Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Seed Starting Systems: Peat Pots to Soil Blocks

Soil blocks with Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage starts, up in three days.
I yearn for a greenhouse, but for now, I start my seeds indoors on shelves under lights. Over the years, I’ve tried numerous systems for starting seeds. Not that any of them were particularly bad, and all produced seedlings in spite of my habit of over watering, but I’m still fiddling around with what works best for me.

Here’s my basic seed starting setup:

  • I have a two-tier wooden shelf (built by K with 2x2 scrap wood), with lights on chains above each level so they can be adjusted as plants grow. When I’m done with seed starting for the year, I can take the shelves apart to store, or I can leave them as is and set the whole thing next to my potting bench. I’ll use it throughout the summer to store supplies and hang herbs or dry garlic and onions.
  • A timer turns lights on at 6 a.m., and off at 8 p.m.
  • I use a heat mat on one shelf, then, once seeds germinate, I move the trays down to the shelf that isn’t heated.
  • As seedlings start to get taller, I hang a regular window fan at the end of the shelf and give them a bit of a breeze – helps prevent damping off and it really seems to make my seedlings stronger.
Far right, cole crops off heat mat, nearest camera, peppers still under plastic
  • I lay a heavy gauge plastic across the tops of the trays until the majority of seeds have germinated. Once I see sprouts, I remove the plastic.
  • Sitting next to my shelves are jugs full of rainwater, plus this sprayer (also filled with rainwater). I prefer using rainwater to tap water, as I’m on city water with chlorine so strong I can smell it sometimes. We do filter our water, but I really would rather melt snow, and catch gutter runoff late in winter.
  • I start the hardening off process inside with the open window and fan before I put them outside.

These are some of the different systems I’ve tried:

Potting soil in flats with rows of seedlings, which I prick out and pot up into 2x2 pots.
  • PROs: I can start a lot of seedlings in a small space. I was also able to repurpose some of the clamshell containers that lettuce from the grocery store comes in, and they were perfect little greenhouses. I still like to use them for lettuce, bunch onions, some flowers, and greens.
  • CONs: I wasn’t able to bottom water, and I had way more seedlings than I had space for once they were potted up. They seemed a bit more gangly and fragile, and thinning is necessary.  
Potting soil in 2x2 pots plastic pots set inside trays
  • PROs: This is probably the system I fall back on more often than not. I’ve had relatively good luck by setting them in a solid-bottom tray and bottom-watering them. Seeding into these pots from the beginning, I found that they had enough room to get seedlings all the way to transplanting time, so I spent less time potting up.
  • CONs: The pots don’t last too well beyond a year or two and require cleaning and storage. 
K-cups in trays (lights still to be hung up)
Potting soil in Repurposed k-cups
  • PROs: Repurposing k-cups from our office break room was a good way to use something that is not eco-conscious. I saved the coffee to dump in my compost bin and made the teeny hole at the bottom bigger for better drainage.
  • CONs: They still ended up in the landfill eventually and were quite small—which required potting up. They just didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but could work well for starting some seedlings. 
Peat pellets inside trays, and peat pots
  • PROs: Again, no real waste. Simple. No root disturbance when planting. Peat pots worked pretty well for some of the short-time seedlings. Plants like pepper and tomatoes that start 8 weeks ahead of planting were OK but the pots were breaking down well before I was ready to plant. For seedlings that only need a couple of weeks before planting, they would work better.
  • CONs: Not wild about using peat from a sustainability standpoint, and they got mossy and soggy. My seedlings just didn’t thrive in them. Could have benefited from some compost tea for nutrition, and a mist with chamomile tea (it’s an antifungal) would have helped. I don’t like using straight peat as a growing medium. I prefer coir as a replacement.
Styrofoam cells inside trays
  • PROs: Lots of cells so that I was able to get a lot of seeds started, and less root disturbance than when sowing flats. I really liked these speedling trays from Peaceful Valley. Easy to clean and reuse. I still use these, and I like how they create “plugs.” No real problems with bottom watering, and my seedlings did well.
  • CONs: It's a pretty big tray, and I couldn't move seedlings according to water, light, and temperature needs. I also spent more time potting up into 2x2 pots, so I went back to the 2x2 pots. (It's not that I have anything against potting up... just seems like an extra step at times.)
Soil Blocks inside trays with wicking liners
Tomato seedlings in soil blocks
  • PROs: Zero waste, economical, easy to plant, and I had good luck with germination. I use the 2x2 blockers rather than starting with the minis and making more blocks. There is also something satisfying about squishing the soil blockers into the mix and creating perfect little blocks. Kind of like playing in a sandbox. Which is germane to nothing, but it pleases my inner child and my late winter need to stick my hands in something like soil.
  • CONs: I had a lot of issues with moss growing on top of the block. I was overwatering, mostly because the wicking material made me uneasy. And I wasn’t using a fan at the time, which might have helped circulate air. I also didn’t like the flimsy trays I had them set in. 
SO… this year… I'm using soil blocks set in these 1010 Seed Starting trays.
  • I love these trays (I swear, no one paid me to say that. But I do like them. Seeing them stacked up and ready to go on my shelf makes me happy). They’re sturdy and will last far longer than the basic lightweight trays I’ve gotten at the garden store in the past. I bought trays with holes and those with the solid bottoms, and they nest nicely and solidly. Perfect for bottom watering. The smaller size (10x10) makes it easier to move the trays around if needed and is just easier to manage for the smaller volume. I like to group my seeds and trays by what’s growing. So, I can put seeds like peppers in a tray that will sit on the heat mat, and some bunch onion, kale and cabbage in another tray that won’t appreciate so much bottom heat. With the bigger trays, I can't always customize watering and location as much as I like for the specific seedlings. I’ll be curious to see how they work with soil blocks.
  • I also added some vermicompost and vermiculite to the seed starting mix this year. It is a peat mix for now. (I have a big coir block to use, but we’ve had a cold, snowy spring here.  Until it warms up a bit outside – enough to drag the hose out and hydrate the pressed coir – I’m using peat as a base.)
  • In addition to the soil blockers, I’ve been saving plastic clam shell containers from the grocery store for some seeds, and will use them as flats.
  • I'm also starting seeds a bit later -- I think I've started too early in the past, and seedlings were ready to set out before the outside soil and temps were warmed up. As a result, they were a bit stressed by the time I put them out. I'm always a bit impatient... so I'm working on not hurrying my plants into the ground this year.
And so, Seed Starting Experiment 2019 begins… stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Using a Brooder Plate for Chicks

And I had just cleaned the top off an hour before.
I've seen enough pictures and news stories about heat lamps causing fires that I really didn't want to use one in my house for new chicks, though we've used them in the past. I've heard about brooder plates as a safer, more energy efficient alternative, and decided to toss the heat lamp and try a brooder plate for our new chicks. The one I have is essentially four adjustable legs -- one at each corner of a heat plate that makes it look a little like a table. It should be low enough for them to stand with their back against the 125F surface, but high enough that they can get out from under it when they are too hot. As they grow, you raise the plate.

I set it up and plugged it in the morning before we left to get four new chicks. I wanted it to be toasty warm when we got back -- temps outside were in the 30s. When we got home, I settled the four newcomers into the big old cast iron tub we have used for brooding in the past. They scooted beneath the brooder, but it seemed too high -- especially for the two bantam chicks we'd gotten. The feed store where we got them does a great job caring for their chicks, and I was impressed by their biosecurity measures, clean water and happy chicks. 

When the two bantams were placed in the traveling box with the heat pack I'd brought, the store owner cautioned us that bantam chicks are more fragile than their bigger cousins and would need 24 hours to settle in before handling. And they are notorious for getting pasty butt -- a common affliction for commercially hatched chicks. 

