Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On the run

Several hours after moving the residents to their new accommodations in Hilltop Coop, I got stuck into their old abode. I was going to use this shaded run as a propagation area for plants, but have since decided it had a more important purpose.

The run (before)

After evicting the former residents, the run was pretty messy - grass, dirt, poop and some old pots, which held micro greens we fed to the chickens. It all needed to go!

Under cover (before)

There was a log which served as a perch (once) which got dragged out and will be used in a garden bed, somewhere. But for a better look at the outside of Middle Ridge, I found an old picture...

Newly constructed

It's cobbled together - a shade house, tall roofed areas and short roofed areas. I liked it at the time, but there were some design flaws I look forward to renovating at a later date. Right now though, I need to put all that chicken fertility to good use - rather than have it run down hill and feed the mulberry tree!

The run (after)

So with a shovel, mattock and rake, I heaped up the soil around the edges and made some vegetable beds. There's approximately 6 metres squared, and I intend to us it all! As the winter sun lowers, it will dip under the shade cloth and enter the run directly. I should get frost protection, and because there's a door, I get animal protection too.

I never designed Middle Ridge for this purpose, but it seems crazy not to convert it to such a purpose now.

Under cover (after)

I still have some space in the tall roofed area, which I'll probably allocate to propagation. I'm still organising what shelves I can fit in this space.

I won't be able to plant in the new beds for a few weeks yet, but I already have some seedlings on the go, thanks to Farmer Liz, at 8 acres. We did a trade and her kale seeds came up really quickly.

Walking stick kale (I believe)

I also have some of her Lacy Lady Peas, which are just starting to emerge too. I have to be careful I don't kill them with my tendency to over water, and trying to be vigilant on that score! I noticed it first with the empty cell, a single kale emerged but withered quickly due to wet extremes.

I will be extra careful now, because I really want to have some wins growing vegetables. This new set-up is probably the closest I'm going to get to optimum conditions, and I need those seedlings to grow!

As always, there's more to this renovation than present, but all will be revealed in good time.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Kids movies

As always happens with our youngsters, we introduce them to kids movies at appropriate ages. Our son is nearly two, and he's been introduced to the Disney/Pixar movie, WALL-E. Have you seen it?

It's like a silent movie for the most part - communication being through gesture, music and exaggerated movements. Our son loves movies with exaggerated movements, like Monsters Inc and all three of the Toy Story movies. But we're talking about WALL-E, aren't we?

You'll have to forgive me if you haven't seen it, or have forgotten the storyline if you have. Because its in the details of the story, which I have rediscovered a subtle message. My son see's an animated, warm character who likes to make friends with nearly everyone he meets. I see the only survivor of his mechanical kind, after 700 years cleaning up the mess of humans.

How is it he survives, when the rest of the WALL-E units are broken down and strewn around the city like the empty shells they are? Well, he's a scavenger! He stopped looking only at his "directive", which was disposing of the rubbish the humans left behind, and he started to make something more of it. If he hadn't decided to be more creative with his directive, and found purpose in other people's rubbish, he wouldn't have been able to collect all the parts he needed to stay functional. None of his mechanical kind made that correlation by only following their primary directive.

Right in the beginning of the movie though, WALL-E busts his tracks (wheels) which gets him around the place. He stops briefly to an obsolete version of himself, sitting in a pile of junk. This units tracks aren't broken, and the next minute we see WALL-E driving down the road on smooth tracks again - presuming he swapped them with the other unit. This was equivalent to stealing a dead man's shoes. They obviously weren't going to need them any more. Morose perhaps, but entirely practical.

While it looks like WALL-E is merely cleaning up the mess left behind by humans, he's actually scavenging a future for himself. He also teaches other robots he later comes in contact with in space, how to think outside their "directive" too. The only one he wasn't able to influence was "Autopilot", which was the machine responsible for controlling the ship the human passengers were on.

What was Autopilot's directive? Not to let the human's return to earth. It was his mission, given to him from the CEO of "Buy n Large", responsible for the clean up on Earth, that it would be easier to "stay the course" and never return. Only the CEO didn't bother to tell the Captain or the rest of the humans on board for nearly 700 years. He programed the Autopilot to assume control, of not doing anything to rectify the situation created by humans. To save the humans, they had to be kept ignorant of the situation.

So for 700 years WALL-E was adapting to his environment and surviving on Earth, and in the same amount of time, Autopilot was keeping the influence of its capitalist creators alive - making the humans less capable of taking care of themselves. When the humans finally realised what was going on, thanks to the influence of WALL-E, the only way to stop the Autopilot from controlling the destination of the ship, was to switch it off.

