Launching the “Ask Ruth” Column

The Curious Gardener Newsletter

Launching the “Ask Ruth” Column for Gardening Questions

Ruth Rogers Clausen is an acclaimed horticulturist, jounalist and author who is partnering with Womanswork to produce the “Ask Ruth” column.

Ruth grew up in Wales and studied horticulture at Studley College in England. She has contributed greatly to her profession as a writer of tomes (Perennials for American Gardens, Random House; Essential Perennials, Timber Press); an editor of gardening magazines; and a lecturer, advisor and judge for botanical gardens and flower shows all across the country and around the world.

For many years Ruth gardened in Westchester County, NY (Zone 6), and more recently has been gardening in Maryland where she grows an eclectic range of plants. Her plant choices reflect those plants that do well in her region and throughout the northeast and mid-atlantic.

Ruth wrote a book for Timber Press titled 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs that Deer Don’t Eat, and more recently co-wrote with Tom Christopher a book, Essential Perennials, also for Timber Press.

To kick off our new “Ask Ruth” column we started with a question of our own:

Question: Ruth, can I move spring flowering bulbs in my garden now? I mistakenly planted a daffodil bulb right in front of some perennials last fall, and I want to move the bulb.

Ruth’s answer: Yes, you can lift bulbs now. It’s easier while the remaining foliage is still on them. Replant them in a better place if you want to. Or, if you want to wait until fall to replant, clean off the bulbs and keep them dry in a cool place. DO NOT put them in plastic bags to store as they will sweat and rot. Onion bags work fine.They should have air movement.  

Write your questions in the Comments section below and Ruth will respond in a timely manner.


Nominate Women Making A Difference

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Suzanne Estock, Park Ranger, featured on Womanswork hang tags.

Do you know a woman who is making a difference in the lives of others by helping to protect, improve or rebuild a community or place? Is her story one that will be inspirational to other women? Please send us her story and we will publish it on our website.  Our favorite inspirational stories will be printed on “Womanswork Profile” hang tags on our work and garden gloves.

The women we select to feature on our garden glove packaging will be women who are making a difference in the following ways:

-Women who are involved in helping others

-Women whose vocation or avocation is protecting, improving or rebuilding a community or geographical place

Please submit nominees via email to me at  You can nominate a friend, a mentor, someone you admire from afar, a relative or yourself.  Nothing will be published until we have permission from the nominee. Nominees must be 18 years of age or older and they must be women. Be sure to include your contact information, including phone number.

Thank you! You can nominate people in the comments section below also.


Dorian Winslow, Womanswork President

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The Garden Quiz


Curious Gardener’s Garden Quiz:

1. What well known Spring shrub is this: salix discolor?

a.)   azalea

b.)   pussy willow

c.)    forsythia

2. True or False: It’s best not to garden in wet soil 

3. Which one of the following plants makes a wonderful cut flower, and  has the delicacy of a rose?

a.)    Lisianthus

b.)    Dahlia

c.)    Peony

4. Which of the following is a recipe for creating a natural rooting hormone for plants?

a.)    Squeeze a lemon in water and let sit overnight. Use the water as a rooting hormone

b.)    Put willow wood shoots in water for 24 hours and use the water as a rooting hormone

c.)    Brew a tea with dried oak leaves

5. True or False: if you set your tomato seedlings outdoors too early, after the last frost but before the ground warms sufficiently, it will stunt their growth.

6. When dividing or propagating a plant, why do you remove buds and flowers?

a.)    Flowers will die anyway after a plant is divided

b.)    A new plant needs to put all its energy into developing new roots, before it develops flowers

c.)    It will make the young plant top heavy if you don’t

7. Which of the following is not an example of asexual propagation of plants?

a.)    Propagation through seeds

b.)    Propagation through cuttings

c.)    Propagation through plant division

8. When is the best time of year to prune azaleas and rhododendron?

a.)    In the Fall before they go dormant

b.)    In the Spring just after they bloom

c.)    In the Spring just before they bloom

9. True or False: Vaccinium Chippewa is a variety of high bush blueberry suitable for colder climates.

10. What is the name given to the roots of dahlias?

a.)    Rhizomes

b.)    Tubers

c.)    Corms

11. The ‘love apple’ is the original name for what?

a.)    Tomato

b.)    Plum

c.)    Cherry

12. What would a gardener do with a dibber or dibble?

a.)    Transplant seedlings and small plants

b.)    Water plants

c.)    Pull weeds

13. What is the practise of training and clipping trees and shrubs into ornamental shapes?

a.)    Topiary

b.)    Pleaching

c.)    Pollarding

14. Which of the following plants is not a plant for shady woodland gardens

a.)    Rodgersia

b.)    Goatsbeard

c.)    Rudbeckia

15. What is an heirloom seed? 

a.)    Open-pollinated seed from a variety of plant that has been around for many years

b.)    Seed that has been hybridized

c.)    Seed that is not open-pollinated

16. What is the recommended planting depth for seeds?

a.)    As deep as their diameter

b.)    Two times their diameter

c.)    It differs for all plants

17. True or False: Deadheading helps most flowers grow more prolifically

*   *   *   *   *

And here are the answers to the quiz. Some of the answers come from past blog posts:

1.  b

2.  True

3.  a  (click for details)

4.  b  (click for details)

5.  True

6.  b

7.  a

8.  b

9.  True (click for details)

10. b

11. a

12. a

13. a

14. c (click for details)

15. a

16. a

17. True

Win A Signed Copy of “Essential Perennials”


Womanswork is giving away a signed hardcover copy of “Essential Perennials” by our friend Ruth Rogers Clausen and Tom Christopher, published by Timber Press. Photos are by the husband and wife team of Alan and Linda Detrick.  Margaret Roach says, “Finally, a guide to navigating the staggering possibilities among perennials.” Essential Perennials COVER 3D

I interviewed Ruth Clausen about the book and about her life as a gardener and writer. She and her writing partner wanted to make a book that is a reader-friendly reference for inexperienced gardeners, but also provides a resource for the more experienced gardener. I find the book to be an inviting one. It’s not a densely packed reference book, it has lovely colorful plant photographs, lots of white space on the pages, and bullit points that help facilitate comparisons between plants.

I have known Ruth for years but have never talked to her about how she first became interested in gardening . So we talked about her mother and grandmother in South Wales where Ruth grew up. She remembers putting pieces of broken pottery around the base of plants that needed extra alkaline; she remembers making sachets with her mother, using the lavender growing in her grandmother’s garden. As a young girl she road horseback along the coastline near her home, observing the seaside plants growing along the paths. She grew up learning words like Hamamelis and other latin names.

I asked her what her favorite perennial is. It is difficult to pick, she said, but “Today it is the epimedium. I like it because it comes up early in the season, likes shade, grows among tree roots, is drought resistant, has dainty flowers and looks good all summer. Tomorrow I will have another favorite.”ruthrogerclausen

Please tell us what your favorite perennial is, or share with us your stories about gardening, past or present. What are your memories, who inspired you, what do you dream about? Write your comments below and we will select one person to receive a signed copy of Ruth’s book.  Thank you!


Facts You Should Know About Black Bears


Last weekend I learned some interesting things about bears at a talk hosted by a local environmental group called FroGS (Friends of The Great Swamp). The speaker, Felicia Ortner, is a Connecticut Master Wildlife Conservationist, a volunteer outreach program with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).Black Bear Lecture

PawlingBearBlack Bear in my backyard, Pawling, NY

Where I live in Southern Dutchess County NY, I have seen bears in our back yard twice. The second time was last summer when I walked out on my deck and looked over at a crabapple tree about 20’ away and was startled to see a black bear swatting the branches to eat the little red apples that appear in late summer. After looking at me for a moment the bear got up and walked away, into the woods. I looked out again 10 minutes later and he was back in the same spot. After the second siting, I saw no more of him (or her).

I learned that in the USA there are two types of bears, but in most of the country, including New England, there is only one type, the American black bear. (The other type is the Grizzly Bear, found in northwestern US) New England is currently about 80% forest and with the significant decline in agriculture since the mid 1800’s and the reforestation of the land, black bears have made a substantial return to much of their original range.blackbearcub

Black bears, which are not always black in color, are often shy.

If you encounter a black bear, most of the time you can scare it off by making loud noises. There have been only 66 recorded killings of humans by black bears in North America since the year 1900. Many people have heard that a mother bear will become aggressive if you are between her and her cubs but this is not true for black bears. The cubs are taught at an early age to run and climb a tree to get away from danger, and the mother will do the same. Bears are surprisingly agile and are comfortable climbing trees and can run up to 30 miles per hour, in spite of being pigeon toed and having short legs.

Black bears have a sense of smell that is about 7 times as keen as a dog’s.

