How to grow potatoes…

chitted potato

A chitted potato ready for planting

As a Dutch-born Australian my diet while growing up featured a lot of potato meals: curly kale mashed with potatoes, beetroot mashed with potatoes, carrots and onions mashed with potatoes, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes…you get the picture! As an adult I still love potatoes (and I still serve them up mashed with other vegetables from the garden) but now they taste even better as I grow them myself.

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A colourful variety of heirloom potatoes

There are many more varieties of potato available to home gardeners than the small selection of commercially grown ones you’ll find at the supermarket. Heirloom potatoes come in many different shapes and colours and  you may want to try some of these great heirloom varieties: Bintje, Burgundy Blush, Brownell, Kipfler, Pink Fir Apple, Purple Congo, Red Norland, Russian Banana, Salad Rose and Sapphire to name a few. To get started purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes (google heirloom seed potatoes in your country or state to find a retailer), this way you won’t risk introducing soil born pests and diseases of potatoes into your garden. These pests and diseases can also be prevented by not planting any vegetables in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, eggplant and tomatillos) in the same garden bed each year, but have them on at least a 2-3 year rotation instead.

potato bed ready to plant

Potato bed ready for planting

It is time to plant potatoes once there is no more risk of frost in your garden. I plant in late August here (as my garden is protected from frost) and by the time the potato shoots emerge above the soil, spring has arrived. You can sow successive crops of potatoes throughout the warmer months here in Melbourne by choosing a cooler part of the vegetable garden to plant them in during summer, that way they won’t get heat stressed. Make sure though that the last sowing has at least three months to mature before the first frosts arrive in late autumn. The instructions below are for growing potatoes in the ground or a raised bed but you can also grow potatoes in cylinders made from chicken wire, in hessian sacks or in a no-dig garden.

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It’s best to plant your potatoes 30cm apart in rows about 50 cm apart

Potatoes prefer a soil that is rich and free draining with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, added and some pelleted organic fertiliser. To plant your potatoes dig a trench about 20 cm deep and plant your seed potatoes 30 cm apart in rows of 50cm apart. Fill the trench with soil and hill soil up around the potato plants as they grow and emerge from the soil. Keep your potatoes well watered especially during the warmer months. When the plants get even bigger, spread straw thickly around the potato plants to exclude any light from getting to any potatoes that may be developing just under the surface of the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green colour, which is chlorophyll and enables the potato to photosynthesise and sprout. At this stage it also develops a poisonous chemical called solanine which makes the potato taste bitter so animals are discouraged from eating it. You should therefore never eat potatoes that have developed green patches on their skins.

potato trench

Your seed potatoes should be planted about 20 cm deep as most of your potato crop will develop above the original seed potato.

Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in around 12 weeks after they’ve flowered and start to die back. If you have trouble waiting that long, you can harvest a few early potatoes by carefully digging around the base of your potato plant with your hands after about 8-10 weeks, but you’ll get a bigger harvest of larger potatoes if you’re prepared to wait! Once harvested, let the soil on your potatoes dry so you can brush most of it off and store your potatoes in a cool, dry and dark place. Don’t wash your potatoes before storing as this will make them more prone to developing rot during storage, the aim is to keep them as dry as possible. To store, you can put your potatoes in a hessian sack or in a cardboard box underneath a few layers of newspaper to exclude them from any light but still allow good air circulation. Any potatoes whose skins were cut or damaged during harvest should be eaten first and not stored with the rest of the potatoes. Regularly check your stored potatoes and discard any that develop rot. Stored properly your potatoes should stay good for at least 2-3 months.

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A seedy business

Seeds

To start with a seed…that you plant into the soil and nurture as you watch it grow into a plant…then to harvest from this plant food to feed yourself and your family and friends… then to save some of the seed to start the cycle again the following season…this would have to be one of the most satisfying, rewarding and empowering experiences you can have.

