Plant a Chicken-Themed Garden
Artwork by Bethany Caskey
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A city slicker moves to the country and decides to raise chickens. He goes to the local farm store and buys 100 chicks. A week later he’s back at the farm store for another 100 chicks, telling the clerk, “The chicks I bought last week all died.”
“Goodness!” says the incredulous clerk. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” says the city slicker. “I must have planted them either too deep or too close together.”
Well, you don’t have to plant chicks to enjoy this chicken-themed garden. Here are 10 fun plants to grow in your chicken garden sans chickens.
Hinkelhatz (Chicken Heart)
Hinkelhatz is a rare heirloom pepper cultivated by a small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites since at least the 1880s. It is named after its size and shape, which resemble a chicken’s heart. The small, thick-skinned peppers are about ¾ inch in diameter and 1½ inches long, conical in shape with a blunt point, and slightly wrinkled.
Like other peppers, hinkelhatz (Capsicum annuum) is usually started indoors from seed and transplanted when the weather warms. The compact but prolific plants grow 18 to 24 inches tall and are extremely resistant to pests and diseases. Compared to other hot pepper plants, hinkelhatz is more cold tolerant, up to the point of hard frost.
In late fall, the peppers ripen from green to glossy red and are ready to harvest some 90 days from transplant. These peppers have thick juicy flesh and pack a serious wallop, earning a rating of 125,000 on the Scoville scale of pepper hotness. They are typically used for brine pickling or are cooked and pureed to make a hot sauce, similar to Tabasco, that is reportedly sprinkled on sauerkraut and other traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dishes.
1 pound ripe hinkelhatz peppers, tops cut off
1½ cup cider vinegar (5%)
1 teaspoon fine salt
Grind the ingredients together in a blender or food processor until the peppers appear minced (not puréed). In a saucepan, simmer the mixture over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Press the mixture through the fine screen of a food mill. Funnel the sauce into a bottle, and store the cooled bottle in the refrigerator. Makes about 1 pint.
Source: The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich
My grandmother kept a flock of Rhode Island Reds. She also tended a sizable garden that kept her busy canning most of the summer. Still, she always made room in her garden for flowers, and among those I remember best were the red cockscombs, sometimes also called rooster’s comb. The formal name is Celosia (Celosia cristata).
The two to five-inch compact annual flower blooms in late summer to late fall on an upright 12- to 28-inch leafy stem. The blossom is narrow, elongated, and rumpled like a rooster’s pea comb. Although the traditional variety is red, modern varieties come in pink, orange, yellow, or white.
Cockscomb is easy to grow and reseeds freely. It likes full sun and well drained soil, and is hardy and resistant to most diseases. It is a member of the amaranth family, and in many countries the leaves and flowers are served as vegetables, although I don’t recall my grandmother ever serving cockscomb at her table.
Rooster Spur is another rare heirloom hot pepper (Capsicum annuum) that gets its name from the size and shape of the peppers, which look much like rooster spurs. Plants grow to about 24 inches tall and produce an abundance of thin-wall peppers that are 1½ to two inches long and about ¼ inch wide. The peppers grow in clusters of upright pods and mature from green to bright red approximately 90 days from transplant. The plants are easy to grow and are attractive enough to be used as ornamentals.
The peppers rate 30,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale and are typically dried and ground into chili powder. In Japan, the piquant peppers are known as hawk claws (Takanotsume) and are added to stir-fries. In China they are called poinsettia peppers (Hahong Kocho) and are used in Szechwan dishes.
In the southern United States, rooster spurs have been cultivated for more than 100 years and are an important ingredient n traditional rooster pepper sausage, made with pork, mixed spices, and rooster spur peppers. Then Attorney General Griffin Bell claimed that in 1978 he snuck rooster pepper sausages past the Secret Service for President Jimmy Carter, who liked them so well he asked for more. This event sparked a futile search by citizens across the country for a source of rooster pepper sausages, or at least the recipe. To this day the recipe remains elusive.
Hen and Chicks
Hen and chicks is not the name of a single type of plant but of a sizable group of flowering succulent perennials in the stonecrop (Crassulaceae) family. All members of this group grow in rosettes (looking similar to an artichoke) that reproduce by developing side buds. The original rosette is the hen. The tiny new rosettes surrounding the hen are the chicks. Eventually the chicks set down roots, and then begin budding off chicks of their own, creating an ever-widening mat of rosettes.
