One of the main things we wanted to do to prepare the orchard for the chickens was to make sure they had plenty of grass. When it comes to free range eggs one of the most notable characteristics is the deep orange yellow colour of the yolks. Grass certainly plays its part in creating that colour, alongside the maize that they get in mixed corn. Also, it is just fun to see them scrabbling in the turf. It looks like it is more of a challenge for their powerful claws, and I can’t help thinking that it must be good exercise for them.

We earmarked an area of ground around the plum tree, in the shade of the fence, that would make a good grassy area. We have tried growing various plants in that area over the years but only some hellebores and wild geraniums have really taken to it, so it was no great loss to turn it over. It was also an annual challenge to get right the way around the trees to pick to fruit, so clearing the ground made a lot of sense.

Most of the plants came out easily. A leggy cotinus, patches of lychnis and geraniums and a few self-seeded annuals like mare’s tail and evening primrose all came up without a fight. By mid-afternoon the chickens were delighted with our work, giving them a smorgasbord of juicy grubs without them having to do any of the digging!

The only remaining challenge was an old ribes sanguineum, with a honeysuckle winding through it. Welcome colour in the Spring, the ribes would then rapidly expand and fill in the gap between the apple and plum trees, and the honeysuckle would wind through its branches and make it tricky to prune back. Luckily, the ribes had self-seeded in a more appropriate place so this particular specimen was able to be earmarked for removal.

I don’t know if you have ever tried to dig out an established shrub or small tree. The method seems to be to dig around the roots, cutting with a pruning saw (an axe always seems to bounce right off) or slicing the smaller roots with a spade until you start to get ‘a wobble’. For this you need to have planned ahead: removing enough of the plant so as to not get in the way while leaving sufficient trunk length to grab and jiggle back and forth. However, there often comes a time when a large tap root has driven straight down into the earth and, jiggle as you might, you just can’t get to see enough of it to cut it. This is where Archimedes reaches across the centuries to give us the answer. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.” With a six foot metal pole (the rigid support from underneath an old double bed) rammed into the dark depths beneath the root ball, like Odysseus spearing the Cyclops’s eye, we didn’t quite move the world, but that ribes popped up out of the ground in a jiffy.

As the chickens jumped into the newly formed pit of grubby buffet we took stock of our day’s work. The site was cleared. Next up we would have to clean it up and feed it ready for turf…but not before a cuppa and a sit down and a chat with the hens…

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