Meet the Flock

We’ve spent a lot of time in the front yard so far, but hey, there’s a whole lotta land behind my house. Hah! Kidding – my house sits on less than 1/4 acre, but I’m trying to cram as much as possible on that little bit of dirt. As of this posting, that include five chickens and four ducks.

The winter after I moved into my house, I started researching what a backyard flock required. Housing. Food. Protection from predators. Part of this came from my mom talking about getting chickens on and off while I was growing up. She never did it, though, so I figured I’d give it a go and see how two little fluffy chickens went.

Hehehe.

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The feed store near me had Barred Plymouth Rocks, so I got a pair of those in 2013.

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They were the top hens – assertive to others yet submissive to me. I quickly realized the pair would not be enough, and two months later, I picked up a pair of Buff Orpingtons.

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Man, chicks are awkward and cute at the same time. It’s so much fun to watch them explore.

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While both of my Barred Rocks had similar dominant personalities, the Buff Orpingtons are pretty different. I call the slightly smaller one “Sassy” because she’s quick to fly off the handle at the other birds and if she’s displeased with a person, she pecks feet. The other is “Goofy” because she frequently gets lost in my tiny backyard.

Once upon a time (when they were chicks living indoors), the chickens had pet names, but those went away when they moved outside. For the most part, the birds are either “chicken” or “duck.” Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially lovey-dovey, they’ll get “baby chickie” or “duck-duck.”

I’m sorry to say that the Barred Rocks have both since passed on.

Last year (2017), my chicken-raising friend got a batch of new chicks and I started to feel the itch too. However, I didn’t really want more chickens exactly, so I ordered ducklings through the mail.

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The idea of ordering live animals has always made me uncomfortable, but the only breed I could find locally was Pekin. I’m sure Pekins are lovely, but I wanted something a bit different. I ordered two Blue Swedish (the grayer ducklings) and two Welsh Harlequins (the blonder ones).

People don’t lie when they say ducks are messier than chickens, and it’s mostly down to poop. Chickens have infrequent solid poop and most of it plops out as they roost at night. It’s easy to contain and clean. Ducks, however, often pause in their travels to shoot out watery poop. If they eat fish, that poop might even turn blackish. There; now you know about duck and chicken poop.

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The funny thing is, I was never a huge fan of ducks until I decided to add them to my flock. They are absolutely hilarious to watch, though. I was worried they might be loud, since I live in a city neighborhood, but they’re pretty quiet. When the ducks do make noise, it’s “chatter” (like a very soft goose honk) or the occasional startled quack.

While the ducks will turn your pristine pond into a mess, they aren’t as destructive in the garden as chickens. My ducks will root around with their bills, but the chickens have sharp little feet their use to scratch apart plants and dirt.

This spring (2018), I got the itch again. I was still recovering from my ex and spending loads of time in the garden was a large part of my healing. I realized just how much satisfaction I get from raising and caring from animals. The feed store also happened to have some breeds I haven’t yet raised:  Rhode Island Red and Australorps.

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So. Stinkin. Cute.

I’ve heard that Rhode Island Reds can be aggressive, so I only got one. All three, however, seem to have similar personalities – very energetic, curious, and adventurous. After a day or two, they were already climbing all over me. My other chickens were quite shy.

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David Attenborough voice:  “Here, we see three juvenile females – oh! Looks like we’ve been spotted.”

Now that I’m more comfortable with raising ducks and chickens, this batch of chicks moved outside way earlier than the others. Previously, my system was to raise the birds in a large dog kennel in my living room for a few months until they had feathers. These three moved outside at two weeks old.

Of course, it helps that I live in a subtropical climate and even our early spring days were close to 70F. I also put their brood shelf outside (protected in a plastic bin) so they had access to heat. For weeks, they lived in their own little section of the coop, fenced off for protection from the older birds. Although the chicks were freaked out at first, they seemed to enjoy living outside, and they feathered out quickly.

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Ah, destroying my gardens as a family. How sweet.

Now everyone gets along, for the most part. I was worried that the young chicks might grow up to be aggressive, but living with the older birds from a young age has tempered that a bit. If one of the younger chickens gets in the way of a duck, the duck will make like she’s going to smack the chicken with her bill. They don’t make contact, though. No one’s singled out, and no blood is drawn. Yay!

