I lived 32 of my 39 years on a farm or homestead. For most of these years we kept large gardens and kept a considerable herd of poultry.
Even now I have a herd of 50 or more and my garden lots seem to multiply with each growing season.
Every few years or so I will see an article in a magazine that enchants the “chicken-friendly garden”. It will contain idyllic photos of little red gnomes picking beetles a new pumpkin vine.
There is talk of how easy it is to skip the middleman and allow the birds to fertilize the garden directly.
The truth about why I’m on the farm has forced me to be realistic about the facts about chickens and my harvest.
Even the pins on Pinterest make it sound so nice
Surely I have to do something wrong if I keep chickens and garden separate?
I love my little chickens. They are wonderful and curious beings and their eggs make me so happy! However, my primary goal in the garden is not to offer them a place to relax. It’s supposed to feed my family.
The truth about why I am on the farm has forced me to be realistic about the facts about chickens and my harvest.
Although they can coexist, you have to take some deliberate (and often labor-intensive) steps to keep both birds and breeders happy! This includes establishing appropriate limits and implementing safe methods for integrating the poultry and plant worlds.
Chickens are selfish
In my many years of trying to assign small, carefully monitored roles in the garden ecosystem to birds, I’ve learned a few things.
The most important thing is that these creatures want what they want and are very, very destructive to plants and their fruits. Some of their brand behaviors include:
1. Eat freshly sown seeds from the soil.
2. Raise freshly sprouted seedlings.
3. Create a “dust bath” in the freshly cultivated soil and smother the vegetation growing there.
4. Remove certain leaves and flowers from certain plants.
5. Eat freshly attached fruits.
There is a very short window of time in which it would be appropriate to allow them to live in a garden.
This time is essentially after the plants have grown so large that hungry, brooding or skinning chickens cannot easily mow them. But they cannot be in the garden once the fruits have opened.
This means that there are only a few weeks in which they can coexist peacefully with your garden plants without much harm.
Birds in their time zones
How does a demanding gardener determine when chickens should be brought into the garden?
Most garden plants do not all produce at the same time. What could be the perfect opportunity to give the pumpkin a little pest control is a bad time for the tiny, tender green tomatoes that would only open in late July.
Therefore, chickens work best when they are part of a garden with adequate zones.
Time Zone Gardening (as I called it) brings plants together that produce at around the same time. This makes it easy to block and peppers tomatoes from the late producing winter squash.
Chickens can spin through the zones at appropriate times and do little damage by overzealous grazing or scratching.
Easy and affordable fencing
You can give your garden the best possible chance of survival by dividing your zones by deer or rabbit.
Material two feet high, stretched out and secured with small posts, should keep birds.
Very few will remember to crawl under it, but you can always use small tent pegs or a similar fastener to attach the fence to the ground.
This leads us to how we can keep birds in place. I’m not going to lie and tell you that chickens do what they’re supposed to do. Each.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that chickens do what they’re supposed to do. Each.
If you allow your birds to become natural (i.e., no wing trimming or other modifications), they can and will learn to fly as high as their small wings accept them. This means that even the best designed garden fences can fail at some point.
That is why I have made it my task to only allow the smaller, less experienced birds in my garden.
Tiny bantams, who have no idea that there is life off the net, are ideal for this type of environment. The brutal, five-year-old Black Australorp hen with ideas about the world is not.
Choose the right chicken and you will have far less bad behaviors!
Perimeter mandatory for chickens
If you’re in love with the idea of letting your chickens work in the garden, and you’re not frustrated when trying to keep them in order, perimeter work may be right for you.
It’s better than nothing to build a chicken run along the outside walls of your garden. Chickens can make a big difference in keeping grasshoppers Snail populations downward by machining only the outer edges.
I’ve done this with only three sides of my garden for most years. On the fourth page, I like to let my plants “do their thing”.
Overzealous pumpkin vines are redirected to this fourth wall or I can allow an heirloom pickle to make his home here. Garden fences are a prime property for many of my experiments, so I’m not ready to leave them all to the chickens!
Raised beds, lowered chickens
If you’re looking for an easier way to have fun with poultry and do some pest control while you’re at it, put it around Your raised beds.
Once my greens are fully established, the chickens don’t want to have much to do with them anymore. However, they scurry around the base of the raised beds and reach up to get a snail or harmful maggot straight out of the dirt.
This is probably also best for the better-educated, smaller chickens. If at some point they find that the greens are tasty enough to reach for them, they will be put back into perimeter service. This type of gardening only works with very clear limits!
Looking for problems
There will always be exceptions to best practices.
Chickens seem to live up to your expectations and challenge the typical gardener. Therefore, you should look out for the following troublemakers that are better outdoors in the field than in the fence with your plants:
These girls find a place to nest (usually somewhere in the wild mass of overgrown tomatoes) and refuse to go.
Do your best to keep brood hens close to their normal laying boxes. I had seasons when there were more eggs than Eggplants in my garden!
If you hold roosters, you know that they have a purpose. But they also cause chickens to fight and distract them from pest control.
Gardening is a girl activity for the chickens on our farm.
Chicken and chick sets
Let the little ones out of the garden unless you want to hear desperate calls between hen and baby for hours. They tend to stumble and get lost in the labyrinth of plants.
Chicks are better off in a safer and less overgrown environment.
A natural partnership for your garden
I still have to decide whether this year we will deal with the effort of bringing poultry into the gardens.
At least it’s easy enough to allow them to move freely in my large area Watermelon and pumpkin patch in the weeks before the fruits begin, where there are no fences or other infrastructure to deal with.
Even if you choose to keep your feathered friends away, there are ways to keep the symbiotic relationship alive, even as a substitute.
Weeds and rotted fruit should be thrown to your chickens every day. Chicken manure can be placed in compost, where it is converted into a safer, less nitrogen-rich version than when it is delivered “personally”. Even egg shells can be ground into a fine soil additive for good plant root health!
Chickens and the garden are natural partners for a healthier and more efficient system. However, how you put them together is a very personal decision.
Are you going to put birds in your garden fence this year? What stories can you tell about chicken environments that went wrong? Tell us in the comments! And don’t forget to read our article on growing greens for healthy and happy chickens.