Build a Simple Chicken House

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breaking down pallets

I love my chickens. They give me fresh organic eggs every morning and hours of mindless entertainment watching them strut around the chook yard during the day.

Today I will show you how I built a simple chicken house from completely recycled materials and started my small family of chickens.

The Materials:

I’m into recycling things. For one thing they’re free. I like free. For another, they’re avoiding ending up in the tip. When It came time to build my chicken house, I wanted to make sure I could do it ALL without buying anything (except a few screws and nails).

First stop – get some wood. I use pallets often on my mini-farm. They’re pretty easy to come by. Go to any white goods shop, some fruit and veg grocers or the best – a shop that sells large batteries for cars or boats or forklifts (these pallets have to be made of better quality wood to handle the heavy batteries). Take the pallets home and get out the old crowbar and hammer. I don’t mind the breaking down of the pallets. To me it’s a bit of a mindless meditation and I get to be outside working with my hands. I can break down a good pallet in less than 30 minutes. This entails prying the boards off and removing the nails (don’t loose your nails in your lawn for someone to come step on later!) If you don’t want to use pallets. look in skips for 2×4 wall studs or other timber pieces that you could use.

modules for quick construction

Next you’ll need some cladding and a roof. I was fortunate enough to be on a little beach holiday with some mates near Lake’s Entrance, Victoria where there was a lot of new homes being constructed. I noticed several skips in the neighborhood and I went to a building site and asked if I could raid one of the skips for materials to build my chicken house. They happily consented (they have to pay for the skip disposal by weight!) I was lucky and found some random pieces of metal roofing (Kliplock – similar to corrugated iron) as well as some extra timber bits.

NOTE: Technically taking anything from a skip without permission is stealing. Don’t steal. Also don’t ever climb into a skip. It is dangerous and stupid.

Next I headed to the tip. I was after some chicken wire. Sure enough in the scrap metal section was a perfect little roll of the stuff someone had thrown out due to grass growing up through it. I took it home and pulled the grass out.

NOTE: It is often illegal to remove anything from the tip. Fortunately, many tips have areas where useful items have already been removed and you can ask them and buy what you need for very reasonable prices.

When I had all of my materials I grouped them together and took an inventory. I did a bit of quick research online for designs and then made up my own based on the materials available.

A Few Considerations for Design:

  • Chickens need protection at night from predators and good protection from the elements such as wind and rain.
  • You’ll be gathering eggs everyday – so make some sort of easy access for yourself!
  • Chickens will need a safe place to lay their eggs (a nesting box). Some of the fancier designs have custom built nest boxes with access doors for easy extraction. I just used an old lawn mower catchment box filled with straw and they LOVE it.
  • Chickens need to roost at night. I used pieces of bamboo, but this could be any pole like material.
  • If you don’t have a dedicated chicken yard (like on my mini-farm) you’ll probably want to be shifting your chicken house around your yard so they don’t completely wreck the grass in one little square… so MAKE IT LIGHT enough to move

attaching modules

NOTE: Chickens will absolutely wreck any grass or ground vegetation that they have access to for long periods. Not only will they scratch it up and or eat it, they will also find all of the seeds underground and eat those too so it will never grow back without help. It’s best to shift them around to different places. One benefit is that they will also be excellent pest control and will fertilise your yard in the process.

My Design.

I ended up building some simple modules that I then moved into the chicken yard one my one. I used a cordless screwdriver to attach them all together, put the roof on and set the wire mesh. The door is completely free and comes right off when I want to let them out. It is held in place by two pieces of wood that swivel to form a latch (of sorts).

I let my chickens roam freely in the chook yard and only put them in at night. If you were doing this in a smaller yard, I would probably make the whole house a bit longer (more access to the ground and then shift the house every week or two.

The Chickens:
Raising animals is fun, but is serious business. They rely on you for food and water, protection from the elements and can very possibly get sick or injured and may required expensive medical attention. You should research raising poultry (or any animal) before buying any. There’s lots of things you’ll need to know about feeding, clean water supply and general health and maintenance. I can’t give you all of the necessary advice here. Read up.
That said: I have never had any problems with my chickens. They lay like clockwork and they cost only $10 per month in good quality organic feed. One suggestion I would make is to get a heritage breed if you can. They’re much prettier than the commercial hybrids and we all need to help continue these old breeds or they will die out. There are many resources for heritage breed poultry online.

happy chickens


No yard? Moving soon? Make a simple (and portable) box garden

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massive tomato plants in boxes

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I am a fan of recycling Styrofoam broccoli boxes. I use them for storing food, making worm farms and also making portable little gardens. They are easily acquired by asking at your favorite fruit and veg shop or the produce department at your local supermarket. They usually get a few a day and they otherwise end up in the tip. I’ve never been denied!

