Tag Archives: urban chickens

Beneficial Insects and the Garden

February 12th, I’m teaching a short class on insects in the garden at the Carondelet Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.  Right now I’m working away at the handout and boy have I learned a lot putting this class together!

One of the main things I’ve learned is that to be a successful organic gardener, you need to do more than just stop using chemicals.  There are several things that come up again and again to create a healthy garden that doesn’t need chemicals.

According to Wikipedia, “Ecosystem restoration is the return of a damaged ecological system to a stable, healthy, and sustainable state, often together with associated ecosystem services.”

Our yards are a small ecosystem.  Chemical agriculture upsets the healthy functioning of that ecosystem on the promise of making our jobs easier.  The sterilization of that ecosystem actually takes away the benefits of it’s healthy functioning.

Steps to Good Garden Management:

1.  Choose the right plant.  Each cultivar of plant responds to the environment in it’s own way.  Save seeds, and swap seeds with neighbors.  Seed saving allows us to grow plants that are specially in tune with our neighborhoods.  Ordering seeds with special resistance may also help.  After several generations of saving that seed, the seed will be even more attuned to your yard.

2.  Rotate Crops.  Insects go through a life cycle.  Generally this means, egg, larvae, pupae, and adult.  Each of these stages require different places to live and grow.  By rotating crops, you break the insect life cycle by disrupting their tidy circle.  Additionally, if you have a serious infestation in a season, insects that overwinter in the soil may be stopped by tilling that soil before planting a different crop in it in the spring.

3.  Plant and harvest at the right time.  By planning the planting and harvesting at the optimal time, you allow the plant to be healthier.  Healthier plants resist diseases and predators more efficiently.  Some plants may be planted in timing with the expected hatching of an insect to allow them to gain as much growth as possible before they descend upon the plant.

4.  Remove plant residues.  Plant residues harbor parts of the insect life cycle.  They may also harbor pathogens.  Remove these residues and compost them.  Keep dead leaves cleaned from beds.  Composting will raise the temperature during the decomposition process and kill many of the organisms in there.

5.  Use proper amount of food and water.  Don’t over water or over feed.  Too much water can create an environment that allows pathogens to breed and multiply.  Too much water also increases the salt deposited in the soil negatively impacting the soil health.  Soil amendments may also impact the ability of the plants to grow effectively.

6.  Preventative devices.  Sticky traps, Foil Rings, Row Covers, and other innovative devices can work to your benefit.  Things that crawl need paths to crawl on, by understanding your insect, you can help deter them from filling their needs to thrive.

7.  Improve the soil.  Healthy soil is the foundation for plants to grow and thrive. Test your soil.  Use compost.  Soil needs not just good organic matter, but a replacement of what has been taken from it by the plants.  Compost your garden waste, kitchen waste, animal waste, etc.

8.  Mulch Mulch is an amazing thing to increase water retention and over all soil quality.  I use straw.  This has radically changed the strata in which I grow my food.  Mulch cuts down on my need to water and weed.  It is a double edge sword however.  While it allows beneficial insects to complete their life cycle, it also allows pests to as well.  I tend to turn it under every other year and that seems to be a good solution for me.

9.  Understand the insect life cycle.  Know your enemy!  Know your friends!  If you know what they need, you can break the life cycle or encourage it.  Also, if you know what all the stages of an insect look like, you can help yourself not eliminate something beneficial.  A couple of years ago I found a fascinating bug in the garden.  I had no idea what it was and I thought it was a spider.  Come to find out it was a stage in the lady bug life cycle.  Thank heavens I left it where it was.

10.  Plant Borders   Borders allow insects to complete their life cycles as well.  Beneficial insects like flowers with spikes, umbrells, and daisy like heads.  Because they are omnivorous, they lack the long mouthparts needed for large deep flowers.  By inter-planting mints, queen anne’s lace, and echinacia like plants, you can keep the beneficial insects near your crops and increase the likelihood that they will be there to stop your pest.

