A kink in the backyard food chain

Published 7:57 pm Friday, June 9, 2017

Summer is here. I know this because our pea plants are flowering and we’ve already made garden-fresh pickles.

Our garden looks a bit different this year. I said goodbye to the tiller and the sore back it brings. There was no breaking of soil, no raking of dirt into rows. Instead, we built a tidy garden using raised beds. It’s a bit pretentious looking but is much less work.

The four raised beds are full of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. The pea plants are growing in between the cedar boxes. It’s not the kind of garden I grew up with, but it will do.

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Our tomato plants, for the first time since I’ve been gardening, are not being devoured by worms. I’m not sure why, but it may have something to do with the three chickens who call the garden home. The birds are a relatively new addition to our backyard landscape.

The first group of chickens, save one, didn’t survive the dog’s attempt to play chase. The second batch fared somewhat better but we still lost a couple to the German shepherd. It’s why the chickens and their coop are now inside the backyard fence and the dog is not.

Of course, that means the smell of chickens and their coop is always near. Depending on how the wind blows, it can be very near. It also means there is chicken poop in places it does not belong — like our back porch and everywhere in the backyard. “Get the chickens off the porch” is not something I ever thought I would be yelling at my kids.

Our tomato plants, though worm-free, have yet to deliver any ripe fruit. The green tomatoes are as large as baseballs and have been for weeks. I’m starting to think my dreams of BLT sandwiches will go unfilled this year. Science tells me that I just need to wait, that it may have something to do with temperature or moisture levels. I’m not convinced. Maybe the chickens have done something to them.

The birds, which we haven’t named because we can’t tell them apart, are decidedly stupid creatures. I now understand where the phrase “He’s a bird-brain” comes from. They scratch and peck and waddle about, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on upstairs. I have a hard time believing that birds are descendants of dinosaurs based on these three hens. I would think the supposed billions of years of evolution would have produced a much smarter animal.

But the children like to watch them and we will hopefully have fresh eggs one day, so the chickens remain.

The dog, which has a taste for fresh chicken now, spends most of her days outside the fence watching them. She paces back and forth, waiting for one of them to slip out of their protective enclosure. She sleeps near their coop on the other side of the wire, drooling and whining. The chickens have no idea how much danger they’re in. They get close enough to the fence for their feathers to poke through. It torments the dog to be so close to them, but not taste them.

I fear the dog will soon learn that the four-foot fence that protects the birds is easily climbed or jumped. There’s also a cat who has yet to catch a chicken but has stalked them several times. Though the chickens are larger than he is, I suspect any fight between them would not end well for the birds.

Chasing the cat is the only activity that distracts the dog from watching the chickens, who are constantly watched by the children as they peck and scratch through the tomatoes, which are constantly watched by me as I wait for one to turn red. There is a lot of watching at our house these days.

This little microcosm of life — the garden, the chickens, the dog, the cat — is a joy to behold. Each plays a role and each is looking to eat part of this ecosystem. The worms want the tomatoes, the chickens want the worms, the dog wants the chickens, you get the idea.

At the top of this food chain are us humans. But oddly, what I desire most is down near the bottom — the tomatoes. I’m after the same things the worms are.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.