dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix.

When I have plenty of comfrey, I shall plant it around my fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you.

I’d feed it to my chickens, and the goats too.

I’d make a comfrey tea to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice.

Now, I’d like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring, and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

dividing-comfrey

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

coop rafters

Let me show you how I got the rafters framed up on the coop. This bit of the design required plenty of telephone conversations, wrestling with hypotenuse and getting my head around the concept of the rise and the run.

framed-roof

To design the coop roof I pictured what I wanted the slope of the roof to look like. I knew the width of the coop and the height of its walls, so I drew it all on paper. Then, I drew it all in SketchUp, which let me measure things out after, so I could play with information I had, incorporating what I’d drawn, til I had answers. I sent the 3D drawing to my father to confirm that it all worked out mathematically. I can tell you the following bit of information that he sent back was intimidating, but for those of you who like trigonometry, here you are:

Based on the roof angle (40 deg) and the width of the coop (60"), 
one can calculate the rise as follows:

Tangent (slope angle) = y/x
Y is unknown (Rise)
X is 60" / 2  = 30" (Run)

Formula is:

Y = Tan (40) * x

Tan 40 deg is equal to:  0.83909963117728

Substituting values and solving for Y:

Y = (0.83909963117728) * 30

Y = 25.17298835318394

Make Rise Y = 25"

Quite. 25″ rise and a 40º slope is what my original paper drawing expressed, but it’s best to double-check with a trusted mentor.

peak

I decided not to build trusses (triangles) flat on the floor of the coop, before putting the walls up. Instead I framed in a ridgeboard which rests on one 2×4 with two more sandwiching it, supported by the front and back walls. Critical to have a good level to hand, I have a tiny one and a standard large one, both very old but trusty. That sandwich piece, including the height of the ridgeboard, would be the rise. The children figure it looks like a lunchbox at this point.

side-view-rafters

Then I cut rafters (thanks to the kindly loan of a neighbour’s mitre saw, no more handsaws for all this cutting!) and notched them with a birdbeak which sits on the top of the wall. Simple strength.

rafters

Once the rafters were secure (I drill pilot holes and use deck-screws) I built the verge, the overhang, on each end. Rainy winters on the Pacific require it. You can see that the verge is anchored by a couple of flat pieces that attach to the main rafters, see? I laid one rafter flat to support these pieces. I love finding out how things work.

overhang

I’d planned the ridgeboard’s length to allow for 12″ of overhang on each end. Now it looks like a little house.

roosting-bars

The roosting bar design was a little bit inspired (see below). Now, there are cross-ties and there are chords, they complete that triangle from wall-to-wall or up higher. These give the structure of roof and walls strength, integrity. I decided to use these pieces first structurally, then practically, as roosts, and finally, socially, by staggering the height of the crosspiece, to give the flock a framework to express their social order. Each night we see who roosts at which height, and in which direction, based on pecking order. Yes, those are railings from the 1950’s house demolition.

Or, for another way to look at it all, a peek at my journals from that week:


30 june
the girls helped to mind the chicks, they love the playground under the maples, though i must enclose the area outside my potatoes. i fixed my problems after some tears – broke a drill bit, things were wonky. i managed to get things levelled, plumb, and my tall girl helped me to pop the ridgeboard in – yay! how grand! it looks pretty funny, but then i sorted through a couple of videos and worked through plain old fear, and i got the rafters worked out, one of them is up! not attached, but just there — and that was a moment of huge satisfaction. hypotenuse, kiss my -! i am so happy to have pushed through, i really thought it was going to fail. well, i’ve got it now, and i’ll cut from my template and then work out the supports for the verges.
i actually threw up my hands and closed up my writing desk, it is right beside the brooder and getting so dusty! i threw a dust cover over it. i give in! when the chicks move out i’ll return to it.

2 july
i made a mistake, and needed to raise the ridgeboard ¾” and cut the birdbeaks to my original plan. that worked, and i’ve cut 6 pieces for the support for the overhang gable. it has been mad, as it is all being done with small children visiting. the lawn needs mowing, and the thistles need to be pulled, and a front bed cleared of flowers before a tree felling.

