Why Aren’t Pork Burgers a Thing?

I have a neighbor who has her own pigs — three to be exact. They are not pets. They are food for next year. That’s hard core. I can’t even kill an obnoxious rooster.

Tracy doesn’t “process” the pork herself. She knows someone who does this kind of work, and for a fee returns to her many small packages of roasts, chops and ground meat, all of which freezes nicely. For people who like to know where their food comes from, hardly anything could be better than this, healthier than this, more natural than this. The pigs are not free range per se. They have a kind of movable fencing that allows her to move them from one part of her mostly forested property to another. Brilliant.

It’s as good a life as a pig could hope for, unless of course the pig is Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, an outstanding read with an outstanding cast of characters if you haven’t picked it up lately. I love the chapter where Fern saves Wilbur, and the one where Wilbur gets out of his pen and is lured back in with a pail of slops (“Reconsider! Reconsider!” cried the goose.), and the one where Wilbur meets Charlotte for the first time, and the one where the town doctor reassures Fern’s mother that an eight-year-old child who thinks that barnyard animals talk is nothing to worry about…. Come to think of it, I love the whole book!

charlotte's web

Most pigs aren’t as lucky as Wilbur. Possibly in all of history you could count on one hand the number of pigs as lucky as Wilbur. Most are just delicious.

A few weeks ago, Tracy kindly gifted me with a package of her ground pork. I have bought ground beef many times, ground bison a few times to make bison burgers (far superior to regular hamburgers, do try this) and a ground beef/pork/veal mixture for meatloaf or meatballs. But I don’t think I ever bought ground pork all by itself (unless I was making a really big meatloaf!) and wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this gift.

But she helped me, as people often do unknowingly. She planted a seed when she said offhandedly, “Are you the one who told me you had a recipe for pork burgers?”

“No, sorry,” and no more was said of recipes.

The seed grew. That day I was trying to figure out what to do about the rainwater washing over the chicken coop area and dug a lot of earth by hand to accommodate the retaining wall that was to come. Digging does not require a lot of brain power. You can think about other things while you do it. You also get hungry. Pork burgers, I thought. Pork burgers.

In all my years of cooking for my family, all my years of working at restaurants, eating out, eating in other people’s homes – when had pork burgers ever been a thing you made, a thing you tried, a thing you talked about? Bratwurst, I thought, Italian sausage, chorizo, kielbasa – these have to be ground pork with spices in a casing. But never having made any of these homemade (who wants to bother with casings?) I wasn’t sure, so I looked them up. Sure enough – ground pork with spices in a casing. Many, many recipes for sausage. Occasionally you see a one that says “loose,” meaning no casing. That’s not what I’m looking for either, but ground pork with spices is the jumping-off point.

Finally I decided to play. I mixed it with a teaspoon or so of fresh tarragon, an onion from the garden and a handful of spinach, all finely chopped. Tracy’s pork was very moist, so I added some bread crumbs and an egg to bind it a bit. Some salt and pepper. Formed patties and pan-fried them in a little olive oil just till the meat was not pink any more. Oh yum.

The second time I made these I got distracted while writing, so they got a little darker on the outside than is necessary, and then I didn’t think about taking a picture until we had started the meal, but you will get the idea.

Try some mustard with the burger. The one we had was German, a special brown mustard with a good bit of zing. You can see we also had some parsleyed potatoes (peel, cube, boil in salt water till done, drain, add butter and fresh chopped parsley) and a salad dressed with the yogurt/cider vinegar/strawberry jam/s&p dressing I mentioned the other day.

pork burger.jpg

Just as there are countless ways to make sausage, countless flavorings enhancing delicious meat, there would have to be countless ways to make pork burgers. Tweak a sausage recipe. Play! Have fun! Pork burgers should definitely be a thing.

Just Keep Going

On Thursdays my mom and I read to a wonderful 100-year-old blind lady named Evelyn. Mom met Evelyn nearly half a year ago, and they started with a biography of Queen Victoria. I love this idea, so I asked if I could too. I read at 2pm and Mom at 3. A few weeks ago I mentioned Coco, the adorable black pug I am taking care of, and Evelyn wanted me to bring her. Today was an especially good day for that because Evelyn got bad news this week. Coco was perfect. She did what she does. She brought joy, comfort, warmth. Oh that fur. For the full hour that we read today, Coco lay wedged between us on the couch and Evelyn’s hands didn’t come off her once.

The tongue seems disproportional to the size of the rest of her, I know.

6 (20).jpg

Coco put her tongue (mostly) inside her mouth and I picked up where Mom left off last week and kept reading till Mom came and took over. Today’s chapter was rather heart-wrenching. Victoria was in the throes of despair when I handed off the book and took my leave.

Some days are monumental. You accomplish something big, learn something new and very useful, have a great influence on someone’s life, solve a mystery, explore a new and exciting place, have an important meeting, or experience a life-changing event. Or it dawns on you that if you put food in the chicken coop that the chickens don’t want to go into, they might want to go into it! (Thank you, Kim. I know this doesn’t really qualify as brilliant or monumental the way it seemed yesterday, but we are creatures of habit, we are. Never have I had to put food in a coop to entice the chickens to go in it — why should it have occurred to me before? One of these days I will try though. Perhaps I should drape tempting greens on the steps of the chicken ladder. Spaghetti? Maybe that would lure them up and do the trick?)

