The Roving Rototiller

Monday, May 30, 2011


I've been putting it off for a while, but a few weekends ago I got started on the latest build project for the chickens.  We have three pairs of birds in small pens lately, and two of these pens are pretty makeshift:  a "fly-pen" inside the Polish pen, and a floppy, flimsy, chickenwire-and-T-post contraption built off of the Polish pen.  These are breeding pairs, so they do need separate housing, but what they're got right now is just not very good.  So I will be building a small compound of four attached pens in the southwest corner of the chicken yard.

The corner in question is a fairly nice area.  There's a tree with a narrow canopy at that corner, which provides the birds with some shade, if not a whole lot of shelter from the rain.  It's also the high end of the yard, so it doesn't get as muddy.  But at this time of year, the ground has dried out, and it is like iron.  Over the first three days of my project, I spent many hours digging four measly post holes.

The pen design calls for a free-standing wall along one long side, which will tie in at one end to the existing fence, and at the other end will have a connecting arm of fencing to tie in to the other fence.  From there, it can be subdivided into four side-by-side sections.  But that free-standing wall needs to be fairly sturdy to stand up to winter winds, in addition to providing anchor points for each of the four small gates.  I decided that the best way to achieve this would be to sink four eight-foot 4"X4" posts thirty inches into the ground, then link them with 2"X4" toprails and bottom rails.  Additional support for the short walls would be provided by good old T-posts, which can be rammed into the ground by brute force, but first we had to get the 4X4s in place.   And when I took my first stab at the ground, and the post-hole digger bucked straight up like a bronco, I knew I was in for it.

Water, of course, is the universal solvent.  On that first day, when I realized that even the Hulk couldn't dig those holes before Christmas, it seemed like a great idea to fill the shallow dimples that I'd made with water, and leave it to sit for a while.  And it did indeed seep down and soften the ground; as of the third morning, I got two of the holes down to my goal of thirty inches.  But I underestimated the amount of clay down there.  Of that thirty inches, twenty-eight of it was solid clay.  And clay really, truly, doesn't want to drain.  The water table is seventy feet down, and the clay seals itself around any pocket of surface water greedily, refusing it let it trickle down and rejoin its subterranean parent.  In the process of digging, I managed to work the standing water into the dirt I chipped free, and pulled it out of the holes in the form of soupy mud, but afterwards I still had six inches of water in the holes. 

It's difficult to dig in a chicken yard.  Chickens spy you headed someplace with anything in your hands, and they immediately come running to see what kind of food is involved.  While ours are initially afraid of both the shovel and the digger, the minute you actually start digging, they mob your ankles.  Every bit of dirt elevated from the hole is inspected frantically for worms.  They want to dig through the dirt pile and kick it all over the yard, which would be helpful if I were trying to level the yard.  Meanwhile the boss rooster is orbiting both the hole and the dirt pile at high speed, torn between the desire to impress the hens with his ability to procure food, and his own greed.  Baron did do me a favor, though, when he nearly fell into the first hole while I was digging.  At that point it occurred to me--duh--that a deep hole full of muddy water equals a death trap for a chicken.  I covered each hole with scraps of chicken wire in between digging sessions, and managed to avoid any casualties.

After several days, the holes were finished.  And then . . . the storm came through.  Cold, drumming, gusting, soaking rain that properly belonged in November.  On the fifth day, when the skies finally cleared, I trooped out and took the covers off the holes, to discover them nearly brim-full of opaque, muddy water.

In hindsight, I was darned lucky that we did have so much clay.  The walls of my holes held without slumping or eroding so much as an inch.  As I bailed the water out using a quart Mason jar on a string, I contemplated how easily I could have been re-digging the things instead.  The very thought made my blisters hurt.  The next day we placed the posts, trued them up, and filled in the holes inch by laborious inch, tamping like mad.  Clay doesn't tamp well.  Poke it with a stick, and it tries to climb up it, then doesn't want to give the stick back.  Tamping creates a topography like the mountain ranges a six-year-old draws, all jagged teeth and vanishingly deep valleys.  Clay also sticks to the shovel in a thoroughly annoying fashion.  And meanwhile, there are the perpetual, peripatetic chickens . . . .

The posts are in place, the T-posts are in place, the cinder-block rests for the shelters are in place and (seemingly) level.  I am moving on towards building those shelters (large wooden shipping crates from a salvage yard, hooray salvage!) and then will put the rails up and fence it all in.  Phew.

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