There is so much to write about seeds so in this post I’m concentrating on highlighting some of the different types of seed you may come across and what some of the terminology on your purchased seed packet means. I’ll follow on from this with a post at a future date which will cover: how to sow seeds successfully and another on how to save your own seed.

Seeds can be classified into Open-pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and Genetically Modified.

Open-pollinated seeds are from plants in which pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. This means that if you want to save your own seed, these seeds will be true to type (produce very similar characteristics as their parent plants), as long as they are not crossed with other similar varieties of the same species. They also produce exceptionally tasty crops that have a staggered maturing time (great for successive harvest in a home vegetable garden). The only down side is that some varieties produce less bountiful crops. However if you save your seed from your strongest plants from each crop, over time you’ll start to get seed that is adapted to your local soil and climate and produce better plants each season.

Heirloom seeds are all open-pollinated but are also seeds that have a history of being passed down within a family or by a community.

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A bright selection of heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour.

Hybrid seeds are seed that have resulted from cross-pollinating plants. This can happen naturally in nature, but has been taken to the next level in modern agriculture where plants with specific desirable characteristics are cross-pollinated over many generations to produce highly inbred new hybrids. These hybrid seeds are specifically favoured in modern agriculture, mainly for their high and often earlier yield times, disease resistance and general uniformity in harvesting times. The down side is you can’t save seeds from hybrids as the seeds you save will generally not breed true and revert to the parents’ traits. The popularity of hybrids has also meant the loss of many heirloom varieties and a loss in the diversity of food crops for future generations.

Genetically Modified seeds are produced in laboratories by combining the genes from one species with that of another (think chicken genes in wheat and rat genes in soybeans!) to produce seed with herbicide resistance or other desirable traits. These genetically modified seeds would never naturally occur in nature and the health and environmental impacts these seeds pose are enormous. Most GM crops also contain terminator genes which means seeds are sterile and farmers are required to purchase new seed each year from the companies that own the patent rights for them. Luckily GM seeds are not (yet) available to home food growers but their use in major agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, canola, cotton and soybeans and the inconsistency in labelling on food products means we may all have consumed GMO’s at some time without realising it.

Treated seed has to be labelled as such on the packet you buy it in and is usually covered in a bright pink or blue fungicide or pesticide dust or coating. These coatings are restricted to those seeds which are particularly susceptible to attack by soil borne fungus or insect damage in the pre-germination stage. Vegetables that often have treated seeds include corn, beans, peas, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Some seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals which can be absorbed by the whole plant and are potentially carcinogenic and can make the pollen from the plant toxic to bees who forage on the flowers. When the seed packet warns ‘not to eat the seed or feed to animals’, would you even want to plant them in your garden and eat the vegetables grown from them?

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Treated corn seeds

Certified Organic seed is produced using organic farming practices and standards allowable by an organic certifying regulator. These seeds are always non GM and untreated. They are the best seeds to buy to ensure you minimise your exposure to harmful chemicals while also supporting farming practises which minimise harm to our natural environment.

Winter in the garden

 

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Photo credit: Mieke Florisson

Working outdoors as a gardener I know winter has arrived when… I arrive at work at 8am in so many layers of clothing that I can hardly move my arms…and my colleagues who work in the office complain how cold it is (although they have little blow heaters placed under their desks to warm their feet)…and no one says ‘it must be so nice to work outside all day!’… and I’ve lost all feeling in my nose, toes and fingers by the time I’ve walked up the hill to unlock the garden shed and gather my tools. That said, I love working outdoors and experiencing the changing weather with each season…it helps me feel connected with nature.

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Hammering some clouts around my garden bed edges for securing bird netting

Although things are growing more slowly in the garden now, there is still plenty to do. If you haven’t done so already, you can safely remove your insect exclusion nets from your brassicas as the cabbage white butterflies disappear with the onset of the colder weather. The fine mesh of the insect netting can restrict light and air circulation so is best removed for the winter months. If you have problems with birds or possums attacking your vegetable seedlings you can replace the insect netting with bird netting as I’ve done. The larger mesh size of the bird netting will allow more sunlight to reach your seedlings and improve air circulation which can help prevent disease. Leave your framework of hoops in place and drape the bird netting over them, you can secure the netting by hooking it over some clouts nailed along your garden bed edges. If you keep your netting secured tightly over the hoops and don’t leave any gaps along the bottom of the nets, birds won’t get tangled or trapped.