When I first saw WALL-E, with Peter's older sister, back in the early 'norties, I thought it was a very sweet movie about falling in love, devotion and ultimately not turning our backs on the Earth. If you look a little deeper though, everyone of us could be stuck on autopilot, following the directive of our capitalist organisers of survival.

Its not that we consciously turn our backs on the earth or our responsibilities to it, we're just taught from a very young age, to follow a different directive. If the corporations say its what's best for everyone, then it must be true! I used to see Autopilot as a silly machine that didn't realise the directive could be subject to change - but then I realised the CEO of Buy 'n Large, wanted the autopilot to be in control. That's what he programed it to do. Take over, assume control and stay the course Buy 'n Large orchestrated from the start.

They never make mention of money on WALL-E. We see a lot of exchanges of product - food, services and transportation on the star ship - but no reference to Buy 'n Large shareholders in the present. Are we to assume they continued the services of the ship for 700 years, with no exchange of monetary worth? Their name-brand is plastered all over the ship and no-one is getting paid for it?

I suspect if money and shareholders had been mentioned as the cause though, instead of limited machine processes misinterpreting the data, then WALL-E never would have been released. Part of its appeal was its innocence. It could send a deeper message in an indirect way. My son probably still just loves it because he loves facial expressions and gestures of communication, without words.

WALL-E's message is much deeper though. If we don't find ways to evolve our directive, then we become subject to someone's else's interpretation of it. Are we stuck on Autopilot, because we're afraid to take the wheel ourselves?

I know this discussion about a kid's movie, seems somewhat removed from our property endeavours, but I think it personifies it well. I don't want to follow a blind directive of survival, I want to be responsible for creating our own directive - changing and adapting as circumstances require it. WALL-E didn't suddenly open my eyes, but its the first time I've recognised its story line, as a story about the ordeal of change.

One often has to stray from the path one knows. We have to consciously switch off the Autopilot and face the mistakes of our past.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Moving day

Pack your bags ladies, because today you're moving house! Hilltop is officially open for new residents. I would have been finished several days sooner, only I had a technical hitch. Literally...a hitch!


The renovated front door, had a ventilation window put in, to help with cross breezes in summer. Only, cutting that bit of transparent perspex off the bottom of the door made it kind of flimsy. The original bolt which kept the door closed wasn't doing anything for the bottom any more. A determined animal would be able to squeeze through, possibly even breaking the door. So I came up with a little invention, for a little more security.


I was given some metal latches many years ago for this very purpose, but never saw myself needing them. Not until my newly renovated, flimsy door came into being. To make it work however, I needed a long bolt to go through the post. I hunted around several hardware stores, only to realise 100mm was the longest bolt they came in, with continuous thread. The shop assistant suggested a long rod I could cut to length instead.

Front and back

It worked a treat! I was able to nip off the size required with my angle grinder, and now, with a simple twist, I can secure the lower section of the door. I could have gone to the trouble of making a whole new door, but the old one was still in good shape and I like recycling.

Speaking about recycling though, I had a problem with the original doors being too short, since I got rid of the step underneath. So I used the transparent perspex I cut off the bottom of the front door for the ventilation window - cut it in half again, then screwed them to the top of both doors (above picture and below).

Run door

This lovely door was originally the internal one, which blocked off the coop from the run. So Hilltop had 3 doors originally. Since ditching the internal wall though, it wasn't necessary for 3 doors any more - it was in superior condition to the older door it replaced though. 

The old interior wall, where the nest was once attached, became a roost instead! 

Roost (foreground) and nest (background)

Then the nest got moved to the opposite wall. I was going to make an external nest we could check from the outside, but again, why build a new nest with new materials, when I had an existing one? It's right near the front door now, so is more convenient anyway.

All for an egg!

I got two eggs in the new nest today (both were Christened) and this was the first one. I got an egg from their old coop, before I moved them this morning too. But no more dirty eggs, as the rain would soak their former run area and they'd walk into the nest with muddy feet. With a fully enclosed roof area, I will have less of a problem with mud.

Internal plan

The new area is spacious, with enough room for their necessities. All within the dimensions for Council too. I didn't get to hang the feeder and water container before taking this photo, but you should see their designated chains, hanging from the rafter.

We covered the ground with slashed grass and will continue to top it up with weeds and the like, as they become available. Chickens make some really great soil if you give them the ingredients.