And we all know that dogs have a sense of smell that is 1000 times as keen as humans.  They are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation even though a majority of their diet is vegetation. A bear will be attracted to a home or any area if it smells honey, fruit, garbage of any kind, or bird seed. So the suggestions are that if you have a compost pile do not put fruit or meat in it, if you have a bird feeder take it in at night and put it back out the next morning. (Bears, like many animals, feed at dawn and dusk.) If you have beehives you might need to put an electric fence around them. With pets, to avoid unnecessary problems, keep dogs on a leash or inside if you sense bear activity nearby.  A bear may feel threatened by the dog and in the act of defending itself, could cause injury to the dog.

Bears go into hibernation in October or November

When they go into hybernation they find a den or even sleep on the ground without a lot of cover. A mother bear gives birth in January or February, then goes back to sleep, sweeping her cubs up in her arms and pulling them to her body to stay warm and provide food. During hibernation a bear’s body temperature will remain within 12 degrees of their active temperature whereas with ‘true’ hibernators (chipmunks for one) body temperature will go below freezing. A bear’s thick fur helps keep them warm and their body temperature higher. Gradually over the winter they burn through the fat they put on in the summer and fall in preparation for hibernation, and they lose 15 to 30% of their body weight. They come out of hibernation and begin to return to ‘normal’ in March or April.

Bears are solitary animals and adult bears travel alone in their constant pursuit of food.

Mothers give birth in Jan/Feb .  Cubs stay with their mothers for about a year and a half and will hibernate with their mothers their first full winter. By the second May or June the cubs are pushed out and on their own so the mother can be independent by breeding season in June and July. Black bears can live to be about 25-30 years old and can weigh up to about 90 to 425 lbs. The oldest known wild black bear died at just under 40 years and the heaviest recorded black bear was 900 pounds.

For more information about bears and other wildlife in your area, contact The Department of Environmental Conservation (or Preservation) in your State.

Flowers For A Wedding


My stepdaughter Eve asked me if I would like to do the flowers for her Vermont wedding last August. Of course I said “Yes!” Then I proceeded to learn a few things about floral arranging.


Farm table set for wedding guests


Pot et fleur with lavender


Lavender with lisianthus, monarda, hydrangea


Pot et fleur with Iris

I had recently been introduced to the concept of ‘pot et fleur‘ arrangements and thought they would be very pretty for the wedding. A pot et fleur arrangement starts with a living potted plant to which cut flower stems are added. The live plant provides an armature for the cut flowers and it is something guests can take home and plant. I chose some lavender plants for the outdoor wedding because lavender is also a natural insect repellent. I added cut flowers such as monarda, hydrangea, lisianthus and sedum ‘madrona’ from my garden, as well as several plants from my mother’s garden. I also reserved some cut flowers at the local garden center, including dahlias, snapdragons and more lisianthus.
I found other plants as well. One of my favorites was a potted iris to which I added lisianthus, dianthus and little joe pye weed buds from my garden.

I discovered lisianthus, which is an annual, when searching for plants online that would be good cut flowers. I bought a few plants and put them in my garden in the Spring, but when it came time to go to Vermont for the wedding I found that I needed to supplement my homegrown ones. In fact, I learned they can be a little tricky to grow. I recommend lisianthus because it is as delicate as a rose but less formal. Like roses, it has lovely buds that are almost as pretty as the open flower. Lisianthus is also a workhorse of a plant and if conditioned properly will hold up for many many hours.


Lisianthus at the Wedding

Conditioning extends the life of fresh flower arrangements. It’s especially important with ‘pot et fleur’ arrangements because the cut stem will eventually be put in the soil of the potted plant rather than be submerged in a vase filled with water. (More on Conditioning below) We arrived in Vermont the day before the wedding with a car full of cut flowers in buckets of water. That afternoon I recut all the stems and resubmerged them in buckets of warm water (up to but not exceeding 100 degrees fahrenheit.) I left them in a cool darkish barn off the side of the house overnight. The next morning I started making the arrangements. The wedding was at 4 pm. The flowers held up beautifully, even the bride’s bouquet!


Hydrangea in a canning jar


Apothecary jar


Kalenchoe with ceramic pot



Newlyweds after the ceremony


Dorian arranging flowers








Conditioning: (Reprinted from The Annual Garden Wheel) As soon as flowers are cut, place them in a deep bucket of lukewarm water, which is easier for the plant to take up than hot or cold water. Do not leave sitting in the sun too long. Most flowers should be cut just before they are fully open. Tight buds may add interest to an arrangement, but they will usually not open after being cut. After bringing flowers indoors, recut the stems at an angle with a sharp knife and put them loosley back into a bucket of warm water submerging about three-fourths length of stem. Allow water to freely circulate around the stems. Cutting stems at an angle allows them to absorb water even when resting on the bottom of a vase. When recutting stems, do it underwater. For some plants this is important as it prevents air bubbles from forming in the stem and hampering water uptake. Use a leaf stripper to strip off any foliage that will fall below the waterline in either the conditioning container or in the vase. Leaves decay rapidly in water, creating a haven for bacteria. Let flowers stand in the water as it cools, preferably in a dark, cool place. If flowers are going to be arranged in a vase with water, then a few hours of conditioning is adequate. If flowers are being inserted in floral form or in a pot et fleur arrangement, let them stand in the water overnight.