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I won’t lie. The birds are a bit of work, and keeping the flies at bay is a constant battle (it doesn’t help that I live close to the stables of a horse racing track). They are more at risk to predators than other pets because they live outside. Losing them really freakin’ hurts, because often, we as owners could’ve done more to protect them.

But few things in my life up to this point can compare to sitting under the pergola, coffee in hand, on a Saturday morning and watching the birds wander around the yard. Then, when my tummy rumbles, I head inside and cook a pair of fresh eggs.

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Next Month’s Project List: June 2018

During my annual visits home, I always come back brimming with ideas for house projects. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up, so it’s interesting to see what she’s done with her gardens. She and her significant other have also worked hard to attract a variety of birds to her yard.

My dad, on the other hand, is more a construction and carpentry type guy (perhaps important to note here:  my parents don’t live together). He has a house in the mountains but also spends a lot of time at his girlfriend’s house, closer to a city. I normally visit the girlfriend’s house, and during this visit, he was showing me the new shed he built and the welder that she got him for Christmas (drool; I’ve wanted to learn metalworking for years).

So for June, I’d like to focus on two areas:

1. Bring all the birds to the yard.

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Sparrow by Flickr on Pexels.com

My backyard is dedicated to the ducks and chickens. I don’t have bird feeders back there, though, as wild birds can bring disease to my flock. The crows have descended with a vengeance anyway. I’ve also seen increasing number of house sparrows. My younger chickens have even made a game of chasing and trying to catch the sparrows (it ain’t happenin’, girls). But as for wild birds, those two are it at the moment.

My mom’s yard, however, has probably a dozen different types of birds – cardinals, woodpeckers, robins, etc. The secret is, obviously, a large selection of feed. They have various seeds, peanuts, and suet cakes. While I don’t want to go that far, my goal is to lure the sparrows and crows out of my backyard and also increase the variety of bird visitors. My bird bath has seen some visitors, but I’m adding another traditional feeder (for a total of two) and a suet cake cage. As my garden gets established, there will also be more plant-based food and places for birds to hide.

2. Expand the shed.

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From the beloved musical “Mulch Sweeper”

When I bought this house, there was no exterior storage. My first lawn mower lived under a tarp. But when my granny passed away, I got a little bit of inheritance and used it to buy a 10×10 shed from the big box store. It’s been a good, solid shed. The ex and I even jacked the building up, put it on rollers, and scooched it back about 10 feet. But y’all, it’s too small.

I’ve tried downsizing the shed contents, but the reality is, the majority of things I like to do involve tools and materials that live outside. Ideally – and I may be dreaming here – the shed would have at least one electrical outlet and a nice workbench too. Nothing too dramatic, but right now, I cut my 2x4s on a wobbly folding table. Kiiind of unsafe.

The plan is to expand the shed (towards me, in the above photo) by four feet. My dad thinks that’ll be too small, but anymore than that and it’ll be hard to navigate around my established gardens. The end result should be a nice 10×14 shed.

Even though there are only two projects here, I’ll probably do other little things along the way. Also, as I’ve previously noted, I really struggle with predicting how long projects will take. After all, I work during the day and only have the nights and weekends for project time!

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The Painting of the Pickets

Guys, I was away for way longer than expected. Last week, I made my annual trek back home to see me ma and pa, as well as my best friend and her adorable baby. Great visits took up every day, but like most vacations, it was way too short.

But on the plus side, my lil picket fence is stained and lookin’ pretty. I have to admit, the fence took way longer to stain than I expected. I’ve come to realize that I have a very poor grasp of how long projects will take. With the pickets, for example, I planned one night for sanding all the rough edges and one night for staining.

And the universe laughed so hard, it ripped its pants.

Sanding took all of half an hour. I was mainly focused on smoothing out the “hang nails” and any remaining jagged edges. Afterwards, the fence got a thorough hosing off to wash away all the dust and bird poops that had already started to accumulate. Then, onto the staining!

If you have a large outdoor paint or stain project, I would 100% recommend getting a little powered paint sprayer. They aren’t perfect, but they will save you time. I got this Graco years ago (out of stock – but you can probably find a better one) and it sat unused until I built my pergola in 2016. There was no way I could get all the nooks and crannies with a paint brush.

