The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet… More
If you want to learn how raise your own ducklings more like a mama duck would, then take a look at this post on Morning Chores for more details.
Also, if you plan to hatch your own duck eggs, then you may want to take a look at this post.
And, use this calculator to figure your hatch dates.
It can be difficult to think beyond the grocery store, or the farmers market, when deciding what kind of food to grow on your homestead. Every recipe we know, every cookbook we have, tend to rely only on the readily available ingredients most of us can access. Yet, the most thrilling part about having your own garden is that you are not limited to the short list of ingredients available to the average shopper.
These more diverse, colorful and flavorful foods tend to have not only more utility in fine cooking, but also more nutrient content. Deeper colors, richer more complex taste profiles, and varied textures are all indicators of the wholesomeness of your food. This is what you really want from your potager – better health and the richness and beauty of an abundantly interesting array of culinary delights.
So the first advice I am going to give you is not to shop for seeds at the seed racks at big box stores. They are fine for a first year garden when you are just trying to learn a few skills and improve your soil .
In the second year, though, seek seeds from seed saving organizations that act as the keepers of our culinary legacies. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have been handed down for generations. Those seeds carry not only the genetic information to make a new plant, but also the history of their relationship with gardeners over many generations.
There are lots of great organizations out there offering seeds. Below are a few I use frequently. This list is not exclusive and I will happily add others if you have suggestions you love.
Grow for Love and Pleasure
My next bit of advice is to grow the ingredients that greatly enhance the quality and pleasure of your meals. For example, if you plan to grow potatoes, grow gourmet fingerlings, or purple varieties lower in starch and higher in anthocyanins, or German styles with more complex flavors.
If you adore artichokes, then start them in pots indoors and transplant outside so you can get a crop the first year. If your grandmother grew pickling cucumbers that make you feel like a child at heart, then plant that variety even if they take are not as productive as new hybrids.
Growing what you love, with loving care, is the absolute best way to improve your gardening skills. Once you become an excellent vegetable gardener, it’s quite simple to scale up and grow a production garden for greater self-sufficient. Until you’ve mastered the basics though, focus on plants that make you want to fine tune your skills because they are meaningful to you.
Growing Beyond the Grocery Store
My last bit of advice is to spend a little time understanding the full scope of plants you can grow at home. Because grocery stores only carry what stores and sells well, and farmers markets can only carry the variety their customers will readily buy, trying to build a garden around what you see in those locations is very limiting.
Instead, do some research into all the various kinds of foods you can potentially grow. Read old, pre-grocery tore recipe books for inspiration on how to use less common ingredients. Embrace authentic ethnically varied and obscure culinary cookbooks.
To get you started, here’s a list of the kinds of things you might want to consider growing in your potager. Once you narrow down this list to what you might want to grow in your potager, then you’ll still need to look around for the specific varieties that speak to you and are well-suited to your climate.
Alliums – hard neck garlic with scapes, soft neck garlic for storing, leeks, storing onions, bunching onions, torpedo onions, flat onions, multiplier onions, Egyptian walking onions, shallots, garlic chives, society garlic, and common chives are all great choices for a potager.
- Artichokes – Start indoors and grow as annuals in cold climates. Grow as perennials in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b and above.
- Arugula – Grow the cultivated varieties as annuals and Sylvetta as a perennial.
- Asparagus – Buy crowns or start from seed. Mary Washington is the only heirloom that is commonly found as 2 year crowns. Start some of those, then also start some Precoce D’argenteuil or Conovers Colossal from seed for more variety. Once these get going, they self seed and keep you stocked with new plants when you need them.
- Beans – There are so many kinds of beans it’s amazing. Classic canning beans, filet beans, runners, half-runners, drying, broad, garbanzo, long, turtle, lima, butter, soy, and more. Some even come in bush form so you don’t need to trellis. Try a couple types each year to expand your bean expertise.
- Beets – These also come in a host of colors, shapes, and best uses. There are varieties that are great for fermenting or storage, others best fresh in salads, and some are used to make sugar. Some make tastier tops. Beets only take 60-75 days, so they are a good choice to try several kinds of to find your favorites.
- Broccoli – We’re used to the large headed types that we get at the grocery store. At home you can grow multi-heading varieties that produce one larger head followed by lots of small heads. You can grow rapini broccoli with edible flowers or Romanesco heads that simulate the Fibonacci spiral.