Pasty butt is pretty much what it sounds like. Chick poop builds up on the outside of the chick, trapping poop inside. You have to clean off the hardened feces so that they are able to evacuate, otherwise they can't go to the bathroom and will die. We've dealt with it before, and found that a little vaseline or antibiotic ointment slathered on a newly cleaned chick bottom helps keep them clean, and it's not something that seemed to recur after they got past the early stage. When we've had our hens raise chicks, we've never had problems with pasty butt. It seems to happen with brooder chicks who get overheated, and the idea with a brooder plate is that it mimics the shelter of a mom hen, with heat from the top and the opportunity to get fresh air if it gets too hot. 

The other two chicks (a light blue laced red wyandotte and an olive egger) both had a good start on wing feathers and were a few days older than the bantams, and decidedly sturdier. So I adjusted the back two legs of the heat plate so that the plate was really low, and the front two so that the two bigger chicks could get under it and warm up without difficulty. You're supposed to know that you've adjusted it properly if everyone is quiet.

But the olive egger -- the biggest of the four -- kept hopping on top and peeping loud enough to hear on the other side of the house. I tried readjusting, moving things around, and the only thing that made her happy was if I picked her up and cupped my hands around her. They go through cycles of noisy and quiet, but I wasn't entirely happy with the mood of the brood.

Has it made a different with pasty butt? Not sure. While the two Bantams have needed cleaned up every day, the two bigger chicks have not. The smallest of the two Bantams didn't seem to be thriving and was continually having problems with pasty butt. I had probiotics and electrolytes in fresh water, chick starter in a low pan, and the brooder placed and adjusted and readjusted. But last night, despite all efforts the little one died, and I have started worrying about the plate brooder. Was it because I didn't have the brooder adjusted right or was it just the fragility of very tiny bantams. Is it too high for the bantams? Should I have put an extra heat source in the bathroom so the room itself is warmer? With the heat lamp, you can check temperatures, raise and lower it, and see the chicks more easily. But then there's that fire threat... 

Light blue laced red Wyandotte, Shirley.
So, the jury is still out. I can't say I've had greater peace of mind as far as chick health. But I may still need to work on adjusting it properly. One observation: Some of the plate brooders come with a clear plastic pyramid-shaped cover. I wasn't sure how important that was to have, as it was cheaper without the cover. When the olive egger chick has spent most of her time peeping noisily from the top of the brooder, and pooping on it, it began to make a little more sense.  

UPDATE: Three weeks later, and I'm much happier with the brooder plate. I don't like to bed with shavings the first week or two -- I prefer newspaper with grit/sand or paper towels. They can grip, and not slip, but it gives them a good surface for newly developing feet. It's always worked fine. But this time, the chicks just did not seem content. The olive egger (AKA Laverne) would stand on top of the brooder and peep loudly enough to hear on the other side of the house. I'd hold her, she'd calm down, I'd put her back in, she'd meep like a squad car on a high speed chase. Clearly, something wasn't right. No pasty butt, eating properly, still drinking probiotics and electrolytes. Mostly happy, bright-eyed and busy, but just not content. I kept trying to adjust the brooder. But they didn't seem cold. I added an old feather duster for some pseudo-mom-hen comfort. But it wasn't until I dumped a bucket of shavings in and tucked them back in that all became silent, and they've been happy little peeps ever since.

One additional note: This is the first time we've gotten bantam chicks, and I think in the future, I'd be hesitant before mixing bantams and LF chicks. The big girls (let's hope they are girls, anyway) can be a bit more boisterous. And though the brooder plate is adjustable enough to work well at two heights, for a small quantity of chicks, it complicates the process.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Adding to the flock

Our Australorp, Thelma, loved raising babies.
After a dog killed four of our hens last Thanksgiving, I decided to add new birds to the flock. We lost a couple of favorites, and I just haven't had the heart to think about it much until now. It's been a few years since I've integrated new girls, and I've mulled over my options for the last couple of months. Given that we have a small backyard flock, limited space, no room for cockerels, and a number of older hens who lay sporadically (if at all), I wanted to choose carefully, adding good egg layers while satisfying my chicken breed cravings. But increasing an existing flock is more than just a matter of finding a hen on Craigslist and plopping her into the coop. Here are a few options -- with pros and cons:

Thelma also hatched out three Cream Legbar chicks.