Similarly, Senorita Graco also came in handy while staining my fence.

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Unless you plan on staining your mulch too, you might want to use a drop cloth.

I’ve never used a solid stain before. To be honest, I didn’t even realize they existed until right before I bought one! But the pickets ended up being such uneven shades that I needed something relatively opaque. Paint has a reputation for peeling, chipping, and coming off in all sorts of ugly ways. Voila, the solid stain!

An important thing to note:  I wanted to have the fence stained within a week of installing the pickets. I’ve only ever built fences in south Louisiana, so other regions may vary. However, we have so much humidity and heat and so many insects that even pressure treated pickets will start to show weathering very quickly.

Much to the chagrin of my dad, I frequent Lowes because it’s nearby and I get a veterans discount. Fortunately, I wanted a basic white stain – I say “fortunately” because there weren’t a ton of options available in-store. The solid stains were all similarly priced, so I went with a gallon the fanciest:  Olympic ELITE. The white color is called “Avalanche.”

It’s supposed to have super-duper climate protection and durability, so we’ll see. Here’s a disclaimer, though:  I didn’t 100% follow the directions. You’re supposed to use 2-3 coats for the stain to really be truly opaque and off the full protection. After one coat, I was ready to be totally done. I think the fence has a cute vintage look to it, and if my fence falls apart sooner than expected, I’ll know to use two coats next time.

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I love eet.

The pickets had different absorption rates, which accounts for some variation in color. However, They’re all close enough that the pickets look like a finished set (rather than a project in-process).

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Freakin’ adorable, y’all.

Is my fence perfect and even? Heck no. But I really, really love it. I never thought of myself as a “white picket fence” kind of person, but I really do find it charming. Coming home to this sweet little fence and garden every day makes me very happy.

One part where I reeeally kinda messed up was setting a few of the fence posts on the right-hand side. You can’t tell from the above picture, but I set the first several and got nervous about property lines*. I figured I’d subtly and diagonally guide the fence line more into my property.

*My neighbors are super cool and have helped guide escapee ducks and chickens back into my yard. They probably wouldn’t have cared about too much fence, but I didn’t want to cause any problems in the future.

Hrm. Well. The fence line didn’t not exactly end up being subtle. I didn’t realize how unsubtle it looked until the rails and pickets were in place. I was not willing to rip everything apart and redo it. Therefore, I decided to get some vines.

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That little blue box is a free neighborhood mini-library – I love my street!

As my main flower colors are yellow, orange, and pink, I wanted a vine with yellow flowers, then one with orange, and finally, pink. The yellow and pink were super easy. Mandevilla grows great in my yard. It dies back a bit come winter, so the vine should grow lush without every totally taking over. I’m still on the hunt for a vine with orange flowers, though. The main contender seems to be honeysuckle and other creeping vines, which are notoriously invasive. I don’t want to introduce something that’ll require significant wrangling in years to come. Ideally, the vines will grow over the fence and balance out or obscure the, er, less even bits.

So does this mean we’re done with Operation: Chaos into Beauty??? Eh, mostly. I’m still slowly adding plants (guys, I know I’m trying to budget, but it’s thrilling to wandering through a nursery and actually “need” plants). The walkways also need to be finished with sand and gravel. But yeah, all the main structural stuff is done. Hooboy.

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< Step 6:  Installing a Fence: (not so) Perfect Pickets and the Women Who Love Them

Step 8: The Final Step:  Walkways! >

Working with Your Strengths and Values

When I was little, I watched my older brother draw comics and build empires with LEGOs. I wanted to do everything that he did. Part of that was me being the annoying, copycat, little sister, but there were some innate strengths at play too. My dad is artistically inclined; he would sit at the kitchen table and doodle cartoons on scraps of paper. My mom is more logic-minded; she’s the musician and mathematician and has a talent for solving puzzles.

And yet, as I advanced through school, I avoided both of those paths. Artists starve, as do architects. Business was a no-go, as economics was equally boring and slightly beyond my grasp. Psychology would require extensive schooling to have my own little practice, including horn-rimmed glasses and a leather-and-oak office. Engineering and architecture mean high-level math (that shrieking? it’s me).

