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Monday, April 30, 2012

When the Last Frost Date Isn't the Last Frost Date

The United States abounds with record high temperatures this month and spring arrived early in many places. I've been enjoying days that are 15 and even 20 degrees above normal for weeks; unusual is an understatement. At a time of year we normally cringe at the thought of more, freezing overnight temperatures, sunscreen and shade are now on my mind. This is a year when the projected official last frost date won't even be close. Maybe.

Late spring frost on apricot flowers

The last frost date for me is still more than two weeks away. That is, the official 90% last frost date is the 15th of May for my area. My garden is at a higher elevation than the city proper so I always add a few days to be safe, but it's close. As I've written before (Mar 18, 2011, "Know Your Last Frost Date"; Mar 29, 2011, "What to Plant Before the Last Frost"; May 13, 2011, "What is the Last Frost Date?"), the "90% last frost date" is the one most often referred to by seed companies, the USDA, NOAA, and anyone else that throws out a date as the last one for gardeners to be concerned about.

Last year I got my last frost on May 15; the model proved true. This year the actual last frost in my garden should be different. In fact, I think the last frost happened yesterday.

Last year's snow in May

Last Frost Dates are determined by taking historical temperature data and finding a symbolic date that meets certain criteria. The "90% last frost date" is the date for a certain area when 90 percent of historical last frosts have already occurred. The "Average Last Frost Date" or "50% last frost date" is the point on the calendar when half of the historical last frosts have already happened. The third type of last frost date is the "10% last frost date"; by this date 10 percent of historical last frosts were final. The key to all of these dates is that they're determined by using historical dates, days that occurred in the past.

For my garden zone, 10 percent of the last frost dates in years past happened by April 24, and 50 percent happened by May 4. Could this be another one of those kind of years?

As far back as I can remember, in my 15 years living here, the last frost happened in May. I always advise local gardeners to wait until late May to plant warm season plants. Many gardeners new to the area learn the hard way about planting too soon in our high-mountain, weather-crazy area.

This year is one of the ones that cause serious gardeners like me to start biting our nails and tearing out our hair. A look at the long-range weather forecast shows we'll be well above freezing for the next 10 days. That puts us very close to the 90% last frost date with no worries. Historically, we can point to previous years like this one when no frost occurred in May.

Then again I can point to years when we had frosts in June. A month is a long time in the weather world. Something could be brewing off the coast of northern Alaska right now that won't be revealed until two or three weeks from now. A blast of Arctic air might descend on my garden when I least expect it. Or not.

The last frost date is just a spot on the calendar for garden planning. It's up to individual gardeners to determine what they do with it. With any mathematical model, some points of data lie well outside the norm. For a date to be considered average (technically the mean), half of statistical points happened before and half happened after. It's nice that we gardeners have the 90% and 10% last frost dates at our disposal to develop a more precise planting plan.

As I look at my calendar, every day without frost puts me closer to the mathematical point when future frost isn't likely to happen. I've passed the 10 percent point and should breeze past the 50 percent point with no problem. The 90 percent point looks very promising.

Does that mean I can relax and plant with no frost concerns? That's a good question and one for which I wish I had the answer. Whatever I choose to do I have to be ready for the consequences... or rewards. Knowing how last frost dates are determined and using that knowledge will help me make an informed decision when it comes to planting.

I've just about convinced myself that this is one of those years when the last frost occurs early. Indications are good that warm days and nights ahead will help my plants. The ground is already warmer than it normally is at this point of the year. The weather trends seem positive.

But I'm not a gambler and I'm not ready to bet everything on a statistical probability. I'll plant tomatoes next week almost a month ahead of normal, but I'll enclose them in plastic season extenders. I'll put some beans in the ground, but only in the beds with protective covering. I'll delay planting squash and pumpkins until I'm absolutely sure the calendar coast is clear.

Usually I wouldn't be considering such measures at the end of April, but this year is different. Sunny days are too inviting to sit back and wait for historical events to happen. Part of being a gardener is trying new things in the garden and by a small measure I'll roll the dice a little. We all experience missteps and minor failures in gardening so I'm ready for the worst, but if my conjecture about the last frost date holds true I'll be able to get a nice jump on the growing season.

I know my last frost date, all three of them actually. I know what they mean. I have experienced the ups and downs of weather's effect on my garden. Also I'm anxious to get my garden growing. This year my last frost date won't be an actual last frost date. That's what I've determined based on the data at hand. Or at least that's what I'm betting on.
The United States abounds with record high temperatures this month and spring arrived early in many places. I've been enjoying days that are 15 and even 20 degrees above normal for weeks; unusual is an understatement. At a time of year we normally cringe at the thought of more, freezing overnight temperatures, sunscreen and shade are now on my mind. This is a year when the projected official last frost date won't even be close. Maybe.

Late spring frost on apricot flowers

The last frost date for me is still more than two weeks away. That is, the official 90% last frost date is the 15th of May for my area. My garden is at a higher elevation than the city proper so I always add a few days to be safe, but it's close. As I've written before (Mar 18, 2011, "Know Your Last Frost Date"; Mar 29, 2011, "What to Plant Before the Last Frost"; May 13, 2011, "What is the Last Frost Date?"), the "90% last frost date" is the one most often referred to by seed companies, the USDA, NOAA, and anyone else that throws out a date as the last one for gardeners to be concerned about.

Last year I got my last frost on May 15; the model proved true. This year the actual last frost in my garden should be different. In fact, I think the last frost happened yesterday.

Last year's snow in May

Last Frost Dates are determined by taking historical temperature data and finding a symbolic date that meets certain criteria. The "90% last frost date" is the date for a certain area when 90 percent of historical last frosts have already occurred. The "Average Last Frost Date" or "50% last frost date" is the point on the calendar when half of the historical last frosts have already happened. The third type of last frost date is the "10% last frost date"; by this date 10 percent of historical last frosts were final. The key to all of these dates is that they're determined by using historical dates, days that occurred in the past.

For my garden zone, 10 percent of the last frost dates in years past happened by April 24, and 50 percent happened by May 4. Could this be another one of those kind of years?

As far back as I can remember, in my 15 years living here, the last frost happened in May. I always advise local gardeners to wait until late May to plant warm season plants. Many gardeners new to the area learn the hard way about planting too soon in our high-mountain, weather-crazy area.

This year is one of the ones that cause serious gardeners like me to start biting our nails and tearing out our hair. A look at the long-range weather forecast shows we'll be well above freezing for the next 10 days. That puts us very close to the 90% last frost date with no worries. Historically, we can point to previous years like this one when no frost occurred in May.

Then again I can point to years when we had frosts in June. A month is a long time in the weather world. Something could be brewing off the coast of northern Alaska right now that won't be revealed until two or three weeks from now. A blast of Arctic air might descend on my garden when I least expect it. Or not.

The last frost date is just a spot on the calendar for garden planning. It's up to individual gardeners to determine what they do with it. With any mathematical model, some points of data lie well outside the norm. For a date to be considered average (technically the mean), half of statistical points happened before and half happened after. It's nice that we gardeners have the 90% and 10% last frost dates at our disposal to develop a more precise planting plan.