11.  Keep your landscape plants in good shape.  Keep your landscape healthy and cleaned up.  This will allow your insects that need it to utilize it to complete their life cycle.  This will also allow other creatures to use your landscape as well.  Native plantings will work better in your little ecosystem than exotic ornamentals.

12.  Monitor for insect damage.  Know when you have an infestation.  Know what is in your yard.  Use IPM to tweak everthing to your advantage.

13.  Keep bird feeders in the garden.  Feed your local birds.  Build birdhouses, anything to attract them.  Birds will not only eat the seeds, but come into the garden and help you clean it of insects.  Between plantings, I allow my chickens to go through and clean in the garden.  They aren’t allowed there all the time because they also love greens, but they do a great job getting grubs.  Your native wild birds will also pick those pests off and help you just the same.

14.  Try to encourage amphibians and reptiles.  If you see a snake, leave it.  If you see toads, leave them.  These will also diminish your populations.


Try to keep things natural.  Don’t give into marketing tactics that promise an easier time of it.  Many of them are short term solutions and not long term.  If you are going to do one thing from the list first, my recommendation would be to mulch, mulch, mulch.  It has made it possible for me to garden without going crazy.  I hate cultivating.  I hate weeding.  Good luck!



Chickens in the Trees!

Oh, there are chickens in the trees!

What on earth is going on that the chickens have decided to sleep in the trees.  This is all because of the black minorcas I picked up.  Turkens don’t fly well enough for this to occur to them.  I wouldn’t be concerned, but my neighbors haven’t managed to solve the grey tabby cat problem.  They are trying really hard to solve it, but we still have that cat hunting our yards at night.  I’m not sure it is enough of an issue to clip their wings and it has been ridiculously hot here.  I wouldn’t want to sleep in the coop either.

There’s the silly rooster.  It’s utterly absurd.  At night the minorca has been sleeping up there, but she is a black chicken with black feet and I can never find her.  I went to Chism Heritage Farm for the weekend and my husband texted me with “the chickens are in the tree and not the coop, I hope that is ok”.    I was pulling them out of the tree last night and putting them back in the coop but gave up halfway through and went to bed.   It’s something I will have to ponder today.

Tedium and Chickens

One of the most tedious of garden jobs to me is pricking out seedlings into flats.  I have a ton of flats that are overdue for transplant.  The weather this spring has been so odd, I’m off my game.  Today, I was lucky that my dear friend who owns garden D came over to talk to me while I moved plants around.  That always helps me stay on task.  We had a nice (albeit muggy) afternoon talking and transplanting.

I’ve been out doing promotions for the backyard tour and one of the questions that comes up a lot is the noise of chickens.   Chickens talk a lot.  Roosters yell a lot.  Roosters don’t just crow at sunrise.  I find chicken noise to be incredibly peaceful for the most part.  They have very communicative little noises.  Play, food, surprise are all things they are able to communicate.  One thing that they do drives me bonkers, but they don’t do it much.  If the hawk flies over, one will run out and start and alarm cluck that is incredibly loud.  The others will then go hide.  The red hen sounds the alarm for hawks and the turken does it for cats.  Very weird little system they have.

Two of the chicks moved next door this week to their forever home.  They have lush new accommodations, but cannot figure out how to get to their nest boxes at night.  My neighbor goes out every night and picks them up and puts them up high.  While we were transplanting starts and tossing worms to the chicks, I noticed that one of the old hens was up in the kids fort.  I couldn’t believe it, I had no idea they went up there.  It provided our answer about the chicks, they should be capable of getting into their nest boxes on their own.

Good place to escape my blood thirsty dog boy, but bad place for escaping the hawk.  The hawk swoops over the yard and over to the tree on the left beyond the fort.  I’ve seen it just that low about right there where she is standing.

