Sunday, May 20, 2012

Keeping a Clean House

More than a spit and polish: the palais
de poulet gets its seasonal clean-out.
When summer was ending, and before the heavy rain came, I cleaned the hen house — with a thoroughness that is so infrequent, it always comes as a surprise to all concerned.

Most days of the year, I collect the detritus of the chickens’ daily living and put it in the compost. But now and then something more is called for, and the change of seasons always feels like The Time.

First I empty everything out. Then I scrub the walls and floor.

Years ago when I first kept chickens, I used bleach for this job, to deter the wily mites that I’d read about: surely they inhabited every nook and cranny of our DIY construction. These days I still don’t know a huge amount but I do things differently. With ne’er a sign of such parasites, this time I added only some vinegar and a bit of dishwashing liquid to my bucket of water before starting on the scrubbing. I thought it would be kinder to the earth beneath, where much of the water would be absorbed. It certainly smelled better.
In her rush to reach higher ground, Alice
(in black) almost displaces Henemoa.
The next step is to deploy my secret weapon: the water-blaster. The chooks don’t like this at all, even though I have no intention of turning it on them. 

This time, three hens huddled in the farthest corner and thought about moving to higher ground: the top of the nesting house, nearly 2 metres up. When they decided to act, Alice, the largest, got there last; her more problematic ascent toppled Victoria, and almost Henemoa.

By now the hen house was almost sparkling, as befits a palais de poulet, and some interesting critters had come out of the woodwork. Most were spiders but there was also a weta — goodness knows where it had been hiding. For people unfamiliar with this New Zealand insect, it’s related to (but much larger than) the common cricket.

The nesting house or chalet de poulet then received an external clean, mostly on top. This is the sparrows vantage point when they’re looking for any spare chicken feed. 

Vanessa (top right) and Emmeline feast on worms
that emerge when water saturates the ground.

With the water-blaster out of the picture (elbow grease only was required to scrub the chalet), the chooks regained their composure. And now it worked to their advantage to be present: water ran down the sloping sides of the construction and into the soil, and the worms emerged. Emmeline and Vanessa had a field day.

As time wore on, the palais dried out and I covered the floor and droppings board with untreated sawdust, bought from the Cypress Sawmill the week before. This family company in Kaukapakapa (just north of Auckland) specialises in supplying macrocarpa wood for various uses, then bags up the sawdust to sell as a byproduct.  

Fresh, untreated sawdust lines the floor of the
clean, dry hen house — and it has other uses too.
The fresh, sharp pineyness is fantastic. It seems to deter the flies in summer, and it’s a quick fix for the occasional ‘farmyardy’ smell. In the winter when the ground in the chook run is getting mud-puddly, I apply sawdust for a cleaner, drier surface. The small amount that finds its way into the compost bin after chookpoo-pickups is also a good thing: its carbon content balances the nitrogen that the manure contributes. 

This year, I’m also experimenting with leaves, wheelbarrowing a multitude to the chicken coop from the front of the quarter-acre. They’ve fallen from what I think is a rubber plant (Ficus elastica) escaped from the confines of its pot, and now about 10 metres tall. The chooks love to scratch around in these gigantic leaves looking for food, and perhaps they will help make healthy humus.

Chooks, eggs, manure, sawdust, leaves, compost, garden greens: they’re all part of a cycle that seems entirely satisfactory. Even the cleaning feels worthwhile. 

  Most photos this post: Carol Bartlett.

1 comment:

  1. You are a tidy Kiwi. You enjoy your hens and their activities almost as much as your contented dependents do. An EGGstraordinary blog.