Tonight on Chicken TV: Roost Swap

The chooks have abandoned Palm Beach, my upcycled mid-century vernacular modernist masterpiece of a hen house.  Its retro roof line and evocative beach-shack colour scheme wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of  Vogue Living with Chickens but it seems these days, our girls feel out of place inside it.  I feel the overwhelming sadness of an artist doomed to be underappreciated during their own lifetime.

Of course, the veterans never saw the appeal of the coop: Andy Ninja unswervingly committed to her lonely position on top of the chicken dome; Snowball, after enduring wearying attentions during Andy’s “cock of the roost” phase, shifted to an exposed position on the rim of a half-barrel.

At first I blamed Treasure the uppity Light Sussex, throwing her weight around.  During our recent holiday, she took up a new role as “Her Indoors”. Friends and neighbours, promised eggs as a quid pro quo for keeping the flock fed and watered, went away empty handed. Treasure kept prying eyes away from her crowd-sourced egg stash with fluffed up feathers and force of personality.

Queen Treasure was enjoying plenty of wing room in the nesting box the first night Luna, Shyla and Abbey decided to perch next to a Snowball by the brown turkey fig.  However, by the following evening, she’d followed the crowd, and Palm Beach, with its rakish verandah, striking use of organic forms for perching purposes and innovative aquarium-lid clerestory window, stood empty and unloved.

I’d like to console myself that this move is not so much a rejection of my design ideas as an embrace of one of the garden’s many “outdoor rooms”.  But before concluding that the chooks’ change of roost simply expresses a seasonally appropriate relish of al-fresco napping, I thought I should eliminate alternative explanations.  Like an infestation of red mites: the bed bugs of the chicken world.

I can now report that the henhouse is now cleaner than my kitchen, with the deployment of a bottle of bleach and a rarely sighted scrubbing brush.  The organic credentials of my garden may have taken a dent but hopefully the chookhouse has had a detox.  The mantra of “form follows function” does come in handy when you need to hose chickenshit out your modernist masterwork – though this is not a feature frequently noted in Australian Architecture magazine.  In the process I believe I may have made a breakthrough in the quest for an eco-friendly alternative to concrete: a mixture of sugar cane straw, wood ash and a small quantity of egg yolk, carefully cured under a sequence of chicken bottoms, makes a substance that could not be moved by a jack-hammer.

I hope the chooks were keeping a close eye on my efforts to pest-proof their home, since the tomorrow’s weather forecast, predicted with 95% confidence, is for rain. If there’s anything more humiliating than spending your Sunday on your hands and knees scrubbing a nestbox, it’s standing in a puddle during a downpour trying to persuade a group of saturated chickens of the merits of functionalist architecture.

Bowerbirds: snacking for solar gain

Before the fall

Before the fall: it’s always sunnier on the other side of the fence

The gang’s back.  Loads of satin bowerbirds in the garden at the moment.  I’ve seen a couple of mature males, with their glossy blue-black feathers and gorgeous indigo eyes, but most of the robotic whistles, clicks, churrs and cracks in the trees seem to be the “greens” – juvenile males and females, hanging out in a pack.

I’ve heard grim stories about the antics of bowerbirds in the veggie garden.  Apparently they like to lull the backyard grower into a false sense of security and then swoop in and devastate your greens.  But I’m feeling kind of relaxed on that front.  After the brush turkeys exhumed my long awaited Hass avocado treelet, and my big girls, the young-bloods, the prodigious egg-layers, started lounging around under the baby banana trees, making eyes at my kale and chomping on every “poisonous” rhubarb leaf the moment it unfurled, I’ve decided to go totally Christo.  Every seed, every seedling, every newly planted tuber has its own little  blanket of horticultural fleece.  Anything growing that’s remotely likely to appeal to the poultry palate is swathed in netting.

The one upside of the chooks’ blithe disregard of the garden fence is the complete and total elimination of trad from the veggie patch.  Three months ago our spindly raspberry canes and brave little Nightingale persimmon were drowning in a lush wash of juicy stems and emerald leaves, even as the ground slowly dehydrated around them. But now – nada.  A few stems scattered around, waiting to reroot after the rain but not a leaf to be seen.  It’s all very satisfying.

