Mail Call May/June 2015: Raising Chickens, Planting Trees, Garden Trugs, Woodstoves and More

Readers share their memories and insights about raising chickens, planting trees, garden trugs, woodstoves and more.

Chicken attack

Younger brother runs from the dominant rooster.

Illustration by Brian Orr

Content Tools

Facing Fears

My husband and I were in Tractor Supply, and he picked up a copy of your magazine (Volume 3 of the annual Guide to Backyard Chickens). There was one article that he couldn’t wait for me to read, Adventures in Chicken Keeping. I enjoyed the article because it brought back so many memories.

Every Easter the Five-and-Dime store would have baby peeps, dyed in beautiful spring colors — purple, yellow, pink and green. If I remember correctly, they were 10 cents each. We would get a bunch of them, and as far as I am concerned, their cuteness only lasted as long as their colors did. Once they started to get real feathers, I was done with them. My brothers had no problem, but we always had roosters, and I swear they waited until I came out of the house to go after me. I would walk outside with a broom in my hand to beat them off. Most of the summer, I felt like a prisoner in my own house, but my mother loved chickens. It didn’t matter that her daughter was afraid. I guess she figured I would get over it.

Here I am at 54, and let me tell you, I have not gotten over it. Birds of any kind scare me to death. This all started when I was 4 — running around playing outside — and ran into the whole flock of banty chickens. They pecked me from head to toe. I realize that they were probably scared, too, but they are not the nicest chickens to have, and that did it for me. But my mother still raised chickens.

When I married my husband, he wanted to get chickens, and I said, “No way.” We have 11 acres and have raised pigs, sheep and Angus cattle, but no chickens. All of a sudden this winter, he started looking into how to build a chicken coop and asked me where a good place for one would be. My answer was simple: “In someone else’s yard.”

One day he was on the phone with our son and daughter-in-law, and he said he wanted to get some chickens. I told him the only way he was getting chickens was if the remodeling projects for the house got finished first, which were the main bathroom and our half bath. As I am writing this, he is just putting the grout on the new ceramic floor in the main bathroom. He totally gutted it out, rebuilt the floor, added a new vanity, redid the plumbing, gave it a paint job and lights, and the toilet and shower are on the way. So, guess what is coming in June? That’s right: Chickens.

The deal is that they stay in the coop and are always fenced in behind the barn so I never have to deal with them, and he knows I will never feed, gather eggs, or touch them, only as baby chicks. My grandson said, “Grandma, it has been 50 years. Get over it.” I don’t see that happening, but I do have a brand-new bathroom.

Hope you enjoy this story, because I certainly enjoyed your article.

Mary Frances Sohayda
via email


Trees for Future Generations

I loved your article Trees for Tomorrow. For years, I have “rescued” baby trees and replanted them to new areas. I have planted pecan nuts, oak nuts, cherry seeds, peach seeds, and various other tree seeds with good results. From the new trees, I have helped reforest several areas. I now have 10 acres to help replant. My husband and I planted 30 assorted tree seedlings in the middle of February. We may not live long enough to benefit from the fruit and nut trees, but maybe our grandkids will.

Karen Ritter
DeBerry, Texas


Tons of Trees

It is always extra nice when I run into someone who really appreciates trees. We planted 800-plus trees on our property in central Texas, most of which we grew from seed in our backyard. Some were from the U.S. Forest Service. We started sometime around 1998.

Our property was infested with prickly pear and mesquite, so we started with a controlled burn, and then another one. We eliminated most of the mesquite, and hired a man with an auger to dig the holes for the trees. My husband engineered an above-ground watering system. Then we discovered that our well was inadequate to water the trees. A friend across the road supplied us from her well, and we got a 1,500-gallon storage tank.

Laura Lewis
Lubbock, Texas


Inspired Garden Trug

After reading the article, DIY Garden Trug in the January/February issue, my husband decided to build me one. He used scrap wood from old fences on our farm. The trug is beautiful, and I can’t wait to start using it this summer. Thank you for inspiring him to build this for me!

Rachelle and Jeff Kopp
Ceres, Virginia

Awesome, Rachelle and Jeff! This is what makes our jobs so rewarding, and thank you for engaging an article and bringing it to life. It’s beautiful! — Editors


Posthole Diggers

The ultimate powered posthole digger system was designed, fabricated and patented about 40 years ago by Ken Wesbrock, owner of Valley Fencing and Construction in Aurora, Illinois. He built three systems, one for each of his three tractors — two Cub Cadets and a small Ford tractor — in the former Cadillac dealership garage.

Each unit was self-contained, fabricated out of 2-by-2 heavy wall tubing, and was fastened to the tractor’s frame rails with U-bolts. The hydraulic reservoir was on the left side to balance the drilling carriage on the right side, and the hydraulic auger motor rode on a captive carriage that moved on brass slides screwed onto the vertical frame. The auger motor carriage was powered up and down with another hydraulic motor with a gear that engaged a heavy fixed roller chain. The carriage frame pivoted at the chassis mount frame and was aligned vertically with a hydraulic cylinder.

