Chickens in Orchards

It’s peach season. I have one tree. This year’s crop was not only sparse, but also wormy. After cutting away the bad parts (and feeding to the chickens) I had only 2 small bowls of peaches for breakfast. This afternoon I’m going to a farmers market to buy peaches, as the season is fleeting and I need some for eating, and a bushel to freeze for pies this winter.

Starting this fall, I’m going to try a new method of peach borer worm control. Chickens. A few of my vintage poultry books detail how to integrate a flock into a fruit tree management scheme. The damaged, dropped fruit carries the worms to the ground, which then overwinter in the soil under the trees. In the spring they emerge and do damage. Ravenous chickens stop that cycle, shredding and eating the plant matter that the grubs hide in, and eating every stage of the pests. Makes sense. I’m going to put a temporary fence around my tree and set the industrious Gems to clearing the area of bad bugs.

Here’s a photo of three boys (see the one in the tree?) harvesting peaches.  I believe that the photo dates from the early 1920s.

Here’s a closeup. Those peaches look ripe and edible to me! What a bountiful harvest, thanks in good part to the hens underfoot.

Pale Garden Beauty

As much as the technicolor flowers of mid-summer make the garden a joyous place,

right now my heart is with plants off to the side of my property, at the edge of the driveway, on the verge of the woodland. They are easy to overlook, but as I walk to the mailbox I see something that makes me pause.

Pushing up out of the boring and suburban-looking wood chips are these ephemeral fungi, the Indian Pipe.

Up-close they have an otherworldly beauty. Soon they’ll turn grey and shrivel, but at this moment, they are ghostlike and stunning.

Next to the Indian pipe is a green bush with white blooms. If you bother to walk up to it, you’ll be rewarded by a floral scent that is as complex as an expensive perfume.

It is the Bottlebrush Buckeye, a native shrub. I’m not the only one pulled in by the scent of the flowers. Like many under-appreciated native plants, it is a magnet for bees and supports essential pollinators. I can’t think of a prettier sight in a garden than this.:



How Many Hens?

As much as I like chickens, I don’t think I’d keep them if I didn’t get eggs. Collecting eggs is part of the experience. Cooking with the eggs, giving a carton as a gift and selling  a dozen now and then, is inextricably linked to the experience of caring for and interacting with these animals. These are, after all domestic farm animals, with a purpose. That’s not to say to say that I expect the hens to be laying machines, and that each chicken has to lay an egg each day to earn her keep. That’s totally unrealistic. And  you already know that I have a soft spot for the old, retired girls. Still, eggs are an essential part of the picture, and as such most people who go into backyard chicken keeping want to know how many chickens they should get in order to have enough eggs.

I can’t tell you how many hens you need in order to have eggs to supply your table. First of all, the more eggs you have, the more you eat! You might think that two eggs a day is plenty, and then you start eating eggs everyday for breakfast. Secondly, how many eggs your hens make depends on many factors, including their breeds, time of year, and their age. Still, let’s run through the numbers.

My pen of Gems is typical of a backyard flock. There are a variety of breeds. Some are known for their egg laying ability, like the Rhode Island Reds, and others go broody (those Orpingtons!) or are mostly decorative, like Pearl, the Cochin. They are now one year old, and so in the prime of their laying lives.

Summer, with it’s long sunny days and warm temperatures, is the peak laying season. In this almost-over month of July my twelve young hens have provided me with 225 eggs. That’s about 7 or 8 a day. That’s 18 cartons of eggs.

By August some chickens will begin to molt, and by September they’ll all be shedding feathers and taking a break from laying. I’ll find a few eggs in the nesting boxes, but not many. There might be a stretch of a few weeks  when I find no eggs at all in the barn. By February they’ll start laying again, but in their second year they’ll produce about 20% fewer than the year before. And so it goes. By the fourth year several hens will have died and the remaining hens will be laying sporadically.

But for now, there is a surplus of eggs in the refrigerator.

Friends and neighbors give me used, clean cartons, which I use to store the eggs. I appreciate that, as new egg cartons can cost anywhere from 40¢ to 60¢ each. My eggs go into the refrigerator clean (for more about egg handling and storing see this FAQ) but if the cartons get even a tad dirty or worn, they go into the recycling bin. I write the date the eggs are collected on each carton. If I don’t do this, I lose track. I set aside a dozen to hard-cook later, and I make sure that the eggs that I sell are the freshest.

Today I’m visiting a friend. I’m bringing her a half-dozen. I package the eggs in new, clear plastic cartons both when I give eggs as gifts, and when I sell them. I carefully select a variety of shapes and colors. I make sure they’re clean and perfect. (I keep and use the eggs with imperfections.) This is what the carton looks like when it leaves my house.

Even after all of these years, I still get a small thrill when I share the bounty from my flock with others. So, back to the question of “how many hens do I need?” My own answer is that I want to have eggs for my table and some to share with others. At the same time, I’m not keeping chickens just for the eggs. If I did, then I’d have all look-alike hybrids, and cull them at 18 months. I like having a flock that is small enough so that I know each hen, and in which there is a variety of plumage and egg color and personality. I want the flock big enough so that there’s always a dozen eggs in the refrigerator with a few extra to be generous with.  I’ve found that a laying flock of around eight to a dozen hens gives me this balance. I’m lucky that I have the space to keep my elderly chooks.  By the time the old hens are gone, the Gems will be retired and I’ll get chicks again. Production waxes and wanes. It makes me appreciate those cartons in the fridge when I have them.

Sweet Vintage Photo

Postcards of children, chickens and eggs weren’t just for Easter. In the days before the telephone, a quick message would be conveyed on a postcard. Millions of cards were printed and mailed. But, some, like this sweetly sentimental one, were never sent. I imagine that it was tucked onto a shelf in the kitchen and glanced at occasionally, making the owner of it smile.

Egg Baskets

I’m sure that it will come as no surprise to you that I collect egg baskets. I like how they cross that line from utilitarian to decorative. I like how they whisper of past farms and animals. I don’t like a lot of clutter, or masses of objects, but that’s not a problem when it comes to collecting egg baskets because they are ever so useful.

I store my outside boots and crocs in a basket by the porch door.

Gardening gloves and hat are within reach,

as are the dog leashes and training tools (two baskets needed for those!)

Magazines and garden catalogs are corralled in my office in this basket.

And a feather, from a turkey that Lily almost (oh it was close!) caught is displayed here. (The goat was crocheted by Wendy.)

There’s even a basket put to work in the bathroom. This one is exactly the right size for spare toilet paper.

There’s room for two purely decorative egg baskets on the stair landing.

A wire basket shaped like a hen holds blown out eggs on a shelf near my craft table.

But, my favorite basket of all is the one that I carry out to the barn to collect eggs. It has little feet so that if I set it down a bit too hard the eggs won’t break. It has a curved-in top so that if I tip the basket the eggs stay in. It isn’t too big or too small for the seven to nine eggs that I collect daily from my hens. It’s old and lopsided. Perfect, isn’t it?

What do you collect your eggs in?