As I write this a frost warning has been issued for tonight (May 9th) in the Massachusetts county I live in. It’s hard to believe that last week Sunday it nearly hit 90 degrees F here! Just goes to show how fickle New England weather is. While some of the Soil Testing Lab’s clients were skeptical when we suggested to them they should wait until later in the month to plant tender vegetables, like tomatoes, I am willing to bet the folks that held back will probably be happy they did so. Tender vegetables and annuals at best sulk in this cooler weather and at worse can sustain light to severe tissue injury causing major setbacks in growth, if not their demise. Soil temperatures should be close to 50 degrees F and the extended weather forecast should be mild before planting many tender vegetable crops.

One can plant cool season vegetables like radishes, onion sets, turnips, peas, Swiss chard, lettuces and many other greens, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts now. They can take a few cool nights as long as transplants are hardened off properly. Even so, new transplants would benefit from a row covering if frost is predicted. Seeds are probably okay. I have to admit, I have not planted my cole crops in the garden as of yesterday and I even brought the flats back inside last night.

I stopped at several garden centers on my way home from work last Friday in search of my absolute favorite, must have pansy, ‘Ultima Morpho’. The name is kind of odd but this beautiful pansy spots gorgeous primrose yellow-faced, lilac blossoms with whiskers. Often the flowers are almost 3 inches across and fragrant. No luck. I spotted one last 6-pack at the grocery store on Saturday and scarfed it up. For good measure I also picked up a ‘Whiskers Red-Gold’ pansy. There is just something about these bicolored, whiskered pansies that appeals to me. I planted three ‘Ultimo Morpho’s in an 8-inch pot to put in the wrought iron planters on the garage door (with no garage) and planted some of the ‘Whiskers Red-Gold’ in a half Maine bucket that hangs on the front gate. Pansies are quite cold tolerant but I will probably bring them in if the nights go into the 30’s just because I don’t know how hardened off they are.

Ultima Morpho Pansy

For the past two weeks now, I awake not to the sound of my alarm but to the sound of my cockatoo screaming since my husband has added 6 chicks to our fold. I suppose my calmness sounds odd and I would be as upset as my cockatoo is if these chicks did not have 4 toes and 2 wings. They are baby barred Plymouth Rock hens and as you can see from the photo, even our teenage son is enamored with them.  My cockatoo, however, is incensed at the arrival of these creatures. He is the king of the household (at least in his mind) and there should be no one at beck and call to these fuzzy creatures that are always going ‘peep, peep, peep’. It is only right (again in his mind) that he tells everyone so even at 6 in the morning.      

Chick in hand

I had heard that there was a growing interest in backyard poultry raising but we were surprised to find practically no chicks at our local farm supply store. They said that young chicks arrive on Wednesdays and that by the weekend (when we went), they were mostly gone. So the next week, we went down on Wednesday and did manage to get the breed of chicken we were looking for, the Plymouth barred rocks. These are hardy, black and white striped or barred birds. They are a good size and productive egg layers which is why we raise them.

Barred Plymouth Rock Chicks

Adult Plymouth Barred Rock Hen

This desire for backyard poultry got me thinking. Did folks purchasing baby chickens for the first time know what responsibilities lay before them? I could write pages but most of this information can be found online and in books. A few things to think about however – Neighbors might not appreciate your sense of self reliance. Make sure they support or at least acknowledge your ambitions. Even hens can be quite noisy, and also destructive if they get into garden areas.  Also check with your local zoning board to make sure that you are allowed to have chicken on your property and any regulations or ordinances that you must follow.

Chickens need shelter from the elements and from predators. Some kind of building or coop will be necessary. Insulation may be appreciated in the winter and good air ventilation in the summer. It will have to be cleaned out several times each year. Roosts should be built for the chickens to sleep on with areas below the roost filled with wood shavings or other bedding materials so that they can be cleaned on a regular basis. We add this material to our compost bins. Nest boxes are necessary for the hens to lay their eggs in and should be checked at least twice each day.

Chickens require fresh food and water every day – 365 days per year. You do not get a vacation from their care unless you can find a sympathetic soul or paid caregiver to deliver food, water and access to shelter.

Chicken feed is expensive! Young chicks require a special diet and that diet changes as they become mature. Be prepared to purchase their feed, any supplements and sometimes treats.  Even free-ranging chickens usually require a steady diet of egg-laying ration which is 16 to 18 percent protein.  

Chickens must be protected from predators. Our chickens are let out to free range in \a fenced in area during the day and are locked in their coop at night. You would think this would be sufficient to protect them but we have had hawks kill a chicken in broad daylight when we were just outside and a raccoon break into the fenced in area in the middle of the day. Predator patrol is hard and really the only safe chicken is the one inside a well built coop. Think about your options and how to keep your chickens safe from harm. Our neighbor lost some of their chickens unexpectedly to another neighbor’s dog.

Brrrr! In the winter, water freezes quickly and often fresh water needs to be supplied 2 or 3 times a day, if not more. Will you have the time and dedication to meet your chickens’ needs? 

What to do if your chickens get sick? Can you find a local veterinarian to examine and treat your chickens? What would you do if you found one of your chickens mauled by a neighbor’s cat or dog or a fisher cat or fox? All of these things plus much more should be thought about before acquiring chickens.  Part of me would like to urge everyone to try their hand at raising chickens and growing their own fruits and vegetables just to become familiar with some of the challenges that the farmers that feed us have to deal with. And then my sentient soul hopes that some will sort through these deliberations and come to a reasonable decision.

The bottom line is that raising chickens or other livestock requires a working knowledge of their needs, the desire to meet them and most importantly, the ability to do so.