- Brussels sprouts – In warm climates, these are easier to grow in fall than spring. But it’s worth it because you can get much tastier and more colorful varieties than most markets sell.
- Cabbage – There are lost more styles of cabbage than most people realize. There are heading and non-heading types, early maturing, fresh eating, long-storing, multi-colored, conical, savoy-leafed, and more. Once you start growing heirloom cabbage at home, you’ll understand why this is one of the mot versatile foods you can grow.
- Carrots – Purple, yellow, red, short, fat, long, squarish, narrow, baby, and more carrot options exist for the home grower. You can also use the tops in stocks and as garnish.
- Cauliflower – This comes in a variety of colors like purple, yellow, and green. There are even varieties you can grow in warm climates.
- Celery – Stalk celery can be a pain to grow unless you perennialize it in a pot and harvest unblanched stalks as needed. But leaf celery is just as tasty and grows as easily as kale. Celeriac is root celery that grows well in cold climates and makes for a perfect mashed potato substitute or creamed soup base.
- Chard – This is wonderful in just about any garden. There are so many varieties. Bright lights is fun for color. Fordham is great for large leaves, Perpetual spinach chard is my favorite for a cooked spinach substitute in warmer weather.
- Chicory – This family includes gourmet favorites like radicchio, endive, frisee. It also includes root chicory which makes a great coffee substitute.
- Corn – Sweet corn is nice, but nothing beats a homegrown polenta with drying corn. Homegrown popcorn is tons of fun too. There are hundreds of heirloom corn varieties. But, you’ll need to plant enough for cross pollination. Plus, you’ll want to time planting when GMOs in your area won’t interfere.
- Cukes – Want to grow your own cornichons, make cucumber soup, garnish your salads, make food art, ferment pickles, and more? You can do it all with the right kinds of cucumbers. I usually grow two varieties a year for fun. Protect the stem from borers with aluminum foil and use packing tape to remove squash bug eggs and nymphs from your plants.
- Greens – I have a seedbox that I call “greens”. This is where I store an endless variety of leafy vegetables that I cut for a continuous harvest of salad. My collection includes collards, cresses (water, upland, and garden cress), all sorts of lettuce, kale, mustard, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, spinach, false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar, sorrel, oyster plant, Seven Top turnips, purslane, mache, and more. Many of these also work amazingly well for stir-fry dishes and saute’s. (I tend to grow these in smaller quantities than my staple greens like chard, arugula, or cabbage so that’s why I lump them together as greens rather than giving them their own line item.)
- Fattened/modified stems – Many plants that we think of as “roots” are really fattened, modified stems. Potatoes for example are a fattened underground stem that roots grow below. Ginger, galangal, and turmeric are referred to as rhizomes, but these too are just a variation on a fattened stem. Wasabi, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, bulb fennel, and yams are other examples of fattened stems you can grow in your potager in the right conditions. (Note yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants, and sweet potatoes are a root).
- Legumes – Besides beans, there are also all sorts of other legume family plants to consider. Snow peas, snap peas, shelling peas, pea tendrils, cowpeas, crowder peas, fenugreek, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and beneficial flowers like lupines, clover, and sweat pea.
- Melons – Watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, are all part of the squash family (see below) but they are on the fruity side of the spectrum and make delicious warm season low calorie treats.
- Nightshades – This family includes so many garden favorites that have similar growing requirements including tomatoes, sweet or spicy peppers for fresh or dried eating, ground cherries, tomatillos, and eggplant.
- Rustic roots – Salsify, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, parsley root, horseradish, burdock, daikon, radish, Chinese yam, yacon, skirret, dandelion, and sweet potatoes are some lovely rustic roots that are easy to grow in the right climate.
- Other squash family plants – Summer squash, winter squash, luffa, gourds, bitter melon, and pumpkins all fall into this basic plant group along with the cukes and melons already mentioned. These plants take lots of room unless you choose compact varieties or make use of vertical space. But they are highly productive and fun to grow. See the tips under cucumbers for insect prevention.
- Big impact plants – Okra, rhubarb, cardoon, hibiscus (for tea), hops, moringa, hemp (if legal), and mammoth sunflowers for seeds are a few plants that take a fair amount of room, but offer big aesthetic impact and tasty treats in a potager.
