The Chicken Garden Project – Phase One – Getting Started


Like many gardener’s we have a new garden project going almost every year. This is how I manage to accomplish new garden projects with my current homestead work load. My working formula is that I work on this project an hour or two each morning and then I accomplish a little bit everyday!

Cement blocks withgreenhouse hoops and garden USE

Soil, straw and bark chips make up the base of my boarder garden. 

This year’s project is what I am calling the chicken garden. I plan to add some color and form on the North-end entry gate to our chicken coop and runs.  I also want to add some pizzazz and visual interest. I plan to only plant easy-care perennials so I don’t have more than the basic seasonal work to maintain them. These perennials have proven themselves to be low water and easy-care plant here already.

Two step stones in bark chips chicken garden

Just a simple stone and chip pathway lead to the chicken run.

In this case, I am going to transplant some of my standard “nothing will kill them” hardy plants from other parts of our property. I’ll be using the tried and true plants that I know can stand up to whatever weather Mother Nature Give’s us;  from drought to flooding. These are the perennials that have proven their merit over and over during the past 15 years we have lived and gardened here on our SW Michigan homestead.Rhodies close puzzld cute

The eventual recipient of the chicken garden.

Small House Homesteads Top Ten Hardy and Easy-Care Perennials:

  1. Day lilies
  2. Iris
  3. Catmint
  4. Black eyed Susan’s
  5. Brown eyed Susan’s
  6. Shasta Daisy’s
  7. Butterfly Bush
  8. Comfrey
  9. Sedum (spreading and low growing)
  10. Autumn Sedum Joy

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The herb comfrey in full bloom.

My overall goal is to brighten the place up a bit when we walk out to the coop a half-dozen times a day. I also want to play down the ugly, gray cement blocks that hold down the greenhouse hoops. The blocks are super practical and make the low-cost side of this design work just fine, but I would like to pretty them up a bit.

Metal stake in cement block

I hope to soften down the hard lines of these gray cement blocks with green plants.

I started by amending the soil with good composted dirt from our compost bins and then added spent straw and topped with bark chips from the recent roadside clean up crew. Then I added six flat stepping-stones to a simple bark chip pathway that I put down to deal with the spring mud. The step-tones were once used in another garden location at once point. These stones resided for a few years in the bed behind our three-season porch but the shrubs there grew big enough to fill that open space and I was not longer using those step stones to get into and out of that bed.

Boarder at coop before just chips USE

Bark chips help to keep the weeds down as well as the moisture in the soil.

Before I could plant any flowers on our homestead I have learned I must seriously amend the soil and kill the grass that was growing there. Because our soil is super lean, sandy oak savanna soil that is also devoid of most necessary nutrients, so my garden prep process typically takes me a year or two to amend the soil before planting.  This small garden border is no different.

2016 pine pile USE

This great mound of bark chips will soon disappear.

My formula is quite simple; I add soil from the compost bins mixed with old soil from within the fire pit. Then I added some bark chips and mulch left for us by the local tree trimmers.  This tree trimming mulch includes pine needles and other greenery that will also help to amend our soil and add nitrogen to make a nutrition base for the flowers I plan to add in a year or two.


Chickens shack, hoops and garen USE

Another view of the “back forty.”The chicken run, the pool shack and of course, our girls!

While the amendments were doing their thing, I consulted a great book called Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard. By Jessi Bloom. This book is full of practical and beautiful solution for any gardener who wants to invite a flock into their backyard. It’s a great resource and give good tips and used many lovely color photographs for ideas and interest.

Chicken Garden foront cover book

If you are considering landscaping in or around your coop or run here are a few relevant posts you might also enjoy.

Enjoy!

Small House Homesteader, Donna

 

Dispersing of the Straw Bale Wind Block

This week I have been busy distributing the chickens straw bale wind block.

Chickens shack, hoops and garen USE

The straw bale wind block that collapsed after the winter snow.

Each fall we set up stacks of square-baled straw around our chicken coop and run with the goal of blocking some of the big winds we get here on the homestead. We live not far from Lake Michigan and we definitely get the results of a lot of lake related winds that we feel on our homestead.

Come spring I use these bales as mulch and distribute the wet straw around many plants and trees in the garden and the landscaped beds including our five-year-old baby pine trees.