Wedding Memento: Use a flower press to keep memories of the flowers at the wedding alive. Afterwards, mount them for framing or decoupage. Order a flower press kit from Womanswork.Flower-Press Flower-PressKit


Growing Dahlias with Frances Palmer

NewsletterHeaderArt-rev FrancesPalmer6 FrancesPalmer8

The following excerpts are reprinted from an article by Frances Palmer in the May/June 2014 issue of Connecticut Gardener, with permission.

Planting: I usually plant my tubers in late April, which is considered early. Most instructions advise planting tubers at the same time as tomatoes. Be that as it may, I dig a hole to accommodate the size of the tuber. If I am planting a new tuber, the hole is only a few inches down and the tuber is placed with its eye and/or new shoot pointing up. I then center a large tomato cage over the tuber, sticking the prongs into the ground. I further support the tomato cage with three bamboo stakes about 5 or 6 feet tall.

In some cases, when a dahlia has been saved from year to year, it can have many tubers and be quite large. I will cut a large plant with many sprouts in half or quarters. These separated tubers can be planted as well or given away. After a tuber is placed in the ground with its supporting cage and stakes, I fill in the hole with soil around all parts.

Groundbreak: It takes three to five weeks for the top of the dahlia stem to poke out of the ground after planting. The timing depends on whether the tuber is small, large, new or stored. Resist the urge to move the soil away and check! I have snapped many a new stalk in this manner and the plant is set back for weeks. Sometimes, it never recovers.
Only after the majority of tubers have broken through do I investigate ones that have not appeared. Sometimes the tuber has rotted (especially if it is a wet spring) or for some inexplicable reason, the eye did not sprout. I try to reserve a group of unplanted tubers to fill in when a planted one does not thrive.

Pruning & Thinning: When the first stalk is 8-12 inches high – again, the size of the eventual flower will be a factor in the height – there should be a small bud with two side leaves. Snap off the bud in the center, keeping the leaves. This will encourage the stem to branch out and more flowers will result as the plant matures. Flowers that are blooming in June and July can crowd the dahlias in their early growing stage. It is important to trim back or pull out other flowering plants that will block the sun or steal room from the tubers. I have a hard time editing the volunteer flowers, especially the sunflowers that self sow every year, but if they are not removed they will impact the dahlia height significantly.

Flowering: By late July, the dahlias should begin to flower. Stems generally have three buds together, a main bud with two lateral ones. Gently snap off the two side buds and this will enable the main one to shoot up straight and form beautifully. The reward is an excellent stem for cutting and arranging.FrancesPalmerCeramicsFrancesPalmer1

Storing tubers: People can be intimidated by the prospect of digging and storing tubers. Before explaining how to do this, it must be said that dahlias do not necessarily have to be dug. The tubers are relatively inexpensive and if you don’t have the time or inclination to dig and store, simply leave the tubers in the ground. They will not make it through the Connecticut winter but you can order a fresh supply to plant in spring.

After the first frost, the tubers remain in the ground for about two weeks or until there have been a couple more hard frosts. You have to watch the weather closely, because the plants must be dug before the ground completely hardens.

With clippers, cut off the stalks above ground to about 6-10 inches, depending on the size of the flower. With a shovel or pitch fork, gently work around the perimeter of the plant and try to find how far the tubers are extending under the soil. Carefully bring the plant up out of the ground in one piece. If some tubers fall off, these can be marked and stored as well.

If you have a tag on the hoop identifying the flower, tie this onto the base where the tubers meet the stalk. Place the tubers in a large cardboard box with a layer of peat moss or sawdust on the bottom. Fill the box with tubers and then gently fill the box with additional peat moss or sawdust. Close the box and store in a cool basement – 40 to 50 degrees is ideal.

Note: Frances Palmer lives in a Zone 5 climate. Dahlias are hardy in Zones 8 and up.


Womanswork Goatskin Gloves

FrancesPalmer9  FrancesPalmer4  FrancesPalmer7

Living The Dream: Raising Sheep


SheepFarm4 We interviewed Theresa Ryan about her experience as a sheep owner, one year after she and her husband Richard bought their first sheep. We hope this will be instructive to others thinking about raising sheep.
Womanswork: When did you start thinking about raising sheep?

