Chickens in the Garden: A Match Made In Heaven

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To those of us who love gardens, weeding and pest control is generally pain more than pleasure. Our first few years gardening was a constant exercise in finding new and innovative ways to avoid weeding or spraying anything nasty on our plants.

We tried wet newspaper first (no one told us that it would blow away!). Then raised beds with the lasagna method. You know, layering wet newspaper, straw, and a manure/topsoil layer then letting it ‘bake’ for a few months under sheets of paper stapled to the edges before ripping it off to plant. The soil turned out awesome. Too bad horses eat a lot of seeds. We introduced more weeds to our garden, but my wife got some great new wild herbs that way and we found that lambsquarters are an excellent ‘wild’ food source. We’ve intentionally grown a bed of it every year since and that soil grew the biggest, sturdiest weeds you ever saw and enough zucchini to choke a horse. If horses ate zucchini. Do they?

Lastly, we set aside our aversion to plastic and started laying landscaping fabric down covered in mulch and planting through it. It’s works okay, but weeds still pop up in there and drive us bananas. But not nearly as bananas as all the bugs make us.

Fortunately, chickens prove to be a delightful solution when you make a controlled introduction to your garden.

The key to success here is a few of things: timing, age, and direction.

Timing (age of plants)

  • Before planting your garden, let the chickens in to scratch, peck, and loosen the soil.

  • Added bonus to letting the chickens get the garden ready: manure!

  • There is an assumption here that you are NOT using chemicals in your garden as they can hurt you, your plants, and any chickens pecking around in there. Even stuff like Bt is coming out now as possibly harmful to humans. Think about it this way: Bt blows up the digestive system of bugs who eat it. GMO’s are infused with Bt so the plant makes its own pesticide. GMO’s are linked mainly to digestive disorders in humans among other things. Therefore, not using Bt on my plants makes some vicarious sense to me!

  • Ensure that the plants are old enough to be picked or scratched at gently by a chicken; it needs to be obviously different from the little picky weeds coming up.

  • When ‘chicken training’ I usually start things off by pulling weeds for a week and tossing them into a pile so they start eating those and getting a taste for them.

  • Once plants start to bear fruit or if you are growing green leafy vegetables, then you may want to run netting around these to keep the chickens out of them.

  • By the time you are ready to start harvesting, the plants are usually big enough to help keep weeds down anyway.

  • Growing a special area just for the chickens is great.

    • oats

    • chard, spinach, lettuces

    • millet

    • beans

  • Chickens can help glean your fields and garden after the season is over.

Age (of your chickens)

  • Any chickens you ‘ask’ to be a weeder in your garden should be a couple of months old.

  • Start them fairly young and you can ‘train’ them to avoid certain plants.

  • Guineas are great for weeding a garden because they’re so small.

Directing your chickens

  • Light netting over garden to prevent hawks from swooping down.

  • Protective caps and other barriers over any tender, young plants.

  • If the chickens start to dig up plants, then put a barrier around it, eventually you will be able to determine which areas are best for the chicken-powered weeding.

  • Generally chickens love to peck at fully formed fruits, vegetables, and green leafy stuff so keep this protected after a certain point. It’s really easy to put in stakes and then wrap some netting around it so you can still get in there and weed it yourself if needed, but by this point it usually isn’t required to weed if you plant close together.

  • Brassicas and other cole crops are usually very safe and very sturdy to be weeded by chickens as are most nightshades. They may peck, but they usually don’t eat much of these.

  • Chickens will eat any and all pests in your garden. So if you are having an infestation of, let’s say, Japanese beetles, then you can still dust wood ashes on the garden and let the chickens go to town on those fellas. The wood ashes won’t bother the chickens and your squash plants will thank you.

  • Down side is that they will eat ANY insect, even beneficial so make sure to encourage the beneficials and even purchase extra lady bugs, etc. if necessary.

For many people, chickens are just glorified egg layers or meat birds until they really get to know them. The benefits of owning chickens number in the hundreds. Aside from production as food, many ethical vegans and vegetarians are starting to keep chickens for the joy they bring. Even better, they are also now making them help-meets in the garden in a completely symbiotic relationship that I can’t help but admire and respect (even though I do eat chickens myself). While the chickens are helping with some of the hard work of weeding, they are feeding themselves and having a great time doing it. Weeding is true chickentainment for both you and the chickens!

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