The Winter Garden

When we put the two flocks together back in May 2008, we knew they would need extra room. Among other things, they’ve all gotten used to having larger areas to free range in, so confinement was not popular. So we built as small extension – 0.90 m long by 1.5 m wide – to slot in between the house part and the existing run. (Making the Summer Palace modular was sheer brilliance.) We refer to this extension as “the en suite”. And it was good – certainly needed, with seven chickens in there. But …

As the days got shorter and bad weather more frequent, we decided that what we really needed was to make the run even bigger. That way they wouldn’t be so grumpy on days when no-one was here to give them some running-around-insanely-outside time. Plus we’d come to the conclusion that the two short veggie beds at the back was a really annoyingly cramped use of the space. And the gap between the two was too small to be convenient for access, and remained a muddy, weed-filled nothing.

The solution? Join the two beds into one long one, and extend the Summer Palace run so that the girls had the entire area! They could spend the winter there, preparing the bed for spring planting. From the Summer Palace to the Winter Garden!

There were two factors influencing the size of the extension. On the one hand, the beds were defined by recycled concrete breeze-blocks. So their length set the available increments. The other factor was the width of the weld-mesh that we used for enclosing the run – we’d learned (the hard way) that it was the simplest, quickest and most efficient use of the materials to use one width of mesh per span, anchored at the bottom and arching over the top (good support for the clearlite, and good for keeping sparrows out). So that set the other limit: around 90 cm per span. (The width of the pillars giving us some free play.)

The building phase was quite quick – a couple of half days in the garage for a couple of weekends (could have been faster, but we weren’t rushing). We were lined up to Do the Deed on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend (May 31 -June 2, 2008). But first, we had to prepare the bed.

We were a little hampered by the fact that we’d squeezed the orchard fence as far across as possible when we’d put it up – this meant that the gap between the fence and the back wall of the vegie bed(s) was only just big enough to squat in. The nestbox would have just fitted in, but not by much. And opening the back door far enough – for mucking out, retrieving lost eggs and assisting Bessie on to her perch of an evening – would have been impossible. So that meant we had to move the vegie bed(s) across towards the current location of the Palace, about 60 cm. Doesn’t sound like much, but it involved digging out all the old blocks, attempting to run lines to follow for the new locations, then alternately scalping and building up the soil so that the tops of the blocks were level enough to provide a platform for the house and run to sit on. (Another reason why measuring had to be rather more precise than we usually bother with such structures.) But we got there eventually – Sunday afternoon, as it happens. We decided not to try to rush everything else into place that evening. The forecast for the next day was much better, so we called it an early night.

Next morning, it was pouring with rain. Not good. We had to wait for the rain to stop – the next stage required the removal of chickens, perches, nestbox and clearlite. And the use of power tools. (Not good to mix with rain.) It was abut 2 pm when we finally got started – at this time of year it starts getting pretty dark at 5 pm, so this didn’t leave us a lot of faffing time.

We took the opportunity of giving the house a bit of a clean, and added insulation (an old duvet) to the roof space. We also added an extra perch a bit lower – Bessie always makes a huge production of trying to get onto the perch at night, so we hoped this would help. Then it was a matter of carrying it across to the new location (it fitted!!). Next we brought the two extensions across (the new extension and the ensuite), butting them into place, and being amazed that it still all seemed to fit together. (Yes we measured everything multiple times, but Murphy’s Law always gets involved in these projects!) Even the original run fitted! Brilliant!

There were a few niggles – either the breeze blocks or the bottom of the new run weren’t entirely level, so there was a bit of a gap at one end. (Easily fixed with some timber panels.) And the cord for the pophole door, long as it was, was about a foot too short to reach to the end of the run. But these were minor things.

The girls certainly seem to approve of their new quarters – despite the failing light, they spent a good 45 minutes digging in the loose soil, having a great time hunting insects. And Bessie even managed to climb onto the perch at first time of asking.

The Winter Garden is go!

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