Mulch magic?

I don’t often get requests, but last week my friend Perkin asked me to write about mulch. Perkin has acquired a pile of organic gardening magazines and has been struck by the number of references to mulch and the claims for its apparent magical properties. So, he got hold of some straw and mulched under his squashes. And, guess what? He created a fantastic habitat for slugs! He, therefore, asked me for my thoughts on mulch.

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

I too was seduced by the charms of mulching when I first read about it many years ago. My first experience of it was a wild success. I moved into a semi-derelict cottage around the time I got my first job. I had to hack my way through the vegetation to get down the drive and to the front door, so you can imagine the state of the garden. Anyway, I had read that squashes love growing in rotted vegetation, so the first spring I was there, I covered an area of rough grass measuring about 4x4m with black polythene, anchoring it round the edges by simply pushing it into the soil with a spade. I grew courgettes and patty pan squashes from seed in pots on my window sills (it may have been falling down, but the house had really deep window sills because of the two-foot thick walls). When It came time to plant out, the vegetation under the plastic had rotted down, the soil had warmed up and that summer I harvested a bumper crop.

When I moved house a few years later, I tried the same approach (although the garden was not so wild) and the results were nowhere near as spectacular. Over subsequent years I have experimented with various types of mulch – carpet, permeable membranes, grass clippings, cardboard, gravel, cocoa shell – but have never had the same success as that first time. There have been two main problems –  first, like Perkin, the issue of providing ideal conditions for slugs and, second, the mulch not actually suppressing plant growth (e.g. the permeable membrane which seems to let light through as well as moisture).

Sometimes, I have worked the slug problem to my advantage. The first year we kept hens, I mulched two raised beds with cardboard over the winter. By the spring, there were only a few spindly plants surviving in gaps around the edge of the mulch, but turning the soggy cardboard over revealed dozens of slugs. At this point I drafted in the chickens. They ate the slugs, consumed the weeds (mainly creeping buttercup), shredded the card, cultivated the surface of the soil and added some of their own special fertilizer: great job, girls! In fact, our garden has a smaller slug population now as a result of the presence of hens, but I still don’t want to provide them with perfect conditions to thrive.

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the 'four sisters' bed

Those big squash leaves prevent the growth of all but the most determined weeds!

The second problem can be avoided by selecting the right mulch – don’t use something that will blow away if you live in a windy place; don’t bother with permeable membrane unless it’s just one component of a layered system and so on. Chose a mulch that will deliver what you want – weed suppression, increased fertility, surface stabilisation, warming the ground, or any combination of these. Sometimes it’s better to incorporate organic matter into the soil than to apply it to the surface, sometimes a weed suppressant isn’t necessary if you plant a crop with big leaves or a ‘green manure’… think carefully before indiscriminate application of a mulch!

My experience is that mulches have their place, but they do not represent a magic solution and they are certainly not suitable for all conditions. As with so many suggestions, it’s a case of using mulch thoughtfully, knowing your specific circumstances and doing some careful experimentation to find out what works for you on your patch.

I’d be very interested to hear other people’s experiences with mulch, so over to you…

Confining Jurassic chicken

Anti-chicken netting... but not anti-Aliss!

Anti-chicken netting… but not anti-Aliss!

Well finally I had to admit defeat – Aliss, the velociraptor of our little flock, has proved that no amount of netting over vegetables is going to keep her out. She won the battle of the runner beans last year and this spring she has managed to penetrate my best defenses covering the oriental greens bed. So, over the weekend, we took drastic action and the garden is now split into two parts: chickenville and vegetable land. Well. three parts if you include the fruit cage, to which the hens have access at certain times of the year. The barrier across the path is temporary at the moment, but Mr Snail-of-happiness will build a gate to go there soon. On the other side of the fruit cage a more elaborate construction of chicken wire was required, as it had to go through the willow hedge and be attached to the fence between us and the field behind.

No-entry, chickens!

No-entry, chickens!

This separation of the garden into several areas follows the approach taken at Station Road… which continues to inspire me! I will carry on netting the vegetables because it keeps dogs off, but it won’t be such a problem if some of the pegs come adrift or if strong winds blow the netting about. I don’t want the chickens excluded all the time – their slug hunting and week clearing skill will be required during certain periods , but at least this way my greens will be safe!