Today wasn’t a monumental day (nor did I care to entice the chickens – let them sleep on the ground!). Most days aren’t. Today, like most days, I just kept going with this and that. So did Evelyn, as she’s been doing for a hundred years. That’s a long time to just keep going! It struck me today that despite what happens, we keep on eating good food, sleeping as best we can, loving the people we love, figuring out what to do next and most of the time doing it, or trying to do it.

All around me, everyone and everything is doing the same. The lettuce keeps on making more of itself so there can be a salad every night. Oh, a new dressing to try: Mix a bit of yogurt (maybe two spoonsful) with some apple cider vinegar (about ¼ cup) in a jar (same as you would mix olive oil with vinegar). Add a bit of strawberry jam! The batch I made this year came out kind of soupy, so I just pour a tablespoon or so in there. You might need to mush it up a little bit. Shake the jar to mix it all up together. Salt and pepper to taste. Yum! (Those are the carrots right behind the lettuce in this bed, in case you’re wondering.)

6 (21).jpg

The cabbage keeps getting bigger too, this head bigger than a softball. Somehow I thought the cabbage plants were Brussels sprouts plants instead. I feel slightly disappointed about that. It seems I will have a good deal of cabbage to saute slowly with onions one of these days.

6 (9).jpg

Speaking of onions, they keep pushing harder to get out of the ground. I planted 300 “sets” (whatever that means) – 100 each of red, white and I don’t remember what the other one was. Yellow maybe. It seemed ridiculous at the time. Now I am thinking this might be a good number. If there are any left at the end of the summer, they will keep well.

6 (12).jpg

The tomatoes keep getting taller and have started getting red (yay!). I couldn’t find my favorite “sun gold” variety this year, so I don’t have any of those. But these will be excellent anyway and make the sun golds all the more special when I surely find them next year!

6 (7).jpg

The lemon grass keeps on getting fuller and taller. By the time the fall comes, this plant will occupy the entire raised bed. I am not exactly sure what to do with this other than admire it. The two other times it has grown in my garden, its entire purpose has been to make an incredibly big and ornamental show of itself, which is nice, but there has to be something else to do with it. Another day I will look into this.

6 (6).jpg

Everything just keeps going.

It was 90 degrees today, but shady where I myself kept going, rock after rock, on my stream bed. This morning I had 23 linear feet. I drove back from Evelyn’s and went very slowly down my road, stopping to pick up a few more set-aside stones from the last outing that were waiting patiently for their own special place in my long puzzle. I gathered some more rocks from around the house and softened the dirt bed before starting to set them in, then kept going to the main curve of the stream, banked those big anchor stones tight against the edge, and decided this was not far enough for one day, so gathered some more rocks and began again, adding 11 feet total today. There’s only 11 to go until I reach the woods and call it done! (I don’t care what happens to the water when it reaches the woods. Let it delta out all it wants.) After all this, I sure hope the water will choose to stay in its pretty channel during the next heavy rain.

6 (4).jpg

Needless to say, the chickens kept on being ridiculous! It’s hard for me to look at them sometimes and not think they are little aliens. For all I know, this one could have been looking back at me saying You think I’m funny looking?




A Volunteer Rooster and a Missed Opportunity

For weeks I have been lamenting that the lucky chickens of my flock – the ones that have an incredible, new, well appointed coop – have refused to venture inside in any way on their own. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said to this group (among them, unfortunately, are two roosters and one silkie whose gender is questionable).  Ladies and gentlemen, I said to them when it poured a few days ago: I know it took a long time, I know you were stuck underneath the coop for weeks when it was not yet ready, I appreciate your patience. But you are welcome to go in now!

This crew – the silkies, black copper marans, d’uccles and mixes — prefers the great outdoors. Even in the rain, even at night. At least they no longer huddle right next to the fence where a sneaky raccoon could bite another one’s head half off. Instead they gather about dead center in the run, looking like they drew straws to see who would get the safer, warmer middle and who would have to be on the outside edge of the huddle (perhaps that white one on the right is kind of a loner anyway?). Tonight the moon is rising and the stars are out and once again, together they sleep en masse, not under the coop, not in the coop, but instead, camping!

silkies at night.jpg

Apparently I have the stargazing sort of chickens. It’s summertime. It’s warm. It’s all good. I’ll let it go. For now.

For the record, this other set of chickens, the ones in the old coop, and all chickens I’ve had for seven years, go in their coop at night, stand on their roosting poles, and stay there till morning. Whether (and how) they actually sleep I cannot say, and one could debate whether or not they need their beauty sleep. These hens do not look like they are sleeping but maybe they were disturbed by someone who came along with a flash camera…

hens at night.jpg

Old Gray, standing behind, has clearly lost her position of dominance.

The only time we have had chickens in the new coop – night or day — is when we cornered them, grabbed them and put them in there. So imagine my surprise when I walked toward them (and it’s a dry day, no less) and saw a volunteer standing inside. I was so excited to see this, I ran up to take a picture.

This is my first picture, before I got up close. Look! Look! A chicken in the coop!

first rooster in coop (4).jpg

I was so excited to see this chicken in the coop, so hopeful that the other chickens would take note of the example and come in as well, so fixated on getting good pictures, that I failed to see, failed to hear (even when he crowed! even when I tried to capture that crow on a video!) that this is a rooster!

Utterly failed to register!

taking a pic2.jpg

Yes, this is a rooster. He walked around the inside, slowly, as if he were checking it out to give a report to the others. He walked around on the wire flooring, did not seem bothered by it. He looked for food to eat (hey, maybe I should put food in there!). He climbed the very cool ladder to the roosting pole.

first rooster in coop (7).jpg

He hopped up on the roosting pole and I got a picture from the outside.

first rooster in coop (6).jpg

This is a rooster! How did I miss that?! This is one of the impossible-to catch d’uccle roosters that has to go away anyway, has to be (as the brahma roosters were) “relocated” to some remote place where nature can and will take its course.

