Cindy Shapton writes, speaks and blogs about her gardening adventures. She has had 50 chickens, 4 roosters, 2 sheep, 20-plus rabbits, 200 fruit trees, 4 colonies of bees and 1 Jack Russell on a 2-acre herb farm in the city limits of Franklin, Tenn.

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The New Faces of Urban Spaces
by Cindy Shapton       #Birds   #Homesteading

The food movement in this country has prompted many to rethink where our food comes from. Economic times have brought people around to giving “growing their own” some serious thought; after all, many remember our parents or grandparents stepping into the backyard and gathering eggs for breakfast or a mess of green beans for dinner or fresh milk from the family cow or goat.

Still others want to get off the fast track and get back to simpler times and develop relationships with family and people in their communities. With stress levels at all-time highs, a little exercise and micro-farming therapy in the backyard makes sense.

Kitchen gardens are springing up in the usual places and creative people with a passion for food are finding new ways to grow food in small spaces. Containers, rooftops, living walls and even in gutters. It has become trendy to design landscapes with edibles for people and wildlife. Even foraging is gaining new interest these days – chickweed and dandelions are becoming salad chic.

We can all do something to feed ourselves wholesome, safe food whether we live in the city, suburbs or even in a condo or apartment. Many communities have now adopted policies to allow city dwellers to have chickens and other small livestock on their property. But it’s a good idea to check with your city or county officials to get the green light before you decide on farming in the backyard.

It doesn’t take much to have a couple of chickens for eggs, rabbits for meat, or even goats for fresh milk while giving you some peace of mind and a sense of self reliance.

Let’s break it down into simple terms and lay a basic foundation for growing food from critters in your backyard, on your patio or balcony. First, take an inventory of space available and identify how much space you have to dedicate to farming. Next, what is most important to you or your family: fresh eggs, an economical meat source?  Consider your available time – do you travel?  If you are away from home often, milking a goat once or twice a day is probably not going to work for you. Check with your neighbors – maybe you can pool your resources of time, space and dollars to create a little slice of urban farm life in your neighborhood.

Now that you’ve taken inventory, let’s check to see if one of the following critters are a good fit for your property and family needs.


Chicken coop drawing by Ron Shapton. This plan calls for it to be made from recycled, on-hand free materials.


Choosing your first chickens can be a little tricky. My first chickens were colorful bantams (miniature birds) that I got for my birthday. They are good layers with quirky personalities and are perfect for small yards, but the eggs are smaller too. We recently built a new coop so now I can expand my flock. I love my banties but I’m anxious to grow some bigger birds that can give me large colorful eggs.


Talk to other chicken owners or research online when deciding what type of chicken to buy. Here are just a few suggestions that are usually easy to find.

1. Rhode Island Red – A smaller-sized chicken. Good layer of large brown eggs, and they don’t mind cold weather.

2. Buff Orpington – Sweet-natured fat bird; a good layer or meat bird.

3. Ameraucana – Nice-sized birds who lay blue or green eggs.

4. Bantams – Miniature birds that come in all shapes and sizes. Silkies are fun just to look at and good brooder hens (will sit on and hatch eggs in a coop).



Buff Orpingtons and Americaunas perch outside this chicken coop, a favorite hangout during warm summer months when the coop is too warm.


What you will need to get started: 

1. A coop (hen house) or chicken tractor (a portable chicken cage) where they can get in and out of the weather and are safe from predators.

2. Chickens need 2-3 square feet each in a chicken coop. Our coop is 12 square feet so I can accommodate approximately six birds, four regular size and a couple of banties (miniature chickens).

3. Laying hens will share nest boxes so figure one box for every four hens.

4. Chickens like to roost on a perch (a board with rounded edges) a foot or two off the floor.

5. They will need a fenced in area (4-5 square feet each) on the ground for scratching and exercise, or they can free-range in your yard. A bowl of grit is a good idea if your chickens don’t free-range to help with digestion.

6. Fresh food and water. My girls usually free-range unless I’m away from home so I supplement their diet with a little cracked corn and layer crumbles (or pellets) made for chickens. Food and grit are available at your farm store.


It’s nice to the have nest boxes on the side of the coop with a separate roof. Children (and adults) love to open the door of the nest boxes and discover eggs.

Having a flock of chickens in the backyard is a wonderful experience. Chickens, like people, have their own personalities. My chickens follow me around the yard and will eat out of my hand. When they hear my voice, they come running, hoping to get a treat. They love snacks of old bread, veggies, flax seeds and the occasional bugs I pick off my vegetables.

It is so much fun to go out to the coop and raise the lid on the nesting boxes and gather eggs. Nothing compares to fresh warm eggs for breakfast. A good laying hen will produce up to 24 dozen eggs in a year.

They also scratch where they are not supposed to, especially new seedlings, and they leave stinky presents on the deck outside the kitchen door when they come looking for me. Neighbors aren’t crazy about chickens in their garden pecking holes in their tomatoes; I know this firsthand from experience. These are some of the cons of owning chickens and something to think about before getting your first chick.

Roosters aren’t necessary for hens to lay eggs. They are needed to fertilize eggs if you decide to hatch your own chicks. If neighbors live close, be courteous; you may love to hear a rooster crow at dawn but not everyone does.

For lots more information and to check zoning restrictions in your community, go to



This coop will house six chickens on the inside and lots of hens and chicks, Sempervivum tectorum, on the outside.  The window opens for ventilation in the hot summer months. The perch is placed 22 inches high so the girls can see outside when they wake up.


Simple Chicken Coop – Houses Six Chickens 

I asked my husband to build me a chicken coop. My only requirement was that it house six chickens and have a “cute” factor to it.

