Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door

Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop

Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Harvesting Broccoli

Today we pulled our first head of broccoli out of the garden for our dinner. We thought it would be a good topic to cover.

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Knowing when the broccoli is ready
There are a few ways to determine when broccoli is ready to harvest. First, it must have a head of broccoli of course! Second, the florets (the smallest part of the broccoli that you eat) should be about the size of a match head. Lastly, the color of the florets should be a dark green. If the florets are mostly yellow, your broccoli is either not ready to eat, or it has a nutrient deficiency or disease. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, assume that it’s just not mature yet. The picture below shows what a “ready to eat” head of broccoli looks like. We had hoped for larger heads of broccoli, but we’ve had a weird growing season and our soil was not in prime shape.

Cutting the head of the broccoli

Cutting the head of the broccoli

How to harvest
Harvesting broccoli is very easy. With a sharp knife, make a quick clean cut 5-6 inches below the florets where the stems gather into the main stem of the plant. We like to have an inch or so of the main stem  on the cut piece. This makes it easier to handle and store until used. Once the head of the broccoli has been removed, you’ll likely notice that the remaining stem is hollow. This is normal.

The remaining broccoli plant

The remaining broccoli plant

What do to with the remaining plant
Some might assume that the remaining plant has no further use. Others might assume that the remaining plant will re-sprout a new head of broccoli. Neither is exactly accurate. Assuming favorable conditions (sun, water, temperature), the remaining plant will sprout additional smaller heads of broccoli from the side of where the main head was removed. These are perfectly edible and make a fine addition to salads, or cooked as a side item. These generally will not be very large.

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Things to watch for
In our neck of the woods, we have to deal with Cabbage Worms, which are actually not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. These are the larvae from cabbage moths which are actually not a moth but a butterfly. Confused yet? Anyway, we could spray for those I suppose, but they’re just as easy to pick off the plants (this is referred to as “mechanical” pest control). We take the worms and feed them to the chickens who despite not liking broccoli, enjoy these pests! We like this because we use the worms to our advantage to keep the chickens happy and healthy.

After you harvest your broccoli, check for cabbage worms. They’re easy to spot. They’re dark green and contrast well with the stalk of the broccoli. Just pluck them off. You could also try filling a bowl or pot with water (a little at a time) and inserting the head of broccoli upside down into the water. This should make the worms climb up the stalk where they’ll be easier to remove. If you do this too fast, you’ll just drown the worms and then they’re harder to get off. Of course, you can also look for them after cooking, depending on how you cook. That’s admittedly not such a nice experience ;-).

Our principles for emergency preparedness

The following are some principles that we’ve learned, pondered, and/or developed in the area of preparing for the unexpected – particularly for disasters or long emergencies. It’s not a complete list and we’re likely to update it as often as new principles begin to emerge in our thinking.

Fear Not
Fear leads people to make stupid, knee-jerk decisions (believe us, we’ve done it often). Fear will lead you to making poor decisions, secure the wrong resources, not to mention, cause you unnecessary anxiety. Emergency preparedness should not be fueled by fear, but by a sound mind set on wanting to sustain a flourishing lifestyle despite what’s happening in the world –  even in adverse circumstances.

When not If
Plan on a disaster or emergency happening in your lifetime. That might sound apocalyptic or dystopian, and some approach this topic from this point of view. The rest of us think it’s just good sense. Do you keep jumper cables in your car? If so, why? Because it’s reasonable to expect that some day, your car or someone else’ won’t properly start. Planning for disaster or long emergency stems from the same understanding on a larger scale. Instead of you car not starting, maybe the normal food or water supply breaks down. Planning for disaster forces your brain to develop a model for handling the resulting adversity. If you do so without growing fearful, it will be a positive exercise that will result in greater stability during times of crisis for yourself and your community. Furthermore, advanced preparation in many areas will also lead you down the path to sustainable living in those same areas of life – hence why we discuss these issues here on our blog.

