just another sunday in the chicken coop

img_7335About a month ago, our chickens came home from their temporary location.  We decided to put the coop within the garden so that they can help us with insect control and composting and more importantly, to keep the dog away from their droppings-we won’t discuss her disgusting taste in snacks…

Although they are fairly safe in the garden since it is fenced in, hawks are still a threat and we knew we would have to spend some time building a large pen and tunnels.  Neither of us is particularly handy in a construction manner, but despite this, we were able to build the structures from PVC pipe, poultry netting, 2×3 wire fencing, lawn staples and cable ties.

img_7336The garden itself is approximately 38 feet wide by 94 feet long, which makes it about 3500 square feet.  That gave us plenty of room for the coop and pen as well as the tunnels.  The first thing I did out there was dedicate an area for composting and it is just behind the wheel barrow.

While we worked on things, the chickens explored the entire garden.  After being confined to the coop for two months, they wandered all over, pecking and scratching and searching for bugs.


They also discovered my compost pile.  Those feet move fast-they scattered the compost all over and after raking it back in place half a dozen times, we had to build a barricade.

img_7367It took us an entire weekend to paint the PVC, build the hoop frame and cover it with the poultry netting.  Knowing that we can leave them outside during the day without worrying about hawks.  The large pen has another purpose; we will store leaves in there and the chickens will help us compost them.  They constantly dig in the leaves which helps break them up and because the leave droppings as they go, the nitrogen in them will also help with the composting process.  It takes at least six months to break them down so we will have to be patient.

img_7385The hoops are attached to the coop so that we can leave their door open to give them access to the pen.

img_7369If the chickens are going to help with insect control in the garden, they need to be able to walk through it but unfortunately, they could run into hawks and more importantly, they would make a mess of the beds.  The  solution; tunnels.  We built them in Williamsburg so that they would have more space to roam and when we moved, we took them apart and moved them with us.

img_7375Starting at the far end of the pen, we are running the tunnels down the fence line and around the exterior edge of the garden.  We may still let them out into the garden occasionally but not with out supervision.

img_7371We attached the fence hoops to the wire fencing with cable ties.

img_7373To keep them in place on the ground, we used lawn staples.

It didn’t take them long to figure it out-they spent the afternoon in the tunnels eating as much of the green grass and weeds as they could find.

a seasonal salad from the garden

IMG_5852It’s salad season in my garden.  Well, specifically, it is lettuce season.  Living in the south means that lettuce is a cool weather crop while all the other parts of a salad, like tomatoes or cucumbers, are warm weather crops.  Luckily, it is always fresh egg season in the chicken coop!

IMG_5848There are a dozen different salad greens in the garden right now.  In the salad above are Bloomsdale spinach, baby beet greens, parsley, salad bowl leaf lettuce, buttercrunch, forellenschluss and arugula.

IMG_5840Simply dressed with vinaigrette, garnished with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and some kalamata olives and served with the paper; my idea of lunch.

IMG_5841IMG_5844IMG_5845IMG_5849IMG_5851Of course, adding a hard boiled egg from one of our golden laced wyandotte hens and a slice of bread makes it a light, refreshing meal perfect for any season.

preparing the garden for fall


This summer has flown by so fast my head is spinning!  Melissa from Corbin in the Dell and I are both posting about Fall Gardens today so be sure to follow the link to see her garden.  While the garden has been productive this summer, it is still late in terms of harvesting produce.  We are just now seeing the tomatoes ripen and squashes are slowly beginning to form on the vines.  Even the peppers and eggplants are just now beginning to ripen while the few stalks of corn that survived are nearly ready to pick.  Frost is still two months away and if we are lucky, we will see a real bounty during the month of October but overall, the whole straw bale gardening has been less successful than I had hoped.

One other factor we did not expect in our garden this year was deer.  When we moved in, neighbors told us that deer would be visiting the garden but we never saw them.  For months, nothing, not a nibble and then, they began visiting and of course, eating.  Fencing in the garden has always been part of the plan, I have always wanted a true cottage style garden out front complete with a fence, gates and an arbor but it just isn’t in the budget this year-at least not one that is professionally installed.  While I plan for something permanent, I had to take action in the short term to prevent more damage and I settled on a method I saw on an organic farm in Nashville several years ago.

