Aug 21, 2013

Three Girls and a New Coop: Phase 2

In hind sight, I'm glad the first coop I built was small because it means the mistakes I made were also smallish. Lets just say I've learned a lot about raising chickens in the last year and continue to learn more all the time!

This time I'm building a walk-in coop that is better insulated and has a large covered outdoor space. Originally, I hoped to make the new coop 80 square feet (coop and covered area combined), but 10-foot lumber proved too expensive so instead the coop will be 64 square feet, using standard size 8-foot lumber.

I love A-frame buildings! Although they are not necessarily an efficient use of space, they are CUTE and that counts for something, right? They are also very easy to build, as you'll see in the following photos.

Two-by-two lumber was used to frame the coop, in order to keep the weight of the building to a minimum. This was important since the coop had to be moved from the place it was being built (the deck) to its final location (the yard). The majority of the frame was made from three equal size triangles. Easy enough...
The angle of all three corners was 60 degrees, which helped to keep the build simple. However, my miter saw didn't have a 60 degree angle option. After researching online I tried the following trick and it actually worked:

To make a 60 degree cut, the miter saw was set to 30 degrees and the wood held perpendicular to the saw.
I'm a one-woman-show on this project, so bracing the three triangles together was tricky. I used the house, some deck chairs and cinder blocks to prop everything up and before long the frame came together.
Next came a couple of plywood panels, which really helped stabilize the structure.
I waited to attach the upper plywood panels until the wood for the doors and walls was cut and installed. Throughout this project Bella believed I was building her the best dog house on the block:

Two door frames and cedar paneling for the interior wall came next. 

Cedar fence boards worked well as inner wall paneling. They were about $2 each, which made them less expensive than using plywood.

Hardware cloth was used to line the front of the coop.

Bella sleeping on the job. Again.
Plywood sheets enclose the back of the coop.

With the addition of the front door the coop was finally enclosed and ready for chickens (although far from done).

My neighbor and her friends helped me move the coop to its new spot in the yard, next to the crab apple tree and raised garden beds.
Although it looks overcast in this picture, it was actually midnight at the end of a very sunny day! People often ask about the daylight in Alaska. This picture is a good example of what it's like in summer, not quite light out and not quite dark out, in the middle of the night. You can see the aforementioned temporary chicken shanty  in the background.
Stay tuned for the next phase of the build: insulation, inner door, roofing, lighting, and all the other things I haven't thought of yet! 
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This post is featured on: Tilly's Nest.

Aug 17, 2013

Snapshot: Canning Sockeye Salmon

Harvesting and preserving salmon for winter is an important part of summer for many Alaskans. Here, my friend Laura and I clean, descale, cut, brine, jar and pressure cook sockeye salmon from the Kasilof River, AK. The process takes almost two days, but the delicious smokey canned salmon we eat all winter makes the time investment well worth it. 

Aug 14, 2013

Three Girls and a New Coop, Phase 1

It's official: I'm building a new coop!
The current chicken coop has served it's purpose well, but when it comes down to it I have big birds and there isn't enough space for them to spread their wings, dust bathe, and have personal space from one another.
With that in mind, I put together a little temporary lean-to where they can spend time while I build the new coop. Comprised of scrap plywood, compost bins and a blue tarp, the girls LOVE IT in their shanty.
The floor of the shanty is made of compost for next year's gardens. Get in there and work you magic girls!!


I love to listen to them scratching around and singing their happy forage songs. Perhaps best of all, they love to eat up my garden nemesis chickweed! Well done, ladies, keep up the good work.

Stay tuned for more adventures in chicken coop building!
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Aug 7, 2013

Raised Garden Beds

Perennial gardening is one of my favorite pastimes, and for years I've wanted to plant a vegetable garden. But eight summers of working off of the road system (in the "Bush", as we call it in AK) hasn't allowed me the time or place to grow a vegetable garden. All of that changed this year though, thanks to a new work schedule that has me in town during the summers.  
In spring, as I was hemming and hawing about what style and size of beds to build, I stumbled upon a gardening article that highlighted Art of the Garden, a small company that manufactures decorative brackets for building raised beds. Small pieces of original yard art, they also serve a practical purpose by making raised bed construction speedy. It took me about 10 minutes to put each raised bed together and required no tools or hardware! The wood just slides into a brace that is integrated into the bracket. I used two sets of the carrot brackets to build two 10' x5' raised beds.