As I look at my calendar, every day without frost puts me closer to the mathematical point when future frost isn't likely to happen. I've passed the 10 percent point and should breeze past the 50 percent point with no problem. The 90 percent point looks very promising.

Does that mean I can relax and plant with no frost concerns? That's a good question and one for which I wish I had the answer. Whatever I choose to do I have to be ready for the consequences... or rewards. Knowing how last frost dates are determined and using that knowledge will help me make an informed decision when it comes to planting.

I've just about convinced myself that this is one of those years when the last frost occurs early. Indications are good that warm days and nights ahead will help my plants. The ground is already warmer than it normally is at this point of the year. The weather trends seem positive.

But I'm not a gambler and I'm not ready to bet everything on a statistical probability. I'll plant tomatoes next week almost a month ahead of normal, but I'll enclose them in plastic season extenders. I'll put some beans in the ground, but only in the beds with protective covering. I'll delay planting squash and pumpkins until I'm absolutely sure the calendar coast is clear.

Usually I wouldn't be considering such measures at the end of April, but this year is different. Sunny days are too inviting to sit back and wait for historical events to happen. Part of being a gardener is trying new things in the garden and by a small measure I'll roll the dice a little. We all experience missteps and minor failures in gardening so I'm ready for the worst, but if my conjecture about the last frost date holds true I'll be able to get a nice jump on the growing season.

I know my last frost date, all three of them actually. I know what they mean. I have experienced the ups and downs of weather's effect on my garden. Also I'm anxious to get my garden growing. This year my last frost date won't be an actual last frost date. That's what I've determined based on the data at hand. Or at least that's what I'm betting on.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Best Way to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes can be found in most American vegetable gardens. For many gardeners, growing tomatoes consists of little more than buying a plant from a big box garden center and placing it in a hole in the ground. There are many other options and for you there may be a better way -- actually, six different ways to plant tomatoes.

Let's begin with a bale of straw as the planting spot. That's right... straw. I had good success by placing a tomato plant in a hole bored into the middle of a straw bale. Begin by soaking the straw a few days before you plan to plant. This softens the straw making it easier to dig a hole; it also begins decomposition within the bale. Use a trowel to scoop out a hole 12 to 18 inches deep (30-45 cm) and fill it with compost. A standard straw bale can easily hold two or three tomato plants.

Tomato plant in a straw bale

Any time you plant tomatoes you should bury as much of the plant as you can to help encourage a vigorous root system (see my May 24, 2011, article "How to Plant Tomatoes"). By placing your plants deep into the holes in the moist straw bale you give the tomato roots plenty of space to expand. The straw retains moisture well and requires watering less often than other garden beds. The compost and decomposing straw provide some nutrients but you should plan to fertilize regularly.

The easiest and simplest way to plant tomatoes is in a bag of potting soil. The bag is the garden bed. Make slits in the top of the plastic potting soil bag and insert the end of your hose. Soak the potting soil well; you want it thoroughly moist. I recommend punching holes or making small slits in the bottom of the bag for drainage. Place the bag flat on the ground and wait a few days for excess water to drain, then plant your tomato horizontally through the top slit.

Plant in a bag

You can use this method in any spot that's just a few feet square, in between raised beds, at the end of paths, or in garden corners. The bag is very effective at retaining moisture so this method also requires less watering. However, it is a little more difficult because you have to apply water and fertilizer through the slit; it won't catch any rain or sprinkler water.

Another flexible variation is to grow tomatoes in pots. This is a great option for gardeners without a garden spot that gets full sun or who have limited space. Big root systems make big tomatoes so use at least a 14-inch pot filled with potting soil; bigger is better. Pots tend to dry out faster than normal garden beds so these tomatoes will probably need watering every day. As the plants grow a small trellis or support will help keep the vines from sprawling everywhere.

Plant in a pot

Tomatoes in pots work well for apartment dwellers. My daughter had good results with a single pot on her balcony. Pots can be moved to take advantage of sunny spots and can be brought indoors if cold weather threatens, extending the growing season. They can also be grown just outside the kitchen door making harvesting fast and easy.

Growing tomatoes upside down is another option that has found a following in recent years. Shiny advertisements and catchy names for upside down containers make the concept appealing. Anywhere you can hang a bag becomes a potential tomato garden. Growing tomatoes this way gives you the opportunity to fill the growing bag with good potting soil and deliver water and fertilizers straight to the roots.

My hanging tomato system

You don't need to water as often with this method, but the structure supporting the hanging bag needs to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of soil, a big plant, and ripe tomatoes. Some manufacturers offer movable supports that can be used on a deck or patio.

A raised bed is an ideal way to grow tomatoes. Raised beds heat up sooner than open ground so tomatoes can be planted earlier than standard rows. The soil is often better and has fewer compaction issues. When mulched, watering requirements drop. Weeding and harvesting is easy because of easy access. More plants can often be grown in a smaller space.

I find that trellises work well in a raised bed because the bed structure helps support them; last year I used welded metal panels bent into an arch. It supported plastic sheets to warm the plants early on and supported the plants as they grew large.

Placing tomatoes for planting in a raised bed

The most common way gardeners grow tomatoes is in rows in open beds. This method has worked well for many gardeners for a very long time and is a good way to grow if you have the space. To be most effective the entire bed should have amended soil and have a good irrigation method. Tomato plants can grow large and a trellis system is almost always needed; open bed growing limits the trellis options.

I've used all six methods with varied results.

Last year big tomatoes came from the straw bale. The plants did very well but as they grew large I was concerned that their weight would topple the bale or that they would sprawl too much; a trellis system was difficult to set up. Regretfully deer damaged the plants before they caused a problem.

The first tomato of the season came from the potting soil bag. That plant also had the biggest root ball. The plant did well but the specialized watering requirements added time to the process. I also found that my feet and garden hose had a tendency of snagging on the bag because it was too close to my garden path.

Claims for bumper crops abound, but I've grown upside down tomatoes with mostly negative results (see my May 6, 2011, article "Upside Down Tomatoes"). The plants were stunted and not nearly as large as with the other methods.

Tomatoes in pots do well with extra attention. It's nice being able to bring the pots inside when a frost threatens and the other plants are injured; however, bigger pots are harder to move. As long as the soil doesn't dry out this method works very well.

My favorite way to grow tomatoes is in a raised bed. I can keep my plants contained in a designated area, mulch and water as needed, and keep basic chores like weeding to a minimum. The biggest tomato plants in my garden, by a large margin, were in raised beds.



Great success in raised beds


Open row plantings work well but the space is often better used by other sprawling plants like melons or squash. For harvest, you need paths between plants and this takes up more space. Any one of the other methods of growing tomatoes is more efficient for limited garden plots.

Another option for some gardeners is hydroponic gardening. Tomatoes can be grown in water only, but this method requires specialized equipment and procedures and isn't suitable for most home gardeners.

Experimenting with new options is fun and informational. I plan to repeat the straw bale and pot plantings, but will probably bypass the potting soil bag. Upside down tomatoes are probably gone from my garden for good. My focus will be on growing tomatoes in raised beds. I wouldn't know about how all of these methods worked for me if I hadn't tried them.

Regardless of which method you use, tomatoes should probably find a place in your garden. If you have a successful method continue it, but think about trying something new. Have fun.