Chicken business

The ladies weren't too keen on being relocated, but loved the new digs when they arrived - heading straight for the greenery which grew inside the coop, during the renovation. I didn't pull them out, as I thought the chickens would have more fun doing it themselves!

That lone ginger chicken was adopted from the neighbours. It escaped along with its two other friends. We saw them several times in our backyard, but then three, went down to two, until eventually, we saw only ginger. She hung around our coop a lot and I wondered where her friends got to. When she started digging up our plants, I let her into the coop with the others. She seemed happy to join them.

About a week later, my husband ran into the neighbour who worked at the local pharmacy. He told them about this rogue chicken we adopted. Apparently it was theirs. They noticed the chickens were escaping their coop, and like us, noticed the numbers returning every night was less and less. They thought ginger had met the same fate as her friends. They said we were welcome to keep her, as she was probably safer in our coop until they got theirs repaired.


So vagabond Ginger, has seen inside two of our coops now. All the work inside Hilltop has been completed for the most part, but I still have the guttering and rainwater tank to fit outside. I'll do that a little later, as I have some renovating to do to Middle Ridge coop now, which just became vacant.

Valuable real estate there, which I will report on what I'm doing with, very soon!

On the budget side of Hilltop renovation though, it all came under $100. I reused most of the old materials (screws, hinges and even the iron which was formerly the internal wall, was allocated to the extra roofing needed) which brought down the overall cost.

As I was moving the tools and supplies out of the coop yesterday, I felt such a sense of relief. This day, which had been planned for, nearly seven months ago, had finally arrived. I'm glad I did it - it was worth all the effort. Especially being able to wheel that barrow, straight into the coop to clean it!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

More on Hilltop

So what happened to Hilltop Chicken Coop? Quite a lot, actually! Back in September 2014, I started the renovation of our old coop, by demolishing the interior wall. It felt good! Then in October 2014 I rebuilt the roost and put in new posts.

It's now April 2015, nearly 7 months after I first started, and I feel like I've really turned a corner now...

Concrete step #1

This is the last of the big jobs! I finally removed the raised tin ledge at the doorways, and put in a concrete step instead. You don't know how much work went into something so subtle, you could miss it if you stepped over it.

With David's help, I concreted the first step. I was a little nervous about doing this, because it required digging down, between the two posts. So I put in some poor-man's braces to help keep the posts in check.

Doorway braced

It was a good way to use offcuts and they will be a permanent feature. I didn't have to worry so much about removing a large chunk of dirt between the two posts now. Notice, I finally got that roof back on?


This a a close-up of the brace in the corner, and  you can see the shade structure of Middle Ridge chicken coop in the background. The chickens will be moving up here soon. I only have to rehang the doors now.

The process of the first ledge didn't get photographed, because I was too busy trying to figure out how to make it work. I managed to get photos of the second doorway, however.

Before deconstruction

This was the original step. The idea was to help contain the dirt, the mulch and with the tin down about 30cms under ground, it would deter digging animals like foxes or dogs. Which it has to date.

Although, it wasn't so great for wheeling barrows in to clean out the coop, which was part of the reason for starting the renovation.

During deconstruction

So began the process of unbolting, unscrewing and digging down to get the tin out. It was very awkward in such a tight space, to swing a mattock but I persevered and eventually got the tin out.

Once it was out of the way, I could finally dig the dirt properly.

Digging down

The trench was wider than the actual concrete step was going to be, but that's just how the process dictated. I had to use a mattock and needed space to get my shovel in too. It will surprise anything which attempts to dig at the doorstep though, as they'll go down a few centimetres, then hit concrete.


Before I could concrete, I put a roofing bolt through the posts on both sides. It's actually on an angle, but this photo doesn't show it clearly. These bolts will help anchor the posts to the concrete step. It may not have been necessary, but it tied the structure together and that's what I wanted.

Boxed and poured

You can see in the image above, how I made the box for the concrete.  I had to use large clamps to hold the wooden sides to the post. Using stakes to hold the box, in such a tight area, would require long ones that could possibly get in the way of pouring the concrete. Clamps just worked better.

You can also see the concrete below ground. I had to make a thick mix, which isn't easy when you're mixing by hand - just so it wouldn't slump down. I then used my trowel and edger to finish the top surface. A day later I could remove the brace and put the dirt back into place.

Finished #2

It looks so subtle and yet it was incredibly involved. Especially mixing the concrete by hand. We used a tarp and a shovel, which was remarkably effective for mixing small amounts of concrete, but oh-boy, it certainly worked the back muscles!