Most people know the great benefits of growing your own garden… producing your own food, lowering the carbon footprint of your food, self sufficiency, economics (cheaper food!), healthier food etc. but there are those of us who simply do not have the time or the space (or the money) to create a full-scale high-yield garden. Someone may live in an apartment with no yard at all. Sometimes, someone may want to have a garden, but due to the impermanence of rental accommodation the realities of the effort involved in a yard-sized garden make it impractical.  That’s where the Portable Box Garden come in handy. Even if you do have a large yard, the transportability of these makeshift ‘beds’ makes them ideal for moving around the yard daily or even seasonally to capture the best sun (or shade depending on what you’re growing).

The depth of the broccoli boxes allows for even deep root vegetables such as carrots and this makes them perfect for mini garden beds (there are other Styrofoam boxes that hold capsicums and other veg but these are NOT broccoli boxes and are not deep enough for most plants). Broccoli boxes are large enough for a good food yield and yet small enough for easy transport – even in a small car. I have successfully grown tomatoes, capsicum, lettuce, cucumbers, celery and lots of carrots – but virtually anything that you can plant in a normal bed you can pant in a broccoli box. The exception to this would be large perennials (plants that come back year after year) such as berry bushes or fruit trees – as the boxes tend to only survive about two seasons before the sun makes the Styrofoam to brittle.

boxes filled with good soil

What you’ll need:

  • Styrofoam broccoli boxes
  • screwdriver, knitting needle or sharp stick (to poke holes in the boxes)
  • good growing soil (either dig some up from a corner of your yard or purchase some at a nursery or garden department)
  • some kind of mulch (this can be lawn clippings, leaves, cardboard, newspaper, straw or can be purchased in bags)

What to do:

First, poke holes in the bottom of the Styrofoam boxes. This is essential as it lets the water drain away from the roots and keeps them from rotting. The trick is to get enough holes without damaging the structural integrity of the box itself (it still has to hold in the heavy soil when being moved!) perhaps about 20 holes.

Next, fill the box with soil. A good garden soil should be dark, rich with organic material and allow for drainage and root growth. If you squeeze a bit of it in your hand, it shouldn’t be too sandy (falls apart easily) or have too much clay (doesn’t fall apart at all). Adding good compost (easy to make at home from your kitchen scraps!) or worm castings (see my article on making a worm farm) can help to improve the nutrients of your soil.

Next, we plant out the boxes. Personally I like to get my hands dirty and I usually break up any chunks of soil with my fingers and run my hands right through the boxes to make sure that the soil is aerated and almost ‘fluffy’ before planting. There are a couple of ways to start your garden plants. By seed and by ‘starts’. Planting by seed is easy and cheap. You can either purchase seed from almost any supermarket, nursery or garden department – or you can  save your own seeds from previous fruits and vegetables. If you live in an area that is very cold in Spring, you can start the seedlings growing indoors for a few weeks first. Planting them in recycled cardboard egg cups (cut from an egg carton) is perfect because you can fill them with soil, plant the seed and then when the seedling is sprouted and ‘hardened’ a bit you can plant the whole thing right into the bed (cardboard cup and all!)

mulching helps keep the soil moist

NOTE: If you try saving seeds, be aware that some seeds require special care when saving – so it’s best to do a little research first. Also if you are saving seeds from produce purchased at major supermarket, you can almost guarantee that they are a commercial hybrid variety – not an heirloom garden variety. I personally promote growing heirloom plants. Read more about the benefits of heirloom plants on the Digger’s Club website.

The other option is to buy ‘starts’. These are merely seedlings that someone else has started growing for you and are usually at a perfect size for transplanting. Buying starts can a be a quick way to get your garden looking green and can be useful for children (or those of us with little patience) who like instant gratification. If you decide to buy starts, check whether they were grown organically and of course due to the transport- purchasing pre-grown starts will come with a much higher carbon footprint than sowing your own seeds. I usually do a mix of both.

