Gardening with Chickens
By Sherry Smith
Gardening with Chickens…
Spring has flown by and summer is on the horizon. Our garden is doing very well. The peppers and squash are blooming. The melons are rambling here, there, and everywhere. The tomatoes and tomatillos are heavy with ripening fruit. Everything is nice and healthy. The spring floods have given way to warm winds that quickly steal away plant moisture, so we’re back to watering the gardens by hand. The garlic will be ready for harvest in just a few weeks, and I hope to try pickling some of that.
When we made the decision to try homesteading on our small little piece of earth, we read up on all of the myriad ways in which people have grown produce on their land, and the one thing that was mentioned repeatedly was that gardening and chickens go hand and hand. There is no better friend to your garden than your flock of chickens. They provide pest control, soil aeration, fertilizer. Why chickens and gardens go together just like peanut butter and jelly! Well, okay, we said, we have chickens. We have gardens. Why, we’ll give it a shot!
Well, after almost two and a half years, I have come to the conclusion that our chickens must be defective. Don’t misunderstand. I adore my chickens! They all have names. They get frequent treats. They get pets and snuggles at bedtime. In fact, they’re all spoiled rotten. However, I have noticed that while they all have their own little personalities, they all seem to have a bit of an attitude. My flock of twenty is a bit on the unruly side.
One thing that really appealed to us was the idea of letting the chickens take care of our weeds. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hate weeding. See, we don’t have mere weeds…we have demonic weeds. When you pull up one weed, it generally has a root that’s at least three feet long and four more sprout from that spot. It is truly unnatural, so the idea of letting my sweet chickens handle the problem for me was a real winner. We got our garden beds made, filled them with soil and compost, and turned our flock out to free them of any stray weeds or weed seeds. The best way I can describe my babies is “thoroughly unimpressed”. They just looked at us like “what are we supposed to do with this?” and wandered away to torment the blueberry bushes (a favorite activity). Okay, so we took that to mean there weren’t any weed seeds, weeds, etc. and planted our vegetables. Within a week, our seedlings were engulfed in a mass of weeds.
Again, we turned our flock out in the garden while we weeded in the hopes that they would at least give us some help with the weeds. They definitely took more interest this time, and about 75% of our seedlings were scratched out of the soil or pecked to shreds, the soil itself was scratched out of the raised bed and scattered in every direction, but my babies were thoughtful enough to not touch a single weed. Yes, as I said, they have a bit of an attitude. They did point out the fact that we had big fat juicy grubs in our garden bed, however, thus the reason all the soil was scratched out. Okay, so they weren’t interested in weeding, obviously, however, the soil was definitely well aerated.
This is what kale looks like after a visit from my clucks.
After replacing our seedlings, we decided that perhaps our chickens just weren’t garden friendly. The garden was enclosed with a picket fence. Now, we’ve all seen the videos on the internet of the cats that can flatten themselves to fit anywhere they choose, but who knew chickens have that same ability? Our pickets aren’t widely spaced, yet we frequently (as in every evening) watch our babies flatten themselves and pop right between the pickets to go eat the flowers off our vegetable plants. To add insult to injury, they generally look at you when they do it, kind of like a child making sure that mom is watching. We tried wrapping the fence with chicken wire, but that didn’t deter them either. Our next layer of defense was to wrap each separate bed with chicken wire, as well. They definitely let us know their displeasure with that. Now they just peck at the leaves through the holes in the chicken wire. They are nothing if not determined. We are currently working on a plan to relocate the vegetable garden to the front yard.
Our tomato bed is completely wrapped in chicken wire.
At least I can say that my babies are very good at helping with the manure in the compost pile. They also help with aerating that, as well, because enclosing that with a fence didn’t prevent them from scratching through the compost, either. Every time we clean out the coop, all of the manure-saturated hay goes right into the compost pile. All of our egg shells go there, as well, giving us good calcium-rich compost. In that regard, yes, I can honestly say that my babies do their part in fertilizing the garden. However, any kitchen scraps that get thrown out there, get eaten. We’re planning to set up a bin for vermicomposting, but we have to figure out a way to keep the chickens out of it. They love fat juicy worms.
I must admit, if we could garden directly in our soil instead of using raised beds, the chickens would be more than happy to clear a spot for us. Their run (where they are kept when we aren’t home) has nothing growing in it. It is completely bare. They accomplished that task within two weeks. Alas, that isn’t an option here where we experience floods followed by droughts, and the soil is a truly horrendous mixture of hard clay and rocks. We affectionately call it gumbo.
As in any new venture, we have experimented with many of the methods we read about in homesteading and food production. We have found some that worked like a charm. We have found some that left us shaking our heads. The idea of gardening with my little gang of clucks, however, was just simply a no-go, not even an option. So we’ll keep reading, keep experimenting, and yes, I will keep spoiling my clucks. Their theory is that they provide us with almost a dozen eggs a day, so their job is done. I tend to agree.
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