Category Archives: Ducks

Integrating Small Animals Into the Garden (In Other Words, How to Let Animals Do All the Work)

There is one last post that I need to get up before we kick off the soil building challenge. This is based on a workshop I gave ten days ago at the Country Living Expo but it’s been on my mind for about a year now.

It’s All About the Soil
When I first started gardening I put my back into it. I worked my tail off and enjoyed it, but as time went on and I added animals to the system I noticed some big changes. Sometimes that meant the chickens completely took out an entire winter’s worth of seedlings that I had forgotten to cover, or that the ducks got into the hoop house and did the same thing. But as I learned to remember to fence off critical garden areas, my animals and foul have actually decreased the amount of work that I do in the garden.

Because in the end the most important thing in your garden is not the plants – it’s the soil. If your soil is healthy with good structure, you can eke heaps of the most nutritious, flavorful, gorgeous vegetables imaginable. If your soil is not healthy, your plants may be stunted, diseased, bland and minimal. It’s not about your thumb, it’s about your soil.

Understanding Plant Needs
Healthy plants need water, air and minerals, which are all absorbed by the plant through its root system. Adding decayed (or decaying) organic matter to the soil creates a perforated structure that absorbs water without becoming waterlogged, and creates good airflow. This soil structure not only allows plants to develop healthy root systems, but provides decomposers like fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other critters (the web of soil life) with their favorite food. It’s the waste product of this web of life that feeds the plants. So the goal of the organic gardener is to create a soil structure that feeds the web of life.

A good way to create organic matter is to compost both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) things, keeping them aerated and moist. A great way to compost is to let small livestock do it for you.

Good = you scrounging for things to compost and doing all the work
Better = animals providing you with valuable inputs and you doing all the work
Best = animals providing you with inputs and doing all the work


Small animals like chickens or ducks will require some amount of bedding in coops or runs. If you have dairy goats, multiply that amount by fifty. The beauty of bedding is that it already contains valuable manure and urine and counts as a “brown”. “Browns” are hard to come by unless it’s autumn and your neighbors are lining up sacks of raked leaves, or you just shucked an entire garden bed full of corn and have the cobs and papery outer leaves to dispose of.

To keep the ratios right, however, you need equal parts brown to green. Where do you get those greens? Just mowed grass is perfect. But what do you do in the winter when yours and your neighbor’s lawns stop growing? Garden and kitchen scraps are great. And how do you generate enough to match your brown volume?

The Magic Begins
You could find a grocery store that throws away past-prime vegetables and add that directly to your compost. Or you could take those greens, feed them to your chickens, get eggs and then compost the parts the chickens don’t eat. You could also do this with your lawn trimmings. And then your chickens can scratch through to turn the pile (aka their bedding, unwanted food scraps and manure) into compost for you. Are you starting to see the magic?

A Shortcut
If you aren’t a composter (or even if you are) you might instead use green manure. This is where you plant cover crops directly in your garden beds, then before the cover crop goes to seed you “chop and drop” or hoe it in. Some manures that winterkill, like oats, will naturally die when the first frosts hit and then decompose on their own requiring no work on your part. Taking this idea one step farther you could plant cover crops that your chickens love to eat, like wheat, barley, oats, kales, lettuce. Build a “tractor” or cover that protects the chickens from wandering dogs or overhead predators and keeps them in the exact garden bed you need worked. The chickens will eat some of the cover crop, scratch (think till) it in for you and leave their valuable manure behind. And all you had to do was scatter some cover crop seeds!

More Magic
Now imagine an elevated rabbit hutch above a compost pile. The ideal rabbit diet is alfalfa (a green chock-full of nutrients and organic matter), hay (a brown), black oil sunflower seeds (essential fats), some form of protein like cracked peas, and oats or barley. Rabbits tend to spill a fair bit of food. Alone, that food would simply go to waste and possibly attract rodents. However, with chickens, that spilled alfalfa moistened by a waiting compost pile suddenly becomes a green – something difficult for chickens to come by in the winter.

Alfalfa, as a plant, is a nitrogen fixer with long tap roots that allow it to draw deep nutrients from soils. For this reason it’s highly sought after as a garden amendment. In your compost, it imparts great fertility. In your eggs, it imparts dark orange yolks.

