Squash Rx

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If there were statistics on such a thing, I would be willing to bet that the data would show that chicken owners are much more likely than your average American to have a garden. Chicken-keeping and vegetable-growing come from closely related impulses. You want to eat eggs, you want to eat squash, and you like the idea that, with a little effort, you can do it without leaving the premises.

There’s also this idea that chickens and gardens have a symbiotic relationship. The garden waste helps feed the chickens, and the chicken waste helps feed the garden. Plus, the birds can help till the soil and keep the insect population in check. Together, they form a functioning backyard ecosystem that will keep you and yours in eggs and produce.

This is all stuff and nonsense.

Not that it’s actually false. It’s just very selectively edited. The whole truth is much more disagreeable.

Argh!

The whole truth is that, when you have chickens and you have a garden, the chickens will expend all their time and energy, as well as whatever intellectual horsepower they can coax from their seven brain cells, trying to get into the garden.

And, no, they’re not going to eat the waste. Or the bugs. They’re going to eat the tomato that’s one day short of perfect. When that’s been pecked to a seedy red pulp, they’ll start on the tomato that’s two days short of perfect. And so on.

There are some things they don’t like to eat, but the only way they learn that is by taking a bite. And then, because their gastronomic memory has a half-life measured in seconds, they’ll come back for another bite the moment they can’t find a tomato that has even a hint of blush. Only after they’ve done irreparable damage will they figure out that they didn’t want to eat the thing in the first place.

Not that I’m angry or anything. I tell you this in the spirit of sharing, so that you new chicken owners will know what to expect.

Specifically, expect to lose tomatoes as a matter of course. But also expect that your first winter squash, a beautiful specimen of a variety whose name I can’t remember but whose fruit can approach thirty pounds, will have a big hole pecked out of it when it is still weeks away from being ripe.

In the spirit of fairness, I will point out that it might be, at least in part, your own fault. Particularly if you, like me, are something short of vigilant in the fence maintenance department.

Argh!

Our garden is fenced in with – ha! – chicken wire. At some spots, that chicken wire is only eighteen inches tall. Generally, this is sufficient. We learned early on that chickens weren’t watching Sesame Street the day Grover explained the prepositions. “Up,” they understand. “On,” they understand. “Over” is beyond their ken.

If the fence were eighteen inches high with a bar at the top, they’d fly up to the bar, and then into the garden. But if the top of the fence isn’t something they can roost on, they can’t wrap their minds around the idea that they can simply go over it.

On!

Now, if natural selection were left to take its course, I would think that any creature that can fly would have a very well-developed sense of “over.” One of the wonders of domestication is that we can breed birds that simply have no idea that they have all the necessary equipment to breach a fence.

So, although an eighteen-inch-high fence will keep them out in theory, it will only do so in practice if all the fence posts are secure and straight. If one of them gets loose and leans in, the chickens will simply start walking up the fence until their weight flattens it and they can stroll right in.

Since our fence posts are just bamboo sticks hammered into the ground, this does sometimes happen.

That’s when we lose our tomatoes. And that’s when we got the hole pecked in our squash.

I was pissed about the tomatoes, but I was really pissed about the squash. It was the first obviously set fruit, and I wasn’t expecting too many over the course of the season. When a plant yields a squash that weighs thirty pounds, you can’t expect it to yield a dozen of them.

So I’d been watching this squash carefully. I mounded the marsh hay under it so it wouldn’t touch the ground, and I tracked its progress as it went from just a bud to a promising sixteen-inch adolescent.

Its adulthood was still a long way off, and I worried that the crater our chicken had pecked out of it would let in rot, or insects, or both. Should I just keep it dry and expect it to heal? Should I cover it with packing tape? Should I try to cauterize it somehow?

I would like to say that I came up with the solution myself. That I thought the problem through, considered all the factors, took inventory of the materials at hand, and voila!

Plan A

But I didn’t. Kevin did.