Lest we forget I'm actually on a building site...


This is what the inside presently looks like. No place for chickens or toddlers. The roost makes a good bench for my tools and buckets of bolts though. Hopefully it won't be long until I get those doors lowered and rehung, so I can clean up the inside!

Not quite finished, but almost.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Potato experiments

Photo taken 2014

I haven't had much luck growing potatoes here. I'm putting it down to a lack of experience and unsuitable conditions. I tried to remedy that back in May 2014, where I did a potato experiment - transplanting a volunteer from the compost into a wheelbarrow.

Since you haven't heard me bragging about copious amounts of potatoes, you can assume (as I know) that particular experiment failed. As predicted, the wheelbarrow was too dry and hot, and ended up frying the volunteer in summer.

New experiment in 2015

But you know I'm such a glutton for punishment. Plus, I hate wasting green potatoes which have sprouted in the pantry, so I'm experimenting once again.

Only this time I'm resorting to containers. Recycled ice-cream containers from my husband's work, to be precise. They're 10 litres in volume, and I set one inside another, to act as a sort of wicking bed. Which I'll explain shortly.

In the above picture however, I started with chitted potatoes - three were planted inside the ice-cream container, and one inside a regular pot.

Ready to transplant

Of the three segments I placed in the ice-cream container, only one sprung up. A second one attempted to, but the well developed, first plant, shaded it out and ensured it remained stunted. The potted potato did really well though and had great root structure, as seen above. 

I wanted to transplant it into another set of ice-cream containers, which we never run out of, as David brings home the kitchen scraps from his workplace, for the chickens, in these plastic tubs. They would otherwise be put in the recycle bin, but I'm going to try and grow potatoes in them instead.

Minor preparation

First, I had to drill some holes in the base of one container. I drilled about nine, for adequate drainage. Then I set the container with holes, inside the other container - without holes.

 Ready for soil

This is going to act like a wicking box, as the bottom container will catch any excess moisture and hold it, but the first container will drain freely.

The benefit of these containers are, I intend to add more as the potato plant continues to grow upwards. I'll just cut the base off the next container, and stack it within the existing ones.


I now have two potato plants, which will hopefully produce some potatoes. Its not exactly the right time for potatoes in the garden, as we're in autumn now, but I'll keep these tubs protected by keeping them on the concrete verandah.

It receives the afternoon sun so frost shouldn't be a problem in winter.

Fingers crossed, by Spring, I'll be harvesting potatoes!!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Time to get cracking

How has your Easter weekend been so far? Has it been as wet as ours? We had grand plans for this Easter - I was going to pour some concrete, to help near completion of Hilltop Chicken Coop. David had gathered the relevant materials with the trailer in anticipation of the public holiday - where we have been caught unprepared before.

Unfortunately, the weather put an end to those plans. Feeling a little sorry for myself, after eating some chocolate eggs, I went outside to look for something to do. It was time to feed the chickens and as I passed the coop, I hatched a plan.

Middle Ridge chicken coop

With all this rain about, it was the perfect time to pull weeds. I removed tall grass from the beds around the coop, with plans to do something with the beds at a later date. You can see the weeds remaining on the far right.They will be removed in due course.

But I had plans for that grass, which was perfect for the chickens in this weather.

New flooring

I spread the lot inside the chicken coop floor. They snacked on the grass seeds and searched for grubs which came in with the bits of soil, but more importantly, it mulched the outside run. It meant the chickens didn't have to walk around in mud, after the last lot of weeds broke down.

I want to turn this particular coop into a vegetable area, as it has the existing shade structure for summer. But I need to get Hilltop chicken coop finished first, so I can move the chickens up there. In the meantime, the girls can help break down this new green manure into the soil, along with the wet weather and heat of autumn. I love an eager work crew!

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!

With all that grass removed from the beds, I could finally access my paving again! Only it had quite a substantial amount of debris and soil covering it. No problem. Nothing a shovel couldn't fix...

Plus I had the perfect place to dump it all.

Free compost and mulch - compliments of weeds

Just opposite the paving is our Eureka lemon tree. I used the paving muck and bits of grass as mulch around it. This poor tree has really been in decline for the past few years. Not enough air circulation, too much shade and it had grown too large for me to manage disease properly. So it was time for a heavy prune.

Lemon tree, left

You can see the paving is overshadowed by one of the branches, which is another reason to cut it back. I need to be able to access this bed properly if I'm going to manage a crop, and look after the lemon tree at the same time.

But more about this lemon tree in another post.

