Chickens in the Garden

Few foods are as appealing to a hungry chicken as a bunch of young lettuce or spinach sprouts poking through the spring soil. Given the chance, a few hens will quickly devour plants intended for their owner’s kitchen.

Ironically, few soil additives are as appreciated by lettuce, spinach and other vegetables as chicken manure. Plants seem to leap from the ground and produce human food in abundance when stimulated by the droppings that chickens produce every day.

The trick to achieving both healthy chickens and an abundant garden is managing the flock in a way that the hens help the gardener instead of their gobbling down valued veggies.

Here are a few ways to manage a flock for garden abundance:

The Double-Run System

Probably the best and easiest way to manage a flock and garden is to create a double run. The chicken run is simply the fenced in area where the birds enjoy daylight hours lounging, dusting their feathers, and foraging for seeds, insects, tender sprouts, and bits of stone that helps their digestion. Over the course of the day they deposit their droppings randomly.

Most coops have just a single run, but often the owner can convert this into a double-run system. The bigger and sunnier the area the better.

Stretch a wire mesh fence six or eight feet tall to split the run roughly in half. Devise a way to allow the chickens to access only one side of the run at a time. The rest is easy.

In one gardening season let the hens into only one side. Plant the garden in the other. Next year, reverse it. It’s an outstanding way to rotate crops and nutrients.

Seasonal Helpers

Many flock owners don’t have enough room to create the double-run system described above. They can still use chickens to help with gardening chores.

For most common garden vegetables, it’s vital to keep the birds excluded during the growing season. Otherwise they’ll harvest the crops. However, usually there are several weeks after the snow melts but before it’s warm enough to plant seeds. Come fall once the season’s last vegetables are harvested, there is often a long cooling window of time until the ground freezes and snow falls. These are prime times for chickens to enjoy gleaning tasty morsels from the garden.

Chickens have superb vision, strong legs and feet, and nimble pointed beaks. They gleefully spend hours scratching up the soil. Humans might call it tilling. Their sharp eyes spot tiny weed seeds and insect eggs and larvae. Their pointed beaks snatch them from the soil and turn them into delicious protein filled food. Chickens remove the seeds and bugs that can pester next year’s vegetable plants and convert them to food.

Turn a flock loose in early spring or late fall and hens will usually head right for the rich garden soil hiding delicious goodies, but there’s a way to encourage them to target the places that need the most chicken foot rototilling. Bait them by scattering a few handfuls of dried mealworms or black oil sunflower seeds – those in the hull – in the garden and rake them gently into the soil. Hens love mealworms and sunflower seeds. In the process of hunting these goodies they’ll loosen and soften the soil and discover hidden insects and weed seeds.

Excluding Chickens from The Garden

Many people can’t let their chickens forage in the garden, but they can still blend vegetable and chicken husbandry. It’s simple. Weeds and vegetable waste mixed with chicken manure and manure-laden litter decay into outstanding compost. Work the compost into the soil before seed planting and watch the vegetables flourish upward.

Much research is being done on the benefits of using chickens to restore degraded grasslands in China and Europe. Essentially scientists are finding how helpful it is to let hens access land. Dr. Carl Rosier works for the Rodale Institute at Etzel’s Sugar Grove Farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, studying ways to improve soils in cropland. “Chicken manure stimulates plant growth and increases soil productivity, water holding capacity, and nutrient retention. In a nutshell chickens, when incorporated into the garden correctly, can help bring balance to the soil ecosystem,” he said.

Many families that keep chickens also enjoy growing beans, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. It feels good to bring both fresh eggs and crops into the kitchen. Meshing chickens with gardening is a perfect way to maximize food production while improving the soil’s health.

Put your chickens to work in your garden!

ChickensEnterCreating new vegetable garden space from an area of lawn is often hard work. Advice is often to spray the lawn area with Roundup or a similar herbicide, let the lawn die, spade the dead grass deeply or remove it, and then soften the soil and plant seeds.

That involves lots of work and the use of herbicides that many people avoid.  There is an easier way. Let chickens do the work.

Chickens love scratching up dirt, dust bathing in it, and gobbling up grass, weed seeds, and insects, worms, and other invertebrates they find while scratching. When confined to a small outdoor run even a few chickens will soon devour every bit of grass and convert it to bare dirt.

ChickenScratchingOne Iowa family recently converted a small lawn area into a vegetable garden using hens as unpaid helpers.  Here is what they did:

1. Purchased a 100 foot section of seven foot tall light black mesh fence marketed to keep deer out of gardens, several seven foot metal fence posts, and 100 cable ties. Total cost was about $50, and the fencing will last for years and is highly portable.

2.   Pounded the fence posts into the ground forming a rectangle around the lawn area to be converted to garden.  Attached the deer netting to the posts using cable ties.

3.   The new garden area was immediately outside the existing chicken run, so the family cut an easily repairable hole in the existing fence that allowed the hens to move into the enclosed lawn area.

Within 15 minutes the hens had abandoned their grassless old run and moved into the green grass. It took them about ten days to eat the grass, scratch up the soil, and make the area ready for planting. While eating grass, seeds, and worms they left droppings to fertilize the new garden plants.

Spade_RAs soon as the ground was nearly bare of lawn the family repaired the temporary hole in the original fence, confining the hens to their old run. They spaded and smoothed the new garden area, added compost made from chicken droppings and kitchen scraps and lawn clippings and planted seeds.  Because deer are plentiful in the area they are leaving the temporary deer fence in place for the growing season but will remove it in the fall.

Using and portable fencing to confine chickens in an area being converted to gardens is easy, inexpensive, and flexible since the fencing can be used over and over to allow rotation of garden spaces.