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Some of the beds in my vegetable garden in the front yard

In winter I also like to remove any thick mulch from around my vegetables. The straw mulch is much needed during the warmer months to help retain moisture in the soil, but during winter the straw not only makes a perfect breeding ground for slugs, it also keeps what little sunshine there is from warming up the soil.

organic snail pellets

 

Although I don’t normally promote or advertise any products on my blog, if slugs and snails are eating your young seedlings, I recommend using Protect-us snail pellets which are the only snail pellets I’ve been able to find that are registered for use in organically certified vegetable crops here in Australia and are safe for wildlife and pets. It uses elemental iron which forms  an iron salt when consumed and causes the snails and slugs to stop feeding and hence leads to their death. Uneaten pellets break down in the soil and add iron nutrients which can be used by the vegetables you grow. You can buy Protect-us pellets online or ask your local garden centre to stock it for you.

What to plant in June (Cool-Temperate climate)

 

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My greenhouse increases the variety of crops that I can grow over winter…and is a great place to potter on a cold, wet winter’s day.

June, being the start of winter and cooler weather, marks the start of a quieter time in the vegetable garden. There are some crops though that need to be planted now; it’s time to sow onion seed (brown, red, white and spring onions), sow a succession crop of english spinach, broad beans, snow peas and broccoli (in punnets). It’s also time to divide or plant asparagus crowns which are now dormant, as well as rhubarb, artichokes (Jerusalem and globe), shallots and chives.

If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse with vegetable beds to extend your growing season, then you can still plant out any of the seedlings from the May planting list into these beds. Lettuce, rocket and other salad greens as well as herbs such as dill, chervil, parsley and coriander will all thrive and give a regular harvest over winter in this protected environment.

 

 

How to grow Yacon…the apple of the earth

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A good harvest of Yacon tubers all from one plant!

Resembling a sweet potato, Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is sometimes referred to as ‘the Peruvian ground apple’, an apt name for this crisp, sweet, underground tuber that can be eaten raw like an apple. This ancient-looking plant from the Asteraceae family, originated in South America and is grown for its sweet edible tubers which were known to be valued and cultivated by the Incas and are a staple in the diet of South Americans today.

I first started growing Yacon about fifteen years ago by planting a small rhizome bought from an online nursery. I instantly fell in love with this amazing plant after tasting the tubers from that first long awaited harvest. Since then I always grow some each year both in my own garden at home and my garden at work; where I love introducing new food gardeners to Yacon’s tasty tubers.

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A row of yacon plants in my garden at work

Yacon is an impressive plant, growing up to 2m in height with large arrow shaped furry leaves and small yellow daisy flowers which are produced in autumn. It is relatively easy to grow and can be grown in most mainland areas of Australia. Around the base of the stem of a Yacon plant, clusters of small rhizomes are produced which are very different in appearance to the larger edible tubers which form below.

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Purplish coloured rhizomes that form at the base of the stem, just below the ground, are used to propagate new Yacon plants

These rhizomes can be divided and planted out mid to late spring after the last chance of frost or when they start to sprout. Each plant produces many rhizomes, so there are always plenty of extras to share with other gardeners; once you have a Yacon rhizome you’ll never need to buy more. Plant rhizomes, containing a few growing sprouts, about a 70-100cm apart, a few centimetres below the surface, into deeply cultivated soil enriched with plenty of compost and manure.  Yacon requires a long growing season and will take 6-7 months to reach maturity (after flowering). Water regularly and consistently as sudden changes in moisture levels can cause the tubers to split.

yacon ready to harvest

Yacon’s less than impressive small flowers are dwarfed by the size of the rest of the plant…people often think my Yacon are very strange sunflowers