I missed my chance! I had him in a small, confined space (still clean and not disgusting to enter). I could have rid myself of one more crower. (They don’t do themselves any favors starting in with the crowing at 530 in the morning!)

But no. This rooster’s bravery eclipsed all other thoughts I might have had. He came into the coop first, came in voluntarily, did the grand tour and finally posed his silly self in the frame of the egg door before hopping out.

first rooster in coop (1).jpg

His bravery saved him (for today anyway)! We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

Rocks Leading to Mushrooms

Lately we have been collecting rocks for the stream bed that will run through the woodland garden next to the chicken coop. It’s going to be wonderful. This is where the water flows…


And this is what the stream bed looks like so far. I have never made such a thing before, but I hope it’s going to work. After Fred and I puzzled together many flat rocks, we sprinkled fine crushed rock in between, hoping that when the water comes, those little ones will glue together the bigger ones. Time will tell.

stream bed.jpg

That might not look like a lot of rocks, but it is. This length is less than half of the full length of the winding stream. So now, whether in the car or walking, I am on the lookout because I need more. It turns out there are a lot of rocks along the side of my road and in my woods, many more than I ever paid attention to before.

They were not delivered here, they were collected. That is, we collected them. The crowbar came in handy for some, but most were just pick-upable. This collection task was made far easier by this attachment on the back of Sandy’s car. Look how many we fit on there. Beats a wheelbarrow.


The bigger and rounder rocks will go around the coop fencing on the outside as one more barrier against predators, and the flatter rocks were destined for the stream bed. We made four trips up and down my gravel road, which is about ¾ mile till you get to the paved part and has mostly woods along the side. We made one trip into the woods too and got these mamas. I dare the foxes and the raccoons to get past them!


I find the rocks so beautiful too. These are two found recently.


First glance, eh, okay, rocks. But look closer.



The marbling through the, I don’t know, what is it, granite? It’s intricate and delicate and unique. And just sitting there by the side of the road, tucked into the dirt or surrounded by last year’s fallen leaves, ignored and unappreciated till now. Here I come, looking where I don’t normally look. Oh, there’s a beauty! Look at that one!

This evening, same deal, walking along the road, glancing side to side, beauty here, beauty there. The white ones especially catch my eye because I imagine that after they have found their perfect spot in the stream bed, they will glisten when they are still wet after a rain or sparkle under the light of a full moon. Can you imagine that?

In the woods along the side of my road is something else I would miss if I were looking only down at the road or straight ahead: mushrooms! I don’t eat them, not even the kind you buy in a store, so they are not really on my radar, but up they pop through the damp leaves in random places at this time of year. We’ve had a lot of rain, and that helps.

I was not looking for mushrooms. I was looking for, admiring and delighted to find rocks! Keep your eyes open. It’s no surprise that when we are attentive to what’s amazing and wonderful in the world, we will see more that is amazing and wonderful. As happens in countless ways every day everywhere, good begets good.

This perfect white specimen looks like it belongs in a textbook. How perfect is that? And all those funny bumps on top – I wonder if the patterns that the mushroom bumps make are like fingerprints, no two the same. Would have to be.


Coco is not overly interested. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t smell like meat, it hasn’t been peed on like that teeny pine tree she spent many minutes fixated on just prior to this find. In case you were wondering, that pink pug tongue does occasionally fit into her mouth.

mushroom with Coco.jpg

This next one seems inside out, maybe confused about how that top part is supposed to be shaped. But maybe it has more confidence than that, even a mild measure of chutzpah. Look at it taking great pleasure in expressing its individuality, reveling in its few days of glory and especially pleased to have been discovered. No other mushroom like me, be sure of it! No curves like mine, baby!


The Happy Wanderer, a.k.a. The Prodigal Rooster

None the worse for wear, one of the roosters showed up this morning, having found his way through the woods from the bottom of the hill, drawn perhaps by the incessant crowing of the not-yet-relocated little d’uccle roosters that clearly have a Napoleon complex. I surprise myself with the thought that perhaps this chicken has more than a pea brain.

rooster back home.jpeg

Ha! he says. Thought you fooled me!

I’d been alternately imagining him and his buddies enjoying a safe haven or having met a quick demise. Their haven would be filled with worms, beetles and other forms of chicken protein, reasonably sheltered and dry, and they would take turns on lookout for enemies. Your turn, Jack, I’m hungry.

Only one turning up raises questions. Dissention in the ranks? Full on attack with one survivor? Out for a morning stroll, got distracted by a buzzing bee and randomly wound up back home? Vague deja vu recollection of having been carried to this location. Oh look, a path! I wonder where it goes…

This big boy can’t tell his story, but he has one. So do his buddies, but theirs remain a mystery for now. We each have our own story. Sure, they are mixed up with other people’s (and sometimes chickens!), turned upside down at times by circumstances beyond our control, filled with surprises and challenges (good or not). Our own chapters don’t usually turn out the way we think they will, but the next chapter always builds on the last. And no one can take our story away. Say it like the sea gulls in Finding Nemo: Mine! Mine! Mine! If you forget how adorable they are, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4BNbHBcnDI)

The other day I was reminded of Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain. I appreciate this movie, and watched it start to finish again last night.  I appreciate the window it gives into the ugly, bloody, complex, unfair story of that conflict, showing teenage boys who don’t make it through the battle, the old woman killing her beauty of a goat in order to give Inman food, a young widow depending on her hog to get her through the winter, and love unable to write its full story because arrogant, powerful people play their games with no regard for human and societal cost.

