Backyard Chickens, Part 1 – Yes You CAN!

IMAG0385In May of 2012, we visited a neighbor two blocks away in our quiet Mar Vista neighborhood and heard an odd sound emanating from her backyard. Upon further probing, we discovered, much to our pleasure, that she had four egg laying hens tucked into a coop, producing one egg apiece each day for her and her family to enjoy. In addition, the hens provided an easy way for her to compost leftover kitchen scraps, which she threw in each morning for the hens to happily devour. Surprisingly, there was no bad odor coming from the coop, which we found odd, and she went on to explain that, on occasion, she let them out to rummage around the entire yard and play with her three kids. We left intrigued to say the least, and the thought of raising our own backyard chickens took hold and we passed the idea around to a few friends to get additional information.

Coincidentally, two weeks later, we received a call from some fellow parents at our son’s elementary school (Beethoven Elementary) who had a pair of young hens that needed a home and would we be interested in adopting their two birds. They had apparently gotten them to somehow keep their duck alive and the experiment had failed, resulting in two unwanted chicks and one deceased mallard. Cautiously, we invited them over to meet said fowl and 24 hours later we were presented with two adorable six week old chicks in a plastic nesting crate. One was a white Delaware hen, the other an Araucana brown, both very friendly and well-known for their reliable egg production and easy going personalities. In fact, the Delaware is actually kind of rare, listed at “threatened” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. We were instantly smitten, though not completely ready to take the leap to welcome them into our home without further research. However, after a quick discussion between ourselves, we couldn’t resist and Extra Crispy and Original became part of our household the next day.

Building A Coop

IMAG0412Obviously, we couldn’t keep them in a small plastic box forever, so the matter of building an appropriate chicken coop became priority number one. Being only slightly handy, we decided to construct a basic wooden structure out of 3/4″ plywood and 2×4’s, raised up on concrete footers to enable easier cleaning and maintenance. We wanted to give them a small outdoor “run,” which would require posts and chicken wire, so we added those materials to our list and headed off to Home Depot in Culver City. The total cost of materials: three 4’x8′ sheets of plywood, six 8′ length 2×4’s, four concrete footers, a box of 3-1/2″ deck screws, and a roll of chicken wire set us back approximately $85.00. Luckily, we already had all the necessary tools, such as chop and circular saws, impact drill/screwdriver, wire cutter, level, and tape measure, so no additional expenses were incurred in that area.

Our original idea was to construct our coop to resemble the Jawa’s Sand Crawler from “Star Wars – A New Hope,” so we cut the plywood sides at 20 degree angles, which would resemble the vehicle and also allow rain water to easily run off the roof. The bottom of the coop was covered with thick plastic, which we cut from an office chair carpet mat we found in a nearby alley. We then drilled holes at two different heights for perches, made from closet dowels we no longer needed, securing them into place with screws. Because we have possums and raccoon roaming our neighborhood yards at night, we fashioned a heavy sliding door with which to seal the hen house each night at dusk. This was done by taking scrap molding we got from a neighbor’s old carpeting project and making a channel in which the door could slide up and down, attaching a rope threaded through a pulley for easy lifting. Finally, we cut our 2×4’s into 4×4 foot lengths and screwed together a frame, stapling the chicken wire to the outside and attaching to the front of the coop for our chickens to have a safe outdoor place to roam and forage.

2013-05-01 14.03.52Inside the coop, in addition to the perches, we stacked a few bricks, placing a plastic waterer and feeding mash dispenser on top so they could easily eat and drink to their hearts’ content. The rest of the floor was covered with a thick layer of pine shavings, acquired in bulk at the local pet supply warehouse (Centinela Feed – $14.00), and we sprinkled in FOOD GRADE diatomaceous earth ($8.95 per pound), which we were told would help compost the droppings and reduce the need to clean the coop often. The last step before introducing our hens to their new home was stocking up on basic feed, so we visited Malibu Feed Bin, an LA institution since the 1960’s located on Pacific Coast Highway, and purchased 25 pound bags of mash and scratch ($40.00), two necessities for proper protein and digestion suggested by their helpful staff. We couldn’t resist a tub of dried meal worms ($14.00), either, as we were told that chickens will do almost anything for these tasty treats. All the feed is stored in two, 5 gallon airtight storage containers we found at Costco for around $25.00 apiece.

Now, with the coop ready to go and possessing everything necessary to keep our new house guests happy, we opened the door of their new home and released them into their cozy environment…

Next up: A destroyed backyard, welcoming McNugget, and waiting for eggs.

Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

  
Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash
   by guest author Alice Formiga

Print Version
According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations. Growing a Three Sisters garden is a wonderful way to feel more connected to the history of this land, regardless of our ancestry.

Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops domesticated by ancient Mesoamerican societies. Corn was the primary crop, providing more calories or energy per acre than any other. According to Three Sisters legends corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own – it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions.