Follow the planting instructions on the seed packet or ‘start’ package. They will indicate planting depth and spacing. If you are using starts, I usually press the soil around the roots firmly with my hands so that it will stand upright and have good contact with the soil around it. Gently water the plants – and be sure to give them a good soaking (especially if it’s a warm day).

Lastly cover the exposed soil with your mulch. I usually use Sugar Cane mulch that I buy at my local nursery. It’s easy to spread, keeps weeds out and helps keep the soil from drying too fast. Sometimes I’ll give it all another watering to ‘pack’ the mulch down a bit and keep it from blowing away.

Keep up your watering and enjoy your new Portable Box Garden!

Box Garden Harvest!


Gas Kettle vs. Electric Jug

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This is one that I’ve been hearing about for years. We made the switch this year and have been loving our shiny stove-top kettle… but I wanted to find some numbers to back up the numerous claims that switching to a gas kettle is better for the environment.

The numbers are hard to track down. There has been a lot of research into this dilemma in Europe – but their numbers are not necessarily relevant here in Australia, because much of Europe’s electricity is produced through hydro, wind and nuclear power plants. While these power plants still have inefficiencies, if we are measuring strictly carbon output (and other polluting emissions) then our dirty coal fueled power plants here in Oz are much much worse.

There are many other factors to consider too, such as, the type of kettle (how much heat is lost through the boiling process), what time of year it is – and how much heat loss is not considered ‘waste’ heat, the temperature of the water to start with, how much water you are trying to boil, whether or not you have some green energy as a portion of your delivered electricity, etc.

Also, to clarify, efficiency (used here) is very different to the time it takes to boil water and is also different to the emissions produced. Also this particular comparison only works if your stove-top is heated by gas rather than electricity.

All up, it makes it extremely hard to pin point the exact numbers, but I was able to find information on heating water in general from both gas and electric means here in Australia and it is overwhelmingly agreed upon that gas is at least  3 times more efficient (eg: it takes 1/3 of the original potential energy in the fossil fuel to produce the heat if you use a gas flame than if you use an electric heating element) and in some cases as much as 5 times less emissions (1/5 of the carbon and other pollutants).

Even if the power plant used natural gas to generate the electricity,  the benefits of gas kettles are undeniable. Figures show the power plants running at an efficiency of around 40% (how much of the original potential energy in the fossil fuel is converted into electricity). Efficiency is dropped even more with line losses in this large country (getting the power from the plant to your home) and a bit more by using that electricity to make heat to boil your water. A good kettle works at about 60% efficiency (how much heat energy is used to boil the water vs. escapes into the room). So by essentially ‘cutting out the middle man’ and just using the gas to heat the kettle in the first place we save considerable losses in inefficiency and therefore cut emissions.


Each step above looses efficiency and therefore adds emissions.

Unfortunately most of our electricity in Australia is produced from coal. This means even more emissions because the coal has much higher embodied energy (the energy it took to find the coal, dig it out, deliver it to the plant, etc.) than natural gas  and it burns ‘dirtier’ with more pollutants. LPG has a higher embodied energy than natural gas, but less than coal and it certainly burns cleaner than coal.

Of course none of this takes into account ease of use or the time it might take to boil water. Electric jugs are convenient – there’s no denying that. This article was merely trying to point out that you are creating more carbon and other pollutants by using an electric jug over a kettle heated on a gas stove.

I would love it if everyone I know switches to a stove top kettle, but be aware of the embodied energy in designing, producing, shipping and buying a new kettle. See if you can find one at an op-shop, or ask your folks if they have an old one. If you do decide to buy one, the carbon savings become greater the longer you keep it in use (due to this embodied energy), so look after it and stick with it. Simple.


Compost Soup

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instead of composting those veggie scraps in Winter, make stock!

When I was young, we thought it was hilarious when my mum used to make what she called ‘Garbage Soup’.

This last winter we started making it too – though we called ours Compost Soup – and it’s not really soup at all… it’s stock which can be frozen and used for anything!

