Don’t be a chicken - get some chooks

WHAT kid wouldn’t love to have a chook pen in the backyard?

It can be even more exciting if there are actually chooks living in it, and not just the homeless man who wears a purple “Punky Brewster” cap and carries around the T-volume from the 1987 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Chooks, or chickens as those in the elite suburbs call them, teach kids so much about the garden, nature, responsibility, life, loss and the importance of keeping an old pair of thongs at the back door.

This month, Gherkin Jarvis visits the Melbourne International Flower and Garden show.

It seems the tradition of keeping a few chooks in the backyard is vanishing, replaced with swimming pools, hi-tech playground sets and satellite dishes.

It’s a shame because once upon a time, Aussies rarely considered buying eggs from a shop. The thought would still horrify some older readers today (particularly those with an allergy to eggs).

If you didn’t own chooks, then the family over the back fence with only two kids did, and they’d usually offer you their surplus.

That is until they found out you threw turpentine into their fish pond just for a laugh, which then meant you had to sneak under the passionfruit vine at night time to swipe the eggs yourself.

At the time, there wasn’t a school ground in the country where at least seven kids were chopping down on egg and lettuce sandwiches at lunch time.

Chooks seemed to get a bad name toward the end of the 80s when chic homes came into vogue and nobody wanted the smell of chook manure and hay wafting from their yards.

I recall back in Yangoolum where we lived, old Mr Cornotter had hundreds of chooks at one stage.

It seems remarkable now to think he kept them all within a 6m x 6m enclosure but we always had fresh eggs.

Pity the judge didn’t see the value in the offer of a lifetime supply of fresh eggs in return for a shorter sentence when the RSPCA reported Mr Cornotter.

I must admit, I’ve experimented with other things in the backyard. Emus aren’t nearly as friendly and productive as their shorter leg cousins, while ostriches will cost you a fortune in chicken wire as you continue to be amazed by exactly how high those pink-necked feather dusters can jump. (You’ll also burn up fuel driving around the neighbourhood for hours like you’re on wildlife safari, hoping to locate your escapees.)

Could it be that keeping chooks has come back into fashion though? With all this talk of organic produce, accompanied by shows like that one, My Dining Master Kitchen’s Ready Steady Cooking Adventure Chef and the Cook, chooks could be about to make a comeback.

So what do you need to remember when it comes to planning a chookpen? Here are few traditional things to include:

1. A rickety gate: Any chook pen which doesn’t require the visitor to duck their head and struggle with a poorly designed gate, isn’t worth entering.

2. Snake hidey-holes: Snakes love chooks and eggs as much as people, so make sure there are some dark corners that provide that “edgy uncertainness” that washes over you when stepping in to collect the eggs.

3. A papaw tree: There is no better place to plant a papaw tree than smack-bang in the middle of the chook pen, although it usually cops a pounding when the tree is young and the chooks are hungry.

4. Corrugated iron: It’s only an Aussie chook pen if it incorporates corrugated iron, preferably rough cut and somewhat rusty which improves egg quality because of the relaxing “rustic” feel the chooks get.

5. The good can-opener: No one ever admits to dropping the good can-opener into the scraps bucket, and the same person is probably too lazy to pick it out so it usually gets tossed into the chook pen, awaiting mum’s yearly visit down the back to exclaim: “That’s where the good can-opener went.”

So get out there and start buying some chooks, or better yet, encourage your neighbours to over-invest in them and you’ll end up with surplus eggs for sure.

Tip of the Month: When the kids outgrow their bicycle helmets, or are shipped off to boarding school, why not use those helmets as creative hanging baskets? The drainage is already there, and should one happen to fall, the impact on the plant will be reduced.

*Watch Better Backyard webisodes on Facebook or YouTube: www.youtube.com/aussiehort

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Better Backyards with Gherkin JarvisSelf-proclaimed gardening expert and carpet enthusiast, Gherkin Jarvis, brings you his thoughts on Australia’s great lifestyle tradition, the backyard.

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