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Why I Don’t Use Chook Domes Any More

It was bandicoots.

One morning in 2000, I came out and every single seedling I’d planted the day before had been dug up.  It was the beginning of the end for a style of gardening that had served me very well for over a decade.

I swore, replanted every morning, erected little barricades around newly planted beds, tried all sorts of deterrents, but the problem just got worse.  The obvious answer would be a dog to guard the garden overnight, but what makes permaculture important for me are the core values: care for the earth, care for people and fair share. I wanted to nurture the bandicoots, just not on my vegetables!

When we moved here in 1983, this was very degraded farmland – logged, cleared, regularly burned, and grazing just a few head of cattle.   There was hardly a breeding population of most species of wildlife.  Along with building and gardening, we started planting native trees especially along the creek riparian zone.  We avoided cats and dogs, poisons and fires.  We carefully managed our water use to leave environmental flows.

It took a very long time to have any effect at all, but then all of a sudden, the wildlife came back.  That’s what happens with exponential growth. One day there only a few bandicoots, timid bush creatures rarely sighted.  Next day there were dozens of them digging over my garden every night.

(This is off the track, but this lesson in how exponential growth works has had a profound effect on my thinking about peak everything:  it won’t be a nice slow, time-to-get-used-to-it process.  Doubling means you go from just over half full, to overflowing, in one step.)

For about a year I persevered, swearing, replanting, erecting little barricades.  For about another year I despaired.  Then finally I gave in and accepted that I would have to redesign my system. It involved a digger and took me weeks to get over!

Thankfully (in retrospect) I had enough foresight to consider that the same path of growth might be followed by other wildlife species.  Back then the bush turkeys were still timid bush creatures rarely seen, we were very excited if ever we saw evidence of a possum, bower birds were rare and wonderful.  But the redesign took into account their potential too.  So the solution was very intensively fenced annual garden beds, with bird wire buried 20 cm deep to foil the bandicoots, chicken wire sides to foil the wallabies and padimelons (with holes large enough to admit the little insect eating birds), and netting over the top to exclude bush turkeys, possums and bower birds.

About the same time, I was questioning the whole concept of organic farming, as opposed to gardening.  So the redesign also took that into account. The beds are circular and about 4 metre diameter.  I have 7 of them scattered through a larger, more lightly fenced area filled with perennial fruit trees, herbs, and bushes that are less vulnerable to being dug up.

Of course, that meant I could no longer move my chook domes over the beds.  I had to devise a new way to use chook-labour.  With the garden beds fenced, the chooks could be allowed to free-range.  I set them to work making compost by scratching mulch, manure, waterweeds, and any other ingredients I brought in downhill to rest against a series of V-shaped barriers.  Each week I’d lift the top barrier to allow them to scratch the compost makings down to the next barrier, then down to the third barrier, where I collected it to use in the garden beds.

The new system lost much of the elegance of chooks self-feeding, clearing, fertilising and de-bugging garden beds.  It did, however, allow me to play a great deal more with stacking and using vertical space.  I no longer use dwarf varieties of peas or beans, for instance.  The southern side fencing of each bed is always a wall of green, with peas, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

That system too served me well for a decade, and moved my thinking about urban and small space gardening systems forward in some really useful ways.  But this year, the evolution of the system has reached another milestone.

I very rarely lost any chooks to predators in the domes.  The design served quite well to keep out foxes, goannas and carpet snakes.  However free ranging chooks were much more vulnerable, particularly to goannas.  And over the last few years, the range of predators has increased to include wedge-tailed eagles and quolls, along with some very large carpet snakes.  Six months ago the last of my free ranging chooks was eaten, and the last six months have been the longest period in my adult life, I think, without chooks.

Today, finally, I have chooks again.  And I’m so happy about it!  The new roost is a “proof of concept” at this stage, so it’s a bit bodgie, but I have high hopes it will work and I will have a system that works for another decade, before the next stage in the evolution.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Andrea February 27, 2011, 11:32 pm

    I don’t follow your description of the triangular thingy for the chickens to scratch in. A diagram would be helpful i think. Any chance of that? And maybe a photo too.

  • Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial February 28, 2011, 7:20 am

    Linda, this was a really interesting read, thank you! Your original chook dome system worked too well where you are (which I guess, is a good thing in permaculture terms!), but we’ve found it perfect for suburbia. Your new system looks very impressive and productive, and it’s wonderful that you finally have chooks again. I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts about organic farming v. gardening? And one question – in your six chookless months, did you notice a major impact on your garden?

  • Linda February 28, 2011, 8:12 am

    Hi Andrea, I don’t have a photo (stupidly) and now I’ve changed system, it’s too late to take one! I shall have a go at a diagram today. To see if I can describe it better: the chooks free ranged in (and sometimes outside) a big area with a 1.5 metre fence. Their roost was in the top corner, right next to the driveway, with a door to the outside. It was on a reasonably steep slope (one in three). On the downhill side was a V-shaped barrier about a metre tall, made from sheets of plywood slotted in between star pickets. Two metres further downhill was another similar barrier. Every time I go anywhere, I carry with me a big bag and try to bring it home full of some kind of organic matter: grass clippings, seaweed, raked leaves, kitchen scraps, waterweeds, trimmings from the greengrocer, cow pats, which I would just throw in through the door. Each morning, I would scatter a little grain on top, and the chooks would scratch it all downhill to mound up inside the first barrier. Every few days I would hose this pile. When this pile reached the top of the barrier, I slid out the plywood and scattered a little seed on the pile. Over a few days, the chooks would scratch it all downhill to the second V, mixing, turning and aerating it on the way. Then I’d replace the first V and start the process again. By the time the first V was full, the second V would be ready to harvest as compost. And so on. I’ll try to draw it, but I warn you I’m not much on drawing!

  • Linda February 28, 2011, 8:32 am

    Hi Celia, the farming/gardening concept is worth a post on its own. Permaculture farming is not just gardening on a larger scale. It’s a different beast. There are issues to do with marketing, packaging, labelling, certification, transport and pricing. Farmer’s markets are changing the realities of marketing a bit now, but still, it’s hard to make a living from small cropping of any kind – our food prices are too cheap. However the main problem is that the characteristics of a good permaculture crop are very different to a good wholesale crop, which leaves you with only the option of retailing yourself. Turnover of $1000 or more from a morning at a Farmer’s Market is a very big ask. And to make a real income wholesaling, you need to be producing a lot of identical boxes all at once of a single variety of uniform size and shape – for ease in transport, grading, pricing, and invoicing. So you choose varieties with a short cropping season. They need good handling and transport characteristics and to be an easily packaged size and shape – anything with prickles or sharp edges is out. Crops with a long shelf life have less wastage. And consumers shy clear of anything unfamiliar or wierd looking, and you can’t urge every one of them to give it a try! Permaculturing a crop with these characteristics is a contradiction in terms. About a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that it made more sense to have lots of home gardens and community gardens for small crops, and save farming for the broadacre and tree crops.

  • Linda February 28, 2011, 8:35 am

    And the second question – yes!! I missed my chooks so much, not just for the eggs, but every time I faced the dilemma of what to do with a tomato with fruit fly or a cabbage with cabbage moths. Every time I had to make compost myself. Every time I caught a grasshopper and had no chooks to enjoy it. Every time I had to think about Ph.

  • Nathan April 17, 2011, 11:28 pm

    Hi Linda,
    I’ve got a copy of your book and have read it several times. We’re in the process of establishing a 3 mandala system in a triangle layout on gently northeast sloping land that’s only 20 seconds away from our kitchen door. We’re in the Adelaide Hills which is the highest rainfall area we could afford in SA, but it’s still relatively dry compared to your bioregion. Last year we got 840mm rainfall which was a bit better than the long term average of 760mm. In SA, to get the rainfall means a cool temperate climate with winter frosts.
    I’ve built the first dome exactly to your design and have since seen the Milkwood geodesic design (doh!) We’ve got 8 Australorp hens and a very handsome Australorp rooster in the dome. We got the dome built and the chooks installed before I had finished installing a water supply from our dam to the first mandala and the shadehouse, so I didn’t have any seedlings ready to go for a while. I left the dome on the first bed for something like 10 weeks, cutting and chucking them an armful of grass from the “previous” bed in the rotation. Then I decided to go with your Guild 4 / Guild 3 planting since it was mid Feb. I sowed sweetcorn the day after moving the dome. The ground was very warm and once I had raked the mulch and manure evenly over the bed, looked very inviting.
    The problem I had was we are establishing these mandalas over very well established pasture grass, which includes phalaris. The grass grew back and is keeping pace with the corn, to the point where I worry it will choke the corn out. Our poor lucerne sequel that I sowed into the chook fodder segment of the bed has been swamped totally.
    After all that describing, here’s my question. How do you go about eradicating very invasive and vigourous grass unless you have advanced seedlings to completely cover the entire bed? Which means it’s hard to establish crops from seed (like corn and lucerne, pigeon pea, etc) without spending ages every day pulling grass(and compacting the bed)?

