Permaculture, Gardening with Chickens
By Bob Egert, The Garden of Egert
Crooked Creek Ranch, Texas
We moved to the country three years ago. We are living on a 140-acre parcel that was formerly a cow pasture. One of our first projects was to start a facility for a small flock of chickens. We built the chicken house first followed by the chicken run and then the raised bed gardens. We plan to add a small pond to provide irrigation water for the gardens plus some additional garden features, fruit trees, pathways, etc. With the barn, the garden will encompass an area of approximately three acres.
I did a great deal of research to determine the best layout for the garden and chicken operation. My biggest concern was providing maximum security for the chickens against the many predators in this area including coyotes, hawks, skunks, raccoons, foxes, panthers, etc. My next priority was to be able to control the chickens’ activities so that they could not destroy but benefit the gardens.
I was able to accomplish these goals by building a comfortable chicken house that is well insulated, well ventilated and large enough for a small flock. I have 18 Rhode Island Red hens and one mixed breed exotic rooster named Burt. The chicken house measures 16′ long x 6′ wide and 8′ high, large enough for me to service the facility. I then erected a run 5′ wide x 112′ long perpendicular to the chicken house and securely attached to it. The run is framed with hog panels and completely covered with chicken wire. In addition, for added security, a 2′ wide apron of hardware cloth runs parallel to the run on the ground to keep critters from digging underneath the fence. Hardware cloth is installed at the bottom of the chicken house as well to keep critters from taking up residence underneath. I have laid 6′ x 8′ tarps on top of the run to keep the hot Texas sun off the chickens.
Next I built 10 raised garden beds, five on each side of the chicken run, spaced evenly along the run and six feet away from the run. Each bed is made of cedar logs and measures 6′ x 12′. I then built a chicken tractor large enough to fit over the raised beds. The chicken tractor is connected to the run with a smaller, portable pen. The chickens access the raised beds through pop holes in the run, the pen, and the chicken tractor. These pop holes are lined with sections of garden hose to protect the birds from any sharp metal that may protrude.
The chickens are allowed to take over the beds in turn for a period of approximately one week after I have harvested the respective crops and sprouted wheat as a cover crop. The chickens love the wheat and do a great job of excavating the bed, adding their excrement, eating any weed seeds and insects. Then I move the chicken tractor to another bed for their pleasure and plant the previous bed with a vegetable or wheat cover crop, depending on the season. During the intense growing season when no beds are available for the chickens I allow them to graze open ground protected by the chicken tractor.
Nothing from the garden or our kitchen goes to waste with the chickens enjoying all fresh vegetable and fruit waste. All I put directly into the compost pile is peat moss with vermiculite, cow or horse manure from a neighbor, coffee and tea grounds from a local restaurant and manure-soaked pine shavings for bedding from the chicken house. This cold compost material is eventually worked into the gardens at appropriate times.
No chemicals whatsoever are used in the gardens, only natural, organic methods are utilized. In the one year of garden operation, I have experienced great success with most crops. In the past, enormous amounts of rain made it difficult to grow potatoes, corn, squash, and pumpkins did not do well. Green beans, radishes, lettuce, onions, carrots, beets, purple hull and cream peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, okra, and various herbs all did very well.
All of our water for our personal use is provided through a rainwater collection system consisting of two above-ground collection tanks. For every inch of rain, we harvest 2,600 gallons of water. With this we flush, bathe, wash clothes and irrigate the garden utilizing a drip irrigation system. With our new garden irrigation pond we hope to save a lot of water and hopefully, during dry periods, we will no longer have to haul in water.
Did I mention another benefit of gardening with chickens? Fresh eggs every day that we, and our neighbors, enjoy immensely.
Originally published in the June/July 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.