I last wrote back in June, so long-lost readers may be wondering how this turned out, if at all.

The main story in the garden turned out to be the animals. The chickens, ducks, and eventually rabbits and bees consumed a huge amount of time. The chickens, ducks, and rabbits came with a set of feeding and watering tasks that were daily, with weekly cleaning, moving, and other tasks. The bees only needed occasional inspection, but anything involving the bees beyond checking the bottom tray for mites meant gearing up and getting ready for a lot. I only got stung a couple of times - no major damage - but I definitely need to do more with the bees and learn more about them.

We didn't manage to build the infrastructure I'd planned for the ducks or the chickens. Thanks to Angelika's parents we have a new planting shed, which I managed to insulate and partly paint, and it has a rabbit hutch leaning against it. We didn't manage to build the duck pond or a place for the chickens and ducks to winter. The ducks are in last year's chicken coop, which they tend to ignore, with some added strawbale walls and a swimming pool I'm regularly de-icing. The chickens - last year's chickens and this year's chickens - are in a "strawbale fortress" with a clear plastic roof.

Next year's project is pretty clearly infrastructure for the ducks and chickens - a larger fenced area, the pond, and a small barn/coop with areas for the ducks and bees, as well as space for pulling the fur from the rabbits and processing honey and wax. Finances and a new baby made that impossible this year.

In plants, we had one successful bed, growing lots of lettuce and radishes. Our tomatoes never really ripened, and we've concluded that cherry tomatoes (and maybe some other small and fast tomatoes) are our future. Our peppers and broccoli perished, but we did get some leeks and garlic. We need to rip out our dull-tasting strawberries and put in a new bed of the "strawberry candy" that grows further up the hill. (Tiny but delicious berries.) The lingonberries seem to be starting all right, and the blueberries are still getting established.

Overall, I'd say it worked out well, though (as usual) we underestimated the amount of time it would take and overestimated the time we'd have in life with a newborn. Caring for the critters ate up most of the hour a day. (Writing a book and failing to find a successor as Dryden Democrats chair until December complicated things too!)

There'll be more here next year. I have some stories I still need to publish, on the shed and the bees and more, and I'll post on new developments as they happen.

I wrote earlier about King Rooster, who put himself at the top of the pecking order despite his smaller stature. Sadly, King Rooster sleeps under the roots of a lilac tree tonight.

A few days ago Angelika found him staying very still in the pen. He'd fallen from the top of the pecking order and had seemed beaten up and frantic in the past, but this was different. He didn't seem able to use his legs. We brought him in in a dog crate for a few days, but he didn't get any better. A vet friend of ours looked at him and didn't think he'd get better, so we decided that, alas, it was time to try the killing cone.

As we were setting up, it started to sprinkle. As I actually slaughtered him, it thundered. It rained while Angelika dug his grave, and then the sun came out as she finished planting a lilac on top of him.

It was my first time doing it, and not perfect. Still, I think he's better off under the lilac than sitting sadly in the dog crate, looking confused about what happened to him.

He might have been sick, or he might have been injured somehow. He clearly wasn't happy. The rest of the chickens - our older ones and the rest that had arrived with him - seem fine. He hadn't seemed happy since losing his place in the pecking order, but I hadn't imagined that this would happen, or that anything like it would happen to the one member of our flocks who really stood out as a unique character.

More on that trend

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Everybody's doing it, it seems. I wonder how many of us are surprised to hear that there's a sudden huge uptick of interest in growing vegetables?

Wow - it's been a long time since I've posted here. It's easier to blog about the planning process in winter, when writing is just kind of an aid to thinking things through, than when you actually need to be out there doing it.

We've done something strange in the garden. Strange? Us?

Most people don't have ducks and chickens in their gardens, but those who do seem to mostly keep their poultry in coops or let them wander, or maybe put them in a movable chicken tractor. We did let the chickens wander around for most of May, until we'd put plants in that we feared they might scratch out, and now they're annoyed to be stuck in their coop and run. Tractors are difficult on our hilly land, which is terraced, but pretty irregularly.

Wandering chickens
Wandering chickens.

The ducks were our most immediate problem, as we needed to move them out of the too-small 12' x 12' cage they were in. Even after we'd calmed down Darth, the ducks still clearly needed more room. We decided to try something different, as it was something Angelika was planning to use in her orchard anyway: electroplastic netting, from Premier1.

It's not a huge shock - I can leave my hand against it, and it's kind of like a static shock. I did give myself a bit of a jolt one wet morning, leaning into a wet fence at multiple points while standing in wet grass, but even that wasn't too bad.

