I think back to my childhood growing up in Madison County after our family moved out from Jackson. I remember when Highway 51 was a two-lane road all the way to Canton. Sledge’s was one of the few places you could get gas and also pick up a delectable snack, like hogshead cheese and an RC Cola. When I was in the third grade, my family moved onto some acreage down a country dirt road. With the help of the county supervisor at that time, we decided to name the road, Green Oak Lane, after Green Oak Nursery. Today, Green Oak Lane is the fast-moving thoroughfare that gets people in and out of all the new communities near Gluckstadt...progress.
As we grew up out there, we knew we had a lot of freedom. We had horses, cows, pigs, and domestic birds. There were just enough people living around the area then to form a 4-H club. My three siblings and I all participated and showed animals in 4-H. Keeping all the animals healthy and inside our fences kept us busy, and I remember thinking, even then, that it was a fun kind of busy. We had a one-acre, completely genuine, organic garden that we all played a part in, from working the soil at certain times of the year to planting and harvesting at other times. I loved it all, but I think what stuck with me the most were the birds. We had pheasants, turkeys, peacocks, ducks, and all kinds of chickens. I try to forget about the flock of guineas that ran around making a noise that I’m pretty sure, to this day, might have affected my sanity. We were a family of seven including my grandfather who lived with us. My mother was the type who prepared three meals a day for all of us, so the garden and the chickens were an important part of our good eating. We had a giant metal, one-armed bell that played an important role on the farm. There were 50 acres of playground we lived on, and during the summer months, when you heard the echoes of the giant bell ringing, that meant to put down whatever you were doing and run to the house for dinner.
They say all great things circle back around over time and chickens have, once again, become a common part of the backyard garden scene. They're so easy to have and fun to watch. Of course, you should be aware of your neighborhood covenants, but I think, for the most part, it's okay to have hens, as long as you aren't bothering anyone. A couple of obvious ways you might disturb your neighbors is by having a rowdy rooster or a stinky henhouse. A rooster can cause a ruckus in the chicken flock and will wake people up in the morning, so it’s probably best to omit the rooster altogether if you live close to other people. Just like anything else, with a little effort, a chicken house is fairly easy to keep clean. If you take this into consideration when designing and building it, it will be even simpler.
Some folks use chicken ‘tractors,’ meaning the house is built with large wheels for moving around the yard to keep fresh grass under the flock at all times. In some fenced-in backyards, the chickens can range freely if you don't have varmints and cats lurking around. The chickens will munch on some grass and insects in the yard, but they will also munch on some of your favorite plants too. You have to decide if it's worth it. To me it's okay for them to have a few leaves off some plants, after all, they're helping you prune.
They need a place to roost at night to keep safe from predators. I love to watch them march into their coops in the evenings when the shadows begin to grow longer. Making sure they have clean water and laying pellets with a saucer of oyster shells is important. The shells provide calcium to keep their eggshells strong. I like to keep a variety of chickens for a myriad of colored eggs. Certain breeds lay white, some red, and some breeds lay very blue eggs. When all the eggs are together, it's a beautiful show and makes a great gift to give your non-chicken friends. Chickens are easier to manage than most furry pets. They don't need much special attention and you can go out of town for a few days and they will probably be alright.
I have built many kinds of chicken pens, with different styles to fit different situations. When I lived in the country my pens were large enough for them to range inside a protected area with a chicken wire roof. There were too many varmints present and hawks or owls would swoop in and get them without a roof. We built divider walls in the house to keep roosters away from each other and to keep different types of birds apart. It can get like a zoo when I get carried away. I have also built pens that allow for free-ranging when I lived in a Madison neighborhood.
One of my favorite pens that Mimi and I have built is the one we now have at Garden Works. It has a large area for ranging and is tall enough to walk in without stooping. This pen has a coop that is solidly built and warm in the winter months. We have four hens and a giant beautiful rooster with boots on his feet. Three weeks ago, one of the hen’s eggs hatched, and I’m pretty sure that little dude is going to be our rooster's son. He looks exactly like him and already has boots on his feet. I hope we are not headed for a rooster ruckus... we will find out this spring when the roosters begin claiming the flock.
In case you're wondering why I'm writing about backyard chickens in a garden article. My point is your backyard is your own. It’s the place where you can use your own style of planting or hardscape design. It's where you can relax and spend time destressing without having to spend money on extravagant vacations. Vacations often have the opposite effect for me. When I'm out of town I usually can't get home quickly enough so I can relax in my own surroundings. It's fun to kick around your favorite garden center and find inspiration for what might help you achieve this backyard oasis. Garden centers, by now, should be clean and filling up with new plants and garden art inventory for spring. It's time to visit some of these places to help inspire your vision.