Any discussion about using a permaculture chook dome is really a discussion of the work of legendary Aussie permaculture writer and activist Linda Woodrow. Back in 1996 Woodrow published her wonderful book titled “The Permaculture Home Garden” and permies have been celebrating, debating and experimenting with the ideas in the book now for over 20 years ( I admit to having bought many copies over that time period…their predesecors having been eaten by slugs in the yard, or my favourite pages destroyed by constant thumbing in wet weather, or just lending them out to would be devotees).
The primary idea in her book which gained popularity is her fabulous chook dome design for which many of us have developed a love/hate relationship that is very hard to break.
An easy build
Why do I love domes so much? Well they are super fun to build and to use. They look awesome and they were purposefully designed with single women in mind. And by that I mean Woodrow deliberately came up with a design that either a woman or man of any stature, tall or short, could easily manage, on her own if necessary, which if carried to its end point could potentially allow her to design, build and manage an entire commercial produce market garden. Now that is a freaking awesome idea just there.
A perfect home
But it’s not all about the easy life for us gardening chicks. It’s also a design that is sympathetic to the needs of its inhabitants, the backyard chickens. The dome provides a safe home for chooks that meets just about all of their social and physical needs. Through all of Woodrow’s ideas flow the principles of permaculture. The dome is a perfect example. In permaculture we can figure out what to do with our plants and animals by making a list of their needs and designing a system that meets all those needs. And then we can stand back and get the flock out of the way so nature can do all the work.
An elegant solution
Of course no human invention is perfect all of the time and there have been some really well written critiques of the chook dome and its potential failings…. but I just love the dome & the circular permaculture garden system in which it is used, known as a mandala garden, for the many solutions it provides to the challenges of maintaining a highly productive fruit, vegetable & livestock system throughout the year and over the years.
A chook tractor in the garden is a very elegant solution to the problems of weeding, fertilising, tilling and controlling pests….No human has the patience, or the eyesight to search out every single aphid or weed seed. No human would spend hours laboriously turning over and mixing mulch, manure, ash, soil & compost…yet chooks will happily do all these jobs all day every day, week in week out & thank you for the opportunity by turning weeds and pests into golden yolked eggs.
The Permaculture Home Garden
So most of us understand that chooks love to roam around in the yard pecking at plants and insects. And mostly we pen them away in a stationary chook pen for that very reason as they will destroy our gardening efforts in a day if let loose in the flower beds.
But we often have a poor understanding of all their social and physical needs, which is a shame for the chooks but also for us – as all those things can absolutely be harnessed to our advantage – as they surely are in a chook dome.
Stationary pens very quickly become devoid of any ground cover and saturated with chook detritis… namely manure and pests such as internal & external parasites and of course, flies. The hens cannot fulfil their need to range across new clean & healthy ground. Free ranging meets these needs… but then the hens are vulnerable to attack from predators. The chook dome is a happy medium between these two methods and so much more. They get to range new healthy ground in a secure pen while preparing your vegetable beds before planting saving you all that work weeding, tilling and other pointless chores made redundant by permaculture design.
7 reasons why domes are awesome
So why is this strange plastic igloo such a haven for our hens? I’m going to list the main ways:
- It allows them to safely range the yard without being attacked by predators
- The hens can roost up high out of danger as they would in nature
- There is enough space for the ideal number of chooks. They like to be in small groups, unlike the thousands of chooks in commercial supposed “free range” set ups
- Its round shape protect the flock gimp ( there’s always one) from being pecked to death in a corner.
- The open net design allows a constant supply of sunlight and flying insects and fresh air. Even on a 40 degree day a hen can cope well if there is a little breeze
- A dome is so easy to maneuver that the chooks are less likely to languish in the same spot as they would in a conventional chook tractor or mobile pen. Tractors like these can be a complete bugger to move so you keep putting it off!
- It completely replaces your need for a compost or worm farm as you just dunk all your scraps in there every day. This is a benefit for us but also our hens. We will go visit them at least once a day and they remain nurtured daily under our watchful eye.
