Thursday, August 25, 2011

Adventures with Snakes and Chickens

I had not seen any snakes this summer, and I thought I was fortunate not to encounter them, or any other wildlife, in my chicken pen. My good fortune began to change after a discussion one night earlier this month at the book club of which I am a member.  All the ladies shared their snake encounters and I, somewhat smugly, realized I had no story to share. 

When I arrived home that night and went to check on the chickens, no eggs were in the nest.  I found that odd, and gently scolded my lazy chickens as I plucked them from their perch on the roof of the chicken tractor, where they like to roost when it’s hot outside, and began to put them inside the chicken tractor for their safety.  Then, in the dim flashlight beam, I noticed a black snake slithering among the nine pairs of chicken legs on the roof and off the side of the tractor.  The chickens were in the usual almost-comatose state they enter after dark, and the one the snake nearly knocked off the roof as he exited didn’t even notice.  I ran to the house to get my husband, Scott, who said, “What do you want me to do? I know you don’t want me to kill it.”  I replied, “I don’t know, but you should just be out there with me!”

I am not afraid of snakes, but I respect them and I want them to tend to their snake business away from me. The snake sped under a gap underneath the electrified netting fence, and Scott and I arrived just in time to see it disappear under his man shed.  We looked for it, and our plan was to catch it and release it somewhere far away from any chickens if we saw it again.  Black snakes are helpful to have around because they control rodents, and are not poisonous, but I couldn’t have one eating my eggs.

A week or two later, my neighbor found two large timber rattlesnakes in her yard, and as far as I know, had them killed.  I would have killed them if they were in my yard too because of the danger they pose to people and pets. 

On Sunday afternoon, I checked on the chickens and noticed that the nest egg, a large wooden white egg from my daughter’s play kitchen I put in the nesting box to encourage the chickens to lay their eggs there instead of on the ground, was missing.  I lifted the straw on one of the nesting boxes, thinking the chickens might have buried the nesting egg, and found a large black snake curled in the box.  It had a bulge just the size of the nest egg, which is larger than a normal egg, in its body.  If a snake can smell the eggs and come from the woods into the chicken tractor after the eggs, I do not know why he can’t tell the difference between a real egg and a wooden one.   I suppose I scared the snake as much as he scared me, and that’s why he didn’t bite me.  I dropped the straw and ran to get Scott. 

Again, Scott wondered why I was bothering him, but I told him that because as far as I knew, snakes could not digest wooden eggs, the humane thing to do was to kill the snake instead of letting it suffer, and that snake killing was definitely his job.  My daughter, Ella, 5, wanted to see what was going on, so I showed her the snake and explained to her that the snake had eaten her wooden egg and we’d have to kill it so it wouldn’t suffer.    

My grandparents always kept a good sharp hoe around for snake killing, but I lack a suitable one, or at least could not locate it in the melee.  The snake was coiled inside the nesting box, and inside the chicken tractor, so hoe chopping was not possible.  Scott used a shovel.  I let the fence down to encourage the chickens to leave the area, but they preferred to see what we were doing in their house.  As the snake killing progressed, I had to shooing them away to keep them from pecking at the snake and possibly becoming victim of a misplaced shovel-blow. 

Scott managed to kill the snake without destroying the chicken tractor, although there are a few new holes in the plastic siding.  It is surprisingly hard to kill a snake in a nesting box.  He left me the job of burying the snake.  After I answered all of Ella’s questions about the snake’s death and showed her the dead snake, at her request, she said she did not want the egg back.  I buried the snake, containing the wooden egg, in a gully. The chickens seem very unconcerned about the entire experience, I tried to fortify the chicken tractor further against snakes, and I will scatter mothballs around our property as a snake repellent.  I have also designated a sharp bush axe as the future weapon of choice to use against snakes inside the chicken tractor. 

A few days later, I smelled dead snake and discovered that some animal had dug up the snake, and, apparently possessing more intelligence than the snake, had eaten the snake but had left the wooden nest egg in the woods nearby.  I also left the nest egg, which reeked of dead snake, on the forest floor, but I covered it with some leaves to reduce the odor.  Ella did not want it back.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seed Savers Exchange

Gardens in front of the barn at Seed Savers Exchange

 Decorah, Iowa, is a beautiful town near the Minnesota border. Norwegians apparently settled the town, and their influence remains in the food and culture. After driving more than 100 miles north of Iowa City, where my family and I visited my sister, we arrived at Seed Savers Exchange, a seed purveyor.   Visit them at  They specialize in selling heirloom seeds, and their goal is to help prevent the extinction of the seeds our great-grandparents grew. People used to save seeds of plants that did well in their gardens and pass them along to other people, and they developed varieties especially adapted to their gardens. With the advent of hybrid seed and the decline of gardening, many of these varieties have been lost. Seed Savers, along with other similar organizations, hopes to prevent further demise by growing and selling the seed.

Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization founded by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Ott in 1975 with some seed her grandfather gave her that he brought from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. Heritage Farm, where Seed Savers Exchange is headquartered, spreads for 890 acres and includes antique apples, fields of heirloom vegetables, and endangered cattle. The farmers at the Heritage Farm, as well as gardeners across the country, work together to preserve heirloom seeds by growing, sharing, and selling the seeds. Seed Savers Exchange donates seed to national and international seed vaults and preservation programs.  


Unfortunately for me, we visited on a Sunday, when many of the buildings were closed, and we went there at the end of a very long day of driving and touring other places. Although my visit was brief, it was long enough to determine that the place is just as beautiful as the seed catalog and the website,,  depict it.

The soil is the rich, dark land of the Midwestern cornfields. I am perpetually envious of the richness of the soil and the abandon with which plants grow. My sister reminds me, though, that the weather is only pleasant less than half the year, and while I am at home, contentedly enjoying a 70-degree day in January and picking lettuce, the soil in which she might hope to grow lettuce is frozen solid and covered with snow.

But on that July day, the coneflowers grew in enormous clumps, as did the hollyhocks. Insects ravaged neither, and the colors in the petals were vibrant instead of faded by day after day of temperatures at or near 100, as my flowers are. Plants look like they do in pictures in magazines, instead of hot and tired.

Trial gardens at Seed Savers Exchange

In the vegetable garden, beans and tomatoes shared space with lettuce, potatoes, carrots, and beets. In Iowa, gardeners have only one season in which to grow their crop, and nature seems to cooperate to provide abundance in the short time. With the rich soil and extra hour of daylight gardens receive there, usually without the temperatures high enough to stop plant growth and fruit setting that we have regularly, plants grow and produce enough in the short season to sustain the gardener for the winter.

As I always do when I visit another garden, I left inspired to work harder in my garden. I cannot do anything about the heat, but I can continue to work on the soil so that my plants have a thicker layer of black loam in which to grow every year. I told my husband and sister I could just summer in Iowa, with a nice garden, and move back to SC when the snow falls. Then again, I would miss home and the sounds of our birds and insects. I guess I will stay where I am, and cope with my gardening challenges. At least I can garden nearly every day of the year here.

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To buy products from Seed Savers Exchange or to request a catalog, visit or call (563) 382-5990.  If you have some seed you have passed down in your family and want to make sure it is preserved, or if you want to share it with others, they might be able to help.  In addition, if there is some variety of plant you remember from your grandmother’s garden but you cannot seem to find anymore, check their catalog for it.