I've mentioned before that my house is on a steep hill, and that I've terraced up part of the unused too-steep area as a food forest, which has been working very well. All the trees I put in have established nicely, although it’s looking a bit bare again now that the pumpkin vines have died down and I’ve given the young trees another trim to promote branching. I’m planning to plant up some garlic on the hill in the spaces over the winter, and I know I should get on with that, but I’ve also noticed the soil’s sunk a decent amount so first I want to order a big load of compost and spread it out to give the shale slope another fertility boost. In the meantime, we had a smattering of raspberries, a couple of pumpkins, and we have two bunches of bananas coming on, passionfruit dropping out of the sky--not to mention the 50kg of mangoes on our well-established tree that we managed to beat the flying foxes to this year!
Speaking of compost, I’ve finally obtained permission from Hubby to get chickens (well, in fact, I gave up on obtaining permission and informed him it was bloody well happening). In my quest to maximise underused spaces, I've ended up quartering them on another under-utilised part of the same slope. When the trees are a bit more established, I might be able to let them out as a hit squad to collect any fallen fruit and leave a few fertility bombs behind or, depending on how things develop, simply free-range them over the area. For the moment, the main aims for them are as pets for the kids, eggs obviously—but the tipping point for me was the idea that I could use them to process my compost a la EdibleAcres' chicken compost system. Turning compost isn’t my idea of fun, and taking advantage of a natural chicken behaviour that will enrich their environment and allow them to supplement their diet not only with greens but with bugs and grubs and all manner of compost biota without having to let them tear up my garden... it sounds like a match made in heaven to me.
Next to the food forest is a little back deck area that we’ve never really found a way to use. It's very close to the house, but it’s kind of an out of the way dead end, it's not covered from the heat or the rain but doesn't get enough sun to really support plant life (apart from the baking middle part of summer days which would scorch anything that preferred a bit more shade), and we've never really found furniture that would fit there without compromising the legality of the pool fence, nor much reason to be out there at all given the lovely covered pergola right next to it. Also, the decking boards were put in upside-down so they collect water rather than shed it and are rotting away, particularly in spots I’ve tried to house potplants. We’ve talked about getting it fixed, but the question has always been: would anything we did to it make us use it more?
The other design requirement was the acknowledgement that I'm traditionally quite patchy in the attention I pay things, so I wanted to minimise the effort involved in ongoing tasks that could be an animal welfare risk—namely water and cleaning (they get pretty noisy if their food runs out, so I don’t have to worry too much about that one)—and allow us to take at least a ten-day holiday without needing upkeep.
So, design spec out of the way: I searched and searched and found a prefab coop exactly the right size to fit along the side of the deck that serves as the pool fence, and called it a non-climbable structure. But, being me, it wasn't exactly exactly what I wanted yet, so I raised it up on a 300mm skirt to hold in deep litter bedding, added a door to the section under the henhouse, added insulation to the sun-facing walls and roof, painted the lot to match, pitched the roof up over the henhouse to add more ventilation and added in a gutter to collect all the rainwater runoff in a small tank. I put in automatic drinking cups with a gravity feed from the rainwater tank the roof empties into--which is also connected via a float valve to my watering system, so every few days it gets topped up to about a quarter full only if it needs it. The big feeder only needs topping up with commercial pellets every couple of weeks.
The plastic bin under the nesting boxes is meant to contain black soldier flies, which the idea is that I will update the ramp for them to harvest themselves straight into the chickens' waiting beaks rather than into the bottle--but my colony went bad in the heat of summer and I haven’t properly got it going again since. I’ll do a full clean out and start fresh again in the spring. In the meantime, the soldier flies have seemed to be totally happy laying eggs and raising grubs directly in the coop compost heap where the chooks can occasionally discover an undisturbed treasure trove.
The idea is that I can take out my scraps buckets and tip chicken friendly scraps into the chicken area and the rest into the soldier fly bin next to it, and it all ends up either directly or indirectly feeding the chickens. I also chuck in all the garden waste into the bottom of the coop: weeds, prunings, leaves, excess azolla, etc, as well as sweeping the contents of the deep-litter henhouse floor out the door of the henhouse directly onto the floor of the coop every now and then. I might eventually replace the prefab henhouse floor with wire so it drops straight through into the compost heap instead of waiting for me to move it, we'll have to see. There's a rectangle of lino covering the deck underneath the coop to protect the deck a little--but as I said, it was rotting already, so I'm not too worried.