Harvest Yacon after the foliage dies back in winter after flowering, by carefully loosening the soil around the plant before easing the entire root system out of the ground.

yacon uncovering roots

The edible tubers can then be snapped off from around the crown and the rhizomes kept and divided for a new crop. The edible tubers can grow up to 30cm long and weigh as much as 1.5kg. It’s not unusual to get twenty or more tubers from one plant. Allow them to dry in the sun and store in a dark cupboard for a week to sweeten further. Don’t wash them, but just brush the excess soil off before storing, they will keep for a few months.

yacon rhizomes

Rhizomes ready to be divided for planting out in spring after the last frost

Yacon has an interesting apple-carrot flavour with a texture similar to nashi pears. Tubers can be peeled and eaten raw, boiled or baked. The skin needs to be peeled off before eating as it can be a bit bitter. Once peeled the flesh discolours quickly so sprinkle it with a little lemon juice to prevent this and peel just before needing to add it to a meal. I love eating it just as I would an apple or pear, but it is also amazing cooked in a stir fry where it retains its crunchy texture and absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients. You’ll find many yummy recipe ideas online. Interestingly the main stem of the plant can also be eaten; it’s eaten like celery when young and traditionally the leaves were used to wrap other food during cooking.

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A tasty snack of Yacon slices (consumed while writing this blog post)

Despite its sweet taste, Yacon has a low kilojoule content and is high in fibre. It contains high levels of inulin, a form of sugar that is hard to metabolise making it a popular choice for diabetics. Inulin also aids digestion and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Yacon is a good source of antioxidants, contains a great balance of 20 amino acids and is high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. What more reasons do you need to give this amazing vegetable a go!

How to grow broccoli

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Broccoli and its fancier relatives (Brassica spp.) would have to be one of my favourite vegetables to grow, both for this nutritious vegetable’s many culinary uses and for its shear beauty. Most people are very familiar with the common supermarket variety of green broccoli, however less well known (and rarely available in supermarkets) are Broccoli Raab, Romanesco Broccoli and Sprouting Broccoli (with both green and purple varieties available).

Romanesco broccoli

Beautiful Romanesco broccoli with its spiralling patterns which are a natural representation of the Fibonacci sequence (one for all you math geeks!)

At home we eat broccoli several times a week and hence I try to grow it for most of the year. In our Melbourne climate this is possible if you plant seedlings every 4-6 weeks throughout spring, summer and autumn. Unless you have a greenhouse, seedlings planted in the cold of winter tend to struggle, so plant some extra throughout autumn to get them off to a flying start while there is still some warmth left in the soil. I avoid planting at the hight of summer too as seedlings often struggle with the high air temperatures. You may have some success planting into a garden bed shaded from the afternoon sun (by other plants or taller vegetables) at this time of the year.

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The vegetable garden at the side of our house with many members of the Brassica family off to a good start before winter.

Broccoli and its relatives like a nutrient rich soil with plenty of compost and some organic fertiliser added and with a pH between 6.5 and 7 , to learn how to test your soil’s pH click the link- Testing the pH of your soil . You can sow seed in seedling punnets and transplant into your garden bed once your seedlings have their second set of true leaves (the first leaves to appear are seed leaves and look different to the true leaves). Plant your seedlings deeply (right up to the first true leaves) as plants can get top heavy and are prone to toppling over on windy sites. Most varieties of broccoli will need to be planted about 30cm apart however, sprouting and Romanesco broccoli, are large plants at maturity and may need to be planted 50cm apart.