Theresa: I have been knitting on and off most of my adult life and weaving for about six years. During that time I have purchased great quantities of wool.  When I started networking with other weavers I found that many of them owned their own sheep. That’s when the seed was planted.

Womanswork: What was the thing that inspired you the most about having your own sheep?



Theresa: I have always loved animals.  When I was growing up, my grandfather had a dairy farm that we visited often, where I had a ‘pet’ chicken and hung out in the barn with the calves and cows.  To my mother’s consternation, I would regularly bring animals home – stray cats, baby squirrels or rabbits, a dog, even a duck.  So the opportunity to have a small menagerie of our own in our semi-retirement is a dream.  We’ve started with sheep and plan to add chickens and pigs to the farm in the spring.

Womanswork: What steps did you take to prepare and over what period of time did you do this?

Theresa: More than a year in advance of actually owning the sheep we visited numerous sheep farms in the area and talked to the shepherdesses/breeders at length.  They were all passionate about their sheep farms and never seemed to tire of our questions.  These women inspired and encouraged us to start our own flock.  We bought stacks of books and visited scads of websites to learn about raising sheep.  We researched sheep breeds, fencing, shelters, feeders, equipment, pasture management, breeding, health, nutrition, sheep anatomy, and what plants are toxic to sheep.


Sabrina, the matriarch

The following spring, we ‘reserved’ three ewe lambs right after they were born and one experienced two-year old ewe from a breeder in Connecticut with the plan to take delivery of them in the fall.  I was fortunate enough to be present at the birth of one of the lambs, who gave birth to twin lambs of her own on our farm this past summer.

We built a barn, dug a trench from the house to the barn for water and electric, and installed wire perimeter fence.  We purchased tubs, grain, hay, minerals, salt, water buckets, hay nets, lambing equipment, heat lamps, portable electric fence and solar energizers, and a few items for general sheep health.

We read that it’s important to establish a relationship with a veterinarian, so we arranged for a vet experienced with sheep to visit our farm right after the sheep arrived in the fall.  We also got a quick lesson from her on how to trim their feet and give them vaccinations.

Womanswork: What were the expenses involved? Is your goal to make this profitable?

Theresa: The big ticket items were the sheep, the barn, the perimeter fence, and the portable electric fence. There was a modest investment in the equipment and supplies, and there is an ongoing expense for the grain, hay, minerals, salt, and medicine.  The plan is to breed the sheep and sell the offspring, excess fleeces and wool, and fiber products made from the wool to offset the costs of maintaining the breeding ewes. Our plan is to have a maximum of 20 sheep at any given time, and we don’t think making a profit is possible on this scale.

Womanswork: What are some of the things that have surprised you?SheepFarm2

Theresa: We have had so many surprises, sometimes daily.  We’ve discovered that the sheep are funny, affectionate, playful, extremely inquisitive, clever, fast runners, and smarter than they’re often given credit for.

Womanswork: Any disappointments?

One of the ewes had triplets this year, but one of them was stillborn.  That is always going to be hard.

Womanswork: If someone wanted to raise sheep for dairy products, how would that be different?

Theresa: According to some estimates, there are over 1,000 different breeds of sheep.  We decided on Finnsheep (or Finnish Landrace) because it is a multi-purpose sheep.  They have excellent quality meat and wool.  They are also good mothers, have a very sweet nature, and are very prolific.  They have been known to have as many as nine lambs in one litter in Finland (where they hail from), and as many as seven in the US.  Although Finnsheep are considered a reasonable alternative dairy sheep because of their prolificacy, their milk production drops way down after a month or so without human intervention.  There is a small selection of highly productive dairy sheep to choose from in the world.  East Friesian are the best milk production sheep and they are available in the US.  Lambs of dairy sheep are removed from their mothers very early on, to maximize the ewe’s milk production, and are bottle-fed.  Our lambs are allowed to stay with their mothers for several months, and are weaned when the mothers’ milk production is at its lowest, and after the lambs have learned what they need to know from their mothers, such as how to eat, what to eat, and how to respond to their environment.

Womanswork: Is there a rule of thumb about how much land you should have for sheep?

Theresa: There are a lot of variables, such as the type of soil, type of vegetation, the climate, the size and thriftiness of the sheep, etc., but in general one acre of land can support 4 or 5 sheep. There are also a number of variables for determining the area needed for each sheep in a confined structure, but 10 to 20 square feet per sheep is a fair estimate.  The lower number would apply to a weaned lamb, and the latter for a nursing ewe and her lambs.


