Keeping Chickens as Part of a Healthy Vegetable Garden

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Chickens can be a great complement to a vegetable garden

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 to stop chickens eating your vegetables
  • 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.

Chickens love eating most greens

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.

Our five chickens provide all the eggs we need

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

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Comments

 
"We have 7 little hens who lay very well but are generally in a large run - we have an urban fox who has left poo on top of their run (I call it Fort Knox: weldmesh underground, doubled at ground to waist high, up to 6 ft high and then all the way under the corrugated plastic roof... and then the internal run beneath the house is also covered with weldmesh!). I'd love to find a way to let them out safely but haven't got there yet. Their litter is doing wonders for our compost production and they are, best of all, great company outdoors. I wouldn't be without them!"
S Sanders on Friday 16 November 2012
"We have 10 chickens on our large garden, but you do have to watch them when allowed to fully free range, runner beans were a particular favourite bottom 8 inches cleared in one afternoon. On the plus side had very little pest problems in veg patch and they are great for clearing when removing finished crops."
Ian Money on Friday 16 November 2012
"I have 2 Wyandotte hens who provide eggs, fertiliser, weeding and cultivating in my backyard, and a great deal of amusement with their antics. Their goal in life is to get into my fenced off veggie patch, despite having freedom to roam anywhere else. Strawberry snatching on the run is down to a fine art. One of the best decisions I've made was to get these chickens. Sadly our bylaws only allow 2 hens per suburban yard."
Kathie Pierce on Friday 16 November 2012
"These are great tips! I have a small flock of five, and have struggled to get them integrated into my garden. I think your suggestions will really help me out."
Robyn M. on Friday 16 November 2012
"SS, where there is serious predator pressure, your best bet is to maintain Fort Chicken. Some nearby neighbors can't let their chickens out because of foxes and coyotes, so we built our run like yours, totally enclosed with fine mesh wire. Electrified netting (enviromesh) might make outdoor ranging possible, because it's intended more to keep predators out than to keep chickens in."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 16 November 2012
"Between the hawks, foxes, raccoons and our lab, the only place for our flock of 11 (used to be 12; thanks, Lab) is in a large run. We bring the garden to them."
Jen Z on Friday 16 November 2012
"Mine all free range. The biggest problem with predators we have are raccoon at night. We trap and get rid of. I have 1 large coop and 5 small breeding coops. Luckily no problems this year. All chicks survived the summer and doing well. I did buy a Great Pyrenees and have not had an predators in the yard due to her constant BARKING, would drive me away also LOL."
Michele Stricker on Friday 16 November 2012
"For those who are unaware there is a nice online community, with lots of nice folks and information http://www.backyardchickens.com/ "
Michele Stricker on Friday 16 November 2012
"Just curious about concerns from uncomposted or untreated chicken waste; birds carry all kinds of nasty things (up to 60 or more diseases and pathogens) like ecoli...doesn't the spread of disease organisms in your garden from birds concern you? We aren't talking about an occasional risk of a robin dropping in for a worm, here. I would worry about a flock of chickens in my garden area!"
Norm on Friday 16 November 2012
"Thanks for all the great tips and feedback - Fort Chicken will be maintained! at least until I am out there more in the summer and have saved up for an electric fence unit :D Norm: I have serious hygiene phobias so you'd think that it would owrry me! As it is, the hens are not allowed on food crops, all poo is composted, I wear rubber gloves when dealing with hens, down to feeding, petting etc, plus my nails are super super short and scrubbed. My daughter also handles them but it is good for her to learn about proper hand washing etc. I'd not be without them."
S Sanders on Friday 16 November 2012
"In know it is not possible for everyone, but having free range chickens is not only good for the chickens but it also makes it more fun for the keepers. They are better than television. We live on a little farm two miles from the nearest paved road and my wife, a city girl, has fallen in love with HER little flock of hens. I am now building a new home for the feisty fowls (so she can get more) and I learned a thing or two from some of the comments above. Thanks a lot. "
Doug Tipps on Saturday 17 November 2012