It's all enclosed like Fort Knox, but because I don't believe in underkill, I've also got an automatic door to lock the henhouse at night. At the moment, the far end under the henhouse has a wire mesh down the middle to block it off as a hospital wing, as we had a sour crop issue with one of our hens a few weeks ago and while she seems back to 100%, I'm still keeping an eye on her in case of a recurrence--but once I remove the wire barrier again, they have the whole area at the bottom for me to pile up compost. The magic is in the hole in the deck in the floor of the coop--you can just see the black chicken coming up through from the top of the ladder in the photo. The chickens scratch through the bedding looking for scraps or grubs or sprouted grains I chuck in when I feel like it, and eventually kick it down through the hole in the floor to...
The run! I enclosed the under-deck area (about 4x3m--the coop is along the far left edge of the deck as you see from this photo, lined up with the run door) completely with wire, and put wire mesh on the ground up at the top of the slope too so they can't excavate the foundations of the house too much. Just recently, I’ve added a garden edging retaining wall across the middle on a bit of an angle down, so that they'll continue to kick the scraps down and along to one side, and then back again until it gets to the door, rather than having them tumble straight down the hill. I've got a board holding back the bounty of enriched compost that's just waiting to fall out at the bottom into my bucket. It's a bit awkward to get down to the bottom door--and certainly awkward to get into the run itself--but fine for the occasional times when I want some compost or fix something, while the more frequently used dropping off of kitchen scraps at the coop at the top is no trouble at all. It's lovely and cool and shady down in the run during summer, and the shape funnels a cooling breeze up to air-condition the coop itself, too--but the winter sun comes in underneath the deck to make it bright and warm, so it's comfortable all year round. For most of the day there's at least some part of their area with some sun to enjoy, but it's very sheltered in general.
The chooks love both the upstairs and downstairs areas; they're always hard at work scratching and bug-hunting, and so very happy with it all. They’ll come upstairs at the promise of some scraps if we need to catch them for some reason or just because we want a cuddle. We’ve moved the porch swing out there opposite the coop to be able to watch chicken tv, and it’s become a popular spot for taking a few moments out of the way of the chaos of the house to swing gently and watch chickens doing what they do. They probably spend most of their time under the deck but usually there’s a couple up top because they're popping up and down for a drink or a snack or just to check they’re not missing out on anything. We've got three grown-up hens plus one yet to start laying, and two eleven-week-old chicks still being furiously mothered by one of the hens who went broody. We had the chicks in with the rest of the flock almost from the start with very few issues, and my sons have been ADORING the process of watching them grow. At this point, I think they're both pullets--but one's a gold-laced Wyandotte, which are notoriously difficult to sex, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed with her. At the moment, we're getting two eggs a day because the broody's still busy with her teenage chicks, but in a few months when she and even the chicks start laying, we'll have eggs coming out our ears!
As for the compost… I’m very happy with the quality of the stuff I’m getting. Maybe it (the chunky stuff you can see in the bucket especially) could get a bit more heat, or spend a bit more time, or get sifted to get the big bits out—we’ll have to see how my new wall to encourage it to take the longer path down rather than tumbling straight down the hill changes things—but the fact is, it’s moving through the system from top to bottom without any effort on my part, there’s absolutely no yuck or even visible chook poo on the compost by the time it reaches the bottom, and I’m getting decent amounts of great stuff to spread on my garden when I have never successfully composted before. I tend to cut sticks into 20cm batons when I drop them in, but leave pretty much everything else whole. If there’s a few mango seeds or sticks or whatever that haven’t broken down, then they’ll probably make better mulch than the fine stuff anyway.
It seems to work well with the natural rhythms of the garden, too. I’ll go into a clipping frenzy and the coop will be packed with scraps, making the compost heat up and come alive with bugs. But in a stretch of time where I’m not generating much in the way of clippings, the coop will end up near empty for a bit, but the chooks will keep working and processing that lot all the way down. I was worried that we’d end up with a layer of packed solid finished compost along the bottom of the path, with the new stuff getting kicked along on top all the way down—but the natural ebb and flow of inputs and the delight of the chickens when they find an undisturbed (read: full of grubs) pocket means that they dig down in the times when there's not something coming from the top so it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. The product smells clean and earthy and packed with nutrients and absolutely bursting with life.
We've had the coop for five months now, and while I've been tinkering with bits and pieces of how it all works for all that time to fine-tune the process, I'm overwhelmingly pleased with how discrete, how effective, and how completely without smell or flies or effort the entire affair is. It basically consumes all my scraps and a bit of supplementary chicken food whenever I want to dump them in, and generates eggs and compost and chicken cuddles ready for collection whenever I want them. Even the highly dubious Hubby is a convert!
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