Most hen and chicks are of the genus Sempervivum, from the Latin words semper meaning always and vivum meaning living. Other names for members of this group are liveforever and houseleek (although they are not related to the true leek). The name hen and chicks is also applied to members of the closely related Jovibarba (beard of Jupiter) genus, as well as to a few other species in the Crassulaceae genera.
Sempervivum hen and chicks prefer dry conditions, grow well in poor soil, and can survive cold winters. They are also popular as house plants. Depending on the species, leaf color may range from deep to pale green or gray, or may be tinged in pink, red, or purple. Juice from the leaves is used like aloe vera to sooth burns and insect bites. Typically when a hen is 3 years old or more, a stalk — sometimes referred to as a rooster — rises upward from the center and develops blossoms that may be white, yellow, pink, or red, depending on the species. After the flowers produce seeds, the mother hen dies, leaving behind her brood of thriving chicks.
A weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place. While some people rigorously root out common chickweed growing in their gardens, others welcome it or even plant it on purpose. If you are the latter, you might add it to your salads, or cook and serve it like spinach. If you are the former, at least let your chickens enjoy the pulled weeds. Chickens love chickweed — leaves, flowers, seeds and all — and that is why it’s called chickweed.Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is an easy-to-grow annual herb for temperate climates. Each plant develops numerous stalks that spread thickly along the ground and produce small white blossoms. At night and in rainy weather, like a good mother hen, the chickweed plant folds its leaves to protect tender buds and new shoots.
Three characteristics will help you identify chickweed:
1. The stem has a single line of hairs that changes side after each leaf pair;
2. When you pull on a stalk, it separates to reveal an elastic inner core; and
3. The sap is not milky. When blossoms appear, between May and July, gather plants to use fresh, or dry them to brew into a medicinal tea should you come down with a winter cold or flu.
The eggplant (Solanum melongena) has been cultivated by gardeners since as far back as 544, when it was mentioned in a Chinese book on agriculture. Early plants imported into Europe produced small yellow or white fruits that were about the size and shape of an egg, hence the name eggplant — a term used for both the plant and the fruit it bears. Because of the bitterness and tough skin of those early fruits, the plant was grown mainly as an ornamental.
bare shaped like an oversize pear and are deep purple. Some of the bitterness has been bred out, and when the fruit is cooked the flesh takes on a rich flavor and the skin is tender enough to eat without peeling. Although eggplant is technically a berry, it is prepared and served as a vegetable, often as a meat substitute that is rich in vitamins and powerful antioxidants. When sliced and salted, then pressed between two plates for half an hour, the fruit releases some of its liquid, making it more tender when cooked and less apt to absorb greasy oil.In some areas eggplants grow wild.
In some areas eggplants grow wild. In temperate zones they are cultivated as a tender garden annual. They are closely related to tomatoes and bell peppers, and are grown in much the same way. Varieties are now available in many colors that include white, green, orange, purple, lavender, and striped and in shapes that range from the size of a large zucchini to that of a hen’s egg. Unlike real eggs, eggplants are highly perishable; stored in the fridge they keep well for only a few days.
Chicken gizzard is another name for bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii), a plant with bright red foliage and puckered leaves that are shaped something like a chicken’s gizzard. Thanks to its showy foliage the plant is used primarily to add contrast to borders and flower beds. A native of Brazil, chicken gizzard is a tender perennial that likes full sun, warm temperatures, and high humidity. It can be kept outdoors year around in USDA hardiness zones 10 and 11, where it will grow as high as five feet, with a three-foot spread.
In other zones, where chicken gizzard may be cultivated as an annual, it grows only as tall as about 18 inches. During winter it may be moved indoors as an attractive houseplant. Alternatively, fresh new plants may be started from cuttings. Indoors the plant becomes straggly unless provided plenty of bright light, preferably in a south-facing window. Full sun also results in richer leaf color.
Pinching back the growing tips of a young plant keeps it tight and bushy. Pinching out lower buds also keeps the plant dense, and the small, greenish-white blossoms don’t amount to much anyway. Besides, when did you ever see a real chicken gizzard in bloom?
Fat hen is a fast growing annual in the same family as spinach. It gets its name from its use in fattening chickens and other poultry. Because it’s also fed to pigs, it’s sometimes called pigweed. Its scientific name Chenopodium album derives from the Greek words chen meaning goose, podos meaning foot, and album meaning white. The shapes of the leaves resemble a goose’s foot and new leaves are white, so another common name for this plant is white goosefoot. It’s also called lamb’s quarters, a corruption of Lammas quarter — Lammas being a Scottish harvest festival occurring in August, during the third quarter of the year.