The book by Charles Frazier that the movie is based on, by the way, won a National Book Award and is exceedingly well written. His writing is so on point with the culture, geography, flora, fauna and language of the time, and paints exceptional images of the heart-wrenching trek Inman took near the end of the Civil War to get back to Ada. Even just contrasting the movie scene of the widow, her baby and the hungry Union soldiers with its corresponding chapter, “bride bed full of blood,” would make for a highly worthwhile evening. How much we take for granted. How easy we have it.

The stories of individuals, no matter what era or location, brings me back to this prodigal rooster. I’m stuck now again though. If I leave him outside the coop, he will scratch in my nicely spread mulch to find his worms, make a mess of things, and perhaps invite the predators to come closer and put the other chickens in harm’s way. If I keep him, I’m back where I was before: What To Do!

This whole chicken enterprise is easier when you don’t have to make tough decisions and can just happily watch a silkie explore her new coop, starting in the brooding box we put her in for kicks last night. Coco, who has her own tales of woe, couldn’t quite reach her.


I then closed the brooding box door and watched that chick start with a look of Huh! Now what do you want me to do? and then make her way outside.

silkie in box 2.jpg

silkie in box 3.jpg

I imagine that later, after she made her way out that coop through the egg-shaped door, while she huddled on the ground with her friends late last night, she let them talk a bit. She waited while the others compared notes on their stylish hairdos and told of the shiny, fancy bugs they had caught.

Then she told her own story: Hey, I gotta tell y’all. I’d just chomped down on a big fat greenish beetle and all of a sudden I was grabbed from behind and put in this strange place with fine wood shavings underneath — not like this rough chunky mulch we scratch around in all day. A flat-nosed black thing with big eyes and no hairdo at all to speak of — she really needs help, that one — looked up at me and terrified me, but I didn’t let on. I’m cool…

What To Do With the Roosters!

Chickens fit in my world because they are definitely unboring. For one thing, they are entertaining. They start with being funny looking. This is a young silkie.


To add to the entertainment, they walk like aliens, sleep standing up, eek out pathetic noises, scratch incessantly to find worms and bugs, and compete hilariously with their coop-mates for every last scrap you throw in there. My carrot peel! No, mine!

Chickens are messy. They poop often and indiscriminately, kick their bedding all around, and redistribute food to all corners of their area. They don’t care if they are wet (yesterday’s ridiculous birds in the rain being a prime example) and they peck you randomly if you hang around in their run, as if your pants leg might have something good to eat on it.

And chickens give you eggs! I know some people don’t like eggs, but most people do, and there are a thousand ways to make them and make otherwise unmakeable dishes with them. For example, macaroni pie – a great thing to do with leftover pasta. Sometimes I make a little extra pasta just to have leftovers, just so I can make macaroni pie. Isn’t language a funny thing? Pasta and macaroni are the same thing. But I make pasta for dinner and macaroni pie with the leftovers of the same thing!

How easy for me to get distracted today by subject of food. I had every intention of continuing the coop construction tale. Instead, I’d rather to go on and on about the virtues of eggs in cooking – not because I don’t want to talk about the coop construction but because I am in avoidance/distraction mode altogether, still struggling with the “relocation” of three roosters yesterday.

Okay, allow me to be more precise: Hens give you eggs! And all I wanted in the first place was fresh eggs. So what do you do with the roosters? They don’t give eggs, they make a lot of obnoxious noise, they boss around all the other birds. Ultimately they make more chicks, which I surely don’t need. If my chickens were truly free range, I could maybe see having a rooster as a kind of protector. But I didn’t want them, don’t want them. The problem is that few people can tell male from female when they are a day old, unless the coloring is different, as with the cinnamon queens. Only the females have the chipmunk-like markings.


With most chicks, you take your chances and it can be months before you can tell. Sure enough, sooner or later, roosters get bigger than the hens and sprout the comb on top of their heads. This is the biggest brahma rooster.


Hens don’t have that funny red thing, which is funny, but not AS funny as what turkeys have. What is all that hanging stuff for?!


This pic is from a recent visit to Yoder’s in Madison, Va. Their petting zoo, by the way, is a favorite spot for me to take visitors. They have goats and llamas and peacocks and turkeys! And you can get an ice cream cone in numerous great flavors (mine is always chocolate, but that is another story) packed full, not a cheap portion, for such a good price.  Their Rueben sandwich is also worth the trip.

See, there I go with food again because I don’t want to face the roosters.

I thought I was lucky because up till a few weeks ago, when the chicks were three months old, I had not heard any crowing or noticed any considerable size difference. I admit I probably overlooked the slow emergence of the red combs on the tops of their heads. What do I know about brahmas anyway? Maybe they are different from other breeds and brahma females have this sometimes?

Once they crow, there’s no denying it. That’s a rooster. Oh no, that’s three roosters! Three out of six. Oh, no! Two of the d’uccles are roosters too! Should I be surprised? How likely is it that out of 32 chicks, none should be male? I had been in dreamland thinking I got that lucky.

Why can’t I be like Renee Zellweger in the movie Cold Mountain? She is the strong, afraid-of-nothing Civil War mountain girl “Ruby Thewes” who comes upon Nicole Kidman, proper young lady of greatly reduced circumstances crouching in terror of a “devil rooster.” Ruby picks up the rooster, snaps his neck and says (perfectly!) “Let’s put ‘im in a pot.”