Another thing that imparts dark orange yolks? Worms, centipedes and pill bugs that are also attracted to that compost pile. Thanks to the decaying matter but also thanks to the rabbit and chicken manure that essentially predigests the plant matter and makes it especially attractive to decomposers – which are what your chickens really want to eat, and what makes their eggs particularly healthful compared to purely grain fed eggs.

Other things your rabbits spill are hay (a brown which you frequently must add to a compost pile that is constantly “moistened” by rabbits), seeds and grains. Instead of attracting rodents, the seeds and grains will attract your chickens which will happily clean up what would otherwise become a rodent-attracting mess and they will pick through the rabbit manure for any fly larvae.

Now we are turning liabilities (wasted, rat-enticing food and fly larvae, soiled animal bedding, yard waste) into assets (compost, healthy chickens and eggs). This is the beauty of a guild – a combination of things that work better together than they do their own. Sometimes guilds are groupings of plants. In this case it’s a grouping of small animals and compost that helps you feed the web of life. And in return for that (if you so choose), you get the occasional meat and eggs (and dairy if you have mini goats) and valuable compost for your garden.

Now we are really strengthening the relationships between the garden [growing food for] you [and] chickens [and] rabbits, [who work and amend] the compost [which feeds] the soil structure [while increasing] nutrients [which improve health in] the crops, you, and the animals.

The Voodoo of Doo Doo
The compost this guild provides is truly magical but you can take it one step further with the addition of a vermicompost tea brewer. You can make one yourself using a drill, two matching rubber storage tubs, and a piece of hardware cloth.

To make a vermicompost tea brewer:

  • Take one rubber storage bin.
  • Place some bricks or overturned pots inside it to act as spacers.
  • Take the other matching rubber storage bin and drill holes in the bottom and the lower third of the sides.
  • Line the bottom of the bin you just drilled holes into with hardware cloth.
  • Add six inches of well-moistened leaves or well-moistened, shredded junk mail (no shiny paper please).
  • Add several inches of garden soil or compost.
  • Add red wiggler worms. (You can obtain these online or through the Seattle Farm Coop, in Lake Stevens, Seattle Tilth, or in Chehalis.)
  • Add kitchen scraps and top with a final few inches of moistened junk mail or leaves to discourage fruit flies and trap any odors and snap on the lid.
  • Nestle the filled and drilled rubber storage bin into the one with spacers.
  • Continue adding kitchen scraps by burying them below the top layer and be sure the bedding remains really moist. This will encourage your vermicompost tea to brew (as moisture drips down through the vermicompost and into the waiting container below).

To harvest the vermicompost tea, simply lift out the top bin and pour or ladle the brew into a recycled glass bottle with a lid (like a vinegar bottle).
It will be as thick and dark as motor oil and so strong that using more than a few drops in a pint of water may burn your plants. Diluted in this fashion, however, it’s pure plant voodoo. You can spray it directly on plant leaves as a foliar or use it to water starts or potted plants. I would never consider starting tomato plants from seed without this voodoo.

Ducks Work Hard (So You Don’t Have To)
Ducks are yet another type of garden helper that love worms and pill bugs. But what ducks love even more than worms are slugs (those dastardly composters that desecrate your garden through spring and summer.) Keeping a few ducks on hand to roam the garden is my favorite form of slug-prevention. So long as there are slugs and bugs for ducks to eat, they ignore your plantings. But once the slugs and bugs are gone they will start helping themselves to your vegetables so keep a watchful eye on them! Ducks produce rich, large eggs prized for baking but unsupervised, they can be more hindrance than help in the garden. Use with caution.

Another Guild
This last magic guild requires substantially more fussing and planning to pull off.
In nature, tilapia eat a wide variety of food including plankton, green leaves, fish larvae and decaying organic matter. You can mimic that in your backyard using rabbit poop (recall that it’s really partially digested, nutrient-dense green matter?)

Tilapia need temperatures near 80 degrees F to grow well. You can achieve this by building a sun porch or small green house attached to the south side of your house to take advantage of escaped heat and sunlight. If you build your winter rabbit housing above the tilapia pool (which could be as simple as 55 gallon drums with aeraters and filters painted black to help absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible), the rabbits will feed the tilapia and help to warm the structure with their body heat. In the summertime when temperatures inside get above 80 degrees F, you’ll want to remove the rabbits since they do best with slightly cooler temperatures. You might even position your rabbit housing so that it’s only partially above the tilapia tanks, then add a compost pile under the remaining section of rabbit housing.

