From "La Palais de Poulet" to "Castillo de Pollo"
I’m not sure when exactly the bug bit me to want to raise chickens in my backyard, but it’s something I remember wanting to do since I was a child. I suppose something about the sound of clucking chickens and fresh eggs played into a storybook garden fantasy of mine. Reaching under a hen and pulling out an egg was tantamount to playing with puppies in my little girl head – weird, I know! I grew up on a ranch out in Newhall, California, where a constant stream of directors, actors and stuntmen would visit my Dad (a venerated stuntman/second unit director) when he was in preparation for his next production. On the ranch, we had peacocks, camels, and horses- stunt horses mostly- so having working and exotic livestock around was no stretch. But we never had chickens! That remained only my fantasy. I spent years reading about rare breeds and all the different colors of eggs they could lay, along with coop designs, the benefits of fresh eggs, how much better they were for you -and how much tastier, too. Not to mention the miracle that fresh chicken manure could play in a garden! But, alas! It remained only a dream for many years.
In the early 90s I moved to Connecticut with my husband David, and there was able to witness the grande dame of backyard animal husbandry, Martha Stewart in action on her famed suburban homestead in Westport. I joined the Westport Historical Society upon hearing a rumor that Martha, also a member, would be hosting spring garden party fundraisers in her famous gardens on Turkey Hill. The rumor was true, and for years I faithfully paid my dues and attended those gorgeous garden parties. There was never enough film in my camera to capture all the beautiful garden ideas and the practical home solutions I studied meticulously during those fleeting hours in Ms. Stewart’s world. On that property, there was immaculate attention to detail everywhere you looked, from the impeccably stacked dry set fieldstone garden walls to the fresh paint on every surface. Even the risers of the patio stairs leading up to the bluestone terrace were composed of tiny natural stones with moss expertly outlining each rock, like perfectly piped verdant grout. On the door of her chicken coop, a custom plaque read, “Le Palais de Poulet” - I could not possibly have been any more impressed, not even if I were actually standing at the front door of a true French palace. The wire chicken run itself was at least 50 feet square with the perimeter festooned in climbing roses, and the coop was painted the most beautiful shade of putty that looked cool, stately and elegant against the powder pink roses climbing all about. Okay, so obviously the bar was set really high, but what an inspiration! Can you imagine? My poor husband.
I started my interior design firm in New England right around this time, and I was blessed to help create some really amazing homes, gardens and fantastical spaces for my family and clients during these wonderful years. But I did not actually realize my fantasy of having my own backyard flock until moving back to Southern California just a few years ago. With the excuse of harsh winters no longer an impediment, and with boxes barely unpacked, one of the first things I set about working on at our new home in the hills above Malibu was (you guessed it!) a proper chicken coop and enclosure. A little sliver of land at the front of our property was leveled and we built a retaining wall at one side from all the rocky rubble we cleared away. This became the walled garden, with raised stone beds filled with roses around the perimeter, a fountain at the center and our little coop located on the east side of the garden. A mature olive tree stands just outside the coop, and wire fencing wraps around it with aviary netting over the top that provides a wonderfully shaded and secure outdoor run for the chickens. The coop is designed in an authentic Spanish style to match the house, and taking a cue from Martha, it is dubbed “Castillo de Pollo.” It’s stucco with antique Spanish roof tiles with Provençal oak shutters from an old French barn that function as doors. I ordered our first batch of peepers from Murray McMurray, one of the oldest hatcheries in the country. I grew up thumbing through their catalogs, and I could hardly believe that after so many years I was actually placing an order.
I finally have the backyard flock and storybook coop I always dreamed about, filled with Araucanas, Cuckoo Marans, Silkies, Buff Cochins, Partridge Cochins, Frizzles, that cluck and coo and provide baskets of fresh eggs in pastel shades every day. This spring we’re adding some new and rare breeds to our brood: White Marans that lay a speckled light brown egg, and Cream Legbars that lay a rare sky blue egg, to name a few! Things I enjoy most about finally having our little flock? First and foremost, I love knowing that our eggs are sustainably farmed from happy, healthy hens. The eggs we enjoy are of a much higher quality than you can buy from commercial growers – higher in nutrients much more delicious. Our chickens add a pulsating dash of life to our home and garden that is hard to describe. They are entertaining and utterly fascinating- even the dogs race me to the garden to say hello to their chicken buddies. One of the absolute best things about having your own chickens is that you’ll never again be hard pressed to come up with a great hostess gift – who wouldn’t love opening a box filled with fresh colorful eggs? It’s a personal and completely unique gift. So far, my foray into raising chickens has completely lived up to my childhood imaginings, and now I can’t imagine my garden without them!