Many astute permies have pointed out the Woodrow Method is not beer and skittles all the time. Climate can be a huge factor. If you live in a super windy area then the tarp cover might constantly blow away leaving the chickens with no cover. Or the entire dome might fly off if you decided to peg the dome into the ground. This is not not recommended but it has worked for some, including DMK Permaculture who respnded to climate with a super strong dome design – see below. An extremely wet climate may lead to damp and mould which is bad for poultry health. Some dome users have found their domes fell apart too quickly ( mine have always lasted for years) and they are usually made out of pvc which does ultimately break down from UV exposure.
These are all very worthwhile points to note. So what to do? Consider your situation and modify the design to mitigate these factors.
Dana & her wife Michelle from DMK Permaculture live near Ravenshoe in QLD Australia. It is a very tropical climate with extremely high rainfall and they have gone to great lengths to modify Woodrow’s design to suit their particular challenges. You can visit their site by clicking here https://dmkpermaculture.com/how-to-build-a-chook-domechicken-domechicken-tractor/ and they have generously made available a materials list and instructions on how to build their type of dome. Great work girls 🙂
The good people over at Milkwood Permaculture have experimented with yet another modification to the classic dome design. The geodesic dome. This design by Mr Robert Freedman is extremly strong and apparently very quick & easy to lift by one person. This could save you alot of time. You can read Kirsten’s article complete with plans here: https://www.milkwood.net/2009/07/27/how_to_build_a_geodesic_chook_dome/
I think the biggest criticism of the permaculture dome is that it is just too flimsy to protect the birds from bad weather and predators. Foxes and dogs can dig underneath the ground, tear the netting if it’s not reinforced with wire and get to the birds.
One solution to much of the concern around security is to simply place a standard chook shed ( chicken coop) in the middle of the mandala. The hens can use it to safely roost at night protecting them from predators and also use in bad weather keeping them warm & dry.
Woodrow’s mandala design looks like this: seven circles. The six outer ones are garden beds and the dome rotates around the beds for a three-month period spending two weeks on each site. The middle circle is for a pond. The pond is vital to the health of the system. It provides water and habitat to the beneficial insects which will keep down populations of marauding insects and caterpillars to a manageable level which means goodbye to the need for chemical pesticides. So water is a really important element to include somewhere in your design.
Here are some more images of a commercial mandala at Purple Pear Farm in the Hunter Valley NSW operated by farm managers Kate & Mark Brown. You can visit their site by clicking this link https://www.purplepearfarm.com.au/ Kate and Mark have created a commercial sized mandala by combining seven mandala modules together. They welcome many visitors and students to their farm all year round to learn about permaculture and also biodynamic farming practices.
I would like to replace the pond in the middle circle with a sturdy chook shed or coop, and have some sort of miniature pond in the middle of each garden bed. For example a half wine barrel, tyre pond, old bath etc. You would lose some growing space of course but on the other hand a small pond would mix up the shade light & wind factors of each bed and you could position your seedlings to benefit from this to suit their ideal requirements. It would add a bit of variation microclimate kind of like a herb spiral with its peaked mound shape.
Wire can easily be placed over the grow bed mini pond so that henny penny can jump up there but not dirty the waters with her droppings. Also if the hens are roosting at night in a central shed then they would not be roosting over the top of the dome pond and pooping all over it.
So that’s one idea. I think it’s a worthwhile experiment and I will certainly be developing such a system and making lots of videos as I go so we can all see how well it works. You can read about this design in more detail here
I often wonder when I read of folks who have become genuinely disenchanted with their domes whether they have embraced the full Woodrow system in its entirety. On its own, a dome shuffled round a lawn or pasture may well not be worth the effort, but done in concert with Woodrow’s brilliant vegetable & fruit planting strategies in a circular mandala… well its just poetry in motion.
The mandala was my first attempt at gardening and I was just amazed at the incredible mass of food I was able to grow once i built the system. Once it was running I felt like a privileged bystander watching mother nature do all my gardening for me. That was a suburban situation.
I now live in a rural mad dog & fox territory and I’m ready to step up to the challenge by modifying my mandala so I can once again enjoy the process and keep my livestock safe and sound.
Let us end this subject with a word from Linda Woodrow on why she no longer uses the chook dome, in her blog The Witches Kitchen. She tells me that as needs & environments change our designs must change with them, however the principles of permaculture remain the same and can be relied upon again & again. You can read Linda’s article here. http://witcheskitchen.com.au/why-i-dont-use-chook-domes-any-more/
Happy growing everyone 🙂