Posts tagged ‘pets in the garden’

November 13, 2012

Facing Our Fears Part II: Chickens

As you probably already know, I have been contemplating getting chickens for a while.  Then, when I decided that chickens might be a good idea I planted the seed with my son (easy target) and husband (surprisingly easy target).  I expected at least a little resistance, I got nothing.  Then came the chicken class… a success!  I wanted to get started right away.  Then reality set in and I realized that next spring would be better.  That would give us enough time to select a coop design, get the parts and pieces, build it, wire it, critter-proof it.  We could ask for chicken stuff (lights, waterers, heaters, etc.) as gifts for birthdays and Christmas and finally, next spring, we could bring in baby chicks.

Then a curve ball.  A friend-of-a-friend of my Dad’s has chickens needing a home.  He asked if we’d be interested.  Sure, why not?  (I’m a sucker for taking in animals that need a home.)  We went and met the chickens.  They were cool. We saw their current coop and knew that while the coop worked great in their current location, it wouldn’t work so well in our yard.  Backing up to the nature center means everything short of lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!).  So, after going on the Twin Cities Chicken Coop Tour and scouring the web for coop designs we decided on this one, except ours will be blue and a mirror image (so we can see the chickens from the house) and got to building.  That, was a month ago.  We’re still building.  Speaking of which, did you know that you can end a drought by simply building a chicken coop?  It’s true!  We literally were in a drought.  Hadn’t had a drop of rain for months… until the day we started building the coop.  Then the sky opened up and the rain started coming.  And, it hasn’t stopped since.  Okay, actually it has, on the days we are not building the coop.  That aside, we’re getting there.  And hopefully very soon (I don’t want to say when for fear of jinxing us again) we will actually have the chickens.

Back to my fears.   As you may or may not have read in the first installment, Facing Our Fears, my first fear to face was writing.  Now that I’ve worked through that, my fear is chickens.  I outlined a few of my chicken fears in U is for Urban Farm (a.k.a. Contemplating Chickens), but there’s more.  So why on earth would I want to build a chicken coop and get chickens?  Well, okay, it’s not the chickens I fear.  It’s the stuff that goes along with chickens.

I hate winter.  Period.  I love the snow.  I think it’s beautiful.  Beyond that, I avoid going outside on cold days.  I hate cold fingers, cold toes, cold ears, cold noses… Although it is kind of cool when it’s so cold out, that when you sniff, your nostrils stick together.  Oh, that and frosty eyelashes are kind of cool too… but other than that I hate cold bodies, cold cars and cold seats (car and toilet)!  So what better plan to get over hating winter than to get chickens, right?  Yea, I know.  I’m not sure about that either, but I’m hoping it will help.  If I have someone or in this case, chickens, to care for, I’m hoping I will come to ignore the rain, snow, sleet and cold and just enjoy the chickens.  At least I’ll get to hold a warm egg in my hands, right?

Bird poop.  I hate bird poop.  I fear bird poop.  As a kid, while in Seattle visiting my Aunts and Uncles, I was sitting with my feet up, stretched across to another chair and a flock of sea gulls, or was it pigeons, flew overhead and a moment later, I felt the warm splattering gush of goo in-between my toes.  Um, yea, I cried.  And then, one morning at the bus stop,  a couple of years ago, I was chatting with a couple of other Mom’s on the block.  It was a clear morning, not a cloud or a bird in the sky, we were busy chatting when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a huge blast of bird poop hit my arm.  It splattered not only all over my entire forearm, but my clothes and all over my friends too.  Talk about gross!  We all scrambled, checking our pockets for a napkin, Kleenex, anything, to wipe it up.  A friend of mine found a receipt in her pocket.  I’ve never been so grateful for a receipt, ever.  That, and my second shower of the morning.  Anyway, I’ve got this fear of bird poop.  So, you might ask, why would I even consider chickens? After all, they are poop factories, right?  Right!  But their poop is good stuff!  Their poop will be combined with my compost, making my compost cook faster and make my garden soil even richer!  So I’m hoping to get past my fear of bird poop for the good of the garden.

My other chicken fears?  Chicken death.  Chicken death-by-dog, death-by-fox, death-by-raccoon, death-by-hawk, death-by-eagle, death-by-owl and death-by-weasel.  Until recently I wasn’t afraid of death-by-weasel, but my nephew just told me of chickens getting killed by weasels.  I don’t even know if we have weasels here because I’ve never seen one, but I added death-by-weasel to the list because now it’s in the back of my mind.  Thanks, Jeff. 😉  Hopefully our coop design will fend off all of these death-by-critter fears, and I will no longer need to fear chicken death, but time will tell.