Art of the Garden raised bed brackets are made from 100% recycled steel, and develop a beautiful rusty patina over time.
Once the beds were built I added a base layer of last year's yard waste. By next season it should be composted, adding complexity and nutrients to the soil.

Uncomposted yard waste fills the bottom of the raised beds.
Next came the soil, which was purchased from a local plant nursery and amended with perlite and peat moss for drainage. I made two trips to the nursery to fill my truck and countless wheel barrow loads to get it all to the backyard, but 9 hours later the beds were full!
Quality topsoil, amended with peat moss and perlite, makes for a thick second layer in the raised beds.
The final layer added was compost. I chose not to use compost from my yard because it's laden with chickweed seed. Rather, I picked up some bags of quality compost and trawled it into the top few inches of the soil, along with some natural granulated fertilizer.

Compost and an natural granulated fertilizer are incorporated into the top few inches of top soil.
Once the compost was mixed in I got to planting, starting most things from seed. The radishes made an appearance about a week later, followed by mustard greens and arugula.

This summer in Alaska has been one of the sunniest on record so the garden has been going gangbusters! A few of the seeds planted didn't germinate (next year I'll plant two seeds side by side and pull the weaker one as needed) so I filled the gaps with different vegetable starts and herbs from a local nursery. This has made for nice variety and will help me to decide what to grow next year.
Greens, radishes and beets in early July.

It's been so rewarding to grow my own food and share the harvest with my friends and family. As the gardens continue to produce I look forward to blanching, canning and drying some of the results for winter.

Carrots, squash and tomatoes in early August.

Aug 5, 2013

Snapshot: Resurrection Bay

Alaska fireweed stands tall on the shore of sleepy Resurrection Bay. Lowell Point, Alaska.

May 23, 2013

Heirloom Seeds

This year my friend Mark at Nunaka Valley Farm offered to let me in on his gardening group's seed order. The company they order from is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a family owned company focused on providing heirloom and non-GMO seeds. As a bonus, the shipping is just $3 no matter how many seeds you order. Every Alaskan appreciates a deal on shipping. 
I told myself I was only going to order a few items. But the moment I sat down with a cup of tea and the beautifully organized Baker Creek catalog I knew I was in trouble. A few hours and $30 later I'd decided on my selections for the year. Mark's wife placed the group's order and soon our seeds were in hand. For the most part I satisfied my two main goals:
  • Purchase seeds that can be direct sown and will mature fairly quickly, and
  • Select vegetable varieties that I'm less likely to find for sale at local Alaska farmer's markets.
There are a few varieties I'm particularly excited to grow. Bennings Green Tint scallop summer squash remind me of the "pattypan" squash my parents grew when I was a child; lemon cucumbers, which I've seen featured in so many cooking magazines; Rocky Top salad mix, which is Baker Creek's top selling lettuce mix; and gourmet green and purple Dragon Tongue beans. It's going to be a delicious summer!

What varieties are you most excited to grow this summer?

Mild and delicious Chioggia beet. photo:

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May 5, 2013

Snapshot: Independence Mine

Abandoned mine buildings bear the weight of time and snow. Independence Mine State Historical Park, Hatcher Pass, Alaska.


May 4, 2013

Snowy May Days

Every now and then procrastination pays. For example, it's May 4th and dumping snow on garden beds from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Although I've been feeling like a real slacker because I haven't started any vegetable seeds indoors yet, waiting just might pay off this year since we're having such a cool spring.  

Nasturtium starts peer out as a May 4th storm blankets the deck in snow.
There are a few summer plants I've started indoors however, including dahlia tubers and gladiolus corms. This year I'm also growing an Alaska favorite for the first time: Nasturtiums. Started indoors a couple of weeks ago, they began peeking out of the soil a week after planting and are noticeably larger every day. The delicate leaves of the Alaska Mix variety are flecked with white, a perfect match for today's unusual weather.
I also plan to direct sow Scarlet Gleam and Spitfire nasturtiums outdoors in large planters with the dahlias and gladiolus once things have warmed up. In the mean time, I think it's finally time to get the beans soaked and planted...a perfect project for a snowy May day in Alaska!
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Apr 21, 2013

While Away, The Chickens Will Lay

Snowshoeing trip on the Eagle River, Alaska
If you're like me, it's just a matter of time before the travel bug strikes. It could mean a quick trip to an overnight hot spot, or weeks on the road visiting family and friends. As a pet or livestock owner you become accustom to arranging your animal's care before you make final plans of your own.
January was the first time I left the chickens in the care of someone else. I did my research and found a professional cat sitter willing to make the leap to the feathered side of things for a weekend. But over the coming months, as I took trips here and there, I discovered that the best chicken sitters are my friends. They know how important the chickens are to me and have a genuine interest in keeping the girls warm, fed, and happy. It seems the adage "It takes a village..." is true for chickens as well.  

