Homestead Update and Planning

There are good chickens, and bad chickens. Can you tell which is which?

It’s a drizzly day here on the homestead, and I’ve already chased down an escaped chicken back into the chicken run, but here I am to give you an update on how we’re doing, and what we’ve got in store for the next couple of months. (Also, some chicken pictures, because chickens. Also also, all of the chickens are now out in their tractor, in the grass. You’re welcome, chonks.)

Noodle and her partner in crime chonkin’ around in the background.

Actually, let’s start with chickens. If you don’t know it already, chickens love to scratch, and will scratch a patch of grass until it is literally just dirt, mud, and the occasional wild onion, which our chickens won’t touch. So it goes that our chickens, long ago, scratched up every bit of green in their run, which means that the danged thing turns into a mud pit every time the sky thinks about raining.

Now, it’s not like chickens don’t go in the mud at all – they love it to some extent, because they can more easily grab critters from the wet ground. They also don’t mind rain nearly as much as humans do, thanks to largely waterproof downy feathers that they can fluff up pretty well when they get cold. (Speaking of this, if you ever get the chance, take a look at chickens getting ready for bed when it’s cold outside – they’re like feathery beach balls with beaks and eyes, and it’s friggin’ adorable.)

But the big issues with the constant mud are

a) it’s tracked everywhere, and mixed with chicken poop, which doesn’t smell great when you accidentally bring it up to the house

b) the chickens track it everywhere, including inside of their coop, and on their eggs, and it’s not great

c) chickens can’t take dust baths in the mud, which is how they keep mites out of their feathers.

So, we’ve been looking to solve this problem over the course of the last month, with some fairly damp weather thanks to snow and drizzle.

One solution is that we put them in their tractor just about every day to change up what they scratch; this keeps our lawn “mowed” and helps with weed control and adding nitrogen to the soil in our veggie beds. However, winter means the grass recovers a lot more slowly, or not at all, in places where the chickens have done their business (both the scratching and the pooping kind), so we put them out for shorter periods of time.

Unfortunately, this means more time in the mud run, which also means some of our chonks (notably, our two youngest, Noodle and Tendie) love to escape to literal greener and drier pastures. We also need a few repairs (notably, new wheels) on the tractor to make it easier to move, so our locations for actually placing the tractor in the yard are limited to the back.

A second solution, which I just implemented yesterday and is being tested today in the drizzle, is using pine bedding pellets. Supposedly (and so far), instead of making the coop a soupy, muddy mess of mud, poop, and dissolved pine, the pine bedding mixes and dries out the mud so it’s more like the dirt the chickens bathe in. Cross your fingers and hope this keeps them happy.

Pine bedding getting to work for the not-naughty chickens.

A third solution in tandem with the pine bedding is a homemade dirt bath, made with a clean litter box and some sterile play sand. This way, the chonks can still bathe a bit, even if it rains. So, here’s hoping they’ll be happy and dusty soon!

In non-chicken news, we did our yearly homestead implementation planning a couple of weekends ago, yay! (This Type A gal loooooves planning.) With a new baby homesteader on the way soon, our plans are a bit abbreviated from last year, and more focused on maintaining what we have, as well as planting conservatively with simpler (but still heirloom) varieties of crops.

Two changes to our usual vegetable planting: one, we’re allowing a good portion of our backyard vegetable beds (at least a third, and perhaps nearly half) to recover over the summer with some cover cropping. Last year’s torrential rains, combined with a lot of unsuccessful crops to keep the water at bay, resulted in a good deal of flooding and standing water on the edges of the beds that makes them pretty useless for planting veggies.

So, we’ll be covering those portions with a seed cover crop mixture of radish, cowpea, sunn hemp, millet, flax, oats, and sunflower to alleviate erosion and restore some structure and nitrogen to the otherwise not-so-great soil. (Plus, it’s still edible, yay!)

We’ll also be turning more of our front lawn into a pollinator habitat, planting more of the cover cropping, as well as a mixed patch of sunflowers, which is pretty exciting. Our eventual plan for the front is to install a bee hotel and bat boxes to further encourage pollinators to thrive, but those are on the docket for another year, or for outsourcing to our more-capable building friends and family.

A final big change (and one that makes me so. Danged. Happy) is dismantling the circular flower bed in the center of our front yard. This bed was established by the previous owners in the house, and while we love seeing the daffodils and lilies come up, we (especially me) are much less stoked to have to constantly weed the bed of crabgrass, as well as mow around a super-awkward shape.

We attempted to turn it into a strawberry and pepper bed, but because it had gone to seed even before we moved in, this effort has proved futile for the past two years. We’ll be digging another bed for the strawberries to live, moving the stones to our moon garden, and allowing the circular bed to blend in to the rest of the front lawn, with perhaps an eventual planting of sunflowers or other pollinator plants.

So, with that all being said, and with our abbreviated veggie plot, here’s what we have in store for produce planting this year:

For the big veggie plot:

  • sweet corn (Golden Bantam), as opposed to the dent corn we planted last year
  • zucchini (Black Beauty)
  • sweet and hot peppers (jalapenos, poblanos, banana, bell, Thai chili)
  • okra (Clemson Spineless and Mr. Bill’s Big)
  • daikon
  • tomatoes (Cherokee purple and Mr. Stripey. Yep, Mr. Stripey.)
  • cucumbers (Marketmore 76)
  • candy roaster squash (North Georgia, because they ran out of the Carolina Melon variety, rats!)

For the porch and other beds:

  • arugula
  • lettuce (Drunken Woman. Don’t you love heirloom variety names? I do)
  • basil (Thai and Genovese)
  • cilantro (Slo-Bolt, because we always have a bolting problem with cilantro)
  • dill
  • parsley
  • borage
  • marigolds
  • perhaps more radishes (a sparkler or French breakfast variety)
  • rhubarb crowns
  • our usual and perennial mint, oregano, sage, and catnip

Whew! (And this is abbreviated for us this year, which is crazy after typing that out!) Here’s hoping to a fruitful, vegetable-ful, and healthful year with a new human. Cheers, and happy homesteading, y’all!

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