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Make a living out of your own backyard: Get chickens to do the hard work

It is possible to farm commercially in your own backyard, using organic methods.

Belinda Sparrow-Smith from Bulawayo says: “One day I was spraying a fruit tree with a natural remedy against some harmful insects when my daughter ran past getting some of the spray on her. I remember thinking, what if this were poison? Then I started looking at all the things we were buying to eat, wondering how much poison I am feeding to my family without knowing.”

The desire to provide herself and her family with healthy, organic food set the Sparrow-Smiths off on a road of no return. “It is tempting at times to jump in with a quick chemical solution when the bugs are winning the game,” says husband Steve, “but we are not prepared to let one quick-fix destroy all that we have built up over the years.”

Around the same time Belinda made the decision to go organic, Hazel Mugford, permaculture expert from Wild Olive Farm in the Western Cape, was in Bulawayo to present a five-day course on permaculture, and of course, Belinda signed up.

Hazel defines permaculture as: A system of applied design for the creation of sustainable human habitat. People following permaculture principles aim to grow as much of their own food as possible in the least amount of space, with the least amount of effort, while co-operating with nature.

The idea is to plant a wide variety of plants for food and medicinal purposes, making use of companion planting and crop rotation to enhance growth and confuse insects. For instance, nasturtium can be grown all around your beds to lure snails away from your vegetables.

After many years of farming naturally,
using compost, and mulch,
the soil in the planting circles is soft
even down to a metre. In other places,
the stony clay soil is so hard you
can hardly stick a screwdriver in.

Radish is another plant that can bear the brunt of insect attacks while protecting your more vulnerable crops. One of the methods to establish a permaculture setup is to use the Mandala dome planting system developed by Linda Woodrow. Each Mandala is made up of seven circles with a movable chicken pen moving from the one circle to the next, with the chickens preparing the soil for planting. The middle circle can be used for a pond and herb spirals, or perennial plants such as rhubarb and artichokes.

To start off the whole growing cycle, the first and most important step is to create a proper composting system. Without compost your chickens cannot do their work and your plants will not grow. Composting is an ongoing process; it never ends! Find more information on compost making at the end of the article.

With that done you can start cultivating your circles, employing a feathered labour force! Your first load of compost is placed in Circle 1 where you are planning to place your movable chicken dome or pen. The dome will stay over Circle 1 for 2 to 4 weeks, allowing the chickens to do their work of scratching, churning, and manuring the plant area, before moving to Circle 2.

For their first chicken dome, Steve and Belinda followed the South African example of using white electrical conduit to build the dome structure, but quickly found out that the Zimbabwe sun is just too harsh: the plastic became brittle and rapidly disintegrated. Steve then started building cages using 50 mm PVC piping, but in the end, they resorted to a steel frame covered with chicken mesh around the sides and a piece of canvas over the top to protect the chickens from the sun and rain.

One of the reasons for using round pens is that chickens can get quite nasty to each other, especially if new members are introduced to a flock of familiar and trusted friends. The new chicken will be chased into a corner and tormented, but with no corners the game gets boring!

Amusement

Your chickens will eat out of the garden they help to create, but you can start them off on some crushed maize. They always need to have clean water. Tossing the snails collected from your nasturtiums into the pen will provide amusement for owner and chicken alike! Make sure there is always enough material for them to scratch around, and add a regular supply of ash from the braai or wood fire. It helps to control parasites.

Belinda started off using Rhode Island Reds for their egg production, but has now switched to hardy Boschveld chickens. In the middle of each pen is a very simple chicken coup for the hens to lay their eggs, and if they are happy you will get rewarded with an egg a day from every hen. Three people are needed to pick up the pen and move it to the next circle with the chickens running along inside.

Circle 1 is then ready for planting. A pathway is made through the middle to provide space for an irrigation line and to enable you also to reach every plant in the 3-metre diameter circle from the inside or the outside without stepping into your bed.Besides compost, the other ingredient needed to succeed is mulch. Always cover the soil with bark, cut grass, or other material to preserve moisture, encourage more bacterial and biological activities and prevent weeds from taking over.

Belinda Sparrow-Smith describes
how the garden snails find a home
under the nasturtium leaves from
where she can remove them to become
chicken feed.

What to plant?

“Plant what you want to eat,” says Belinda. “It is no use filling half a circle with cabbage if nobody in the family likes it.” There are lots of information available online about companion planting and which plants can be used to lure harmful insects away from sensitive crops, as well as plants attracting beneficial insects. For instance, plant catnip as a companion to aubergine to repel flea beetles and ants, or marigolds to repel aphids.

Around and in between the circles, higher growing shrubs or low growing trees can be planted to provide some shade, but not too much. A good example is tree tomatoes or lemon trees that can be pruned to remain small. With Steve and Belinda both coming from farming stock, they went a bit further than most and adapted the system to grow fancy lettuce and supplements for a complete salad pack commercially in their backyard.

In an area of about 60 by 30 metres they produced enough crops to earn an income of between US$1 000 and US$1 500 per month. The money was used to put their three children through school providing a good education for the future. Belinda says it was hard work getting up early every other morning to pick, wash and pack the leaves in pillow packs and deliver to the shops, but it was worth it! They did it for eight years, but now they are relaxing a bit, planting only to provide for themselves, staff, friends, family, and guests staying in one of their beautiful guest houses at Stone’s Throw.

Belinda says the eggs are also still providing a lovely cash income, and many people refuse to eat any other eggs than theirs, being all natural and healthy. There really is no excuse for anyone with a bit of space to not start providing for themselves, says Belinda. Use the principles and create something that you can handle. It does not have to be big, even small circles in a small area can provide a sustainable supply of healthy food.

Obed Ndavani, Belinda’s right-hand
man in the garden, is very proud of
the wide variety of quality food they
produce.

Compost: This is how

Find a well-drained area where you can establish your growing compost heap. It should be about 1,5 m high and 2 m wide, and can be as long as you have space for. Pack your material in layers with 70% dry material providing carbon, and 30% green material for nitrogen. The green material can be leaves, kitchen scraps and soft manure, and the dry material can be brown leaves, sawdust, and dry manure. The greater the variety of materials, the more nutrients will be made available.

As you pack the layers, sprinkle each layer with some water, but do not douse it. The purpose of the compost heap is to provide the perfect environment and food for microorganisms to break down solid material into humus that is more accessible for plants. You know the microorganisms are doing their work when the heap starts heating up from the inside. An easy way to find out if it is heating up is to leave a metal rod sticking through to the middle. When the rod gets too hot to handle comfortably it is time to turn your heap inside out. It should reach the first turning point after about 10 days.

Steve Sparrow-Smith says he
let this cauliflower grow just
to see how big it can get!

Once you have turned it, leave it for another 10 days and measure the temperature again. Most likely you will need to turn it again and after that, if the heap starts cooling down, your compost is ready for use.

If you would like to find out more please send an e-mail to Steve and Belinda on sparrowsmith@yoafrica.com.

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