A lot of people ask me all kinds of questions about what we do around here on the Schell Urban Homestead. The question I get asked the most though is, hands down, “With three kids, how in the world do you do it all?” The answer is pretty simple… I have a strong partner:
When we first researched keeping chickens, my only hesitation was the idea of having to clean a coop weekly. I used to have a parakeet, and I hated changing his newspaper tray, and I hated cleaning my hamster’s cage too. I was dreading having to clean a coop. I envisioned this, happening weekly (by the way, she was cleaning a coop inherited when she moved to the property for the first time). Then, I ran across something describing the deep litter method, and I knew I had found the solution.
We clean our chicken coop (specifically the hen-house) twice a year. And no more.
And the coop does not smell. In fact, when we participated in the Denver Botanic Gardens/Denver Urban Homesteading Chicken Coop tour, everyone remarked on how our coop did not smell. I didn’t clean it before the tour, because I wanted to show what the method off and let people see what it looked like to have chickens in real life.
What we learned was that we were, at that time, the only chicken keepers on the tour using this method. Every other owner had told the tourists that they cleaned their coops weekly. We were surprised by this and actually started making a joke of it, calling ourselves the lazy chicken owners on the tour. People laughed and that’s how I actually came to the name, the Lazy Homesteader.
Here is how the method works in case you are like me; allergic to hard work involving poop.
Clean your coop one fall day and then put down a layer of dried leaves or pine shavings or some other kind of litter (not straw – it’ll stink to high heaven). Then you let the chickens poop on it. Then when it’s thoroughly covered over in poop…
Put down more shavings or leaves. I just throw it in – I don’t spread it nicely or anything. I’m not touching that crap. The chickens will dig through it and spread it around anyway.
Repeat until spring comes. Note that I mainly just put litter down right under the roosts. If it’s very rainy or snowy, we put their food and water inside the house (usually we keep them in the run) and we don’t want them to throw litter in the food and water.
Finally, on a nice day, when you feel like doing it, bring the wheel barrow over to the coop, scrape it all out, and dump the decomposed poop/leaves/shavings mixture into your compost bin. It’ll be mostly all composted anyway. Then clean out the coop and put down a fresh layer of shavings or leaves (if you have any more).
You are basically composting in the bottom of the hen-house. And as you learned a couple weeks ago, compost generates heat, perfect for helping your flock stay warm during the winter.
And I can totally handle cleaning only twice a year.
Everyone in the household is seemingly well again, so urban homestead boot camp is back in session!
After a garden, when someone mentions “urban homestead” many people think of chickens. To me, chickens are a bit of the country right here in the city. They aren’t particularly noisy, they don’t take up much space, and it doesn’t cost much to feed them (ever heard the expression “chicken feed?”).
I have an awful lot to say about backyard chicken keeping. Enough probably to fill a book. It’s fun and the eggs are well worth the effort you put in. In order to keep this post from becoming a novel, here are the down and dirty basics of urban chickens. I am, of course, not an expert. We’ve had chickens for five years now. We’ve encountered a few problems and we’re continually learning as we go. But if you’re looking at getting birds for the first time, here are some basic guidelines.
First off, are chickens allowed where you live? Check your city ordinances. There are usually stipulations on the number of birds, the size of area required for them and in some municipalities, there may be a permitting process. You can sometime skirt your HOA if they only stipulate the number of “pets” allowed and not what kinds.
Getting your neighbors on board is pretty important. Luckily, it’s a pretty easy thing to do as well. All of our neighbors love our hens. The kids especially. And the promise of fresh eggs are a great way to build some good will between neighbors.
You might be surprised where chickens actually are allowed. Highlands Ranch, here in Colorado, for example is chock-full of HOAs, and they totally allow chickens. So check it out.
This link has lots of city codes listed, but not every city. A Google search will help if it doesn’t have your city.