- Herbs – The classics like sweet basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender are wonderful. But don’t forget epazote, licorice, Mexican marigold, lovage, culantro, methi, marjoram, leaf curry, fennel, hyssop, bay, anise, chervil, rue, French tarragon, lemon verbena, savory, and more.
- Edible flowers – Pineapple sage, roses (flowers and hips), nasturtium, pansy, chrysanthemums, borage (cooked greens are edible too), honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and more.
- Spices – Cumin, coriander, caraway, mustard seed, nigella, poppy, sesame, and anise for seed are some easy to grow spice plants that add stunning flower displays to a garden.
- Seed Crops – Flax for seeds, ancient wheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other grains offer long-standing beauty and may even give you a tiny crop to use to top your salads or add interest to rice preparations.
- Small fruits – Lots of dwarf fruits grow well in pots and can add interesting details and focal points to a potager. Blueberries which require more acidic soil than most vegetables can be grown in pots. Citrus that needs to be overwintered inside can adorn a potager in warm weather in large pots. Espaliered fruits like apples and pears can line paths. Strawberries fit in lots of places. Grapes, blackberries, and raspberries can be trained on fences. Figs, elderberry, goji, and hazelnut can be grown as shrubs and kept compact in size.
- Garden helpers – Plants like marigolds, comfrey, zinnia, and flowering mints just seem to benefit all gardens. Also perennial flowers like echinacea, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and others are well-loved by wildlife in my garden.
- Cover crops – Whenever your garden is not planted with vegetables or flowers, then you’ll want to use cover crops to protect your soil. The easiest to start with are mustard in early spring, buckwheat in hot weather, and crimson clover in fall to overwinter. Once you get an understanding of those, then move on to winter wheat, Austrian peas, vetch, millet, sundangrass, annual rye, and barley.
I hope this list and the seed resources above will inspire you to think beyond the basics and grow a large variety of diverse and interesting foods and plants in your potager. Happy gardening!
Ducks are my passion. They are some of the most entertaining, beautiful, and useful animals I keep on my homestead.
If you also feel drawn to ducks, then check out my latest duck post on Morning Chores. It’s all about incubating your own duck eggs and offers insights into how ducks do this in nature too.
You may also want to check out these other related links if you want to make plans for how to use them and raise them on your homestead.
If you are new to gardening and looking for a quick and easy tool to help you decide what to plant when, check out this new planting calendar. The programming team at Morning Chores developed it. Then, I helped refine some planting dates and adapt it to work for many different climates.
This is a perfect starting point for planning your own planting calendar. Plus, it’s easy to print so you can mark it up with your actual dates.
If you like this calculator, then you may also want to check out a few other cool calculators at Morning Chores.
If you are looking for inspiration on starting an all-purpose herb garden for cooking, teas, medicine, livestock, and more — take a look at my post over at the amazing Morning Chores homesteading reference website.
While you are there, check out a few more herb-related posts to give you plenty of inspiration to create the perfect herb garden for your homestead needs.
If you are looking for inspiration to help you choose the right duck breeds for your homestead, take a look at my post on Morning Chores.
While you are there, take a few minutes to browse all the other informative homestead posts and inspiration on that amazing reference site. There are all sorts of livestock tips, plant growing guides, food preparation and preservation details, and more.
In particular, you may find these free calculator tools useful for garden and livestock care.
I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.
Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.
The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.
I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)
The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.
The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.
The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.
The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.
The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)
Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.
The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?
Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.
Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.
The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.
For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.
I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.
It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.
Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.
If you are looking for a plant to make you happy mid-winter, let me tell you about these glorious golden globes pictured above. These luscious lovelies make the whole month of January feel like it’s lit with radiant summer sunshine. On cloudy days, or when I just need a winter pick me up, I head to he greenhouse to basque in their yellow luminescence.
In case you are wondering how I grow such gigantic lemons, then let me introduction you Meyer lemons. These are actually a cross between a lemon and an orange. They taste like super sweet lemons and grow as big as large oranges. So, while I am quite proud of my lemon size, I can’t take all the credit. This plant’s genetics play a big role.
How to Use
Meyer lemon rinds are perfect for candying, using to make homemade limoncello, and in just about any recipe that calls for lemon zest. (For limoncello, infuse vodka or white rum with the rinds of about 5-6 lemons for two weeks. Strain, then sweeten with sugar to your desired taste.)
