Letter from Birdland: Leaf bales will help keep our flock warm

Letter from Birdland: Leaf bales will help keep our flock warm

In Birdland, we dipped our toe into the bitterness of winter with a snowfall that initiated us into the season. For two days, the snow squeaked and crunched as it does when the thermometer dips down into the 20s.

But now we are back into a milder climate with sunny warm days and the snow all melted, dampening the piles of leaves under my walnut tree.

When the snow disappeared, I went back to my chore of raking leaves and separating the walnuts. I wrote last week about my idea to make "hay bales" from mulching bags filled with leaves. I pack them tightly and then fold down the tops, taping them like birthday presents.

My original idea was to stack these bricks of leaves into a fence around the chicken coop and then cover it with a tent of plastic so the chickens could get some sun on the bitterest windy days when it's too cold to let them wander in the yard.

But, as with most of my ideas, this one evolved some in the execution.

Michael had ideas of his own, so my husband and I put our plans together for a solution to the winter coop.

A few weeks ago, I bought another prefab henhouse in a box from the farm store. When we first started keeping chickens, these were not widely available, and those we could find were prohibitively expensive, so we just built our own from scratch. Now, you can buy a pretty good coop that is easy to put together for around $200.

That's about what we would spend on materials, and though we had to assemble this one, it was easy and fast. Our older coop was smaller and had a yard. The new one is fully enclosed and better at keeping the wind out.

Michael's idea was to put the two together like a giant habitrail. They aren't really meant to go together, so we had to do some modifications. Luckily, Michael is skilled at carpentry. We removed a door, and he built a wooden frame to join the two so a sneaky weasel can't get in. (They can get through any crack they can squeeze their head through. Believe it or not, that's 2 or 3 inches long, even if it's just an inch wide!)

He fitted out the new coop with a light bulb for warmth. (As an added bonus, egg production actually goes up in the winter when we light up the coop.) Together, we wrapped the chicken run in plastic to keep the wind out. (Even so, there's breeze enough to blow away any buildup of ammonia and carbon dioxide. Don't wrap your coop too tightly!)

We'll still let the chickens out in the yard on most days but keep them out of the wind when temps dip below 20.

The wind comes rolling off the west field. In the winter, when the corn and beans are gone, that field is flat as a plate, and the wind can hit the coop pretty hard. Both coops have lids that open like a chest freezer, and Michael installed hooks and eyes to keep them closed against the wind. The plastic is sturdy, but even so, debris blowing off the field can tear holes in it.

That's where my leaf bag hay bales come in. We have stacked them like giant Lego bricks on the windward side to provide both protection and insulation. In the spring, we'll move these bales to a new mulch pile, and by summer, with luck, I'll have plenty of mulch to apply to various garden projects.

Meanwhile, the frost-bitten garden still offers up a few gifts. The long-since-bolted arugula still has green leaves, which I pick for salads.

My two red cabbages, planted late, and stunted with the drought, are still growing. One is even beginning to form a tiny head. We'll see how they will weather the coming snow, but they already made it through what may be (fingers crossed) the coldest days we'll see this winter.

In the herb garden, the delicate ones, like basil and dill, are long gone, but sage, rosemary, lavender and thyme are still green, if not exactly growing. I'll go out later today and cut some for drying in my kitchen and maybe plant next year's garlic patch.

Shelter beauty; restore peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath, where she always has one harebrained scheme or another up her sleeve. Her latest book, "Breakfast for the Bee," is available at http://www.etsy.com/au/shop/BirdlandBookArts. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com.

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