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The Chook Tractor

RudolphWhen I found out that chooks can dig, weed, and de-pest the vegie patch as well as laying eggs, I wanted some. Specifically, I wanted a chook tractor; a bottomless, easily transportable chook home that could be moved anywhere in the garden where a crop had been harvested and the soil needed preparing for the next crop.

Chook tractors are popular in permaculture designs because they can fit so intelligently into the whole system, with great benefit to both chooks (they LOVE weeding, eating bugs, and digging) and humans (I am less suited to digging, or weeding, or de-bugging and prefer to have a cup of tea and watch the chooks do it). So when my husband Tom asked what I wanted for my 35th birthday, I said I wanted a chook tractor, and being the lovely man he is, he built me one.

 

I wanted the chooks to be healthy and happy, so I researched their priorities, which are:

  • Earth to scratch around on and dry dirt to bathe in.  Chook tractors are floorless, so this is easy.
  • Chook friends for company. Chooks have strong social needs and become stressed in a group of more than 20.
  • A high place to roost and feel safe at night. Their rainforest dwelling ancestors roosted as high as they could in trees, away from predators on the ground.
  • A quiet, sheltered place to nest.
  • Some shelter from rain and sun, as well as opportunity for fresh air and some sun.
  • Clean water and a varied diet of seeds, protein, grit and fresh greens.

The chook tractor also needed to be very light-weight so that I could move it easily and regularly around the garden to give the chooks access to fresh ground and food. This is the main reason Tom decided to build with PVC piping. From a permaculture perspective, the unsustainabilityof this product is a disadvantage. However, his priorities were making sure I could lift it around myself (I’m small), and ease of building with inexpensive materials. It needed to be light enough for me and a friend to actually lift up and over permanent structures like low brick walls and bushes that our landlady may be quite fond of. We were also influenced by the use of  PVC in Linda Woodrow’s Chook Dome design from “The Permaculture Home Garden”. Hers is designed to fit into a mandala garden, but I needed a rectangular base because my garden has some rectangular beds bordered by concrete paths that were laid down long before we lived here. An arc shape seemed the logical choice to provide a high roost and maximum base area.

Building the Chook Tractor

Tom built the base with “sewer pipe” size PVC, because it’s ultra-violet resistant and strong enough to make a heavy-duty base. Right angle PVC corners connected the sewer pipes into a rectangle. He then built 6 ribs out of 20mm conduit to make the arc shape. The ribs were fitted into holes in the base drilled with a 20mm spade bit and fixed with PVC glue.chook tractor doing frame from inside

The ribs were fixed into shape by two more long pieces of conduit attached along the sides. These side pieces were fixed into place on the ribs by wire threaded through drilled holes. The ends of the side lengths were glued into an extra 2 holes drilled into the base. This made the structure stable.

chook tractor pre-door

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A horizontal piece of wood was fitted to the PVC with wire, to form the top of the door frame.

Once the rest of the door frame was built, the whole tractor was ready to be covered in chook wire mesh.

chook tractor facing door

 chook tractor fastening wood to PVC

 

 

 

We got the smallest size mesh we could, to keep mice and small birds out. The frame itself went up very quickly, and then tying the wire mesh onto the frame was the most time-consuming part of the project.

Two dowel roosts were attached to the conduit PVC up the back, one higher than the other. This allows the chooks to choose their roosting spot according to their pecking order, and to be able to reach the higher one from the lower one. The door is hinged from the top to open outwards and shut closed with a bolt that goes into the base.

Even though we live in the suburbs, many people’s chooks have been killed by foxes, so it was important to fox proof the tractor. Following Linda Woodrow’s advice we lie a skirting of extra chook mesh along the ground around the base. A fox or dog will try to get to the chooks by digging under the base, but are put off by the feeling of mesh under their claws. I just attach this extra skirting to the tractor withsome pegs or slip it underneath the base, and it’s held down on the ground with a few bricks. We haven’t lost any chooks so far, and it’s been four years.

The chook tractor holds four chooks very comfortably. For a nesting box, I used a large old wooden tea crate that someone was throwing out, and I provide straw for them to make a nest in it.