Pine and staw in foreground-cart in rear

Baby White Pines replaced those that were cut down.

As organic material straw will eventually rot and turn into soil, amending the existing soil as they rot. The clumps of straw also hold in moisture from the spring rains which will benefit whatever growing things they are spread around.

Straw in the cart

Our garden cart full of straw on its way to be distributed.

This year we were also lucky to be able to be the recipients of three (or possibly four) truckloads of organic materials cut back from our community’s roadside program. These are wood chips, pine needles and other brown and green organic materials.

2016 pine pile USE

The big pile of organic mulch that needs hauling and spreading. 

The stars all alligned this spring. I simple stopped and talked to the guys who were cutting and offered our property as the free place to dump them and requested that they be dumped in our meadow. Because they usually have to pay to dump these materials and often we have to pay to buy them; so this was a win for us both.

It is certainly a blessing to have these organic materials to work with in our garden, yard and landscaping. Both the straw and the green cuttings will save us money, time and vehicle wear and tear. And having the mulch on site will benefit all the growing things from plants to shrubbery that we have work so hard to plant and maintain.

Nothing is wasted here on the homestead!

Small House Homesteader, Donna

 

Another Load of Bark Chips Going Down

Sassy in truck bed on chips close USE

My ever-present and patient helper, Sassy

Putting down bark chips is an ongoing project for me on the Small House homestead.

Truck sassy buckets close

If only she could help shovel!

Every Monday Gene and I drive the 20 miles into town for our restorative yoga class, lunch with our yoga friends and to buy our groceries. Since we hardly leave the homestead any other day this is as much of a social event as it is a physical one.

Cart truck and barn USE

Each time we go to town we also pick up a load of bark chips from a friend father’s blueberry field who has graciously blessed us with them for free. I typically spend one day the next week unloading, hauling and spreading those bark chips. Today Gene worked on putting up the gutters on the pole barn for the two new rainwater containment totes, this was my bark chip spreading day.

VERT arborvitea

Bark chip bed around the arborvitae.

This is a laborious project as I shovel them into a 5 gallon bucket, filled our cart Vermont and then haul them to where ever I am spreading them. Our beloved Labrador Sassy is my constant companion in this effort.

Chips edge and tree USE

Edging the wooded garden with bark chips.

Today I worked on edge of the garden bed behind Gene’s blacksmith forge. These chips will help to make things look tidier as well as build better soil. And with our sandy and very lean, oak Savannah forest dirt, better soil is something we can always use here.

Country Garden magazine front

One of my top five favorite magazines.

I entered our homestead garden in the 2015 Country Garden contest this year and although we have not been chosen, I decided to act as if we might be! So I have working hard all summer, weeding and spreading chips as mulch. If we are chosen, I have a head start and we are not, well things will be in great shape here anyway…I consider this a win/win no matter what happens.

In case you are not familiar with this great quarterly magazine, About Country Gardens is an excellent resource for individuals who want to plant their own garden. Each issue is filled with planting diagrams, design ideas and beautiful photos. This insightful magazine helps every reader discover their green thumb.

The call for country garden reads like this…..

Enter the Country Gardens Magazine Garden Awards

Do you have a great country-style garden? Enter the Country Gardens Garden Awards contest for a chance to see your garden published.

We want to see your photos and hear the story behind your inspirational garden or garden room.

GUIDELINES

Only amateur gardeners are eligible for awards; participants cannot earn their living from gardening, landscaping, or interior design. Gardens that have received other national gardening honors or awards, or have been featured in a national magazine, are ineligible. Please retain an original copy of your complete entry for your records; materials will not be returned. Images from entries may be shared online.

DEADLINE

Submissions must be received by September 30, 2014. Award winners will be selected by Country Gardens editors to be featured in a future issue.

WHAT TO SEND

Send us your name, address, and telephone number, as well as color photographs or color printouts of digital photos of your garden, a rough landscape plan, and a brief description of your garden or garden room.

WHERE TO SEND IT

GARDEN AWARDS, Country Gardens, Code: WEB, 1716 Locust St., Des Moines, IA 50309-3023

Now I know better not to count my chickens until they hatch, however with our rural five acre spread and approximately 2 ½ acres in gardens, two hand-built chicken coops and runs, my hand papermaking studio and Gene’s vintage blacksmith shop I thought we might just be a viable candidate for the “Best County Garden” category.