Womanswork Original Leather Work Gloves

Womanswork: What do you love the most about your new adventure?

Theresa: We never tire of looking out the window and seeing our flock in our back yard, and I am really looking forward to processing their wool from start (washing, carding, spinning) to finish (knitting or weaving).

We were nervous at first, bringing four animals all at once to our new farm, but now we have fifteen!  They make us smile every day.  What a trip!

Here are links to some videos Theresa and Richard took in the first year. We’ll post more as they are available.

Thinking About Chickens? Meet 4 Chicken Owners


We are giving away copies of Ashley English’s book, Keeping Chickens: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock. Just write in a comment below telling us why you want to win this book, and we will choose our first winner. We have 3 copies to give away throughout the year, thanks to the generosity of Ashley’s publisher Lark Crafts. (To read more about the talented Ashley English visit her website

AshleyEnglish AshleyEnglishBookWe asked Ashley and three other chicken keepers to tell us about their experience and offer some of their wisdom. Here are our exclusive interviews:

Meet Ashley English

Womanswork: What are some of the ways someone can acquire chickens?

Ashley English: With the resurgence of interest in keeping a flock of backyard chickens, it’s now easier to find chickens than ever. I always encourage people to look locally from resources such as feed & seed stores, area farms, and places such as Craigslist or local classified ads. An area veterinarian might also have suggestions for acquiring birds locally. Online hatcheries such as Murray McMurray and My Pet Chicken are places to look if you can’t source nearby or if you are seeking out a specific breed.


Ashley English wearing Womanswork Goatskin Gloves

Womanswork: How do I choose between different types of chickens?

Ashley English: What type of bird might work best for you might not work best for another. Consider what your needs are (do you want chickens for their eggs, for table purposes (meaning to eat), for both eggs and table, for show) and then go from there. Such individual needs will help you determine if what you’re looking for is a bird known for prolific egg laying, or that’s particularly good to eat, or that has lovely plumage (feathers). From there, decide if you want to get birds as chicks, pullets (females under 1 year of age), hens, or males, as there are pros and cons to each.

Womanswork: Will chickens cause damage in my garden? How can I prevent that?

Ashley English: If you allow your flock to free range, bear in mind they will scratch and mar the landscape in their hunt for bugs (chickens are insectivores primarily, so bugs are what they really want to eat most of all). They’ll also take opportunistic pecks and nibbles of anything that interests them. Should you wish to keep them away from, say, some prize-winning rose bushes or your heirloom tomatoes that are just beginning to ripen, then you’ll need to put up a barricade.

Ashley-retFB Womanswork: Do chickens get rid of ticks?

Ashley English: It’s bugs that chickens truly want to consume. Ticks are part of that category, making a free-ranging flock an ideal low tech means of keeping tick populations in check in your area.

 Womanswork: What can I expect in terms of egg production from my flock?

Ashley English: A pullet will begin laying eggs at some time between 16-18 weeks of age. She’ll be her most prolific in the first two years of her life. After that, egg-laying tapers off, but doesn’t ever cease entirely. You’ll want to keep that in mind as your flock ages, rotating older birds out (if you choose to do so, via culling-you can also simply allow them to age which is what I’ve done, with some members of my flock now 6 years old and still laying, albeit about every other day or so) and younger birds in.

Keep in mind also that chickens may taper off laying during the winter. They get their cue to lay from a signal in their pituitary gland. When there is less then 14 hours of sunlight in a day, the gland sends a message to curtail laying, and conversely to resume production of eggs when there is more than 14 hours of sunlight in a day. Bear in mind also that in late summer/early autumn, chickens will shed their feathers, or “molt.” When this happens, they will not be laying eggs, as the calcium that would otherwise go into shell formation will be re-routed to form the quills for new feathers.


Ashley English with her son Huxley

Womanswork: How do I keep my chickens safe, while giving them enough freedom?

Ashley English: The predators present in your area will be based on your geographic location. Where I live, which is in a deeply forested mountain cove [in North Carolina], there are aerial threats (from chicken hawks and owls), climbing threats (from raccoons), and “wiggling”, above-ground threats (from snakes and weasels). To keep my flock safe, I have attempted to install predator-proofing lines of defense in numerous ways, from overhead netting to buried fencing to barbed wire atop the fencing. Ask other chicken-keepers in your area what kinds of threats are present and prepare and fortify their housing accordingly.