The juice is perfect for lemonade. Squeeze and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then store the frozen cubes in baggies to use to make fresh lemonade whenever you need it.
These lemons are particularly wonderful to use for making homemade paneer cheese. Heat the cheese to nearly boiling, then squeeze in the lemon juice to trigger coagulation. After that, strain the curds through a flour sack towel and hang to dry for a few hours. It takes the juice of one lemon for every gallon of milk.
Tip: Throw in a few fenugreek seeds while heating your milk to make an extra aromatic paneer. The lemon and maple notes blend perfectly together.
My tree is planted in the ground near the center of my greenhouse. Soil pH in the root zone is about 6.0.
Temperatures stay above 35℉ at night in winter. During the day, winter temperatures in the greenhouse range between 50-80℉. In spring and summer the greenhouse is around 70 ℉ at night and 80-85℉ during day. The tree is protected from frost and there’s no wind.
It gets plenty of filtered sunshine. I add compost and mulch annually. I water deeply about once a month. I’m also growing several shallow rooted or potted shade plants over the lemon root zone. I water them more often, so some residual water filters down to keep the top few inches of soil moist.
I grow this more like a bush. I prune only for height and width. I also use coconut rope to wrap around the branches and tie them to each other. This creates a kind of self-supporting cage for the fruit heavy branches.
I’ve grown as many as 5-6 giant lemons on one branch. The lemons all grow large and don’t seem to mind not being thinned. The key is just to make sure the branches are supported so they don’t fold and crack.
As far as fertilizer goes, my tree gets compost tea when watered. It also gets fresh liquid gold applications at least weekly. (For those of you not familiar with the term liquid gold, that means we occasionally pee near the root zone. No sense in wasting nature’s perfect nitrogen source!)
Time to Harvest
I bought a 4 inch potted tree, in spring, three years go. The first year it produced 4 lemons, the second 8 lemons, this year we stopped counting at 60 lemons. The tree begins flowering in January while the lemons are nearly all ripe. It continues to flower until March.
Magically then, despite the long flowering period, the fruit all ripen within just a few weeks of each other in January. So you get amazingly aromatic lemons and blossoms at the same time!
If you can create the right conditions for year-round growing, or live in a climate where citrus thrives, fresh Meyer lemons can make the dark days of winter feel sunshine-filled. Plus chef’s love them – even homested cooks like me can appreciate the exceptional quality and taste profile of this winter beauty.
Is it an herb or a spice? Am I a girl or a woman? I was a girl once, but now age and experience have made me a woman. This is very much the same with cilantro and coriander.
The bright green, fanning, lace like leaves with their brash, tangy, citrusy flavor and exuberant aroma are the youthful, immature stage of the plant. As the plant ages, it grows taller, more slender and elegant. Delicate umbel flowers develop and open.
As it reaches the age of wisdom, those flowers give way to seeds that impart knowledge dating back thousands of years and have the power to launch thousands of new generations.
Coriander is the culmination. The life’s work of the cilantro plant. Its enduring legacy. Or perhaps, the coriander/cilantro difference is just a retail device to distinguish leaves from seeds.
In fact, many cultures only have one word to describe both the leaves and the seeds of this ancient herb and spice. In the US, coriander came by way of European settlers as early as 1670. Yet, it was popularized on supermarket shelves for it’s utility in “Mexican” food.
I use Mexican in quotes because the truth is much of the cuisine deemed Mexican in the US could be Peruvian, Bolivian, Salvadorian, Ecuadorian, and more. In fact, the herb you find in dishes in Latin American countries might actually be a completely unrelated herb called Culantro.
Culantro can be shade grown even in tropical climates. Though, subject to bolting as days grow long, it is a bit more durable in the heat than cool season cilantro.
The most incredible thing to me though isn’t why we call these plants what we call them. It’s that nearly every country on earth has at least one name for this amazing edible treasure. That’s because it is so universally recognized for its culinary utility.
Grow it, eat it, love it, share it!