Maybe they will even start a new category called Best Homestead Garden! My theory has always been… if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Wish us luck!

Small house homesteader and gardener, Donna

Gardening with Heritage and Open Pollination Seeds

For the first time I planted all heritage type, open pollination seeds in our homesteads vegetable garden. What a “quick start” these seeds have given us. After not having rain for over two weeks we had 4” of rain last night and another inch ½ this morning. The garden is pretty well watered at last here at the Small House homestead!

Long view house in back USE FIRST

I ordered seeds this season from Mary’s Heirloom Seeds and Seed Treasures. This year I made it a priority to find and buying both heritage seeds and those that are open-pollination seeds. Our food growing plan is pretty simple – to plant what will grow here in our soil and in our short growing season!

What exactly is open pollinated? Mary from Mary’s Heirloom Seeds describes open-pollination as “As seeds that are simply pollinated by insects, birds, wind or other natural mechanism. The way nature intended. The seeds of open pollinated plants will produce new generations of those same plants.”

Pumpkin Seeds 6-14-15

Our vegetables are looking especially good already  – much to my surprise. Our seeds have only been in the ground two weeks they germinated very quickly and they are growing like weeds. Be it the temperature, the soil or the lack of water, our plants often get a slow start here but not this year. This winter I bought all open pollination, heritage seeds and boy have they taken off?

Shallow raise bed with beans up 6-14-15

It too soon to tell about the quality or amount of the fruits and the vegetables we will ultimately harvest from our garden this season but if the fast response of seed growth is any indication, my hopes are running pretty high right now. I’ve only picked off one beetle thus far too…

Runner beans up the trellis 6-14-15

This is the winning combination for our Zone 5b garden; simple shallow raised beds filled with well composted horse manure soil and planted with open pollinated Heritage seeds topped with bark chips mulch al la the Back to Eden Gardening method.  

Pot

Small House homesteader and gardener, Donna

 

My Favorite Carrot – Merida Hybrid

I love this carrot!

Carrots close use

It is Merida Hybrid an overwintering type I bought from Territorial Seed Company in 2014 http://www.territorialseed.com. It is certified organic too (by Stellar Certification Services.)

The most favorite thing about them is that they overwinter really well here in SW Michigan lasting through our intense cold months and deep, deep snow falls. I’ve harvested two batches so far this season; one earlier this spring and a second picking today. I planted our first garden seeds of 2015 today and the carrots needed to come out of the soil to make room for the new.

The package says “240 days, This Nantes type with great bolt resistance produces sweet, bright orange carrots 1 to 1 ½ “ in diameter. Well suited for spring, summer and fall plantings.” I agree.This sampler packet was just $3.95 from Territorial Seeds Company, Cottage Grove, Oregon 514-942-9547.

1 gram samplers work out really well for us and this one packet was enough to feed the two of us through the summer and fall and early into 2015.

There is nothing like harvesting fresh grown carrots from my garden in May and June before the real gardening season even begins!

The carrots pictures in this photograph above over-wintered in our garden and were harvested today 5/28/5. I cooked cleaned, sliced them up for lunch and they were as sweet as ever.

Small House Homesteader, Donna

 

Beginning the Big Garden Clean Up

We have a lot of trees here on the homestead…lots… of… trees. We love our majestic White Oak trees not only for their immense grandeur and beauty and for the oxygen they give us but also for the shade they provide to us over our non-air conditioned home.

Fresh bark chips in rround tree bed USE

The bed around the crabapple tree is now cleaned out and fresh bark chips added.

But the downside to trees is that they also mean a ton of leaves and a lot of garden and yard clean up come spring (and fall too.). We started the big flower bed(s) clean-up project this week. My goal is to get this leaf pick-up work done before I begin to plant the vegetable garden. Some years I make that goal, some years I do not.

Front door area USE

Sidewalk to our front door and bed area to right was here when here we moved here. I would have created it differently!

