Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chickens in the Rose Garden

I grew up in a pre-war apartment building in the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s. Not the kind of place where one acquires a love of gardening and chickens. But, I spent summers in the Catskills, aka Borscht Belt, with my grandparents in a boarding house they ran along with a kosher butcher shop. My dad and I had a vegetable garden in their back yard. Next door was a poultry slaughter house. Tractor trailers loaded with chickens in crates would pull in at all hours of the day and night. Invariably, while unloading the crates, some would break and the chickens would escape into our yard. I became quite adept at catching them with a hook my grandfather made for me out of a metal coat hanger. And so I had a flock of chickens. At the end of the summer, when it was time to return to the Bronx, my grandfather taught me how to butcher them. He said if you were going to eat meat, you should know what was involved. A good lesson.

When Renate and I moved from downtown Ithaca, I couldn't wait to have a flock of chickens again. I spent hours online researching the various breeds available. I was looking for a heritage breed that was cold hardy. Seemed appropriate in keeping with what our nursery was about. I settled on Buckeyes, a large breed (8-10 lbs) developed in the 1800s by Nettie Metcalf, a farm wife from Ohio. I ordered them through the mail. We got a call from the post office the morning they arrived- in a box! They were just a couple of days old. We brought them home and set up a makeshift brooder in our basement. When they were old enough, we moved them outside to the chicken coop I built. At first, I kept them in the coop and fenced run. As they matured, I let them have free run of the property. Just in time for Japanese beetle season. They would follow me around as I weeded and pruned. I would gather a handful of Japanese beetles and call the chickens over and feed them. They gobbled them up. Soon enough, they were picking them off the roses and scratching in the mulch looking for grubs. I was thrilled... until I saw the craters they made in the rose beds digging for grubs and taking dust baths. Mulch was scattered everywhere- on the lawn and in the driveway. Ugh... About that time, I came across an essay by Suzy Verrier, of North Creek Farm. Suzy had written a book on rugosa roses and another on gallica roses. Her essay was on the advantages of the bantam breeds compared to full sized chickens in the garden. She was right.

Lucky for me, a friend, Norm Johnson, a theater professor at Ithaca College, had flock of chickens- both standard and bantam. He also raises rare color forms of peacocks. Norm was working on a new color pattern in bantam cochins called Mille Fleur (thousand flowers). Seemed appropriate. And so I started with a little rooster and three hens. They weigh about 2 lbs a piece. My feed bill dropped to next to nothing. The chicken coop was so much cleaner. I wasn't hauling as much water- a great advantage in the winter. They were as voracious for Japanese beetles as the buckeyes, but did not make the mess in my roses that the Buckeyes did. Last summer, the Cochin hens went broody and hatched out some chicks. We selected the ones with the best Mille Fleur coloring and sold the rest at an auction along with most of the Buckeye flock. We now have the cutest flock of banties- two roosters (father and son) and five hens and just two buckeye hens. Our chickens decimated the Japanese beetle population over the past two years, so we had little damage done by the beetles. If your zoning allows it, give chickens a try- but start with bantams.

As William Carlos Williams says

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

1 comment:

  1. I am considering a very small flock of bantams. I think 3 hens and a rooster seem about right. I find the cochins particularly appealing. I'm trying to work out the logistics of housing, and winter care, as well as protecting them from cats and wildlife.
    I had a flock of laying hens years ago. Big heavy birds, I can only imagine the damage in they could do in the garden!