Link to "How to Plant Tomatoes"
Link to "Upside Down Tomatoes"

Tomatoes can be found in most American vegetable gardens. For many gardeners, growing tomatoes consists of little more than buying a plant from a big box garden center and placing it in a hole in the ground. There are many other options and for you there may be a better way -- actually, six different ways to plant tomatoes.

Let's begin with a bale of straw as the planting spot. That's right... straw. I had good success by placing a tomato plant in a hole bored into the middle of a straw bale. Begin by soaking the straw a few days before you plan to plant. This softens the straw making it easier to dig a hole; it also begins decomposition within the bale. Use a trowel to scoop out a hole 12 to 18 inches deep (30-45 cm) and fill it with compost. A standard straw bale can easily hold two or three tomato plants.

Tomato plant in a straw bale

Any time you plant tomatoes you should bury as much of the plant as you can to help encourage a vigorous root system (see my May 24, 2011, article "How to Plant Tomatoes"). By placing your plants deep into the holes in the moist straw bale you give the tomato roots plenty of space to expand. The straw retains moisture well and requires watering less often than other garden beds. The compost and decomposing straw provide some nutrients but you should plan to fertilize regularly.

The easiest and simplest way to plant tomatoes is in a bag of potting soil. The bag is the garden bed. Make slits in the top of the plastic potting soil bag and insert the end of your hose. Soak the potting soil well; you want it thoroughly moist. I recommend punching holes or making small slits in the bottom of the bag for drainage. Place the bag flat on the ground and wait a few days for excess water to drain, then plant your tomato horizontally through the top slit.

Plant in a bag

You can use this method in any spot that's just a few feet square, in between raised beds, at the end of paths, or in garden corners. The bag is very effective at retaining moisture so this method also requires less watering. However, it is a little more difficult because you have to apply water and fertilizer through the slit; it won't catch any rain or sprinkler water.

Another flexible variation is to grow tomatoes in pots. This is a great option for gardeners without a garden spot that gets full sun or who have limited space. Big root systems make big tomatoes so use at least a 14-inch pot filled with potting soil; bigger is better. Pots tend to dry out faster than normal garden beds so these tomatoes will probably need watering every day. As the plants grow a small trellis or support will help keep the vines from sprawling everywhere.

Plant in a pot

Tomatoes in pots work well for apartment dwellers. My daughter had good results with a single pot on her balcony. Pots can be moved to take advantage of sunny spots and can be brought indoors if cold weather threatens, extending the growing season. They can also be grown just outside the kitchen door making harvesting fast and easy.

Growing tomatoes upside down is another option that has found a following in recent years. Shiny advertisements and catchy names for upside down containers make the concept appealing. Anywhere you can hang a bag becomes a potential tomato garden. Growing tomatoes this way gives you the opportunity to fill the growing bag with good potting soil and deliver water and fertilizers straight to the roots.

My hanging tomato system

You don't need to water as often with this method, but the structure supporting the hanging bag needs to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of soil, a big plant, and ripe tomatoes. Some manufacturers offer movable supports that can be used on a deck or patio.

A raised bed is an ideal way to grow tomatoes. Raised beds heat up sooner than open ground so tomatoes can be planted earlier than standard rows. The soil is often better and has fewer compaction issues. When mulched, watering requirements drop. Weeding and harvesting is easy because of easy access. More plants can often be grown in a smaller space.

I find that trellises work well in a raised bed because the bed structure helps support them; last year I used welded metal panels bent into an arch. It supported plastic sheets to warm the plants early on and supported the plants as they grew large.

Placing tomatoes for planting in a raised bed

The most common way gardeners grow tomatoes is in rows in open beds. This method has worked well for many gardeners for a very long time and is a good way to grow if you have the space. To be most effective the entire bed should have amended soil and have a good irrigation method. Tomato plants can grow large and a trellis system is almost always needed; open bed growing limits the trellis options.

I've used all six methods with varied results.

Last year big tomatoes came from the straw bale. The plants did very well but as they grew large I was concerned that their weight would topple the bale or that they would sprawl too much; a trellis system was difficult to set up. Regretfully deer damaged the plants before they caused a problem.

The first tomato of the season came from the potting soil bag. That plant also had the biggest root ball. The plant did well but the specialized watering requirements added time to the process. I also found that my feet and garden hose had a tendency of snagging on the bag because it was too close to my garden path.

Claims for bumper crops abound, but I've grown upside down tomatoes with mostly negative results (see my May 6, 2011, article "Upside Down Tomatoes"). The plants were stunted and not nearly as large as with the other methods.

Tomatoes in pots do well with extra attention. It's nice being able to bring the pots inside when a frost threatens and the other plants are injured; however, bigger pots are harder to move. As long as the soil doesn't dry out this method works very well.

My favorite way to grow tomatoes is in a raised bed. I can keep my plants contained in a designated area, mulch and water as needed, and keep basic chores like weeding to a minimum. The biggest tomato plants in my garden, by a large margin, were in raised beds.



Great success in raised beds


Open row plantings work well but the space is often better used by other sprawling plants like melons or squash. For harvest, you need paths between plants and this takes up more space. Any one of the other methods of growing tomatoes is more efficient for limited garden plots.

Another option for some gardeners is hydroponic gardening. Tomatoes can be grown in water only, but this method requires specialized equipment and procedures and isn't suitable for most home gardeners.

Experimenting with new options is fun and informational. I plan to repeat the straw bale and pot plantings, but will probably bypass the potting soil bag. Upside down tomatoes are probably gone from my garden for good. My focus will be on growing tomatoes in raised beds. I wouldn't know about how all of these methods worked for me if I hadn't tried them.

Regardless of which method you use, tomatoes should probably find a place in your garden. If you have a successful method continue it, but think about trying something new. Have fun.

Link to "
How to Plant Tomatoes"
Link to "Upside Down Tomatoes"

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Gardener's Earth Day

Yesterday was Earth Day. Begun officially in 1970, Earth Day is an annual event designed to increase awareness and appreciation of our natural environment and is designated as April 22 every year. Many communities and volunteer groups use the day as an opportunity to improve and clean up their local landscapes. It often receives a marginal amount of publicity and press as it approaches and then, regretfully, is ceremoniously forgotten until the next April.

While millions of people need to be reminded to stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively, gardeners are able to celebrate Earth Day on any day of the calendar. We live the environmental awareness and appreciation that Senator Gaylord Nelson envisioned when he proposed the concept in the late 1960s. For gardeners, nature and all it has to offer is in our blood and sweat.

My garden on Earth Day

This year I didn't do anything special for Earth Day, other than being a gardener. As I went about my day participating in typical gardening activities I was aware periodically that it was Earth Day, but there were no banners or balloons and no thought that my activities would only take place on this one day. I worked to improve my environment and prepared to increase awareness of it to others, but I do that almost every day. However, this year Earth Day did provide some personal milestones.

I mowed the lawn for the first time this year. Recent wet snow and warm temperatures seemed to increase the growth of the grass dramatically and it was long and shaggy in sections. Even with a mulching mower the grass clippings were too long to leave on the grass, a practice I highly recommend to return nutrients to the soil. So I bagged the clippings and added them to my compost piles to help kickstart them into action.