The combination of composting organic matter, rabbits, escaping heat from your house and sunlight may be enough to heat the tilapia water. If that’s not sufficient, a small space heater on a low setting overnight may be all you need.

You may even consider keeping your laying hens (or new chicks) in this greenhouse to benefit from the increased light, warmth, and to speed up the composting process which will generate more heat. More light and warmth will increase winter egg yields. You can use the top of the rabbit housing as a place for early spring starts (so long as the chickens cannot fly up and eat them). The starts will also benefit from the warmth and increased light. If your greenhouse is large enough, you could add some heat loving plants.

Selling backyard eggs, spring salad greens and heirloom tomatoes fresh off the vine (and perhaps grown directly in the compost?) in January might generate enough income to pay for your space heater and then some, thereby subsidizing your tilapia operation.
It’s also possible to add a hydroponic garden into a tilapia setup, and to combine tilapia with a duck pond but the setup becomes much more expensive and complicated as you need to prevent the ducks from eating the fish and the plants as well as filter the fish and duck waste safely (the duck waste presents a problem for the fish and for leafy green edibles).

A Change in the Weather

This last week things have really shifted from late summer sun to fall drizzle. The days are noticeably shorter and the animals and wasps are feeding voraciously. The bobcat is teaching her young how to hunt and the coyotes are taking down deer around here. I’ve been busy preparing too, sensing the final lap in the food preservation marathon.

Despite kitten-induced bursitis (read, cannot bend knee for several months) I managed to get in all the winter/spring starts from Cascadian Edibles (they are the rocking start CSA that I mention in the book, totally coming to save the day for me this year). Then I realized just how full of slugs my garden was so I moved the ducks out from the poultry area. They have been fairly well-behaved around the starts, focusing instead on slugs.

Awesomest husband finished building the rabbit shelter and I finished building larger cages so they would actually be able to hop around.

Just in time too, because Nibbles had her kits last Thursday just about dark.

This bunny is four days old and just starting to get fur. There are six babies in total. Many people have a hard time understanding how we can celebrate the birth of these small creatures which will one day grace our table. It’s easy to imagine a chicken farmer enjoying his baby chicks, knowing that some day they will be dinner. And if you don’t want to buy factory farmed food, need to keep your food costs down, and want to control the diet, lives and deaths of the animals you are responsible for – rabbits just make sense. Until post World War II rabbits kept many families in protein, but then we became this affluent society too good for our roots. In the forties north of Seattle, my father had the childhood job of working in a meat house processing rabbits. And already in the partial span of one generation they are no longer main stream cuisine. Unless you are a foodie and can afford it from a butcher’s shop that is.

Raising chickens takes longer, costs more, and requires more space to keep them healthy. Here’s some rabbit math for you: a rabbit can breed when it’s six months old. That rabbit can have four litters a year, with six to eight rabbits per litter. It takes 8 weeks to raise a batch to “market” weight, or “table” weight in my case. Baby rabbits nurse for six of those eight weeks so their food requirements are minimal. Rabbits gain weight well year round, unlike chickens that work great when the weather is warm but don’t gain rapidly in our cool winters and springs. And also, rabbits don’t need heat lamps.

One other great thing about rabbits: compost. I’ve designed this rabbit shelter so that it’s elevated enough to have compost piles underneath. I’m still working on those but they will have raised sides so I can pile it up and have some kind of chicken wire cover so the chickens can get at the scraps and some of the worms but not totally destroy my entire worm population. My goal this winter is generating as much compost as I possibly can to regenerate the depleted garden and orchard soils here. Between the goats, rabbits, chickens and ducks I think I just may be able to finally make enough compost. Rabbit’s eat primarily alfalfa so their droppings are nutrient dense amendment without a ton of weed seeds.

The fall weather has me in the kitchen, baking up tons of bread. This is one rare time you’ll find white flour in my kitchen but sometimes you just need some holes in your baguette and whole grains don’t give you that like white flour does.