A friend donated an old car tarp, which is fantastic because it reflects the heat of the sun as well as offering protection from the rain.

chook tractor in situ with beans

I throw in straw regularly in wet weather to soak up any excess moisture, because chooks don’t like wet feet. In fact if I feel like being entertained I throw in a half bale of straw and watch the chooks use it as a trampoline, tear it apart, throw straw over eachothers’ heads, and generally have a wonderful time with it. Eventually they dig it through the ground along with any kitchen scraps they decided not to eat, along with their manure, and after they’ve moved on to the next spot it all becomes rich compost mulch. After a few weeks’ rest to age the manure and let the worms come back, it’s ready for planting and the vegies love it. So do the chooks!

When it’s time to move the tractor, I can just lift it up a little from inside, and walk the chooks over to the next spot. I only need to find a helper and take the chooks out if it needs to be lifted up and over something, which is rarely. When I start moving the fox proof skirting, the chooks know it’s time to move and they get very excited at the prospect of fresh bugs and greens. In the heat of Summer the chook tractor is placed beneath shady fig and pomegranite trees, and in Winter it’s oriented to face the sun more.

Some things we’d do differently next time

This was our first experiment in housing chooks. It’s done well in all kinds of weather, from frosts, wind, rain, and extreme UV, but it is starting to come apart a little in one corner where the UV glue deteriorated, and eventually the base cracked away from the corner-piece due to UV damage. The side pieces have been fine, but the base needs to be made out of something more sturdy and UV proof (it would still need to be light though).

It would be great to have the fox-proof skirting somehow permanently fixed to the edges of the base with hinges, so it can just be pegged up when moving the tractor and let down when the tractor’s in place, but again any extra weight would be an issue.

chook tractor in situ behind sunflowers

References

THE PERMACULTURE HOME GARDEN by Linda Woodrow

BACKYARD POULTRY – NATURALLY by Alanna Moore

I would love your ideas, comments, suggestions or questions, so please feel welcome to comment below.

Here’s my favourite way to make chai:

I grind up about a teaspoon of cloves, and a teaspoon of cardamom seeds in a  mortar and pestle. One teaspoon of this ground mix goes in a saucepan filled with a mug of water (I like to save the rest of the clove-cardamom mix for a head start another time, as these are the most time-consuming spices to pestle) .

Also into the saucepan goes: a little ground black pepper, two teaspoons of tea leaves (I prefer an Oolong, or more often I have “Daintree Tea”, a tea from Queensland which is organically grown), half a crushed cinnamon stick, a slice of fresh ginger, and perhaps some grated nutmeg or some crushed home-grown fennel seeds.

Fennel seeds ready for harvesting

Fennel seeds ready for harvesting

I bring this very slowly to a simmer to give the spices and tea time to infuse. When it’s simmering, I add a mug and a half of oat milk. You might like to use normal milk, and very occasionally I’ll use a good organic milk like Paris Creek’s. I let it simmer again for about five to ten minutes.

 

At this point it’s quite easy to get distracted by some gardening or a great book, or taking photos of  bugs, and before I know it the spicy warm smell of chai that has been accidentally brewed to a dangerously thick, syrupy soup wafts to my attention. If this happens, the tradition at my place  is to jump up, yelling “Chai Check! Chai Check!” and race into the kitchen to add more water if necessary. Friends are now so used to this that even those who don’t like chai will run to the stove and give it a stir. Don’t worry though, it will taste fine for brewing so long, and if you use a mild black tea, it never becomes bitter.

Just before serving I’ll stir in two teaspoons of honey to be warmed through the mix, because I prefer honey to the sugar that is added at the beginning in more traditional versions.

Now the chai is ready, and I strain it into a mug or two (this recipe will serve you and a friend, or you can save some for another mug later).

A good cup of chai is best enjoyed with a pal, sitting for a quiet chat on the verandah overlooking the vegie patch 🙂

I drink chai mostly because it’s delicious, but I also appreciate its health benefits…

Mild black teas such as oolong are ideal for chai because they won’t become bitter when brewed for a long time. These teas have very little tannin and caffeine compared to stronger black teas, so they won’t interfere with iron or protein absorption, and they won’t keep you awake  if you have an evening chai. Oolong tea is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage by free radicals. If you wanted to, you could also make chai with green tea leaves.