Weed central

Just a few steps away is our garden shed and another collection of weeds. This is similar to what the garden beds around the chicken coop, formerly looked like. This has tall grass, cobblers pegs and even sweet potato vines, all covering a pile of neatly stacked garden materials. If the weather is like it was today, then cleaning up this area next, its a good investment of our efforts!

I will find that retaining wall, somewhere behind this mess.

A little treat

I managed to find a few surprises in the mulch I cut down in another area too - a pile of cherry tomatoes. There were smaller ones under the visible ones. I threw them into the chicken coop, and they were gobbled up like chocolate eggs.

Okay, so I didn't get to do some of the things I planned - but I got to spend some time with my chickens outside, enjoying the drizzle. At one point, it rained a little too hard and I sort shelter temporarily in the coop. The girls didn't seem to mind.

While I am partial to a good dairy free Easter egg on the holidays, I'm glad to have spent some quality time with my real egg layers. It was probably a better way to spend the day, than shovelling concrete anyway.

I hope your plans for Easter are enjoyable, even if some of your plans have to change.

UPDATE: Thanks to some feedback in the comments, I should clarify the tall grass I put in the coop is still attached to a root ball. This makes it easier for hens to rip off small pieces of grass. You want to avoid giving long strands of grass to chickens as single units, as they can get impacted crop and die. Make sure some grit is available to your hens also, to ensure they can digest their food properly.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Back-up plan

One issue living away from the conveniences of urban living is, you have to take care of certain things independently. Things such as inflating tyres. Such a simple concept, but if you don't live near a fuel station, what are you going to use on a reliable basis to put air in your tyres?

Modern solution

We initially purchased an electrical unit, on sale at around $160. This unit could jump start the car, convert to 12v and charge any number of devices, all from the built-in battery. We only really purchased the unit however, for the air compressor with digital psi read out.

It was brilliant for the first two years, even if it did seem to take a while to fill the car tyres. But then one day is just decided it wasn't going to fill air anymore. The unit turns over, just as usual, but no air comes out to fill the tyres. So we were left with what to do next!

 New-old technology

Who would think a manual bike pump became the answer? Oh, we've tried bike pumps before, but who can pump for long with those hand-held units? We even had a foot pump, but it eventually broke too! The problem with those two pump designs were, you could easily put pressure on the connections, or metal, through the motion of pumping. Eventually something breaks and you're back to square one.

The beauty with this new bike pump however, is it holds everything neatly, as you simply use gravity to push down. Up and down. That's it.

Nothing fancy

The foot holder doesn't have springs and won't warp, so long as you're sensible with how you use it while pumping. We cannot really trust the manual pressure gauge, but it does give an indication that you're near the mark. We'll have to remedy this with a digital pressure reader, which is good to have for checking your car tyres anyway.

With our pond project recently, we desperately needed our wheelbarrow back in action. It was out of commission, due to having low tyre pressure. Have you ever tried using a barrow with low air, and have the metal valve disappear back into the tyre? Then you have to rip off the whole tyre, to get access to the valve again!

Out and proud!

Well I have a few tricks to avoid all that. First, ALWAYS check your tyre is inflated before putting weight in your wheelbarrow. If you find you've gotten to it a little late, but the valve is still visible, use a pair of pliers to hold the metal valve (don't pull it). Then slowly let the rest of the air out of the tyre. While still holding the valve with the pliers, gently pull it out more to attach the pump fitting.

If you don't let the air out of the tyre first, you'll end up damaging the rubber ring inside trying to get the value out enough to attach the pump. Then you'll have to replace the inner tube. Ask me how I know *wink*.

But here is the best news, we purchased this particular unit on sale - normally around $70 retail, and we paid only $20 + postage (around $30 in total). If you are interested in having a reliable source of air at your place, you can find the same offer we used HERE. The offer only lasts until 13 April for Australians only.

I'm not paid to advertise this product, I just thought others may find it handy having a back-up for when the electrical solutions don't always work!

 Inflatable pool ring

This pump can do up to 160psi, which ain't bad for a bike pump. You can use it for wheelbarrow tyres, bike tyres, air-beds, inflatable pools, even car tyres!

My advice, if you need to be independent with inflating tyres, is don't buy a six-in-one unit like we initially did. Buy an air compressor separately. They come in all shapes and sizes, but just make sure you buy one with enough grunt to do what you need it to. Check out this link for a little more info on making an air compressor decision.

But its also good to have a manual air solution, like a suitably designed bicycle pump. We're glad to FINALLY have the barrow back again!