Poultry & Produce—Keeping Your Poultry In Your Garden
Experts Explain Their Tips For Adding Chickens To Your Garden
By Kenny Coogan, Florida
“When we were given five or six adult chickens, we learned that we had to keep the chickens out of the garden area, so we put up a chicken wire fence around the vegetable beds,” Demi Stearns recalls.
Stearns, who had previously been gardening without chickens for five years, learned the hard way that chickens are voracious eaters. Now, in about her 40th year of gardening while keeping chickens, Stearns has mastered garden coexistence.
Chickens, Stearns says, “eat all the grubs, cutworms and slugs that I toss their way.” They also provide daily chicken manure in which she composts and later uses when making the vegetable gardens. “They keep up with the mulberries and Japanese Plums when they start falling,” she adds as one of their beneficial garden chores. When chickens have access to gardens and lawns they will consume less of the costly laying mash that their cooped cousins rely on. By scratching in the soil they also help keep it aerated and invite decomposers such as earthworms to the garden.
Since you want a balanced ecosystem, researching space requirements for your nomadic flock is imperative. If the flock of chickens is too large or if there is not enough space, your gardens will have craters and bare patches from over foraging, and visible feces, which potentially cause bad odor. Many sources cite that for standard breeds 250 square feet per bird is an adequate size for free-range chickens that have access to your gardens. For bantams about half that size is required to keep garden appearances up. The more space you have the less problems.
M.J. Clark, of Tampa, Florida, has been gardening with chickens since 1995. “I did learn that bantams tend to fly over fences to get the goodies,” she warns. “My first few flocks were bantam and I had a very hard time keeping crops.” Since then she has switched to keeping full-sized hens.
Choose plants that cover many different functions. Plants serve as protection, partitions, aroma therapy, medicinal and food for your chickens and family, and they will add purpose to your garden design.
Top 3 Tips For Coexistence
Demi Stearns, gardener for 40 years, promises that after a little bit of persistence and fencing, “you get to collect wonderful eggs and your own vegetables,” It is not despite their chickens, but be-cause of them, that both their gardens and mine are lush and produc-tive. Here are Stearns’s top three tips:
• Separate the chicken from desirable vegetables;
• Allow plants to grow tall before allowing chickens in, so they can only be eaten around ground level; and
• Concentrate on the plants that the chickens don’t find very tasty.
But Not All The Time…
Protecting young tender plants from your feathered garden helpers, no matter how much space they are given, is essential. This can be accomplished with the use of fenced off areas and glass or plastic covers. Older gardens and adult plants, usually only need a quick raking to get things looking pre-chicken visit, since free-range chickens don’t usually cause harm to established gardens.
“Chickens will walk right over plants in very tiny small pots,” Stearns has observed. “So I try to keep them up on a 3- to 4-foot high table.”
She places the plants closely together so there is no extra room for the chicken to fly and comfortably land, sit and snack. Her cutting beds also get special treatment including shade cloth on top of fenced off beds.
Consideration must be given for transplants. “Even if it is a plant they are not interested in eating, they will scratch around the plants and dig them up,” Clark warns.
“When I bring home a new plant or tree I will wait to plant it until evening when the chickens are in their coops or even the next morning before they come outside,” Stearns says. “Usually a new plant will get protected by a tomato cage for several weeks.”
Best Gardens For Chickens
Chickens do best with heavily planted landscapes. The vertical layers of the gardens allow them secure locations where they can hide from predators, get protection from the elements and forage for food. Smaller areas that have trees, shorter shrubs and trailing flowers are superior to an area that bigger but vegetation-free.
Herbs sprinkled throughout your property can add to the chickens’ general health, stimulate egg production, act as a natural de-wormer and taste great in your next dish.
Catnip, fennel, feverfew, lavender and rosemary can act as a natural insect repellent, especially if the chickens have access to not only eating them but also rubbing up against them. Nasturtiums have antibiotic and antiseptic properties and serve as a natural de-wormer for chickens.
Scattering the herbs and edibles throughout a garden will slow the chickens from consuming them all at once. Heavy mulching is also important. Clark, although admittedly for the benefit of the gardens, uses mulch ubiquitously. “The mulch allows for more worms in the garden. And of course, the chickens love that as well as the other bugs that the mulch harbors,” she says.
Stearns, with her nine standard chickens that free range the landscaped property (except for the vegetable and cutting beds) also uses large amounts of mulch.
“The chickens can scratch and dig anywhere, and that’s fine,” she says. Both women benefit from local tree trimming companies who unload the mulch for free at their houses, instead of paying a deposit fee for a landfill. The mulch keeps the chickens occupied for many hours of the day.
Not all plants will be foraged by chickens. Groundcovers such as juniper, mint, roses and sweet woodruff can grow dense enough to keep chickens from scratching through the soil. Many types of fruit, from those that grow on trees to squashes that have tough skins, are not accessible to chickens.
On the other hand many types of greens are right at chicken beak level, making it almost impossible to grow enough for both the human and feathered members of the family. Many types of greens and vegetables will need to be fenced in, keeping the free-range chickens and other animals out.
Between each new growing season, you can open up the vegetable gate and let the chickens do their chores. “After I harvest my sweet potatoes, I let the ladies loose,” Clark says. “They always uncover a few potatoes that I have missed. It’s a win-win. I get my beds turned and fertilized all at once,” she cheerfully explains.
Stearns says that her chickens love to eat Plumbago, Blue Porterweed, Cigar Flower, Mexican Petunias and assorted herbs that all have space in the vegetable garden for protection. Other greens that resemble weeds include chickweed, dandelions, plantains, purslane and thistle and are often readily snacked on by your flock.
“I certainly have no weeds in the part of the yard where they live,” Clark says.
Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, holds a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and is a certified professional bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. He is a pet and garden columnist, magazine contributor and has authored a children’s book titled A Tenrec Named Trey (And other oddlettered animals that like to play). Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more.