Cardamom, according to Ayurvedic tradition, is a warming spice that improves digestion and blood circulation and detoxifies.

Cloves contain Eugenol, which functions as an anti-inflammatory, and a variety of flavanoids.

Black Pepper has both anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties.

Cinnamon is also anti-bacterial and can lower LDL cholesterol. It may also may have a regulatory effect on blood sugar.

Ginger is a great anti-inflammatory and is warming when the weather’s cold. It’s good for the digestive tract and is very helpful for settling the stomach.

Fennel seeds soothe the stomach and are rich in minerals, including magnesium.

Cardamom, cloves and cinnamon are also sources of manganese, which helps to strengthen cell walls and aids joint lubrication and nerve function.

These are only a few of the benefits of dinking home-made chai.

And there are so many ways to make chai. Some people add mint or licorice root, others forego the tea and just use the spices. I would love to know your favourite chai recipe, so if you have one to share please add it to the comments (see below).

Breath awareness is one of the most transformative and health-enhancing tools I’ve discovered through yoga practice. The benefits of healthy, relaxed breathing include: good energy levels, clearer thinking, a more relaxed body, and a calm, peaceful mind. Whether you practice yoga or not, here are some simple steps that anyone can take to better breathing and a more relaxed body and mind:

1) At random moments of your day, notice how you breathe.

Especially if you’re feeling rushed or under pressure, your breathing may be shallow. Pause and take an open, easy-feeling breath, and watch your reactions to the world around you change. You might find your shoulders relaxing, or your face softening, and you’ll immediately start to feel more relaxed and able to meet any challenges before you.

Do this often enough and you’ll become skilled at noticing straight away when your breathing patterns change in response to pressure. Change your breath and you’ll change your state of mind.

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves a long life. Therefore, one should learn to study the breath”. – Svatmarama, from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

2) Get into the habit of exhaling as completely as you can.

During daily life, you may find that feelings of being rushed are reflected by your breathing pattern, and you may be breathing in before you’ve really breathed out. Although we can never really exhale all the air out of our lungs, it’s important to take enough time to breathe out as much as possible. Not doing so can aggravate your nervous system, increasing anxiousness.  

No amount of will power or effort to breathe deeply will cure shallow breathing – in fact, this kind of effort can just leave you feeling more tense and breathless. Instead, exhale as much as you can, then leaving an open invitation for the inhalation to just wander in whenever it wants…you’ll find that inhalation is richer, deeper, and more energising and expansive without any effort on your part. Practise this whenever you can. As Jan Baker says in “Yoga for Real People: A Year of Classes”:

 “Our body removes 3% of its waste through the bowel, 7% through urine, 20% through our skin, and 70% by breathing.”

3) Support good breathing with good posture

A slumping body with rounded shoulders can’t breathe well. I know this sounds obvious, but haven’t we all found ourselves so caught up in what we’re reading or writing that some time goes by before we realise that our chests have gravitated toward our bellybuttons? We then become tired, unfocused and achey.

If you have to work at a desk, try setting up a chime on your computer, mobile, or an alarm clock that sounds every half hour. Ideally it would be somewhere away from your desk so that you have to get up to switch it off. Take the opportunity to stand tall and lengthen your spine, raising your arms over your head. When you have to sit, use a good chair that encourages you to sit tall, keeping the front and sides of your torso open. This will save your back, too!

As a daily routine, also try gentle lunges and front hip openers, side stretches, and shoulder openers, because stiffness or tension in any of these areas of the body can contribute to poor breathing habits.

Simple things like lying back over a rolled towel placed horizontally behind your shoulder blades, or a vertical blanket rolled into a long cylinder and placed under the whole length of the spine, are great for releasing tight muscles and re-creating a feeling of spaciousness and ease in body and breath. More on these easy techniques in future posts.

For now, a quote about breath from Timothy McCall, M.D.’s excellent book, “Yoga as Medicine“:

“In Sanskrit the word prana means both breath and life force. Bring awareness to your breath, yogic philosophy teaches, and you can calm the mind and get closer to the source of wisdom inside you, the calm inner witness that some people call spirit”.