Well-behaved terriers... it took us a while to train them to this stage.

Well-behaved terriers… it took us a while to train them to this stage.

The separation also has the benefit that chickens and dogs can be out in the garden unsupervised at the same time. Max seems to be completely trustworthy with them, but we don’t trust Sam not to chase a running or flapping hen. Having said that, all was peace and harmony when I was sorting out the contents of some of last year’s pots earlier in the week.

And, strangely, the reduction in space (they still have plenty to run around and dig in) seems to suit Lorna who, after not laying since Christmas, produced her first egg of 2013 yesterday! It probably isn’t linked to the smaller space and has more to do with longer days, abundant leafy greens over the past few weeks, and extra slugs on Sunday (found as we were moving containers around), but perhaps it has helped her to focus. I wonder if it will be another five months before we have the next one from her!

A year and a day

Yesterday was my blog’s first birthday, and I missed it – I’ve never been any good at remembering anniversaries.

Over that year I wrote 120 posts and had more than 7000 hits. I wrote about floods and other water-related issues, gardening, death (human and chicken), starting a business, permaculture, knitting yarn, ethics, food, money and naming my hens after Terry Pratchett’s witches.

It turns out that the most common searches that have brought people here (other than ‘the snail of happiness’) are ‘eating slugs’ and ‘knitted bath puff pattern’… and, sadly, in both cases the searchers will have been disappointed. My conclusion about slugs was that, although you can, you probably wouldn’t want to; in the words of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall when discussing recipes he’d tried that included slugs:

leave out the slugs

And as for the bath puffs – crochet them, you get a much better puff.

There have been quite a lot of searches for snail cake, and I feel compelled, at some point to make a snail-shaped cake and write a post about this because it seems a popular subject. Mind you, the searchers might be looking for some sort of cake to feed to snails and that’s something I’m not willing to explore. Although I was recently involved in a discussion about starting a snail farm, which might be a good way to feed the hens.

There have also been some inexplicable searches that have led people here; I have no idea what a ‘finger lime tree’ is, nor why anyone would be searching for ‘work in the same box’ and I don’t even want to consider ‘soiled mice caging’. However, most of the searches are relevant, and I hope that readers have found answers to at least some of their questions or pictures of the things they were looking for. One or two of my posts have been inspired by searches, such as ‘can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?’ although, on reflection, it’s probably too late once the search has been done!

So, what’s to come in the next year? Well, hopefully reports of huge abundance in the garden, progress with my diploma in permaculture design, the etsy shop finally opening (and being successful) and lots more inspiration from comments, questions and reading other blogs.

And finally, one thing that has happened, but I have not blogged about is that Mr Snail-of happiness published the conclusion to his novel BATDIG on Kindle a few weeks ago. Check it out here.

BATDIG CoverBATDIG Part 2 Cover

The nightly mollusc hunt

As previously reported our garden is relatively mollusc-free. The chickens see to this around most of the place and the fruit cage has some resident frogs and toads which do the job in there. Chickens are not allowed in the fruit cage because as well as eating slugs and snails, they also love soft fruit and, I’m sorry to say, frogs. Since we don’t want our predators eating our other predators, we keep them apart as much as possible.

So, why would we be conducting a mollusc hunt ourselves each night?

Well, with our new use of the area in front of the house, we now have a productive place without anything guarding against those pesky devourers of vegetables. So, I was unsurprised to discover potato tops eaten down to the stalks and lettuce seedlings disappearing every night. As I have mentioned before, we are trying to cut down on the feed brought in for the chickens and, to this end, it seems a waste simply to kill the snails and slugs and not make use of them. As they say in permaculture… “every problem is a solution”. So our molluscs are just a source of chicken food in the wrong place for use. The solution? Transport this food to the right place. This means that when it has gone dark, you can find us out the front of the house with our torches and an old plastic take-away container gathering a ‘harvest’.

I’m sure that any neighbours who look out of their windows at this time of night just have their suspicions confirmed that we are completely bonkers. After all, we are the people who ask them to give us their grass clippings, boil our water in a Kelly kettle, keep chickens (which have been known to escape and wander around out the front of the house) and now grow vegetables in containers and a dumpy bag in the drive. This cannot be considered normal behaviour, so the two of us rooting around in our drive with torches at 10pm is probably just par for the course. Don’t get me wrong… they are kind to us, but perhaps they see it as care in the community!