I can’t do it. I was working my way up to finding a YouTube video on how to kill a chicken (knowing I couldn’t do it Ruby’s way), working up the nerve to even watch the video! I posted an ad on craigslist – I would happily give them away, and that would be way cleaner. I asked every person I knew who might possibly want them if they might possibly want them or knew someone who might possibly want them. Those in the know were clear with me that there are three legitimate purposes for roosters: dinner, lawn ornament and fertilizer of eggs. I want none of those. And no one else wanted them. Every day they were still here, I was aware of the passing of time and my own inability to manage this conundrum.

So yesterday morning, after exhausting other options, I decided to let nature take its course, in a manner of speaking. Chickens are historically jungle birds, I was told, and it’s not a great leap from jungle to forest. I have a perfectly good forest all around my house. We have wild turkeys in this forest – surely these he-man roosters can’t have terribly different defenses. (Note the steps of justification.) So confession time: Before I lost my nerve, yes, the three brahma roosters were successfully relocated about a ten minute walk down my nice trail into the forest to the bottom of the hill.

The forest is full of bugs and other delectables (as well as, I know, predators of all kinds) so these guys would have a good life and a truly free range and a better menu than inside their protected run until… until nature took its course (and a lucky predator came along).

You’d think you could do a thing like this and get away with it. Who would find out? I had no thought of sharing this decision with the world, but I simply do not have luck with such things. In the early afternoon, my cottage guests Hillary and Malcolm said they wanted to take a walk. I went into an autopilot description of the nice trail that encircles my property, then remembered the roosters, then said “Oh, but you know it’s probably pretty mucky down there. You might do better to stick to the road.”

Did they stick to the road? No, they did not. Later they said, “Nice trail! But there were these chickens down there, three of them…” and showed me a picture they took!

roosters in the woods 2018.jpeg

Can I say, “Huh! How about that!” and leave it alone? No, I cannot. I have to admit my part in that scene, feeling guiltier than ever.

“Oh, they looked just fine,” they said. “Very happy.”

Happy until…

The Building of a Chicken Fort

I am not a builder. I can help with building. I can get the ball rolling, draw designs on paper, put a bunch of screws in (or take them out), tell you if a board is level or hold something in place when an extra set of hands makes it easier. I can tidy up, move things from one place to another, order supplies, and suggest we stop if people look exhausted. During this project I became familiar with the chop saw and the cordless drill and screwdriver. That was new territory for me and I felt quite pleased about it, but I am a novice in this arena. I very much appreciate the people with woodworking skills who understand joinery and aren’t afraid of table saws. I know my limitations, but at the same time I know what I can do.

I can dig!

This project, start to finish, included no fewer than 50 holes, some of which had to be 18 or 20” deep, to say nothing of the digging for the bricked entrance area or the terracing of the slope. Most of the holes were for the posts for the fencing around the run; 18 were for plantings to ornament the berm that came later (still, they were holes). We had decided to enlarge the old run considerably, and I was anxious to move along with it even before the old supports were completely removed. Sandy did skilled work – continued with the framing of the new coop, building tresses for its roof and the egg boxes out the front (and clearly took more pictures than I did). I dug. I happily dug. This I can do.


I emphasize this point because sometimes it’s easy to think about or focus on what we can’t do, and put on the brakes and not accomplish goals. I know that my contributions are in the category of what a teenage apprentice could do, but that’s ok. All the grunt work has to be done too, and I like feeling useful.

It’s not only that. I’m old enough now that there are things I can no longer do. Cartwheels, for instance. And I am nowhere near as strong as I used to be. It’s maddening at times but there are people who, for all kinds of reasons, could never do cartwheels, or never were strong. I was and am one of the lucky ones. So even though I can’t do cartwheels any more, and am aggravated at my own weakness, I don’t take for granted that I can get out of bed in the morning. There will come a day when I can no longer participate in projects like this, but until I can’t, I will.

Putting cedar poles in the ground with cement feels so, well, concrete, so permanent, so long lasting. Like you better do it right because a long time from now someone is going to come along and look at your work and be impressed, or not. We decided that every post needed cement. In retrospect this is a good thing because the chickens love to dig around the posts!

Once the cement is in, it has to harden up before you can do anything else, like stapling chicken wire to it. So you dig some more holes. You fill them with cement. You wait. You clean up that mess on the side.


One step at a time, one more hole dug, one more pole planted, one more concrete base. Notice in the photo below that the posts used near the old coop are pressure-treated 4x4s. This made sense because of the framing that was needed for the shed roof. Later we will use 4x4s for the door framing as well.


Once the posts were in place and the cement dried, the roof panels could be put back and the fencing could be started. It was beginning to feel like it could be a home for chickens again after all. One screw at a time.


And one shovelful at a time. There were a lot of posts to get in so they would be prepared for the wire fencing that would be stretched and attached horizontally starting at the bottom.


The lower band of fencing we chose to use is not standard chicken wire, which we found during the last go-round to degrade in a few short years and become too easy for foxes, raccoons and other unwanteds to snap it with their teeth or claws and get through. We chose a heavier gauge fencing you can see here. For some reason I want to call it rabbit wire.


The rabbit wire will hopefully serve well at the level most predators will try to get through. It comes 36” wide, allowing for the part that has to go into the ground. Notice also that since the ground slopes toward the woods, we needed horizontal 2x4s from post to post at ground level, which meant more digging, then angling and notching the wood to fit around the irregularly shaped cedar posts and around the concrete in the ground.

