In recent years it’s amazing how popular chickens have become as backyard pets.  We’re obviously huge fans of having chickens around the farm.  The benefits of having the freshest of eggs in close proximity to the kitchen are obvious, but hens are more than mere egg-laying machines. 

This is Ginger helping out with the weeding

We often tout the other benefits of having chickens here, beyond egg laying.  However, with the resurgence in chicken keeping, in backyards all across America, we feel it’s important to also be honest about how gardening life really is with poultry on the loose.  We see so many magazine articles with blissful, perfect homesteading scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Urban Farmer planting out seedlings, or walking about with pristine perfect produce-filled baskets, with a line of innocent looking hens in tow.  Gardening with chickens isn’t all bliss.

Poultry keeping has become so popular, entire publications are devoted to all things chicken

So what do you really need to know about having chickens in your garden?  First and foremost, you can’t train a chicken.  If something looks like food in the garden, it will be sampled, and if it tastes good, they’ll keep going back to it.

In the mornings our retired hens wait impatiently to patrol the gardens

 Chickens aren’t goats…well, I suppose that’s stating the obvious, but I mean in the sense that they don’t quite mow down every green plant they encounter, but they can be very damaging to gardens.  Two or three hens, turned loose in the lettuce patch, can decimate the entire crop.

That said, chickens can be quite discriminating creatures.  Our old girls in the orchard aren’t particularly fond of basil, and although they’ll investigate it they usually quickly move on to something else.  Our tarragon though, along with the flat leaf parsley and sorrel, is very popular!  But I suppose tarragon chicken was inevitable. 

One of our Buff Orpingtons sneaking in a sorrel snack, before trying the tarragon

The other challenge of gardening with chickens, at least here, is that we often use straw as mulch in some of the garden beds.  Mulch is really fun, if you’re a chicken.  If you scratch around in it, you’re likely to find some tasty, wiggly morsels lurking beneath.  If you’re successful at removing large patches of mulch, on a warm afternoon, the cool damp soil beneath makes for a great place to a take a refreshing dust bath.  Did I mention that hens can be very lazy?

Aftera grueling 10 minute day, it's important to remember to take a break...

 Chickens do have their benefits in the garden though.

Chickens are excellent bug catchers.  In fact they loved helping us organically control a cabbage looper problem earlier this year.  Cabbage loopers apparently are most scrumptious…if you’re a hen.

Chickens LOVE hunting for bugs

Generally they’re smart enough to avoid bees, but I have read of chickens standing at the entrance to beehives and picking off numerous bees as they come and go.  It’s not common, but if you’re a bee-keeper, that’s something to keep your eye on!

One chore chickens are great at, is green-waste recycling.  They love fresh kitchen and garden scraps. 

Babs investigating some extra salad greens

Our girls love it when we’re turning over one of the garden beds, as they’re fairly good tillers and rakers too.  They love to help dig over the soil, looking for tasty morsels, and helping with general clean-up. 

You never know what you might find when the raised beds are turned over

However, it seems that trowels are somewhat confounding…but then again, what use is a trowel to a chicken? 

Chickens are excellent tillers and rakers, but trowels confuse them

After snacking on garden bed remainders, this material is then all efficiently processed into…well…to put it delicately, fertilizer.

Chicken manure, once thoroughly composted, is an excellent high-nitrogen soil amendment

However, as a gardener you must be aware that chicken waste, although very high in nitrogen, MUST MUST MUST be composted first.  Until it’s composted, it can be a lethal substance in the garden, as the excess nitrogen will burn your delicate plants to a crisp.

Small amounts of chicken manure though, added to your regular compost pile, is far superior to any ‘compost booster’ you can buy in a box!

Chickens are also good at aerating your compost piles too.  Nothing holds a hen’s attention better than a mound of compost.  This is nirvana to a chicken.  They’ll scratch around in well stocked compost for hours, digging up tasty high-protein wriggly snacks. 

The hens find even the closed kitchen compost bin to be fascinating!

Another chicken chore that’s always in need of attention here at Curbstone Valley is weeding, a task I simply don’t enjoy, and one that the hens are actually quite good at.  Well, for five or ten minutes at a time, until they reveal another patch of soil worthy of dust bathing in.  I admit, it can be quite challenging keeping our hens on task.

If you have a garden, and you want chickens to be able run around freely, what can you do to protect your plants?  Most chickens will take the path of least resistance.  If you have raised beds, the simplest thing is to wrap the edge of the beds in a 1 to 2 foot wire barrier, either chicken wire, or hardware cloth.

Without netting or row covers over some of our crops, our chickens would eat the lot...especially the strawberries.

 Alternatively, you can net over your crops, or use floating row covers.  If you plant directly in the ground though, a low perimeter fence or a portable net-like poultry fence may be required to help keep your chickens in strictly designated areas.

Alternatively, you can simply spend time in the garden with your chickens, supervising them.  They are actually quite easy to herd.  But you have to keep watch, or one will break away, and run straight back to the tomato patch!

Remember though, that in addition to protecting your fruits and vegetables, you also need to protect your chickens.  Don’t ever assume that chickens are smart enough to avoid foods that may be toxic to them.  As you can see in the video above, one of our hens, Babs, thinks that tomato leaves are tremendously tasty.  She doesn’t know that they can potentially harm her.  The occasional nibble won’t hurt, but in quantity, they are toxic to chickens. Other toxic plants in your vegetable gardens include potato leaves and peels, rhubarb, and onions.

Sweet Pea loves to be in the garden...do you garden with chickens?

 

If you’re going to let your chickens roam freely in your gardens, please remember that they rely on you to keep them safe.