    Help!

  • Linda April 18, 2011, 8:31 am

    Hi Nathan,
    There’s a few things in there! Firstly, I had really good results with my chook domes for over a decade. They took occasional maintenance, mostly where the wire tore where it had bent repeatedly towards the end of their life. But nothing I would call excessive. We get big winds and very high UV here, and most of the time I was moving them on my own, so they did well. I like Milkwood’s design – the geometry is very elegant. But they are a bit lower, and I liked the height inside mine for me to get inside for moving, and for the chooks to be able to get up out of goanna range. So, I wouldn’t regret seeing Milkwood’s design after – you’ll have to try both to see what you like!

    My rainfall averages 1118mm, with most of this in late summer and Autumn, so although we get a lot more rain than you, the limiting factor is often still water. Spring is often very hot and dry for months and unless I have soil that will hold water and good water storage, I lose the garden over this time. With an annual garden, it’s not so much the average as the weakest link that you have to consider. If you can get through your driest month, you’re right!

    I don’t know phalaris. But in general, the strategy on troublesome grasses (including nutgrass and kikuyu) is to leave the chooks on it for a while, with enough mulch to keep the ground from compacting so they can scratch, but not so much that they don’t get down to scratching at ground level. It sounds like this is exactly what you did – maybe you have lazy chooks! (Or too well fed?) In your situation, I think what I’d do is double hit a bed before planting. That is, chook it for a couple of weeks, move the chooks on and allow the grass to come through, then chook it again. You may even have to do it a few times to get the ground clear, but it is worth it – at least you get your beds well fertilised at the same time. If it’s any comfort to you, digging or rotary hoeing to prepare beds in really troublesome grass is even worse – you just break up the runners and multiply the problem.

  • Nathan April 19, 2011, 9:22 am

    Thanks Linda,
    I will try the double hit method.
    I thought I’d also mention that I’d seen a chook dome on a property near a road I use regularly. It looked to be identical to your design so I made a note to introduce myself to these people and find out from them what grows in your mandala system in our climate.
    Funny how things work out. We were at a picnic on sunday and I was describing the chook dome based gardening method to a more mature lady there. She kept nodding and saying “That’s what my daughter does too” until I asked if her daughter lived on this road. Sure enough, it was the same person and she was at the picnic lunch too! So I met this lovely couple who have been gardening with a modified version of your mandala chook dome system for over 3 years in my climate! We’re going to be visiting each other’s gardens and swapping notes (mostly me sponging info from them!) in the near future.
    So, something as simple and distinctive as a “Woodrow Chook Dome” can bring like minded people together!

  • Louise July 16, 2011, 10:59 pm

    I breed Maremma dogs . They guard the chickens day and night and nothing attacks them ! They are excellent and many biodynamic farms are adopting their service.
    Very loyal dogs also.

  • Rosemary Pratt July 30, 2011, 12:19 pm

    Hi Nathan and Linda I have done Linda’s mandela system on old thick kikuyu.Due to a warning from someone else I knew in advance,thankfully, that the chooks would not be able to dig deep enough to get out the runners,so after the chooks moved to the next site I dug out all the runners by hand.It was a huge job,barrow loads of runners from each circle,and not ideal for the soil or chook poo,but it was worth it.I have had very little kikuyu regrow and what did was easily dealt with.Now…….heliotrope was a different story,after two years I’m still fighting it but getting there.

