Rethinking sustainability…leaving the farm

Early this year, I sold a small organic farm on the outskirts of our city, and moved back into the suburbs.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It was idyllic, beautiful…and not sustainable.

I didn’t really have a choice, to be honest. I was divorcing, and the place needed to be sold for financial reasons anyway.

But prior to that, being on the farm for nearly a decade had made me rethink what sustainability means, and how we can move forward in a world that seems intent on, well, not moving forward much at all.

Petrol…the fly in the ointment

We were extremely car-dependent at the farm. There was no public transport. The nearest supermarket, bank, school – all of it was a drive away. There were no buses or trains. This was a huge hurdle to sustainability.

I was routinely spending $100 a week on petrol, and my partner was spending the same. Getting around drained our energy, our time, and our finances.

It was lovely living on the farm and having heaps of space – and animals! – but there was a lot of work behind the scenes that I didn’t expect and that cost a lot as well.

Did I make a mistake moving to a farm? No. But I don’t think that type of lifestyle is the way forward for humanity, as a whole.

It’s appealing, and it stirs in us a vision of an idyllic past, but it’s not practical for a sustainable future.

The present…around the corner to everything

When my new partner and I bought a home this year for our four kids (two of his, two of mine), we bought a very, very walkable home.

Our new house and garden from the rear. It’s in a lovely sunny spot, central and walkable to everything.

The bank is a two minute walk around the corner. There’s a park just across the road. The supermarket is five minutes’ walk, with shops and cafes and restaurants in-between.

Our Walkscore at our new home is 74. That translates as “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Our new home is very walkable, with a great “walkscore”. See https://www.walkscore.com/ to find your own walkscore!

By comparison, our Walkscore at the farm was 0. “Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.”

The difference is striking. Our kids walk to school, unless the weather is bad. My partner can walk to work – and does. I can walk into the city, or a bus runs right past our door every few minutes.

Most days I don’t use the car much, if at all.

I’d been wondering how I’d possibly be able to stay at the farm should I ever stop driving. Living here, that’s never an issue, because I simply don’t need to be able to drive.

What does sustainable really mean?

There’s no point in running an organic farm if you’re using three tanks of petrol every week to get anywhere.

You’re trashing the planet, no matter how organic your veggies are!

By comparison, the suburbs can be more sustainable if you live with a large group of people together, share your energy costs, walk for a lot of your journeys, and the journeys you do need a car for are short.

Plus, from a purely financial point of view, I’m not spending massive amounts of money on petrol every month. I don’t particular want to make oil companies richer. Does anyone?

Of course there’s more to being sustainable than petrol and cars. Suburban chickens, worm farms, backyard fruit trees, and an unpackaged, locally-produced diet can all play a part.

home made chicken tractor

Suburban chickens can play a role in sustainability.

So can handing-down clothes, buying locally-manufactured clothing or secondhand, using a capsule wardrobe, and limiting imports.

A capsule wardrobe can be a part of modern sustainability.

Finally, reducing family size through access to contraception, ease of access to abortion, education, and solid welfare support all play a role, as can voting on environmental lines and social welfare concerns.

Moving forwards to a new sustainability

I’m not sure what genuine sustainability will look like in the future. But, looking back, I know what it isn’t.

I know we need to reduce car usage, and we need to make our cities more walkable, and lobby to make public transport better and easier to use.

Perhaps we need to open our minds to new ideas, and discard old dreams that don’t fit with a modern reality.

My farm was lovely, and it was organic but sustainable?

No. I can’t say that.

However, I hope our new home in the suburbs might be…one day.

Suburban chickens in a chicken tractor!

Know about this post:

  • We rebuilt our chicken tractor (portable chicken coop).
  • The tractor measures 3 metres long x 1.5 metres wide x 1 metre high. The run end opens completely for full access, and the shelter end has a half-height hatch for access to eggs, bedding and food.
  • The tractor is made from
    • treated pine,
    • treated 7 mm thick treated “second quality” plywood (has knotholes, which we painted over),
    • chicken wire,
    • self-tapping wood screws.

    The hatches have two hinges each, and are secured with fencing nails (these form loops) through which we ran light chain and attached padlocks. The shelter end was painted with leftover paint we had in the shed.

    chicken tractor with chickens

    The chooks really seem happy in their new home!

