Building A Chicken Coop

Purina Hen House and Hutch Design

I just broke ground on building this chicken coop.   So far I’ve picked up all of the plywood and made all the cuts.   Probably next week I’ll pick up the 2×4’s, cut them and begin the assembly.   Just getting started is usually the hard part for me on these kinds of things, so I’m glad I’m at least part way into it.

I have a book on chicken coop designs and there’s all kinds of plans out there on the internet.   I’ve gone through a lot of plans and decided on this one because it’s more or less the exact size that I want, looks simple enough to build and it’s very utilitarian while still looking decent enough.   The plans on the Purina website are a little vague, but I think I have it figured out and I’ll post about it step-by-step.

I’m kind of learning the power of Craigslist and just asking around on building materials with this.   Today I checked Craigslist to see if anyone had any of the things I’ll need for sale and found a guy that was selling 4×8 sheets of plywood for about 1/3 of what it would cost if I went to Menard’s to pick it up.    When the guy asked what I was building, I told him a chicken coop.   He just kind of chuckled and told me to go into his backyard.   He had about twenty chickens in his modest-sized backyard as well as a few dwarf fruit trees, berries and garden beds.  Pretty impressive “urban homestead”.   We ended up talking about those kinds of things for a little less than an hour.   I told him I was planning on putting siding on the coop and he will have a few extra sheets of siding laying around after a project so I’ll pick those up for a few bucks next week.   Score.    Another guy I work with his some of the corrugated roofing that I’ll need laying around as well as a few other things to round off the edges on this project.   I’m planning on checking Craiglist over the weekend to see if any 2×4’s or a skylight surface.

Two of my goals for the year on the 13 skills in 2013 project was to improve my carpentry/woodworking skills and to raise poultry.   This one starts to kill two birds with one stone.    I never was very handy, but over the past few years I’ve built a few things and have gotten a lot better.   Building raised garden beds a few years ago was a good project for a novice and then later that year I built a pergola, which was a little more difficult and actually turned out pretty good.   I didn’t do a very good job of staining it, but such is life.   I’m hoping my kiwis will cover it anyways.   I also took a woodworking class last year and built a bat house, a sweet cold frame and then a pair of Indian clubs on lathe.    I’m definitely a lot more comfortable with these kinds of things now.



Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass by Harold Getty

Awesome book.    I’ve been raging on the book reviews lately, but I suppose that’s what happens when I can manage to get a lot of reading done.

This book was written shortly after World War II by expert navigator Harold Getty.   He draws on his experience as a pilot, outdoorsman and sailor as well as a traveler among primitive societies (Eskimos, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, Polynesians, etc) who use this stuff as a matter of life and death.

One thing Getty makes clear is that he doesn’t believe that the ability to navigate comes from magic or a “sixth sense” that us modern-day Westerners like to ascribe to indigenous societies.   Instead he believes the ability to navigate comes from actually using your senses and developing them.   Reading this brings home the fact that in the modern world we have a lot of things done for us and it’s easy to not rely on them as much as ancient man did.

The book is divided up into about 20 chapters, some longer than others, based on navigating in certain environments or using certain mediums (i.e. urban, using plants, using the moon, desert, aquatic birds, etc.).   There’s definitely a lot of interesting information and since I read it a few days ago I’ve found myself trying apply a few things in the book.   Some things I’ll probably never apply, some things will probably be useful at some point.

I think the way this book should be used is to read through it to get an idea of what’s possible and then referring back to specific chapters later on for the specifics.   Some things I glossed over in the book such as the in-depth descriptions of the habits of certain nautical birds.   Definitely an interesting idea and I thought the general premise behind navigating through the birds was a worthwhile tidbit of knowledge, but no use clouding my mind with specifics right now.   I’ll probably check back with the book soon and try telling the sidereal time and some of the things with the sun.

Thinking beyond just navigation, this book has applications for situational awareness and permaculture.    Getty really stresses actively observing the environment and shows many ways you can get all kinds of information out of your surroundings.    He also gives some clues on how you can assess weather patterns in a specific area, which ties in with permaculture.

This is definitely a cool book and a good one to have in the collection if you’re into these kinds of primitive skills and believe that your mind is often your most valuable piece of gear.   I wish I would have read this one a long time ago while I was in the Marines, I think a lot of this information would have come in handy.    This is the kind of stuff that once you learn it, you’ll find yourself always using it.  There’s all kinds of things in this book that he brings up that I can’t believe I never thought of.   I’ve already started looking at all the trees around me a little differently now that I know what to look for.





Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression


One of the books I read recently was Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.   It’s a series of disjointed chapters about various aspects of her childhood in rural Iowa during the depression.   The book has been out for a few years, but I stumbled upon it this fall in the gift shop of Seed Savers’ Exchange and put it on my to-read list.    The other day I posted something about reading about the siege of Leningrad and how I think it’s a good idea to read historical/actual accounts of people coping with hard times in order to get ideas and stimulate your brain a little bit.   I can assure you that I got more out of this book than I did any of the fiction ones involving a karate expert with a heart of gold navigating a post-apocolyptic world.

This book was like talking to grandma (coincidentally my grandma did grow up on a farm in Iowa during the depression!) but maybe after a few drinks.  I’m not sure if this will make sense, but Kalish tells her story in a heartfelt manner yet at the same time she’s not caught up in being too sentimental.   By that I mean that she seems very honest.   She’s not writing a yarn about walking to school uphill in a blizzard both ways or pining about “the good ol’ days”.    I didn’t get the impression that there were any tall tales in the book.   She wrote about some of the hardships her family faced, some of the good times they had and most importantly, some of the routine things in their daily lives that often get lost in history between the yarns about how bad things were or good ol’ days recollections.

One example of the everyday things she writes about is the subject of cussing back then, a subject near and dear to my heart.    Although I’ve wondered about how people talked to each other in their day-to-day lives, I was never able to muster the courage to say “Hey, Grandma, did you guys ever say ‘fuck’ back then?”.   Now I know.    Another similar subject is outhouse usage and toilet humor of the day.   Kalish is very frank and vivid in her recollections of daily life during her childhood and leaves the reader with few questions unanswered.

The book is entertaining.   She’s a good storyteller and has some good anecdotes about the depression and life back then.   Although the book wasn’t meant to be a how-to manual, I think it has a ton of value in the way of passing on bits of folkish wisdom that have been obscured by the good times between the depression and today.   I checked the book out from the library, but I’ll probably end up buying a cheap used copy of the book so I can go through and highlight some stuff for future reference.

I’ll throw out some examples of stuff I’ve learned – so as part of  13 in 2013, I’m planning on tracking down at least five new wild edibles and using them.   Kalish talks about going after ground cherries and how they used them.   So now I know that they really are in my part of the world and I have an idea on how to use them when/if I find them.   While I didn’t buy the book from SSE’s gift store when I initially thumbed through it, I did pick up a pack of ground cherry seeds (among a lot of other stuff).   Maybe I’ll do a bit of guerrilla gardening?  She also talked about dandelion greens, wild fruits and nuts and the kinds of things they would do with them.   Foraging was an important part of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had problems making yogurt.   Kalish mentioned that they used to set their yogurt on top of the stove in order to stimulate the bacteria.   I had a duh moment when I read this.   The other day I tried making yogurt again and ended up with a great batch of it.   I put it on a heater vent and then a warm stove.  It had it setting in no time.   I looked at the recipe I’ve been using and notice that it says “put in a warm place”.  I’ve been just counting on room temperature being good enough.   So I think I’ve got that one down now.

There’s a ton of stuff about cooking and the things they ate.   Simple, hearty and economical foods in tune with the seasons and what they had available.   No one ever talks about Midwestern fare or writes it off as being bland and boring, but it’s based on necessity.   They needed foods they could produce on-site or store in bulk that would give them enough energy to go about their daily tasks, often in cold weather.    It’s probably not a good idea to start your day with ham, eggs and biscuits and then roast with potatoes a few hours later for lunch if you’re sitting at a desk from 9-5, but it makes a lot of sense if you’re engaged in physical labor all day.   Most of the recipes given would have a lot of conventional dieters freaking out, but I imagine their rates of obesity were pretty low back then.

I also learned a few important tips on chopping down trees.   As a kid I had about an acre or two patch of woods behind me and my only experience with chopping down trees was the time we took down a small maple with a hammer and a small section of rusty iron bar.   Kalish gives a few valuable tips that novice apsiring lumberjacks might overlook.

The chapter on how frugal they were was pretty impressive.   One example was that when they would wear out a pair of socks, they would darn them up and pass them down to the next smallest person to the point where a pair of socks would last through several owners.   The ankle part of the sock usually doesn’t wear out, it’s usually just the toes and heel.   The “hoarder” mentality is common enough among today’s elderly, but when you think about how many of them grew up with the “make do or do without” mentality of the Great Depression you can see how that can happen.   Especially when you consider how in today’s climate we assume that things will be worn out and tossed away and a lot of things are cheap and plentiful.