I was obsessing over the problem, combing the Internet for ideas, worrying that I’d lose my giant squash, and Kevin looked up from his online chess game just long enough to say, “Drip wax on it.”

Drip wax on it! Now why didn’t I think of that? We took a tea light out to the garden, and the job was done inside five minutes.

It might not work. Moisture might seep in and get trapped there. Some bug might decide a nice wax burrow was just the thing. If the wound shows any signs of decay, we’ll have to move on to Plan B, whatever that is. Meantime, though, I’m much happier knowing that my squash has a nice wax seal on it.

While we were out dripping wax on the squash, we also secured all the fence posts and added taller chicken wire at particularly enticing spots, just in case. That chickens and gardens can’t coexist harmoniously is irritating, but we’re not planning to give up either one any time soon. Instead, we’ll have to learn to live by Rural Maxim #732: Good fences make good chickens.

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Comments

  1. Tamar,

    Great post. It’s so true about the “up” versus “over” blockage in their bitty little brains. I’ve really enjoyed my chickens for the most part because of their oddities. Now that I’m down to only one, I’m truly torn about whether to get another one (or three) again. Having said that, they steadfastly refuse to respect boundaries!

    I came close to sacrificing my remaining chicken to the dinner table the second time that she scratched up half of my herbs and all of my pickle sprouts. She was granted reprieve when I finally found a fencing material that keeps her out of my raised beds: the ribbon inside of old VCR taps. For some reason, it freaks her out and she stays away now.

    I pounded in some rebar at each corner and strung the black ribbon all around the perimeter with occasional twists in it. When the wind blows, the ribbon wiggles and reflects sunlight everywhere like some strange disco-ball offspring. It’s kind of fetching in a hippy, eccentric way that appeals to my wife far more than to me. I just appreciate that it keeps the yard bird out (and was cheap, cheap, cheap!)

    Squirrels, on the other hand, laugh at my silky, metrosexual fence as they plunder and pillage.

  2. My chickens just started eating my tomatoes yesterday. I dont have decent fencing up right now but I am going to try Bobby’s tip about the tape. I think I have an old vhs somewhere…

    Good luck protecting your tomatoes. I am heading out to the garden to chase chickens again 🙂

  3. I got tired of our chickens scratching up my new planted seeds and eating the tomatoes, etc. in the garden so we put up an eight food high fence around our garden. The bottom four feet is 2×2 welded wire; the top four feet is netting. I thought some of the more ambitious breeds, like the Brown Leghorns or maybe the Guinea Fowl would fly over it, but they’ve stayed out.

  4. Guessing that bucolic sensibility you were experiencing last night whilst chopping shiitakes for dinner has taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Or perhaps tonight you experience it again while you sharpen your knife as you watch Kevin commune with the chickens…

  5. I think we should we should definitively figure out if your “free range” aka garden eating chickens are any better off than my not-so-free-range-but-fed-things-that-were-once-in-the-salad-crisper-but-got too-limp-to-eat chickens…since they arrived in the same box from the same hatchery…and several are the same types.. I wonder if the eggs your garden eating chicken will produce will taste different?
    Only time will tell…October maybe?
    Else I might suggest keeping them in….because while I do keep chickens..and I don;t have a garden.. they seem pretty happy right where they are.. or else they do not know any better…

    and admittedly Buster, Buddy and Nonna…and the neighborhood coyotes don’t think they stand a chance around here…
    b

  6. Tiffany Dennison says:

    I was so heartened to read your blog. Oh I have had a battle with my chickens and we have a family of chipmunks roaming around my tomatoes. They love the almost ripe ones. I was so shocked one morning when I went out to pick on and all the almost ripe ones were well eaten. Arrgggg. Our fence is five feet high and with trimmed wings a select few always make their way out. You couldn’t be more right…Good fences make good chickens.

  7. Forget the chickens, my dogs will eat all the veggies in my garden if they aren’t kept out. I have been lucky so far in that our stupid lil bird brains haven’t figured out how to get past the garden fence.