So it’s not all bad when your flock take to the greenery.  The bowerbirds haven’t got a chance of getting my broadbeans.  But with their leaf-picking ways, they are doing sterling work for the environment.

Brushturkey in liquidambar

Brush turkey roosting in our poor denuded liquidambar

Their latest hang-out is the neighbour’s liquidambar tree – gorgeous and looming, throwing a great long shadow across our ice-box house all autumn. Basking in the sunshine on the other side of the fence, it steadfastly refuses to shed its leaves, months and months after our poor overhung specimen has shivered and shaken off its own.  And then, when the last ruby shreds are about to be blown from its branches, and the winter sun finally promises to warm our August days, the bloody thing starts growing leaves again!

But never fear, Super Satin Bowerbird is here!  I can’t prove definitively that their main objective was improving our passive solar gain but after closely studying these photographs for insights into bowerbird psychology and culinary habits, it certainly looks like it.

DIY by subtraction: the kiwifruit arbor

I’ve been laying low on the blog a bit lately while we’ve been doing cut-rate eco-renovations on our house, a poorly insulated 50s fibro place clinging to a steep south-west facing slope, thermally enhanced by a dense cluster of giant evergreen trees perfectly aligned with true north. Short of an avalanche burying the house in boulders or it sliding unexpectedly into the Marianas Trench, it’s hard to imagine a more unpromising scenario for “solar gain”.

Since I’m lucky enough to work from home a day or two a week, seasonally I spend large slabs of time hunched over my laptop in  thermal underwear, jeans, flannie, woollens, scarf, beanie, winter coat and laprug, with my bedsock-and-slipper-clad feet resting ecstatically on a hotwater bottle, thinking obsessively about winter sunlight.

The mid-century part of the house, surprisingly, is pretty well thought through from the perspective of passive solar heating that is (mostly) about allowing the low winter sun to enter the house as source of heat while keeping the overhead sun of summer out.  In the southern hemisphere, that means having windows on the northern side of the house (or within about 30 degrees of true north) and less on the eastern and especially western walls, where the late afternoon sun in summer will blast in the windows just when everyone is feeling at their sweatiest.

So whoever hammered this place together in the late 50s out of asbestos sheeting and weatherboard put in plenty of north-east facing wooden-framed windows that let morning light in through the bare branches of the liquidambar when that glowing ball in the sky finally peeps over the hill.  The kids’ bedroom and the kitchen even have those cool 50s windows that wrap around corners – in this case, oriented to the north.
Kitchen pic real

But it all went pear shaped with the 1980s extension.  Lashings of leaky and thermally conductive aluminium windows and sliding doors facing south-west (towards the view, admittedly – okay, windows aren’t just about solar gain).

The ceiling (and of course ceiling insulation) pock-marked with that latter-day house-cancer, halogen downlights.  And bizarrely, a whole sequence of interior features and outbuildings, aiming, it seems, to prevent even the tiniest gleam of late-afternoon sunlight from melting the icicles on the extremities of the residents inside. Perhaps the previous owners had photophobia: one can only presume so.

In the quest for light-drenched interiors or at least the possibility of taking my hat and overcoat off indoors, mostly what we have been doing is pulling things down and ripping things out.  Renovation by subtraction: cheap entertainment.

First to go was the hand-made bookcase and cabinets that separated the sunny kitchen and the gloomy dining room.  (The wood got a second guernsey as an implausible shoe rack and series of wonky shelves – the previous owners must have spent their years in the dark doing advanced carpentry by headtorch-light, as their skills with a mitre saw are streets ahead of mine).  Never has so much joy or interior illumination ensued from an hour’s work with a screwdriver.

Next we chainsawed a couple of noxious oleanders on the north western side of the house. When I say “we” I mean RB, with me stabilising the ladder, shouting encouragement through a dust-mask, and hoping like hell the chainsaw doesn’t get dropped on my head. Oleander: a plant that is not only water wise and offers a long-lasting floral display but every part of which – leaves, sawdust, flowers, even the honey made from its flowers – can be used to poison your children.  A fine addition to any home.