I’ve been finishing off the last of the tomatoes from the big buy a few weeks back. I’ve fermented salsa, canned salsa and sauced roasted tomatoes until the goats came home. I’m making some cheesy tomato tarts with Beecher’s for the freezer. It’s nice to have something to pull out of the oven and not have to think about dinner on occasion – and especially nice while flipping through seed catalogs in January deciding which varieties of tomatoes to plant.

How about you – what have you been up to this week? Are you putting the garden to bed or planting out your winter starts?

Barnyard Update and Meet Mira

It’s been a fruitful spring in my barnyard and I have lots of new additions to introduce you to. My favorite, and the one that is tearing at me the most, is Mira.

Mira was born to Bessie, who lives with Mona (my milky friend). Bessie and Mira will be for sale soon and every fiber of my being wants them to come live with me and complete my barnyard. I’m still struggling with whether they will fit into my neighborhood. This city farming is not an easy thing. While I am within my rights to have mini goats here, I still need to be sensitive to my neighbors. I am still struggling with this one, and with being in the city in general. I’ll be doing more posting on this in a few days. For now Toni over at Backyard Feast has a great blog post on whether it’s best to stay put or leave the city so I’ll leave my thoughts for another day.

The ducks are fitting in nicely and have settled down for keeps. They have a 15 gallon pond (really a water trough) that they enjoy immensely and have the run of the backyard on sunny days when they won’t be tempted to dig in puddles that collect on the lawn. They are doing a quack-up job clearing out all slugs and caterpillars, as well as laying eggs nearly every day. Even though we didn’t hand raise them and so they are somewhat skiddish they have warmed up to me and follow me around begging. Their quacks and waddles are endlessly amusing and I am convinced that every Seattle garden needs a pair, if for the slug patrol alone.

Since my laying flock is nearing peak production it’s time to groom another round, V 2.0.  Above, Delawares and Marans trying to keep warm during the coldest Seattle April on record.  They are occupying a vacant flower bed until they get bigger and can hold their own with the older birds.

These Seabrights, Jersey Giants and Polish are still snug under a lamp as they feather out. It appears there are a few roosters in the mix so it’s good to get extra. And since odds are 50% will be roosters (and when you crow, you go), and you can now have 8 birds in Seattle, you should get 16. That means plenty for the freezer, or to cull if they turn out to be disagreeable.

What would be disagreeable, you ask? Things like pecking all the other chicks bloody, or you. This fellow has earned solitary confinement for such deeds. There is some foreshadowing with the fire pit I think.

In case you were wondering how to tell if any of your chicks are roosters here are tell-tale signs: enlarged comb, red jowels developing, and this kind of look.

A sort of crotchity, “Just what do you think you are doing?” look. A sort of “Make my day, Simpson” kind of look.

And the latest additions at last are bunnies.

El Diablo and Nibbles have joined us.

Someday, hopefully soon, they will join the chickens. I’m still working out how I can give them a chance to hop around once a day without risk of them coming into contact with chicken, duck or dog poop. In the meantime I’m cleaning up the garage so they can hop around in there. Easy access from the house means that Lander, now nearly 5, is spending a large portion of his day in the cages petting them.

The elevated dog house here is our existing chicken coop.  I’m treating it like a cape cod and simply adding on a new wing.  Har.

How about you?  What is happening in your barnyards this spring?

Ducks Like Rain

I’ve had a hard time posting this winter but the good news is we are near the tail end of the book-writing.  Apologies for the lack of posts but I’m hoping that is coming to an end.

Though I’ve been silent, I have not been inactive.  On Sunday we got Cayuga ducks and spent the day racing sundown in order to hack together a house for them.

I bought them from someone who had to get rid of them quickly so it was a bit of a rush but all in all they are working out beautifully. In fact, I may actually be convinced that ducks are a better in-city-fowl than chickens.

They are laying like champs despite the lack of light in their house and sudden change in residence. They eat slugs. They don’t scratch the yard, or throw rocks and leaves everywhere. They eat slugs. They don’t have that loud, panicked chicken cackle that hens do when trying to re-find their flock after ducking off to lay an egg. And they eat slugs.

The only drawback so far is they are still frightened of us so it takes two of us to corral them into their house each night (and that’s not helping the fact that they are frightened of us.) I do regret that we didn’t raise them from ducklings so that they would be friendlier.