To start was easy. We began saving our veggie scraps. Instead of putting things like onion skins and celery tops into the compost (depending on your location, some composting  slows right down – or even stops – in winter anyway) we would put them into a plastic bag in the freezer. Things that are blatantly rotten or moldy or dirty don’t get put in, but you’d be surprised what is still healthy veggie goodness. Celery tops and bottoms, carrot ends, onion tops and bottoms and skins, beet root tops, outer cabbage leaves,  pumpkin skins, capsicum tops and middles, you get the idea. Virtually anything that still has good colour is going to taste great, but if in doubt… have a nibble to see! We found that, for our taste buds, the trick to a good stock is a high ratio of celery and onion bits.

place in a pot and boil for a few hours

When the bag was full enough to justify putting it all onto a boil, we would empty the bag into a pot of water and start again.

To make the stock, fill the pot with water until it just covers the frozen veggie bits, put the lid on, and then leave it to boil for about two to three hours. Sometimes I might throw a bay leaf or even a few dried herbs and seasoning in to taste. When it’s cooled a bit, strain the liquid off. If you want to use the stock soon, put it in a bottle or jar and keep it in the fridge – it should last for about five days. If you want to use it later (like we usually do) place the strained liquid back into the pot and keep boiling to reduce it until it fits into a recycled container – like a Chinese takeaway!

More often than not, we would make a soup straight away using new onions, garlic, celery etc. which would start the next scraps bag immediately.

We found this process to be so prolific, that we started backing up Chinese food containers full of reduced stock and now we use it for everything… curries, casseroles you name it.

Now that it is warm weather, we aren’t making as much soup and don’t need as much stock, so the scraps go back into our awesome compost bin!

Simple things.


Build a simple worm farm from recycled materials

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worm farm

stacked Styrofoam boxes make a great worm farm for your garden

A worm farm is a simple thing.

If you’ve never heard of one, a worm farm is like a  like a glorified composter, but with added benefits. A worm farm takes your unwanted organic compost and returns a great supply of liquid fertilizer and rich worm castings for your garden. The best part is they are extremely simple to make and use!

What you’ll need:

  • At least 2 Styrofoam broccoli boxes
  • A screwdriver or knitting needle or sharp tool for making holes in the Styrofoam box
  • Shredded cardboard
  • Straw or grass clippings if you can get some
  • Newspaper
  • A piece of old fly screen

Broccoli boxes are easy to acquire at your local supermarket or green grocer. They usually get thrown away daily. Ask the produce department and they’ll usually bring them out for you.

To start your worm farm you will only need two boxes. First you will need to poke holes in the bottom of one of the boxes. Trim the fly screen into a rectangle and lay it in the bottom of the box to stop solids going through the holes. Fill it about half way with bits of damp shredded cardboard, straw, damp shredded newspaper and a hand-full of dirt mixed through. This mixture is where the worms will live. They like a dark damp place – but one that’s not too wet because they breath through their skin! Place this box on top of the box that doesn’t have any holes. This lower box is where the liquid fertilizer will drain into.

Now you will need to acquire some worms. You need the thin red worms found in garden soil (not large earth worms). In a pinch you can buy them at a nursery or garden store, but if you know someone who already has a worm farm you can just ‘borrow’ a bunch. You will need about 500 worms to get you going. Eventually they will multiply. Place the worms into the living area of damp cardboard etc.

Place your organic waste such as kitchen scraps into the box. The worms will crawl up through their living area to eat the organic waste. Be careful not to put in too much too soon. Watch to see that the waste is getting eaten before dumping in too much. When you have more worms and they are eating a lot of waste, you can add more boxes. Make sure you put holes into the bottom of these additional boxes (these upper boxes don’t need the fly screen). The worms will still crawl up into the boxes to feed and then return down to their living area.

In the beginning when there is only a small amount of food scraps, you may need to lay a piece of wet newspaper just in the top of the box to keep the worms living area damp. If it’s too dry, they will vacate the boxes all together or even die. Eventually, the moister from the organic waste that you put in will be enough – in fact it may even get too wet! If this happens, just add a few more bits of dry shredded  cardboard. This will ‘soak up’ the excess moister.

As the worms wee, this drains down into the lower box. This is excellent liquid fertilizer. It will do amazing things or your vegetables.  I usually put mine right onto the soil around my tomatoes! Check your lower box often as you will probably have enough of this liquid fertilizer to use every week. Just lift the upper boxes off, drain the liquid off into a bucket, and replace the upper boxes. It is too strong to use directly on plants, so add plenty of water to the bucket before using it on your garden.