Now that it’s Autumn it’s time to make pesto with all the basil, before Winter comes and finishes it off.
I’ve grown purple basil and green basil, but I tend not to make pesto from the purple variety because I’ve found it produces a grey coloured pesto which tastes fine but doesn’t look very appetising!
I use toasted almonds in my pesto because they taste great and add texture, and because I can obtain them grown locally, & chemical-free.
I use a food processor, which I know to some more discerning mortar & pestle pesto advocates will seem like sacrilege, but it tastes great to me and I just don’t enjoy pestling for ages (although I’m quite good at pestering).
So I just throw a couple of handfuls of toasted almonds in the food processor, and whizz them till they’re still fairly coarse, so they’ll add a nice substantial texture to the pesto.
Next I add lots of basil leaves, pulled off a couple of big healthy bunches of basil. The basil flowers are also fine to use. I pour in some good virgin olive oil (the quality of your oil will really make a difference to the final taste), and process into a rough paste. Season with salt and pepper, mixing the seasoning through.
I may add more basil leaves if the pesto doesn’t seem strong, or green enough, or I may add more oil if it seems too stodgy. Just adust the mix as needed -this is down to personal taste, but bear in mind that the pesto always seems to harden when it’s settled, so it’s often better to make it a bit more runny at first.

But where’s the garlic and the grated parmigiano?

Well, if I’m going to use the pesto within the next 2 weeks, I’ll mix in some crushed garlic and very finely grated parmigiano, put the pesto in a glass jar with an extra layer of olive oil over the top to help keep it fresh, and store it in the fridge.

But I most want to use my pesto right in the middle of Winter, when there’s no basil in the garden but I want that lovely, warm, sun-kissed, slightly crunchy flavour stirred through my hearty minestrone soup!
So in that case, I get a plastic, sealable, re-usable bag, fill it with the pesto, and flatten it all out so it freezes into a big thin square when I put it in the freezer. Then, whenever I need some pesto for a soup or some toast, I go to the freezer and just break the amount I need off the square. It defrosts very quickly in this small quantity, and then I can stir some freshly squeezed garlic and/or some grated parmigiano into it if I wish.

 Why add the garlic and cheese after defrosting, and not while I’m making it intially?
Because I’ve read that garlic can become bitter, and can lose many of its health benefits when frozen. And because I have some friends I like to share pesto with who don’t eat cheese. And its really nice without the parmigiano, anyway.

Getting creative….
I’ve used this basic technique to experiment with all kinds of pestos, including Garlic Chive Pesto, Rocket Pesto, Spinach Pesto (you have to cook the spinach first), and even Coriander Pesto, depending on what’s in the garden. I’ve also added sunflower seeds, which tastes lovely and is very nutritious, or used cashews instead of almonds for a rich, luxurious taste. A little mashed anchovy adds a great lift to coriander pesto.
There’s also no end to the various ways you can use pesto: stirred through soups, on toast, on pizzas, stirred through fresh pasta or a rice salad, even placed in the middle of a home-cooked savoury muffin!
I would love to hear your favourite pesto recipe if you have one.

 

 

 

 

Having sown some rocket & lettuce seeds in a thin layer of seed-raising mix on top of the rich worm-farm compost in my old recycling tub planter, and watched them germinate (see last post), we went away for a while to Tasmania. Luckily it rained while we were away, and the rich soil holds moisture like a sponge, so I returned to find a big juicy crop of rocket, ready for eating.

But I have a confession to make… snails/slugs ate the lettuce seedlings!
Those slimy, seedling eating critters have been prolific this year. I had their population well under control for a while, collecting them early in the morning and feeding them to the chooks, their favourite protein-packed snack. But I’ve been lazy, and lately I haven’t seen many of the little lizards who used to gobble them up, either.
Luckily I know an easy trick for collecting slugs: leaving upside-down plant saucers on moist soil overnight. The slugs love to snuggle under them, and in the morning I can simply present the chooks with breakfast on a plate! As for the snails, it’s a matter of an early morning stroll, collecting them in a bucket. Other gardeners use a range of tricks including beer traps, crushed eggshells, sawdust, and more, but the “Chook Brekky” technique works for me.
Why did the rocket survive?
Well apparently I have gourmet snails and slugs and they much prefer sweet green lettuce seedlings, and will often leave alone the slightly spicy or bitter greens, like rocket or red lettuces.
Anyway, the rocket was delicious tossed over homemade pizza last night, and thoroughly enjoyed by us and our friends.