It seems like the standard net is 160' long, making a 40' x 40' square, but that seemed enormous, so we bought a smaller 80' net to make a 20' by 20' square. Put into a garden, that's still a huge amount of space. We had wanted to cover the strawberry patch and see if we could reduce its huge slug count, but wound up with the patch as one corner of a much larger area. I also hadn't ordered enough "Power Posts" to provide extra support, and it was a pretty sagging fence.

Ducks fenced in the strawberry patch
Ducks fenced in the strawberry patch.

Still, the main point was to keep predators out, and the dogs and cats seemed to learn very quickly not to mess with the fence. We put four ducks in and watched to see what happened.

Mostly, they seemed like pretty happy ducks, except for one who got herself stuck in the fence. I had to let Darth out of his isolation cage so that she could use his space to recover. (Ducks seem to pick at each other's injuries, making a minor scrape into a major disaster.) She spent three days there - she seemed fine after a day, but I wanted to be sure she was fine before mixing her back in. And I had to repair the fence, crimping some copper rings onto it where I'd cut it to free her.

Since then, I've added a lot more posts to make sure that the fence is taut, free of places where ducks could climb in or predators could climb through. We now have all of the ducks in the fence in the back, and have moved it around periodically when they'd destroyed/fertilized an area enough. Unfortunately, we also chopped down a few trees in the back to make more room for the huge duck area we're planning, and still have to clear the debris, so we've run out of room to move the fence easily.

I'm going to move them to an area closer to the road, a narrow and long area between my driveway and the neighbors' property, which I can't use for very much else thanks to some crazily zealous setback requirements. The ducks will be getting a bigger fenced-in area here, and hopefully having three times the area will reduce their ability to destroy it. This year they can fertilize this lost area, and next year I'll plant it with currants, gooseberries, and other shade-loving fruit producers.

I should also note that I now have nine ducks, down from eleven. No, we didn't eat them. We were planning to slaughter three drakes on Memorial Day, but we were too slow - they had already begun molting, and were covered in pinfeathers that would have taken eternity to pluck. They got a reprieve and were returned to the main group.

The two that left, now "Betty and Bob", moved this weekend to East Randolph, New York, to live with a friend's parents. I hope they'll enjoy their new place and produce a lot of ducklings.

If you'd like to see more, I've posted a gallery of pictures.

Chicken mysteries

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The chickens have been easier than the ducklings, but there are still mysteries.

The first is that Mary Ann let us have this great feeder last year. It's easy to fill, easy to clean, keeps the chickens out of each others' faces, and keeps the water out of the food in even a semi-sheltered environment like the yard outside the coop.

Damaged ducklings
Our favorite feeder.

The problem? We'd like to find more of these, but can't. I wondered if a carousel feeder might be the name for it, but that's something else apparently. If you know where to get more, please leave a comment!

And then there's King Rooster, who crowned himself the other day.

King rooster
King Rooster.

Angelika originally called him the Gangster because he looked like he was wearing a mask. He and some of the chicks with white faces, who we called the "Uruk-Hai" after Tolkien, turned out to be the roosters. We had the Gangster in a rabbit with just black chickens who turned out to be hens. When I put all the chickens back into one run, the little Gangster ran around attacking all the Uruk-Hai, pulling their feathers and even jumping on them. They gave up pretty quickly, and he moved to the top of the pecking order despite being a smaller bird.

King rooster
King Rooster, in a different view.

King rooster
King Rooster again.

He's clearly not a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, but we're not sure what he is. Angelika looked through the breeds at McMurray Hatchery, where he came from, and thinks he might be a Modern Bb Red Game or a Bantam Bb Red Old English Game. Right now he's smaller than the Wyandottes, so bantam is possible, but we'd love to hear suggestions from anyone on what he might be.

(He won't be staying with this flock, so we can either find him a new home or eat him.)

Yesterday

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On Tuesday, I got the annuals into the whiskey barrel planter. It's full of slugs, so I put in a slug trap, which I still have to fill with beer, of course.

Then the shipments kept arriving - two sets of trees for Angelika's orchard yesterday, another delivery from Miller yesterday, and then our St.Lawrence Nurseries order.

Angelika moved a rose and planted two dwarf cherry trees and a lot of daylilies, while I planted four blueberry bushes, two American Highbush cranberries, two Titania black currants, two mulberry trees, and some more daylilies. I still have to plant twenty lingonberry bushes, five horseradish plants, and twenty-five asparagus crowns.

Lots to do! More soon.

We still don't have plants in the ground. Given the frost I found on the ground yesterday, that might be a good thing.

What we have done is:

  • Installed a bat box - that only took two years!

  • Built a new chicken paddock behind the old one (with Josh's help), installed a gate, and mostly secured its edges with poultry wire. (Ran out of garden staples.)