Fresh-mowed grass

Green grass is a great nitrogen source for compost piles and my piles were a little dry and brown after sitting through the winter. Leaving the grass clippings on top of the pile can lead to matting and isn't an efficient way to add them. I thoroughly turned the piles for the first time this season to incorporate the grass. My compost piles spent Earth Day waking up.

I brought out plastic sheets and built hoophouses in my garden, but not because it was Earth Day. I'm about a month away from my last frost date but I want to get some tomatoes in the ground. The hoophouses will help warm the soil and in a week I'll bring out the season extenders, my Wall-o-Waters. Last year I had good success planting tomatoes a few weeks early and I'll do it again.

Future home of tomatoes

I finished the chicken run yesterday by attaching the last outside door latch and by building the ramp the chickens will take from their coop. There are a few clean-up items to accomplish but the chickens are in the coop and will soon be exploring their outdoor environment. In a few months we'll be collecting fresh eggs. This small effort at improving the sustainability of our plot of land has nothing to do with yesterday being Earth Day; it's just something we want to do.

The chicken ramp

I continued preparing some trees for planting. The Arbor Day Foundation send me 10 small trees after a recent donation; something I do regularly, not just on Earth Day. I've been hardening them off by putting them outside during the day so they aren't overly stressed when I plant. Yesterday was the last day of hardening off. I don't think all of the trees will survive my winter, but I've chosen good spots to give them the best chance. Even the success of one tree will improve the environment.

Yesterday was the first time I spotted new asparagus spears. I planted 20 crowns last year and they did well until the snows came. I've been a little worried that they didn't survive the winter, but they did and I can relax about their fate. They didn't know it was Earth Day; they emerged when they were ready.

New asparagus

Don't misconstrue my Earth Day attitude. Earth Day is a wonderful celebration. It brings environmental awareness to mind for many people who foolishly overlook it on a daily basis. It invigorates many groups, particularly youth, to make major improvements to city parks or blighted areas. In a few participants those activities might be a spark that ignites a desire to live a life dedicated to beneficial environmental knowledge and sustainability.

I call that mindset being a gardener. I think it would be great if everyone were a gardener, every day. That won't happen, but I can do my part by spreading the word and encouraging more people to become gardeners. Earth Day highlights the concept and shows what is possible when people devote time and attention to the idea.

To me the best way to celebrate Earth Day is to make it a continuous event. Treat every day you're in the garden as if it were special, one worthy of media attention. Strive to make others aware of your environmental activities and hope to ignite the gardening spark in just one other person; and then repeat that over and over.

Whether you mow your lawn, turn your compost pile, raise chickens, grow trees, worry about your plants' progress, or not, get involved in your environment. Get outside and live April 22 every time you get the opportunity.

Today I'll continue my work to gopher proof my garden; deer proofing comes next. Trees will be planted. Plants will be watered. Weeds will be dealt with. The list of gardening chores will get longer. And I'll finish this blog article.



Yesterday was Earth Day. Begun officially in 1970, Earth Day is an annual event designed to increase awareness and appreciation of our natural environment and is designated as April 22 every year. Many communities and volunteer groups use the day as an opportunity to improve and clean up their local landscapes. It often receives a marginal amount of publicity and press as it approaches and then, regretfully, is ceremoniously forgotten until the next April.

While millions of people need to be reminded to stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively, gardeners are able to celebrate Earth Day on any day of the calendar. We live the environmental awareness and appreciation that Senator Gaylord Nelson envisioned when he proposed the concept in the late 1960s. For gardeners, nature and all it has to offer is in our blood and sweat.

My garden on Earth Day

This year I didn't do anything special for Earth Day, other than being a gardener. As I went about my day participating in typical gardening activities I was aware periodically that it was Earth Day, but there were no banners or balloons and no thought that my activities would only take place on this one day. I worked to improve my environment and prepared to increase awareness of it to others, but I do that almost every day. However, this year Earth Day did provide some personal milestones.

I mowed the lawn for the first time this year. Recent wet snow and warm temperatures seemed to increase the growth of the grass dramatically and it was long and shaggy in sections. Even with a mulching mower the grass clippings were too long to leave on the grass, a practice I highly recommend to return nutrients to the soil. So I bagged the clippings and added them to my compost piles to help kickstart them into action.

Fresh-mowed grass

Green grass is a great nitrogen source for compost piles and my piles were a little dry and brown after sitting through the winter. Leaving the grass clippings on top of the pile can lead to matting and isn't an efficient way to add them. I thoroughly turned the piles for the first time this season to incorporate the grass. My compost piles spent Earth Day waking up.

I brought out plastic sheets and built hoophouses in my garden, but not because it was Earth Day. I'm about a month away from my last frost date but I want to get some tomatoes in the ground. The hoophouses will help warm the soil and in a week I'll bring out the season extenders, my Wall-o-Waters. Last year I had good success planting tomatoes a few weeks early and I'll do it again.

Future home of tomatoes

I finished the chicken run yesterday by attaching the last outside door latch and by building the ramp the chickens will take from their coop. There are a few clean-up items to accomplish but the chickens are in the coop and will soon be exploring their outdoor environment. In a few months we'll be collecting fresh eggs. This small effort at improving the sustainability of our plot of land has nothing to do with yesterday being Earth Day; it's just something we want to do.

The chicken ramp

I continued preparing some trees for planting. The Arbor Day Foundation send me 10 small trees after a recent donation; something I do regularly, not just on Earth Day. I've been hardening them off by putting them outside during the day so they aren't overly stressed when I plant. Yesterday was the last day of hardening off. I don't think all of the trees will survive my winter, but I've chosen good spots to give them the best chance. Even the success of one tree will improve the environment.

Yesterday was the first time I spotted new asparagus spears. I planted 20 crowns last year and they did well until the snows came. I've been a little worried that they didn't survive the winter, but they did and I can relax about their fate. They didn't know it was Earth Day; they emerged when they were ready.

New asparagus

Don't misconstrue my Earth Day attitude. Earth Day is a wonderful celebration. It brings environmental awareness to mind for many people who foolishly overlook it on a daily basis. It invigorates many groups, particularly youth, to make major improvements to city parks or blighted areas. In a few participants those activities might be a spark that ignites a desire to live a life dedicated to beneficial environmental knowledge and sustainability.

I call that mindset being a gardener. I think it would be great if everyone were a gardener, every day. That won't happen, but I can do my part by spreading the word and encouraging more people to become gardeners. Earth Day highlights the concept and shows what is possible when people devote time and attention to the idea.

To me the best way to celebrate Earth Day is to make it a continuous event. Treat every day you're in the garden as if it were special, one worthy of media attention. Strive to make others aware of your environmental activities and hope to ignite the gardening spark in just one other person; and then repeat that over and over.

Whether you mow your lawn, turn your compost pile, raise chickens, grow trees, worry about your plants' progress, or not, get involved in your environment. Get outside and live April 22 every time you get the opportunity.

Today I'll continue my work to gopher proof my garden; deer proofing comes next. Trees will be planted. Plants will be watered. Weeds will be dealt with. The list of gardening chores will get longer. And I'll finish this blog article.



Thursday, April 19, 2012

Build a Chicken Coop

Chickens need a home of their own. They can't be house-broken and living in the guest room isn't a long-term option. As cute as the chicks are in the beginning, when they start looking and acting like full-grown chickens it's time they have a permanent place, a coop of their own.