Then yesterday we found another unexpected source of food for hens. It’s now time for harvesting potatoes… last night for dinner we wanted salad with new potatoes straight out of the garden. So, one of the potato bags was taken round the back for harvesting. I wanted to collect the compost and put it into another container in which I’m going to experiment with pot-grown leeks. We started transferring the compost very carefully so as not to miss any of our harvest. The first harvest, however, was unexpected – slug eggs. These sticky white spheres are easy to spot and make a tasty snack for chickens… which clustered around us as we harvested. We started taking the eggs out in little clumps and putting them on a saucer for the hens, but we decided that we didn’t want to risk contaminating the new pot, so in the end the whole top layer of the compost was transferred onto a bare patch of bed (destined for planting up soon) for the chickens to scratch through and the lower layers of compost (where there were no signs of eggs) were placed in the pot. A very satisfying activity.


  • slugs and snails converted to hens eggs
  • slugs and snails eggs converted to hens eggs
  • reduced population of adult molluscs = more vegetables for us
  • fewer baby molluscs = smaller population = more vegetables for us
  • reduced feed bill

I think we’re on to a winner.

Free range chickens and caged vegetables

I read an interesting post the other day about chickens as protein harvesters and then my attention was drawn to another post about reducing the amount of brought-in feed for chickens, and yet another about creating a chicken foraging system. All of which set me thinking about my own hens and their inputs and outputs.

Aliss hard at work: cultivating and eating pests

Now, I’m quite clear about the outputs: eggs for us to eat and barter, fertiliser and compost activator, entertainment, pest control (slugs and snails), weed control, cultivation (particularly useful for incorporating new material into the “rubbish” beds) and consumers of left-overs (although few and far-between in reality). There are also a few minor things like feathers for craft projects. So, we get a great deal out of them Even if I just consider the saving on the cost of nematodes to control the slug population and the number of eggs now available to us as a protein source, I feel that they make a great contribution to our economy.

However, when I consider the inputs, I realise that we are buying quite a lot in for them – layer mash or pellets and corn are the main items, but we also use Poultry spice and Vermex to make sure they are healthy and worm free. When we first started keeping chickens they remained in a run and all the food, apart from the grass that they quickly ate, was bought in. As we have come to understand the value of hens in the garden, they are allowed free access to most of it for most of the time. This means that they consume less bought food and instead eat wild plants, slugs, snails, grubs and worms. As chickens that have been brought up outdoors, we find that they are eager to eat worms and molluscs (although they are not keen on the caterpillars of the white butterflies). We do, however find that they don’t like to be confined and they (as the descendents of jungle fowl) particularly like spending time foraging under the willow hedge and associated shrubs.

We started off with a chicken ‘coop’ that claimed to be big enough for four hens:

Our coop when we were building it.

Don’t be fooled by such claims! The house part has a perch that will accommodate three average-sized hens; the run itself barely has room for four of them to move around once there is a drinker and a feeder in there (even if they are suspended). The result is cramped hens and food and water either knocked flying or full of muck. We soon realised that this was no way to go on and started putting them in the fruit cage, with a net tunnel leading back to the coop so they could lay in the appropriate place. Of course, once the fruits started appearing we found ourselves in competition with the hens. I like raspberries way too much to want to feed them to chickens, so they were banished from the fruit cage. By this stage, they were all used to coming when called and happy to go in and out of an expanded run attached to the original coop, so since the garden was already terrier-proof we hoped it might also be chicken-proof and decided to let them roam free.

Gytha – the Houdini of chickens

I have some news: a terrier-proof garden is not, in fact, chicken-proof. The late lamented Gytha was particularly good at getting out. We used to get phone calls from our neighbours opposite to tell us she was sitting on our front doorstep! Once all escape routes had been blocked in that direction, she took to escaping into the field behind to run around with the sheep. At my age, you really don’t want to have to call round to the neighbouring farm to ask if you can please have your chicken back! Finally we worked out how she was getting out and blocked that egress. After that the only issue was protecting the vegetables. Unsurprisingly we have found that whilst chickens like to roam free, vegetables are quite happy to be caged! So, we have chicken exclosures rather than enclosures. This seems to work out well for the welfare of both hens and veggies.