Hatching Eggs:
You can borrow or buy an incubator, or find a broody hen, buy fertilized eggs from a breeder and hatch out chicks.
PROs: Huge variety available. Good way to get quality chicks, easiest to transport and ship if you want an breed not available locally, and there is nothing better than watching a hen mother her chicks. It’s also the easiest way to raise babies, or introduce new birds into an established flock if the hen raises them. You don’t need a brooder. And the mom will (usually) protect them from the rest of the flock.
CONs: Hatch rates can be low (40 to 50 percent is average). Be prepared to pay for quality -- breeders work long and hard, and you'll need to pay more for their good results. You have no idea how many cockerels or pullets you’ll get. Need to be prepared to rehome or process young cockerels. With a mama hen watching over them (and protecting them from all potential threats, including humans) hen-raised chicks can be more difficult to catch and handle than hand-raised chicks.You also need to be prepared to bring the chicks inside to brood if the hen isn't a good mother.

Chicks from hatchery or feed store:
PROs: You can be about 90 percent sure you’re getting pullets, and you can pick from the breeds they have or the breeds they’ll special order. Many will have had the marek’s vaccine (but that's a whole 'nother post). No need to wait -- you'll have a box full of peeps in a short time (be careful, it's hard to stick to the number you planned on when you're standing in front of a trough full of little fluffy chicks. I speak from experience).
CONs: Not always the highest quality as far as breed standard (depending on the hatchery). Chicks are very hard to sex, so it’s not uncommon to end up with a cockerel or two. You’ll need to keep them under a light (or even better and safer, use a brooder heater), in a safe enclosed place (we use our bathtub, but large feed troughs work well, too), and watch them for pasty butt (seriously, that’s what it’s called. Can cause death in new chicks, and so you need to steel yourself to clean off that little bum as the chick squawks. Pasty butt is often caused by shipping stress, cold temps, and overheating when a heat lamp is adjusted so that chicks can't escape to cool off.) Once they are feathered out enough, you'll have to gradually introduce them into the flock if you have an established flock.

Chicks, Pullets, Point of Lay or Hens from breeder
PROs: The older the bird, the better sense of pullet/cockerel. You can see pictures of the parents, have the reassurance of buying from a breeder who has selected for higher quality birds than what you'd find from a hatchery, and have the opportunity to support a local breeder. If you're searching for a specific breed and/or show quality, you can find breeders online who ship chicks, juvenile birds and adult birds. Again, if you're buying from a breeder, remember that they put a lot of time and effort into raising their birds -- be prepared to pay for their hard work!
CONs: Any time you bring birds home (other than brand new chicks) you need to quarantine the birds for a recommended 30 days. Keeping them separate helps you make certain that they don't have a communicable disease. Even the healthiest looking birds can carry disease or be asymptomatic. One sick bird can cause chaos by getting the rest of your chooks sick – and you can lose an entire flock. Once quarantine is done, you’ll need to integrate them slowly. Even then, there’ll be squabbles to establish pecking order. And they don’t call it pecking order for nothing. It’s awful when they draw blood.

Laying hens from show
PROs: Hens are usually pretty tame, have been well-cared for, and you know for sure if you have a hen; at a 4H show, you’re contributing to scholarships or rewarding a 4Her’s hard work.
CONs: Again, you’ll need to quarantine new birds for 30 days, and integrate gradually.

So what did I decide? I'm hoping that I have a hen go broody in the next two months. I've found a breeder in Colorado who has a couple of breeds I like. I'll bring home about a dozen eggs once we have a hen who's insisting on sitting on eggs, and let her do the hard work. Fingers crossed we get mostly hens and don't have to re-home (or process) too many cockerels.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Grace in the Garden (Plus My 6 Favorite Online Garden Catalogs)

Lacy Phacelia
Brand spankin’ new year, and I’m sitting here surrounded by notebooks, last year’s seed envelopes and journal, my garden layout and all my favorite seed sources open in a tab on my browser. It’s snowy and cold, and this is my antidote to winter – planning my garden with lists and penciled, detailed, obsessive plans.

