What do you see?
This is the back right corner of the deer-fenced portion of our property. It’s been a little…umm…. neglected this year. Well, I’ve pulled the morning glory/bindweed off the apple trees and shrubs a few times. That counts, right?
What you’re looking at is, I think, the overgrown remains of a butterfly garden. This is a triangular area about 50’x30’x40′ or so, and it has apple and hazelnut trees lining the fence, and then dense plantings of daylillies, crocosmia, irises, milkweed, peony, poppies, comfrey, sedums, sea holly, thimbleberry…the list goes on. We let all of this grow out this summer so that we could see what was there, but what we discovered is that none of these perennials look like they have been divided over the last 10 years. The flowers are so ingrown that they are knocking each other over and generally getting in each others’ way. And did I mention the weeds? Mother nature has kindly provided a groundcover of creeping buttercup and horsetail. According to my books, this means we have heavy, wet, clay, acidic soil. Yup, sounds about right.
So this is the patch that I’ve been contemplating and observing over the last couple of months. It’s a big area with lots of possibilities. I’ve considered turning it into more vegetable beds, considered planting more fruit trees and creating a full-on orchard. I’ve considered sheet mulching the whole thing to improve the soil and to smother some of the weeds. I’ve considered going with something completely low maintenance and planting poor-soil-loving perennials like lavender and rosemary, and I’ve mapped out potential pathways to create accessible flower beds.
It became clear, as I reflected, that I need to deal with the soil quality and the weeds before I worried about future planting. I also spent some time thinking about the property as a whole, and what needs we would like to meet from it. What functions are we still looking to fill, and how might this space help us meet them?
We are pretty clear that our highest priority in our garden is to meet as many of our food needs as possible. We want to put our time and energy into the food plants and beds; any ornamentals need to largely take care of themselves. At the same time, we love colour, riots of flowers, cottage style gardens, and that aspect is what drew us to this property in the first place. We don’t want to lose the beauty and whimsy in favour of a strictly functional space.
We also, we decided this fall, are up for having a few chickens and ducks.
Chickens and ducks have many benefits in the permaculture garden, beyond their obvious value as providers of eggs. Ducks eat slugs. Chickens eat all kinds of insects and are especially helpful as clean-up crews under fruit trees. Both produce awesome manure for the veggie garden. They eat weeds and our leftovers (including some things that shouldn’t go in the compost), and what weeds they don’t eat, they scratch up regularly so that particularly pernicious weeds can’t get established. Hurray for chickens and ducks!
As with anything, though, moderation and planning are key. Too many birds in too small an area can mean: 1) the humans have to provide for all of the animal needs, which can be expensive and time consuming; 2) that precious manure overloads the area and becomes a smelly toxin rather than a source of fertility; 3) the landscape becomes a moonscape from scratching and eating and has no time to recover. These issues lead to heavier responsibilities for humans, and unpleasant living conditions for all involved.
So I started looking at space requirements. Chickens and ducks can be free-range animals that largely look after themselves. Great! But there are some downsides: they become prey for raccoons and other predators; they lay eggs wherever they want to and poop wherever they want to, leading to rotten eggs and messy decks; and they lay waste to veggie beds, defeating their “garden-helper” purpose.
How to balance these issues? I found the most helpful and inspiring information on Paul Wheaton’s permie forum: the paddock system. In this system, chickens and their coop are rotated every week or so through 4 different paddocks. Each paddock gets a week of scratching and manure and weeding, and then 3-4 weeks recovery time to benefit from it. The chickens forage the rich section which is still laden with plants and bugs, and meet many of their food needs naturally. Sounds awesome!
Then I returned to my own patch of the yard and ran into a few obstacles. 1) this section has no level ground for a coop and is full of trees–paddocking will be difficult. 2) Was this section big enough to rotate 3-4 chickens through? 3) Was it big enough to not have to rotate them at all? 4) Could the chickens and ducks be housed and forage together in the same area? 5) I have to dig up the overgrown perennials. I will, at the same time, pull up many of the weeds (hopefully). What kind of groundcover and/or shrubs could I plant that would feed the birds and be durable in a short time frame? 6) Would it be better to let the birds have the whole yard and to just protect the veggie beds from them?
After MUCH (metaphorical) digging, questioning, reading and considering, here are some of the answers we have come up with. 1) For chickens to have only a positive, sustainable impact on the landscape and not need to be rotated, they need a LOT of space. The recommendation from the Earth Care Manual is about 1 chicken per 600 square feet. 2) Ducks and chickens are reasonably comfortable companions, but they don’t live together well in close quarters: ducks like things wet and they are messy; chickens need homes that are very dry.
Protecting the areas we don’t want the birds in and giving them the rest of the yard is a possible option down the road. But the stories vary, and I think it would be best for us to get to know our birds and their habits first, and we can always let them out to roam periodically. There are some inspiring photos and experiences of this method here. We are around our property a fair bit everyday, but we do work, and there will be days when we are both away for much of the day, and we worry about the predators when we’re not there.
Here’s what we’ve come to, in the end (or I guess it’s a beginning?).
We will build a chicken coop just a little ways from this area, next to the compost (convenient!). It will be attached to a reasonably sized run that will be predator-proof where the birds can hang out during the day in safety and comfort. The run will be attached via a closeable walkway to the area in the photo above, which will become an orchard/ foraging paddock that they will have access to as often as possible. I may divide the orchard into 2 paddocks for rotation; we’ll see.
The ducks will be housed in the orchard, and we will put in a little water pool for them on the highest ground. The house and that pool will be contained in a predator-proof run.
The whole area will get a couple more fruit trees (plums!), it already has comfrey, and I will add some shrubs and groundcover (still working on that!). It will get 4 foot or so–hopefully attractive–fence surrounding it, and we will choose breeds that won’t fly over that height (Indian Runner ducks for sure!). At the top end of the area, the fence will run inside of a cherry tree we just planted, which will create a 4′ wide bed that runs the length of the orchard. I’m very excited about this! The bed can be irrigated when we empty the duck pool each day, and my plan is to take cuttings from our delicious tayberry bush and grow more of them against the fence. I’ll also transplant our rhubarb to this section where it will be in full sun and well fertilized. I’m considering leaving sections for squash or potato crops or other large annuals; another option is to keep it in perennial veg: sunchokes, artichokes, etc. It would also make sense to grow chicken and duck forage here: some oats or millet, or just kale and other hardy greens for their winter diet.
In terms of permaculture solutions, I’m very happy. Multiple functions: orchard, forage, pest control, fertilization, people food, happy animals, functional fencing, waste products become resources…
Can you see it?