- Self-Sufficiency and Sustainable Living
- Free fertilizer
- Heritage Chickens
- Ordinance Requirements
- Resources: online, books, local sites
Sure backyard chickens are a great addition to any home, but if you’re a gardener like me you’ll want to know how you can use your flock to aid you in your gardening and how to protect your crops and plants from the voracious foragers.
- Free Fertilizer
Chicken manure is a sought after fertilizer for organic gardeners. It ranks top among animal manures in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium–and when combined with straw or similar coop bedding it not only adds nutrients to the soil, but also organic matter. And–since your average size hen also produces one cubic foot of manure every six months, you’ll have an unlimited supply of free-organic fertilizer!
Here’s my scoop on the poop…
- Weed eaters and organic pesticide!
If you have free-ranging chickens, then organic gardening is a must. Using chemical insecticides, pesticides and herbicides is not only is harmful to the environment, but it will poison your foraging chickens as well. Fortunately, hens love weeds such as chickweed (so named because chicks love it), purslane and dandelions (leaves, not the flowers) and they are constantly on the move, searching for the perfect bug… They provide outstanding tick and mosquito control and have a huge appetite for slugs, snails and other pests including–Japanese beetles! Because the chickens have quite an appetite for Japanese beetles, I don’t use an insecticide to control the beetles, instead I just hand-pick them–and then feed them to the chickens!
If you can’t handle a handful of squirming beetles then you can knock them off the leaves into a bowl of water. It makes a disgusting beetle-soup that the chickens love. I’ve read where some chicken keepers purposely put up beetle traps and use the beetles as a free organic chicken feed. Some even freeze the excess beetles to use as a protein supplement during the winter or offer them as a cold treat in the summer. Of course, chickens will not eliminate the beetles from your garden, but I do find it quite enjoyable watching the hens devour these annoying pests!
- They prefer veggies over weeds…
When I first got chickens I wouldn’t let them out of the coop/run in fear of my border collies or cats attacking or killing a bird. Fortunately, I had one chicken who would charge and peck at any dog or cat that even looked their way… When they were confined they would eat anything and everything I offered them–weeds or veggies. However, when I started letting them out to free range and choose what they preferred, they grazed through my garden eating their favorites and completely ignoring others. They especially love blueberries, tomatoes, (not the plant), broccoli crowns (not the leaves), sweet peas (again not the plant/leaves) and bok choy. They loved the bok choy so much, they only nibbled at the lettuce and spinach. They never touched the chard or herbs when allowed to free-range, but if I would add it to their run when nothing else was available–they would eat it… I’ve never had them even take a second glance at my onions, garlic or peppers, but supposedly chickens lack the ability to detect capsaicum,–the chemical responsible for the hot/burning sensation of peppers.
- They’re messy foragers and bathers…
It’s great that while their foraging for bugs and weeds that they scratch up the soil, but as I mentioned earlier they will also make a mess of mulched garden paths. I even have rocked paths that they have been able to kick large stones out of place searching for hidden treats, but I do try to remember that there is probably one less grub or beetle thanks to their diligent scratching.
A dust bath, however, is an essential part of a chicken’s health; It is their way of eliminating mites, lice and other parasites. Providing them a bathing area away from your garden might help them avoid using your vegetable patch as their spa. I’ve tried making a dust bath out of a container, but it doesn’t really work. What works best is just a cleared out patch of earth–add equal parts Diatomaceous Earth (DE), soil and sand. DE is a natural product consisting of the fossilized remains of diatoms (a type of hard-shelled algae). According to some sites, DE can be used as a treatment and preventative measure against intestinal worms, mites and lice. It’s a safe product that can be added to the chicken’s feed, sprinkled around the coop as well as included in the dust bath.
- Fencing, bird netting, barriers…
The chickens do love tomatoes and last summer I experimented with a couple of different homemade spray repellents (taste/smell) that I use on my plants to deter the deer. One, which was pepper based, did seem to slow the hens down a bit, but I came to the conclusion that if you want to keep your chickens from eating your garden, you can’t allow them to have access to your garden… A fence–either around the garden or containing the chickens is the best option to ensure that your plants are protected.
Some chicken keepers get pretty ingenious trying to keep the chickens away from their plants, but still put them to work weeding and eating bugs in the garden. Chicken tractors (movable coops without a floor) are one option–you can move the tractor to different areas of the garden, controlling where and what they have access to eat. A chicken tractor is a great option if you are not able to let your flock truly free range. It allows them to forage, but keeps them contained and protected from predators. I use my tractor as a place for the girls to forage when I’m at work or when I’m not able to check on them frequently. During the fall and winter I leave the tractor in the garden and take advantage of their weeding and fertilizing skills. Around January I move the tractor out of the garden to avoid a large deposit of uncomposted chicken manure.
- Plant a chicken-proof garden…
If you want to live in perfect harmony with your free-ranging chickens, then you could devote a special garden full of their top choices, or you could design a garden around chicken-resistant plants…
- Timing is the key!
Timing is the key to successful gardening with your flock. They’re a great addition to your garden and they’ll be your best helpers if you just plan out when and how you’ll take advantage of their attributes.