Chickens are voracious diggers and eaters. Yes, they will destroy your garden unless you take some precautions. Liz Fulghum shares practical tips for letting your chickens work in your gardens and protecting your vegetables.
If you’re a vegetable gardener contemplating getting a few chickens, chances are you’ve done a little bit of research on what’s involved. Beyond the basics of housing, feeding, and care, one of the most common questions that comes up is whether or not the chickens, if allowed to free range, will destroy your garden. The short answer is, of course, yes. Yes, they will.
Chickens Will Destroy Your Garden
If your chickens have access to the garden, they will absolutely destroy it. At least a little bit. Chickens are voracious and indiscriminate ground scavengers, who love nothing more than to scratch through the earth to find tasty morsels such as grubs, bugs, and seeds. Their powerful feet and sharp nails are designed to dig through dirt. They can create wide, shallow holes in just a few seconds. These holes are perfect for dust baths but horrible for new seedlings or growing vegetables. Chickens also love to peck at leaves and eat many types of vegetables (especially leafy greens). They are clumsy and careless about where they walk and lay down. They always seem to zero in on newly planted seedlings and can often be found foraging near recently turned dirt, looking for worms.
Even two or three chickens can lay waste to a carefully planted garden in just a few minutes, if given free rein to forage.
Despite the damage that random chicken foraging can do to your garden, chickens and vegetable gardens can be natural companions. Even small flocks can be used to produce a renewable supply of fresh compost to nurture your garden, while garden waste can become special treats for your birds. With a little planning, coexistence, even in small urban spaces, will be worth the effort. Here are 7 ideas for happy chickens and a productive vegetable garden.
1. How Many Chickens?
Most cities, municipalities and/or counties have rules for the number of chickens you can keep in urban spaces. Be sure that you know those rules. Don’t get more chickens than your space can actually accommodate. If it’s your first foray into chicken keeping, it’s incredibly easy to overestimate how many chickens you think your space will support. But overcrowding can lead to health and behavioral problems with your chickens. They will also scratch the earth bare, eat all the plants within reach, and pile up more manure than you can compost. To avoid overcrowding, it’s a good idea to start small and add more later if you feel like you still have room. If you have a small, half-acre suburban yard, start with 3 or 4 birds. If you have several acres, you can easily support a half-dozen or more.
2. Build a large run for your chickens
Many pre-fab coops come with small attached runs, but these don’t typically offer much space for your chickens to free range and explore. If you’re building your own coop, you can decide how big you want to build your run. Many people build large runs that are tall enough for them to stand up and walk around in, and offer chickens different platforms and areas to explore. If you don’t plan on ever letting them out of their run, you want to make sure you give your chickens more than the recommended 8 to 10 square feet of space per bird. Adding in enrichment, such as large branches and stumps for perching, swings, or hanging cabbages, will keep your chickens entertained and healthy.
3. Build (or buy) a movable run
Movable chicken runs are simple structures entirely covered with chicken wire, which safely allow your chickens some freedom while protecting them from predators. This is especially important when the run is separate from the coop and they can’t run away and seek cover. Movable runs mean you can rotate where your chickens will forage. This gives them access to new and interesting nibbles but also allows the areas where they were foraging time to recover.
4. Fence off an area of your yard for your chickens
If you have large enough space to divide up your yard, you can fence off an entire section for your chickens. This works particularly well if you have a house with an unused side yard, or happen to have your vegetable garden in your front yard, or live on enough acreage that you have distinct spaces within your property. Choose a space with some trees and shrubs, and make sure they have access to their coop. If it’s large enough, their impact on grass and vegetation will be minimized because they’ll constantly be moving around. If it seems that they are digging up the ground too vigorously, you can use straw and wood chips on the ground to help protect the microbe environment. Rake up the straw every month or so to add to your compost pile. Keeping your chickens near your compost bins also makes sense for easy coop clean-outs.
5. Install a fence around your garden
You can also approach the situation from an entirely different angle. Instead of confining your chickens, simply keep them from being able to get at your garden by fencing it. This keeps your flock out of your garden while allowing them to remain free to roam throughout the rest of your yard.
There a lot of options for fencing, but in general, it shouldn’t have any gaps that your chickens can squeeze through and needs to be tall enough that they can’t hop over it. All but the largest and heaviest (or “fluffiest”) breeds of chickens are surprisingly agile and can easily make it over a 3- or 4-foot fence even as they get older. You can either plan to clip their wings so they can’t fly, or build your fence tall enough that they can’t make the jump.
A simple and inexpensive fence can be constructed with 4×4 posts every 6 to 8 feet, with 2×4 cross beams installed at the top and bottom. Stretch panels of chicken wire from post to post and staple to fasten. Install a sturdy gate that’s wide enough to allow access for your wheelbarrow and any other tools you use regularly.
Beyond keeping your chickens out of your vegetables, a garden fence can be a beautiful and useful addition to your space. Use it as a trellis for berry bushes, install planters on the railings for strawberries, or use it to support other ornamental vines or roses.
6. Other ways to protect plants
Do you have flower or vegetable pots around your garden or back patio? If so, you’ll want to protect them as well.
- Place cloches over seedlings while they’re young and growing.
- Fasten together a circle of 4-foot-tall chicken wire to create a simple barrier around any plant you need to protect.
- If you have raised beds, use a cold frame structure with shade cloth or bird netting when chickens are out and about (but remember to keep flowers regularly accessible for pollination).
- Put large rocks around the base of plants to keep chickens from scratching at the roots.
- Keep planters raised up on stumps, tables, or other surfaces where chickens can’t jump.
7. Chickens as your garden cleanup team
With all the effort that goes into keeping your chickens away from your vegetable beds, it might be surprising to learn that there are times when you might actually want them there.
If you don’t plant cover crops, then from late fall to early spring, while your beds are dormant, chickens become ideal garden assistants.
Let them out to free range over your beds and they will help till them over, break down plants that have finished for the year and clear the soil of insect pests, seeds, larvae, and eggs. Reward them for their hard work with a few leafy greens or Brassica that you leave to bolt at the end of the season.
Gardening with Chickens
While keeping chickens is a natural choice for serious gardeners, they’re not naturally conducive to maintaining successful planting beds. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering a baby plant that’s been wrecked by a chicken’s exuberance, so if you want to add a flock to your homestead, take the time to prepare for their arrival. In addition to saving your plants, it will also make it easier to truly enjoy your new feathered friends. And whichever method you choose to employ, remember to make room in your garden to plant a few treats just for your flock.
Liz Fulghum is an entrepreneur and technologist who also has a passion for low-maintenance, productive gardening. Her urban backyard homestead is an oasis from busy days and home to raised vegetable beds, fruit trees and shrubs, bees, and a small flock of chickens. You can follow her on Instagram or her bee-focused website.