My chicks are outgrowing their brooder

Most chicks are ready to move into a coop at about five weeks old. My chicks are about at that point. The coop is where they'll eat, sleep, and lay eggs for the remainder of their lives. Coops can be borrowed, bought, or built. Being a can-do kind of guy, I built my own.

For the best health and comfort of the chickens, chicken coops have certain requirements.

Most importantly, a coop needs to be predator-proof. All of your chicken-raising time and money is wasted if a fox, dog, raccoon, or coyote finds its way into the coop to kill your feathered friends. A sturdy structure that can prevent such an onslaught is necessary. A solid floor or wire buried in a dirt floor will keep burrowing and digging animals out.

A coop needs to protect the chickens from the elements. Rain, snow, wind, and sun can be harmful. A fully-enclosed living space is all they need. Depending on where you live you may want to consider heating the coop for cold winters, but chickens can actually handle very cold conditions as long as there are no chilly drafts in the coop.

That being said, a coop needs adequate ventilation to prevent chicken respiratory diseases from developing. Especially in hot months, ventilation is a requirement to keep the chickens from overheating or becoming dehydrated. A design to allow for cooling air in summer and reduced drafts in winter is ideal.

I built my coop in a vacant horse stall in the barn. The structure of the barn itself is a deterrent to many predators, but I built the coop to withstand any animal that finds its way into the barn. It can be cold in winter and a bit stifling in summer so I designed the coop with chicken wire on the upper third of the walls to provide as much ventilation as possible. In winter I can cover the wire with tarps to help retain some heat. This design also allows me ample opportunity to watch the chickens.

Chicken coop in a barn

For stand-alone, outside coops, windows that can be opened in summer and closed in winter offer the same advantages. Open ports in the gables or soffit can work well too. In all cases the openings need wire coverings to keep predators and other birds out.

For mental and physical well-being, each chicken should have at least four square feet of space in the coop. This assumes that they'll have access to the outside on most days. If the coop is their only living space, you should allot at least 10 square feet per chicken.

My coop is four feet by seven feet, a total of 28 square feet. Since I also have a chicken run for outside exercise and stimulation (more on that in a future article) that space allows seven chickens to reside comfortably. I don't have that many now so I have room to grow my flock.

A coop should be designed for easy cleaning. A clean chicken environment is a healthy chicken environment. I covered my coop's plywood floor with a sheet of linoleum to help with cleanup. A wide door will allow the soiled bedding material to be shoveled out.

An easy to clean floor

The coop needs its own feeding and watering system. Chickens should have access to feed and water constantly so their home needs to supply that. Standard systems can be purchased. You can also make your own easily and inexpensively; I'll cover that in a future article too.

Chickens instinctively sleep in high locations. Coops should have high roosting spots to allow the chickens to sleep high. The roosts should be two inches wide with rounded edges; a simple tree branch will work. The roosts should be long enough to allow each chicken to have at least 10 inches side to side. One long roosting pole may be all you need. For many chickens, each additional roosting pole should be at least 10 inches from another.

My roost is a long 2x4 board with the small end up, three feet off the floor. I rounded and sanded the edges. I also added shorter 2x4s at intervals with the wide side up. In very cold weather, chickens should be able to roost while fully resting on their feet; this keeps their toes from freezing. By providing both slender and wide roosts my chickens can determine which one they want based on the temperature.

Round edges on the roosting board

I added a ladder to the roosts to help the young chickens climb up. It has little wood slats along the way for their feet to grab and not slip. Chickens can fly and will naturally seek out the roost and many sources say ladders aren’t necessary, but I feel it can’t hurt and may actually help.

An easy climb

I also added a board under the roosts. Chickens poop a lot and most of it happens when they're on the roost. By having a board to collect their droppings it means I can clean up that section easily without having to clean the entire coop as often. It also centralizes the droppings so I can add them to my compost pile. The board is covered with linoleum with newspapers and wood shavings on top of that to minimize the gross-out factor of cleaning up chicken manure.

For hens, a coop needs nesting boxes. The boxes should be raised off the floor but need to be lower than the roosts; my nests are 12 inches off the floor. If the nesting boxes are higher than roosts the chickens may sleep in the nests, soiling them excessively. The nesting boxes should provide some darkness so the hens can lay in a nice, safe spot. Each nest may be used by as many as five chickens so a few nests will accommodate many birds.

My nesting boxes are built on the outside of the main coop area. This provides more living space for the chickens in the coop and provides the out-of-the-way, dark space for layers. This design makes collecting the eggs easy too because a hinged door allows egg collection without entering the coop.

Sturdy construction supports weight

A latch on the nesting box door keeps predators and children from accessing the eggs. For an outdoor coop in cold regions, having the nesting boxes inside the main coop space conserves heat, but an exterior access door can make egg collecting easy.

Latched door keeps out undesirables

For chickens without outside access, the coop needs a chicken door. The door should be about 12 inches tall so they can move in and out easily. It should also close when necessary. Chickens will sleep at night, the same time many predators are on the prowl. A door that that be shut at night offers needed protection.

Chicken door from the outside

I designed my chicken door so it can be opened and closed from outside the coop. For now I'll have to open it in the morning and close it at night. Chickens instinctively return to their roost when it gets dark and automatic door openers are definitely an option. Having an automatic door system can save time and effort when it comes to chicken care, but it adds to the construction cost.

Sliding door system

Coops can be designed in many shapes and sizes. I've seen coops that are replicas of the owner's house. Pre-fab sheds work great. Using supplies you already have reduces cost; my coop cost less than $100 and most of that was on hardware like hinges, latches, and handles because I already had most of the building material. The finished coop can be painted, but chickens don't care what it looks like.

Many coops for purchase seem outrageously expensive to me. They're smaller, less sturdy, and not as efficient as one designed for a specific chicken owner. If you want chickens, consider their needs and think about building your own coop. There are many resources available to help.

For more info, take a look at:

backyardchickens.com
mypetchicken.com


Chickens need a home of their own. They can't be house-broken and living in the guest room isn't a long-term option. As cute as the chicks are in the beginning, when they start looking and acting like full-grown chickens it's time they have a permanent place, a coop of their own.

My chicks are outgrowing their brooder

Most chicks are ready to move into a coop at about five weeks old. My chicks are about at that point. The coop is where they'll eat, sleep, and lay eggs for the remainder of their lives. Coops can be borrowed, bought, or built. Being a can-do kind of guy, I built my own.

For the best health and comfort of the chickens, chicken coops have certain requirements.

Most importantly, a coop needs to be predator-proof. All of your chicken-raising time and money is wasted if a fox, dog, raccoon, or coyote finds its way into the coop to kill your feathered friends. A sturdy structure that can prevent such an onslaught is necessary. A solid floor or wire buried in a dirt floor will keep burrowing and digging animals out.

A coop needs to protect the chickens from the elements. Rain, snow, wind, and sun can be harmful. A fully-enclosed living space is all they need. Depending on where you live you may want to consider heating the coop for cold winters, but chickens can actually handle very cold conditions as long as there are no chilly drafts in the coop.