Deer have poor depth perception, at least that is what I was told by the man who managed the farm and he said when you present them with obstacles, if they cannot judge the distances between them, they are not likely to move through them or jump over them.  My solution is a series of boundaries made with twine and wooden stakes and so far, it is working.


These stakes are 60″ tall, the two layers of twine are approximately 4.5′ and 2′ off the ground and they completely surround the garden.  We will be adding another layer behind this one with 8′ stakes and twine at the 7′ and 3.5′ levels, if all goes well, these layers of twine will cause enough confusion that the deer will stay out completely.  Stay tuned for future posts with more on the fencing as well as the bales.

IMG_4362The deer came into the garden to feed but oddly enough, they only ate leaves off of plants-not a single fruit!  The damage to the sweet potatoes was pretty extensive but the vines are recovering.  While the sweet potatoes were obviously the favorite choice, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra and beans also saw damage but oddly enough, the corn was avoided altogether.

IMG_4130Fall gardening means removing plants that are spent and replacing them with new starts.  The potatoes vines were drying up and many had withered away so i broke down the bales and harvested the potatoes.  What a disappointment!  We had these plants in bales for a full 6 months and this was the size of the potatoes.  We may just keep them for seed potatoes and try planting them in the beds again-they aren’t worth the trouble of cooking.


We planted Yukon golds and Red Norland potatoes into 5 bales.  Most of them rotted and never produced a thing but the few that did, mostly looked like that.


The entire harvest of oddly shaped and really small potatoes.


When you plant a garden to produce your own food, you quickly learn that in order to grow a large variety of vegetables and fruits, you must plant crops in every season if possible.  Here in Virginia, we have a long growing season and I am planning to take advantage of the somewhat mild winters. My seeds are germinating quickly and should be in the beds soon and if all goes well, we should be picking greens in a month.


Because we will not see frost until the second week of November, I have started another crop of beans.  These are some Asian long beans and I hope these do better than all of the other beans I tried to grow this summer because I did not get anything from those plants!

IMG_4371By planting heirloom varieties, you can let some go to seed and have seeds for next year.  This lettuce plant is flowering and I will collect the seeds when they are mature.

IMG_4364Not only is it important to keep the garden clean and free of debris that bad bugs can hide in, it is best to attract beneficial insects to help keep the bad ones in check.  This preying mantis has been living in our cucumber vines and she has been snacking on stink bugs.  She recently mated, and yes he was her dinner that night and soon, we hope to find an egg case in the garden.  If we do, we will keep it in a bee cage in the garden over the winter so that we can have them in the garden next year.

IMG_4399Our hens have reached the 20 week mark and should be laying soon.  To keep them healthy, they need to forage and get some exercise and Darry built them a series of tunnels.  It was simple to do and it is not a permanent structure so we can rearrange them as needed.

To build them, he cut 6′ lengths of livestock fencing and formed hoops.  He lined the hoops up and ziptied them together then used landscape pins to hold them in place.

IMG_4382A close up shot of the tunnels.  The chickens really do forage a lot in the tunnels.  They have also dug up an area for dust baths.

IMG_4376We only let them out during the day and they will spend the majority of the time out there looking for bugs and eating grass.


Three of the hens at work.


Because the fencing has large openings, they will stick their heads out to reach for grass and insects near the tunnels.


And as it seems to be a tradition, it looks like the best tomatoes of the season will be picked in the compost pile.  This happens every year because the compost is not getting hot enough to kill the seeds from the tomatoes we toss in there.

IMG_4409These look like jelly bean cherries and most likely are sweet.  Trader Joe’s sells packages of mixed heirloom tomatoes and small sweet cherries and when we are not picking our own, I buy those.  Until they ripen, I will not know for sure but it really does not matter; ripe tomatoes picked from the vine are always better than anything from the store!