Every year, as I work on my plans, I’m picturing a lush, green, productive garden. But reality is that every winter I see that elusive mirage of a garden, with its high-yield tomatoes, powdery-mildew-free cucumbers, catalog-inspired annuals, and it has yet to materialize in my small backyard.

But as I’ve become more experienced as a gardener, I find that every year is an experiment where I learn more about what works in this Colorado climate and what doesn’t work. I’ve finally reached the point where, if I see an interesting variety or plant that I’ve never tried before, I give it a try. It’s not like I’m putting in a swimming pool. It’s a $3 investment in garden know-how, and succeed or not, I've come to realize there's grace in my garden -- it's all good.

So, I’ve added artichokes to my list this year: Colorado Star variety for short growing seasons as an annual. I like artichokes, and hope I manage the careful cold-temp prep the seeds/seedlings need. But what I’m really hoping for is big, fat, purple blossoms for visual interest and for my bees. Because I tend to choose flowers according to bee affinity.

Which is why I put Phacelia tanacetifolia, aka Lacy Phacelia, aka Purple Tansy, aka Fiddleneck, on my list last year. I’d never heard of it, and the flowers are an interesting octopus-like unfurling finger of small blue lacy flowerets. It’s in the same family as borage, and given how my bees go crazy for that blue-flowered easy grower, it’s perhaps no surprise to see it high on lists of nectar producers. I ordered the seeds from Hudson Valley Seeds, started a handful indoors, then tossed some seeds alongside the newly transplanted seedlings. I remember thinking I’d get a few blooms.

In fact, it thrived. Each plant was covered in blooms. And the bees were practically frantic as they worked and foraged over it. As it bloomed, it would slowly unfurl, with new blooms surfacing and the old ones going to seed. It bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. In October, I collected the seeds and scattered them in areas where I want them to naturalize. We’ll see if that works. As a back up, I saved some for this spring's seed starting trays.

Reflecting on its success and reading more about it I found two reasons why it did well in my garden: It’s fairly drought tolerant and it likes a more alkaline soil. Check, and check. I didn’t realize that it’s also considered a cover crop. Positives all around – good results for an experimental planting.

That’s not to say that all those experiments turn out. More often than not, results can be pretty discouraging. Varieties that – even though I think they’ll work in my garden – simply don’t survive or take root. And so I add that experience to my garden knowledge. I've learned that traditional furrows for potatoes (and straw to cover) works far better in my garden than potatoes grown in bags or towers. That if I lay frost covers over my newly sown beets and lettuce, they’ll stay moist and germinate at a higher rate than if they are exposed. And that not all seedlings germinate better using a heat mat – some are a lot happier if I actually read the seed packet to find out what the optimum temp is for germination. I have still not gotten it right with cucumbers.

I don’t know how the artichoke will do this year, but I’m looking forward to giving it a go. Worst thing that can happen is it fails to germinate, and I have space in my garden for something else. But best case? I have a new plant that will make my bees happy. So I'm back to perusing seed sites for inspiration. And on that note, a few of my favorites: 

Johnny's Select Seeds
Hudson Valley Seed Company
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds 
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

Thursday, April 30, 2015

CCD, Bee Safe Neighborhoods, and Humming Hives

Last night on a beautiful spring evening, I stood outside my hive and watched bees coming and going, their panniers packed with pollen. I felt this great sense of satisfaction and rightness. It was as if the backyard had a missing element all these months while the hive stood empty, and now the balance was back in my garden.

Last year we learned so much, but the failure of our hive to thrive was discouraging. It was hard to watch the bee numbers diminish to total loss. Whether it was a weak or older queen, or a symptom of nearby pesticide use, we don’t know. But all through the fall and winter there was a vacant feeling in our garden.

In past years, beekeepers expected a loss of hives in the single-digit percentage range. It was to be expected. This past year I have heard reports that beekeepers reported losses around 60 percent. 60 percent. That is an astonishing, heartbreaking, worrisome number. It is an unsustainable figure in any business, and unsustainable ecologically, as well.

