Gardening with chickens is an adventure for you and for them. Elizabeth Mack shares tips to keep your birds (and plants) healthy and safe.
When I moved onto my small hobby farm a few years ago, I had two requirements: chickens and gardens. I soon brought home my first small flock of hens and let them loose in my new ornamental bed. Within minutes, they ravaged my roses and zinnias and ate hunks out of my hosta leaves. There’s nothing that chickens love more than a freshly mulched garden. If you hope to plant vegetable or ornamental beds within scratching distance of your flock, you’ll want to take some precautions, plant smart, and decide just how freely your flock will roam.
One of the first decisions new chicken owners must make is how to manage their flock: free range, supervised-only free range, confined ranging, or full-time confined pen. Each style has its own pros and cons, and the decision is different for everyone.
Avid gardeners have additional considerations. As a Master Gardener, I planned to let my new flock free-range on my 2 acres. I pictured my girls roaming the land, keeping my flower beds weed- and insect-free, rototilling the raised vegetable beds each spring and fall with their scratching. In reality, my chickens ravaged my new ornamental bed, scratched out all the mulch onto the sidewalks, and started foraging in the neighbor’s newly planted rose garden. That was the end of their free ranging.
Trying all the Options
Over time, I’ve tried all the options, and finally settled on my own management style — what I call “confined free ranging.” Since I have the room, we built a pen in a field where the girls can roam, but fenced to keep them out of trouble (and out of my gardens!). They have plenty of room to forage on fresh grass and weeds that never get overworked, as overworking an area can lead to a mud pen. I have a fenced raised-bed vegetable garden beside their pen, and every spring and fall, I open the gate to let them scratch up the dirt and finish off any leftovers veggies.
For suburban backyard chicken owners, options are more limited. If you want chickens and a garden, you might have to keep them in a confined run if you don’t want them eating your tomatoes or petunias, or at least let them out closely supervised. Be aware that a nicely mulched bed is a magnet for chickens.
Protecting Garden Beds
There is really only one method for a happy coexistence for gardens and chickens, and that’s exclusion. You can either exclude the chickens from the garden areas, or you can exclude from individual plants. Both require some type of fencing material. Most gardeners rely on poultry netting or hardware cloth.
If you don’t want to fence your entire garden and prefer to fence individual plantings, make sure that the area fenced around the perimeter of the planting is large enough for the plant to grow into throughout the season. The first time I tried this, I encircled my salvia and tomatoes with poultry netting in the early spring, but by summer, the plants had outgrown their protection and the chickens had a nice daily snack.
The better solution is to add poultry fencing around your garden beds. This has the added benefit of keeping out those rascally rabbits that mow down your veggies. If you want to enclose a garden, make sure the fencing is at least 36 inches tall. Chickens will quickly hop right over a 24-inch fence. While you can totally enclose the garden by covering the top, this makes harvesting and weeding much more difficult.
Some gardeners swear by natural repellants, such as citrus fruit, lavender, or marigolds, but in my experience, they just don’t work. Another option is to build a “walkway” around your beds with poultry fencing. Create a half-circle walkway with wire fencing a few inches taller than chickens. Place it on the border of your garden. They’ll walk around the garden and feast on insect and weeds, but stay contained.
Edibles for Chickens
After several years of fighting to keep my chickens out of my gardens, I finally called a truce. Now I plant a few veggies for the chickens in my raised beds, and I fence around what I don’t want them to eat. They love kale and Brussels sprouts (and the accompanying cabbage worms!). I used to enclose my tomatoes in fencing, but now I just let them eat the bottom fruits, and I pick the higher fruits they can’t reach for myself. I also vine my cucumbers so that they can’t get into the inside of the fence, and let them peck at the fruits on the outside of the fencing. Everyone’s happy.
A Few Things to Avoid
If you plan on free ranging and don’t want to fence in your garden, be aware that you’ll want to avoid a few plants that are toxic to chickens.
While chickens can tolerate small quantities of onion, larger quantities can cause hemolytic anemia in poultry and should be avoided. The leaves of rhubarb contain oxalic acid, which can cause tremors and jaundice in chickens. If you live in a climate where avocados can be grown, you’ll want to keep them away from your chickens, as the pit and skin contain the toxin persin. Poultry are especially sensitive to this toxin, as are most pets, so it’s best to avoid.
Nightshades contain the toxin solanine, so keep your chickens well away. This family of plants include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Never feed your chickens the green skin from peeled potatoes, which can lead to serious health problems, and even death. Keep in mind it’s the leaves that are the problem, not so much the flesh. Chickens are fine with ripe tomatoes, but not green ones. When my chickens are in my vegetable garden, I’ve never seen them eat a green tomato, only very ripe ones, so perhaps their natural instinct tells them to avoid.
When I started designing my garden beds, I knew I wanted a few chicken-friendly plantings for the girls. I plant a few herbs, such as oregano, basil, lavender, and rosemary, outside of their coop nesting boxes. When I clean out the boxes, I throw in some fresh herbs to help deter mites and keep them fresh-smelling. When they’re in the nest boxes, the chickens nibble on the herbs. While most herbs have numerous health benefits for chickens, there are a few to avoid. Horse nettle, wormwood, germander, and chaparral can be toxic in large doses.
Unfortunately, there are several ornamental plants that are toxic to chickens. I’ve found that my chickens stay away from these, but to be safe, avoid planting any of these where they’ll be foraging. This isn’t a complete list, so if you’re unsure about your plants, check for toxicity before planting:
- Castor bean
- Cardinal flower
- Ground ivy
- Laburnum (seed)
- Lily of the valley
- St. Johns wort
The good news is that there remains a huge variety of ornamental flowers and shrubs that are not only safe, but are also loved by chickens. Roses, nasturtiums, and marigolds are chicken favorites, and marigolds have the added benefit of being a good antioxidant and parasite preventer. If you nix the weed pre-emergence and find yourself with a yard full of dandelions, even better! Dig up the “weeds” and feed them to your flock; the entire dandelion is edible (for chickens and humans!) and are full of nutrients.
One of my favorite plants is the simple, old-fashioned sunflower. I grow annual sunflowers near my chicken pen, and when they begin to wilt back in the fall, I just pull them up and let the girls snack on the seeds. They love it.
If you’re used to throwing your coffee grounds in your garden, you’ll want to keep them away from your flock, as the caffeine that remains can be toxic to chickens. In reality, the only benefit coffee grounds add to the garden is to lessen the compaction of soil, and only in large quantities. Research has shown coffee grounds do not, as widely believed, add acid back into the soil, so best to throw them in the compost.
Forego pesticides and let your chickens forage on the weeds. Dandelions are also an essential pollinator for early spring bees.
Chicken owners also must forego treating their yard and any plantings — or at least the area their flock will forage — with pesticides. However, you’ll find that you’ll have less of an insect problem if you do keep chickens, as they’ll devour most insects, even Japanese beetles. Avoid using any garden pre-emergent as well, such as Preen-type products, or other toxic weed killers (including dish soap and salt). Mulch to keep the weeds down. When I clean my coop, I throw the pine shavings in the garden beds and use it as a mulch ring around trees.
Relax, and let the weeds and insects go, pull up a chair, and watch chicken TV as they chase their next snack. It’s easier, safer, and it’s free entertainment. Gardening with chickens has its challenges, but with a little planning, your gardens and chickens can peacefully co-exist.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickens in the Garden.