  • Nick October 30, 2013, 7:43 am

    Hey Linda

    We have used you chock dome idea for about 5 years in our backyard in geelong. Every year the soil gets better. It was a very sand soil, now it is light, fluffy and full of mulch/compost. Down south mid to late summer are the hardest months as we get very little or no rain and it’s hot/dry. Our tanks usually run out and I only keep them running for the fruit trees towards the end of these months. I’m hoping the soil will hold more water this year.

    Our domes is 3 meters in diameter and we had a rectangle space to work in, so it is 2 rows of 3 circle beds. With fruit trees around the outside. We have a chock house as well for when all beds are being used or when I’m raise small chicks then we use the dome for the small chickens and the chock shed for the older chickens.
    I have start crop rotation by dividing the circles in 4 quarters, onion, fruiting veg/potatoes, leafy greens and legumes. I never seem to have time to write things down, so therefore never can remember where I planted things in the past, so I finding this method works well for me as usually we can take something from each 1/4 to make a meal.
    Anyway I found your book very inspiring and refer to it often.
    Thanks from a family with yummy health food on the table.
    Nick

  • Linda October 30, 2013, 9:07 am

    Thank you Nick, it’s wonderful to hear how you have made the system your own.

  • Jodie Eden February 13, 2016, 6:48 pm

    Hi Linda
    I have just discovered your webpage after years of following your chook dome system and singing your praises, always meaning some day to write to you via the publisher to thank you for many fabulous ideas. It’s so interesting to hear about your change from the original system.

    My latest garden with 16 circular garden beds was established about 5 years ago, long before the home-made house was built but now we have finally moved in and I have the luxury of a garden just outside my door. Our house is on a hill surrounded by pasture – the forest on our farm is far enough away that we don’t have the scrub turkey, possum and snake problems you describe, but do have the wallabies, bandicoots and bettongs in the dry season. My husband has just finished making me a bandicoot fence around the entire garden, but I can still move my chook dome around within it thank goodness, because I just love it’s simplicity.

    Thank you so much for writing your book! Amazingly, after 20 years, I have learned to grow enough to share, so I send out a weekly garden newsletter to our local LETS members to trade plants and produce, and I tell them that pretty much all my advice comes originally from you. So much to praise! But in particular my life would not be the same without: observe/keep a diary/adapt/change; grow advanced plants to focus effort/watering/weed-free soil in one place; the joys of asparagus; continuous planting for gourmet gardening; perfect cow-manure-pat seed raising mix; cut off milk carton pots in polystyrene cartons; sawdust paths; ‘the ‘Pollyanna approach’…

    I love the style of your writing and can’t say how many times I have read your book. I’m on to my third copy since the others were read to bits. I hope that by lending it out frequently I have inspired lots of people to go and buy it and that you make squillions of dollars! I think, like me, you probably have all the best things that money can’t buy but I reckon you’d think of something good to do with it anyway.
    warm regards
    Jodie Eden

  • Linda February 13, 2016, 7:48 pm

    Wow. Thank you Jodie. I am blushing.

  • Rob Forbes February 23, 2016, 2:22 pm

    Hi again Linda,

    That’s quite a surprise that you had to move away from chook domes after espousing a garden system based on them! But we all have to be willing to change even our most cherished beliefs and practices at times, don’t we.

    I have been through my own process of this in the 17 years since being inspired by your book. I began by trying to follow this bible exactly, of course, and the chook dome worked beautifully. There were some problems for me with the system, though: my chooks never seemed to kill all the grass roots etc; throwing mulch into the dome was awkward; although my compost heated up well, it never killed all grass roots etc either; and I could rarely obtain enough mulch to sheet-mulch my whole vegie garden, so weeds and especially grass came up in the sheet-mulch which were then awkward to hoe.

    Eventually, after persisting with the system for more than a decade, we moved to our current riverside location and two things began happening: brown and tiger snakes began making their homes under the mulch in my garden, and a fox began getting into (and eating chooks through the wire of) my chook dome.

    Just as it was for you, it was painful, but I had to give up a long-held practice: I stopped mulching, and began composting everything instead. And I bought electric netting to protect the chooks, which works like a large chook tractor. Both systems actually work really well. My gardening system is now half permaculture and half old-fashioned digging and rows! The best thing though is that my chook dome is not wasted – it is still the sanctum sanctum for the chooks within the electric netting, who are now fox-protected.