That being said, a coop needs adequate ventilation to prevent chicken respiratory diseases from developing. Especially in hot months, ventilation is a requirement to keep the chickens from overheating or becoming dehydrated. A design to allow for cooling air in summer and reduced drafts in winter is ideal.

I built my coop in a vacant horse stall in the barn. The structure of the barn itself is a deterrent to many predators, but I built the coop to withstand any animal that finds its way into the barn. It can be cold in winter and a bit stifling in summer so I designed the coop with chicken wire on the upper third of the walls to provide as much ventilation as possible. In winter I can cover the wire with tarps to help retain some heat. This design also allows me ample opportunity to watch the chickens.

Chicken coop in a barn

For stand-alone, outside coops, windows that can be opened in summer and closed in winter offer the same advantages. Open ports in the gables or soffit can work well too. In all cases the openings need wire coverings to keep predators and other birds out.

For mental and physical well-being, each chicken should have at least four square feet of space in the coop. This assumes that they'll have access to the outside on most days. If the coop is their only living space, you should allot at least 10 square feet per chicken.

My coop is four feet by seven feet, a total of 28 square feet. Since I also have a chicken run for outside exercise and stimulation (more on that in a future article) that space allows seven chickens to reside comfortably. I don't have that many now so I have room to grow my flock.

A coop should be designed for easy cleaning. A clean chicken environment is a healthy chicken environment. I covered my coop's plywood floor with a sheet of linoleum to help with cleanup. A wide door will allow the soiled bedding material to be shoveled out.

An easy to clean floor

The coop needs its own feeding and watering system. Chickens should have access to feed and water constantly so their home needs to supply that. Standard systems can be purchased. You can also make your own easily and inexpensively; I'll cover that in a future article too.

Chickens instinctively sleep in high locations. Coops should have high roosting spots to allow the chickens to sleep high. The roosts should be two inches wide with rounded edges; a simple tree branch will work. The roosts should be long enough to allow each chicken to have at least 10 inches side to side. One long roosting pole may be all you need. For many chickens, each additional roosting pole should be at least 10 inches from another.

My roost is a long 2x4 board with the small end up, three feet off the floor. I rounded and sanded the edges. I also added shorter 2x4s at intervals with the wide side up. In very cold weather, chickens should be able to roost while fully resting on their feet; this keeps their toes from freezing. By providing both slender and wide roosts my chickens can determine which one they want based on the temperature.

Round edges on the roosting board

I added a ladder to the roosts to help the young chickens climb up. It has little wood slats along the way for their feet to grab and not slip. Chickens can fly and will naturally seek out the roost and many sources say ladders aren’t necessary, but I feel it can’t hurt and may actually help.

An easy climb

I also added a board under the roosts. Chickens poop a lot and most of it happens when they're on the roost. By having a board to collect their droppings it means I can clean up that section easily without having to clean the entire coop as often. It also centralizes the droppings so I can add them to my compost pile. The board is covered with linoleum with newspapers and wood shavings on top of that to minimize the gross-out factor of cleaning up chicken manure.

For hens, a coop needs nesting boxes. The boxes should be raised off the floor but need to be lower than the roosts; my nests are 12 inches off the floor. If the nesting boxes are higher than roosts the chickens may sleep in the nests, soiling them excessively. The nesting boxes should provide some darkness so the hens can lay in a nice, safe spot. Each nest may be used by as many as five chickens so a few nests will accommodate many birds.

My nesting boxes are built on the outside of the main coop area. This provides more living space for the chickens in the coop and provides the out-of-the-way, dark space for layers. This design makes collecting the eggs easy too because a hinged door allows egg collection without entering the coop.

Sturdy construction supports weight

A latch on the nesting box door keeps predators and children from accessing the eggs. For an outdoor coop in cold regions, having the nesting boxes inside the main coop space conserves heat, but an exterior access door can make egg collecting easy.

Latched door keeps out undesirables

For chickens without outside access, the coop needs a chicken door. The door should be about 12 inches tall so they can move in and out easily. It should also close when necessary. Chickens will sleep at night, the same time many predators are on the prowl. A door that that be shut at night offers needed protection.

Chicken door from the outside

I designed my chicken door so it can be opened and closed from outside the coop. For now I'll have to open it in the morning and close it at night. Chickens instinctively return to their roost when it gets dark and automatic door openers are definitely an option. Having an automatic door system can save time and effort when it comes to chicken care, but it adds to the construction cost.

Sliding door system

Coops can be designed in many shapes and sizes. I've seen coops that are replicas of the owner's house. Pre-fab sheds work great. Using supplies you already have reduces cost; my coop cost less than $100 and most of that was on hardware like hinges, latches, and handles because I already had most of the building material. The finished coop can be painted, but chickens don't care what it looks like.

Many coops for purchase seem outrageously expensive to me. They're smaller, less sturdy, and not as efficient as one designed for a specific chicken owner. If you want chickens, consider their needs and think about building your own coop. There are many resources available to help.

For more info, take a look at:

backyardchickens.com
mypetchicken.com


Friday, April 6, 2012

Raising Chicks

Raising chicks is a lot like raising kids. At first they're small, fragile, cute, and everyone wants to hold them. Then before you know it they're gangly and stinky and eating you out of house and home. You still love them, but much of the overt cuteness is fading and you can't wait until they move out on their own.

Chicks don't take nearly as much of your time and money as your kids, but they still need a lot of attention. The first month of a chick's life is critical to their health and future success. With proper planning and preparation it's relatively easy to raise chicks. Our three chicks are doing just fine and are still pretty easy to look at.


Our three chicks at two weeks

Baby chicks need food, water, space, and heat. Their home for the first few weeks is usually a brooder, a house specifically designed to raise chicks. I built a brooder to accommodate all of their early requirements, but many other systems can be used, like a cardboard box, a pet cage, a big plastic bin, or a horse trough. Unless you want to move them when they're bigger the brooder should be big enough to allow two square feet per bird.

My brooder is two feet wide and four feet long, big enough for four comfortable chicks as they grow. Their house should be at least 12 inches tall. I recommend higher and made my brooder two feet tall. The chicks will experiment with jumping and flying as they grow and the extra height gives them room to exercise while reducing the chance that they can fly out. 

My simple wooden brooder

The brooder can be located almost anywhere. A spot that is easy to get to makes your efforts easier. Mine is in our guest bedroom. I'd planned to put it in the barn but during a cold spell last month I determined I couldn't keep it as warm as it needed to be.

Heat is the most important factor in a successful brooder. Sure, you can argue that water and food are more important; that's obvious and a given. But heat is critical to their early survival. Baby chicks need an air temperature of 95 degrees in their first week of life. In the second week it drops to 90 degrees. Then 85 degrees the third week and so on until they're ready to move to their permanent coop at five or six weeks old. Only a properly-designed brooder can provide the necessary heat.

Use a heat lamp to provide the high temperatures. Some sources say you can use a 60-watt or 100-watt incandescent bulb, but unless you have it fully enclosed in a small cardboard box it won't generate nearly that much warmth. A 250-watt infrared heat lamp is the only way to guarantee the heat. I recommend a red bulb. The heat lamp needs to be on 24 hours a day and a white bulb provides continuous daytime which can interfere with the chicks' effort to sleep; red is darker and gives them some rest. Also, chicks are attracted to red and have a tendency to peck each other. If blood is drawn, other chicks can continue pecking the injured bird, potentially to death. A red bulb makes a wound virtually invisible and reduces the chance of chicks hurting each other.