For most backyard flocks, you’ll want only female chickens. Roosters are loud and crow all day, making it tough to stay on your neighbors’ good sides. Plus they’re generally not very friendly. Despite the fact that everyone wants to ask you how you plan to get eggs without a rooster, you don’t need one. Without a rooster, all your eggs will be unfertilized and you’ll get to skip the 4:00 AM wake up calls (and at 11:33, and at 3:28, and at 6PM).
You can start your flock by getting chicks, started pullets, or hens. Chicks are the least expensive, but you will need to raise them indoors under a heat lamp until they have grown all their feathers and can move outside, which will take a few months. Pullets are female chickens that are less than a year old. They will cost you more than chicks but you’ll get eggs sooner, since most chickens begin laying around six months old. Or you can buy grown hens that are already laying. They will be the most expensive since someone else has fed and housed them for a year with little benefit of getting eggs. You probably don’t want to buy hens that over two years old if you want many eggs though. Their peak laying years are the first two (from age 1-3 years).
You can order chicks in the mail or buy individuals at a feed store or from a local farmer. There is only one site that I know of that will ship chicks in quantities less than 28. We bought our chicks locally, so I can’t say how they do this.
Pullets and hens can also be bought from local farms, sometimes on craigslist, or at markets or poultry swaps. Chickens are social, so you’ll probably want at least three or four.
There are lots of breeds of chickens. If your climate is cold in the winter, you will want a heavy breed that can keep its self warm. Bantams are miniature chickens and their eggs are about half the size of regular chicken eggs.
Your birds need about two square feet apiece inside their hen-house. It needs to have a roost and they’ll want a place to lay their eggs. The size, shape and style of your house and coop are limitless. Check out some of these ideas for small backyard coops.
Coops are easy to build yourself if you are the handy type, or small ones can be bought locally or online for a few hundred dollars. We built our coop ourselves and over the last five years have made only some minor modifications. (Though I admit I have a few more in mind for this coming year). I’ve seen people convert dog houses, old sheds and abandoned campers into chicken coops.
The original construction of our coop looked like this: Coop Construction!
The main things to keep in mind are a place to rest, a place to nest, a place to get shelter and a way to keep predators out. Many people advise using hardware cloth to keep raccoons out. We have been successful with simply using chicken wire, which is much less expensive. Although we’ve had chickens killed by foxes and raccoons, it was never due to a breach in the security of the coop, only due to the negligence of the chicken owners (we forgot to close the coop at night).
A chicken tractor is like a mini coop on wheels with a run attached that can be used to let your hens graze or catch bugs and then moved to a new spot so that they don’t eat the grass down to the dirt. A great idea if you have the room for it. Check out some neat ones here.
Chicken are omnivores. I always sort of chuckle when I read “vegetarian fed hens” on a carton of eggs. Now that’s good in commercial eggs, so that you know those poor birds weren’t fed other chickens. But your chickens will certainly not be vegetarians. They will eat bugs and worms, and I’ve heard they can catch and kill a mouse.
For the bulk of their diet, however, you’ll want to feed them something. You can make your own food for them using a mix of grains and seeds. A quick Google search will lend you many guides and recipes. Depending on your resources this might be less expensive than buying pre-made food. For some it is expensive if you’re in a big city far from where the grains are grown, and so it is easier to buy the bagged stuff.
Pre-made choices include conventional, organic, medicated, pellets, crumbles, mash and if you’re lucky, whole grain. Most backyard flocks don’t need medicated feed, even for chicks. These feeds are made for large, commercial flocks, where chickens are kept in too-close quarters and make each other sick. There is no need to dose your flock with antibiotics out of the gate with only three or four or twelve birds.
Pellets, crumbles and mash are different forms of the same feed. The ingredients in the feed are ground up and then pressed into shape before being packaged. The shapes are self descriptive. These are a matter of personal preference since chickens will eat all three. It comes down to what you prefer and how much the birds waste. My birds have always flung feed out of the feeder, but if the feed is pellets, they still get eaten off of the ground. All of these feeds are susceptible to moisture. If they get wet, they will pretty much disintegrate. So store it where it will stay dry, and keep a cover on your feeder if it is outdoors.