Death-by-weather.  Living in Minnesota you can’t help but worry about how the chickens are going to hold up in the cold.  We are going to be getting cold-hardy chickens (I know, I didn’t know there was such a thing as cold hardy chickens either) so hopefully any mistakes we make will be offset by their hardy genes.  Cold weather means making sure their drinking water doesn’t freeze, making sure they don’t freeze and did you know if they roost on too narrow of a board they can get frost bite on their feet!?  I think I’ll make them recycled sweater mittens for their feet.  Recycled sweater chicken booties. 🙂 Oh, and then there’s the heat.  When it’s not too cold, it’s too hot and chickens don’t sweat.  Like dogs, if they get too hot, they pant.  Panting = chicken death.  Not good.  If anyone has a Barbie window a/c unit about 4 inches by 4 inches, let me know.  We’re getting a Thermo Cube too, which is a temperature controlled outlet, so hopefully that will take some of the thinking and worry out of the of the death-by-weather scenarios.

Okay, all my fears aside, I’m hoping for a bond.  The chickens we’ll be getting are over a year old, already producing eggs (bonus!).  They haven’t been handled a lot, so I’m hoping my wanting to hold them won’t be offensive.  I’ve heard that chickens LOVE kids.  I’ve heard that they will follow them around and treat them like their own (which should be humorous).  I’ve heard of them snuggling and watching TV, although we WON’T be having chickens inside the house.  At least not yet. 😉  I’ve heard chickens are guaranteed entertainment.  I’ve heard that you can train them to do tricks and that they like to be petted.  I’ve heard that even on our worst days just watching them can make us laugh and smile.

Long term, I’m hoping to love the chickens.  I love that they’ll be eating our kitchen scraps and converting it to good stuff for the garden.  I’m looking forward to having fresh eggs and making custard pies.  I’m looking forward to the challenges and fun the chickens will bring.

I’m also looking for a pair of rubber boots to wear in the coop.

Kate

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April 19, 2012

P is for Gardening with Pets

Many of us have a four-legged friend or two with whom we share our life.  They are our companions and friends and often become part of the family.  They greet us when we get home.  They love us unconditionally.  They snuggle.  They protect us.  They have a sixth sense to know when we’re sick or down and come to just be by our side.  They’re the best!

Until they’re not.  There is nothing more frustrating to a gardener than working so hard to grow flowers, plants, veggies, to watch them mature and just begin to peak only to have them trampled, dug up or otherwise destroyed.  Now it’s one thing when it’s a “wild” animal that does it: a raccoon, a squirrel, a rabbit or a deer, somehow it feels okay to get angry, to want them out, gone.  It becomes a battle.  Us against them. We put up fences and spray our plants with pepper spray and put fox urine powder around and whatever it takes to keep it from happening again.

But what about when it’s that four-legged friend who did the damage, that companion who greets you at the door?  What then?  The anger feels different.  The anger gets channeled as frustration.  Instead of referring to them as “those dirty rats” thoughts of anger show up as feelings of betrayal.  After all, they’re with us everyday.  Chances are they are hanging out when we were planting.  How could they not know that we loved that plant, that we wanted to keep the flowers on top of the stem, high in the air, not lying in tattered bits on the ground, or that we really did want to eat that lettuce they just went running through and smashed?

Is it possible to have pets and a garden?  Yes!  However, it’s takes observation and flexibility.  When most of us start planning a garden, we usually have a fairy tale vision of what it will look like at its peak.  When you have pets, particularly dogs, sometimes those visions need adjusting.  And they might need to be adjusted more than once.

So where do you start?  Watch your pet.  Watch what the do from the moment they leave the house until the second they come back.  You’ll need to observe them for a while, in other words, more than once.  Watch where they go and what they do.  After a while you’ll start to notice patterns.  Then, once you know what their habits are, you get to adjust either yourself or their habits.

I’ll give you an example, my dog Jake.  Jake was a rescue dog from the Leech Lake Reservation.  Prior to being rescued Jake was essentially a feral dog.  He spent his days running with a pack, chasing chickens and dodging bee-bees (he has a few souvenirs in his legs as proof).  So what happens to a garden when a dog like Jake becomes a domestic pet?  Well, I’ll give you a glimpse, here are Jake’s habits:

1. We open the door, he slinks out onto the back step in stealth mode, scanning the yard for prey.

2. A squirrel!  He bolts from the back steps, runs across the patio, leaps off of the step, over the stepping stone pathway, lands in the grass, makes an arc in the yard as he races under the spruce tree, rounds the curve to the huge old elm and attempts to climb the base of the tree to catch the squirrel.

3. Defeated, he’ll sit at the base of the tree and stare, daring the squirrel to come down.  This stare-down can go on from a minute to an hour.

4. Once his watch is over he heads to the shed in hopes of catching the rabbits or the woodchuck that seem to take turns residing underneath.

5. Finally, he’ll cruise the perimeter of the yard and relieve himself before returning to the column by the back steps, assuming gargoyle position, to guard the yard for an undetermined amount of time.

Again, what does this mean for the yard/garden and what can be done?

