Undersized Agrarian

Living the bucolic dream on a tiny scale in suburban Raglan.

Feathering the Nest – Build a composting chicken coop.

The active decay cycle in a composting coop – as explained by Atitlan Organics  in their rad and awesome ebook.

Behold, below a gallery of my slow and painstaking coop building steps!

The premise:
We wanted to eat yum (much cheaper eggs) and have chooks to look at (very delightful pastime) and feed scraps to…without the ravaged muddy ground, flies, CLEANING which goes with chooks.

Enter the composting chicken coop! Essentially what was needed was a chicken coop sitting on top of a compost bin within which all chicken poo fell into the compost, to be worked in (along with all the food and garden waste) by the chooks themselves.

  1. Build your compost bin. Ours is reclaimed concrete cinder blocks with sticks, stakes and mud crammed into the middle of them in an attempt to keep them together as one unit. Blocks were (VERY) mortar-y, this had to be chipped off to stack them straight-ish. On each corner I had one sturdy stake which sticks up for the structure of the coop to be attached to. Other than this, Im relying heavily on the weight of the coop to keep it all together on the blocks. In retrospect, buying a few more sturdy stakes would have let me sleep better on windy nights, but oh well.
    Base size: 2.4m x 2m
    Base cost: $40 for 80 blocks. Mud free. Stakes etc – scavenged.
  2. Plan, plan and plan some more. Clearly I didn’t do enough of this, even so, I spent a good 20 hours drawing, redrawing, thinking and rethinking this coop! Learning from past mistakes ive thought through all the attachments and fixings too to save money and time. If you’ve ever built anything you’ll know screws and nails and bolts and plates are poos for the budget. Ive scrapped one genuis time saver due to cost, but apart from that – ease is the steez here. Egg collection is closest to the house, a tube feeds feed from above egg collection to the sheltered bit (and holds enough for long weekends away), entering the coop is most convenient for compost collection, walls protect the chooks (and the garden) from prevailing winds, water collected from the roof was supposed to go straight to nipple drinkers, but this’ll have to be a good ole standard water dispenser for now, and roosting should be in the warmest spot at night – I havent made them an enclosed night-time spot, so we’ll see how this goes.
    Planning time: 20hours+
  3. Prep your bits! I’ve used completely recycled bits for the wooden structure – all sourced from the backyard or the local dump. No detailed instructions here – its not too hard to figure out how to box something together and make it stay up is it? Ive got a solid 12mm ply back and 1/2 of each side is ply too, keeping the wind off the chooks, protecting them from hot summer afternoon sun and giving a bit of shade when needed. The roof is 1/2 corrugated iron, and half clear-ish plastic – light and shade. Nesting box sits to the side of the coop – just like standard fixed coop setups – no roosting on top = no poo to clean up and easy morning scrambles.
    Its much easier to paint your wood before it goes up, doing it after = many many missed bits and much more time. Bleh!
    Framing $15
    Ply and Roofing: $187 (damn you roofing and ply! (and thats second hand!))
    Fixings: $36.4
  4. Put your bits together! All this prep work meant our coop structure went up in one lovely sunny morning when the weather was finally cooperating.
  5. Net your ladies in! Make sure you’ve got all your gaps covered. We used netting, mud, wood and plants to gap proof! Nothing more annoying than being woken up by alarmed squawking coz a ratty came for a midnight snack!
  6. Panic about how you’re going to come up with 5 cubic metres of compost! You dont have to start off with a full pile, but you should have stuff at least 1/2m deep in that baby! Ive been piling it up whilst laborious brick laying went on, but am still nowhere near! Will have to buy hay, and have begged our neighbourly lawn man to drop off his clippings to us too. Other than that, better mow the lawns, chop the agapanthus, scavenge green waste from the dump and volunteer to do some neighbourly weeding! Oh, and eat more vegetables!
  7. Get yoself some teenage henny pennies! Theres a local factory farm supplier who does them for $15 each, otherwise I can shell out $25 on petshop ones! Im worried the factory ones will have no beaks and need a lot of education re: roosting etc, BUT having committed to spend no more than one years worth of eggs on this…an extra $50 defo doesn’t work!
  8. Make your coop real purdy! Mural op anyone? Im planning a grass and chicken theme…but it’ll be better than it sounds:P



Seeing the rain, and going outside anyway.

Well, right in the middle of winter is definitely the best time to get started on the garden on our site. Any other time of year, the soil is hard a rock and much much pointless sweating is done over tiny holes which refuse to even begin to move into the clay subsoil.

That soft soil though, does come about for a reason…rain! Buckets of it, driven by wind have been buffeting our wee plot, and it’s certainly been a direct result of a grumpy toddler (and more than a few permaculture videos and podcasts) that we’ve rugged up and gone out anyway. The previous me would never have bothered, and in our last rental garden I, and our garden suffered heaps from the winter blues, but the new, mud accepting, freshly inspired me is out in the garden every day, rain or shine.