    And I still couldn’t have done it all without the inspiration and understanding I gained from you.

    Cheers, Rob.

  • Heidi May 10, 2016, 11:13 am

    Hi Linda,

    I was wondering if you’d still recommend the chook dome mandala system from your book for land that doesn’t have much wildlife?

    I don’t have much wildlife where I live, but I have some concerns about setting it up on my own land and would really appreciate it if you could answer a couple of questions about this: do you know of anyone that’s been successful with 2 mandalas for each chook dome in Tasmania or similar climates? Would 3 mandalas for each chook dome make more sense here, given that we need to keep a lot of plants in the ground for 9 months to feed us over the winter and spring and can’t plant much over the winter months? Or would it make more sense to have a 2 mandala system and to keep the chooks on each bed for longer than 2 weeks when we need to?

    Another issue I have about own land for this is that there are signs of it having high groundwater or poorly drained soil. I thought I might be able to get around this by having the fruit trees and circular veggie beds spread out in lines, rather than a circle, with small swales in between them, but then we wouldn’t have the benefit of less edge to protect. Have you heard of anyone using your system on land with drainage or groundwater issues?

    Thank you : )

  • Linda May 10, 2016, 11:56 am

    Hi Heidi, I’d still most definitely be using chook domes if it weren’t for wildlife. It was a really hard decision to move on from them, but it was either move on from chook domes or move on from here, and I have deep roots here now. I don’t know much about using them in your climate though. You may need to give chooks more cold protection on winter nights, and of course you don’t have carpet snakes to deal with. At one stage I experimented with a roost that was built on a trolley, so I could wheel it to a new site easily – it was more protected and insulated. Purple Pear Organics use chook dome system, and I think they deal with drainage as an issue. My basic thought there would be, as always, take inspiration and ideas from the book but design always has to be based first and foremost on the requirements of the site. There’s no reason not to leave chook domes on a bed for longer if that works for you. In my current system, I rotate the chooks once a month rather than every fortnight, and there are many many many times that life has not gone smoothly enough for the ideal rotation and they’ve been left on a bed for much longer than ideal. There’s also no reason not to use different patterns for movement – perhaps along a row and back along the next row. These days too, I use smaller, shorter-lived fruit trees in a system.

  • christine Turner May 20, 2017, 5:35 pm

    Dear Linda,
    I’ve had vegie gardens of a sort, since I was a child. Now at 63 years of age I finally have a home in the Northern NSW countryside with room for a proper garden !
    I was just getting started on the plan when my son gave me your wonderful book for Mother’s Day !!!!! I’m soooo excited. I just love it and I’ve inhaled the whole thing already.
    I was concerned about the chook dome though because i couldn’t imagine how Id keep out all the predators, then I found your Blog. YAY. Thank you. I’ll give worms a go first I think.
    Your new roost reminded me of a similar contraption i saw somewhere years ago. The designer used an old Hills Hoist instead of the umbrella frame.More like a chook condo I think for those with a very large flock !
    Desperate to keep the bandicoots from destroying my flower garden I found a company selling predator deterrent. The one to deter bandicoots is fox wee ( they even have lion wee, I guess that would deter giraffe and hippos if needed ) !
    Have you heard anything about the effectiveness of fox wee ?
    Thank you again for your readable, sensible, generous and practical book.
    Cant wait to put it into practice !
    Any suggestions for a beginner ?
    Best wishes Chris

  • Linda May 23, 2017, 2:45 pm

    Hi Chris, I have heard about fox wee from time to time but I’ve never tried it myself. I have to say, in my garden I suspect it wouldn’t work. I have had friends here with a dog from time to time and have locked the dog in the garden area where it has happily peed all over the place and it hasn’t deterred the bandicoots one little bit. But then, maybe I just have very determined bandicoots. I have very determined bower birds at the moment, perching sideways on the chicken wire fence, poking their heads though the wire and nipping my bean and pea vines that are climbing up the inside of the wire. Not just stealing beans but nipping off the vine. Grrrr!

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