Keep gardening friends and don’t forget to visit the Corbin in the Dell blog to see what Melissa is up to!

garden snapshots; life with chickens, bees and butterflies


You’ve heard the saying, life gives you lemons-make lemonade, or something like that.  So we purchased six pullets, and when one turns out to be a rooster, you look for ways to make that lemonade thing work.  And if you have looked closely at the photo above, you wonder just what I am talking about because that is obviously a photo of five hens and you are correct.  Number 6, the rooster, is not in that photo, he is in the one below and a quick glance makes it pretty obvious.


No question which one he is.  The hatchery guarantees an 85% accuracy rate on sexing them as they hatch.  One in six, about 85% accurate.  He had to go, especially since he had learned to crow.  Last time we saw him, he was tucked under the arm of a nice older gentleman who had a large farm and a collection of roosters like ours that needed a new home because city folk cannot have roosters.  He is surely enjoying the farm and his ability to free range the cotton fields.


It took us several tries and a few near misses to lure him into the cage for the long ride.  He almost seemed to know that the jig was up.


For a 14 week old bird, he was pretty and I am a little disappointed that I will not see him with all of his adult feathers.


The garden in mid summer is teeming with surprises.  Finding these little guys on my dill plant was exciting because we were hoping for some caterpillars.  Although, they did eat most of the leaves and my dreams of homemade salad dressing were shelved until the next time I have a plant with leaves.


Society garlic is an ornamental plant and if it has flowers like this, it is welcome in my herb garden.


We have a lot of cucumber vines, not so many cukes but plenty of vines and on a stroll past one morning, I noticed a bumble bee tangled in the vines.  Except that it wasn’t tangled in a vine, he was caught in the arms of a praying mantis and apparently, his breakfast.  Such is the life in a garden and for all of you who did not know, a praying mantis will eat bugs of all kinds, good or bad which means that sometimes, the good bugs get eaten.


He did not seem to enjoy the photo shoot so I moved on…


Summer is salad season and in my garden, I have few greens to pick.  From the top left, going clockwise; leaf lettuce, nasturtium leaf, lemon balm, parsley, beet greens, mallow-chima(an asian green) and colorful swiss chard.


Remember those caterpillars?  They get big quickly…

IMG_4061And finally, cucumber vines do crazy things-love the spiral that the tendril formed.  Until next time, garden on friends…

news from the garden


Things are taking shape in the garden.  Our lasagna bed is slowly filling with herbs and flowers and above is a photo of a selection of flowers planted to attract beneficial insects.    The straw bales are coming along, a bit slower than I hoped but things are growing.


The bigger news is the addition of honeybees to our backyard.  We were beekeepers when we lived in Nashville and when we packed up to move to Williamsburg, we brought all of our woodenware and equipment.  One of the first things we did when we unpacked was to join the Colonial Beekeepers Association.


One of the members of the association arranged to pick up packages with marked queens from Mann Lake.  After picking up our bees, Darry put them into the hive and they began foraging immediately.


A hive inspection revealed that they are gathering nectar as well.  The white spot in each of the cells is actually the reflection of sunlight on the surface of the nectar curing and once it is ready, the bees will cap each cell.


As we ventured further into the hive, we noticed lots of activity and randomly placed cells between two frames that is commonly referred to as brace comb.


As we pulled frames out, we found capped brood and larvae and of course, her majesty, the queen.  Can’t figure out which one she is-that big blue dot should make it obvious.


The activity level here is typical of a hive and it quickly explains the origins of the phrase, “busy as a bee” because they never stop moving.


Even though they are actively foraging, they still need a little help from us.  Because they have nothing stored in the hive, we give them sugar syrup so that they can build a reserve of syrup to feed themselves.  The first year is a critical time for a new colony and taking honey from them is not an option this year.  If all goes well, we will be able to harvest honey in year two.


The bees are big on building brace comb and once again, they built some in the feeder box.


Bees aren’t the only new addition to our garden.  We also added a flock of chickens.  Golden Laced Wyandottes are beautiful birds and we are excited to have them.


These girls are growing quickly and they are beginning to get their adult feathers.


And they are also sprouting tail feathers and the beginning of their combs.  When they are living outdoors in the coop, we plan to use the chickens to help us control small hive beetles in the bee hive.

IMG_3621Check back to see the progress of our girls, meaning the chickens and the bees!