Stockpiling is NOT a sustainable strategy
When thinking about preparing your family for a long emergency or disaster, this principle is essential. This idea is the foundational driver behind how we plan for every aspect of emergency planning. The encouragement to stockpile resources is found everywhere in disaster/emergency preparedness literature! Yes, you SHOULD have adequate supplies of certain items, but you cannot stockpile enough resources to be an adequate solution. The length of an emergency or disaster could always be longer than your stockpiled supply will last. Then what? You must have a plan for securing your fundamental needs when your stockpiles are diminished. Otherwise, you’re just delaying your demise rather than preventing it. So, when it comes to stockpiling resources for a long term emergency, you need enough of a given resource (food, shelter, water, etc) to see your family through until you can implement a more sustainable means to secure these resources.

Think of this like the top-down triangle below. At the top (the beginning of an emergency or disaster), your needs of a resource are small and compact. That’s what you need to have on hand for immediate consumption and survival. Next, you have some intermediate needs. That’s the part of your strategy for obtaining additional resources before you can implement a more permanent (if necessary) solution. Lastly, the base of the triangle represents a sustainable and ongoing means for obtaining a given resource. This principal should apply to every aspect of disaster preparation and should guide your preparation strategy.

The Preparation Triangle

The Preparation Triangle

Example: Food. A common idea found on the internet among emergency supply vendors is to stockpile things like “textured vegetable product” (umm, sounds good! NOT!). If you look at the space required to store the amount of food recommended, it’s prohibitive to many people. Not to mention, once the food’s gone, it’s gone! A better strategy might be to store several 1-3 months worth of food, then develop a strategy for hunting, gathering, raising and growing additional food items. To put this in really simple concepts, it’s better to have a fishing pole than a few fish.

No expectations or assumptions
As the old saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of people in western culture assume that things will always be okay and will always work out. There’s a distinction between faith and optimism. Faith is essential in life. Optimism, while helpful at times, can lead to complacency and a lack of planning for lean times. An overly optimistic worldview is ignorant of world history, modern events, and human nature. An overly optimistic view expects or assumes that if the power goes out for a month, or you run out of water, that the government, neighbors, charity will sweep in with salvation and rapidly meet those needs. The reality that one can see from events like hurricane Katrina, the Northeast blackouts of 1977 and 2003 is that services can take a long time to restore. Meanwhile some people become quite inhumane and criminal rather than helpful. Bottom line – don’t expect someone else to be responsible for the essential needs of your family. Expect nothing from others unless you’ve worked out a plan in harmony and cooperation with your friends and neighbors. That leads us to our next point…

“We COULD do it ourselves” vs. “We CAN do it ourselves”
Americans thrive on a self-sufficiency mindset and attitude. So do survivalist usually. Having the knowledge and preparation to be the sole provider for your essential needs is a good idea, and could save your life. A better ideal is that have this knowledge, share it with your friends and neighbors whom your trust, then work together on a cooperative plan for dealing with emergencies. This allows for the sharing of labor, resources and responsibilities and increases your ability to weather long emergencies and disasters. Aside from the fact that there really is increased safety and security in numbers, there’s also increased happiness in having people to share adverse experiences with rather than being alone. Know how to be on your own in a disaster – because that could always happen, but plan on handling emergencies as part of a group. That’s the ideal.

Saving Money is not preparation

Many people will seek to have three months worth of living expenses in the bank, but not consider having three months of food and water on hand. This view assumes that money is all that will be needed to handle emergencies or disasters. You cannot eat or drink money, and it won’t keep you warm (unless you burn it). Having some cash on hand for emergencies should be part of your preparations for the unexpected, but don’t think that you’ll be able to rely on money alone. You’re better off using your funds to purchase resources that will allow you to be better prepared.

The simpler, the better
Choose the simplest solutions you can find for your needs. Complexity during an emergency is your enemy, not your friend. If everyone in your family cannot be made to understand how something works, work on making it simpler!

Emergency Preparation: Water Strategy

A friend and reader recently posted a comment regarding our recent post, “it’s more than just flashlights and duct tape” asking how we handle securing/storing water. Here’s the comment:

“I’m assuming you have a well. Any advice on stockpiling for those of us who have city water? Water jugs?”

As we pondered our response, it seemed fitting to address this as a new blog posting since this is a practical issue that many people might find worth considering.

While it is nice in some ways to have a well, common domestic wells require pumps which in turn require power. Because of this, those who have wells are often more vulnerable to power-related emergencies than most people – at least in longer-term emergencies.