Getting back to the part of the fence that has to go in the ground, there’s good reason for that. Imagine what tasty snacks chickens must be to foxes. And fox mothers have families to feed. Right around this time we noticed that one resourceful mother had used the culvert at the end of the driveway as a den in which to have her babies. I caught sight of this cutie coming home one day. We do well to protect the birds as best as we can. If we’re smart, we’ll create not a chicken coop, but a chicken FORT!


Sinking the fencing into the ground requires a trench about 12” down and about the same distance away from the outer edge of each post. You dig it such that you can press that fencing in there, cover it back up with dirt, and know that when predators try to dig, they will hit this and be unable to tunnel under it. This is the trench around the edge.


A little closer up, you can see some of the annoying roots that were in the way. I did get help with these any number of times. We have a very heavy, slender, iron pole that has a sharp edge on one end and a round flat knob on the other end. I can barely lift it, but when someone stronger than I am jams it into the ground against a fat root, it’s quite effective in chopping through it. My gratitude for these moments of assistance was huge.


This is what the wire looks like when it is in the ground.


We found out that it works. Some weeks later, the very first night after putting the silkies and their friends in the newly finished run, something dug and clawed until it reached the underground fencing, then apparently stopped. It’s hard to see that 10-12” of dirt had been forcibly removed, but it had. We replaced the dirt and then put the cinder blocks along the edge until we could get some rocks. Rocks will just look nicer.


The negative of this rabbit wire fencing is that if your chickens are young and stupid, they might try putting their head through the fence, making it easy for an animal with sharp teeth on the other side. Yes, we lost one this way. The predator got only a bite, but it was enough of a bite. You will have to imagine the rest of that gory scene because I did not take a picture of it.

The ground level rabbit wire overlaps the next band of regular chicken wire. In the following two photos you can see them both, overlapped, plus, if you look carefully, the wire we wove through the top and bottom of where they overlap just in case something should try to squeeze between the two layers. The chicken wire came in 6’ width, which doesn’t go all the way to ground level, but close, and let’s hope it’s enough. It was stretched pole to pole and then a plastic-coated wire was woven through its upper edge and tightened as best as we could. Thank you, Chris, thank you, Fred, for helping with unrolling and stretching the wire out, stapling it onto the posts, weaving the support and connecting wires and being really good sports about the whole thing.

netting and fencing (2).jpg

netting and fencing (9).jpg

Foxes and raccoons will try to dig, thus the ground level fortifications. But owls and hawks come from overhead and would love a tasty morsel just as well. Leftover from the construction of the vegetable garden fence six years ago was a length of lightweight but very strong deer netting that we hope will keep out the flyers. We attached the deer netting to the chicken wire using cable ties, lots of cable ties. It ends up looking like an aviary.

netting and fencing (1).jpg

We nearly ran out of deer netting. This one section of the “ceiling” is a patchwork. Not trying to win any prizes here – if it keeps the big birds with their sharp talons out, I’m happy.

netting and fencing (5).jpg

One last thing about the fencing. You might have noticed that there are two sets of chickens. This goes back to when they were itty bitty chicks and there were just too many of them so we had two separate enclosures in the basement. We had kept the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island reds (the Bigs) apart from the silkies, d’uccles, black copper marans and their various mixed breed friends (the Smalls). We took a chance allowing the Bigs to invade the gray Ameraucana’s lonely space of the old coop; she was the holdover/sole survivor from the last batch we had. The Bigs were half the size you see in the above photo when they joined her, but when she tried her dominating tricks, they outnumbered her and were too fast. The stress caused her to stop laying for weeks, poor thing, but she got used to them eventually and is giving greenish eggs once again.

Still, combining the Bigs (plus Old Gray) with the Smalls did not seem wise, considering not only the size difference but also the murderous pecking order demonstrations we have witnessed in the past. The recent predator biting half the head off a chick (the one who foolishly stuck her head out the fence) is enough of a crime scene for this year. So we put a barrier between the two sets of chickens, between their respective runs. This did require the digging of two additional holes, but only chicken wire top to bottom, and no trench, no wire in the ground.

netting and fencing (12).jpg

At the same time as all this fencing work was taking place, Sandy was working on the new coop little by little. From those YouTube videos at the start of this project, a lot of good ideas came. Maybe someone will get good ideas from these posts too.

The Berm Works and the Chickens Prove the Size of their Brains

I woke to the sound of a rain that made me think about the windows being open in the living room, and … uh-oh, might the wood floor be a puddle? It was the kind of a rain that resembles the sound of a feisty wind going through the leaves. I listened – if saying I listened both carefully and drowsily makes any sense – and couldn’t quite tell. Is that rain or is that wind?

Concern for the floor got me up. Dry. Good. Rain poured straight down, not in, not a lick of breeze. She wasn’t going to like this. The dog, I mean. This dog. This is her happy pug face on a sunny day, her cushy spot — not that anyone here brought that towel outside for her to have a soft bed to lay on during the construction of the coop…


This dog hates the rain, and it was raining hard. At a quarter to 6am it was light enough for me to see whether or not she was doing the thing(s) she must go out to do before she gets her breakfast every day. First order of business she managed quickly.  You might think she would know by now, going on nine years old, that people can count, and we all know that one order of business does not make two. She thinks — every time it rains, every time we go through this routine — that she can scoot to the front door after half of the business is done, and we will let her back in. During the less-than-five minutes that we stood in the rain today, she got totally soaked, and predictably scooted, but this did not fool me any more than it has in the past. I picked her up and tossed her in the grass admonishingly. I wonder if she says to herself: One of these days, if I just keep trying, I might get away with that!

