What’s more Retro than backyard chickens? Explore this fast-growing trend in the fifth annual Urban Coop Tour, which offers a sneak peek into 13 intown gardens built around poultry. Having tasted eggs hatched by home-raised hens, ATLRetro wondered how hard it is to start a coop, so we decided to make Jennifer Ellis, whose Grant Park coop is on this year’s tour, Kool Kat of the Week. The Retro chops of the 30-year-old single woman are further enhanced by being the owner of a 1920s bungalow/fixer-upper. Despite a time-consuming day job in health care marketing/consulting, she’s found the time to build a micro-farm in her backyard, which also includes an organic vegetable garden, and according to Jennifer, it’s helped, not hurt her social life!
How did you decide to get into backyard chicken-raising? I understand that your father raised chickens, too?
I’d say my father is a retired-hippie. He’s a huge gardener, former professional landscape designer, artist, outdoorsman and hunter; he loves all things nature and advocates the preservation of our natural resources. I’m fortunate that the green thumb is strong from each of my parents, but veggie gardening is more prevalent from my father. I grew up with veggie gardens, and gardening is just a way of life in western North Carolina where I relocated at 10 years old. People there are utilizing their land and farming to reduce food expenses. In high school I worked in a local greenhouse owned by a local man that helped further “hone” my gardening skills in terms of propagating, dividing, pruning, pest/disease treatment, etc .
I have always found it very satisfying to have garden-raised dinners, salads, breakfasts from the gardens when I returned home as an adult – but before I owned my home. Dad would send me out to the garden to pick veggies for the evening’s salad when I was home. Even after 40-plus years, my dad still seems proud and excited to do that for his family. He now sells his surplus at local markets and farm-to-table restaurants. Dad’s secret to a lush, bountiful organic garden is due to two things: coffee grounds saved for him by the local coffee house and his chicken poop. After years of pent-up gardening energy from living in condos or apartments across the city, I needed to get my hands in my own dirt. A healthy garden starts with the soil, so chickens came first. I worked on enriching my soil as the chickens grew from day-old chicks to laying hens.
I found that you can get paralysis by analysis if you try to over-plan your coop. I found a barn builder on Craigslist that specializes in coops – I was able to pick my roof color and then painted the coop to match my house. I wanted the coop to look like a permanent, intentional structure in the yard. I’ve made adjustments – moved the nest box, added a run, etc – as needed.
Let’s talk chicken-shopping. You have eight – a silver laced Wyandotte, two buff orpingtons, two Easter eggers, a white silkie, a black frizzle, and a Plymouth Rock. How did you pick them, find them and do the different types have different personalities like dog and cat breeds?
I wanted a diverse and interesting group of hens, but the priority was egg production. I added the two bantams – the frizzle and silkie – because they were just so cute. Unfortunately, they’re also on the very bottom of the food chain and a local possum found my silkie especially sweet. My Plymouth Rock is my favorite – gorgeous, sassy but tame, and great eggs! I bought from MyPetChicken.com as they came highly recommended as a reliable and responsible breeder. All my chicks arrived happy and healthy. They certainly all have different personalities. My redheads or buffs are quite bossy.
Ha! Very carefully. They sheared-off my spring garden multiple times. I grew all my spring veggies from heirloom seeds, and they whacked them all back. Once they learned to jump into my cedar beds, it was all over from there. They seemed to pull “chicken Houdinis” by escaping their coop every time I turned around. Once the garden grew large, I was able to let them free range again, but when veggies are small, they are kept to their run.
My neighbors two doors down used to have an urban coop, and my collie would just stare through double fences and bark at them transfixed by their movement. I understand your dog gets along great with the chickens. How did you manage that?
Six months, lots of patience and one lost chicken. When the chicks arrived, my Weimaraner – bred for bird hunting, ha! – Neims would stare though the wire top of the stock tank and literally drip drool on the chicks. I was hoping the excitement would wear down, but it didn’t. I moved them out to the coop at six or eight weeks and had to keep Neims in the house if they free-ranged. Over time, I would bring him out with me for a few minutes, but keep him restrained. I found that if I didn’t fuss over the chickens, he started to care less. I tried to teach him they were mine, not his – he likes fetching and catching balls in the air. I read that in training dogs, it’s normal to lose one or two in the process. Neims caught one little bantam pullet in his mouth when she made an erratic movement and that was a crossroad for him. He got in big trouble. Once he accepted he could eat or play with them, he wanted to then “mount” them. He gave up on mating with the chickens quickly. Today the hens [are] annoyed by him.
Is it expensive to run an urban coop?
I wouldn’t say expensive, but I think you have to find more value in the process or hobby than saving money, because it’s probably cheaper to buy from a grocer. My little farm is my hobby, my therapy, companionship, entertainment, my food and health. I’d love to have dwarf goats and rabbits, but I’m limited by land and the additional expense.
Do you have to get chicken-sitters when you travel?
Free eggs make for easy-to-find sitters! If I’m not gone for more than thre days, I’m able to put out enough feed and water for them. The most time-consuming stage is raising the chicks, as they need to be checked at least once a day.
How much time does it take to run a micro farm? Do you still have time for a social life?
Not much time at all. The chickens are so easy. I check on them every day or two, but they’re simple. My garden has a drip-line irrigation system [www.mrdrip.com] that I designed and installed by myself, which is set on a timer. It’s fair to say I could spend as much as or as little time as I like in the yard, but it takes planning and preparation.
Depending on the time of the year – spring and early fall – my garden IS part of my social life. I enjoy entertaining people in my backyard. The “girls” receive visitors from all over – my friends have their favorites. And I have friends that like to help in the yard from time to time. I couldn’t have gotten my garden and coop up and running without the help of friends.
What has been the most surprisingly fun or funniest thing about running an urban coop?
In the spring, when I’m in the garden tilling or planting, I have a couple of girls that sit and wait for me to uncover bugs. I don’t even have to pick them up. If I turn over a grub, they dart in to grab it and return to their post. Smart girls! They’re very entertaining and have a lot of personality.
The Urban Coop Tour is sponsored by The Wylde Center and Georgia Organics. Advance tickets are $15 (online only) for Wylde Center members and $20 for non-members. Children 12 and under are free. Day of Tour tickets are $25 for adults and available at The Wylde Center.
All photographs are courtesy of Jennifer Ellis.