    We also attached handles made from a small length of rope and some old hose we had lying around. The handles make it much easier to move the tractor around the garden to fresh grass every two weeks.

    The nesting box inside the shelter end is an A4 plastic box we bolted to the side of the shelter end frame with more wood screws. It has drainage holes we drilled to help keep it clean.

The tools we required for this project were just a power drill, a hammer, a special drill bit for the wood screws, a hand screwdriver, a staple gun (for attaching the chicken wire, bolt cutters (for cutting the chain), and heavy duty scissors (for the chicken wire).

The wood was all cut to the right sizes at the hardware shop (Bunnings NZ) for us for free, although we did find we needed a small saw for cutting the access hole between the shelter end and the run part of the tractor.

I designed this tractor, after looking around online and finding nothing that suited my needs (i.e. a cheap, easy to build, functional chicken tractor!). It’s into it’s sixth year (I think) and is looking great, especially with the new cladding on the shelter end.

If you’d like more information about the tractor, please leave comments below 🙂

What is a chicken tractor and how does it work?

We recently renovated our chicken tractor for our new chickens.

In case you were wondering what a “chicken tractor” is, it’s a portable chicken coop. They’re cheaper to build and they have no flooring.

A chicken tractor stays in place in the garden for anywhere between 2-4 weeks, depending on how long it takes the chickens to turn over the ground and make it muddy and remove most of the grass.

Then you pick up the tractor and move it along (the chickens stay inside while you move it!) to the next plot of fresh grass.

The benefit of this is you never have to clean a coop out, you don’t attract rats or mice, the chickens get fresh grass, and the chooks are always adding fresh manure to the ground, which the worms and grass love.

Once the ground has been turned over, you can choose to throw some grass seed on if you want, but in New Zealand everything grows like crazy so I’ve never bothered.

For the system to work well, you need to have about 6 x the amount of floor space that the tractor takes up, so that by the time it returns to its original position on the grass, it’s been a minimum of 12 weeks gap for the fresh grass to grow.

This is usually enough for everything to re-seed properly, even over winter, but if you need more space adjust accordingly.

In summer, move the tractor under trees for shade, and in winter move it out into full sun to keep your chickens happy and warm.

About our chicken tractor

I built our chicken tractor with a friend about six years ago.

Originally we clad the sleeping quarters end of the chicken tractor in some old swimming pool “blanket”, which looks like very thick oversized bubble wrap. It worked well, was cost-free as it was second-hand, and it kept the chickens warm in their sleeping area.

You can see a picture of how the tractor looked below.

chicken tractor

What the chicken tractor used to look like, with blue plastic on the sleeping end.

Note: The sleeping end has a perch that runs at half height the full width of the sleeping quarters. Chickens like to perch at night, off the ground. It helps them feel safe and happy.

Over time, we found the blue plastic “pool blanket” perished and ripped, and a complete re-cladding of the coop was necessary.

We re-lined the run end with chicken wire (the original version used green plastic mesh) a couple of years ago, but the sleeping end needed a re-clad too now.

chicken tractor 1

The tractor with its blue plastic removed. You can see how the frame is put together, if you want to build one.

A quick measure up, and we were down to our local Bunnings warehouse. We bought 7 mm thickness second quality treated structural plywood, so it won’t rot when it gets wet.

Note that if you do build a chicken tractor, you’ll need to use treated wood to avoid wood rot. Most treated pine is very affordable and designed to last 20+ years in all weather.

chicken tractor 2

Adding the new cladding to the chicken tractor. This was attached with self-tapping wood screws and a drill.

The guys at Bunnings cut our plywood to size for us for free. Yay! 🙂

chicken tractor 6

We cut out a small opening between the housing end and the run. The tractor is on its side in this picture, while we worked on it.

We attached the new plywood to the old frame using the original wood screws that had been used to attach the blue plastic – I’d unscrewed and cleaned them up with a scrubbing brush and hot water when we removed the remnants of the plastic. Re-using hardware saved a lot of money in projects like this!

Then we painted the coop up using some leftover exterior house paint that had been left in our garage when we moved in. It wasn’t a great colour (grey) but it was free, being leftovers, and suited to purpose.