Conventional chicken feed is the least expensive but carries the risk of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and GMO ingredients. Since here in the US, they don’t label those things on human food, they certainly won’t on chicken food. If you want to avoid these (remember, your chicken is making eggs with that food, and you will eat the eggs), you should buy organic. It can be more expensive than conventional feed, unless you can find a local source. We have found a local farm co-op that offers us organic, whole grain layer feed for 43 cents/pound.
Your chickens are great garden disposals as well. They love to eat greens, weeds, kitchen scraps. I’ve often joked that they are like miniature pigs. The only things I have not seen our hens devour are potato peels and mushrooms. Otherwise, they will pick clean a ham bone as quickly as they will hork down mushy strawberries. They stick their skinny necks through the fence to attack our Swiss chard on a regular basis, and they practically live in the compost pile during the winter.
They will eat eggs. And if you cook them scrambled eggs, that’s fine. They don’t identify an egg smashed flat on the ground as the same as an egg they just laid (they are not the brightest creatures). But be cautious. If they get a taste for raw eggs, soon they will be plundering their nests and eating more eggs than you.
Crushed eggshells are a good supplement for them to get calcium in their diet (to make strong shells). You can also offer crushed oyster shell, whey, other dairy products and leafy greens. They’ll chow down and thank you.
You know how my site is called The Lazy Homesteader? Well, it’s because I really don’t like anything that is complicated, hard work, or lots of maintenance. The main work in caring for chickens, I’ve found, is making sure they have fresh water everyday. They need it replenished often in hot weather and they need the ice chipped off in the cold. So every day, they need water. That I can do, if Rick is helping me.
Their feeder holds enough food for a few days, so I just check it when I’m giving them water to make sure it’s not empty yet. And I collect eggs.
Your hens will eventually molt. This is when they lose and regrow feathers and take a break from laying, and typically happens in the winter. The molt is dependent upon hours of daylight, so if you want eggs year round, they need a light in their house to trick their bodies during the winter. We’ve found that they don’t need it to keep warm (admittedly we don’t have ice storms here, so I can’t speak to that), but their feathers and group body heat seems to do the job. We let them take a natural break from laying and don’t provide a light in the winter.
Cleaning the coop is the other main work of keeping chickens. We use a deep litter method and only clean a couple of times a year. We’ve found this doesn’t work that well with straw as the coop bedding. It is great however with leaves or pine shavings. During the first chicken coop tour, everyone remarked on how nice our coop was – that it didn’t smell at all. But then one time we decided to try straw. The coop stunk within the week. It was a horrible stinky ammonia smell. And messy. They straw went everywhere. A breeze blew it all over the yard. It was slippery to walk on. We switched back to dried leaves and pine shavings. Later this week, I’ll explain the deep littler method in detail. Others do use straw and change their hens bedding daily. Still others use sand. Find what works for you.
That is basically it. This week, I’ll cover more chicken keeping things in detail. This is a big topic, and I know this post is pretty general. It may be elementary for old hands, but hopefully it answers some of the questions first timers might have.
Since spring is around the corner, we are making an effort to ensure we have room in the freezer for the coming crops. The first thing in the freezer each year is asparagus. When the asparagus comes on, we try to eat as much of it as we can, but we usually put some aside for the dark days of winter when we need a soup to warm us and remind us that yummy green things are just around the corner.
The other night, I used the last of the frozen asparagus in this simple soup. It’s a variation on one I posted a couple of years ago.
First, cut three pounds of frozen asparagus into one to two-inch long pieces. Peel and smash six to eight cloves of garlic. Divide the asparagus and garlic between two baking sheets and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried thyme. Roast in the oven at 450° for about twenty minutes or so (keep an eye on it, I didn’t time it exactly), or until the asparagus starts getting nicely toasted.
The above picture isn’t quite done enough for me yet. When you have roasted it long enough, transfer your roasted asparagus and garlic to a large pot. Use a small amount of water in your baking sheets to get up all the brown bits from the roasting and pour that into the pot with your asparagus.
