Introducing Henrietta and Friends

Last year, we promised our daughter that we would get her some chickens for her birthday. Happily, we never specified which birthday that would be. It was one of those projects where the benefits were obvious: home grown eggs from chickens that were living healthy, cruelty-free lives. Life kept getting in the way, as it so often does, and her birthday came and went. The conversation about chickens, however, stuck around.

We recently found ourselves with a week without plans. The kids were stuck at home, bored out of their minds, and we urgently needed a distraction project. Our chicken time had come. It seemed even more important now because we are looking at ways to reduce our food miles – one of the biggest problem areas for us highlighted by our carbon estimate – and our worm farm wasn’t keeping up with the food waste from our garden.

It was important that Project Chicken didn’t break the bank while still providing our birds with a good amount of space and shelter. We looked at commercial chicken coops, but for the size we wanted they would cost around $2,000. Reducing food miles is important, but that much money would get us half way to installing a photovoltaic system, which would give us significantly better environmental bang for our buck. We were going to have to do it ourselves.

Building the coop and run took just over a week, and cost a total of $462.26. One of the ways we were able to get the price so low was by salvaging materials that my parents already had lying around at their house. The roof of the chicken coop is from metal left over when their garage was built, the door frame wood for the ramp came from an old wardrobe, and some of the wire is left over from an old aviary that has since been dismantled. Even half of the chickens are salvaged – they’re ex-battery hens.

Our coop is approximately 1.8m cubed. The chickens can go underneath the coop, so our run is 1.8m wide and 6.6m long, which provides almost 2m square per bird. There are six nesting boxes – one for each hen – and we can access them without going into the run. We painted it with British Paints colour Gracious – I swear I’m not the one who chose the colour – and we’ve left the inside plain because I doubt the chickens care as much as our five year old does.

Having the chickens around has caused some unexpected lifestyle changes. It took two days for our outdoor table and bench to be moved to the back yard. Other families were probably watching television while they ate dinner, and we were watching our birds. Our kids like walking the dog when they visit my parents, and now they’re looking for edible weeds while they’re on those walks. We also decided it was time for our oldest daughter to start earning pocket money, so her new jobs are tied in with caring for the chickens.

Of course, the main motivation for getting the chickens was to reduce our environmental impact, so how did that go? Well, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of food waste that we’ve been composting, because instead that is going to feed the chickens. We rarely use our green bin any more, because our weeds go straight to the birds, and it’s an incentive for the kids to keep up with weeding. On days where we haven’t had many scraps to feed them, we’ve harvested food from our vegetable garden. At first this seems very wasteful, but it turns out that we had a lot of vegetables in the garden that we planted as an experiment and quickly decided that we were never going to eat. Now that those plants are being removed from the garden we have more space to grow the things that we will eat. Our chickens are repaying us with manure that we can put on the garden much faster than with our compost. They were moulting when we got them, and it took two weeks, but now they’re laying tasty, fresh eggs that are beyond exciting for the kids when they find them.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have space in your garden for a chicken coop? Please leave a comment below if you’ve kept animals for food and let us know how it went.

Plant A Fruit Tree

One of the most obvious ways to offset our carbon emissions is to plant a tree; this is the basis of many of Australia’s carbon offset programs. When I think of planting trees, my imagination immediately goes to towering forest specimens that will live for hundreds of years. There is no denying the beauty of these majestic trees, just as there is no denying that our suburban backyard simply doesn’t have the room to plant something that will grow to be 75m tall.

We wanted to plant some trees in our garden, and our emissions calculator revealed that we were generating a surprising amount of pollution through how far our food travels to reach our plates. These two needs combined to provide an obvious solution: fruit trees.

I packed the kids into the car and we went to the nearest Bunnings. They had a modest selection of fruit trees, so we went a bit mad picking out a selection. We settled on a lime, two oranges, an apple, a pear, an apricot, a cherry with two grafted varieties and quite a few smaller fruiting bushes. The total spend came to just over $360, and incredibly I managed to get everything into the car without having to leave either of the children at the store.

Trees on the passenger seat of my car.
Getting this many trees into the car at once only worked because they were bare rooted.

At home we began the lengthy process of arguing passionately about where each tree should go. The lime went into the front yard so that our neighbours can steal as many limes as they like. The oranges were planted beside our deck to provide a visual balance and shade from the afternoon sun. The apricot will provide shade and privacy for our bedroom window, and the rest of the trees will eventually convert our open back yard into a shaded place for the children to play.

Even though we are very active in our garden, for the first time our plantings give it a sense of permanence. It will take years for these trees to reach their full height and fruiting potential but, when they do, they’ll more than pay for the purchase cost in fresh, delicious fruits that didn’t have to travel across the country – or the world – to reach us.

If you’re playing along at home…

Do you have space in your garden to plant a fruiting tree or bush? Many varieties do well in large pots, so renters don’t have to make a donation to their landlord’s property. If you are growing something, please share in the comments what you planted and if you think it was a good decision.