During spring, summer and early autumn you can cover your broccoli plants with an insect exclusion tunnel (click this link to learn How to make an insect exclusion tunnel ) to protect them from the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly. Alternatively you can spray with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) sold under the name Dipel, which is a bacteria that acts as a stomach poison in caterpillars and is an allowable input in organic gardens. You will need to spray regularly though, wetting all leaf surfaces, as Bt washes off with rain and irrigation. Keep an eye out for aphids too, especially during warmer weather. They often appear if plants are stressed from lack of water or fed too much nitrogen, so make sure to water your broccoli regularly and don’t over fertilise. If aphids do appear you can spray with soap sprays or natural pyrethrum.

broccoli in May

Once the weather is cold enough (usually in May in Melbourne) you can take your insect exclusion nets off as the cabbage white butterflies are gone and your broccoli will benefit from the extra light and air flow.

Broccoli can take about three months to grow (depending on the time of year), before it is ready to harvest. With broccoli that forms a main head, once you harvest, leave the plant in the ground as you will get a second harvest of smaller side shoots. Sprouting broccoli forms many small florets that can be harvested as needed but are best harvested before the florets open up. Any broccoli heads that aren’t harvested and that flower are not wasted as the yellow flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads and stir fries and the bees love them too!

Tomatillos

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One of the best things about growing your own vegetables is that you can grow things you usually can’t buy at the local grocery store. Unusual vegetables are great to add interest to meals especially when cooking for your friends and family. One such vegetable I discovered a few years ago is the tomatillo (pronounced to-ma-TEE-yo). I recently gave a fruit to my sister to try and she’d never heard of them, which got me thinking they’d make a great topic for this blog.

Tomatillos, like tomatoes, are best planted in spring. I’m harvesting the last of our tomatillos at the moment in early May now that the weather is getting colder. They’ve managed to outlast the tomatoes which gave up a couple of weeks ago already. As the name suggests tomatillos are related to tomatoes and are native to central America, they are a must-have for any Mexican cuisine. The plants have a bushy sprawling growth habit and are best supported with stakes or mesh to keep the fruit clean and off the ground. Care for them as you would tomatoes. You will need two or more plants to get fruit for cross pollination as the plants aren’t self-fertile. Tomatillos are very prolific and three plants will provide you more than enough fruit for an average family. They grow very easily from seed, so save some seed from your fruit before the season ends to use for next year.

tomatillo bush

Tomatillo fruit develops in an inedible papery husk which eventually turns a tan/brown and splits when the fruit is ripe and about the size of a golf ball. Tomatillos have a citrusy, sweet-tart flavour and the flesh has the texture of an unripe tomato, but isn’t as juicy. I grow the purple tomatillo which starts of green and develops a purple blush when ripe. It is a little sweeter than the more common green tomatillo which is traditionally used for salsa verde. Leave the husks on until you are ready to eat the fruit as they store longer that way. You can store fruit on the kitchen bench or for up to two weeks in the fridge. Once you remove the husk, the fruit will feel sticky but this sticky coating simply washes off.

How to make compost

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These compost bays were one of the first things we made when we moved into our house. They have removable timber slats on the front which make accessing the compost and turning the heap easier.

About 42% of all Australian household waste that ends up in landfill sites is food or garden waste. There it is buried with all the other rubbish and decomposes anaerobically, resulting in the production of methane (adding to global warming at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide) and leachates that have the potential to contaminate groundwater and pollute waterways if not contained.

Most of this food and garden waste is valuable organic matter that instead of going to landfill can be composted at home and used to improve your soil and grow amazing vegetables. Recycling your own organic waste into compost is great for the planet and easy to do. Every home should have a compost bin; so here is some advice on how to make compost…

Firstly it helps to have something to make your compost in and contain it. There are countless compost bins and tumblers available on the market that can all make great compost if used correctly. As we have a lot of organic waste to process with all the food we grow, I prefer to use homemade composting bays made from timber and corrugated iron offcuts. We have two bays at home, but you can have three or four for a large household; at work we have twelve bays to process all the organic waste from the kitchen and garden.

So what can you put in a compost heap? Basically any organic material can be used to make compost. That said it is best not to add meat or dairy products to the compost as they can attract vermin. The best things to compost are; weeds (not with bulbs or runners), grass clippings, non-woody garden clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves, animal manures (sheep, cow, goat, chook, horse, but not dog or cat), shredded newspaper, hay, straw and even hair, vacuum cleaner dust and old cotton clothing. Other things you may want to add in small amounts are lime, blood and bone and rock dust.