Because the brooder temperature needs to change each week it's design should allow for the heat lamp to be moved as necessary. Before the chicks ever saw my brooder I used a thermometer to measure the temperatures at different spots with the heat lamp in different positions. Initially it was suspended inside the brooder to generate 95 degrees in one corner. It gradually changed until at one month it is mounted outside the brooder with the bulb pointed inward. I continue to monitor the temperature with a thermometer to keep it where it needs to be.

Chicks will self-regulate their body temperatures. If they huddle together under the heat lamp it demonstrates that they're too cold; you may want to lower or move the heat lamp for more heat. If they are hanging out far away from the lamp and away from each other, with wings spread and panting, they're too hot; you should raise the lamp to reduce heat. If they're walking around the brooder pecking curiously, they're comfortable and happy.

While they're walking around, water and food need to be available constantly. You can use bowls and pans, but I recommend the specific waterers and feeders that are designed for chicks. Chicks don't know not to step in or poop in their water and food. While an open dish is quickly soiled, a chick feeder has little holes designed for their little heads to peck food. An open water pan can actually drown a small chick while a chick waterer is designed to give each chick access to water without the opportunity to swim in it.



Chicks with food, water, and heat lamp

Chicks have specific nutritional needs and buying chick feed is the only way to provide it. There's no way you can supply the necessary nutrition if you try to feed them with kitchen scraps. They'll need chick feed for at least the first four or five weeks before they can graduate to different chicken feed. Specific bags of feed will tell how long it should be used before moving on to a "grower" feed. The feeder should stay full so food is always available. A dilemma arises in whether it should be medicated feed.

Coccidiosis is a deadly chicken disease. Some chick providers will vaccinate chicks against it, but if yours aren't vaccinated, medicated feed is recommended. Coccidiosis is spread from animal to animal and your chicks may have been exposed at their place of birth. Medicated feed is only needed if they aren't vaccinated and is an easy way to help keep them healthy.

Chicks feeding together

Fresh water is important. Chicks will hesitate to drink dirty water and can become dehydrated quickly. Since they do everything they can to dirty the water you give them, you'll need to change it many times a day. Initially the waterer should be at floor level so the baby chicks can drink it. As they grow plan to raise the waterer on blocks of wood or boxes so it is closer to the level of their heads. Do the same with the feeder.

Bigger chicks with raised, fresh water

A brooder should have absorbent bedding material. I use a thick layer of pine shavings. Cedar shavings aren't recommended because the aromatic oils in the wood can cause respiratory problems in the chicks. Some say pine can cause similar problems, but I haven't seen that. The bedding will be pecked and kicked as the chicks move around. Expect it to end up in the waterer and feeder, another reason to raise them as the chicks grow; it reduces how trashy they get.

Many people immediately think newspaper is an option for bedding because we're used to lining bird cages with newspaper. Newspaper by itself can get slippery when wet and slippery conditions can lead to a condition called "splayed leg" in chicks, a deformity that permanently affects the way the chick will walk. That deformity can cause the chick to be picked on, literally, by other chicks and can even result in being pecked to death.

Because "splayed leg" syndrome happens very early on, after the first week I use a layer of newspaper underneath the pine shavings. It helps keep the brooder cleaner when the chicks start kicking around the pine shavings and makes clean up easier. And easy clean up is important.

Chicks poop. A lot. And it increases as they grow. They don't care where they are when the urge strikes and the entire brooder will quickly become a mess. Having newspaper as a base allows me to pick up the messy shavings in a big mass to be distributed on the compost pile.

Depending on how many chicks you have, cleaning the brooder is a weekly event when they're small, particularly in a big brooder like mine. Lots of shavings effectively absorbs the amount of poop they produce. As they get into the teenager phase at about three weeks old cleaning needs to happen more often. Besides giving them a healthy environment, cleaning the brooder reduces the smell and depending on where you have your brooder smell can be an important and noticeable factor in your comfort.

A few other options should be considered when you're raising chicks. Birds need coarse material to aid their digestion. Chicks should have sand or parakeet gravel. You can provide it in a separate bowl but they'll probably knock it over quickly and your efforts may be wasted. I suggest adding it to their feed by sprinkling some on top when you add new feed.

Also adding a perch to the brooder when they're a few weeks old can give them a new toy to experiment with. Chickens will naturally roost on high spots. Training chicks on a low roost will get them ready for the roost you have in their permanent coop and may keep them off the feeder when they get big. A perch that is about four or five inches high is a good way to start. Half-inch dowels can be used as long as they won't spin when the chicks climb on. I use 1" x 2" wood mounted to 2" x 4" blocks. The top of the 1 x 2 is the thin portion, sanded with rounded edges so there are no splinters.

One of my chicks began roosting on the new roost after the first day. They all hop on it throughout the day. I'll raise it a little in the next few weeks to get them used to a higher roost. It's not a necessary part of a brooder but it's a nice addition.

Checking out the roost

If the days are nice and warm, you can give them some outside time beginning when they're about three weeks old. They should be in a fully protected cage or structure that provides water, food, and shade if it gets too hot. They can actually fly so don't give them the opportunity to escape. If it gets cloudy or windy they'll soon get cold so bring them back to the comfort of the brooder. Don't leave them unattended during an outdoor excursion.

After about five weeks the chicks should be ready to release into their coop. You'll probably be very ready for that transition. If the birds start pecking and fighting when they're older it may be because the brooder is too small for them. The exact date you move them depends on the weather and coop conditions. They should still have a warm environment with ample water and food and moving them to an unheated coop too early can affect their comfort.  More on coop transition in the next chicken article.

Raising chicks is a time-consuming activity. You can't leave them unattended for a few days and expect that they'll be okay. During the important first month you'll need to watch after them daily, and many times during each day. Don't plan a vacation during that time. Remember that a happy chick is often a quiet chick. Lots of loud chirping means they're not happy. It takes work to keep them happy and healthy but it's worthwhile. Soon you'll have full-grown chickens.



Raising chicks is a lot like raising kids. At first they're small, fragile, cute, and everyone wants to hold them. Then before you know it they're gangly and stinky and eating you out of house and home. You still love them, but much of the overt cuteness is fading and you can't wait until they move out on their own.

Chicks don't take nearly as much of your time and money as your kids, but they still need a lot of attention. The first month of a chick's life is critical to their health and future success. With proper planning and preparation it's relatively easy to raise chicks. Our three chicks are doing just fine and are still pretty easy to look at.


Our three chicks at two weeks

Baby chicks need food, water, space, and heat. Their home for the first few weeks is usually a brooder, a house specifically designed to raise chicks. I built a brooder to accommodate all of their early requirements, but many other systems can be used, like a cardboard box, a pet cage, a big plastic bin, or a horse trough. Unless you want to move them when they're bigger the brooder should be big enough to allow two square feet per bird.

My brooder is two feet wide and four feet long, big enough for four comfortable chicks as they grow. Their house should be at least 12 inches tall. I recommend higher and made my brooder two feet tall. The chicks will experiment with jumping and flying as they grow and the extra height gives them room to exercise while reducing the chance that they can fly out. 