In the last post I outlined how to build a worm farm.

Here you can see one of my recycled planting tubs, which is also a worm farm, now ready for seed planting. It’s not a new worm farm, but one that has been growing summer crops, which I removed and replaced with extra mulch (dried clippings and straw).

On pulling the mulch aside, we can see some happy descendants of the original Red Wrigglers with which I started my first worm farm several years ago.

Note the richness of the compost, fertilised with nutritious, pH neutral worm poo. In their travels through the tub, the worms have also been keeping the soil well aerated and the drainage is still working well. If harvested, the drainage water from a worm farm makes excellent natural liquid fertiliser. A great way to re-harvest your kitchen rinse water!

I’ve gently pulled some trowel-fulls of soil aside to give the worms some extra kitchen scraps (no worms were harmed in the making of this blog!), and then added a layer of seed raising mix over the top, to plant my seeds: some rocket, a few lettuces, (quick crops) and silverbeet (which will be slower and stay in the tub while the quicker crops will be finished and replaced).

Rather than smothering the seeds with mulch, I cover the top of the tub with an old scrap of shadecloth to keep both the worms and the seeds cool, moist and shaded.

After watering daily for a few days with a watering can (no need to even pull the shadecloth aside, just water straight through), some seedlings are already starting to appear (see photo below, but you’ll have to look closely!).
When they’re big enough, I’ll take the shadecloth away, put mulch around them, and take a photo so you can see how they’re going.

Great for small courtyards or balconies!

Here are some Yellow Pear tomatoes, purple and green basil and lettuce growing in an old recycling tub, (thanks Paula for the tub, and thanks Abby for the tomato seedlings!). It’s actually a worm farm at the same time.
This is very easy and cheap to do and you can use any large-sized container:

1) Drill some extra drainage holes in the bottom so water will drain through.

2) Put a layer of stones/broken crockery/anything similar in the bottom to further assist drainage (most vegies do not like wet feet!). It’s also a good idea to have the bottom of the container raised up slightly on some bricks or stones so that extra water can easily escape and your worms won’t drown.

3) Add some compost – I made my own but you can buy organic compost. In South Australia I supplement my own supply with SA Composters‘ compost.

4) Add a layer of “bedding” for the worms – I used shredded newspaper and some old straw, and some scrunched up used brown paper bags.

5) Add more compost, and also any food scraps you have from the kitchen, in small pieces. Anything that was once a plant is fine, although apparently worms don’t like strong smelling things like onions or garlic too much (mine aren’t that fussy!) Make your final layer just compost so that the food scraps won’t be in your way for planting seedlings.

6) Water well and mulch with straw, or even newspaper. Check your drainage.

7) Once your compost/worm food mix is moist but not too soggy, you can add your worms. I initially bought a box of worms (“red wrigglers”) from a garden centre a few years ago, but now if I’m starting a new tub I just take a few from an established tub, and they soon multiply! Better to add just a few at first, and they will then regulate their own numbers to suit the food supply.

8) Leave the tub for a week or more. The soil level may sink, so you can then pull aside the mulch and add more compost. Then you’re ready to plant your vegie seedlings. Check the label for the amount of space required for each plant, but this is a nutrient-intensive way to grow them, so you can get away with a bit less space than is usually recommended.

Leave a space to occasionally add some more food (cut up kitchen scraps) under the mulch for your worms.

9) Watch your vegies grow as the worms eat the scraps and general debri in the compost, and as they feed the roots of the plants with their nutrient rich worm poo! Remember to keep the soil as evenly moist as possible. I often use clean rinse water from the household.

I’ve also grown cucumber, spring onions, chives, silverbeet and rocket in these tubs. If growing them from seed, I just move the mulch aside and add some seedraising mix to the top just before sowing. I keep the tubs under a lemon tree in Summer. In Adelaide I have an excess of UV light, and the tomatoes actually do better under some dappled shade!