The paint will also help further protect the wood and weatherproof the coop.

chicken tractor painted

The tractor painted, and rope handles attached. We may have to do more decoration as the grey is pretty grim!

The final step was using gap sealer to seal gaps in the corners of the sleeping quarters. We don’t want the cold winter wind getting in and ruffling any feathers!

We hope the newly-clad tractor will last for many years, and keep our new chickens very warm, dry and happy!

home made chicken tractor

The chicken tractor in action in our garden 🙂

How many chickens?

A chicken tractor this size can comfortably house six chickens (or five hens and one rooster), but 3-4 birds is a more comfortable fit.

chicken tractor

We have six chickens in our tractor at the moment, but two are destined for the pot in a couple of weeks. Four chickens is a much better fit for this size of tractor.

We found that 3-4 birds is ideal, because our household provides an almost perfect amount of leftovers to feed the birds, so we have virtually no costs in chicken food.

This is a win-win – our food waste becomes a usable product, and we get free eggs. Plus, chickens fed on household scraps are happier and healthier than chooks fed nothing but pellets!

How to look after suburban chickens

Chickens are really easy to look after.

hyline chicken

Our chickens are hylines – they’re great little layers, and easy to handle.

Like all animals, they need fresh water, plenty of good food, and appropriate shelter.

Chickens also need oyster grit to create good strong eggshells.

You may have heard that they can use ground up eggshells instead of grit – this is true but it can encourage them to eat their own eggs which you don’t want!

Instead, use the crushed eggshells on the garden, and buy a bag of grit. It’ll last forever and is very cheap. Put a small amount in a heavy bowl – they won’t take much but they will use it.

We replace their water every 2-3 days, or if it gets mucky before then. You don’t need a fancy water container – we’ve always just used a bucket or plastic container. Just make sure the water level is accessible, and there is a brick or similar in the bucket so it doesn’t get knocked over – chickens like to perch on the edge of their water container to drink!

Chickens eat practically anything from the table – including chicken! Ours eat everything except avocado pits and peels, carrot tops, lollies (hard sweets), and actual bones.

We feed our chickens every leftover from the table, including: bread crusts, stale bread, apple cores, leftover veggies, leftover meat, leftover burgers and pizza, dripping and fat from roasting trays, fish fingers, tofu, curry, you name it!

When we have a lamb or chicken roast we throw all the bone leftovers in the cage. The chooks love it! They peck every tiny scrap of meat away and even eat the marrow if they can get at it. Snap big bones open with a mallet – they’ll peck at everything inside.

Chickens need proper shelter, especially in extreme climates. Where we live, it gets down to freezing and we have a couple of snow days each year, so the tractor we’ve built does them fine. But if you live in a really cold climate you’d want to build a tractor with two layers of plywood and insulation between.

Chickens are known to overheat on hot days, so move the tractor away from direct sunlight if it’s going to be a scorcher.

Finding good layers… and how to pick an old bird!

I messed about with fancy birds for a few years, but these days I stick to Hylines or Brown Shavers. It’s up to you what breed you go for, but for a good layer try to find birds that are less than two years old.

The older a bird gets, the bigger the eggs they will lay over time. Their comb will be pale or dull, and their legs pale and extra scaly. Most of the better layers tend to be smaller, lighter breeds.

A good layer will give you at least 5 eggs a week, sometimes more.

If you want to keep a rooster, be aware that many councils have restrictions, due to noise. Check first, before getting your roo in.

Chickens don’t tend to get too many parasites, but they can get red mites. If they do, you can buy dusting powder from the local vet. It’s the same powder that is used for horses, so if you have a horsy friend ask if they have some first.

Cleaning a fence

Sometimes renovation just means cleaning.

On the weekend, my partner and I tackled the back fence. It had clearly never been cleaned in a long time. There was an old trellis supporting some scrawny, nondescript plants, and the wood was covered in green mossy built up from years of neglect.

I snipped off the daggy old metal trellis with a pair of bolt cutters. The cutters made short work of the old plastic-coated metal. Bolt cutters are one of my favourite tools – I always feel like a superhero when I’m bolt-cutting something!