Looks like I have two roosters.  One of the Lankenvelters turns out has decided to be a boy.  Isn’t he beautiful?  His name is now “soup”.  This issue is probably the biggest one I get questioned about when speaking to people about chickens.  Roosters are not allowed in many municipalities.  Sad, but it’s the way it is.  You can order chicks that are “female”, but there are mistakes in sexing.  Always expect that the supplier will get some wrong.  Hens get old.  If you want pets, that’s ok.  If you are producing eggs, it may not be.  Feed costs money.  It’s not too bad to feed a pet, but a non productive chicken is another thing.  I’m only allowed a certain number of chickens.  My chickens become soup when they stop laying.  I don’t have room for chickens as pets.  That’s my decision, but it is something to consider before you get backyard urban chickens.

My other roo is an unusual breed called Derbyshire Red Cap.  He isn’t technically mine.  He belongs to my friend Heather.  She has not named him soup.   She would like to find him a home and I’m good with that.  It will take quite a while to get him up to an edible size because of his breed.  The comb that is growing on his head is fascinating to me though and I find him quite beautiful as well.  Sadly, his comb is obscured in this picture.

So with good company and inquisitive chickens milling about we had a really nice afternoon transplanting.  I can’t imagine how people could focus on the noise when chickens can be such nice companions.  The white rock at the top has the worm game all figured out and won’t stray too far from me when I’m outside.  They are the breed that picked up the fastest on the human having good treats.

Red Cap Chickens and the Whole New Lot of Them

I am raising chickens for a few people and was surprised one day while counting each breed to make sure they were all there that one of the combs was looking incredibly funny.  We have Lakenvelters, Turkens, White  Cochins, Black Minorcas, White Rocks, and Red Caps.  So, the white cochins belong to my next door neighbor and will move as soon as their coop is up.  The Red Caps belong to my dear friend Heather and will move as soon as THEIR coop is up.  We are selling some of the rest.  I had a hard time last spring getting them raised so I thought there would be attrition, but so far we have had none other than the hatchery we used mailing them on the weekend.  Not cool.  Not cool at all.

The first thing I noticed while they were still in the house was that the Red Caps are really loud as baby chicks.  REALLY LOUD.  Fortunately, baby chicks are too cute to be annoying and Red Cap chicks have a pattern on them that is even cuter than most to me.   They are also more wild than the rest.  Turkens are the hippy chicks of the bunch.  Very laid back.  While I’m transplanting, any worms I find in the soil mix I take over and give to the chicks.  The Turkens know what I’m doing, but they won’t fight for it.  The White Rocks see me coming and are the first to the drop zone.  They seem to be the most clever of the bunch.  The Cochins are in as soon as they can but the Rocks are twice their size.  They are a little more cautious so they don’t get trampled.

Every time I feed them I try to check the ones that already belong to other people for health issues and general appearance.  I don’t want to hand off any pecked chickens or deformed chickens either.   I live in fear of egg binding, but they are a little young yet to worry about that.  One of the Red Caps had a wider comb than the rest and I started to get worried.  I was thinking to myself, I have no idea what these chickens are supposed to look like, is that CANCER?????  The things I think of crack me up, so I came inside and actually looked them up for the first time and lo, and behold, they are a rose comb breed!  They are apparently wonderful foragers, but not great for confinement.  Hopefully, no one reading this is keeping chickens in a little two foot square cage anyway.  I read somewhere that their meat stays more tender than other breeds as they age so they make a better table bird than most after retired from laying.  They certainly are spirited.

When Heather first ordered them, I thought, “Why would you want a chicken named after a murderous sprite?”  I didn’t tell her, because my nerd knowledge of such things sometimes embarrasses me.  Seeing the rose comb and it’s similarity to a gnome hat though makes it make more sense in my brain.  Probably just a visual thing and not really because they are murderous chickens.  Also, I have no idea why those chickens were named that, may have nothing to do with fairies what so ever.

Here she is with her beautifully forming comb.  Right behind her is one of my new turkens and behind them are the lankenvelters.   Sorry about the focus, I’m using my cell this week to take pictures.