3 july
cool and a bit windy today, but i was glad for it. i made great progress with the coop. i attached the middle rafters and with a chat with my dad and some more mad calculations i figured out the overhang. the verge. when a friend came we got it put together on the front! i am so relieved! very pleased. it will need the same again at the back. my friend was just brilliant, so practical and enthusiastic.

little birds were well and went to sleep easily. i have the heat lamp on, still. they’ve weeded the patch under the maple very well, and i think i’ll move them to a spot under another bush further on, tomorrow, where i can watch over them as i build.

i had a brilliant idea that came out of a conversation with my dad – to use the chords as roosting bars, yes, but to stagger the heights, descending toward one end of the coop like a ladder. i’ll end at wall height, and the highest must still have headroom. so that’s finally sorted. good. the next steps, then. i’ll be attaching the back gable verge next, and securing all of it, yes. i’ll need to add supports to the posts.

i’ll not be putting wire over soffits, instead i’ll just close them up and plan to keep the back gable screened.

i’m quite tired. and sore, from falling over on to a rock! slipped in the rain while carrying a couple of chickens, pippin and blue. i saved them, but not, literally, my own ass. ah well, more bruises.

6 july
i took on the north gable verge, banging my head repeatedly, in the rain, swearing. i did it alone, save two minutes from our tall girl. clamps ‘r’ us. the chicks were happy in their enclosure all day, and i’m glad to have had help to move them inside. now the framing is complete, topping out ceremony traded for an epsom salt bathe.

roosting lessons

Our little flock at a few weeks old, falling asleep to a lullaby. It is so brief, this moment of growing in feathers, and napping in the day. The chicks remind me of every other baby I’ve known.

They grow much faster than the coop, I dare say. Plenty of work ahead, to make them a safe home.

training chickens

When the chicks were quite small, some of our play with them looked a bit like training. We’d see if they’d come to our call of “Here, chickens!” and later, to their own name. We asked them to be gentle when pecking food from our hands, and later, in their own daily negotiations of social order. “Be gentle!” This is a little video of them responding when we asked them to jump up.

Aside from being delightful, the idea behind training chickens for us is to make it easier for us to keep them safe. We can give them more freedom in this predator-ridden area, when we know that “Here, chickens!!” works to round them up. We’re also learning their language of warnings and expressions of joy and worry and hunger and sleepiness. We wonder at their intelligence every day, they are fascinating creatures.

coop design

Knowing our hatching eggs would arrive at the end of April, hatching out in May, and ready for their coop end of June, in the winter I began searching for plans for a chicken coop. Searching and searching. In conversation with my father, who designed and built the family home, renovating it from a 1950’s house, I soon decided to draw up my own. You probably knew I would do that before I did, didn’t you?

coop-front-and-back-drawing

I based my design on images of old coops and Arts & Crafts houses. As long as I’m learning to design and build something, I might as well get my nose into how simple buildings are actually constructed, actually designed. Yes? I read a lot and I talked with my father even more. Good to have an experienced mentor on the other end of the phone when setting out into entirely new territory, though a consulting engineer may be overdoing it.

coop-side-drawing

While typical construction would use studs (vertical wall members) at 16″ on center, I designed mine at 2′ on center instead, as it is just a wee thing. I set out to make a square coop, but realised I needed a lot more space for nearly a dozen chickens, so I scaled the whole thing up and pulled it out long like this, working back and forth between paper and a 3D drawing program. Somehow the paper clarifies everything for me, and the act of drawing with pencils and drafting instruments is a grounded sort of pleasure. Considerations for ventilation, enough depth to contain deep litter, adequate space for roosting, external nesting boxes, security from mink, hawks, raccoons and rats, good natural light, and simplicity of construction for a total amateur – these are the thing I have been thinking through.

coop-floor-drawing

I planned to frame this all up, joists and rafters and plates and lintels, but then I veered off in a different direction to make the same thing. Not unlike my parents, renovating an old house to make a new one, I decided to build with almost exclusively with found and reclaimed materials. I’ll show you my process of designing a building to meet the needs of a flock very soon – though I confess I am so busy with carpentry and the ten three-week-old chickens in my kitchen, I haven’t much time to write just now!