Coco finally complied, though not nearly as quickly as you would think – why can’t dogs just squat and go and be done with it? Why do they sniff and search and reject perfectly good spot after perfectly good spot? Surely she then thought (if she thinks, and that’s a leap) that this early morning torture was over, but no. I played her game now, the delay-for-no-apparent-reason game.

I meandered on the driveway (wet through already, what did it matter?). Wait, I can imagine her saying. That’s not the way this works. I do my thing(s) and we go back in. It’s raining!!!

Actually I wanted to check out the berm.

My property slopes gently toward the woods on the southeastern side. Having spent a great deal of time on the chicken coop construction site over the last few months, we could see the tendency of heavy rainwater to come down the driveway and wash through the mulch I had laboriously spread on the upside of the site. This was not okay. Water will flow downhill, yes, but it might submit to some redirecting. Thus we had constructed the berm along the driveway…


…and ornamented it with 18 Rudbeckia plants last week. The long, low mound of a berm, we hoped, would be just high enough to keep the water on the driveway side. Once past the coop area, it could find its own path to the woods.

Sure enough! Not only did the water not wash over the coop area, it made itself a lovely winding path toward the woods, helped ever so slightly by me, raking the edges in the pouring rain. How perfect that this little volunteer stream found its own unboring path!



In my dreams the area through which this little stream flows is a woodland garden. The stream bed is carved out a bit more intentionally (by me, when the urge to play with dirt strikes again) and lined with stones that are big enough to stay in place but small enough to walk on when it’s not raining. Maybe there’s a little footbridge. All around there are various perennials that of course the deer will leave alone, and which will bring color and interest throughout the growing season. My friend Louisa said she has some shady plants, some kind of pachysandra she has too much of and is willing to share, and there’s mountain pink and foxglove and primrose and other abundant growth I can move from the raised beds in the other garden. We’ll see…

You have doubtlessly noticed the ridiculous birds in the above photo. Until now, as far as I know, they have not ventured into their primo home on their own. There, in the early morning pouring rain, I had found them huddled under the coop, wet and bedraggled, having obviously wandered out from under the shelter throughout the night. (Apparently we got five inches of rain last night, and it’s not done yet.)

By the time it was light enough for this photo, some had left the shelter and the huddle, but still not made their way up their designer ladder. Is this chicken playing the sympathy card or am I misreading her face? (The top of her head is supposed to be fluffy!)


I thought maybe they needed a little encouragement, so I tried catching some of them to put them in the dry space. I managed four, then gave up. Let these four, clearly too slow or not clever enough to evade me, be an example to the others. That’s wishful thinking of course – an hour or so later three remained in the dry, no others had followed suit, and one had hopped back out into the wet. At least I got the first photo of the view through the front window:


Chicken on roosting pole inside! That’s the idea! The two others are trying to figure out what they are walking on and maybe sending secret signals to their compatriots that this is a whole different surface than wet mulch under the feet and must be carefully considered.


The bottom line today is that these birds get no credit for brains. After all this work, if they don’t like their house, if they can’t figure out how to climb up the stairs and go through the door in the rain… All right, we figured out how to get the water to go where we wanted it to. Maybe there’s hope for chickens?

In the meantime, Coco found a blanket to snuggle into. She is no doubt dreaming of sunshine.


The New Chicken Coop Starts to Take Shape

Whenever you venture into anything new, it can’t be all new. You always take yourself into it, and you are not new. You are well established. You know what you like, what you feel comfortable with, how you envision the outcome. You proceed with energy, intelligence and peculiarities as per your age, health condition and background. You work with resources you’ve either earned or been gifted, and with people you know, who in turn have their own well established set of norms. As Carly Simon put it (specific context of that song aside): Nobody does it quite like you!

Or like me. And thank God. Isn’t the unending variety of outcomes unendingly unboring? There’s nothing that says a chicken coop (or anything you make) must be unique — you can buy cookie-cutter chicken coops, and there is a place in the world for those — but I’m glad mine is unlike any other. The unique combination of ideas, skills, time, resources and energy, to say nothing of the site itself, all played into the original design and subsequent creative touches that make it one of a kind. I mean, how many chickens can enter their coop through an egg-shaped door by way of a ladder that looks like this?


Sandy gets all the credit for the idea, design, retrieval of branches from the woods, angle cuts to make the edges fit against the coop, good cheer throughout (who can’t smile looking at this?). But I am getting ahead of myself.

You start with basics, the basics of construction that other people have done a gazillion times before. The goal here – building a chicken coop – can be accomplished (or at least you can start this way) by doing what many people do when they want to do something and want to get familiar with it: Watch a YouTube video. Well, maybe more than one video. There are some great ideas out there, and no one has to reinvent the wheel. Just as we can do with cooking or exercising or gardening or anything, we take ideas from different people and make our own thing.

We also look at those guys and we say That’s not rocket science. And we gain some confidence and start to play. Besides confidence, we get all kinds of useful info: Trays that slide out for easy cleaning of, you know, chicken poop. Rocks around the outside perimeter as an extra measure against digging predators.  Watering and feeding systems. An egg-shaped entrance for the birds!

But let’s keep it simple. Plywood comes in 4’x8’ sheets. Seems like a good size for a coop. How we got to 4’x8’3” I am not quite sure, but I think it happened during the initial setting of the posts. I’m here to say that setting four posts in the ground — such that they are correctly positioned (in relation to the existing coop), level, square and plumb – may not be rocket science, but it is harder than it looks. That alone took three of us pretty much all of one day.