I got a chuckle out of a part where she mentions that her family were “hearty-handshake Methodists”, meaning that they frowned upon things like hugging or other physical or verbal public displays of affection.   I’ve got a little bit of this background and I’m notorious for being awkward with hugging and uncomfortable with things like hand holding and other such indulgences.   It’s kind of funny for me to see this in writing.

I found this book really cool.   Not only was it entertaining, it was full of a ton of useful stuff.   I think that anyone interested in homesteading, basic skills, self-reliance, traditional Americana, agrarianism, frugality, preparedness, rustic cooking and probably a dozen or so other niche markets would get something out of this book.   I’m glad that Kalish unflinchingly shared her story with the world so that all these little details on daily life wouldn’t get lost.

In addition to this book I’m currently reading The Grapes of Wrath.   Somehow I made it through high school and college (with a liberal arts major) without reading this.  I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it.   I also ordered a depression-era cookbook from a lady that had a series of popular YouTube videos on the kinds of things they ate back then.  I posted one of her videos last year, it’s worth checking out (link).   I wouldn’t be surprised if I post some more things about the Great Depression in the coming month or so.

Looking Forward to the 2012 Garden and Looking Back at 2011

Tonight I made a few soil cubes and started some seeds underneath the grow light.   So far we have a dozen cabbage going, 3 cauliflower, 3 romanesco cauliflower, 3 brussel sprouts, 1 collard green, 1 mustard green and one swiss chard plant to get an early jump on things.   Tomorrow I may get a few herbs started.    Although we’re not in the clear yet, the weather has been very spring-like lately and I’m getting anxious to get started.

In 2008 my dog dug up the tomatoes I had going in containers. In 2009 I had a few herbs in containers and killed some tomatoes through overwatering.   In 2010 I grew a few herbs.   In 2011, we put in 4 4×8 beds, put in some berry bushes and kept a ton of containers.   We had some successes and some failures, but we learned a lot and got a lot out of our efforts.

The year started with a failure – we were planning on gardening off-site on some land in the family that was on the market, but no one was biting on.  One day I went out and tilled up a few old beds and planted some early fall crops.   Strangely enough, while I was there planting someone made the first offer in over a year on the property.  I knew this was a possibility, but I didn’t figure it would be that quick!   In fact, we made a loose offer on the land and thought it was going to work out for us.      We then decided that we were going to try to do everything in our backyard.  The initial objection to this was that one of our dogs, Django (recently deceased, RIP little buddy), would have definitely dug up anything we planted.   We solved this problem by making a chicken wire fence that surrounded each bed that still allowed us to reach over.   This worked out well for us.


We made a few other mistakes with timing and like many others, going overboard with what we wanted to plant.   It’s almost always advised to beginning gardeners that you should start small, but I think we took on quite a bit – and to our credit, we kept up with it all and we’re looking for more this year.

As a kid, I always liked the idea of gardening and did it occasionally.  I remember helping my grandmother who lived in a rural area outside the city planting and harvesting her large garden and enthusiastically tackling the small garden we kept at home.   The taste of freshly grown peas and the smell of tomatoes definitely brought back great memories that can’t be purchased at the supermarket.    We could buy our produce from the store.  We could even get it from a CSA or farmer’s market, but there isn’t much more satisfying than tending to and harvesting your own produce from your own patch of land.

I’m going to get “out there” a little bit, but I think I found a bit of a spiritual factor to gardening – I felt more connected to nature and the cycle of life having to take into account things like weather and the relationships between organisms (i.e. pests, beneficial insects, weeds, etc) that would go relatively unnoticed otherwise.   I felt a better connection to my heritage, as we were doing some of the things that my not-so-distant ancestors would’ve done like canning, pickling, dehydrating and so on in conjunction with gardening.   I had something to wake up for and felt a sense of purpose managing it all.   Also, there’s a great deal of satisfaction to knowing that you helped to create something of value through your efforts and achieve some level of self-reliance.

Although we probably didn’t produce more than 5-10% of what we consumed, what we did produce was very significant in the way it influenced our eating – almost every meal during the growing season had fresh herbs or something from the garden in it one way or another.  This makes a significant difference in the quality of your food. Even now, I’m still eating pickles almost daily, using dehydrated squash and occasionally drinking dehydrated herbs as tea.   We still have some tomatoes canned, pickled green tomatoes, frozen green beans and canned chow-chow.