And what results! I’ve finally finished the concrete block base for the composting chook coop (literally hours, (but only $30) of chipping old mortar of recycled concrete blocks later) and am planning on getting started on building the hen house on top this weekend. Ive been drafting and re-drafting plans for this – (and fretting that the whole thing will even stay in place in light of some serious gales) and think i’ve finally cracked it. See feathering the nest for plans and video. We’ve also got the living willow fence planted in an attempt to restrain our little wanderer.

Willow is naturally very high in Indolebutyric acid (IBA), a rooting hormone. As such, you can pop willow rods into the ground, and they’ll root and grow, with no other intervention needed than keeping the ground weed free until they establish. We bought 50 rods of Salix hookeriana ‘Furry Ness’ from Appletons Nursery, with the idea they’ll perform numerous functions:

  • A cost effective fence
  • Cuttings for use in other garden structures (arches, teepees, shade areas etc)
  • Extra branches for floristry
  • Salix Hookerina provides excellent pollen for bees in spring
  • Shelter and shade in summer for our berry beds
  • Make willow water for rooting and propogating other plants

“When you make willow water, both salicylic acid and IBA leach into the water, and both have a beneficial effect when used for the propagation of cuttings. One of the biggest threats to newly propagated cuttings is infection by bacteria and fungi. Salicylic acid helps plants to fight off infection, and can thus give cuttings a better chance of survival. Plants, when attacked by infectious agents, often do not produce salicylic acid quickly enough to defend themselves, so providing the acid in water can be particularly beneficial.”

Inside, i’ve been painstakingly cutting stencils for our boring little grey shed (will do a post specifically about this once its painted!) watching Inhabit, and researching guilds.

Ive bought a couple of comfrey plants, planted them next to my lemon and pomegranate, and am hoping they’ll be best of friends, with the comfrey breaking up the clay with its long tap root, and providing lots of nice nitrogen to the fruit trees, so they’ll provide ME with lots of nice fruit!

Im also planning on gathering up some pine needles and coffee grounds to acidify and amend the clay/mud/crappy shite which ive piled on my garden bed at the bottom of the garden next to the willow fence (willow is, handily enough, tolerant of acidic soils). I’ve got plans to plant some rabbit eye blueberries, black and red currants and some rhododendrons in this bed (all acid lovers) as hope to get some mushrooms growing once the plants have established and some shady spots are up for grabs (Milkwood have just had Enokitake  growing in their patch!)

The only thing ive planted thus far in the annual beds are 12 broad beans from my nana, some of which have popped up in the last couple of days!

So, in all, its still lots of inputs – money and energy at the moment, but SUPER excited about getting chooks and thus some outputs coming back at me in the next month!

The Composting Chicken Coop

Chickens are like the gateway drug to hardcore gardening. We had them years ago at a rental property and while the sight of them happily scratching around making those sweet low little noises they make never failed to fill our heart with glee, there were more than a few aspects of chicken keeping that have made us reluctant to traverse that path again…until now!

Issues of semi-urban chicken keeping include:

  • NOISE! Broody hens and THAT delightful bok bok BAKWOK sound that increases in volume, and continues long minutes despite your best efforts to stop it before it wakes the newborn next door (many many eggs gifted to neighbours as compensation for 6am wake up calls and ruined naps for this one).
  • Totally ravaged ground in their run within about a week.
  • Chickens escaping continually and running across the road to drink beer at the party flat.
  • Sparrows eating all your chicken food until you spend $150 on a fancy feed dispenser.
  • Many many nighttime wake-up-and-run-outsides because great squawking and aforementioned noise is happening at 2am in coop.
  • Spending gallooodles on hay simply for them to shit on in the coop.
  • Cleaning! Shovelling loads of aforementioned hay covered in mouldy chicken poo every Saturday morning to go and NOT rot in our pathetic compost pile. And scrubbing out their slimy water hopper several times a week when you’re late for work and really didn’t need green sludge splattered on your lovely silk blouse…just so that it can be filled with poo and dirt again the next day.
  • Flies!
  • Having to drive around 5 different supermarkets to find a bag of chook food.

In short, everything nobody really tells you about keeping chooks when they wax lyrical about the magic of your own fresh eggs. Recall though, I DID include the word drug in that first sentence, and that is indeed what they are. Because despite all those annoying things, we are about to get them again…freshly inspired by this rad piece of permaculture cleverness!

Spotted first on the Overgrow The System website, the Atitlan Organics compost bin cum chicken coop filled my heart with glee!

As I describe to all my sceptical neighbours and family, its like having your chicken coop in a compost bin!

My little beast will be 2x2m = 4m2. We’ll keep 3 or 4 hens (although could keep 8 according to Atitlan’s vid. It will be located on the west side of the lawn, where we have the prevailing wind (which gets pretty crazy during storms), and will serve as a nice little windbreak for the rest of the garden, and specifically for my passionfruit (which will grow against it and berry vines which will grow next to it.