  • Moved the chicks out of the rabbit cages to the new paddock. Gave them the heating plate, which they seem to love.

  • Moved the ducks out of their paddock and into a 20'x20' electroplastic netting fence in the back. We'll be moving the fence around regularly. (Darth has been reunited with the flock, and all seems well. Feather cannibalism is over.)

  • Bought annuals for the whiskey barrel out by the road, to be planted today.

  • Planted a lot of basket willows that Josh had coppiced.

  • Brought ancient rusted garden fence and tomato cages to metal recycling.

  • Angelika moved the second compost pile to the third spot, freeing the second spot for the pile in the first spot.

  • Farewell, cat litter.

Josh also took down some trees in preparation for the duck pond work, so it looks pretty messy back there right now. There's an old collapsed shed I need to empty (barbed wire and other unpleasantness) as well.

It's probably fair to report here on some failed garden experiments, just for completeness, especially when they took a few hours of my morning.

Two years ago, we decided to try composting cat litter. Angelika has two cats, Rowena and Puschelwuschel. We switched their litter to SwheatScoop, which works pretty well.

Because cats are carnivores, their litter smells pretty awful to start with. They also carry a variety of diseases you don't want to get, so you should use the compost only where it won't come into contact with anything you're going to eat.

Unfortunately our composting efforts never really succeeded. The compost worked long enough to make us think it was a good idea, but results got worse over time. Aerating and adding straw and newspaper didn't make much difference. Then we took in two of Angelika's cousin's cats for a while, and that totally overwhelmed it.

The composter had to be fairly close to the house, which meant that eating on the deck was best at times with no wind at all. The prevailing winds definitely took the stench right to the deck.

This morning, I finally ended it, emptying a foul container into trash bags and taking them to the dump. Six hundred pounds of incredible nastiness, going to the one place where it might actually fit in. Then I cleaned up the area where it had been, which still has some lingering odor, and took apart the composter and cleaned it out too. Finally, I took a shower to get the stench off of myself. I threw out a pair of gloves, and probably need to throw out a pair of shoes.

We'll try again eventually, probably with vermiculture, in smaller quantities, but for right now we're just going to stop the experiment and focus on other less dreadful projects.

When we realized that we had eleven chickens instead of ten, we joked that all of our problems were the fault of that 11th duckling. As it turns out, we weren't entirely wrong.

After the ducklings had been outside a few days, I noticed that their feathers were coming in, and then disappearing. There were a lot of squawks out there as ducks had their feathers pulled. At first, it looked like nearly every duck had damage.

Damaged ducklings
Damaged ducklings.

Looking through the duck books, it seemed I had the mysterious "feather cannibalism", which had kind of mysterious causes - diet? stress? close confinement? - and no clear cures except trimming bills, which I'm nowhere near capable of doing.

After a few days of observation and panic, though, it became clear that one duck had nearly all of his feathers. I also saw that same duck attacking lots of other ducks. This morning while I was setting out their water and food, I saw him attack five ducklings.

Over the weekend, I'd pulled that duck out to look at him.

Darth Duckling
Darth Duckling.

I know - never name the livestock. We'd planned to slaughter and eat ducks based on personality - mean ducks first. Unfortunately, he's only four weeks old, so small and covered with largely unpluckable feathers. That wasn't a great option, for now.

(He also fought and squawked, and it was really clear he wanted to be back with his friends/victims. He even escaped the cage as I was bringing him back and forced his way back in through the fence, but got his foot stuck. I freed him from that disaster.)

So, today I built a separate little cage in a corner of the main cage, using the same fencing plus chickenwire to make sure he can't escape into the main area. Darth has food, water, the heating block from the chickens' water, and no one but himself to blame.

Darth Duckling jailed
Darth Duckling jailed.

So far, the results are promising. He can't bite at his fellow ducks, and he doesn't whine like he did when I took him far away. He would clearly prefer to be in the main cage, but he can't be. I've heard much less pained squawking from the ducks, though I wonder if another duck will rise up in Darth's place.

One thing that's funny - the other ducks come over to visit him. They never spent much time in that corner of the cage until today.

In the Hall of the Darth Duckling
Darth Duckling holds court.

We'll see how it goes. I'm hoping that isolating the worst perpetrator will at least give the other ducks a chance to grow their feathers back and generally heal from their wounds. I don't think Darth was the only one doing it, and I'll be keeping an eye on the rest. I definitely don't want to have to build eleven little cages in there.

An hour a day in the garden has kind of turned into an hour a day with ducklings. Hopefully this will settle down soon.

Why bother?

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Yes, this is pretty much why.

More soon on the ducks - who are an hour a day plus by themselves - plus some actual, you know, plants for the garden.