Gene is into all things mechanical so this means, left blower, leaf suckers, lots of noise and long green electric cords. I’m a lot more low-tech. I usually just sit on my bottom on a foam pad, scooting along and cleaning beds out using my hands and putting the leaves into a 5-gallon plastic bucket. I do use our Cart Vermont wooden garden cart to cart haul them to the woods and put them on the trails. Not one bit of those leaves go to waste.

Planter box USE

Brick raised bed planters cleaned out for the season.

This year after I removed the leaves I also added bark chip mulch because our old mulch had pretty much turned into new soil. This is called the Back to Eden method of gardening, a practice I started some 15 years ago long before I ever heard of that method. https://www.facebook.com/groups/BacktoEdenGardening/?fref=nf

Cart in driveway USE

Cart and gear in driveway awaiting leaves.

Luckily I only have to add bark chips every few years but this is the year unfortunately.  So it’s going to be a big year of working in the garden…Thank goodness Gene finally quits his job at Menard’s on April 28, also his 70th birthday. We will begin to draw from his IRA to make up the gap that his pension and our social security do not fill. We will both be, finally… fully retired.

Traingle bed USE

Another view of our front door bed with my cement chickens.

He is now going to go to work for me!!

Small House Homesteader, Donna

Our Homesteads Native Plant Ecosystem

I get asked a lot of questions about our gardens here on the homestead, especially when folks find out we are a Back to Eden Garden. This means we subscribe to using bark chips as mulch and to grow our flowers and vegetable here.

White daisy's bunch

White daisy’s, a pass-along-plant grows in our meadow border. This is a plant given to me by my neighbor.

In fact, I spend a lot of my day in my gardens these days and every year I add more and more beds and plants. I adore working in and sharing my gardens with others.

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The view from our three season porch; sidewalk and bird feeding bed.

As you know, most plants thrive in well-drained soil. But if your soil is sandy and lean like ours is then too much draining can become an over-kill. Water and nutrients also run through it quickly and plants have a hard time surviving in this kind of environment. Fortunately, there’s a fix for turning this barren soil into a thriving garden.

Lupines bricks diaganol USE

Our first native lupine bed in front of the brick raised bed. Perennial candytuft and lupines flowers about the same time.

When we moved to the Small House Homestead in 2000, my dream was to garden on a big scale. I came from a small city lot though compact and wonderfully shaded it also came with clay soil. Too many plants drowned there for my comfort level and I was not yet a point where I had the time to devote to my gardens.

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The view from the bird feeding bed back towards the house and porch.

What I really longed for was lots of colorful flowers, ornamental grasses, flowering shrubs, evergreens and organic vegetables and I looked so forward to getting my hands into the land where the sun shined everywhere.

garden back of porch chartreuse and porch

A low garden behind our porch allows us to look out over our property and enjoy the birds.

Once I began to dig, what I found was very lean, very sandy oak savannah soil. This acid soil was not idea for growing anything but oak and pine trees. They don’t call this ecology the oak and pine barrens for nothing!

IMG_2073

First a fenced in vegetable garden and now an open chicken run.

Sandy soil has its pro’s and con-s but it can be easily amended and improved. I knew I had my work cut out for me I know, but I was strong and optimistic.

Front sidewalk from limestone bench

Front of home sidewalk with shrubs, catmint and saliva in pea gravel.

I started by testing our soil to find out it was a base 7.0 Then I began to seriously amend it to make more loam to hold in the water and nutrients I was also adding.

Bird bed stone edge w flowes NICE

Our country garden beds are edged in found fields stones I have gathered.

I began to make homemade compost using kitchen scraps, grass trimmings and more. Then I bought mushroom compost and more recently found a source for free well compost horse manure. Now I use a combination of them all with bark chips mulch on top to hold in the moisture and keep out some of the weeds. This is a winning combination for us here!

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fall blooming clematis at our front door adds beauty and a sweet smell.

Gradually over the past 14 years our gardens have grown as have my skills and knowledge. I’ve made some mistakes for sure but I am known as the crazy gardening lady in my community and I can live with that!

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A metal gate in our repurposed railroad tie herb bed adds visual interest.

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A row of ornamental grasses hides a metal chain link fence around the pool at the pool shack with our wildflower meadow behind it.

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My granddaughters playhouse in the meadow garden edge.

Small House Homesteader and gardener Donna