Fat hen grows about 3 feet tall and 8 inches wide. It likes moist soil and plenty of sunlight. New leaves have jagged edges, while mature leaves are toothless. The plant starts blooming in July and produces seeds from August through October. Fat hen is closely related to the grain quinoa, with tiny dark seeds that taste much like buckwheat. Each plant produces tens of thousands of seeds, ensuring that the species not only survives from year to year, but readily spreads far and wide.
In many parts of the world fat hen is cultivated as a grain and vegetable crop for feeding both humans and livestock, but in North America it is considered a common weed. Among foragers it is sometimes known as wild spinach and is gathered as a nutritious green that’s packed with vitamins and minerals and also prized as an antioxidant and antibacterial. Fat hen grows just about everywhere in the United States (except in the extreme desert) and Canada. It readily adapts to local conditions and interbreeds with related local species, resulting in an ever-changing variety of sizes and shapes from one locale to another. That makes fat hen a lot like our beloved chickens in coming in many forms, regularly turning up on farms and in backyards, and producing lots of offspring.
Hen and Chicken Fern
The evergreen hen and chicken fern is named for its production of small bulb-like growths on top of its fronds. Several plantlets hatch from each brown egg-like bulbil and, when they reach a length of about two inches, fall to the ground to take root. The fern also reproduces by spores, but not as easily as it hatches new chickens. Other names for this plant are mother fern, mother spleenwort, and parsley fern.
The hen and chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) is native to New Zealand, where it grows in cool, moist conditions, usually along flowing streams. In the United States it does well in hardiness zones 9 through 11. It likes shade or partial sun, prefers a northern exposure, and must be protected from frost, wind, drought, and full sunlight. The frilly leaflets, which resemble carrot leaves, grow on black stems, starting out bright green and turning darker as they mature. Each frond grows to about two feet long and nine inches wide. Both the roots and uncurled young fronds may be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The fronds taste something like asparagus, only a little bitter.
Hen and chicken fern is also cultivated as a houseplant that thrives in low light. In cultivation it has been crossed with a related fern to create a sterile hybrid known as false hen and chickens (Asplenium lucrosum), which reproduces by bulbils but not by spores. Most cultivated hen and chicken ferns are actually false hens. Although they can’t reproduce sexually, they develop more plantlets than true hen and chickens, making them highly lucrative for fern dealers — hence the scientific name lucrosum.
Golden Chicken Fern
The golden chicken fern gets its name from its slow-growing rhizome, which is covered with shiny golden-brown hairs that give it the appearance of a Buff Silkie. The plant is also called wooly fern, golden moss, and Scythian lamb. Many myths are associated with this fern, including the Middle Ages belief that it produced sheep as fruit.
The golden chicken fern (Cibotium Barometz) is a tree fern, meaning its fronds develop atop a trunk-like stem. The plant may grow upright to a height of about three feet, with fronds spanning as much as 10 feet, or the stem may grow sideways and form trailing colonies of plants. For use as a houseplant, the stem is cut off and only the rhizome is potted.
Rhizomes, young plants, and new growth on mature plants are densely covered with golden hairs 1½ inches or more in length. The hairs are used to sooth insect stings, and also as a styptic to stop bleeding. The inner part of the rhizome has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties; diluted solutions are used to control aphids and spider mites.
The fern is native to the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, where it grows in moist, shady ravines. Although it has been so extensively collected for both ornamental and medicinal purposes that it is becoming rare in the wild, the unique beauty of the golden chicken fern ensures a wide enough distribution to secure its survival.
NO CHICKPEAS OR HENBANE
If you noticed that chickpeas and henbane are excluded from this chicken theme garden, there are good reasons. The chickpea, otherwise known as a garbanzo bean, derives its common name from its Latin designation (Cicer arietinum), cicer meaning pea. The French call it pois chiche meaning pea pea, and the English reversed it to chich-pease or chickpea. No chicks or chickens are involved.
The word henbane derives from the Old English words hen meaning hen and bana meaning killer, which makes henbane a chicken killer. All parts of the plant are hallucinogenic and can be deadly poison. Chickens were once fed a few seeds to stun them, and the dried herb was burned where the fumes would “make hens fall from their roosting place as though they were dead” — both tricks intended to make the birds easier to steal. So, although henbane is indeed named after its affect on chickens, it is certainly not a plant we want in our chicken garden!