If you raise chickens and you’re not incorporating them into your garden maintenance, you might be missing out on a fantastic win-win! Wondering if it’s worth starting a garden and employing your chickens to help out with the maintenance? We have been gardening with chickens for years now and I want to tell you, there are definitely pro’s and con’s.
PROS TO HAVING CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN
Lets start with considering some of the pros of matching up your chicken flock with a vegetable or herb garden:
- Composted chicken manure, very high in nitrogen content, is considered one of the best fertilizers you can use. It’s called “Black Gold” for good reason, and it’s free.
- Got pests? Chickens can help with that. With a preferred diet of beetles, grubs, slugs, aphids, as well as ticks in the lawn, chickens can eliminate a large percentage of pests that plague your garden.
- Chickens also specialize in tilling! While constantly scratching and digging as they look for bugs, chickens will leave soil turned and aerated in record time.
- Chickens are terrific company as well as a comedic distraction for those hours spent weeding in the garden. Enjoy their soft coos and chatter as they hang out beside you, then throw a bunch of weeds aside and watch the hens come running from every direction to dive into them!
- The garden can help feed your chickens with pulled weeds, plants, and vegetables that have been compromised.
CONS TO HAVING CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN
- Seedlings that have started growing seem to be mission #1 and chickens will pull them up
- Sown seed WILL be eaten
- If you have soft soils chickens will burrow and dust bath, creating pits and holes throughout your garden. I have noticed a more rocky clay soil deters them.
- Is your garden bearing fruit? Good, because your chickens will partake. Eating both fruit, stem, and leaf. If the root is something to be desired they will also dig that up.
- If you have mulch it will not deter chickens, they love scratching through mulch.
With every match-up, though, there must be effort put forth to enable success. Chickens and gardens not properly managed could also become a recipe for disaster and failure. Let’s take a few of the benefits one by one and explore some pros and cons of marrying chickens to your garden.
Chicken manure is a fantastic addition to your garden. Fresh chicken manure contains 0.8% potassium, 0.4% to 0.5% phosphorus and 0.9% to 1.5% nitrogen. Just one single chicken produces approximately 8–11 pounds of manure monthly. Here you get generous amounts of fantastic fertilizer as a by-product. Recycling at its best…. With the following catch: It MUST be properly composted. Composting the manure and bedding from your chicken coop is a process that takes months to complete, and requires layering of manure and brown matter, such as leaves, grass clippings, or hay, and then diligent weekly turning the pile so it can cook. In order to make the manure and compost usable, microorganisms need to decompose the organic materials to free up the essential nutrients. Time and effort to turn the compost weekly is essential for this. But with questionable herbicide contaminated fertilizer, I always recommend to make your own.
Without following the process carefully, the very high nitrogen content in the partially or non-decomposed manure can actually burn leaves and roots, and kill exactly the plants you’re trying to nurture. Following an established composting procedure, then patiently allowing the compost to ‘cure’ for several weeks will result in huge payoffs for your soil. The cost/benefit analysis considered, if you’re not willing to put in the time or work for manure compost to become fertilizer, shortcuts will probably lead to the negative outcome of burned plants. If you’re willing to put the time and effort in, then the resulting ‘black gold’ will be well worth your effort.
As far as pests go, it seems like another no brainer to have chickens wander around the garden, eating detrimental beetles and slugs, then go on their merry way. Again, this requires attention in order to be successful. Chickens AROUND the garden, perfect. Chickens INSIDE the garden, maybe not so much. One problem people encounter when allowing free range chickens in the garden is a rapid disappearance of seedlings. Seedlings are very attractive low-hanging fruit for a chicken. Again, precisely the plants you’re looking to nurture and grow can be cut down in short order if hungry chickens are allowed to run amuck within the garden proper.
A compromise in this case would be a length of chicken wire, or other physical barrier that would separate your chickens from your plants. It can be temporary, it can be only a few feet high, it can be inexpensive and ugly, but something keeping your chickens from tender and tasty seedlings is mandatory. After a period of time when the plants are larger and stronger and have no fruit yet, it might be a good time to introduce the birds to your garden. But why risk it, its better to have the chickens border the garden and defend it by keeping pests at bay along the perimeter.
When we prepare the soil the chickens are right along side feasting. As you can see, my children, with little effort collected grubs that were ready to invade. Worms went into our raised beds.
A worthwhile related practice would be to set your chickens out in the garden area prior to planting. This will enable the chickens to pick around for weed seeds, slugs, beetles, and other pests inside the garden walls as a kind of prep-work before planting time. Soil aeration (discussed next) will also be enabled at this point as the chickens scratch the surface in search of their pesky treats.
FREE ROTO TILLING AND AIRATION
Instinctively, chickens are programmed to walk around scratching up soil, looking for what tasty tidbit may lie below. Using this to your advantage can produce a tilled and aerated garden area, devoid of a large percentage of pests, and ready for planting. If you have chosen a new garden bed location, placing some chicken feed over the desired surface will bring them over, scratching and pecking, enough to loosen and break up the soil for proper aeration. Additionally, if this is done some time before actually planting, then adding a small layer of compost over the soil first will even allow a good mixing of fertilizer into the bed. The eventual result will be a prepared garden bed with healthy soil for your plants.
As with any other chicken-directed chore, during the time it takes for the work to be done, the chickens should either be supervised, or one should take care to make sure the chickens can head back to safety if danger approaches. Having an open area with chickens intent on looking down, scratching the soil, and nowhere to run if a hawk, or a dog, fox, or other predator sneaks up could be a recipe for disaster and unnecessary culling of your flock. Supervision or a safe area for the chickens to easily get to during perceived danger is always mandatory if the flock is out doing your garden work, and as a good boss we should always make sure this is the case.
ALWAYS A LAUGH
Chickens, as one may observe daily on the internet, are delightful to watch. Not only are they inherently amusing as they walk, run, skip-fly, dirt-bathe, and pinball around all day, but their curiosity and different individual personality traits can keep us amused for hours. Like children, chickens are curious and will follow you around the yard, climb on things they’re checking out (including a stooping adult, bent down to weed), and will search around if they have lost their friends. Any time spent outside watching chickens be chickens can be a peaceful, stress-relieving bit of contentment, but again as is the rule for children, supervision should not be far away. An unattended chicken can certainly get into trouble just as easily as an unattended child can.
In the end, deciding whether to raise chickens just for gardening is a tough choice, you will have to way out the pro’s and con’s in depth. On the flip side, adding a garden to a life which already contains maintenance of a flock of chickens can have huge benefits for your egg production and egg quality. Having a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and fruit more available to your chickens will improve the taste, size, and flavor of their eggs over those laid with a diet of grain and corn only. As a chicken owner deciding whether to add a garden to your environment, you might see that a bit of careful planning, diligent supervision of your feathered workforce, and a few more dedicated chores can indeed produce a match made in heaven.