Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reader's Question: How do I keep the chickens out of my garden?

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by Rebecca Nickols

Q: I have had chickens all of my life, but this year for the first time they are eating all my tomatoes. This has never happened before and I have always used chickens in the garden — for bugs and weeding. Any thoughts? — Charles

Q: I would love to hear suggestions on how to deal with free-range chickens and perennial beds. I have most of my beds fenced off from the girls; however, I don't like the look of it. Does anyone have tips on how to make the plants seem less appealing? Maybe powdered garlic? Some kind of organic method? — Jen in Norwich, Vt.

A: Charles and Jen ... First of all, I've only had chickens for a year and it's been fun journaling my experience on this site, but when a seasoned chicken keeper like Charles asks how to keep his chickens from eating his tomatoes, it makes me wonder if there is a way to keep the girls from devouring our vegetables or destroying our flowers. In fact, I'm having the same problem — every tomato that is within their reach is pecked and eaten as soon as it starts turning red!

I asked several poultry experts what they did to keep their chickens out of their gardens, and then I spent a lot of time researching this dilemma. I came to the sad conclusion that apart from some sort of fence or barrier, there isn't much that can be done to prevent the chickens from feasting on whatever they want. I guess they take it literally when we allow them to "free-range." The garden (vegetables, flowers, weeds, bugs) is a free-for-all, and they think we've created it for their enjoyment!

Even though I'm just learning all the ins and outs of chicken keeping, I've been a gardener for many years and I am of the same mindset as Jen — I don't want to have a fence protecting every plant, but I do want to let my chickens roam as they please. So, I decided to conduct my own (not-so-scientific) experiment that I called:

Gardening vs. Chickens

Step 1: The question ...
How can I keep my chickens from eating my plants?

Step 2: Research
The obvious, tried-and-true methods include fencing, bird netting — one article from Mother Earth News even included the instructions for adding a "chicken moat" around the perimeter of the garden! Other sites mention adding something that might scare the birds away, such as shiny tin pie plates, plastic owls or snakes, and even recordings of hawk calls. I was looking for some sort of organic method, as Jen suggested, to make the plants less appealing — garlic powder, pepper spray ... I've been in a constant gardening battle with the deer that free-range on my property for years. I use a homemade repellent that consists of garlic, eggs and milk; it has a terrible odor and supposedly tastes bad, but as long as I remember to apply the smelly spray, the deer avoid the odoriferous plants. I wouldn't want to put this concoction of rotten eggs and soured milk on my vegetables, but I also have another (less toxic) pepper spray that I use on my raspberry bushes, and it has also proven to deter the deer.

Would a odor or taste repellent work on chickens? Do chickens even have the ability to taste or smell?

I know that the chickens will eat any plant that I throw into their enclosed chicken run — probably out of boredom. However, when they're free-ranging, they pick and choose their favorites. For example, this spring they completely destroyed the bok choy in my garden, but turned up their noses (beaks) at the spinach, chard and lettuce. This preference for certain foods leads me to believe they must have some sort of ability to discern between yum and yuck ...

After a little more research I learned that a chicken's sense of smell is not highly developed and does not influence its selection of food. So, I marked garlic off my list of deterrents. In fact, I even found where some chicken keepers actually feed their chickens garlic cloves as a treat!

As for taste, chickens do have taste buds, but they're limited in number and sensitivity. I was hoping that they would have an aversion to peppers, but birds lack the ability to detect capsaicin — the chemical found in peppers that is responsible for its spicy taste.

Even after I learned the facts, I wasn't convinced that I couldn't train my chickens to stay away from my prize tomatoes. The research indicated that smell and taste shouldn't have that much of an effect on their choice of food, but I couldn't understand why they had never even nibbled at the garlic or peppers in my garden ...

Step 3: Hypothesis
"If I use an odor and/or taste repellent, the chickens will stop devouring my tomatoes."

Step 4: Test the Hypothesis by Conducting an Experiment
I remember from college that you're suppose to have a control set (or a tomato that hasn't been treated with a spray), but I'm not being graded on this assignment ... and I know that the girls love tomatoes. Check out the video below (of my daughter and flock) that shows just how fast five chickens can consume a tomato!

I decided to try two different sprays on the tomatoes: garlic powder and water, and my homemade pepper spray. I thoroughly sprayed each tomato being tested, then offered it to the girls along with a bowl of chicken feed. I knew that each chicken would take a peck at the tomato, but I was hoping that after one bite they wouldn't like the taste and/or smell and would move on to something else more appealing — or at least the bowl of feed. I conducted my little experiment at the end of a full day of foraging so that hunger wouldn't be an issue.

Here's the results ...

Garlic Powder Spray:
(2 tablespoons garlic powder, 2 quarts water)

When I placed the tomatoes in front of the girls, at first they displayed their usual crazy behavior when I give them a treat. They all pecked at the tomatoes and continued eating them, but not with their typical enthusiasm.

Pepper Spray:
(2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, 1 1/2 teaspoons liquid dish soap, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 quarts water)

I thoroughly expected the same reaction out of my chickens with this spicy spray, but to my surprise they didn't care for these pepper-flavored tomatoes! They each took a taste, but quickly lost interest, wiped their beaks off in the grass, turned their backs and walked away! I know this doesn't prove anything, but I really didn't think it would make any difference if I sprayed the tomatoes with anything. I decided to take this part of my experiment a bit further.

Another favorite treat of the girls is strawberries, so I sprayed them with my amazing pepper spray, offered them to my flock and waited for their response. At first they went crazy fighting and pecking each other for the juiciest berry, but in the end they their response was similar to the pepper-sprayed tomatoes. They did, however, eventually consume all the berries, just not with the same zeal they normally have for a treat.