Add enough water to your pot to cover the asparagus and bring to a boil. Make a slurry of 3 Tablespoons of flour and about half a cup of cold water. Whisk into your soup. Return it to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for five or six minutes. After it has thickened a bit, use an immersion blender to purée it smooth (or transfer to a regular blender in batches).
At this point you could actually cool and freeze the soup. But if you are serving it right away (of course you are), ladle it into bowls and give each bowl a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of heavy cream. Serve with some cheesy toast and enjoy.
Last week, Sharon Astyk announced that she’d be bringing back her Independence Days Challenge. Whew! I was excited about it! If you’ve read my blog for more than a year, you know, I’ve participated in her challenge since 2010.
The challenge is to make small steps, every week, every day if you can, towards food independence. And then record them. There is no lamenting what you haven’t done, and in contrast to challenges where doing as much as you can takes the stage, the Independence Days challenge shows that small things do add up and everyone can do something.
The steps are recorded in several categories…
Plant Something: Planting isn’t done just once a year when you are looking to be independent. Sharon tries to plant everyday from February to October. Think seed starting, cold frames, season extension if you can. February is a bit early for us, but we already have potatoes chitting so we can be ready to go in just a few weeks.
Harvest Something: From your garden, your nest boxes, the finished compost, foraging. It all counts.
Preserve Something: In lots of parts of the country you can’t plant and harvest year round, including here in Colorado. So you better put up what you can for the dark days of winter! Canning and jamming, yes, but also drying, smoking, freezing, etc.
Waste Not: Scraps given to the animals and/or compost pile fit here. Also mending things instead of throwing them out. Creating less garbage, making sure things don’t go to waste.
Want Not: Building up your long and short-term food storage falls into this category. We bought a case of peanut butter, for example, or buying bulk grains goes here. Also, I’ve put things like cloth diapers or second-hand clothes in this category. Things that last and will need our needs over time.
Eat the Food: It’s tough to break the habit of buying a full menu’s worth of meals at the grocery store. You have to think and make an effort to use up the book you have stored. Eating from your pantry and your freezer, making full use of what you have. Trying new recipes falls here too. Eat what you’ve worked hard to grow and save!
Build Community Food Systems: Sharon sums it up like this: “What have you done to help other people have better food access or to make your local food system more resilient?” I include things here like gardening with the neighbors, giving talks about gardening, CSAs, farmer’s markets, sharing food with people in an effort to get them to take their own steps towards self-reliance.
And a new category (I’m so excited about this one) -
Skill Up: from big things like building a beehive or cold frame, to smaller things like starting seeds or researching new ideas. Record in this category what you’ve done to add to your own arsenal of skills.
Over the last two years, I have recorded our steps in a weekly blog post (see them all here). But this year, I’m thinking of recording them a little differently. Look to the right, over there in my side bar. I’ve decided to keep a running total over there. I’ll still post Independence Days updates, but probably less regularly than weekly. We’ll see how it goes. I’m flexible. But I like the idea of watching it all add up in one place.
I’d love it if you decide to join the challenge too. I really like seeing the small things add up.
For more info on the Independence Days Challenge, make sure to read Sharon’s post.
Yesterday I mentioned keeping a reasonably well stocked pantry in order to allow for some flexibility in my meal planning. I got to thinking about what a well stocked pantry looks like. It will probably different for every household, and it varies for us as well, depending on season, tastes, moods, how well we stocked up last year, etc.
In general, this is what I came up with for our version of a well stocked pantry (in no particular order).
- Oats – I keep a half gallon to gallon size container of oats on hand at all times. Sometimes I switch between steel cut oats and rolled oats, but I have found that rolled oats are more versatile. These whole grains make oatmeal, of course, but they can be added to desserts (cookies, crisps), muffins, breads, and are the base for home made granola. They are insanely less expensive than boxed cereals, and better for you too.