My simple wooden brooder

The brooder can be located almost anywhere. A spot that is easy to get to makes your efforts easier. Mine is in our guest bedroom. I'd planned to put it in the barn but during a cold spell last month I determined I couldn't keep it as warm as it needed to be.

Heat is the most important factor in a successful brooder. Sure, you can argue that water and food are more important; that's obvious and a given. But heat is critical to their early survival. Baby chicks need an air temperature of 95 degrees in their first week of life. In the second week it drops to 90 degrees. Then 85 degrees the third week and so on until they're ready to move to their permanent coop at five or six weeks old. Only a properly-designed brooder can provide the necessary heat.

Use a heat lamp to provide the high temperatures. Some sources say you can use a 60-watt or 100-watt incandescent bulb, but unless you have it fully enclosed in a small cardboard box it won't generate nearly that much warmth. A 250-watt infrared heat lamp is the only way to guarantee the heat. I recommend a red bulb. The heat lamp needs to be on 24 hours a day and a white bulb provides continuous daytime which can interfere with the chicks' effort to sleep; red is darker and gives them some rest. Also, chicks are attracted to red and have a tendency to peck each other. If blood is drawn, other chicks can continue pecking the injured bird, potentially to death. A red bulb makes a wound virtually invisible and reduces the chance of chicks hurting each other.

Because the brooder temperature needs to change each week it's design should allow for the heat lamp to be moved as necessary. Before the chicks ever saw my brooder I used a thermometer to measure the temperatures at different spots with the heat lamp in different positions. Initially it was suspended inside the brooder to generate 95 degrees in one corner. It gradually changed until at one month it is mounted outside the brooder with the bulb pointed inward. I continue to monitor the temperature with a thermometer to keep it where it needs to be.

Chicks will self-regulate their body temperatures. If they huddle together under the heat lamp it demonstrates that they're too cold; you may want to lower or move the heat lamp for more heat. If they are hanging out far away from the lamp and away from each other, with wings spread and panting, they're too hot; you should raise the lamp to reduce heat. If they're walking around the brooder pecking curiously, they're comfortable and happy.

While they're walking around, water and food need to be available constantly. You can use bowls and pans, but I recommend the specific waterers and feeders that are designed for chicks. Chicks don't know not to step in or poop in their water and food. While an open dish is quickly soiled, a chick feeder has little holes designed for their little heads to peck food. An open water pan can actually drown a small chick while a chick waterer is designed to give each chick access to water without the opportunity to swim in it.



Chicks with food, water, and heat lamp

Chicks have specific nutritional needs and buying chick feed is the only way to provide it. There's no way you can supply the necessary nutrition if you try to feed them with kitchen scraps. They'll need chick feed for at least the first four or five weeks before they can graduate to different chicken feed. Specific bags of feed will tell how long it should be used before moving on to a "grower" feed. The feeder should stay full so food is always available. A dilemma arises in whether it should be medicated feed.

Coccidiosis is a deadly chicken disease. Some chick providers will vaccinate chicks against it, but if yours aren't vaccinated, medicated feed is recommended. Coccidiosis is spread from animal to animal and your chicks may have been exposed at their place of birth. Medicated feed is only needed if they aren't vaccinated and is an easy way to help keep them healthy.

Chicks feeding together

Fresh water is important. Chicks will hesitate to drink dirty water and can become dehydrated quickly. Since they do everything they can to dirty the water you give them, you'll need to change it many times a day. Initially the waterer should be at floor level so the baby chicks can drink it. As they grow plan to raise the waterer on blocks of wood or boxes so it is closer to the level of their heads. Do the same with the feeder.

Bigger chicks with raised, fresh water

A brooder should have absorbent bedding material. I use a thick layer of pine shavings. Cedar shavings aren't recommended because the aromatic oils in the wood can cause respiratory problems in the chicks. Some say pine can cause similar problems, but I haven't seen that. The bedding will be pecked and kicked as the chicks move around. Expect it to end up in the waterer and feeder, another reason to raise them as the chicks grow; it reduces how trashy they get.

Many people immediately think newspaper is an option for bedding because we're used to lining bird cages with newspaper. Newspaper by itself can get slippery when wet and slippery conditions can lead to a condition called "splayed leg" in chicks, a deformity that permanently affects the way the chick will walk. That deformity can cause the chick to be picked on, literally, by other chicks and can even result in being pecked to death.

Because "splayed leg" syndrome happens very early on, after the first week I use a layer of newspaper underneath the pine shavings. It helps keep the brooder cleaner when the chicks start kicking around the pine shavings and makes clean up easier. And easy clean up is important.

Chicks poop. A lot. And it increases as they grow. They don't care where they are when the urge strikes and the entire brooder will quickly become a mess. Having newspaper as a base allows me to pick up the messy shavings in a big mass to be distributed on the compost pile.

Depending on how many chicks you have, cleaning the brooder is a weekly event when they're small, particularly in a big brooder like mine. Lots of shavings effectively absorbs the amount of poop they produce. As they get into the teenager phase at about three weeks old cleaning needs to happen more often. Besides giving them a healthy environment, cleaning the brooder reduces the smell and depending on where you have your brooder smell can be an important and noticeable factor in your comfort.

A few other options should be considered when you're raising chicks. Birds need coarse material to aid their digestion. Chicks should have sand or parakeet gravel. You can provide it in a separate bowl but they'll probably knock it over quickly and your efforts may be wasted. I suggest adding it to their feed by sprinkling some on top when you add new feed.

Also adding a perch to the brooder when they're a few weeks old can give them a new toy to experiment with. Chickens will naturally roost on high spots. Training chicks on a low roost will get them ready for the roost you have in their permanent coop and may keep them off the feeder when they get big. A perch that is about four or five inches high is a good way to start. Half-inch dowels can be used as long as they won't spin when the chicks climb on. I use 1" x 2" wood mounted to 2" x 4" blocks. The top of the 1 x 2 is the thin portion, sanded with rounded edges so there are no splinters.

One of my chicks began roosting on the new roost after the first day. They all hop on it throughout the day. I'll raise it a little in the next few weeks to get them used to a higher roost. It's not a necessary part of a brooder but it's a nice addition.

Checking out the roost

If the days are nice and warm, you can give them some outside time beginning when they're about three weeks old. They should be in a fully protected cage or structure that provides water, food, and shade if it gets too hot. They can actually fly so don't give them the opportunity to escape. If it gets cloudy or windy they'll soon get cold so bring them back to the comfort of the brooder. Don't leave them unattended during an outdoor excursion.

After about five weeks the chicks should be ready to release into their coop. You'll probably be very ready for that transition. If the birds start pecking and fighting when they're older it may be because the brooder is too small for them. The exact date you move them depends on the weather and coop conditions. They should still have a warm environment with ample water and food and moving them to an unheated coop too early can affect their comfort.  More on coop transition in the next chicken article.

Raising chicks is a time-consuming activity. You can't leave them unattended for a few days and expect that they'll be okay. During the important first month you'll need to watch after them daily, and many times during each day. Don't plan a vacation during that time. Remember that a happy chick is often a quiet chick. Lots of loud chirping means they're not happy. It takes work to keep them happy and healthy but it's worthwhile. Soon you'll have full-grown chickens.