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Fowl play: Hens and hives set summer buzzing in community garden

Moe the guinea cock must have a real identity problem.

“La-dies! La-dies!” Esther Henderson hollers in a sing-song voice whenever she’s trying to scare up the guinea fowl that live among the rows of the Garden of Eat’n community garden in south Wichita. “La-dies! Where are you?”

Moe usually comes running, even though he’s not a lady. His gender is only one of many surprises that the Garden of Eat’n has experienced since it added guinea fowl — along with hives for honey bees — to its community garden plots last spring.

Guineas are considered beneficial to gardens because they eat insects that can damage plants. Esther, the garden’s manager, and her co-gardener Pat Hancock decided early in the year to try the guineas and bees as a way to garden more organically, and the 24 other gardeners who rent plots in the Garden of Eat’n gave their approval. The Garden of Eat’n is in its seventh growing season on the old ball diamond at Garvey Park, 3501 S. Washington.

As community gardens go, the Garden of Eat’n is pretty well provided for, with Esther living right across the street, and with a nice, spacious shed built by the original gardeners, complete with tools, a refrigerator and a desk. I was tickled to hear about the addition of the guineas and the bees, because I always like the idea of a little bit of country life in the city.

But is it really practical?

Esther got a book on the guinea fowl, and decided to get three to five of them, but people kept telling her she’d lose some, so when she finally got to Atwoods farm and ranch store to buy some before they sold out in March, she decided to get a dozen. Except there were 13. So she took the extra one home, too. She started out raising them in her house, so they’d be used to her and would mind her in the garden. One of the chicks died, leaving her with a dozen.

She assumed all of them were females. There was no way to tell male from female, and the city permit she got required that the guineas be female.

“We were optimistically calling them ladies,” Esther said.

“The city tells you no males, but the females are noisier than the males. I thought, ‘I’m gonna be the one that’s bothered by them.’ I decided not to worry. I paid the $25 for the permit, and we ended up with the 12. We lost no more.”

Eventually the guineas moved to the garden, where a shed for them includes fans, a screen, a thermometer, skylights and a wooden perch.

“My husband says they have everything but running water,” Esther says.

“The 12 worked out fine at first. I couldn’t see them eating on plants — they were going after the bugs — but then we noticed the gardeners were not as happy as they should be. Then someone in the neighborhood had gotten two guineas, and the neighbors complained, and that gave us 14. Twelve is the max under the permit. I knew we had too many.”

Seven of the fowl were then banished from the Garden of Eat’n, consigned to a woman who had a problem with ticks.

Left with seven guineas, “things seemed to go well for a while,” Esther said. “Then I noticed in my own garden I had these beautiful cucumbers and I went back and they were half eaten.” There were reports of snatched strawberries as well.

Five more of the fowl were shipped off, this time to a woman who was able to tell the difference between the boys and the girls, leaving the Garden of Eat’n with just two guineas, a male and a female, named not Adam and Eve but Moe and Maggie. They are prettily speckled and have white heads and red wattles reminiscent of turkeys. A mirror hangs on an outside wall of their shed.

“They love to look at themselves and see how pretty they are,” Esther says.

When she calls “ladies” — a term she hasn’t changed, because of the patterning the birds have learned — they chirp in answer and scurry along, sometimes running. They can fly, too, and sometimes will if they’re in a hurry to get a treat of corn. But, Esther says, they don’t know that they can fly out of the fence. While Maggie

somehow got out once — and Moe frantically paced the inside of the fence looking for her — she was anxious to get back in.

When Fourth of July fireworks started popping, Esther found the two huddled together in the shed, and she locked them in. She’s since found them on their roost some other nights, and hopes that’s a sign that they’ll go indoors this winter.

“I have become attached to the dumb little things,” she says. But the relationship between Maggie and Moe and the gardeners is still tenuous. It seems like the insect population has decreased in the garden, and the birds have been seen eating weeds and grasshoppers.

“I have put up an alert: Don’t throw rotten tomatoes out onto the pathway. They may develop a taste for them,” Esther says. Gardener Joe Fleming says he’s heard reports of nibbled melons.

Meanwhile, the honey bees, introduced into the garden by 17-year-old beekeeper Isaac Schmied and his family, could be seen buzzing on basil flowers this week. The Schmieds, who sell honey at the Old Town Farmers Market, expect to harvest honey from the hives.

“I feel like I’ve become a farmer,” Esther says. “It’s fun.”

It remains to be seen whether Maggie and Moe have found paradise in the Garden of Eat’n or will one day be cast out for eating the forbidden fruit.

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Now you know

ABOUT THE GARDEN OF EAT’N

What: Community garden at 3501 S. Washington, in Garvey Park

Number of gardeners: 26

Number of plots: 95

Number of vacant plots: eight (you can get a plot free for the rest of the season if you want to put in a fall garden)

For more information: Contact garden manager Esther Henderson at 316-524-0800.

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