It’s a bit nerve-wracking, but eventually you get it. Once it’s in place, you sure don’t want it to move, so you start mixing cement for the holes and you throw in a bit of prayer! I look at this picture now and I am amazed that 1. I did not get discouraged, and 2. I thought this was a weekend project! (Which is maybe why I didn’t get discouraged – how our inability to see the future serves us well sometimes!) It’s a lot of work, yes. But those chicks were in the basement and getting bigger every day and they had to get out of there, sooner rather than later. Look how big!


One step at a time, as they say. Or in this case one cut at a time, one screw at a time. The number of cuts, the number of screws – not only the permanent ones, but also the temp ones that braced the structure while the cement set – caused me to step back in time to when a person would have to make each cut with a handsaw, screw in each screw in with a screwdriver. Imagine. How good we have it! And onward we go. Plumb, square, level and with joists.


The next time we were all free to work on this, maybe two weeks later, came the platform. Now we can really start to see it. This is Henry putting up the first wall. He’s framing out an access door on that end.


The weather was so nice, perfect for this work (no bugs yet!) but the chicks had been in the basement for over a month now and it was starting to smell, so we decided to bring them outside. The dogs were highly entertained. Who wouldn’t be? What are those fluffy things?


The walls were next. The excitement of seeing it take shape really does keep you going.



On the front side, where the floor sticks out a bit, will be the brooding boxes for the hens to have their privacy while laying. Centered above that are the openings for two plexiglass windows  so that we all can have the pleasure of seeing chickens on the roosting pole inside. (That is, if we can ever get them to go in their luxurious coop!) On the back side, between the platform and the horizontal 2×4 just above it, will be a long, horizontal flap of a door to get to the trays. On the near end will be the egg-shaped door.

Right, it’s not overly comfortable trying to use a heavy (heavy for me) cordless screwdriver when you are in an awkward position. But see, good weather, good friends, good eggs someday…




Dismantling the Old Coop Run

I live in the woods, surrounded by giants. I always guessed that the oaks were about a hundred feet tall, which is deemed “somewhat tall” by tree standards. A hundred feet is in fact the average height for a mature white oak. Watch them sway in a strong windstorm and somehow they feel even taller. Mixed in with the oaks are beautiful beech trees, some also gigantic in my estimation, and cedars with their beautiful purplish wood.  As happens in the real world, the strong crowd out the weak, blocking the sun, hogging the nutrients, leaving the struggling underlings often spindly or dead. One can ponder the parallels to our human existence while at the same time noting Hey, that dead cedar would make a good pole!

Thus the poles for the project were acquired, trimmed, propped up off the ground, and left waiting for their new useful purpose. If a tree could have preferences, I like to think it would rather be a pole for a chicken run than left to rot on the forest floor.

While in this early stage, I could not help but notice (and begin to accept the implications of the fact) that the project necessarily involved replacing the old coop’s run with a new run. This is the coop four years ago before the chicken wire became brittle and predators got in and we had to cover the lower half with lattice to protect the birds. Bradley and Lincoln had used oak they milled from trees on the property to build it, and I loved every aspect of it, but time and weather and bugs do their thing.

That’s Rise toddling toward it, seems like ages ago.

Rise at chicken coop.jpg

When you are going to build something, you have to ask yourself: How big do you want it? After some experience in these matters, you know that there are two questions you don’t want to ask yourself when it’s done: 1. Why didn’t I make it bigger? and 2. What was I thinking!? So I took some logs and 2x4s and roughly laid out the dimensions of the new coop and runs.


My ambitions were kept in check (thankfully) by the fact that the new run – to be attached to the old coop, to be attached to another new run and the new coop — is adjacent to the forest with its giant unmovable trees that defined the space. I am grateful that some decisions are not up to me.

So that we have our terms straight, the coop is the wooden building that houses the chickens at night and where they go to lay their eggs. This assumes the chickens are smart enough to go inside at night, which is debatable sometimes. In any case the run is the area that extends from the building, a partly sheltered enclosure that gives the birds space to move around in the fresh air, scratch for bugs, dust themselves, look busy. The run has to be enemy-proof, i.e. fox-proof, hawk-proof, raccoon-proof, owl-proof, coyote-proof, even nasty-neighbor’s-dog-proof. A run is essentially poles surrounded by wire fencing, but predators also have claws so you have to dig a trench and sink the wire into the ground so they can’t tunnel underneath. We’ll come back to that fun part.

By the way, if you have not seen a chicken dust herself, come visit sometime. It’s part of the entertainment here.

The poles and the layout were as far as we had gotten by the time we got the chicks in March. Remember how cute they were? (Your decision if I mean the little chicks or the little girls!)

So the old coop would remain but the old run with its sheltering roof had to be entirely dismantled. The supports were badly rotted, though I did not know the extent of the rot till later, so I climbed up there and, with a great deal of encouragement, got familiar with this tool and unscrewed the metal roofing.


Roofs that sit under a forest canopy get dirtier than you think. Seven years of leaves and sticks falling on it, plus some decomposition, growth of moss, etc. make it not so pretty. I have to say I quite enjoyed this task though because in no time at all…


…look how shiny! Metal roofing is amazing! It was like brand new after its scrubdown and rinse.


In the meantime Sandy was taking the old framework down.


It’s probably good I didn’t know how rotted these boards were when I was up on top. But down they came. Good call to replace them, wouldn’t you say? Surprisingly, some of them came in handy later.


The documentation of this project makes me realize how involved it was. Once the old run was gone, we had hardly begun!