1. Slinking and scanning, no harm done.

2. Bolting across the patio, no problem, he races through the designed-in traffic area.

3. Leaping off the step over the stepping stone path and landing in the grass has destroyed the lawn in that area and worn a dirt path.  Chances are I’m not going to be able to break him of this habit, so my choices are to deal with the daily mud (not fun) or create a path for him (with something other than mud).  It will need to be something smooth or soft: pavers, stepping-stones, pea gravel (no angular stones) or mulch.  Nothing that will hurt those tender pads on his feet.

4. Racing under the spruce tree.  Prior to Jake I had a little shade garden under the this tree.  I need to move it.  Actually, I only need to move what’s in his path and the plants near the base of the tree where he tries to jump at the squirrels.   The rest can stay.  I may add a little path through here as well because he occasionally comes in with spruce needles in his paws (ouch!).

5. Climbing the elm tree.  No harm done here.  There are no plants at the base (aside from lawn) and the tree is mature enough that he can’t hurt it.

6. Over to the shed.  This is a problem.  There are holes, three or four of them, created as a joint effort between the dogs, the rabbits and the woodchuck.  I need to determine whether we let the critters continue to live under there or try to get them out once and for all then block the holes with chicken wire (dug into the ground) and repair the holes or if I just deal with it and let the dogs enjoy the chase.  The other option is to train the dogs to stay away, but realistically this will only work if their source of entertainment is gone.

7.  Perimeter relief?  Kind of nice, actually.  They have to “go” and it’s nice to know where to look for it.  However, it has taken some training to teach him not to relieve himself on the perimeter where there are flowers and raspberries growing!

Okay, did you catch it?  Do you know how to deal with pets in the garden?

1. Observe their habits.

2. Go with the flow.  If you have a dog that loves to pace at the perimeter of your yard, let them!  Give them a path.  Move your flower beds out, away from the perimeter and give them access to get through.  The same goes for any other regular paths.  If you don’t like their path, you’ll need to provide and obstacle, a reason for them to take a different path.  And if you’re going to remove one, make sure you give them an alternative first.

3. Dog Digging?  Give them a spot to dig.  Their own sandbox perhaps.  Train them that it’s okay to dig here, but not “over there”.

4.  Keeping them out of gardens?  Fences, raised beds or container gardens and training!  Training your dog what’s okay and what’s not okay will be the best time you’ve ever spent.  It will make you both a lot happier!

5. Give them space.  Make sure your pets have a place to play that really is okay.

6. Supervise.  I know some people like to simply “let the dogs out” and forget about it.  If you’ve already done all of the above and you know your dog really well, and think they know the rules,  then go ahead, but please don’t think you can simply let the dogs out without training and taking precautions first and expect them to know where to go.  Dogs will be dogs.   They can’t read and they can’t read our minds.

7. Cats.  If you love them, keep them indoors, leash them, walk them (yes, it’s possible) or create a safe play area for them.

8. Cats can be destructive when left unattended outside and can become a gardeners nightmare.  They will mark territory, which smells offensive and usually isn’t the best way to be a good neighbor. If you’re dealing with your neighbors cats, this is tougher.  Cats typically don’t like the smell of citrus or lavender.  You can leave orange, lemon and lime peels in the garden (give them a little squeeze first to release the oils in the skin) or plant lavender.  There are also cleansers on the market to clean up outdoors post-cat spray and some others to deter them from coming again.  Both are supposed to be okay for plants and the environment.

9. Cats tend to use gardens and children’s sandboxes as a litter box.  Yuck!.  But beyond yuck, cat feces contain toxoplasmosis.  Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds, but it only reproduces in cats, so cats are the parasite’s ultimate host. When a person becomes infected with toxoplasmosis, the parasite forms cysts that can affect almost any part of the body — often your brain and muscles, including the heart.  It dangerous for adults, particularly pregnant women, and especially young children.  To prevent cats from invading sandboxes, keep them covered.  Gardens?  There are little mats you can buy that have plastic spikes on them not sharp enough to hurt people, but just annoying enough to keep cats out of the soil.  Again, citrus or lavender may help as well.

10.  Cats also hunt birds, the same birds that you or your neighbors are feeding.  Feeders shouldn’t be bait for cats, and my guess is that most people feeding the birds aren’t intending it to be a buffet for cats.  It’s cruel to attract birds to a feeder, let cats loose and allow them to kill the birds.  Mice, moles and voles on the other hand…

11.  If you have a cat who likes to be outside, keep them with you, watch them, leash them or give them a play space… it can be outdoors, but covered, contained, somewhere they can sunbathe, watch the birds and squirrels, but not do damage to others.  I’ve seen some pretty cool outdoor cat play areas.  There are definitely options.

12. As a reminder, be careful what you grow.  Some plants are toxic to people and even more toxic to pets.  If your pets are in the back yard and you really want that Datura, grow it in the front.  It’s not worth taking chances.

13.  And finally, grow stuff for your pets too! Grow catnip or mint! (My cat isn’t fussy, any mint will do.)  Grow wheat grass, both dogs and cats like wheat grass.

So keep your companions and keep gardening.  Work together and you’ll have a yard and garden everyone will enjoy!

Kate