As the worms poo, these dark rich castings are a wonderful amendment to garden soil. They will help add nitrogen and mineral rich nutrients to your beds – which will make your veggies tasty and nutritious. Eventually the cardboard and straw living area will fill up with these castings. To remove them, we first have to give the worms a new living area so they will vacate the old box. Just start a fresh box with new bits of damp shredded cardboard etc. and place it directly on top of the old one. The worms will happily move into the new one in a few days. Now the old box is free to get the castings out and use on the garden bed. If there are a few worms in there that’s OK because worms are great for the garden too! But if there are too many worms, you probably didn’t wait long enough for them to vacate the old box. Just put it back and wait another couple of  days.


Your worms can move around freely in the boxes.

1. To start you will probably only need two boxes. One for the worms and compost and one to catch the liquid fertilizer. The worms will crawl out of their living area and up into the compost to eat.

2. If you find that your compost is backing up too quickly, you can keep the worm’s living area in the lower box and add boxes on top for your organic material. Make sure you poke holes so the worms can crawl up to eat (no need for the fly screen).

3. When the worm’s living area has filled up with their castings, it’s time to change the boxes over. First fill a new box with fresh material (damp cardboard, straw etc.) and place it above the old box. The worms will happily move into the fresh material. You can empty the old worm castings into your garden as a great soil amendment.


Local adventures mean less carbon!

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A couple of years ago I read a book called Heat by one of the worlds leading climate change experts George Monbiot. In the book he describes his 4 year experiment into solving the UK’s carbon emissions – cut to a safe level (far more than any government is willing to commit to) without a major change in lifestyle to UK residents. The book covered the retail and commercial sector, energy generation, home and lifestyle and transportation. By the end, he was able to reduce the carbon emissions of all of these areas within the short time frame needed, with a minimum of expenditure and change of infrastructure, save but one: plane travel.

Cheap flights challenge climate change

Buses and trains and automobiles he dealt with successfully, but after a lifetime of researching the science of climate change (yes it did exist before Al Gore’s movie) and the four years of research he put into the book, the only thing that he could not crunch without significant change to peoples lifestyle was flying in planes. This part of the book affected Suzi and I greatly. We – who have been gypsies wandering the globe for almost a decade… the king and queen of finding the cheap flights and heading off on extravagant adventures, were suddenly confronted with our biggest lifestyle change yet. No more plane travel.

Let’s be realistic. I have my whole family living on another continent. To abolish plane travel all together was not going to be an option without never seeing my mother or father or siblings ever again. We would have to allow for periodic flights to North America, but this made it even more pertinent that we reduced or eliminated flights to anywhere else.

This was a huge deal to us. To me especially. It has taken me all year to get used to the idea. Its sort of like people who stop eating salt. They say it takes a month of craving it on food… and then you just don’t realise you’re missing it. Now I have to say it feels kind of good. We seek out more local adventures, and a lot of the time it forces us to take notice of amazing things nearby that we would have otherwise missed. Try it. You just might find that you can handle it.

A few numbers:

A quick search found more carbon emission calculators than you could shake a proverbial stick at. I crunched some numbers on my last year living in Melbourne: I worked a regular job 5 days a week, living in a share house with 2 other energy conscious house mates. I did not drive a car, I biked to work every day and walked or rode to the store and took the train to the city.

What I found out was shocking. All of my bike riding and walking and turning-off-lights and buying 30% Green Energy accounted for almost nothing compared to a single international flight. My trip to South East Asia at the end of that year produced more carbon than if I had been driving everywhere for the two years prior! The flight put 50% more carbon into the atmosphere than my share of the entire household emissions for a year.

Have a think about it next time Tiger or Virgin send you a flight promotion that’s almost too good to be true… because it kind of is.

Some things to do on your next holiday instead of international plane travel:

  • go camping at a nearby National Park – and carpool to get there
  • see some attractions in your own city! – pick up a Lonely Planet of your own city at a used bookshop (I bet you never have done that!) I guarantee there will be some stuff in there that you never knew about
  • if you have to travel outside your city or state – check out some of the amazing places that Australia has to offer… and consider taking a train or a coach there
  • visit some friends that have moved away – not only do you (usually) get free accommodation, but they are probably experts at all of the great things to see and do

I’ve promised Suzi to build her a Gypsy Wagon that is drawn by a horse for truly carbon neutral travel… and I may get to do it someday, but in the mean time I am content knowing that adventure is still possible and just around the corner.