Monday, December 19, 2011

Line in the sand

Well, not sand exactly. More like dirt. And the line goes clear from one side of our long, skinny property to the other, cutting it in half. A half for me. And a half for the chickens.

The problem is that Gump and his flock of teenage pullets have been making themselves at home in the front half of the property, where the house and all the perennial gardens are, and they are making a mess. There's the issue of poop everywhere, which is bad enough, but the thing that is making me tear out my hair is the damage the chickens are doing to all my perennial beds.

I have a love/hate relationship with those beds. Actually, forget the love part of that equation: it's more like a lukewarm regard. We inherited them from the previous owners, and there are a few problems with them. There is way too much square footage. The beds are infested with mint and creeping bellflower. And practically everything in the beds that's supposed to be there is of the grow-in-the-spring-cut-down-in-the-fall variety - in other words, a perennial. There are very few shrubs or trees, which means the beds are splendiferous in the spring and summer, and a desolate wasteland in the winter.

But the biggest problem is they don't feel like mine. Unlike the vegetable garden and greenhouse, they aren't a source of joy - they're a place where I feel the pinch of my perfectionism most acutely, where I feel smothered in responsibility. These beds were someone else's dream - I didn't design the beds, or choose the plants. I'm just responsible for making sure they aren't overtaken completely. So I was floored when my friend Elisabeth, a passionate gardener herself, asked if I got pleasure from that part of my garden. All I could do was gape at her like an idiot while my brain tried furiously to compute some sense from that statement. Pleasure? Seriously?

I'm working on it. I've converted small portions back to what we like to call lawn (which really means an easy-to-care-for mix of grass, moss and mow-able weeds). Kim and I bought out the fall sale at our local garden centre and planted a small army of shrubs this year to try to lend some structure to the beds. I've been making liberal use of heavy-duty landscaping cloth in the areas most hopelessly infested with creeping bellflower. The current prohibition on gardening while my sore shoulder heals is teaching me how much effort I can save by sitting back and letting nature handle some of the yearly decay, instead of jumping in to clean up at the first sign of autumn.

I'm overstating this a bit (I've inherited a tiny tendency to exaggerate from my mom). There are times of satisfaction, moments when the primeval urge of all those plants to grow, to leaf out, to flower, to reproduce just amazes me, when I feel like I'm surrounded by living things working like mad to create a gorgeous panorama solely for my viewing pleasure, when the layers and layers of life, from the wind swaying the upper branches of the evergreens and the birds flying overhead right down to the worm I unearthed and the bug crawling across my hand all make my heart burst with joy and gratitude for this Mucky Boots time of my life. Those are moments to treasure.

But mostly the perennial gardens are a place full of my sweat and labour, my battles with myself and the weeds - a place where I feel the weight of obligation to be a caretaker and custodian of someone else's vision.

All that is bad enough. But try putting a stampeding, rampaging flock of chickens into the mix. They dig. They scratch. They demolish. They are masters at flicking the mulch I so carefully pitchforked, wheelbarrowed, dumped and spread on the beds all over the grass outside the beds. Yes, they are cultivating and aerating and fertilizing at the same time, but I had had enough.

Enter the new fence.

We are lucky that the previous owners had the same commitment to pasturing their chickens as we do, and the same wish to preserve the property around the house. Shortly before they put the house on the market they did the thankless work of sinking all the required fenceposts for a straight run of fencing from one side of the property to the other, delineating a house-half and a farming-half. All we would have to do was string the fencing material and build a couple of gates. Easy, right?

I should know by now that no construction project is as easy as you think it's going to be. Sure enough, when the third post we reached cracked and fell over when we tried to hammer in some staples, we knew we had a problem. It turns out a couple of the posts had already rotted below ground. So today we dug holes, invented ways to keep the posts vertical in the empty holes, mixed concrete, and got the new poles done. This week, if the weather holds, we'll finish attaching the fencing material and string a couple of extra lines of wire to raise the height. Next week, if all goes according to plan, Kim will build the two gates we'll need. And then the line in the sand will be well and truly drawn.

Get used to it, chickie-chickies!


Paula said...

I"m sorry about your shoulder! and your less than wonderful bed- I understand not being thrilled with someone else's perennial bed- I am suffering with not liking the perennial bed I put together. Oh well.

Good luck with your fence! said...

We know about the damage that chickens can leave in their wake. Our veggie garden and yard took a toll this year with their free-ranging. Once we get moved, we will designate an area of the chickens and they won't be allowed to get near our gardens either.


Lindsey said...

I totally did the same thing - half the property for ducks and chickens and half for my pea patch. I strung chicken wire and drove rebar through them (so I can move it, which I periodically need to do).

Saved my yard. Too much poo on the concrete where my daughter plays! Also, I keep boots right by the door and only wear them into the chicken run - so no poop in the house!

~Kim at Golden Pines~ said...

You know that I love chickens, but never think of the damage or mess they can leave behind--Since I live vicariously through people like you, I guess I don't have to think of the reality, only the 'good parts!' :-)

I know what you mean about the flower beds--I drove past our 'old' house and saw that all of my beds were practically gone because of lack of care. I was sad to see it. Here at 'Golden Pines' the previous owner's wife had passed away, and when he put the house up to sell, he took out all of her flowers and so I started with a total blank-slate. I was kind of sad about that, because I would have liked a little part of history of our house to remain...Kind of silly, I know...

I hope you and Kim have a wonderful holiday!!!

Natalie said...

Wow... does this ever resonate with me! There is a beautiful rose bed here, a real center piece, but it's so much work to maintain, and not too kindly laid out, and the neglect looks awful and riddles me with guilt and resentment... it wasn't my idea! Some people love it, but not-so-secretly I want to put those roses up for adoption and make the whole "center piece" a veggie bed!

And chickens that do not know their bounds? Oh, yes. I need fences! The poop deck is broad, and my actual veggie beds are just deep and convenient dust baths.

You and I, we battle on! And we never, ever, ever exaggerate... unless it lends itself to the tale!

Happiest holidays to you and Kim... may you have days and days of anything that gives you pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Miriam, it took me until about mid-summer this year to accept that this property is now ours, and that we need to make it work for US. We also inherited a huge perenial flower and ornamental garden along with the fruit trees and berry bushes that we are so grateful for. In the transition to more edibles, the flowers are going to have to come out, and some trees may even have to come down! Aack! But there is great liberation in letting go of the feeling of responsibility to the previous gardeners--talented though they were--and to see the possibilities now disguised by the established plantings. It will take us a few more seasons to make the changes that we want to, but I have hope and vision!

Luckily, because of the changes to come, the chickens at the moment have free reign and I'm ok with the mess they are making in favour of the weeds they are keeping under control. By creeping bellflower do you mean creeping buttercup? Our chickens do eat those, so I have hope we may win the battle yet! I do hear that lowering the acidity level and raising the drainage/organic matter content can help. At least I hope so, because that's my only plan!

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