Like thousands of other gardeners, recently I added a small flock of laying hens to my big organic garden. Their primary purpose is to provide fresh eggs and pest control – garden chickens have an insatiable appetite for slugs. Our little mixed flock is also great company, inclined to follow me around the garden in hopes I will toss them a cabbageworm plucked from the Brussels sprouts, or perhaps rough up a compost pile. Garden chickens are gifted compost shredders.
They are also plant pluckers, mulch movers, and diggers of hen-size holes in any soft soil left open to them, so keeping chickens in the garden comes with special challenges. Here are some of the best ways I know to maintain harmony between chickens and the garden.
- Low arches of wire fencing are invaluable for keeping chickens off of individual beds, whether you are protecting mulched garlic or beds of tender salad greens. The arches should be so low that chickens cannot comfortably get under them.
- Tunnels covered with row cover, tulle netting or bird netting are another easy way to keep chickens from damaging food crops.
- Old blankets are the best way to keep chickens from renovating cultivated beds that are ready for planting.
- Chickens can wreak havoc among perennials flowers and herbs, too. To keep them from digging up what you just planted, mulch around the plants with flat stones.
These measures work great until the garden gets really busy in late spring, when I have no time for aggravation from chickens. They don't like it, but when I must, I use polyester chicken netting to enclose them in a roomy foraging yard for most of the day, and let them out to roam an hour or two before sundown. Chickens always come in at dark.
The foraging yard is planted with greens and grasses the chickens like to eat, but it is not nearly as interesting to them as ranging around our large landscape. And, the chickens can do much more good plucking up insects under our front yard fruit trees than enclosed in a yard, so as summer gets under way I use chicken wire to fence them out of the vegetable garden. Chickens don't like being out in the hot sun, so the open garden is not a preferred place to loiter anyway. Though I may think of them as garden chickens, the girls much prefer scratching in the dark shadows beneath evergreen shrubs and trees.
Not that chickens are inclined toward laziness. Rather, they are incredibly busy creatures, obsessed with finding insects, and almost constantly on the move. Once you get to know chickens, you realize how much activity it takes to keep them happy. The misery experienced by confined, factory-farmed poultry becomes unimaginable.
People with larger flocks move them around using chicken tractors (portable chicken coops) or enclosures of electrified netting, but my hens are already so spoiled by the freedom to roam that neither would please them. Being fussed at by unhappy chickens every time you go outside takes away from the fun.
Are Garden Chickens Legal?
A small flock of hens makes little noise, so they can be kept in many areas without restriction (roosters are notoriously loud). The UK is generally poultry-friendly, only requiring registration with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) if you keep more than 50 birds. Local laws are spottier in the US, where Backyard Chickens hosts a bulletin board of community ordinances affecting chickens.
In communities without specific laws on garden chickens, many people use the "don't cluck, don't tell" approach and quietly work toward change. Three years ago, chicken enthusiasts in Durham, NC, organized as HENS (Healthy Eggs in Neighborhoods Soon) and eventually won unanimous approval for a city ordinance allowing backyard chickens. The chicken-keeping trend is equally strong across Europe, where some experts say backyard laying hens now produce 28 percent of the total egg crop.
Our five chickens provide all the eggs we need and few to share, and a continuous supply of high-nitrogen manure for composting. But I think the bird intelligence the chickens bring to garden is what I like the most. Chickens in the garden simply make it a better place to be.
By Barbara Pleasant