This alignment adjustment allowed fence postholes to be drilled vertically, even when driving along the contour of a hillside. The fenceline did not have to be straddled. All control valves were mounted to the rollover protection structure frame with U-bolts. Power was supplied by the tractor’s hydraulic pump.

These were the first prototypes and were immediately placed into daily service. We unbolted each system after six years of abusive use for a thorough examination and found no signs of structural failure. Although they could be judged serviceable, we replaced the brass bearing strips on the vertical frames. The only maintenance performed was hose replacements and fluid changes during those first six years. The brass slides and roller chains were greased with boat trailer wheel-bearing grease.

The soil auger’s leading edges were reinforced with steel strips and flame tempered. Replaceable carbide-tipped bits from a trenching excavator were then welded to the reinforced leading edges. Asphalt and frozen ground didn’t stop fence hole drilling.

I don’t know whether or not Mr. Wesbrock was ever able to get a manufacturer interested in purchasing his patents, but I do know that the less-than-delicate operators he employed never came in from a job early because the drilling system failed. They managed to break other things, but not that drilling system.

James Tomell
Antipolo City, Rizal, Philippines

What an incredible account, James. Our research didn’t turn up much in the way of Ken Wesbrock or his company and posthole diggers. Perhaps another reader can shed even more light on this historical account of an all-time favorite farm tool. — Editors


An Organic Option

Four years ago, I built a family-sized 24-by-35-foot greenhouse, with the idea of growing our own veggies and kitchen herbs.

We live in northern Arkansas, in the Ozark hills, and I knew absolutely nothing about what would grow here and what would not, nor did I know anything about possible diseases and bugs. I thought, I’ll handle it when I have to — just get started.

The first year, I had several infestations of aphids, white flies and even thrips, not to mention blights and mildews. I didn’t want to use poisonous chemicals on our food, but I had to do something then and there to keep it under control.

So I decided to try an organic spray I found at the local Home Depot. It seemed to work well, but, of course, the dead bugs stuck to the leaves and crops, which bothered me quite a bit, as they’re not a sign of healthy plants. A good month later, in dead of summer, the aphids were back. That’s when I started to look into a more sustainable way of keeping bugs under control.

The local library, Google, GRIT and Mother Earth News all contributed to the solution that I currently use: ladybugs and praying mantises. Since the second year, I’ve been using these insects, and I haven’t had a single infestation. I have to admit that I learned some things as well, so it’s not all thanks to the mantis.

The ladybugs seem to survive by themselves, because they’re back by the hundreds in early spring and sunny falls. I hunt for the praying mantis eggs in fall when I clear out the greenhouse. The first year, I found two … last year I found four. I keep them in a jar in the fridge until my new plants have enough foliage and flowers (pollen) so the new breed can survive another year. They’re very hard to spot, but occasionally you hit on one.

I’m happy with my bugs, and they seem to be happy with me.

Great magazine. Keep up the good stuff.

Marcel and Dayna Quirijnen
Pyatt, Arkansas


Wood Heat

Check out these photos of our 1935 (?) Wehrle Colonial Range No. 82 20X, purchased used about 25 years ago in Montana. It had been sitting in a barn for a number of years when my husband purchased it and brought it back to Washington state, where we live. It has heated our house ever since.

When he purchased it, it had been converted to an oil-pot burner, since there are not a lot of trees to burn in eastern Montana. We, however, have enough windfall each year to heat several homes, and this stove, after reconverting it to wood, has heated ours easily. It includes a warming oven and water tank. There is also an accommodation for a water jacket, although we have not installed one.

We have a box fan situated on the left of the stove, and we use it to circulate the heat throughout the house. It is the only heat source we use, and we are toasty. The stove cooks a great turkey or pot roast. I only use the oven for slow, low-temperature cooking, as the house gets too hot if I run the oven at anything higher than 275 degrees Fahrenheit. On the stove we keep three kettles full of water, which stay hot all night after the fire goes out. When the power is down and the pump doesn’t run, these kettles are a source of hot water for washing up.

In winter, the stove simmers a lot of soup. It is the perfect stove for this. I also make crème fraîche and yogurt in the warming oven. The mid-temp burners are used to make ricotta cheese, and it works better on this stove than on the gas range. We keep the teapots warm on the top, and coffee cups are stored and warmed in the warming oven ready to use.

There is a special pot lid with an insert you can raise and lower so creamy soups and porridge won’t stick or scorch on the bottom of the pan, which is very handy (middle photo above). The other image (lower photo above) is information on the left side of the stove, which tells the name of the range and either the manufacturer’s serial number or a model number.

Deon Matzen
Clinton, Washington