Originally my plan was to get new chicks this spring so that we could thin the chicken flock since they are getting on in years but we’ve decided now to raise new ducklings instead. Over time the ducks may just replace the chickens entirely.

We still have to re-purpose a kiddie pool for them and figure out a graywater setup so we don’t waste that water. I had read many times over that ducks just need a small amount of water for splashing. Don’t believe that. I filled up a metal washtub and there were 3 of them in there on top of each other. Ducks need a pool!

The same lady also happened to have Nubian goats that she needed to get rid of…so I arranged for them to go live at my friend Pav’ place in Fall City. I can’t take on goats this spring but I knew someone who could and in the meantime I have more goats to help out with.

I promise in a few short weeks I will have more info on my spring garden, seed lists, what I’m starting and the community owned agriculture project (which is forging ahead looking at properties and structuring the legal entity). But for now I’m just trying to stay sane, and doing a lot of walking around quacking out Raffi’s Duck’s Like Rain.

Guest Post – Domestic Ducks

BJ Hedahl is a driving force in the Sustainable NE Seattle group and advocate for domestic ducks.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted ducks. My first ducks roamed an acre of land up in Woodinville. In the summer I would go into the small fenced vegetable patch and stab slugs with a two-pronged knife and fling them over the fence. My ducks would dash to the spot and one would take the slug in its beak and take off with the others in pursuit. Until the slug was completely swallowed the others would quack indignantly; until I threw another and the whole thing would start again. All I had was a small wading pool for them to splash in. Within a year they got wind of a large home-made pool about four houses away and no matter how many times I brought them ‘home’, they made their way back. After a discussion with the owner of the pond (and half a dozen ducks of her own) my ducks were no longer mine.

Now I have Khaki Campbell and Indian Runner egg-laying ducks in a much smaller backyard, with a shed and smaller pen for night-time. On average, they each lay about five eggs a week. The eggs are white and slightly larger than chicken eggs. That is where comparisons between the two kinds of poultry stops! Backyard ducks and chickens cannot be compared to each other anymore than goats and pigs, or honeybees and mason bees, or kale and lettuce.

But just to make a point I will go down the list: First is housing, which is only really there for one reason, protection from predators. Ducks don’t need a roosting place and can bed down just about anywhere, although I have heard a few chicken owners say the same thing! Ducks are much more resistant to hot, cold, and/or wet weather, diseases and parasites. Ducks forage much of their food without scratching down to the dirt like chickens do. Consequently their store-bought feed can be lower overall in cost to get a larger egg, and ducks have a higher number of egg production years. I won’t even get into comparison of duck meat to chicken except to say it’s all dark! Even the feathers and down are more useful than that of chickens. But the crowning glory, in my opinion, is that Ducks love rain! What could be more fitting in Seattle!

Now I won’t avoid negatives, although I have personally not experienced very many myself. One is the noise, as I have heard that some breeds can be noisy, although one breed is mute! My girls are noisy around feeding time and have a lot to say when they think I am late putting their organic pellets before them. This happens about twice a day, for mere minutes which stops when their beaks are full. Another problem is their poop is wetter than chickens, but this is from a person that kept her ducks in a pen 24/7 with her chickens. So, ducks that are given a much larger area to range than chickens will forage and fertilize as they go, unlike chickens that tend to scratch down to dirt with negative results. Many times I have let my gals in my vegetable patch to probe around in the earth with very little interest in nipping at leaves, although they did take out my broccoli starts once, when I forgot.

And then there are the assumptions. Ducks don’t need a pond. I have a large wading pool that I re-fill with a portion of water from my rain barrels about twice a week. I use the ‘dirty’ water as fertilizer on different parts of the yard, sometimes filling a watering can and using it in the greenhouse or on planters along the driveway. And then I also have a water container about the size of a casserole dish which I change about two or three times a day, usually when I am feeding them. Ducks need this water to clean the vents in their beak and to wash food down.

My gals are handsome. They are spoiled with scraps of veggies and fruit. They entertain with proud silliness; one looks up in the sky; they all look; then I look and there is nothing there! When they are alarmed it is impossible to not giggle as they put out their wings like full skirts and dash for the enclosed pen shrieking like debutants.