General Knowledge and Fascinating Facts
- History of Carrots, with mention of coriander
- The Long History and Many Uses of Coriander
- Scientists Harvest Antarctic Greenhouse Vegetables
- Coriander Production and Distribution
- Coriander Production Data Worldwide
- Coriander Crop Survey and Analysis 2016
- Coriander Cultivation Information Guide
- Cilantro Production in California
- Coriander Production and Management
- World Crops: Cilantro
- Herbs and Leaf Crops: Cilantro
Recipes and Uses
One of my favorite ways to use and preserve cool season cilantro is to ferment it. Coursly chop the leaves. Weight them. Add 2% salt by weight to the leaves. Stir until the leaves begin expressing liquid. Then, mash into a jar.
You can put fermentation weights and a lid on this. Then let it sit in a warm location out of direct light for 3-7 days.
Or you can tuck some washed, scavenged rocks in a plastic baggy and use those to weight your ferment in the jar. Then, fold the baggy over the rim of the jar and wrap with a rubber band. This creates your air lock. Once a day, remove the rubber band and fold up the sides to let the ferment off glass for a few seconds. Then, close.
After those 3-7 days, use your fermented cilantro on tacos, in salsa, as a garnish for soup, tossed in salads, or any other place where you regularly use cilantro.
Here are some of my other favorite uses from around the web.
When I started with chickens, I spent 5 months raising them before I got my first egg. Three of those months the chicks were in a brooder, in our house. For several weeks the brooder had to be heated. For the entire time, the brooder had to be cleaned daily to keep down unwanted aromas.
I learned a lot of things from that experience. The most important lesson was the fact that I never, ever want to raise chickens in my house, again. I am not the only chicken keeper who has these thoughts. That’s why you’ll find endless plans and ideas for making stand alone brooders to incorporate in your coop or use in outbuildings.
If you have never raised chickens before, I want to save you a lot of time and trouble with these three words of wisdom.
Buy laying hens!
The simplest way to start your flock is to look on Craigslist, or whatever farm classified ads you prefer, and find yourself hens that are already laying. Sexlinks, Rhode island reds, white-egg laying chickens, other hybrids or heritage breeds, whatever kind of laying hen you can find will make a great starting point — as long as they are healthy and already laying eggs.
Often the chickens you find on classifieds are layers in their 2nd or 3rd year of egg production. Their production has slowed down. Instead of 5-6 eggs a week, they lay 1-3. Their keepers want more eggs, but don’t have the heart to kill them. So they sell them cheap, hoping someone else just wants chickens for company. Sometimes you can find younger chickens offered for sale by people who realized they weren’t really chicken keepers. Occasionally, you can find people who just like to raise chicks and not keep the chickens.
Frankly, any of these chickens are fine because your goal with your first flock is not peak egg production. It’s to learn how to care for chickens, experiment with raising methods, and to keep them alive.
Nearly every chicken keeper I know lost chickens their first time through because they didn’t even know what they were supposed to worry about. Even if egg production is low with your first flock, you’ll still get manure which is one of the best fertility sources for your garden. Plus, this starter flock is your chance to gain experience through trial and error without going to great expense, or becoming inordinately attached to your first flock.
Benefits of a Second-Hand Flock
If you start by building a fancy coop and picking heritage breeds from a catalog, raising them from chicks, treating them like pets instead of livestock — you’re chances of being heart-broken by your first flock are very high. Trust me. Something is going to go wrong.
- Your dog will sneak in when you feed the chickens and take 5 of them out in under 60 seconds.
- You’ll forget to close the coop door one night and a raccoon will gut your most beautiful, favorite layer.
- Or instead of a raccoon, a wide ranging weasel may come by and take out your entire flock because you were a little late closing the door.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Until you raise chickens, you can’t anticipate the kind of things you need to be ready for. Many new chicken keepers end up feeling guilty and sad because they invested so much effort and care only to fail in devastating ways.
By starting with a second-hand flock, you can off-set some of that emotional anguish with the knowledge that you did your best to give unwanted animals a second chance. Also, more mature chickens have been around the block and aren’t as likely to make dumb mistakes. So, they tend to be a bit more durable than birds raised in a brooder by an inexperienced chicken keeper.
Hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the benefits of starting with a second hand flock. Now, here’s what to look for when you buy.
- Ideally, aim for the youngest layers you can find and make sure they are in great health.
- Don’t buy chickens that have poopy butts, have irrigated skin in their rear area, make you itch when you hold them, or are missing lots of head feathers. These chickens will require mite removal and health care before you move them to their new coop.