Three sisters garden cornThe Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sisters spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or Our Sustainers”. The planting season is marked by ceremonies to honor them, and a festival commemorates the first harvest of green corn on the cob. By retelling the stories and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of growing, using and preserving the Three Sisters through generations.

Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.

three sisters garden squasghCorn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Finally, squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the seeds.

Native Americans kept this system in practice for centuries without the modern conceptual vocabulary we use today, i.e. soil nitrogen, vitamins, etc. They often look for signs in their environment that indicate the right soil temperature and weather for planting corn, i.e. when the Canada geese return or the dogwood leaves reach the size of a squirrels ear. You may wish to record such signs as you observe in your garden and neighborhood so that, depending on how well you judged the timing, you can watch for them again next season!

seeds for a three sisters garden, historic seeds

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three sisters garden beansEarly European settlers would certainly never have survived without the gift of the Three Sisters from the Native Americans, the story behind our Thanksgiving celebration. Celebrating the importance of these gifts, not only to the Pilgrims but also to civilizations around the globe that readily adopted these New World crops, adds meaning to modern garden practices

Success with a Three Sisters garden involves careful attention to timing, seed spacing, and varieties. In many areas, if you simply plant all three in the same hole at the same time, the result will be a snarl of vines in which the corn gets overwhelmed!

Instructions for Planting Your Own Three Sisters Garden in a 10 x 10 square

When to plant:
Sow seeds any time after spring night temperatures are in the 50 degree range, up through June.

What to plant:
Corn must be planted in several rows rather than one long row to ensure adequate pollination. Choose pole beans or runner beans and a squash or pumpkin variety with trailing vines, rather than a compact bush. At Renee’s Garden, we have created our Three Sisters Garden Bonus Pack, which contains three inner packets of multi-colored Indian Corn, Rattlesnake Beans to twine up the corn stalks and Sugar Pie Pumpkins to cover the ground.

Note: A 10 x 10 foot square of space for your Three Sisters garden is the minimum area needed to ensure good corn pollination. If you have a small garden, you can plant fewer mounds, but be aware that you may not get good full corn ears as a result.

How to plant:
Please refer to the diagrams below and to individual seed packets for additional growing information.

1. Choose a site in full sun (minimum 6-8 hours/day of direct sunlight throughout the growing season). Amend the soil with plenty of compost or aged manure, since corn is a heavy feeder and the nitrogen from your beans will not be available to the corn during the first year. With string, mark off three ten-foot rows, five feet apart.

2. In each row, make your corn/bean mounds. The center of each mound should be 5 feet apart from the center of the next. Each mound should be 18 across with flattened tops. The mounds should be staggered in adjacent rows. See Diagram #1

Note: The Iroquois and others planted the three sisters in raised mounds about 4 inches high, in order to improve drainage and soil warmth; to help conserve water, you can make a small crater at the top of your mounds so the water doesn’t drain off the plants quickly. Raised mounds were not built in dry, sandy areas where soil moisture conservation was a priority, for example in parts of the southwest. There, the three sisters were planted in beds with soil raised around the edges, so that water would collect in the beds (See reference 2 below for more information). In other words, adjust the design of your bed according to your climate and soil type.

3. Plant 4 corn seeds in each mound in a 6 in square. See Diagram #2

4. When the corn is 4 inches tall, its time to plant the beans and squash. First, weed the entire patch. Then plant 4 bean seeds in each corn mound. They should be 3 in apart from the corn plants, completing the square as shown in Diagram #3.

5. Build your squash mounds in each row between each corn/bean mound. Make them the same size as the corn/bean mounds. Plant 3 squash seeds, 4 in. apart in a triangle in the middle of each mound as shown in Diagram #4.

6. When the squash seedlings emerge, thin them to 2 plants per mound. You may have to weed the area several times until the squash take over and shade new weeds.

Diagram showing Three Sisters Garden spacing

Links to Legends about the Three Sisters:

1. Bird Clan of E. Central Alabama: The Three Sisters
http://www.birdclan.org/threesisters.htm

2. Cornell University Garden Based Learning: Three Sisters Garden- A Legend
http://blogs.cornell.edu/garden/get-activities/signature-projects/the-three-sisters-exploring-an-iroquois-garden/a-legend/

3. MN State U: Native American Vegetable Contributions: Three Sisters Garden
http://www.mnstate.edu/tah/lesson-plans/lesson_plans_for_2008-2009/native_american_vegetable_c_2.html

References and Further Reading

1. Creasy, Rosalind, “Cooking from the Garden”, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988
2. Dodson, Mardi, “An Appendix to Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources – Ancient Companions. ATTRA: National Center for Appropriate Technology, 2002. Available at http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/complant.html#appCultivation.
3. Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, “The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden”, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell U., 1993
4. Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, “Foods the Indians Gave Us”, Ives Washburn, Inc. NY, 1973

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Jane Mt. Pleasant of the Cornell American Indian Program