As I stood at the pasture fence last winter feeding another stale half-loaf of bread to the neighbor’s cattle, I was thinking I could be getting more use out of my leftovers than feeding the crows, opossums and Wheeler’s cows. One idea that had traveled through my mind several times stopped for another visit. “You need some chickens,” said the idea, “just two or three to clean up the overage and recycle the groceries you’re pitching over the fence.”
In a reasonable amount of time, I had 16 hens confined to the large fenced lot under the old pecan tree in the backyard. I hand-raised six hens from day-old chicks in my dining room, and I bought five beautiful Silver Ameraucanas and five Rhode Island Red pullets.
All were quickly attuned to the sound of the gate opening. Neck and wings outstretched, leaping up and down, crying, “Let me see! Let me see! What have you got?” in a mad gallop, they raced wildly to behold the snack of the day.
These Chicken Ladies are elegant in appearance when standing around looking wonderful, but when you walk out with a pizza box in your hand, they are like brides-to-be descending on those yearly bridal gown extravaganzas, ruthless and willing to climb the back of their best friend to get the first black olive. They have fairly discriminating tastes, preferring scorched cinnamon rolls to dried-up brownies, pizza crusts over Ritz crackers. Spaghetti with marinara sauce trumps mac and cheese every time.
Naturally all of this, plus the laying mash and three-grain scratch feed, has to end up somewhere besides on my boots. Wheat straw – lots and lots of wheat straw – is the answer. Straw to scratch in, to play in, to dig through, to chase through after crickets, spiders and grubs. Heaps and piles of it, pouring out of the Chicken Condo where they spend their evenings. Gathered into big piles by me, just so they can have the fun of again tearing down the stacks, grabbing and flinging straw like bargain hunters at a flea market. For them, it’s the work that matters, not the product. I like to see them happy and busy, because I’m very interested in the result – magnificent mulch.
I am a University of Georgia-Athens Certified Master Gardener, and I’ve been gardening for more than 40 years. I feel qualified to say that I know how to plant a vegetable garden. I grow a fair-sized garden on the property where my granddaddy and his granddaddy farmed and raised their families.
We have red clay here in north Georgia, but by the time all these granddaddies had plowed and planted the cotton and cornfields where my house and garden stand, the result was brick-like earth. In an effort to retain what precious little topsoil remained, I carefully gathered it into raised beds and mulched it with pine and wheat straw.
When I loaded my trailer this spring with that scratched-up, broken-down and richly manured straw, my feeling was that things were about to change. In newly made beds, I planted 24 tomato plants, 20 peppers, rows of green beans, hills of squash and cucumbers. I covered each bed with at least two to three inches of chicken-stirred mulch, working with the understanding that the summer’s heat and repeated watering would hasten the decomposition. The life of mulch in the South is short; humidity and heat make quick work of the breakdown process, and sudden thunderstorms wash it away as well.
The drought had broken; we had rain and then we had some more. I had plenty of this wonder-mulch, so I shot a double dose to the dwarf okra seedlings. When those little dwarf okra babies passed my height of 5 feet 7 inches and showed no sign of stopping, I reluctantly thinned them again. They were growing faster than pokeweed, and I started having reservations. It was astounding, hugely gratifying and a little scary. Sure, the okra had branches like oak limbs, but who was going to climb them? In no time, between my two rows of okra was a passable tunnel to stroll through or even sit in the shade and take my ease. The turbo-charged field peas, on the other side, were racing like kudzu up and over the branches and tops of said okra, creating an impenetrable wall of vegetation. Cucumbers were machine-gunning out of their trellis, tomato plants were breaking down their trellis, summer squash boiled over their beds, and green beans turned into beans and more beans.
I finally just started taking it all to the farmers’ market. I’d planted organic gardens before, but never had I been overwhelmed like this. There was no way I could keep up in the kitchen; there is only so much canning and freezing I am willing to do. I just like to grow the stuff. What was not fit for the market or the kitchen was returned to the Chicken Ladies by way of thanks, and I wondered when they would tire of it. They never did; it was tails up and heads down, converting that good food into beautiful brown eggs and, you got it, more mulch.
I eventually cut the tops off the okra – nothing else to do, I simply couldn’t reach what was looming over my head like shade trees. It was a remarkable garden, a glorious garden. The Ladies acquitted themselves nicely with dozens of fresh eggs to take to the market and lovely piles of enriched straw, and my fall crop of greens was the finest I’ve ever grown. My red clay garden is the best I’ve ever had, and we’re going to do it again this year.
My thanks to Ginger, Snap, Nieves, Camilla, Helen and Ellen, and all the other Chicken Ladies in my Garden Club.
Sandi White lives in a small north Georgia farming community, where the Chicken Ladies were originally intended to be producers of organic fertilizer and compost. Gourmet eggs and entertainment are bonuses.