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So much math in that computer!

For six years, I pursued what I thought I was supposed to do as a military officer, but I couldn’t understand why I didn’t excel like I had in school. I did a perfectly fine job, but I wanted to be awesome. I just couldn’t reach that bar for all the decorum and traditions that stood in my way. Perhaps more importantly, crucial areas – creativity and the ability to build something that was truly mine – were off-limits to me:

In my current position – a combination of university teaching and administration – I’ve started to rediscover my strengths. The old artistic sense returned, and I’ve spent some time making event posters and course trailers (like movie trailers, but for college classes!). While I never became an engineer or architect, buying a house has encourage me to plan and build on scales I never imagined. And one positive from my military service translated over to my new job:  I understand that clearly written policy is part of the foundation of any organization, and I am capable of creating whole manuals full of the stuff.

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“Step 1:  Be nice to the students. They are paying a lot of money to be here. But don’t be a pushover; this is a public institution, not Harvard.”

These realizations didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t even consciously think about them. Rather, I was reading an article about tapping into strengths at work. For much of my life, I’ve been doing just as the author warns against – undervaluing my strengths. I’ve been so focused on challenging myself, putting myself in uncomfortable situations to force growth, that I had convinced myself I had no innate strengths.

But say you haven’t had the “opportunity” to suppress your strengths or the freedom to discover/re-discover them. How do you find the areas in which you innately excel? There are any number of aptitude tests you can take, but I’ve found it helpful to consider these three areas:

  1. What seems obvious to you, but other people do not seem to “get” it?
    • I’m a reader and always looking for signs or directions. Many other people don’t even seem to notice those same signs. I have a natural drive to figure out how things work and explain that to others – hence, writing manuals.
  2. What projects (or parts of projects) have netted you compliments?
    • Designing event posters was part of my job from the beginning, but then someone approach me to make flyers for upcoming courses. Soon, faculty members and students were streaming by my desk with compliments and requests for more.
  3. Read and meditate.
    • Listening to the audiobook version of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation filled my head with fantasies of going back to school to study biology. The protagonist, a biologist, found her passion by studying the transition of ponds, as humanity leaves and nature takes over. I could picture myself doing the same. But then I stepped back from the dream and really thought about what that would entail. Huge lecture halls filled with students at least ten years my junior. Days filled with science, a subject I’ve never found particularly easy. And what would I do with a spare Bachelors degree? Nothing in my long-term plans aligned with it. For now, at least, I’ll just sit by my own pond and observe.
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Oh man, the first iteration of my pond was so lush. Those fish would be duck food now.

Skills at which we’re naturally strong might seem easy. Therefore, this idea of refocusing on strengths might seem counter-intuitive to the path of hard work. It’s not. Rather, strength and hard work can work in tandem.

  • Strength:  I’m good at organizing, so I planned a garden for my front yard.
  • Hard Work:  I built the garden by hand, rather than hire someone else to it.

Now things get really interesting when we bring value into the mix. You probably have some idea of what you value – family, loyalty, socializing – but have you ever written any of it down? Or really thought about your values and their role in your life? Here are some ways to guide your meditation:

  1. The last time you felt truly at peace, what were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with?
    • I felt deeply at peace during my morning run through the park. This reflects my values of:  being in nature, exercise/pushing myself physically, and solitude (I run at a time when most people are just waking up).
  2. If you were on the cover of a magazine, what would be the achievement that brought you there?
    • Choosing one thing might be difficult, but it’s okay to have two or more. Even a general sense will help you. Many of the things that come to my mind, for example, involve creation and making things with my own two hands.

Being aware of your values can help drive your daily activities, and when combined with your strengths and hard work, they can form a supportive triad for living a satisfied life. Here’s the example again, with value incorporated:

  • Value:  being outdoors and growing things
  • Strength:  planning, organizing, building
  • Hard work:  performing the labor to create the garden myself

Hard work is, by its nature, meant to be challenging, but there’s a difference between hard work counter to your values or strengths (or involving something that you just don’t care about) and pushing yourself on a project that embodies your values. During my time in the military, I was constantly doing the former, and I was absolutely miserable. I dreaded work every single day. On the opposite end, the garden project has me almost gleefully outside in the early morning hours before work, bent over and pulling weeds. On weekends, I can’t wait to wake up and haul bags of rocks or stain my fence because I’m tapping into my values and strengths.