My other favourite tool is a sledgehammer 🙂

Usually I like to salvage materials where possible, but the trellis was probably 30 years old, and no good for anything except disposal, being plastic-coated. It has gone to landfill now.

I left the old fencing nails that had been used to attach the trellis in the fence. They were well nailed in, and pulling them out might damage the fence. Besides, they blended in and didn’t bother me too much once the trellis was gone.

Sometimes it’s better to leave old nails in place. If I’d desperately wanted to remove them, a quick snip at the elbow with bolt cutters before teasing the ends out with pliers would do the trick.

The old plants were snipped apart with a pair of secateurs (they weren’t very big plants!), and went into the compost, not being large enough to burn.

One of the plants was a rose, so I cut it down to the base, and will dig up the root stock and transplant it.

A job for another day!

The rose bush and other plants hadn’t been pruned in a long time and were no good. I’ve saved the rose root stock though, and will transplant it elsewhere.

The water blaster was the perfect tool for the job of fence-cleaning and removing all the green built-up.It was pretty filthy!

Half the back fence done. My partner Matt got a bit bored and started “drawing” with the water blaster in the moss build up. Could’ve been worse – at least it was just a number!

There! Two hours later it’s much better!

Looks like a new fence now! So much better!

Just one afternoon of work can make a huge difference.

Looking after a house and garden and keeping them in good order is often just a matter of easy jobs performed regularly.

It’s also a matter of having the right tools. A water blaster made this job really easy, but if we didn’t have one, we’d have used scrubbing brushes and soapy water – plus elbow grease.

Over the next year we have our work cut out for us. We’ll be painting the entire house, inside and out, and remodelling a bathroom that is truly antiquated. Plus we’ll be doing a lot of gardening, making our outdoors a lovely place to be.

I’m looking forward to all of it!

Renovations – we’ve been busy!

We moved into our new home just over a month ago, and boy, have we been busy!

The house we’ve bought is an absolutely lovely old villa, right in the middle of Mornington, which is one of Dunedin’s oldest and most central suburbs. It’s a great place to live.

The home is on a double block – rare so close to town – with a lovely flat garden.

It’s a lovely flat garden, and will be easy to maintain. I just need to clear out the overgrown stuff first!

We have five bedrooms, one for each of our four kids. Also rare, in a town that is about 90% three bedroom homes.

It’s exactly what we wanted, and we’re very happy, but when I say it’s an “old villa” I mean OLD!!!

The home had been owned by the same family for about 80 years, and although basic maintenance had been done, little else had, for a long long time.

There was no heating at all, apart from old fireplaces that don’t work very well, and we live in a COLD climate. From what we can tell, the people who lived here either froze each winter or just used lots of little electric heaters they plugged into the wall and put up with a huge heating bill.

As for the bathroom, well! It’s original, in every sense, and the plumbing is antiquated.

The bathroom is antiquated. We’ll be gutting it completely, replacing the shower-tub combo with a glass-fronted walk-in shower. The vanity will be replaced with a much smaller model to take up less floor space. We’ve already purchased the 3 in 1 heater/extractor fan/light as well as a heated towel rail and will be fitting both over the next couple of weeks.

The kitchen is not much better.

When I said the kitchen was OLD, I meant it!

We knew all this, and it was reflected in the sale price, but what it all means is we’ll be doing a lot of renovations over the coming few years, and I’ll be blogging all about it here, as I think (hope!) it will interest you.

We intend to bring this beautiful old home kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Quality heating

Our first step was putting in two kick-ass heat pumps – one in the living room, and the other in the hallway. We also changed all the locks, as a standard measure moving into a new home.

The living room heat pump. We didn’t mess around, but bought a really powerful machine that would heat the room well.

The heat pumps we bought are a wonder, and over the first few weeks we could literally feel the home drying out and becoming warm and inviting. It was an amazing thing to feel. The old musty smells have disappeared, and the home feels comfortable, warm and dry.

The hallway heat pump is a slimline floor model and it works really well to keep the bedrooms warm and dry.

Insulation

The second step was to check our insulation. I called upon the Warm Up NZ initiative, a government scheme to get homes across the country properly insulated, and they did a check on our home.

We’re fully insulated, top and bottom, and on all accessible side walls.

While here, the Warm Up NZ guy recommended our next step should be thermal curtains on all windows, starting with the top storey.