- Rice – I use both white and brown rice, and at times I’ve kept quinoa on hand instead. Rice is a great belly filler, another whole grain, and it keeps. Good with stir-fries, in soups and stews, as a side dish, the star of risotto, and Rick even eats it for breakfast with butter and cinnamon.
- Canned beans – the hero of emergency meals. Dried beans are far cheaper, and we keep them on hand too, but canned beans can be used instantly with no soaking or hours of cooking. We add them to up the protein on pasta dishes and soups, sprinkle them over salads, as easy finger-food lunches for the kids, we let them star in vegetarian meals. Keeping beans on hand saves the day if I forget to defrost meat for dinner.
- Olive oil & balsamic vinegar – Together, they make an easy, delicious and cheap salad dressing. Separately, olive oil can be used for nearly everything we cook. I do keep other oils on hand too, but if I had to keep only one, olive oil would be it. The balsamic can be used in other ways too. A friend brought over a dessert once of mascarpone cheese spread on sugar cookies, topped with sliced strawberries and drizzled with balsamic reduction (heaven). I use balsamic as a secret ingredient in certain soups and other dishes.
- Broth – you can’t really make risotto without it and it makes soups super fast. It’s a decent substitute for white wine in a pinch. It’s a fast way to up your flavor without much effort.
- Canned tomatoes – if I’m crunched for time or feeling lazy, you can bet I’m reaching for a jar or can of tomatoes. They can become anything. I use them for enchilada sauce, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, soup, stew, chilli, roasted with other veggies, you name it. This is a true staple for us.
- Onions and/or garlic – the other day I told Rick, “We’re out of onions. I can’t make anything without an onion!” I know, strictly speaking, onions and garlic are perishable, probably not really “pantry” food, but stored well, they last a long time and I really feel like I can make anything taste good if I have an onion or garlic. This makes my mom laugh. When I was a kid, I “hated” onions, I even gave my mom a homemade citation for using too many – her punishment was to not be allowed to use them for a whole week. She was a good sport and went along. I pray my children don’t ever punish me this way. You can make rice and beans delicious with a little onion and garlic. If times are tough, and your cupboard is nearly bare, you better have an onion.
- Dried herbs/spices – I love me some spices. I can’t understand how people cook with nothing but salt and pepper. An average spice rack should at least include thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, dill, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, savory, and cumin powder. Mine better have extra red pepper flakes and Chimayo chili powder too. You don’t have broth? Make some with your meat, an onion, a bay leaf and some thyme, parsley, and savory. Chili? You need that cumin and those ground chilies. Rosemary will make your plain ol’ rice and chicken amazing. A bit of dried herbs go a long way, and they can make the most basic of meals delicious.
- Pasta – Another go-to for us. It’s versatile, cheap, it keeps forever and I can buy it in bulk. Sometimes I feel like the number of pasta dishes is limitless.
- Soy Sauce & rice vinegar – If you get tired of tomato based dishes, the cure is soy sauce and white vinegar. The combo makes the best fried rice, and you can use them to make many Asian sauces. Soup, Thai, stir fry, peanut sauce, marinade, jerky, the list goes on. Practice using the pair and you can impress anyone.
Obviously this list doesn’t cover baking basics like flour, which I almost added to the list. But I’m curious how your pantry matches up to mine. Is it similar? Very different? Did I miss something or surprise you? Does your region or culture affect your list? Tell me what is on your list of pantry staples.
Menu planning may not sound like an urban homesteading skill, but I assure you it is. It is something that, like a budget, takes thoughtful time and effort and doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Our family would never stay within our food budget if we didn’t do it, however. It saves us time, money and helps us waste less.
Menu planning saves time. When I sit down for fifteen or so minutes and make a plan for the week, I am gaining loads of time before dinner. I can plan to eat something quick on the nights Henry has a violin lesson, and I can plan something that can keep cooking for a while on the nights that Rick could get home late or early. I know the answer to, “What’s for dinner, Honey?” There is no standing in front of the fridge trying to figure out what to throw together last-minute.