Friends ask me what is causing the declining pollinator populations. With the ominous Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) making the news, I understand why they are asking.

It is believed that the Varroa mite is one factor. This pin-head sized mite is an external parasite that first arrived in Florida in the 1980s. According to an article from the University of Kentucky, varroa mites “suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood, weakening and shortening the life span of the ones on which they feed. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Untreated infestations of varroa mites that are allowed to increase will kill honeybee colonies.”

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, honeybees also face devastation from pesticides and herbicides. In fact, Harvard University recently released a report linking the use of neonicotinoids (a class of insecticide chemically similar to nicotine) to CCD. The European Union and some non-EU countries have banned the use of neonics. The United States is dragging its heels…

All of these thorny issues are at the back of my mind as I watch our new colony begin to build comb, care for their brood, pollinate and gather nectar. I watch an undertaker bee drag a dead bee from the hive (worker bees generally live only about six weeks), carry her body a distance and leave it, then return to continue cleaning house. Forager Bees are carrying bright orange dandelion pollen into the hive, and I’m hopeful that the flowers they visited were not tainted with herbicides.

In talking with Colorado State Beekeepers Association President Beth Conrey earlier this spring, I learned about an initiative called “Bee Safe Neighborhoods.” Beth was pointing to urban beekeeping as one of the frontlines for giving bees cleaner foraging and brighter futures. While changing Big Ag’s approach to pesticides and herbicides is a huge ship to turn around, concerned urban communities can participate in Bee Safe Neighborhood programs that address the issue of chemical usage on gardens and lawns.

Here’s how it works:
According to the Living Systems Institute, The goal is to have leaders from as many neighborhoods as possible solicit pledges from their neighbors to stop using systemic poisons.  The minimum number of households required for a bee safe neighborhood designation is 75 in a contiguous block.  If a neighbor on a particular street does not wish to participate, the boundary lines of the contiguous block will be configured to exclude that household.  In other words, every neighbor on every street does not need to participate in order to have a contiguous block.”
Want to learn more or see how you can get involved? Go to the Living Systems Institute/Honeybee Keep page on Bee Safe Neighborhoods. There you’ll find information about specific chemicals that are a concern, and alternatives and options that are better for bees.

It’s easy—especially when faced with an empty hive—to get discouraged. But if we do what we can to make our yards and our neighborhoods safe for bees, we are addressing the issue locally and helping honeybees. And as we create cleaner neighborhoods, we are also making spaces better for not just bees and other wildlife, but also for our children, our pets, and ourselves.

A new beekeeping season has arrived, flowers and trees are blooming in my neighborhood, and once again my hive is humming. My garden feels complete again. And I am hopeful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mother Hens Just Are

We've been treated to some wonderfully warm weather for the last few days, and besides giving me spring fever, it gives me the chance to watch my flock. Instead of hurrying from house to coop in single digit temps, I can slow down and soak in the peacefulness that comes with just watching hens scratch for bugs or grains, dust themselves, or spread their wings in the sun.

The three chicks and two moms add an extra measure of pleasure. When we had a bathtub full of chicks we used to call it "Chick TV." They are entertaining little fluff balls. Now that we have the mother-hen dynamic at work, it's like watching the sequel to the series. Where we just saw one side of the biology of chicks, now we see the most amazing, whole picture with the interaction between hens, chicks and flock.

Sunday I took a bowl out that had leftover corn in it. Usually, it's every hen for herself. They belly up to the bowl, run over each other if need be, and eat that corn as fast as they can. When I put the bowl down this time though, it was different. The non-mom hens were there gobbling it up, but I was amazed to see what Thelma was doing.

She would daintily take a piece of corn out of the bowl and carefully, with precision, drop it in front of one chick, then another, and then the third chick. They would pick the treat up, carry it away and eat their prize before going back to mom and repeating the process. Not once did I see Thelma eat any of the corn herself.

