Chicken (& garden) update

by little red pen

The girls are what I think we could call “established” now — their routines, personalities and quirks are firming up, becoming easier to discern and decipher.

Tilda is the Leader of the Pack, first to get to me when I take in food, occasionally inclined to peck her sisters on the side of the beak, seemingly the only one who knows how to open the mash feeder.

Her assertiveness and speed to treats got the better of her for a week or two when she went off the lay, then started laying shell-less and soft-shell eggs, disturbing things that she would drop anywhere then eat with the other chickens. Clearly, this is non-desirable chicken behaviour and led to much late-night, anguished Googling. The solution, in the end, was simple — bring the chickens in from the paddock to the run earlier in the evening and give them fewer treats so that she was forced to make the mash a greater proportion of her diet. Her shells are still lighter and smaller than those of the other chickens, but they are proper shells and she is back to laying them in the nest boxes, so we will count that as a win for Farmer McLaughlin.

Angelina, my dark-feathered girl, is probably next in the ranks. She is beautiful and sweet, but dim, regularly confused by fences and the intricacies of the mash feeder. She particularly likes to scratch in the dirt for bugs and often asks me to pick her a blade of grass, her elegant little head tilted in a model of chook quizzicality. She was my first layer and seems the most reliable, producing a strong brown egg every morning and sporting the reddest comb and wattles.

Helen is my wayward girl, my dreamer. We brought the chickens down to the vege patch the other day in an attempt to harness their weed-destroying, seed-eating powers for the greater good. Getting them into our makeshift enclosure was a bit of a trial, involving detours through the rose bushes, mutually alarming encounters with the cat, and Farmer McLaughlin’s best impersonations of a sheep dog. In fact, I can see the potential in a new television show based on the dog trials that were one of the highlights of my childhood viewing, but with chickens in the place of the sheep and gumbooted, straw-hatted editors taking over from the dogs.

Anyway, we got Angelina and Tilda safely enclosed and focused on their dirt-maintenance duties, but Helen had her heart set on a much more exploratory morning, around the back of the shed, over the piles of tree pruning and building supplies, and off to God knows where. She was also the first to take a dust-bathing break, rolling in the dirt like a small, demented, feathery emperor wondering where her peeled grapes are, just get with the programme already, will you, people?

So, that’s the chickens.

In gardening news, we are slowly getting things a bit tidier and I am getting to that point of house maintenance where I’m ready to stop maintaining someone else’s garden and am distilling ideas for how to make it more my own.

We have three key problems: weeds, colour and coherence. We are taking a “just deal with it” approach to the weeds; in areas where we don’t have anything we particularly want to keep, we are clearing the ground and covering it over with sacks, carpet, tarpaulins or newspapers.

Our colour woes are largely because the previous owners favoured a kind of muddy purple and a harsh orange that spectacularly fail to float my boat. We’re getting braver about taking out things we don’t like, although some of them are damn deep-rooted and hard to eradicate.

We’re also moving some things so as to free up space for more coherent planting. I’m moving swathes of sweet william from the “salad” vege patch to the “woodland” plot near the front gate. I think I’ll shift some stuff from the long strip down the side of the house there too, and my new plan — which I am pretty excited about — is to build a raised bed right along that strip and fill it with herbs.

A magnolia at the front and small fruit trees on the bank should assuage my need for more trees and spring blossom, and that just leaves the rockery between the vege patches, which is a weed-infested disaster zone. And various banks and scraggly areas, which sprout grass and dandelions to no identifiable purpose apart from giving us a ready supply for the guinea pigs.

Anyway, the top part of the rockery thing features roses, while lupins have gone from being a bright highlight of the lower part to completely crowding out both the buttercups and dandelions (great!) and all the other little pretty things I’ve planted there over the last two years (not great!). So what that leaves us with is a set of conundrums, for which I invite solutions. Do I move the roses and mass plant with something else? Do I welcome the lupins as effective ground control or do I get them the hell out of there before they TAKE OVER THE WORLD? Do I rebuild the rock wall or put in a wooden one? Do I cling to the hope I can create a beautiful French-style cottage garden or do I turn my sights to bold massed colour and easier maintenance? Who knows? Not I, said the little pen.

Where we have succeeded this year — and somewhat against the odds, not being here for most of the summer and not hoeing as often as we ought — is with productive gardening. We’ve had good crops of garlic, lettuce and potatoes, the carrots are small but ready to harvest, the tomatoes and zucchini are producing at a steady rate, we left the fennel too long but it was a good meal, we ate broad beans to our heart’s content, and we planted the yams very late, so who knows what’s going on in there. The broccoli, corn and celery went nowhere but I am nurturing small hopes of a late-season burst of growing energy from the latter two, the herbs are thriving, and we have a better sense of the timings and systems required to grow food for ourselves. Things felt out of control and under-maintained most of the time and we are just starting to recover from the panic and madness of rampant spring growth mixed with NO TIME and LOTS OF RAIN, but we have often had something home-grown in our dinner, and every now and then most of the meal comes from the garden.