"Norm, chickens do leave deposits around the garden, mostly in pathways, but most of the poo is in the coop, under the roost. They go mostly at night. If you keep dry straw or sawdust under the roost, you can gather the manure once a week (more or less) and compost it. Like you I am concerned about fresh manure in the garden, but unless you have a lot of unmanaged chickens, it's just not an issue. Also, confined factory chickens are bundles of pathogens, but chickens-gone-native are super clean animals. Like cats, they spend a lot of time and effort keeping clean."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 17 November 2012
"Thanks for the hygiene updates/comments. My space won't allow chickens but my daughter is considering them for her place. We will read up more on it. S Sanders; glad to know I am not the only one that worries about these things! My family tease me sometimes, but nobody is going to get sick from contaminated spinach (et al) on my watch! :)"
Norm on Monday 19 November 2012
"We had them at our previous house and had Fort Knox which protected again foxes at night. We're now building a new house and I would love a "Chookingham Palace" and a couple of "Queen Chooks" (or would they just be precious princesses?!) but we only have a small garden. Reading all these comments make me determined to go ahead with the Palace plans! (In South Australia, where we also have to beware of snakes which are currently on the move...)"
Mary on Friday 30 November 2012
"I have a small flock of Light Sussex out the back in a 1 acre paddock shared with a couple of horses. They are great at spreading the horse poo and eating everything that grows from it. I have a small vege garden out the front and have just purchased 4 frizzle pullets. I'm constructing covers for each garden bed but still want the chooks close enough to eat fruit fly and other vege eating parasites. I'm not concerned about grubs and slugs because I've seen the chooks eat them. Any ideas on controlling flying insects would be greatly appreciated. "
Jacob on Wednesday 2 April 2014
"We have 5 hens (2 Australorp and 3 Speckled Sussex) in our yard in Victoria, B.C. (Canada). Love them for all kinds of reasons. Eggs are scrumptious, but most important, it turns out, is how they are helping change our soil ecology. Like many in the suburbs, we have a combination of straight clay due to our natural soil in this area, plus the horrid stuff (subsoil) they dug up 50 years ago when building the house and then dumped in the rest of the yard. We've been gardening here for 20 years, adding all kinds of amendments every year, but it was when we started to add the composted manure to the veg garden that we finally got great results. We also use them for jobs like spreading around grass clippings (which otherwise have a tendency to turn into stinky slime if not spread) and mixing them with the rest of the straw and manure in their run, which then turns into AMAZING compost. Although I love having them out in the garden, they pretty much destroy whatever they're allowed to get at. We've compromised by building an outdoor pen area where they can go and be safe without getting at the garden, and do what someone else said - we bring the garden to them. It's true that they learn what they enjoy very quickly and fuss at you - LOUDLY (who new hens were so noisy and raucous, in an annoying, relentless, squawking way!) - if they don't get it, so we've found it's more enjoyable not to give them freedoms they won't continue to have, but make where they are a good place to be. Great for our diet, great for our soil, great for our fun (very entertaining to watch!). Highly recommended!"
Jennifer C. on Saturday 26 March 2016
"Hi, I want to know whether I can use chicken manure in hydroponic systems for small-scale back gardens, and if so, whether I can use it raw, and if not, how to process it. Does anyone have any experience with this or any practical research I can refer to? Thanks. "
Donna Hornby on Thursday 8 December 2016
"S. Sanders: I personally have observed (regarding your fox situation) that owning a dog or two helps keep large animals away. I have 4 dogs and we together walk the perimeter of the property (acres) and it is very rare to see an animal of that size around. I feel the smell, noise and potty the dogs make keep all those larger critters away. I have 7 hens and just lost my rooster actually (who was 5 years old) to a raccoon. I have found once in a while (usually spring when babies arrive) I will find a raccoon or baby possums that I trap and re-release. My chickens always have and always will free range. I also have a chicken that is so darn old that she doesn't produce eggs anymore. Just my input of free range and how it works in my neck of the woods :)"
J on Saturday 26 August 2017
"I really enjoy reading on this website, it holds great articles. Don't put too fine a point to your wit for fear it should get blunted. by Miguel de Cervantes. kgfddkeeeeeabeea"
Smitha495 on Monday 26 February 2018
"My chickens are so funny and my hubby , who was at first opposed to having them, now calls them “ “ HIS “girls and races around after their needs! I have found the spider numbers , usually white tails ,has drastically reduced as well as cockroaches . we live on a lake reserve so always have s lot of insects. They are also exposing a lot of rocks which we did not know were in our waste garden areas.thanks for all the tips on gardens as I am about to develop that now."
Miranda on Saturday 29 September 2018

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