- Squat down with the chickens and see if they come near you. They may not let you touch them. But, they’ll usually come close, out of curiosity, if they are healthy and well-adjusted.
- Don’t buy chickens if they run up on you or peck you when you squat down. They usually can’t be broken of those bad habits and will make caring for the rest of your flock more difficult.
Trust your gut instincts on chicken buying. If the way the chickens are kept or their health condition makes you feel a bit queasy, don’t bring them home. In my experience, our stomachs often notice things that our minds choose to ignore. There’s a reason why “trust your gut” is an enduring expression!
Tips on Keeping Chickens
Obviously there’s a lot more to keeping chickens than just buying them. Before you bring home chickens, you need a secure space ready for them and a plan for how you’ll care for them. Then, later you’ll be experimenting, researching, learning, and making more permanent decisions about what works well in your environment.
The tips that follow are meant to help you get started. In future posts, I’ll get into more ideas about how to use and keep chickens as part of a homestead system. At the outset though, start with simple systems and focus on learning as much as you can about your flock, about yourself as a chicken keeper, and about how chickens interact with your environment.
Tip 1: No Right Way to Keep Chickens
No matter what anybody tells you, there is no single best way to keep chickens. They are adaptable, intelligent animals that are durable in some ways and can thrive in lots of different conditions. Every environment is different as well.
Try not to get too tied to particular ways of raising or using chickens early on. Be open to learning about all the different ways people raise chickens in your research. Then, later make the decisions that feel right to you, work well in your environment, and compliment your lifestyle.
Tip 2: Conditions and Care Needs Change
Also, we now live in a world with a rapidly changing world with wildly unpredictable weather threats and climate changes. Pests, pathogens, and diseases are proliferating and spreading in ways no one expected. New risks emerge constantly.
I got away with safely free-ranging chickens for 5 years until terrible flooding reduced the rat, mice, and rabbit populations on our landscape. Then, hawks took an interest in my chickens. Shortly after that, a fox family moved in. I had to completely re-think my chicken keeping practices based on those new predator concerns.
Even highly controlled industrial chicken care environments, fine-tuned with scientific precision, are susceptible to risks from our evolving conditions. Floods, diseases, feed problems, and more have made even supposedly invulnerable “engineered environments” danger zones for livestock.
It’s important to understand at the outset that chicken care is a moving target. You will never come up with the perfect plan for all time. There will always be tweaks and adjustments and even wholesale rethinking at times. Now, more than ever, you need to be flexible and responsive in your approach to chicken care.
Tip 3: Coop and Run Security is Key
Chickens need a secure space to spend their days and nights. Until you know your predator risks, you won’t want to let them out of their coop and run except under your close supervision.
So, you need to plan a large space to keep them secure. There are many different ways to go about this. They key is that you need to build them an effective refuge that keeps digging, aerial, and strong or cunning predators out.
– Hardware Cloth v. Chicken Wire
Generally, you want all openings less than an inch wide. So called “chicken wire” is the right size, yet it’s not durable enough for protection against strong predators. Hardware cloth is a better choice.
– Full Protection
Make sure your coop and run has complete overhead, underground, all around protection. Here are a few things I’ve learned about coop security.
- Buried fencing can keep out diggers. Yet, it’s often easier to just tack hardware cloth over the whole floor or use a solid plywood floor for protection.
- Self-locking latches and sliding bars keep out raccoons. Those crafty predators can open less complicated latches or pry up corners of light weight openings.
- Ventilation is a must. But screens are easily clawed open by climbers. Instead use hardware cloth on your window openings.
- Wood rots and swells. Nailed boards can be pried loose by stronger predators. Protect wood from moisture or use treated wood (e.g. stained/painted). Use screws rather than nails for more security.
- Roofing materials should provide weather and predator protection. Plastic or dark colored roofs can make coops hot in summer. Tarps can be easily chewed through and lose durability quickly when exposed to the elements. Metal roofing tends to work best.
Tip 4: Try Temporary Coops
Your first time through, I suggest you make something durable yet temporary. For example, hoop coops made with cattle panels and hardware cloth can be cheaply and easily built. They also create a lot of space for small flock of chickens. You can stand up inside which makes cleaning and spending time with your chickens easy.
