How a Garden Can Change Your Ecosystem…And How it Changed Ours
When we first moved to our home in Cooperstown, NY, the ecosystem around our home was sparse. Most of the farms in our area produce corn and soybeans, and maybe some hay depending on the year. None of them are very close to us, except maybe the corn. The birds of prey seemed huge, but there was little else to be seen. Except for maybe a deer here and there. We moved in to our home in June, so gardening that year was just not going to happen.
My husband wanted to start one the following year, which surprised me because he had always grown up in cities and towns and his mom’s garden wasn’t something he really participated in. I, however, had grown up gardening. My mother always had a garden, and we always worked right along side her. I was not a fan. And at first, I was not on board with starting one for our little family.
Year 1 – 2011
At the time I was working full-time, had just had a baby in the last year or so, and just didn’t see why. I didn’t think I had the energy or the time. Regardless, my husband, Matthew, really wanted to start a small one, so I was
supportive. But, to be honest, that first year was awful. Not long before we had moved in gravel must have been dumped in the very spot we had chosen to garden, because under just a quarter-inch of dirt was almost solid gravel. It took us months to just cut the “sod” to even be able to start a small garden. Never the less, my husband persisted in wanting a garden. I wish I could say I was more supportive, but I complained way more than I would like to admit. We did manage to grow a couple of things that year, but the ecosystem didn’t seem to change at all that first year.
Year 2 – 2012
Nevertheless, the next year we got a little smarter. We decided trying to dig in that gravel was just not going to work, and went the way of raised beds. So. Much. Easier. We ordered the wood from our local hardware store and built them relatively quickly. We then purchased a truck load of compost from a local farmer and we started our meager garden. The first year we saw a few song birds and some more bugs, but the change was not yet very clear. The second year wasn’t that different.
The second year we added some garden beds (more than we could handle really). We were both gaining some enthusiasm for putting this little seed in the ground and, with a little work, reaping a harvest that we had grown ourselves. We couldn’t believe how much better the food from our garden tasted than the stuff from the store! The difference was unbelievable. Knowing that we could grow at least some things ourselves, and that they tasted so much better, we persisted. We also started learning more about where our food comes from in the stores, how old it really is, and what chemicals are used on those fruits and veggies. That was very motivating.
That year we saw some more birds, deer, turkeys, rabbits, and a groundhog. Oh the groundhog. And the rabbits. Those are two parts of the ecosystem I could have done without. We did not have a fence around the garden, as we could not really figure out how to afford it. If we had been able to fence it in those early years, I imagine we would have had a far more substantial harvest.
Year 3 (2013) – Year 7 (2017)
As the years have gone on, we have seen many song birds return year round, there are more rabbits, more pollinating insects (and pests. More on that later), more geese, ducks, turkeys, deer, ladybugs, (and now that we have bees) more wasps. Not as much a fan of that last one.
In short, our land now supports a menagerie of wildlife, where at one time we only saw an occasional hawk fly overhead. We have added bees and chickens to our little homestead, which also helps with the balance of our ecosystem. And maybe someday we will add other wildlife and insects (heard of mason bees?). But right now, we are focusing on the garden and bees. My husband was right…gardening is totally worth it! It helps our ecosystem, it provides us with sunshine, exercise, and delicious, healthy food. And it gives us a real reward that we can hold in our hands. It provides us with the ability to see the fruits of our labor.
Up to this point, we have been extremely lucky. We have never lost a chicken, or chick, to any predator. While that has not changed, we have lost many eggs, and could have lost chickens not too long ago. This happened a few weeks ago, but we’ve been so busy with the aftermath that I haven’t been able get you up-to-date with us. So here goes.
It all started on a Saturday morning not too long ago…my oldest son went out to collect eggs and feed the chickens. He came back very quickly exclaiming that there was an opossum in the coop. My husband and I went out immediately. Opossums are mean, and there is no way we would risk anyone’s safety. He told us it was in the nest boxes, so that is where we looked. My husband was slowly raising the lid to the nest boxes. It was then that I saw what we were dealing with and told my husband to quickly, for goodness sake, close the coop!!!! It was a skunk. Thankfully it was looking at me and it was a face, not a tail, that I was looking at. This left us with quite the dilemma. We had a hen in a nest box. A skunk in another nest box. We also had a bunch of chickens that would want to roost in their coop at night. A skunk is an opportunistic predator. We knew that if we left things as they were, we might not have chickens in the morning.
Thankfully, we had raised meat chickens in a separate “chicken tractor” the year before, and still had it. We, very quickly, decided that the chickens would need to live in the chicken tractor until we had built a proper mobile chicken tractor. Thus began the task of catching chickens. If any of you have ever tried to catch a chicken, you probably know it’s really not that easy. Unless they are sitting eggs that is. Thankfully, the hen that was laying an egg was in the nest box closest to the door, so we got her out rather easily. Even though it was a bit frightening to stick my head in a coop that had a skunk that was aware of our presence. Chickens are not, however, easy to catch if they have somewhere to hide. It took a while, but with everyone pitching in we did catch them all, starting with the rooster.
We caught them one or two at a time and put them in the chicken tractor. Got them some food and water, and it worked out. Getting the eggs, however, was not so easy. We had given them some buckets with straw in them, hoping that they would work. Alas, it did not. They laid one or two in the buckets, took all the straw out, and laid eggs in all the corners and places that I couldn’t reach them. Of course.
At this point we are trying out some milk crates, modified to work as nest boxes. We got this idea from Justin Rhodes over at AbundantPermaculture.com. He has a wonderful article where he talks about his mobile chicken tractor design. Absolute genius! We are actually in the process of building a chicken tractor based on this design, but with a few changes for what we want.
Dealing with the Skunk: Lessons Learned
I’ll have more to update you on with this in the near future. Suffice it to say that trying to be humane by simply letting it out was probably not the best idea. You will soon find out why. Before a possible next time, we will be doing research to figure out how to deal with a predator, such as a skunk, with no one being harmed, with being humane, and with not risking the well-being of our animals (or bees) or investments we have made on our homestead.
We now have the chickens, and bees, inside of an electric poultry netting fence in our backyard. Thankfully, everyone seems quite happy.