Every morning I get out of bed to the sound of turkeys and chickens parading around my cabin en route to a spot behind the outdoor kitchen scullery where scraps of food are tossed every day. It’s a beautiful permaculture set-up, feeding the fowl by merely scraping the plates over the counter. By the next morning, the birds are happy, and any evidence is gone. Occasionally, the dogs get in on the cycle, too, but that’s not the intention.
Kevin, the owner of The Farm Inn, where my wife Emma and I have been volunteering for a few months now, came up with the system before we arrived. I thought it was brilliant, though I did wonder logistics a night or two when a rogue opossum wandered onto the scene. Nevertheless, the birds make a beeline for the kitchen scraps each morning, which puts them on a great route for keeping the bugs and snake populations subdued around the house.
Kevin likes that Emma and I recognized the cleverness in such moves, and as we’ve started developing some demonstration gardens and cyclical systems on the property, he has been very enthusiastic about our ideas. The other day I was tending to my plantain “crowns”, as we’ve come to call them, and he asked if I’d written about them yet. I told him I hadn’t, and he said I should. So, I am, and I’m also going to talk a bit more about some of the other systems we’ve got working with the birds around here.
The Plantain Crowns
One of the issues I instantly took cause with on the farm was that there were plenty of plantain trees around, lots of them producing, but they were so far away from the farmhouse and farmyard—about a ten-minute walk—that rarely did Kevin actually get to eat the fruit. He didn’t where the bunches were all going, but he knew exactly where they didn’t go. Anyway, I decided that he needed some plants to be closer, but also that we were going to face a big challenge with that: Turkeys and chickens.
Turkeys and chickens will again and again shred the dainty little shoots of plantains or bananas, such that they will never grow into the stalking giants that yield several pounds of food per bunch. So, I had to figure out a way to protect them, and after some trial and error, summed up by saying that the turkeys definitely got the better of me (and the shoots) for a while, I came up with my patented plantain crown method, which is working fairly well. And, when I explain it, it sounds even better.
Firstly, I’ve stuck a circle of small sticks—nitrogen-fixing madre de cacao—about a foot away from the shots. Within this, I’ve taken the leaves of wild bananas, which are cleared from the paths every Friday, and made a ring, using the sticks as forms. Though this looked quite protective, the turkeys proved too persistent for it, so I’ve now added palm leaves, both from the jippi-jappa and cahune, to create a more substantial barrier between the birds and plants. The tips of the palms make the whole contraption look like a crown, hence the name.
Now, I like to explain the whole thing as if it wasn’t sort of a hodge-podge of solutions. The birds had to be keep at bay, but I had no idea that the crowns, via providing homes for bugs, would make them loiter so, littering the ground with fertilizer. Of course, the now-rooted sticks of madre de cacao also adds goodness to the ground and function as chop-and-drop, nitrogen-fixing mulch for the plantains. And, as the wild banana leaves and palm fronds decay, they are building a steady circle of mulch material for the plantains. Every now and again, there is still a breech, a plantain shoot getting snipped, but I’ve only had to actually replace one of the twenty or so small plants I’ve brought in to the farmyard.
Of course, I realize a bit of chicken wire would do the barricading just fine, but as it wasn’t available, I used what was. After the whole idea about mulch and fertilizing began to develop, I actually didn’t want to use chicken wire. I wanted this system to continue to evolve.
The Farm Inn has chickens for two reasons. One set roams free throughout the day, and they are meant to frolic and reproduce at will, the results then sold to people live to either develop a new brood or make a pot of soup. The other are all hens and remain fenced into a yard so that their eggs may be harvested with no fear of being fertilized. In essence, they produced those free-range, organic eggs that everyone is so hot for these days. It is with these chickens that I have built a completely platonic relationship.
When we arrived, I noticed that, while the free-range hens had plenty of space to roam around, complete with nice shade trees, water on tap, and even comfortable roosts, they were largely lacking in green material to scratch. It made me sad. What’s more, I noticed that the farm workers here were making large piles of large leaves from wild banana that just rotted along the edges of things. I decided to start throwing the hens a few leaves every now and again, and they seemed beyond excited about me doing so.
Using my permaculture wit, I deduced early on, even before giving the birds the leaves, that they would ripped them into tiny pieces, speckle them with manure, and create an exceedingly lovely mulch for the new gardens we were putting in. The plan was there all along, really. Then, it just became further refined, such as utilizing the slight slope of the ground in the chicken yard to streamline the process, putting in new stuff at the high point and picking up the prepared mulch at the bottom.
The rotation is still developing, but basically, I’ve noticed that every two weeks there is quite a bit of nice-looking mulch to pick up and distribute. I’ve not asked Kevin if it has changed the egg production any, but I’m slowly working to get the birds off of cracked corn and fully onto the easy-access buffet around them. Unfortunately, while the farmers see value in the method, they’ve yet to make stop piling up those leaves in less productive places.
Time for Tea
Actually, there are three types of birds here at the farm: chickens, turkeys, and ducks. But, there aren’t any large mammals, like cows or pigs, to provide manure, so we are left with extra-potent poo that, frankly, scares us a little. One of the beds we used in Panama had once—prior to our arrival—been given an overdose of chicken manure, and we just never seemed to get it back right. Consequently, we’ve been pretty wary of such excretions.
However, since that’s what we’ve got to work with here, and because our seedlings have seemed to be a little slow on the upstart, we’ve decided to experiment with manure teas. Operating under the simple rule of the larger the animal, the milder the manure, we’ve found ourselves more enthused by turkey manure tea, but we’ve made batches of them all. We’ve begun to play to see what happens.
The basics of manure tea, especially from birds, is to make sure that the manure is not fresh but very sufficiently broken down. This prevents pathogen problems, as well as burning the plants with too much nitrogen. We have a rudimentary system of putting good shovel of manure in a mesh pouch, either burlap or a piece of old screen, and letting it steep for a few days in a bucket of water. The mixture should resemble weak tea, but we still generally dilute that to be sure. (Everyone has their own method, I guess. I just read this one from Mother Earth News and thought it sounded interesting and doable for us.)
Last Thoughts on The Farm Inn Fowl
Otherwise, Kevin has been slowly mulling over the idea of using his duck pond in some sort of aquaponics arrangement, and I’ve took the preemptive step of trying to root a mulberry branch in the pond’s natural overflow area. So far, nothing has grown and none of us have budged, but at least some of us are fairly sure there is some potential there.
Also, Emma and I have extended the demonstration garden. We have done a lot of heavy mulching, which we’ve obligingly let the turkeys and free-running chickens dig through, knowing that they’d do the soil beneath some good. Now that Kevin has picked us up a roll of chicken wire, however, we’ve begun the process of fencing them out (as opposed to in), and we hope to start planting ht new area with young trees and other goodies.
Feature Image: The Mulch Makers, by Emma Gallagher