I went looking for a story about urban chickens, but I found a whole lot more.
It started when my friend Temple Ellis called to say I should check out the small in-town flock of chickens being cultivated at the home of Pat and Carol Durusau. Pat works at home, but graciously agreed to give a tour while Carol, the Newton County Library’s manager of patron services, was at work.
The first thing I saw as we headed to the back yard — besides a lush patch of herbs along the driveway — was a lonely chicken caged away from the flock.
"Oh, he’s the smallest of the chickens and was getting pecked and picked on," Pat said. "We’re giving him away to friends...’’
At the back fence line, the chicken coop was sheltered under a shady overhang of limbs, and a motley crew of them gathered in a tight crowd at the sight of a stranger. They are protected from predators like foxes and possums by both chicken wire and hardware cloth.
"Regard it just as desirable to build a chicken house as it is to build a cathedral," noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright said.
Pat showed me a nest of eggs — pale blue, olive green and a lovely brown — ready to be gathered. They get four or five eggs daily during laying season and eat lots of omelets and frittatas, Carol told me later.
The saga of the in-town chickens began a few years ago when organic grower Sara Vinson kept encouraging Carol to get a small flock. It didn’t take until Carol read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," in which she chronicled her family’s year-long transition to growing all their own food, including animals.
The Durusaus’ flock includes heritage breeds Oliver Eggers, which lay olive green eggs; Americanas, which lay pale blue eggs; and Marans, a much admired and desired French line.
They started with Barred Hollands, but the hens "never got broody," said Pat, meaning the girls never wanted to settle down on a nest. Pat surprised me when he said chickens — and birds — are the last relatives of dinosaurs.
The couple’s extensive garden takes up almost every square inch of their compact yard, and the variety of fruits and vegetables is astounding.
There’s a line of loaded tomato plants taller than head high, secure in handmade hog wire cages. Already they’ve gotten a good crop of sweet cherry tomatoes, some of which get eaten immediately.
Then there’s okra, all kinds of peppers, cucumbers (4-5 pounds daily), butterbeans, and yellow crookneck squash (zucchini grows by the front steps).
They’ve just dug Yukon Gold and Irish potatoes, but have more in the ground, and they’ve just planted wax beans in the Irish potato bed.
Pear trees are heavy with ripening fruit, as are the blueberry and fig bushes, including LSU Purple and Mission Purple Figs. Pat snapped a not-quite-ripe Mission Purple off the bush for me, and the next day, I devoured its juicy sweetness.
They’ve just planted a Japanese persimmon tree, and a newly arrived kumquat tree is waiting to be planted.
Carol wants more fruit trees, said Pat, such as an apple tree and a paw-paw tree. Lacy fronds of asparagus plants going to seed hold the promise of crisp stalks in the spring.
"Asparagus takes a three-year commitment," said Pat.
They will have collards, turnips, beets and lettuce in the fall and would like to grow corn at some point, along with a lemon tree.
Gardening is done in the cool of the morning. It’s exercise for Pat and a meditative, stress-relieving practice for Carol, who’s had a garden since she was 10.
"Wherever we’ve moved, I’ve always located a garden before I unpacked boxes," she said.
She’s a rebel like Barbara Kingsolver when it comes to sourcing their food, increasingly concerned about pesticides and GMO. She buys only locally produced meats.
"I don’t want to participate in that culture or to support the corporations that are more concerned about the bottom line than what they sell us."
She shops less and less at the grocery, and their garden is chemical and pesticide-free.
Their guiding principles derive from the holistic practice of permaculture, wherein they use what they have to restore the earth.
The chickens provide manure to enrich their vegetable beds. They pluck the weeds to feed to the chickens.
Carol scarfs up grass clippings on the curb for mulch. Beans provide soil-enhancing nitrogen. Crops are rotated regularly.
"The whole back yard is a healthy eco-system," said Carol.
And they know exactly who’s growing their food and where it comes from.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.