My brother has converted me to nipple watering the chickens.  That is what you see with the PVC pipe in the picture.  On top of the chicken tractor, there is a five gallon bucket that feeds into the pipes.  Very easy to maintain and there is always clean water for the chickens.  The chickens like to sit on them and swing.  We have them wired up and raise them higher as the chickens grow.  We did not get the nipples from the link above.  My brother bought them in bulk and handed me two tubes with the nipples in them.  He’s an awfully awesome sibling to have.  He also writes a very interesting blog on sustainable farming, check it out.  He comes up with different solutions and different ideas for making the most of his 20 acres.  He also works full time and manages to keep it all going.

The red one is another of my turkens.  I worked an information booth yesterday at an Earth Day event in Kirkwood, MO for the Sustainable Backyard Tour I help organize.  We shared a booth with Living Green and a chicken keeper from Kirkwood who unfortunately I don’t have contact information for.  I will correct that.  He had his chicken “Mizzou” on the table.  She is an Easter Egger chicken and had a green egg there in the cage for people to see.  What a hit with the kids!  Back behind us he had a collection of other breeds for people to see.  One Buff Orpington named “Buffy” figured out early in the day how to escape the enclosure and spent the day being held by either Bill, her owner, or myself.  I should have brought some of my hideous little guys for people to see.   Really, I think Turkens are the best for city living.  But I’m not one to judge a chicken on looks I guess.  It was a fantastic day.  I’m so grateful to have been a part of that and meet such wonderful people.  It’s a really nice little Farmer’s Market out there and next to the train station so it’s a great place to go if you have kids.

Chicken Cam

This year I am working in cooperation with a dear friend to raise a new batch of layers.  We both live in the city and have kids so I thought it would be a great idea to broadcast the chicks so her kids can watch them at home.

Today started early with a panicked call from Heather saying the Post Office had called at 6 am saying the  chicks were in and they didn’t think they were in good shape.  Fortunately, I was still up having a manic knittingpalooza trying to meet a mailing deadline this morning.  By 6:20 AM she was here with a box of chicks in hand from McMurray Hatchery.   When she called I had dropped the knitting and frantically scampered all over the back yard collecting what I would need to get them hydrated and warm.  We opened up the box and carefully took out all the tiny little things and dipped their beaks in the water and got them under the heat lamp.  Usually I don’t raise chicks in a rubbermaid, but I had a huge one in the living room and it seemed like it would work for keeping them warm.  We sat vigil over them for the next hour and any that were unsteady or puny we kept taking to the water and making sure they were warm.  Only one feather foot past away in shipping, the rest are going strong!  Click on the pic to watch them by our ustream chicken cam!

Turkens are only cute when they are babies, keep an eye out for their little naked necks holding up a cotton ball with a beak.  (Looks like they will be black and red! Last year I had one white one we will see.) Enjoy!


I am a total fan of turkens.  I’ve never had a bad one.  This breed is ugly, but seemingly perfect for urban agriculture.  They tolerate confinement, eat very little, can’t fly, and are very friendly.

turken girl

This year I have had Red Star, White Rock, Red Rock, Black Aurucana, one silver lace wyandotte bantam and Saipan Jungle Fowl in addition to turkens of many colors.

Today my partner in garden inspiration, Heather and I ordered our chicks for this year.  I think the plan we just came up with is 8 turkens, 3 white rocks, 5 red caps, 3 feather footed for the neighbor, 3 lakenvelters, and 3 black minorcas.  The second coop is open and I’m not sure when the delivery date will be.  I have to think about where I want to put it while they are growing, it’s more appropriately called a chicken tractor.  I may have time to do some renovations, may not.

The turkens lay daily never skipping a day.  They start out with fairly large eggs and within a week or two are regularly laying large grade eggs.  I’ve had really good luck with White Rocks and the Aurucanas as well.  Good reliable layers.

I won’t be able to tell the difference in feed with this batch since I’m putting them all together.  I know from past experience however that the Turkens eat far less than other breeds.  Very cost effective and they make good meat as well.  Excellent dual purpose breed and a joy to own.