A Green Roofed Coop

Melissa & the Earth Auger
Melissa & the Earth Auger

It was sometime during the late fall that Melissa (my wife) decided that our ¼ acre farm needed chickens. Where to put this future-flock? The original idea was a stand alone building, located near the front of our property. That idea was scrapped partway through the winter when we decided that we should not draw attention to our coop – even though chickens and their tending are perfectly legal in our little hamlet-of-a-town. The backyard seemed more fitting, but the land has a nice slope.

I like a challenge. I like a problem with a learning curve. These are not my usual learning curve issues that I have with my day-job. Those involve data structures, asynchronous problem solving and various other coding/programming things. The coop involves ventilation – to prevent ammonia buildup, the pros and cons of a wood floor or a concrete floor, calculating what load the roof could hold – whether conventional shingle or a dirt/plant roof.

Pallet Walls
Recycled Pallet Walls

We decided upon locating the coop directly against the south-facing wall of the garage. We broke ground for the pilings/supports on April 24, 2011. With the use of a two-stroke engined earth auger, generic Sonotubes, steel reinforcing bars, and concrete, we successfully installed the four supports in the ground in just a single afternoon. It was a very cold day with a likelihood of rain and sleet; we were concerned that the concrete was going to freeze during the night if it was unable to cure quickly enough.

Eventually, the weather turned from fall-like to more spring-like. The subfloor went on easily; then more rain came. We obtained used pallets obtained from Loll Designs; 12′ x 5′ – 200 pounds (91 kilos) of ring-shank-nailed, double 2′ x 4′-lumbered goodness. With the help of a reciprocating saw and a circular saw, we made short-work of the pallets and turned them into usably sized wall and roof sections. With pallet walls and roof on, it was time for more rain. Lots of rain. But not before we were able to pour the concrete floor. Over the subfloor, we installed concrete backer board, and then poured a 3/4″ (2 cm) thick layer of latex-reinforced floor cement.

Pallets on Trailer
Pallets on Trailer

Much like how we dress in the winter – in layers – the roof is constructed from many layers. Pallet decking, oriented strand board (OSB), ice & water barrier, fibered foundation & roofing cement, landscaping plastic, potting soil and finally, plants.

Plants are the fun part (in addition to the residence of the coop, as well). All of the plants we purchased are low growing (height-wise) and sun loving. You will not get much shade on this roof. What is on the roof? Emerald Blue & Candy Striped Phlox, Creeping Mazus, Scotch Moss, Creeping Thyme, Hairy Thyme, and Sedum (orange stonecrop).

Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’ / ‘Candy Stripe’

Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox, Moss Pink, Mountain Phlox) is a perennial creeper growing to a height of 6 inches and covering a 20-inch-wide (510 mm) area. The small, five-petaled flowers bloom in rose, mauve, blue, white, or pink in late spring to early summer. It is native to North America.

Mazus reptans “creeping mazus”

Mazus reptans is a herbaceous plant with alternate, simple leaves, on creeping stems. The flowers are blue or white, borne in spring and summer. The plant is a persevering herbaceous plant which reaches growth heights of about 2 inches (5 centimeters).

Green Roof Diagram
Diagram of the Coop Roof

Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’ “Scotch Moss” (Heath Pearlwort)

Heath Pearlwort is a low-growing prostrate perennial plant forming a thick, dense mat with stems less than 10 cm long, and slender subulate (awl-shaped) leaves up to 1 cm long. The flowers are 4–5 mm diameter, with five white petals the same length as the green sepals; they are produced singly on erect stems 2–4 cm long. The seeds are smooth, brown, triangular shaped, 0.4–0.5 mm, produced in a capsule 2.5–3 mm long.

Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’

Thymus serpyllum, known by the common names of Breckland Thyme,[1] Wild Thyme or Creeping Thyme is a species of thyme native to most of Europe and North Africa. It is a low, usually prostrate subshrub growing to 2 cm tall with creeping stems up to 10 cm long, with oval evergreen leaves 3–8 mm long. The strongly scented flowers are either lilac, pink-purple, magenta, or a rare white, all 4–6 mm long and produced in clusters. The hardy plant tolerates some pedestrian traffic and produces odors ranging from heavily herbal to lightly lemon, depending on the plant.

It is part of the Lamiaceae family, and is related to the mint and Dead Nettle plants.

It is an important nectar source plant for honeybees as well as the large blue butterfly which feeds exclusively on wild thyme. All thyme species are nectar sources, but wild thyme covers large areas of droughty, rocky soils in southern Europe. Croatia, Macedonia, Greece, North Africa, Malta, the Berkshire Mountains and Catskill Mountains of the northeastern United States, and New Zealand are especially famous for wild thyme honey.