Thermal curtains

This week, I ordered new thermal curtains for all windows on the top storey. These were easy, as I could just buy ready-made curtains, then I’ll re-hem them over next week. Two sets had to be ordered online, and should come in the post in the next few days or so.

This will make our house look better and stay warmer.

My partner’s daughter chose ivory curtains, his son chose plain black, and my son chose black with a pattern. For the landing, I chose grey with a vine pattern.

I’ll take “before and after” photos when these are all fitted.

Replacing light bulbs

We’re going through the house and replacing all standard light globes with ultra-efficient LED bulbs. This is not cheap, as the bulbs retail between $7 and $13 apiece, and we have about 20 bulbs to replace!

We started with the living areas and hallway, and are gradually working our way around the house. This will cut our power bills significantly.

New smoke detectors, and a fire blanket in the kitchen

The house had old-style smoke detectors, and not enough of them! We’ve replaced these with modern fire detectors that only need replacing every 10 years.

We also bought a fire blanket to keep near the very old stove, in case of emergency.

Fibre!

Within a week we had a fibre connection to the internet installed. The kids were very happy about this!

Where to next?

Our next steps will be replacing the hot water system with gas, and getting started on the bathroom renovation, as it’s more necessary than the kitchen. We’ll be completely gutting both, so this is not small tasks.

In the meantime We’ll also be working on the garden, clearing away overgrown plants, and putting some new fruit trees in.

Widening the driveway will happen in a year or two, but first I’ll be clearing all these overgrown plants away!

Our Lilliput Library!

We’ve been moved in a few weeks now.

The boxes are (almost!) gone from the hallway, the kids (all four of them!) are settled in, and things are looking sorted. So on the weekend it was time to put up our own new Lilliput Library.

Here it is, looking lovely at our front gate:

Lilliput Libraries are a community project, started in Dunedin by Ruth Arnison a few years ago. Our own library is No 109, so there are a fair number around Dunedin now! You can view their locations around Dunedin on Google Maps.

The project has a WordPress blog, also run by Ruth. The Libraries also have a Facebook page and an Instagram page, with some lovely images of the various libraries around Dunedin. Take a look. Some of the artwork is absolutely beautiful.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

This is my friend Lhizz Browne’s Lilliput Library.

Lhizz’s Lilliput Library is up and running at 186 Pine Hill, so drop by and grab or add a book to this lovely library.

The library below has Diane Smith as its Guardian. She commisioned artist Jack Pillans to paint her fence to match, and the result is stunning. You can view the Lilliput Library – and the fence artwork – at 71 Newington Avenue:

Diane Smith’s beautiful Lilliput Library and fence artwork by local artist Jack Pillans.

Sharing books is a wonderful thing to do!

Lilliput Libraries are based on the concept of book sharing:

Take a book now…
Return or donate a book later.

Whenever you see a Lilliput Library, feel free to open the door and have a browse. Choose a book you’d like to read. You can keep the book for a while, or forever – Lilliput Libraries are cost-free, and there’s no membership required.

Then, if you are able, share a book back to any Lilliput Library when you can.

It’s that simple!

Becoming a Lilliput Library “Guardian

If you’d like to become a “Guardian” of a Lilliput Library in Dunedin, contact Ruth Arnison via the Lilliput Libraries blog. She’s a lovely lady and is incredibly helpful.

If you’re an artist or have carpentry skills, or can donate paint or woodworking products and you would like to support the Lilliput Libraries project, please also contact Ruth.

If you live in another city and would like to start up your own Lilliput Libraries scheme or build your own independent Lilliput Library, I can’t think of a lovelier way to encourage community and reading!

Mother’s Day: 10 non-spendy ideas to make Mother’s Day just perfect…

It’s Mother’s Day here in New Zealand this Sunday.

As usual, the shops are all suggesting we buy cards and gifts. For some reason, the junk mail is full of suggestions that people buy their mums kitchen items such as serving platters, new toasters, dinner sets and cutlery.

If someone bought me a toaster for Mother’s Day I would kill them!!!

I wanted CHOCOLATE!!!!! 😉

But seriously, Mother’s Day doesn’t have to be about the money. Or the stuff. So, in light of that, here are 10 fabulous non-spendy ideas to make your Mother’s Day just perfect. Five are things to make, and five are things to do.