The site is pretty sloped, so will hopefully help to serve as a water sink too. I’ll grow something hungry just downhill from it to lap up the rich run off when it rains. It’ll also have rue and tansy in beds built into the sides so the chooks can peck these through the wire to help with parasites.

We’ll use concrete breeze blocks stacked to create a 1 metre-ish high base with the coop area on top of this. Rain from the roof will feed the water trough. Nesting box will protrude and be accessible from outside.

I’m not sure how high to build it, as you should be able to walk around inside, but another 2m on top of the 1m base compost pile is getting a bit cray! We’ll see what building materials we can scrounge up at the local dump and go from there!

One side of the concrete block base will be able to completely unstack allowing for easy peasy compost removal.

Here the video of the idea in action – *I know its hard at first, but move past the hair!

The pain of purchasing

Did the monthly grocery shop last night…$630* later i’m still feeling the pain! Especially when we have such grand and exciting plans for our plot, and would love to whittle our bill down to about $200 for the month, it definitely burns to be paying out so much money on food I don’t even really believe in!

A big driver of our decision to go suburban permie is money related. Even though its going to cost a bit in the beginning, we’re banking that it’ll pay off!

I’ve cut back my work hours heaps in order to spend more time with lil Ro as he grows up, and of course, we made the lifestyle choice to move to Raglan, from living a very happy, but bloody expensive urban life in Auckland because of him too. The cool thing is, as a result of those two choices, i’ve had a lot more headspace to reconsider THE MEANING OF LIFE!!! including how to make all our values stack up in a more cohesive way/how to actually do what we profess to care about.

Anyway, it turns out we’ve got waay bigger dreams than our employers can hold, and freeing up a bit (read a lot!) of extra cash is key to making them happen. Doing that whilst still only on 1.5 slightly above average kiwi incomes, learning heaps, raising lil Ro in a cool engaged way, having fun, and reviving the good old lost practices of actually knowing how to take care of yourself food-wise? Growing stuff had to be the way to go! (Also, one has to pay soOoOo much for a place to live in…rates, mortgage, bills, insurance bleh, might as well try and help it pay its own way a wee bit!)

Dumbo Feather made this cool short wee video about living your values, which is a nice place to start.

Also further inspired by Deep Green Permaculture’s pretty comprehensive harvesting records, I’ve set up a spreadsheet to track the financials too.

*and thats still not including all those little wine and beer purchases every time friday rolls around. I know $150ish a week is pretty good going considering, but all in one go…it just hurts!

Getting diggy with it!

After a few months of planning, revising, reading, reading, reading and listening, we put spade to dirt yesterday…

…and then read all of Angelo Eliades comprehensive and inspiring journey to creating a permie garden in 80m2 and rethunk quite a few things! However, you’ve got to start somewhere, and part of the fun is observing how things work and going with the flow, so all good!

The Permie Plan June 2016

(areas in yellow are where a smidge of cash could potentially be made…orange areas for harvesting rainwater)

Was super exciting to get stuck in finally and this time of year (winter) makes for pretty achievable digging in our hard clay soil, so despite my intentions to start small, we got a bit diggy with it, and dug three veg beds, planted a Feijoa, a Blood Orange and a Meyer Lemon, (all on top of a full bokashi bin of food bits) started on the deep litter composting chicken coop, began to prep the greenhouse/mushroom house area and dug along our boundary where we’re hoping to plant a living willow fence to a). contain our beloved runaway sprog b). provide a great source of nectar and pollen for our existing top bar beehive and c). obtain willow cuttings to supply the local florist and sell for more fencing fun! We’ll see what the neighbours say on that count.


After looking at some pretty rad farms and nursing hopes of throwing in the towel and becoming awesome permaculture farmers, we realised we just couldn’t bear to part with our beloved house, in our beloved hood, nearby our beloved pizza and coffee and macrobiotic delights, and…and…and. And since we’re not at that dreamt-of stage of life whereby one can buy multiple properties and lose steady income with viability, we had to find something else we could do.

So, while fresh goat and sheep milk for gourmet cheese goodness is no longer on the cards, we’re still going to endeavour to live the dream on what we’ve got left of our 400m2 peice of land after the house, carport, studio, and shed have been popped on!

In my mind, thats plenty of space to grow a viable source of food and income, especially with the use of those time and space-saving permaculture concepts!

Having said that, we are almost completely inexperienced natural city cats with nothing but an agrarian dream…lets see how it goes!

Heres the garden almost before we started (little bit of digging by the tramp).

We’ve got:

  • a topbar bee hive
  • a pretty happy zone 1 herb and salad bed
  • a patch of wilderness hopefully generating a medicinal herb garden
  • a super awesome outdoor bathtub (fed with hot water via a hose out the window)
  • a highly unproductive Feijoa tree – total yield 9 Feijoas in 3 years
  • a dwarf lemon tree (not sure what species)
  • and a rather neglected peach

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