Meet Shayla Grover

We discovered our second chicken owner through Instagram, where she has a popular page @letsgetsomechickens. After falling in love with her photos of chickens and pigs cohabitating on her Cape May, NJ farm, and the captions that went with them, we asked her to tell us about her experience as a chicken owner.

"Turnip wasn't super impressed with it, but @rwolf4 (my boyfriend) got me this pretty accurate shirt for my birthday"

“Turnip wasn’t super impressed with it, but @rwolf4 (my boyfriend) got me this pretty accurate shirt for my birthday”

Womanswork: What kinds of chickens do you have, and how did you choose them? How many do you have?

Shayla Grover: We have about 450 laying hens right now, and 100 2 week old Ameraucanas in the brooder.  For production purposes, we have a lot of Rhode Island Reds – they make up about 75% of our current flock.  I don’t have anything against Reds personally, but I do find them a tad boring.  Some of my favorite breeds, chosen mostly for their docile and friendly dispositions, are Australian Australorps, Turkens (people tend to either love or hate them, I think they’re cute!) and Ameraucanas.  These three breeds are all great layers as well, plus everyone always loves the green and blue tinted eggs of the Ameraucanas!

This little stinker. I was trying to get a photo of her napping with the hen, but she opened her eyes at the last second.

“This little stinker. I was trying to get a photo of her napping with the hen, but she opened her eyes at the last second.”

Womanswork: How do you keep your chickens safe, while giving them enough freedom?

Shayla Grover: We have been lucky (knock on wood) in that we haven’t had too much of a predation problem.  Our biggest threat is from hawks, during their fall migration.  Cape May is a hot spot from late August through December, when 50,000 hawks of 15 different species pass through.  Sadly, it is just a part of raising chickens that we will lose a few to them.  Our three roosters also do their best to keep an eye out for danger and warn their ladies to take cover.

Chickens instinctively know that when it starts to get dark out, it’s time to go home!  Even our most adventurous free rangers “come home to roost” each night.  They simply need to be closed in at night and let out in the morning! Of course, you want to make sure the coop is predator-proof before locking your girls in there!

Womanswork: Getting eggs. What to expect with that. Do they lay in winter?

Shayla Grover: Even though our ladies are free-rangers, they are mostly good about laying in their nest boxes.  There are a few rogue nests around the farm that I check each day, and I am sure there are more that I will just never find!

Eggs are like people - it's what's on the inside that matters.

“Eggs are like people – it’s what’s on the inside that matters.”

Young hens, called pullets, will start laying eggs at an average of 6 months old, and depending on their breed and living conditions, will lay 200-300 eggs a year for their first couple years.   The older ladies start to take it easy, so it’s a good idea to add new girls to your flock before they stop altogether!

Production absolutely goes down over winter.  Hens need 15 hours of light a day to lay eggs, and you can encourage year round laying by using artificial light inside the coop, but we don’t do that.  I think that our ladies have earned a bit of a vacation, and lucky for us, we live in a very seasonal area, so the demand for our eggs declines just as production does!

Womanswork: How do the pigs relate to the chickens?

Shayla Grover: Well, the chickens and pigs aren’t cohabitating on purpose.  Some of the chickens just seem to like living with the pigs better than they like living with their own kind! I can’t really blame them, it’s always warm and cozy with all that piggy body heat, and the pigs get all the good slop too!  The pigs don’t seem to mind either, since some of the hens lay their eggs in the pig’s bedding, literally “breakfast in bed” for the pigs!  We did hang a few milk crates from the wall of the pig house to try and save some of those eggs from becoming pig snacks, and most of the “pig chickens” use them now.   And, I’m not going to lie – seeing baby piglets cozy up to a hen the same size as they are is pretty darn cute!

Turnip with Shayla Grover

Shayla Grover with Turnip

Growing up, we always had a couple dozen chickens around.  My Mom let each of us help put together the chick order, and it was (and still is) so much fun to pour over the catalog, trying to decide which breeds to select.

I attended college in Philadelphia, and definitely missed having chickens around! I am, admittedly, a “crazy chicken lady,” but I could honestly just watch them interact all day. Chickens are such a quintessential part of life to me, and their cheerful peeps and clucks, and silly mannerisms, absolutely make my day every day!

Meet Eve Winslow

Our daughter Eve Winslow is our third chicken keeper interviewee. Eve lives in a very cold climate, Woodstock, VT, so she brings a little different perspective to the topic.

Eve with Penny Woodstock

Eve Winslow with Penny

Womanswork: What kinds of chickens do you have, and how did you choose them?