Anyways, on to this year…

We’re planning on going from 4 beds to 7 or 8.    I will purchase the lumber for that project shortly.   We have a better idea about what to plant and when, so I think we’ll have a significant increase in output.   I think I tried to do too much with herbs in containers and ended up with too much of some herbs, too few of others.   I will try to balance this out by making a dedicated herb bed (beneficial insect attractors!) as well as using the containers a little wiser.

We’re going to extend our season through a cold frame (I’m building now, will post about it later) as well as some grow lights and a 6 x 8 greenhouse.

So far I’m pleased with the lights we bought and I think it will help us best utilize the space and time we have.   I’m considering getting another one to double up – I’m sure we will get enough value out of it  Growlights

The greenhouse looks like a great deal, considering Amazon’s free shipping (it weighs a little less than 100lbs).  We’re going to throw that up to harden off some plants and get some things going until we’re in the clear with the weather.  Greenhouse    The reviews on it seem promising, the price is definitely agreeable and I think this is something else that we will get value from.   Also we plan on eventually having a larger greenhouse when we move someday so the experience of dealing with a smaller novice-level one will be beneficial.

We haven’t placed an order for new trees and shrubs, but right now we’re looking at going nuts with mini-dwarf trees and possibly throwing in a few new fruit-producing shrubs.   Last year we had mini-dwarf apples that did well, but a strong wind broke them in half.   I guess they were serious when they said you should keep them staked.

We’re going to do some mushrooming underneath our deck too.

One of my goals for the year is to sell something commercially.   I’ve expressed interest with a local farmer’s market to come and be an occasional vendor peddling some produce and potted herbs.   I have a few ideas and I hope I’m able to make this happen.  That would be a great feeling to be able to produce a lot of our own food AND bring in a little bit of money out of our yard, providing people with a product that I believed in and would give people value.   Hopefully this plan works out – I’m willing to put the effort into it.

I’m kicking around the idea of a small aquaponics system to raise about a dozen tilapia.  Adena doesn’t care for the idea, but we’ll see.

So that’s where we’re at right now as spring seems just around the corner.   I can’t wait to get my hands dirty again.


The Maiden Voyage of our Fermenting Crock






I can’t say I’ve ever imagined myself owning a 20 liter fermenting crock, but we ordered one from Harvest Essentials last week with the weight stones which arrived on our doorstep Wednesday.   First, let me say that this thing appears to be built like a tank.  It was made in Boleslawiec, Poland and I know that the jokes make them more famous for things like screen door submarines and helicopter ejector seats, but the craftsmanship on this thing is definitely noteworthy.   This looks like something that could be in the family for generations and certainly many fermenting crocks have survived the test of time – in fact, my mother showed us one tonight that she had from my grandparents.   It looks sturdy enough to take some abuse and I also have to say that it’s not a bad looking piece of ceramic either.

Since it will be a while before we have cabbage in our garden (seeds aren’t even started yet), I went out last night and picked up four or five heads of cabbage, which came up to about 13.5 lbs.   I figured we might as well get some use out of it now and make sure we know what we’re doing so we’re ready when our homegrown cabbage is ready.

There’s all kinds of recipes for sauerkraut out there, but Adena insisted on a basic cabbage, salt and water recipe which was probably a smart idea for our first time.    Using a food processor it didn’t take long to strip the outer layers, cut out the hearts, wash the cabbage, chop them into smaller pieces and then shred.   Once we finished that, we put some of the cabbage in the crock, pressed it down with the stones, added some salt and then repeated the process a few more times with more layers of cabbage.  The recipe stated that if you didn’t have liquid from pressing the cabbage, you should add boiled (and then cooled) salt water to give it a liquid layer.   Our cabbage was dry, so we had to do that.  The crock was about half full (or half empty if it turns out bad) with 13.5 lbs of cabbage.  We’re unsure if we have to skim the top layer off every now and then (as I’ve heard before), but the recipe that came with the crock said that isn’t necessary with the crock.  It has a ring around the lid that you fill with water which allows gases to escape but limits air coming in.  All we have to do is leave it alone for a couple of days and then move it to a slightly cooler spot for several weeks.   I’m a little skeptical of this, but if we have problems I’d rather we work them out now rather than on the cabbage we’ll surely put our heart and soul into.

I guess there are some good health benefits to eating sauerkraut and other fermented foods, as well as a ton of other things that can be fermented.    Honestly, my annual sauerkraut consumption is low but I’m sure we would eat more of it if we made it ourselves.  If it turns out alright, I’m sure we won’t have any problems giving/bartering our surplus away.

UPDATE –  Two weeks later and everything seems to be going fine.   We can hear the water bubbling every now and then.   So far no significant smell either, which is a plus.