Wynona with a newly laid egg.
Without a self-opening coop door, the girls need attending twice a day: once in the morning for access to the run and again at night to close things down so they are warm and safe from predators. I feel like this is a lot to ask of someone, especially if they don't live nearby. But chickens are fun, and people enjoy the bonus of opening the coop to find a fresh egg or two for their frying pan. Later, I'm able to return the favor by watching their furry friends while they travel.

It's worked best for me to meet with the chicken sitter at my house before I leave town, review where the supplies are located, the various steps I take to care for the girls both morning and evening, how much scratch, food and water they get, what to do if the lighting system timers stop working, etc. It's important to review these things in person and leave all the notes in writing. I also learned the hard way to keep backup supplies such as heating bulbs handy. And although I haven't needed it yet, I also set up a separate "safe place" where a chicken can be separated from the rest of the flock in the event she becomes injured or is suddenly rejected by her peers. For this, Bella's large dog kennel is set up in the house with cushy straw to keep the potential occupant safe.
When I left for my first trip away from the girls in January, Raveena was still just a pullet, although she was showing a lot of interest every time Wynona made a trip to the nesting box. Sure enough, by the time I returned, Raveena had started laying and our egg cartons were filling up quickly.

Wynona's eggs, light brown and spotted on left, and Raveena's eggs, dark brown on right.
Since the arrival of spring and the rapid increase in daylight (15 hours as of mid-April!) the girls have been going broody. Raveena was first and now Wynona is having her time on the nest. Because they're "taking turns" there has continued to be a steady trickle of eggs, which is enough to get us by. I hope that by this summer all three girls will be in full production and I can start sharing eggs with friends who've kindly shared their time and love with my girls.
Driving through Denali National Park on a trip to Fairbanks in February.
I was impressed by the tenacity of this solo fat-tire biker.
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Dec 24, 2012


The chickens have been settling into their coop for a couple of weeks now. Wynona continues to be the only one laying eggs so far; the two Cochins, Poppy and Raveena, are taking a little longer to get in their egg groove. 

Poppy blends in with the straw and wood.
December temperatures have been all over the place this year, ranging from 30 F to -14 F, with most nights and some days in the below zero (F) temperature range. I've been experimenting with their lighting (which is probably not helping the Cochins with their egg laying) using either an infrared heat lamp when it's really cold or a white light when it's 5 degrees F or warmer.

In an attempt to finally provide the girls with some consistency, this weekend I installed a two light system: LED white light on a timer for 14 hours a day (regardless of outdoor temperatures) and a 150 watt infrared heat lamp that can be manually plugged in when the temperatures fall below 25 degrees F. To secure the two lamps in place I installed eye bolts and attached the lamps using small carabiners, eliminating the chance that they can be knocked down and into the straw.

I added a couple of additional weather upgrades, including a wide strip of reflectix along the top of both fold-down doors. Foam weather stripping wasn't quite thick enough to cover the top seam of the door, although it worked well along the left and right door seams.

One of the more vexing design flaws of my coop has been that I didn't install a retainer for the thick mat of straw on the floor of the coop. Little nuggets of frozen chicken poo roll out (disguised in bundles of straw) and jam themselves into the hinges as I close the door. To fix the problem I screwed in a couple of pieces of scrap board as a temporary retaining wall until it warms up a bit (from -5 F), and later I'll cut a piece that fits the space correctly.

 I hope the girls are happy with these small upgrades to their cozy coop. Maybe the Cochins won't want to lay until summer, or maybe they'll surprise me one of these days with an extra egg or two in the nesting box. Either way, I enjoy starting every morning and ending every evening with a visit to their coop.

Wynona roots around for hidden tasty treats.
This blog post is linked to the Clever Chick's Blog Hop #14 
and Tilly's Nest Blog Hop #17