Have fun! And Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother’s Day gifts – to make

1. A wheat bag to keep her warm on cold nights. Here’s how: How to make a wheat bag.

2. A foot scrub to make her tired feet soft and lovely. Here’s how: Recipe for peppermint foot scrub.

3. A “Ten things I love about you” book. Here’s how: Ten things I love about you.

4. Bath salts. Then let her soak for hours…. Here’s how: Homemade bath salts.

5. A ladybird rock paperweight for her desk. Every time she sees it, she’ll smile 🙂 Here’s how: Ladybug rocks.

Mother’s Day gifts – to do

1. Let her sleep in. The rest of the family members – partners, kids, assorted groupies – do everything for a day. Make breakfast. Tidy up. Do the washing. Clean the house. Fix that gizmo that has needed fixing for ever. Oh, and keep the noise down…

2. Bake something nice. And CLEAN the kitchen afterwards. Bake some cupcakes. Or a slice. Or some muffins. The house will smell lovely.

3. Collect wildflowers. Go for a drive. Or a walk. Collect wildflowers. Give them to her. With love. Oh – and if it’s too wet for collecting flowers, go splashing in puddles or build a snowman instead!

4. Go hiking. Together. As a family. You’ll know if your mum likes that kind of thing. Some of us do 😉

5. Let her be a tourist in her home town. Most cities have a council website with suggestions of free things to do in the city. Some ideas include:
going to the botanic gardens,
visiting a park,
going to the beach for a family picnic,
visiting an open garden or a historic home,
going for a drive along a scenic route,
going to a free talk or open-air concert,
playing in a playground like you’re a kid again,
visiting the art gallery,
visiting the museum,
visiting local heritage sites,
visiting cultural sites,
bird watching in a wild place,
going “instagramming” at a local beauty spot,
wildlife spotting,
visiting an old church and enjoying the silence,
visiting an old graveyard and reading the old tombstones (they can be really interesting!)

Use your imagination and give mum a truly special day!

Blended families, minimalism and compromise…

I’m a busy mum with two kids of my own – a son (12) and daughter (10).

And kind of like The Brady Bunch, I’ve inherited another two kids with my partner, who has primary custody of his son (16) and daughter (11).

Four kids. Yikes! I often wonder how on earth this happened to me. But it did!

Mixing families is never easy. Over the last few years, as we’ve introduced our kids to one another, we’ve all had our share of ups and downs, and we’re doing pretty well, I think.

But with mixing families, we also have to make some concessions. One of the concessions my partner and I decided we wouldn’t make was on giving the kids space of their own.

Our options, when we first moved in together, were as follows:

a) Put the boys in together (16 and 12) and the girls in together (11 and 10, but from different families in each case, and my daughter has special needs and doesn’t sleep well)

b) Put his kids in together (a 16 year old boy with an 11 year old girl) and my kids in together (a 12 year old boy and a 10 year old girl with special needs)

c) Give the oldest (his 16 year old boy) a room of his own and make the others share in some way

d) Give the youngest (a girl with special needs a room of her own) and make the others share in some way.

None of the sharing options worked well. So we settled on a different option altogether, and decided that all of the kids needed their own room. Their own space.

It was hard finding a home that was big enough on our particular budget, and in the end, the home we’ve found is beautiful and in an ideal position, but it does need some work. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and get busy! That was the compromise we were willing to make.

The compromise we made also meant that my dream of owning a smaller home went out the window. I’m now the minimalist with a five bedroom home!

I’m the minimalist with the five bedroom home!

What I’ve learned from this is that people are more important than ideals. The house is bigger than I wanted, and I feel like an old fraud, preaching minimalism while living in a big house. But it is what we need, for our particular circumstances, with four kids from two families and one of those kids with special needs.

The truth is, minimalism means own what you need, and nothing more. If you need a big home, then buy the big home and don’t feel guilty. I need a big home, every square foot of it will be used.

My version of minimalism might be different from yours, and yours might be different from the next person’s. Have what you need, and be content. We’re looking forward to moving into our new home, and everyone having space of their own.

Sometimes space is a good thing. Especially when you’re blending families 🙂