You can also easily re-purpose all the materials later when you are ready to build a formal coop and run. You can turn the hoop coop into a greenhouse by covering it with plastic sheeting. Or you can use those cattle panels to make curcurbit tunnels in your garden later.
There are a number of hoop plans out there to choose from. This will likely not be your final coop design, so if I were you, I’d go for the easiest design possible.
Here are two easy tutorials to consider.
Hoop coops are not the only option out there. But unless you have carpentry skills and a lot of tools, they are a great beginner option. You can also buy second hand coops or find a local builder making low cost coops in some areas.
Tip 5: Pay Attention to Pet Peeves
I know you are going to read a lot of posts, magazines, and books before you bring home your first flock. Make sure to pay attention to all the nuanced little details chicken keepers share. Paying attention to pet peeves, in particular, can help you save time. Here are a few of mine.
– No “U” Nails
Personally, I am not a fan of U nails. Instead, I like to sandwich hardware cloth or wire fencing between two pieces of wood connected by screws. This makes taking it apart later much easier than having to rip out a bunch of U nails. It also saves on smashed fingers.
– Pass on Movable Coops
Movable coops, except those on trailers, only work on flat land. I’ve tried several drag and drop designs on our hilled landscape and they quickly warp and fall apart quickly.
Even on flat land though, the only chicken keepers I know who actually move their coop often enough for chicken health are farmers. They use tractors to tow them.
Instead of a movable coop, I recommend that you use deep bedding. Alternatively, use a shovel to scrape and then sweep up manure weekly to keep chickens from spending too much time on accumulated manure. Then you can also use that manure in your garden as fertilizer.
Tip 6: Start With What Works
For your first few months, start with the things that work universally.
- Use pelleted layer feed before you try to make your own or start fermenting feed.
- Use an $8 hanging chicken waterer cleaned and refilled every other day.
- Don’t use supplements that may or may not be helpful to your chickens.
- Put out oyster shells to ensure access to calcium.
- Bring chickens your fresh kitchen scraps and anything from your garden to use to build rapport with your new flock.
- Collect eggs at least once daily so you know they are fresh.
- Let your chickens lay naturally without using electric lights to induce winter laying.
- Store extra feed somewhere other than inside the coop so you don’t attract scavengers who might also eat your chickens (e.g. possums and raccoons).
- Clean your coop at least weekly.
- Spend time observing your chickens from a distance to learn more about them.
Tip 7: Experiment Carefully
Just like people, chickens need time to adapt to changes. When you are ready to start making your own feed mixes, fermenting your feed, using herbs for their health, offering probiotics, trialing Diatomaceous Earth (DE), give them yard access, use them in the garden, etc. – do it slowly.
For example, let chickens sample new foods. Watch their reactions and monitor their health. Only make full changes when you are certain your chickens will benefit from them.
If you give chickens access to your yard, keep an eye on them to make sure there are no unrecognized hazards. Start free-ranging them in the evenings so night will drive them back into the coop in case you have trouble rounding them back up.
Pay attention to what they eat and don’t eat from your yard or garden on their own. Then look up those plant properties to find out why chickens might favor them or avoid them. This will tell you a lot about whether your feed program is working.
Becoming a Chicken Keeper
Learning how to keep mature chickens safe and healthy is a great place to start your journey of becoming a chicken keeper. The real fun though comes with giving them purpose on your homestead.
Chickens actually enjoy being put to work scavenging their own food, controlling weeds, conditioning soil, and keeping you company when you work outside. Once you know how to care for them, then you can find meaningful ways to direct their natural abilities and integrate them into your homesteading life.
Then, later as you perpetuate your flock with new chickens you can make all those important decisions about whether to brood your own chicks or let a broody hen handle it. You can also try lots of breeds and narrow down your breed preferences.
Homesteading isn’t just about the activities that provide you greater resource self-sufficiency like eggs, meat, manure, and livestock labor. It’s also about thinking for yourself and deeply understanding all the aspects at play in the environment you inhabit.
Taking time to become a true chicken keeper, rather than just being someone who keeps chickens, takes more time up front. But doing so will make you much more skilled and help you effectively integrate long-term chickens into the life you are creating.
You may also decide chickens aren’t right for you. And if that’s the case, then by starting with a second-hand flock, you’ll sure be glad you aren’t stuck with an expensive coop and a sense of guilt over selling off those chicks you raised in your bathroom or basement.