It saves time at the grocery store too. If I know what we need for the week, and have a list, I don’t need to wander down every aisle. I can just grab what’s on the list and get out of there. And anyone with kids knows that the grocery store can be a time sink. Trust me, a plan saves time.
Menu planning saves money. If you don’t know what you need for the week, you are going to spend a lot more money at the grocery store too. You will need to wander around looking for what you think you might need or use, and you’ll probably buy more or less than is necessary. Buying more isn’t tragic (unless what you bought will spoil), but not buying enough will kill your food bill, because then you’ll be heading back to the store for convenience trips. Those convenience trip add a lot to your bill. I don’t know how many times I’ve run into the store for one or two things and come out with my pocket fifty dollars lighter. We always find a few extras that we “needed” during those quick trips. For the most part though, sticking to the plan prevents those.
Menu planning also saves us from the days when we are exhausted before dinner time and too tired to think of what to make. Somehow, just having it written down already makes it manageable enough to happen. So instead of being tired and saying “I don’t know what’s for dinner. Let just get take out,” we have a plan and can throw together the dinner we have planned. That mental energy seems to be a tipping point for us. If there is no plan, we eat out a lot more. And if our food budget ever gets blown, it’s due to one pizza order too many.
Menu planning keeps waste down. When we know what to buy at the store and what we’re making each night for dinner, we rarely have any food waste. I tend to remember the celery or kale and use it before it spoils, I don’t buy as many things that I don’t know if I’ll need or not, because I know what I need. We eat more regularly from our stored food in the freezer and pantry, and things don’t go bad in the abyss of food storage any more.
I’ve written about menu planning in the past. While that post is still valid, I have changed the way we plan our menus from monthly to weekly. The main reasons I plan weekly instead of monthly now is we have gotten in the habit of eating from the freezer in the winter, there is no longer any mystery food in there; and in the summer, our CSA picks our vegetables for the week and I don’t want them going to waste. Plus it is a lot less daunting to plan a week’s worth of food than a month’s worth.
So, how to plan. Remember, this is boot camp – the very basics. If you know how to plan already, make sure I haven’t missed anything. If not, here is how we throw down a plan on our homestead.
- What do you have?
This week, I planned our menu on Sunday night. I sat and thought a moment about what we had in the icebox to use up, what was in the freezer and pantry, and how much money we had left in our budget for the month. In the freezer, we have elk, green chiles, corn, asparagus and tomatoes. In the pantry, there are still hard squashes, black beans, rice and pasta. And it’s the end of the month, so we need to use what we have as much as we can, since I don’t want to blow the budget in the last week.
- What do you need to use first?
Is there a little left over from last week that needs to get used up? Did you get too much of something out of the freezer? Use those things first. If you are planning on eating greens, use them right away so they don’t go bad before the day you’re supposed to eat them. Last night, Rick got eggplant down from the freezer, and then decided not to use it last-minute. That means, tonight, eggplant is on the menu.
- Look at your schedule.
Do you need something quick on Tuesday? Are you having family over Friday? What day are you going to the market? Figure out what kinds of meals you need. We are shopping on Wednesday this week.
- Make the plan.
Monday: Eggplant and tomato pasta bake with olives
Tuesday: Ham and Egg Fried Rice
Wednesday: Spinach and black bean enchiladas
Thursday: Asparagus soup with cheesy bread
Friday: Mexican elk steak with tomato, onion, chile sauce over rice
Saturday: Pumpkin Coconut Curry
Sunday: Bacon and tomato pasta with roasted asparagus
- Make the grocery list.
While you are making your grocery list, keep in mind breakfast and lunch too. This week, we need: milk, spinach, lemons, limes, avocado, onions, buttermilk, cheese, butter, nuts (for granola), fruit (for lunches), white wine and bread.
Simple enough, right? In the summer time, the only difference is, I wait to plan our weekly menu until the day we pick up our CSA share, so I can see what produce we have for the week and plan around that.
Do you plan menus? Does you method look similar or different from mine?