Step 5: Conclusion
Though the pepper spray did slow the chickens down a little, they still damaged the tomatoes and finished off the strawberries. Who knows, maybe if I diligently applied the spray the girls would eventually develop an aversion to tomatoes. I've come to the realization that a lot of my garden will be eaten by the chickens. The tomatoes, peas and beans within their reach have become their smorgasbord. As for now, I'm letting them have their share. I enjoy watching them free-range and I appreciate the eggs they provide. Eventually, I'll probably get fed up and do the only proven way to keep chickens out of the garden: I'll build a fence.

To see what else is happening on our Southwest Missouri property, visit ...the garden-roof coop.


  1. Thanks for all of the info. I too have chickens in my garden - and I have a fence! Chickens will find a way in, and that includes flying, if they really want in.
    I have used a clay spray in the past (dry powdered white clay you mix with water). I used it on my fruit trees and garden vegetables and that seems to deter bugs and small birds, but I haven't tried it this year with the chickens. I will have to give this a try next year and if it works I will re-post here.
    In the mean time, I have something that has helped my tomatoes at least. I do not like the regular tomato cages as they can lean over when the plant gets to large, so I use small cages instead. I have a ring of cage around the tomato plant to hold it upright -with a steak against the plant as well- and this allows the plant to fill out and grow upward. The chickens can't really reach the tomatoes further in the cage, only the ones hanging out if a branch grows astray.
    I don't mind sharing because the chickens will be healthier, but I do want some for myself too! Maybe this will work for you?

  2. Re: Kaolin Clay is what I used... Also I staked my tomato plants - LOL
    The cages were made from old fencing materials or chicken cage wire. Hope this helps to clarify things a little.

  3. I grow extra tomato, cucumber, cantaloupe plants for the chicken's benefit. Understandably, they devour the produce. I also feed the produce the local supermarket throws away (although it's perfectly fine). The chicks are happier, healthier, and more productive. Their instincts tell them to eat a varied diet so I let nature prevail.

  4. Well, I never give my girls anything from the house "extras" that I don't want them to develop a taste for. So, lettuce, tomatoes, etc don't go in their pen for consumption, it goes in the compost instead.
    Also, if you're feeding them the tomatoes, remember, you're their rooster or Mama, and they trust you to show them what's edible and tasty! My perennial gardens aren't fenced, and when they showed an interest this spring, I just gently turned them away and said, "No, this is better for you." and turned them to the weeds and grass. They stay out of the gardens pretty well now. My veggie garden is fenced, so I control when they can go in and out and I do the same there. If someone gets too interested in something I don't want them to eat, I say no and turn their attention away by offering them another weedy treat. Sounds like your pepper spray works pretty well! Thanks for the recipe, it's nice to have options in case they decide I don't know everything!! lol

  5. Cris: Thanks for the tips-and let me know if the clay spray works to deter the chicks. I think I understand how you cage your tomatoes. I use the regular tomato cages and I do have the problem with the plants growing outward with more tomatoes within the girls reach. I like your idea of using chicken wire and training the plants to grow upward (out of the chickens reach). I'm definitely going to try this tip next year!

    ffkling: I like your option of planting a little more for the chickens enjoyment.--I'll just add an extra tomato plant next year!

    Melody: I love your chickens!--It reminds me of when my oldest daughter was young. She didn't realize how wonderful chocolate was because we never offered it to her. It's probably too late for me to train the chickens to stay away from my tomatoes. Did you watch the video?--Tomatoes are a treat!

  6. I figured if the birds didn't see the tomatoes, they wouldn't eat them. This worked for me, give it a try this summer on those special tomatoes that the birds just can't have. Please check out my blog for this method that works for me:

  7. Our lean manufacturing process allows us to produce fencing materials that meet our exacting specification for quality, durability and reliability. We don’t just meet the expectation of our customers when it comes to fence materials; we exceed them – each and every time.

  8. Maybe you should try to make the tomatoes look dull and less red because when they see red they think blood or at least the btlright color attracts them I would try to put some kind of powder or something on them. You could also find out what they like best to eat maybe tomatoes and plant a another garden in a more convienient place so they will choose to eat them instead of the ones you want to grow for yourself. This is good to do with a fence because the chickens will go for the ones out in the opened instead of the fenced ones. Chicken wire is cheap go to the store and buy some and some rebar and zip ties to fasten the chicken wire to the rebar and drive the rebar into the ground. That's my suggestion. Oh and shiney pie dishes made of aluminum do scare the chickens away pretty good.

  9. No never mind waking up the neighbours at insane hours in the morning

  10. I grew up on a poultry farm & bred my own chooks for years. Love them!! Chooks are attracted by the colour red, as John said. If they find a spot of blood on one of them, they'll keep pecking at it, & eventually kill the one that's bleeding if given half a chance. They do not like the taste of enamel paint. My father would paint the spot with the paint, & a beakful of that would stop them! The hen-pecked one would get a chance to heal, & no harm to any of them. Tomatoes get their amazing flavour from what they grow in. They ripen in the warm, & don't need sunlight to do that. So, my advice would be to pick your tomatoes when they begin to change colour, and they'll ripen inside in the warm weather. Sacrifice one, leave it on the bush, & paint it with tomato-red enamel paint. Trust me, it won't hurt them because they won't want more than a peck to put them off! Keep the paint fresh for a couple of days, & they'll give the idea up. Also, don't give them whatever fruit/vegetable you don't want them stealing (especially red ones!) to eat in their food/scraps - it'll give them ideas!


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