• Steven Bennett

Finding Paradise - Part 4 Fingers to the Bone


After the instructions for building the potting shed had ended up in the bin before the first wall was up, I didn't hold out much hope for the polytunnel build. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I found a large and comprehensive book detailing how to turn the pile of scaffolding I had in front of me into a usable tunnel.

But knowing how to do it is a world away from actually doing it.

Me planning the next step

When you're doing some kind of joinery then the mantra is measure twice, cut once. When you're putting up a poly tunnel its more like measure twenty seven times, put a piece of metal in the ground once (doesn't slip off the tongue quite as easily I know).

Our tunnels are each 30ft long by 14ft wide. They are each made up of seven hoops (each five feet apart) connected by a central bar at the top. It is a very simple but effective structure. The critical part is making sure that the hoops go in the ground at the right place or everything else after that will be wrong which is where all the measuring comes in. We measured everything out and put canes where the hoops would meet the ground. We then measured the diagonals and found that we had somewhere inevitably gone wrong. Many, many moves, adjustments and re measures later we banged our first piece of tubing in and finally were off the mark.

Prior to starting the tunnels I had watched videos online of these very same structures being put up. The quickest amount of time, from arriving on site to putting the polythene on seemed to be eight hours. After about four hours I stood back and surveyed the one piece of tube I had put into the ground. If I was going to beat the eight hour record then I was really going to have to pick up the pace.

After all the ground pieces had been hammered down (in the right place) then its a simple, but time consuming task to screw and bolt all the other pieces together. Time consuming because a lot of pieces are ten feet up in the air so every time you need to put a screw or bolt in then its a case of moving ladders, up the ladders, dropping something, back down the ladders to retrieve it etc.

Door frames in position

While I was busy putting the frames together, Emma was working hard building the bench tops which would make the tunnels a usable space when finished. This involved a lot of arduous sawing to length and screwing together. Its also not easy trying to make straight table tops on a sloping dusty surface. She did a really good job because those tops are still with us today and have held up amazingly well to all we've thrown at them.

Once the majority of the metal frame was up it was time to start putting in the wooden frames for the doors. This involved making the main frame and then digging a nice deep trench for it to sit in. All of this has to be done so that when the doors are hung onto the frames, they aren't dragging on the floor. As usual it takes a fair amount of planning and measuring which again takes more time. A lot of putting together something like a polytunnel can mean that no visual changes take place for a while, a concept that Emma finds challenging. But more haste less speed is the key.

Emmas benches installed

A little off the eight hour mark I was aiming for (about two weeks), we were ready for the momentous day of putting on the polythene. We were looking forward to this as this was when all our hard work would come together into a workable polytunnel. We chose a windless day, which after we had unfurled the sixty food long piece of polythene sail, turned out to be quite breezy. Somehow the two of us together managed to drape the polythene over the frame and began to nail it onto the frames before attaching it to the base rail with plastic clips.

The manufacturers videos show a grinning chap ambling into a tunnel, kneeling down and simply clipping the polythene into place. It takes him about 15 seconds to do a 5 foot section. Let me tell you that it is not that easy. Each five foot section I did took about half an hour. The kind of pressure which is required to push the clips together is unbelievable. There must be some technique which makes it easy but I am not privy to it. After several hours of crawling around on my hands and knees I was ruined. I had put so much pressure through my fingers onto the tunnel that I had lost skin off them. And I still had the other side of the tunnel to do.

As respite from building the polytunnels we had acquired our chickens. We had attended the course on how to look after them and learnt a lot. We knew what to feed a chicken and why, and what that food should look like when it comes out the other end. We had brought back with us 8 point of lay hybrid hens and installed them in the run. I spent a happy afternoon sat in the sun with our new pets getting to know them and allowing them to get to know me.

First afternoon with the flock

As the afternoon began to draw to a close I thought it was about time for the girls to go to bed. This hadn't been covered on the course so I began with a few encouraging arm waves and noises in the general direction of the coop. In return I received a few suspicious looks but no steps were taken towards home.

As time went on my gestures became more dramatic but eventually I ended up just chasing chickens around the pen. I managed to pen the odd one in a corner, pick her up and deposit her in a nest box hoping they'd get the idea; but while I was off collecting another bird, the first popped back out again and resumed scratching around again. I was being mugged off by eight chickens so broke out some engineering. Surely one human could outwit a few simple chickens.

I put together a collection of cardboard, pallets and a plastic table which created a curving wall which spiralled in towards the bottom of the ramp. It wasn't going to win any design awards but would be more than enough to force a few reluctant chickens to bed. The chickens are shepherded around into one end and then walk through a narrowing gap until they find themselves at the bottom of the ramp. They then go up the ramp and into the coop. At least that was the idea. In reality it panned out quite differently. I got a few chickens to enter the 'vortex' and to some extent the natural curving in did send them towards the ramp. Once they got there though it was chaos.

Defeated by chickens

Some of them went under the coop, some of them did a swift about turn and muscled past me ignoring my pleas to go back, while others used the ramp but only as a springboard to go over my wall and disappear. It was in short a complete failure. I dismantled my creation and cancelled the call to the patent office. I then sat and resigned myself to spending the whole night on guard duty doing perimeter patrol to ward off any foxes who had ideas of eating my chickens.

About half an hour later though, just as it was going full dusk and the night was drawing in, one of the girls wandered over to the coop. She walked all the way around it looking up at it from all angles in that curious one eyed manner that chickens have of looking at things. She then hopped up onto the ramp and went straight into the coop. Over the next 10 minutes she was followed by all the others the last being Edna (still the last to bed every night) who insisted on a few last second bites of corn.

So after that first evening I knew two things. One, that to put chickens put themselves to bed and second that you can't make a chicken do something it isn't ready to do.

In the two years that we have had our girls now they have always put themselves to bed at exactly the same time relative to the sun. It has forced us into adjusting our lives towards chicken time and away from clock time and we are better for it.

Steve


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