COLUMN — Everyone has something they don’t really want people to know about them. Sometimes it’s a big deal, often times it’s not. For me, it’s things that aren’t really a big deal, but may make people wonder. For example, I rarely wear pyjamas — I almost always just go to sleep in my clothes.
We learned about the deep-layered bed method for chicken houses and cite its benefits whenever confronted, but really it’s out of convenience. The method is as follows: Put bedding of shavings, spoiled hay, leaves or grass clippings all over the coop and just keep adding bedding over top of the droppings. The mixture of the biodegradable materials and the high-nitrate manure creates a composting action and keeps the coop warmer through the winter.
Of course, you need a roost that’s far enough off the ground because chickens eliminate a lot. So much so that the pile of droppings underneath their roost can reach their fluffy bottoms before spring. Our winter coop in the barn has a leaning ladder-like roost that rises far enough off the ground that we can let the droppings pile up.
So every spring it is a ritual to clean out the coop in the barn and add the bedding/droppings to our lasagna garden. It is the third year we’ve made a no-till lasagna garden for our vegetables with very good results, even though I fear for Dan’s life every time he has to spring clean that coop.
He arms himself with a blunt-ended shovel and a face mask and trudges in with our dumping wagon and, like someone hand-digging a well, we pray he emerges. I’ve thought about tying a rope around his waist so if we get no response to our, “Y’all right in there?” question, we can yank him out without having to go in ourselves.
Actually, the smell of the coop isn’t any worse than any other chicken house, until you start peeling off the layers. Each layer removed releases wafts of some gas I’m sure is not healthy, so opening all the doors and windows and hoping for a strong breeze is a must.
As he’s peeling the layers inside, we’re adding the layers outside, hence the name lasagna garden. We aren’t growing lasagna (though we certainly grow the ingredients to it), we’re building a growing bed layer by layer. I gather my little army of workers, bring out a year’s worth of newspapers, feedbags, cardboard and cardboard food packaging and we get to work covering about 1,250 sq. ft. of ground, some of it bare dirt, most of it directly over grass and weeds.
It’s at this stage I have the added complication of the kids trying read the newspaper as they’re laying it. I’m trying to have a quick system, and they’re asking what every political cartoon means (it’s frustrating to try to explain in one sentence), what happened in this picture (read the cutline, Sparkling), and trying to save and hide the comics (sensitive Sparkling #3 is in tears she can’t read the comics as fast as we’re laying them down).
What we’ll do without the Daily News for next year’s garden, I don’t know.
While the kiddos are tiling the ground with paper, I’m hovering above with a slowly streaming hose wetting down the layer so it doesn’t blow away and to hasten the break-down action. Just when we’ve finished a section it seems, Dan arrives with a load of manure and we’re glad to see him, partly because it weighs down our layer, and partly because we know he’s still conscious. One time he seemed to be taking an unusually long time and Sparkling #1 said, “Should we go check on him, mom? Make sure he hasn’t passed out?”
I went to the barn to see my masked man give me a look of desperation.
“Just checking,” I said, and walked away. I hate to leave him, but there’s no sense in sacrificing two people, right?
After that layer, we add a layer of horse manure, spoiled and composted hay, then last year’s kitchen compost, which is almost like dirt by spring. This is the layer we plant directly into.
It’s wise practice to compost chicken manure for a year or so before adding it to the top of the garden, but we’ve found putting it at the bottom works well and is broken down enough by the time roots reach down that it doesn’t burn the plants.
The final layer is the weed control. My dream is to use straw throughout the whole garden, but for us it’s cost prohibitive. It would take many bales, and straw costs more than hay. Because of this, I use weed control fabric, which lasts me at least a few years. I used to be a purist and say, “There’s no way I’m putting THAT petroleum product in my garden,” but I could not keep up with the weeding. I had to compromise a little.
That reveals something else people wouldn’t guess about me — I don’t weed. I lay it, and leave it. It’s the way it’s got to be in this layer of my life.
Dan and Jody Spark are in their fourth year of living their back-to-the-land dream on their small acreage at McLure and they are having the time of their life.