Eve Winslow: I became a chicken owner on June 20th, 2013. We got Annie, a Buff Orpington hybrid hen from a friend who needed to find a home for her. Two weeks later we got Merriweather, a Barred Rock hen, and Penny, a Rhode Island Red, from a local person who breeds heritage chickens. I wanted 3 different breeds to learn about their different personalities and different eggs. And they look pretty together. I had planned to add new ones each year, but for now I’m committed to owning a flock of 3.  They produce the perfect amount of eggs for two people, it’s easy to clean their coop, and it’s not as likely that predators will catch their whiff.

Woodstock, VT milkhouse turned chicken coop

Woodstock, VT milkhouse turned chicken coop

Womanswork: How do you keep your chickens safe, while giving them enough freedom?

Eve Winslow: We have a very secure chicken coop behind our house that used to be a milkhouse. That’s where they spend the night and most of the winter. Nate built an outdoor chicken coop on wheels (chicken tractor) that we move around the yard so they always have fresh lawn to scratch for bugs and other things. They stay in the moveable coop part of the day, but they also get to free range for about 3-4 hours each day as long as I am outside with them or in my upstairs studio, which has a view of the backyard.  After Penny was attacked and nearly killed by a fox this summer, I have gotten into the habit of calling out to them from my studio about every 20 minutes (crazy?), just to make sure they’re staying close to home. I’ve started to train them to respond to my call by giving them treats when they come. It works!

Womanswork: In such a cold climate, do your hens lay in winter?


Feeding Merriweather a warm snack on a cold day

Eve Winslow: During warm months we get about 3 eggs a day, one from each hen.  In the winter we get a little less than that, but their production doesn’t fall off that much. We don’t give them supplemental light, which would increase their production in winter because each hen lays just so many eggs in a lifetime and we have no need to hurry them along. After about 2 years of age their egg laying production will drop off a little, but it can keep going until they’re about 5 years old or even sometimes longer.

But I do open the door to their coop in the winter to let light in during the day. And I also bring them a hot breakfast most mornings made of oatmeal and mashed squash or sweet potato, with a little grit mixed in to aid digestion and crushed oyster shell for calcium. We don’t heat the coop because if we were to lose power the sudden cold could cause them to go into shock.  On a couple of very cold nights we did turn on the heat lamp, but I’m so concerned about fire that I was checking them constantly during the night. Chickens do acclimate to the cold and they huddle together and puff up to stay warm.  Their water bowl is heated but on a very cold night I take that out of the coop because the moisture it produces can cause frostbite.

Womanswork: What has surprised you the most about having chickens?

Eve Winslow: I was not expecting them to be so charming. And they each have a distinct personality like people. Annie is at the top of the pecking order, even though Merriweather is the largest. They have their favorite spots on the roosting bar and I can hear them argue and squabble about who gets to sleep where, but in the end Annie always gets her way.  I know I anthropomorphize them alot, but it’s been so much fun to see their individual personalities take shape. Before I got them I was planning to cull the flock for meat, but that would be impossible for me to do now. As long as they live they have a home here.

Meet Dorian Winslow


Eudora and Jamaica on the railing of our front porch

I decided to write my own account because I was a chicken owner and my experience may be instructive to others.

Tom and I got our chickens from a friend who ordered them in the mail. Yes, the US Postal Service will mail day old chicks all over the country. Usually when you order by mail you have to meet a minimum of 25 chicks or so. Our friend only wanted about 15 so he was looking for homes for the others. We committed to 3 and then left them with him to incubate in a warm cage until they were about 3 months old. In the meantime we prepared our chicken coop. We converted a small lean to shed on the side of our garage into a coop, then added an 8-foot long chicken wire run on the outside that was connected with a little swinging door built into the side of the coop.

Chicken Coop with Daisy

Chicken Coop with Daisy

We picked up our pullets in May and showed them their new home. They seemed happy, especially because we let them free range all the day long when we were at home. They were Araucana chickens, known for their beautiful plumage and friendly-to-people personalities. I named them after three female literary giants: Eudora [Welty], Jamaica [Kincaid] and Harper [Lee]. In August my husband and I were traveling out of town when we got a phone call from our neighbors: the first egg had been laid. It was a beautiful pale blueish green, which is another hallmark of the Araucana breed of chicken. Click here for a video with me and my chickens.

Our first egg!

Our first egg!

Unfortunately it went downhill from there. We got attached to the chickens and thought of them like pets and they got taken, one by one over the course of the next year, by foxes during broad daylight when everyone was home and even our dog was about.

We have not been able to figure out how to keep our chickens safe while giving them an enjoyable free ranging lifestyle, so for now we are chickenless.  If we figure it out we may try again.