His only requirement was that it didn’t cost us anything. So together we came up with a plan and then started collecting materials. Our friends helped by donating materials. It is finished, functional and we didn’t spend any money on it. Cilantro and Coriander love their new home and they think it’s pretty cute.

• Made from recycled, on-hand and free material

• Cost $0.00

• Overall dimensions: 4 feet wide x 3 feet deep x 5 feet high in front and 3 feet high in back

• Materials Needed:

   Roofs...............................3 feet x 6 feet sheet metal, or equivalent

   Framing...........................About 10 pieces 1.5 inches x 6 inches x 8 feet rough-sawn lumber,    or equivalent

   Window/Roof Framing...About 4 pieces 1.5 inches x 1.5 inches x 8 feet

   Siding..............................Two sheets ½-inch plywood, or equivalent

   Chicken Wire..................One small roll, 3 feet width x approximately 25 feet long

   Window...........................Reclaimed window, approximately 2 feet x 3 feet

   Misc................................Four pieces of 2.5-inch hinges, nails, screws, paint, staples, chain

   Tools Needed..................Tape measure, saw, power screwdriver, hammer, square, staple gun,    tin snips, paintbrush, small drills for pilot holes.

• Features:

   1) Outward window hinges for access to coop and ventilation.

   2) Screen behind window is framed and hinged inward.

   3) Floor of coop: seven 8-inch boards running front to back with 1 inch space between             boards to allow easy cleaning. Chicken wire is stapled beneath the floorboards to keep
   varmints out.

   4) Perch: 2 inches x 4 inches x 4 feet long, placed 22 inches off the floor.



Rabbits are the best meat source an urban farmer can grow.



Rabbits are easy to raise and usually don’t fall under zoning restrictions since they are not considered livestock. Because they don’t take up much space, anyone can raise rabbits, even indoors or on a balcony. They are quiet critters, which is a big plus for nearby neighbors.

Rabbit meat is low fat and high protein and easy to digest. One 10 pound rabbit can produce 320 pounds of meat per year in a space that is 3 feet square by 2 feet high. That could go a long way in feeding your family wholesome meat that is very economical to grow yourself.

Californians and New Zealand Whites are two common meat rabbits. It is a good idea to start small with one buck (male) and two or three does (female). The gestation period for rabbits is 32 days. Litters usually consist of six to ten kits or babies. At eight weeks the babies can be weaned and switched to rabbit food.


Knox Gardner built this rabbit hutch with a rooftop garden of strawberries making dual use of his urban space. Photo by Knox Gardner

What you will need to get started:

1. A 3 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet high cage built off the ground that is a convenient height for the person(s) who is taking care of them.

2. Use ½-inch-square heavy wire mesh for the cage bottom so that droppings fall out, keeping the rabbit clean.

3. Provide sides that have plenty of airflow for ventilation.

4. One rabbit per cage. Does will need a nesting box put in their cage prior to kindling (giving birth).

5. Make the door large enough to get in to feed and thoroughly clean all areas of cage.

6. Rabbit pellets and hay are the recommended feed and can be purchased at a farm store.

7. Rabbits need clean water twice a day.

8. Place cages in a shady spot out of the rain and bad weather. Provide an area out of drafts in cold weather. A frozen 2-liter bottle of water per cage helps to keep rabbits cool on extremely hot days.

9. Rabbits like snacks of carrots, apples, bananas, seeds and lettuce.

Rabbit manure is a great byproduct that doesn’t need to be composted. Put it directly on your garden without burning plants.

For more information on Urban Farming check out The Backyard Homestead – edited by Carleen Madigan (Storey Publishing).



Would you like to have fresh milk but you don’t think you have the room? Think again. If you can provide a pen of 30 feet x 30 feet and two extra-large doghouses or a small storage shed for shelter, you could be in production in no time.

Nigerian dwarves are little goats that may produce 1-2 quarts of milk per day. About the size of a Labrador full grown, these mini goats are easy to handle even for children. Nigerian dwarf goats are known for their sweet temperaments and the cute factor is off the charts.

These goats are social and need a buddy (another goat) to be really happy. In order to produce milk, they must give birth each year, usually having two to four babies. Owning two does and breeding them six months apart is ideal. When one goat’s milk production starts to wane, the other one will start to pick up, keeping your family in milk year round.

Nigerian dwarf goat milk has the highest fat content of 6-8 percent, perfect for making cheese, butter, ice cream and yogurt. With proper cooling, sanitation and milking practices, this goat’s milk tastes like cow’s milk. Many who are allergic to cow’s milk can tolerate goat’s milk.

Male goats tend to stink since they have this habit of urinating on themselves. Because of this folks in urban settings tend to raise a pair of does, and when its time for breeding, they put their little goat in a large dog crate and take it to a farm that has a buck.

Nigerian dwarves or any dairy goats are not for the faint of heart, but they are a lot of fun and can be a source of milk or meat if needed. They will follow you wherever you go, and they love to eat nice leafy plants such as grapes and raspberries, and especially strawberries. The problem is they are so adorable, it is hard to get mad at them!

What you will need to get started:

            1. A 90-square-foot pasture area that is fenced (for two mini goats)

            2. Shelter with ventilation – about the size of a large doghouse

            3. Nigerian dwarf goats enjoy objects to jump up on.

            4. These goats are social and need to be in pairs.

            5. Goat feed for dairy goats and fresh grass or hay plus minerals

            6. Deworming on a regular basis

For more information on urban farming check out The Backyard Homestead edited by Carleen Madigan (Storey Publishing).


Posted: 06/06/11   RSS | Print


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