Thymus pseudolanuginosus

The low growing creeping thyme with hairy or wooolly leaves and stems, formerly known as Thymus pseudolanuginosus and also known as T. lanuginosus and commonly called woolly thyme, should now be regarded as T. serpyllum, as it is next to impossible to delineate between hairy and non-hairy creeping thymes. The leaves in wild creeping thyme vary from slightly glabrous, to sparsely covered in white hairs, or thickly covered on both surfaces, with the margins ciliate, or just ciliate at the base. Leaf hairiness could be an adaptation to climatic conditions particularly in mountainous regions. It is often grown in rock gardens where it can form extensive mats.

Melissa planting Plants
Melissa planting Plants

Sedum kamtschaticum “Kamschatca Stonecrop” – Orange Stonecrop

Sedum is a large genus of flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae, members of which are commonly known as stonecrops. It contains around 400 species of leaf succulents that are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, varying from annual and creeping herbs to shrubs. The plants have water-storing leaves. The flowers usually have five petals, seldom four or six. There are typically twice as many stamens as petals.

(Plant details obtained from Wikipedia.org)

A Light that Shines

Under normal circumstances, I would be writing on my ag, hort, bee blog. But, I have had random thoughts that relate not to bees or agriculture, nor do the thoughts relate to horticulture or poultry. Thus, I turn to twopines.org for a guest-post.

Hound Gertrude

In my family, my blood-family, the family that I am genetically a part of, summers are a time of odd events that tend to be looked upon with darkness and sadness. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents have passed during the summer months. I can add a dearly loved dog to that list now. Gertrude passed this past Monday.  It is tough losing a dearly loved friend.  She was my wife’s shadow.  If you did not know where one was, you just needed to find one of them to find both.  My wife is taking the loss hard.  She loved Gertrude.  I loved Gertrude.

When Melissa and I had first been together and first were married, we had a trio of dogs.  Homer, Sarge and Gertrude.  The trio is now down to a mono – Sarge remains.

We have other dogs, they are great creatures, but there is something that, whether it is purely an imagined force or actually real, exists for those special creatures that leave an impression on you.  Gertrude was a force in the house; her presence was always felt and the void it has left is sadly noticeable.  She shined brightly.  Rest in peace, Gertrude.

Taking Off the Gloves

Thunder Bay Bee on My Hand
Thunder Bay Bee on My Hand

When I started keeping my own bees and not just following another beekeeper, I was rough with the bees. Heavy-handed frame shaking, accidental drops, poor use of the smoker, and a general manhandle-management style. A few pointers and tips from more experienced keepers helped, but by the end of the season as a solo beekeeper, I had been stung nearly three dozen times. I came to call my laissez-faire style of beekeeping fast and loose; go in quickly, and wreck-up-the-place. Comb in the wrong place – tear it out; if bees got in the way of putting on the outer-cover, they would get crushed. I realized, at the end of last season, this fast and loose approach was not very conducive to a well thought-out approach that would be more my style.

I mentioned, in a previous post, that I had reread Ross Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. It continues to a be an excellent resource for ideas on how to not only manage bees in a less harsh-chemical-way, but as a resource for how to interact with your bees in a more holistic and balanced approach.

Conrad mentions that in order to truly understand and appreciate honeybees, you need to be closer to them. He goes so far as to keep his bees without a bee-suit and with out gloves. Baby steps, Alex, baby steps. I happen to be systemically allergic to honeybee venom (and even more so, vespid or wasp venom). I realized something maybe wrong last season when I was stung on my foot and my leg partly swelled. Then, on the day we were leaving for Eastern Apicultural Society’s annual event, I was stung on the face and ear. By the next day, I was at urgent care in River Falls, Wisconsin. My face, ear, and neck were swollen and my throat became very itchy. Later, toward the end of last year, I began allergy shots. Since beginning the venom therapy, my tolerance for stings has greatly increased. This has allowed me to slowly work toward being more in sync with my bees.

Baby steps, Alex, baby steps. Being closer to the bees is very important – awareness of heat rising from within an open hive; you cannot feel heat very well with gloves on. With gloves, you feel sort of invincible. You can be clumsy and not worry about getting a fist of angry bee-backsides in your skin. Take the gloves, and you immediately become closer to your bees. You become careful. You slow down.

Bare-hand handling of frame
Bare-hand handling of frame

That is my baby step. Taking off my gloves. I no longer wear gloves while tending my bees for this simple reason – it makes me much more careful. You can feel the bees walk across the back of your hands, across your palms and down your fingers. It makes one operate in a deliberate, and purposeful manner. I have been stung on my hands; it still hurts, but I am always able place the answer on why I was stung. Usually, it is because I was not paying attention to the bee walking across my palm or fingers. This maybe my only step this season; I do enjoy the comfort and mental security that my beesuit provides.

I feel going gloveless is an all around win. Going slowly and deliberately, means fewer crushed bees and fewer bees that have stung, this mean less defensive-scent in the air. This equates to calmer bees. Calm bees are a joy to work.