Our next task is to focus on producing some crops specifically for chickens. I have yet to research what might keep them worm-free (any suggestions welcome, but I’m guessing at least garlic) and fully supplied with vitamins and minerals (comfrey perhaps?). But I have read somewhere that they like chokeberry (Aronia), so I have one of those on order from the Agroforestry Research Trust and I’m hoping that Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) might be a good source of food for them (some seeds are on their way from Lithuania as I write) as well as flint corn (as grown by Carol Deppe). In addition, I’m broadcasting wheat seed in the fruit cage in the hope that some will germinate and provide heads to be eaten directly by the chickens once the soft fruit season is over. I plan to turn the small overgrown area at the front of the house into a source of chicken feed since i don’t really like gardening out there as I’m not a sociable gardener! Finally, I hope to up my production of worms in the wormery… another great food for chickens. Although I don’t envision being self-sufficient in chicken feed, I would like to reduce external inputs without compromising our human food production. I’m hoping too, that the result will be healthy and happy hens.

The newbies

We have been profligate in the chicken department… after the demise of Gytha we decided that a replacement was in order so off we went to the chickenery (or Country Lane Nurseries as they call themselves) to get a new girl to add to our flock.

‘We’d like a chicken,’ we said to the nice lady.

A chicken?’ she responded with slight incredulity, or possibly amusement.

‘Yes, a chicken. One of ours has recently died and we want a replacement. We have two others that also came from here.’

One chicken?’

‘Yes, please’

‘Well, we don’t advise getting a single one… she might get bullied by the existing chickens, so it’s better if she has a friend.’

Now, I know this is common thinking, but we have limited perching space in the hen-house and three fit nicely, but it would be a squash for four. But the prospect of our newbie getting bullied was too much… so we bought 100% more chickens than we had intended to. They will just have to get very cozy in the hen-house… or sleep in the laying boxes.

So, let me introduce our two new ladies:

The new girls

Carrying on the Terry Pratchett witches theme, that’s Aliss at the front (Black Aliss because she’s a Black Rock) and Perdy at the back (Perdita aka Agnes Nitt – another Speckledy).

Esme, being the boss (as befits the one named after Esmeralda Weatherwax – chief of witches despite them not being hierarchical, unlike chickens) has decided that she will spend time letting them know the pecking order:

Esme letting everybody know who’s boss

She has been strutting up and down and making herself look big – plus when allowed direct contact, she occasionally pecks and sits on the newbies. Interesting thing this chicken behaviour. Lorna is not interested particularly and is just getting on with life as normal, hence her absence from the photos.

They all slept together last night, but during the day we are mostly keeping them apart until they are more used to each other. By August we should be having eggs from all four. Plus we will have built a new and bigger house for them… and we may even have stopped being rained on for more than a day or two. Actually, perhaps we should build them a chicken ark!

Eating slugs

It’s rather wet here… well, it is the west coast of Wales, so what do you expect?

There are some plusses – no hose pipe bans (not that I use a hose pipe unless it’s connected to a water-butt or IBC) and we have lovely lichens and mosses, but we do also suffer from slugs. I try to make the most of what occurs naturally in the garden – I keep the brambles under control so that I can harvest the blackberries, I use nettles in the compost, I collect as much water as possible and use it, where possible, when drinking-quality water is not necessary – but slugs are a different matter.

A few years ago Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall experimented with cooking slugs in various ways – slug fritters, slug satay, stuffed slug, slug in tomato sauce – and his conclusion was  “I can heartily recommend those dishes, with just one small adjustment – leave out the slugs” (

But I can announce that I have the answer: eat them indirectly.

Two years ago we bought three hens. They came from a small local supplier and had been taught by the other hens what is good to eat. It turns out that what is good is slug! In the early days there was an abundance of slug in our garden, so much so that there would be much gulping and head bobbing to get them all down, but now slugs are a much rarer commodity and scuffles may break out when one is spotted. I have seen mad dashes across the garden by one hen who has found a juicy mollusc, with the other two in hot pursuit in the hope of getting a share. I was originally told that hens do not eat slugs, that ducks were the girls for this job, but our two Speckledies and one Calder Ranger are doing a great job.

Our girls are strictly for egg production – we don’t have space for table birds and the neighbours would certainly object to a cockerel in residence – so we eat all our slugs in the form of chicken eggs! A good result all round.

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