All that to say that a well is not necessarily the best source of water in an extended emergency – at least not the way North Americans use wells. Having a well does not necessarily aid in emergency preparation, especially if you have no way to produce electricity. In fact, it could actually be detrimental to have well water as a single source of water in an emergency.

In an extended emergency (ie. 14 days or more), a person or family is likely going to require more water than can be realistically stored by the average citizen. Stored water should only provide for your immediate water needs for the first days of an emergency until a plan for a sustainable water source can be implemented. A good preparedness plan should entail a sustainable means for acquiring potable water for as long as necessary (within reason).

At present, we have a multi-tiered water strategy consisting of several elements. Most of this is just common sense and should be tailored to meet the needs of your family. It’s based on a strategy we developed in general about preparation (which we’ll post later on) where we plan for emergencies from an immediate to long-term need. The triangle below represents how we apply this principal to our water strategy.

Progressive Water Strategy for Disaster Preparation

Progressive Water Strategy for Disaster Preparation

Water Storage
We start with storing enough water to maintain life (drinking and essential personal use, not stuff like laundry, coffee, etc) for several days for our entire family. We do that by keeping 7-Gallon containers ( these exact ones ) filled with water and stored in our home – one per person. This gives us at a minimum 1 gallon per person per day for 7 days. We have additional water stored in 55-gallon water drums, should we ever need them.

It’s important to note that clean water in an appropriate container does not go bad. That is, if you have water free of contaminants stored in containers that don’t leach anything into the water, it should not develop problems. It might end up tasting flat, but that is usually rectified by aerating the water.  Keep this in mind when choosing containers and the source to fill them from! Start with good, solid, and sealable containers and then fill them with the clean water. Never let water sit in open containers. This will invite disease and further devastation in an emergency.

Water collection and treatment
Some may have no hope of keeping enough potable water on hand for a long emergency or disaster, our strategy includes measures for treating non-potable water to make it potable. This means water found in streams, lakes, and other outdoor sources. The problem is, the majority of the surface water in the world, including North America, contains viruses, bacteria, organisms, etc. These can cause sickness and discomfort ranging from mild to severe/life-threatening. In an emergency, that last thing our family wants is the trots! We suggest handling this problem through expending effort and resources to do the following:

  1. Maintain the knowledge of where to look for and locate treatable water in the immediate area.
  2. Maintain supplies to boil water.
  3. Maintain supplies to chemically treat some water if necessary (not a good long-term solution – not sustainable).
  4. Maintain supplies to filter water and how to use them.
    In our case, we purchased a Katadyn Vario Microfilter and several replacement cartridges. We do not use this filter for leisure or recreational use but maintain a separate water filter for those sorts of uses (which also serves as a backup).  This too is also not a good long-term strategy since it’s not sustainable if/when the equipment fails. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable!
  5. Maintain the knowledge of how to primitively filter water with natural, or readily available materials. Books like “When Technology Fails“ are an excellent resource for this sort of thing. Make sure you read and understand this stuff as much as possible before you need to know it!

Long Term Water Strategy
One needs a long-term strategy for the collect and storage water. For those in suitable climates, this could be from rain and snow (plentiful in the northeastern United States where we live).  We’ve pondered that next time our roof requires replacement, we’ll replace it with a suitable metal roof then build a cistern to collect this roof runoff, then an additional methodology to filter this water. If you have an occassion to erect an outbuilding, consider a metal roof for this added benefit.

Two books we intend to get are “Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use” and “The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store, and Conserve It“. These books discuss how to use a variety of materials and methods to collect and store water.

Is it worth the investment?
Consider this… in the right emergency context, water would be worth more per ounce than gold! When without water, no other resource abundance matters. Water is fundamental to life, and yet despite this when we were considering these issues, there was plenty of hesitation to spend resources to help us store and secure water!

Much of what has been recommended here can be done for  $250 or less. That is for a water strategy (books, storage containers, filters, etc) which would provide a family with thousands of gallons of potable water.

We consider that a pretty good investment into the health and welfare of our family in the event of an emergency or disaster. This is one area you don’t want to skimp or depend on others!