CREATIVE SOLUTION | The 100 Mile Diet is becoming the 100 Foot Diet as increasing numbers of urbanites turn to growing and raising food in their backyards. Many of them will discover, however, that there’s a reason for leaving food production to farmers—it’s a serious amount of work.
Mark Johnston has a huge incentive to reduce the labour in his spacious West Vancouver garden. With every square inch of his property not occupied by the house under cultivation, he tries to make the garden not only attractive but also as productive, self-sustaining and low maintenance as possible.
Even the chickens do double duty. A practical person, Johnston got hens because, apart from laying eggs, they also supply the garden with fertilizer. “I was worried about soil fertility and didn’t want to have to purchase manure,” he says. And he doesn’t even have to shovel it, thanks to an ingenious device called a chicken tractor. Chicken tractors are pens that can be moved from place to place and often have wheels on one end, which is why they are called tractors. The pens protect the chickens but have no bottom so the occupants can forage for plants and insects directly on the ground while depositing manure at the same time.
There are various designs for chicken tractors. Johnston’s are built to exactly fit on top of raised beds to which they are attached with eye hooks. They are covered in heavy-gauge wire and include a nesting box where the hens retire at night. Because the tractors are so sturdy and attached to the raised beds, predators are no problem, says Johnston, “although a bear could definitely get into one.”
The hens are little trouble either. They are quiet and affectionate, so they make great pets, says Johnston. He leaves each of his two chicken tractors on top of every one of his raised vegetable beds for several months. Because chicken manure is potent, he mixes in hay and wood shavings to introduce carbon. He supplements the hens’ diet with organic grain, which is not super cheap, but in return each hen lays an egg a day. They also love worms, and a natural source is in the works—Johnston plans to get into vermiculture. —Felicity Stone