Just to ensure that no dangerous beams of afternoon winter sunlight might fall on even the windowless exterior of the laundry (itself a protective barrier between the sun’s horrifying rays and the frigid loungeroom) the previous owners erected a dismal tin lean-to, guaranteeing enduring Stygian conditions indoors and out.  Removing the corrugated iron from the roof of this bat-cave was again surprisingly easy – the work of an afternoon – and suddenly what was a dank storage area for rusty things and part-time creek bed became an mid-day suntrap, a pergola simply begging for deciduous vines.  Too easy.

While I continue to harbour many elaborate northerly-glazing and thermal-mass fantasies, further demolition will require council approval and buckets of money, sadly, so I’ve had to content myself with some eco-thrifty upcycling and, of course, plant acquisition.

So…. the kiwifruit arbor!

I have three kiwifruit growing elsewhere in the garden – a male and female “Hayward” and a Mt Tomah red kiwiberry (a bit of a threesome going there, the Mt Tomah quite happy to make do with the Hayward male as a pollinator).  They do a sterling job of sheltering the granny flat from the brutal south-westerly sun on long summer afternoons but I have a sneaking suspicion that we may not have enough chilling hours here to see them fruitful (to wit, absolutely no signs of flowering yet, though we’ve had bunches of grapes from the Pink Iona vine that grows beside them for a couple of years now).

So I acquired a male and female “Sweetie“, a super-low chill variety from the marvellous Daleys, the fastest and best mail-order fruits in the West (okay the East).  The New Zealanders grow kiwis on trellises, and my notion is that the kiwi fruit and the recently planted Carolina Black Rose grape will offer some shelter from the midday heat during the summer and lose their leaves in time to let the low winter sun warm up my ad hoc bench made of bricks and some junked marine ply that sits outside the laundry, an ideal defrosting area on nippy mornings.

Drainage is apparently quite critical for kiwifruit, so, given that when it rains, that part of the yard becomes a water-feature, I decided to put the kiwis in raised planters (with an open base so they don’t dry out too much in less torrential times). Unlike a real bat-cave, the old lean-to didn’t have the benefit of a stockpile of guano but rather hard-beaten gravelly soil, so I figured planters would keep the vines clear of any limey ground and give me a chance to whack some heavy duty compost around their roots.

Fortunately for me, my neighbour decided to re-clad one wall of his house, and we had a bunch of cedar siding thrown helpfully over the fence, so over the course of a weekend, I constructed a pair of 6 foot long, 2 foot wide and high planters from some 2x4s that had been used to frame concrete and an bedframe found in the council cleanup, lined with plastic bags that had previously contained cow poo and finished off with the cedar boards.  I was quite pleased with the result, although given the shonkiness of the carpentry, I doubt I’ll be leaving them to descendents in my will.

A year down the track, it’s so far so good with the “solar pergola”.  As it turns out, while my Hayward vines, getting very little direct sunlight in winter, lose their leaves quite promptly around the solstice, the Sweeties, in a more promising position, cling to theirs in a rather annoying, shade-producing way.  So I’m trying to constrain their enthusiastic growth to the the far end of the trellis-that-once-was-a-bat-cave where they’ll block our view of the neighbour’s yard but not too much of the June sun.  Keeping kiwifruit vines under control is no mean feat, given their crazed energy and my morbid fear of pruning.  I’ve found grapevines equally prolific but much more compliant in autumn, dropping their leaves just as it gets a bit chilly, so I’ll try to get Carolina to do her fine work above the laundry wall.

It’ll be time for the Sweeties to burst from their buds any day now, and I need to clear the way for Miss Carolina Rose, so I’d better get out into that winter sunshine and prune like the wind!

Later updates from the kiwifruit arbor:

Pollination: Sweets from my sweetie

An unhappy threesome: pollinating kiwiberries

The first bumper crop: Experiments with kiwifruit