create a group for whatever you are into, network, make friends and build some community.

Chicken Goes to Hollywood

Homegrown Neighbor here.

On Thursday Mr. Homegrown and I escorted my chicken, Peckerella, to her first public appearance. Peckerella was there to assist author Terry Golson, who has written a wonderful children’s book called Tillie Lays An Egg. The book has adorable pictures of her flock and features the adventurous Tillie, who likes to lay her eggs everywhere except her nesting box.
Ms. Golson is currently in Los Angeles to share Tillie’s story with children and chicken aficionados of all ages. Since her chickens reside on the East Coast, Peckerella stepped in to play ambassador. ‘Pecky’ as she is often called, did a wonderful job and was very well behaved, allowing many children to pet her and sitting patiently during the book reading. Her next appearance will be at a reading of Tillie’s story at Chevalier’s books in Larchmont Village this Sunday, August 9th, from 11-1. If you are in the area please stop by and say hello. Peckerella loves to meet her adoring fans. Sorry, Chickenzilla doesn’t fit in the cat carrier so she won’t be able to make it.

California Agriculture Journal Online

The University of California has put 63 years worth of its journal California Agriculture online for convenient downloading at californiaagriculture.ucanr.org. There’s plenty of detailed (peer reviewed!) nuggets for the home gardener between the pages of this scientific journal. Make sure to check out the article and video of UC Berkeley entomologist Gordon Frankie explaining what kinds of plants are best for attracting bees in your urban garden.

Thanks to Los Angeles County Master Gardener Coordinator Yvonne Savio for the tip.

Off the charts

Homegrown Neighbor here. My chicken, Chickenzilla, is at it again, producing several mammoth double-yolked eggs in the past few weeks. The brown egg on the right is more of a normal sized egg, weighing in at extra large on this antique egg scale. Chickenzilla’s egg is way beyond the measure of this scale, weighing in I’d guess at somewhere around extra, extra, extra large. Pretty good for an industrial meat chicken that isn’t supposed to be a good layer, much less survive past three months of age.

The antique egg scale, by the way, hails from Orange County, California. Orange County is now known more for Disneyland and exurban, sprawling tract home developments, but it was once a great agricultural county. This scale is a relic of its golden age of orange groves and ranches. I wonder if anyone in the OC has chickens anymore?