As she ranged around the yard, she'd find something, then cluck in a way that said, "Eat this, it's good, and good for you," and the chicks would run to see what she'd found. They'd eat, she'd move on, scratch a spot, and call them again. Cotton, mom-hen-number two, was right there with them. Thelma seems to be the top-hen, a little stricter and a little more instructive. Cotton, on the other hand, seems to be there to keep the chicks out of trouble, provide a warm wing when needed, or run interference if another hen is getting too close.

The other hens don't interfere with the small family, and for the most part, tend to ignore the chicks all together. If a hen gets too close, she is informed in no uncertain terms that she better give the babies a little space.

The chicks are busy, preening, scratching the ground, running to catch up or--if one of their moms settles down for a moment--taking the opportunity to peck inquiringly at an eye or a feather or a toenail. The moms both have great patience, vigilance and calm, and watching them is relaxing. It's a great illustration of where the phrase "mother hen" comes from.  Because mother hens... really are.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Two Broody Moms, Three Chicks

A bird in the hand...M holds the first hatchling.
It started with Cotton sitting on a clutch of six eggs. When my sister-in-law gave us the eggs from her flock (because she has a rooster and we don’t) we weren’t sure if they were fertile, but decided we’d give them to our little Bantam cochin, Cotton. Then Thelma began to assist with hatch duty.

The way our nesting boxes are set up, there are two regular-sized boxes on each end, and one larger one in the middle. I had just about given up on any chicks hatching, thinking maybe the eggs had gotten cold or just weren’t fertile. After work one evening I opened the nesting boxes from the back to see if there were some fresh eggs. I’d been leaving the marked hatching eggs and gathering the rest.

Thelma was in the box where we’d put the fertile eggs. I reached under her, lifting her and moving her, but didn’t see new eggs. She pecked me hard, unlike her but forgivable considering her important task. I moved to the other side, opened the door and found Cotton on some newly laid eggs, retrieved them and closed the small door. 

Then I walked around to the front of the coop and stepped in to check on feeders and water. As I left, I thought I heard a peeping sound. At first I thought maybe I’d heard wrong, or that it was a mouse or a sound from outside, but I listened closer and was sure it was a chick.

I kneeled down and watched Thelma and the box where we’d placed the eggs.  I still heard peeping, but couldn’t be sure where it was coming from. Beneath Thelma, I thought. And then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, hurrying from Cotton’s box, I saw a small fluffy dark colored… chick. It was heading toward Thelma, like a child who had hopped out of a warm tub and was hurrying toward a dry towel.

Somehow it seemed like magic to suddenly see a little creature where one hadn't been. It was so small, with a yellow spot on top of her head, and more yellow in front. I scooped her up and looked at her. She was bright eyed and healthy. Chicks are very difficult to sex, and I sure don’t have the expertise, so we don’t know yet whether it’s a pullet or a cockerel. I popped her back into the nesting box and she wiggled her way beneath Thelma’s fluffed up black feathers. Thelma eyed me a bit smugly. How could I have doubted?

Over the next couple of days, I watched and wondered if there were more. I’d see the small black peep running around, and both Cotton and Thelma seemed to be caring for it. But Saturday morning, K and I went out to the coop to see how the little trio was doing. K opened the door and laughed. I looked in. Thelma was standing up, her hidden family revealed. Three chicks. All peeping loudly, indignant about the cold rush of air.

Cotton and Thelma are sitting together on the nest, co-raising the babies. I watch as the small fluffy chicks hop onto Cotton’s back, a good vantage point for pecking her comb. Or her eye. Or the black hen’s feathers. They wiggle beneath the curtain of feathers when they get cold, pop back out when they are too warm. It’s amazing how Thelma—who was raised in a brooder and never knew a mother—knows exactly how to care for her little ones. Cotton seems perfectly comfortable in the motherly role as well.

It is so much easier to raise chicks when you have broody hens, and I am amazed at the instinctive care they take. It is a lesson in the built-in knowledge nature provides, and makes me realize humans are a distant second when it comes to raising chicks. I close the coop door and leave them, confident that they will be just fine.