One of the beautiful things about the value-strength-work triad is that by working hard toward your values, you might discover or develop new or less predominant strengths. If you consciously choose projects that align with the triad, you’ll naturally curate a very satisfying life. It might take a long time – but that’s part of the hard work.

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Installing a Fence: (not so) Perfect Pickets and the Women Who Love Them

When we last met, the fence rails went up and my neighbors started wondering why I was turning my yard into a pastoral, split-rail wonderland.

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Darn, this is rather charming. Maybe I should just rip out everything and move away from the city.

One of my concerns with this fence was building it so that my house didn’t feel closed off. I host a regular stream of guests through AirBnB, and my goal is to offer a welcoming house to strangers from the moment they step out of the car. Therefore, I planned my fence about three feet tall with plenty of space between pickets. The main reason I wanted a fence at all was to help the garden seem a bit more contained – actually, the real reason it’s there is to keep dog pee and drunk feet off the flowers.

Now, do you remember how valuable hard work is? Let’s talk tedium! Because my fence was only going to be about hip high, and I’m trying to avoid bankruptcy-via-projects, I figured the pickets should be on the narrow side. It’s totally fine to use six-inch-wide pickets on a short fence, but for my cottage aesthetic, I needed something narrower.

I’m sure you can buy pickets that are three inches wide and three feet tall. Lowes even sells panels that are pretty close to suiting my needs. However, for less than half the cost (and better quality, according to the reviews), I could build exactly what I wanted. It just involved a ton of sawdust all over my body.

I bought over 40 standard, six-foot-tall, six-inch-wide, pressure-treated pickets that were on sale for $1 each. Then, before I even set the first post, I started cutting them down. It took forever, but it was kind of mindless work. A little meditation with nothing but the endless shriek of the circular saw in my ears.

First, I cut each of the boards in half, into three-foot-tall sections. That was the easy part, and the work went quickly.

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Lined up like little drunken soldiers – and my trusty speed square is peeking at the bottom!

Then I sawed each board into two three-inch-wide halves. That work went extremely slowly. I don’t think my saw much cared for the curves in the cheap fence boards. I actually sawed these in batches as I worked on the fence over a week or so because this was the tedious part.

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We draw the line. Then we cut the line. We draw the line. Then we cut the line . . .

But I finally ended up with a set of narrow, short pickets. Yay! But wait! All of the tops are uneven! Once again, I am faced with a few choices as to how to shape the tops of the pickets. Gothic is very pretty but way to intricate for me to cut a hundred times. A simple point is easy, but remember how we’re trying to make my yard welcoming and not like the land leading up to Vlad Dracula’s castle?

I ended up going for the tried and true dogear cut, using a pre-cut piece as a stencil. Then bzzt! bzzt! Voila, dogear.

Sooooo I know most people put up fence boards with nails. But here’s the thing:  I hate nails and avoid using them whenever possible. If I even look at a hammer too closely, I get blisters on my hands. Therefore, these puppies got installed with one 1 1/4″ screw in the top and one in the bottom. I spaced them three inches apart – the same width as the pickets – for an airier look.

My routine for several evenings involved heading to my front yard with a stack of pickets, Sir Speed Square, a beer, and some music. As much of a pain as cutting a bazillion pickets was, installing them was the nice kind of tedious where you step back and are proud of what you’ve done.

Are my pickets perfect and parallel? Pfft no. But I have to say, I’m pretty happy with the result.

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“That is one fiiiiiine fence,” you might be saying to yourself as you lick your lips (okay, maybe not that far). But wait! We’re not done yet.

See, this project is happening in the land of termites and rot. It’s a beautiful place that’s full of life, but that comes along with tons of bugs and micro-organisms. That poor little fence won’t last long without a stain or paint or a little raincoat covering it.

But covering the fence has been it’s own ordeal, so we’ll save it for next time!

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< Step 5:  Installing a Fence: Time to Get Railed

Step 7:  The Painting of the Pickets >