The first edible garden festival in the blue mountains, organized by Susanne Rix, is open to the public this weekend, the 3rd and 4th of March. Over thirty edible gardens, including school gardens, community gardens, and several commercial gardens as well as many private gardens are available for viewing. Unfortunately I had to withdraw my garden due to a family funeral so I’ve decided to write some essays featuring aspects of edible gardens including photos taken in my garden and some of other gardens in the festival. Below is a photo of a henhouse in a Blackheath garden.
My own garden is designed with several factors in mind. First, (but not in order of importance) I am a plant person and can become obsessed with acquiring a wide range of rare and unusual ornamental perennials. There is, fortunately a limit to the number of plants that can be squeezed into the existing flowerbeds, especially given the restrictions of climate and the need for drought resistant plants.
Second, no garden as far as I am concerned is complete without vegetables, fruit trees, soft fruit and hens. Although aesthetics are of prime importance any garden worth its salt must, in my opinion, do more than nod to self-sufficiency.
Third, I am deeply committed to creating a space that provides habitat for as many species as possible. With this in mind my plans for the garden include a range of insect hotels, nesting boxes, and possum boxes. At present it features several birdbaths, bee baths, designed habitat for skinks and blue tongue lizards and a wide range of insect and bird attracting plants. My aim is to craft all these features to also act as interesting and stimulating garden art.
Hence, my chicken run was designed, not simply to accommodate my chooks as commodiously as possible but to also provide space for art and design work. I am consequently looking forward to seeing other chook runs in the mountains where backyard hens are common. Of course the Internet abounds with images of fancy ‘chook palaces’ and ‘chook mahals’ but it is local creativity that interests me along with the opportunity to meet up with like-minded gardeners.
The practical aspects of having hens obviously include eating beautiful, fresh, organic eggs as well as creating a sustainable system of feeding scraps to the hens, using the manure for liquid plant feed or adding it to the compost system. Hens are also wonderful pest eradicators, delighting in a lunch of caterpillars, grubs and snails. The less practical, but equally important aspect is the emotional enrichment the chickens bring to my life. Each one has a unique personality:
Black-eyed Susie, the Australorp loves to be picked up and stroked. She is also exceptionally nosey and has to watch everything I do.
Hyacinth, a beautiful Brahma with feathered feet is top hen but motherly and placid. Bluebell the Araucana is raucous and full of importance.
The two little silver laced Wyandottes, Snowdrop and Blossom are very young and yet to reveal their individuality. Each day as I watch them dust bathing, pecking and scratching they teach me that life is not meant to be lived in a rush. Above all they make me laugh.
My hen house and run is octagonal, built to be fox and snake proof and includes fruit trees in the run to provide shade in the summer and protect the fruit from ever-hungry parrots.
It was built three and a half years ago when my partner and I bought the property and replaced a section of the previous owner’s vegetable garden. This meant it could be erected without removing established plants although the downside was losing an area of fertile soil.
The design required a great many complicated measurements. The central section has an octagonal house with two nesting boxes and art deco mosaic patterns on the outside.
A larger octagonal area above the house and extending beyond it is covered with clear roofing material to provide shelter from rain. It is surrounded by a narrow decorative green roof planted with sedums. I plan to rain-proof more of the roof area as in heavy downpours there isn’t sufficient dry areas. This is the only part of the design that didn’t work out completely satisfactorily. Although surprisingly the wire mesh roof proved to be snow-proof when we had a heavy fall two years ago. The snow sat on the roof all morning creating an eerie semi-darkness in the run and the chooks seemed unable to decide whether it was day or night.
At the moment I have five hens, all heritage breeds and plan to extend this small flock later this year. I am a big fan of heritage hens for many reasons, although exactly what heritage means is up for debate as chickens have been domesticated for approximately 8,000 – 10,000 years. Annie Potts writes that:
As early as 1500 BC depictions of chickens emerge in Egyptian hieroglyphic art. … Fourth-century Greek records state that Egyptians had mastered poultry husbandry and had been practising artificial incubation of chicks for many years.
She also notes that early remains of chickens have been found in sub-Saharan Africa, while in the eighteenth century Captain Cook noticed chickens on the Easter Islands, New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific. In South America the Araucana chicken may be the result of interbreeding between native grouse and early unrecorded visitors to the Americas. The Araucana, however, is unique among chicken breeds for its blue eggs.
The range of heritage hens available today, however, is the result of selective mating of breeds during the Victorian era when breeding and showing animals, including poultry, became a national pastime in the UK. By the start of the 20th century scores of new breeds had been created, quickly followed by publications, which listed the ideal physical and temperamental characteristics of recognized breeds.
Sadly, chickens have since been reduced to the most manipulated beings on the planet. This is what rampant capitalism does to the voiceless. Before World War I chickens were kept for eggs with meat obtained from home slaughtered young cockerels. Eating chicken meat was far from an everyday occurrence. As soon as FKC and McDonalds became part of daily life in Australia 500 million broiler chickens have been killed each year while 11 million battery hens produce 93% of the nation’s eggs. Instead of a natural lifespan of around 12 years, a typical farmed chick today lives for about 6 weeks, never having experienced sunshine, rain or grass. Layers, likewise, live indoors, subjected to artificial lighting in cramped cages, unable to preen, scratch or even turn around.
There has been a vast number of articles published on the inhumane treatment of hens subjected to industrialised practices but for detailed information I recommend Annie Potts’ book Chicken, published in the Reaktion animal series in 2012. It was when I became aware of the shocking treatment of battery hens that I decided to acquire some backyard chickens. My first chooks were Isa Browns rescued from a battery farm. Unfortunately Isa Browns are so highly genetically modified for constant egg laying that after about three years they develop massive tumors and die. I decided I could no longer keep Isa Browns as I felt I would be supporting the breeding of these poor creatures. And so began my love affair with heritage breeds, including discovering they are inclined to go broody and get cranky, decide to moult just when you are hoping for extra eggs. In other words they are delightfully themselves and refuse to be subjected to human demands.
There is no doubt that having decided to be part of the more or less fashionable suburban chicken movement I was propelled into a whole new world of experience. On one level it was a declaration of independence – however small – from the food conglomerates that treat animals as commodities. It was also a political statement in support of a more just and sustainable society. Having backyard chooks speaks to a larger movement toward increased responsibility for ourselves, our communities, the land and other species. As Clea Danaan writes:
… we are overturning the illusion that we are separate beings who can do whatever we want. Raising chickens is a vote for a more compassionate, nature-based economy. It is an education in interconnection, responsibility and compassion.
It has been an inspiring day today wandering through the edible gardens of the Blue Mountains and seeing so many happy and healthy chickens, ducks and geese, such an array of imaginatively created hen houses and runs. Long may it last.
And I have come home inspired to start work on a large insect hotel which will also double as a decorative front wall of my garden shed. This will feature in my next post.