A good mix of ingredients will have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1, but what does this mean? I like to think of this ratio as equal parts in volume of dry (usually brown) things to fresh (usually green) things.

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Nitrogen rich ingredients

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Carbon rich ingredients

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nitrogen rich ingredients include; fresh grass clippings, vegetable scraps, fresh animal manure, lucerne hay, weeds, garden clippings etc. While carbon rich ingredients include; shredded paper, dry grass, straw, autumn leaves, sawdust, shredded cardboard etc. As all the nitrogen rich ingredients also contain carbon, adding the ingredients from the two boxes in the photos above in in equal volumes, will give you a pretty good carbon to nitrogen ratio for making compost.

Hundreds of different types of microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) go to work in your compost heap to break down your organic waste if the conditions are to their liking.   You don’t have to add them to the heap as their spores are everywhere. Their main requirements are the right C:N ratio, oxygen and water. If you have a compost heap of at least one cubic meter, the microbes will thrive and you will notice your heap getting warmer from the heat generated by the microorganisms as they feed. Ideally your heap will reach 60ºC at which point many weed seeds and plant pathogens die. You may need to turn your heap as it cools to kick start the microbial process again if your ingredients are not composted yet. You will also notice the volume of your compost heap decreasing by as much as 30-60% which is caused by the microorganisms consuming much of the carbon in the heap. If your compost heap gets too dry, add more wet ingredients or water your heap (particularly during summer). If your compost heap gets too wet (and it smells), mix through some dry ingredients and get the air back into the heap, it may also help to cover the compost heap with a tarp to keep the rain off.

When the microorganisms have done their thing your heap will start to cool and the worms will move in to finish off the process. Once your compost is ready it should have a pleasant earthy smell and you shouldn’t be able to distinguish the original ingredients. It is now ready to add to your garden beds. I love adding compost to my garden…it improves difficult clay soils and dry sandy soils, helps retain moisture and nutrients in your soil, improves soil structure, adds lots of beneficial microorganisms, it can stabilise the pH of your soil, add trace elements and combat harmful pathogens in your soil…what’s not to love!

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Spinach plants love a compost rich soil.

 

 

 

 

The chicken moult

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the ‘girls’ before moulting

If you’ve never seen a chicken moulting in Autumn before, the sight of a partially feathered, plucked looking chook can be quite confronting. I have to explain to chookless friends that come to visit this time of year that ‘No, the chooks are fine and healthy and no, a fox hasn’t got into the pen and attacked them’.

So why do chickens moult? Well, as daylight hours reduce and the weather cools, most chickens will take a few months off from laying. They also renew their feathers and as the new feathers come through the old ones get pushed out. For some chickens this process is quite gradual and they may loose a few feathers here and there while for others all the feathers seem to suddenly fall out overnight. This can result in a partially naked chook and a chook pen full of loose feathers. Once they’ve completed their moult they’ll be all set for the colder weather in winter and it is said they are also more resistant to disease.

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Two of my chooks part way through moulting with new pin feathers coming through

While the chooks are going through their moult they will require more protein in their diet as their feathers contain more than 80% protein. You can buy higher protein chook pellets, but I like to up the protein in their diet by giving the chooks plenty of access to insects. I do this by allowing them more time free ranging in the leaf litter under our trees, feeding them some worms from the worm farm and providing more sunflower seeds in their diet.

I also like to feed them a general health mash which I make up from yogurt or milk mixed with weetbix, grated carrot, finely chopped garlic and turmeric. I feed this to them warmed up once a week and they absolutely devour it. Once the chickens have finished their moult I also like to give their pen a good clean out, change their bedding and scrub their nesting boxes and put in fresh branches for perches so that they are all set to face the winter months.

chicken moulting

‘Magpie’ in moult