If you are looking for a devoted helper in your backyard garden, the humble chicken would like to apply for the job.
We all know that there is no egg fresher than that which was laid by one of your own chickens. However, the benefits of welcoming a few chickens to roost on your turf do not stop at enhancing your egg supply.
Chickens in the garden are relatively simple to care for and they can also make affectionate outdoor pets.
In exchange for basic food, shelter and loving attention, these multitasking creatures will eagerly contribute to your home gardening needs in these five earth-friendly ways.
1. Soil Aeration
Before you spend valuable time turning and tilling the soil for your next gardening project, consider buying a few chickens to act as pollution-free rototillers.
Chickens have a natural instinct to scratch and dig their terrain. If you have chosen a new garden bed location, simply put chicken feed over the desired surface and the chickens will go to work.
Their scratching and pecking will loosen and break up the soil for proper aeration as well as perform the task of mixing the top layer of soil with compost or mulch.
The result will be a prepared garden bed with healthy soil for your plants. Do this each spring before planting seeds.
2. Efficient Garbage Disposal
Chickens play a starring role in the cycle of sustainable gardening. First, the chickens must eat.
Chickens are omnivores, which means that they will feast on just about any vegetable, fruit and protein source. Your chickens will savor food scraps and unwanted leftovers from your kitchen.
This prevents some food from ever truly going to waste. Rather than filling your local landfill, offer meat and produce scraps as part of your chickens’ diet.
Be sure to supplement scraps with chicken feed to ensure the required balanced nutrition for maintaining optimal health and producing the best eggs.
Remember that what goes in must come out. Feeding your chickens well will supply your garden with plenty of fertilizer.
This is the second phase of the cycle. Mixing the garden soil with compost that is rich in nutrients that include chicken manure promotes growth and production in your plants.
Once vegetables and fruits are harvested, the unused peelings, cores, rinds and less than appealing specimens are fed to the chickens and then returned once again to the soil as fertilizer.
3. Organic Fertilizer
Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen. When mixed with other components such as leaves, pine needles, straw and grass clippings, the resulting compost adds organic nutrients to the soil.
By composting the manure with grass clippings from the summer lawn mower bags and with autumn’s fallen leaves, this is much more economical than purchasing multiple large bags of prepackaged organic fertilizer from the garden center.
Composting throughout the year, introducing a layer of winter’s compost in the spring and limiting the chickens from excreting directly onto the garden during the growing season will eliminate the small risk of pathogens that can invade garden crops.
You will also prevent an over-saturation of nitrogen into the soil, which can be damaging to some plants and decrease the yield of harvested produce.
4. Weeding Without Chemicals
Weeds threaten the health of neighboring plants by robbing them of nutrients. There are several ways in which to deal with stubborn, unsightly weeds that invade garden beds every summer.
One is to spray the ground every spring with harsh chemical herbicides. A greener method is to spend hours in the scorching summer sun on your hands and knees handpicking each offender from the garden.
This is not an enjoyable task for most unless one is a chicken. While preparing your garden bed each spring, chickens will happily pluck early growing weeds and devour weed seeds that are waiting to sprout as the season progresses.
5. Insect Patrol
In addition to feed, weeds and kitchen scraps, chicken love insects. They are not picky; any bug is a dining delicacy in their eyes.
Chickens will consume all of those pests that encroach on your vegetable plants and fruit trees every season, including grubs, slugs, beetles, and aphids.
They will eat insects of any life cycle from the egg and larval stages to nymphs and adults. This means that even those annoying garden flies will be reduced.
In the autumn months, allow the chickens to consume any fallen, diseased or bug-infested fruits from orchard trees, such as peaches or apples, and taller berry bushes.
This will eradicate those bugs and prevent them from reproducing to invade the following year.
A chicken’s insect snack habit also removes ticks from your property, which will dramatically reduce the risk to you and your pets of contracting Lyme disease, erlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other tick-borne illnesses.
During the growing season, your garden beds should be fenced to prevent chickens in the garden from eating the plant seeds or taking first dibs at the tomato harvest.
Portable pens that will keep chickens contained while allowing them to peck at the soil beneath them may be placed for a short period in the garden each day if desired.
Otherwise, chickens that are free to move about the rest of the yard will continue to provide the ongoing benefit of transforming food scraps into valuable fertilizer and reducing the insect population.
Each spring, give your chicken free run of the garden beds to prepare them for planting. After the last harvest, your chickens will happily perform the end of season garden cleanup tasks for you.
Tips to Keeping Chickens Happy and Productive
Like all workers, chickens must be kept happy in order to stay healthy and active and encourage regular egg laying.
By keeping these points in mind, your chickens in the garden will provide several years of service and garden companionship:
- Construct a sturdy, roomy shelter for your chickens. Even free-ranging chickens will still require a secure place to retreat on rainy days, chilly nights or when laying eggs.
- Whether you opt to house your chickens securely overnight within the shelter or within a penned yard surrounding this structure, be sure that the enclosure cannot be penetrated and invaded by raccoons or other predators. Predators are the number one threat to a chicken’s longevity.
- Avoid overcrowding your chickens. Each chicken requires a minimum of five square feet of yard space. Too many chickens housed in a small area leads to fighting and pecking at one another, feather-pulling, depression and angst-driven egg breaking.
- Build one nesting box for each chicken inside the shelter. Hens prefer to lay eggs in private and do not consider sharing a box as an option. Over time, you may find that a chicken prefers one particular nesting box over the others.
- Provide an area with dirt. Chickens enjoy their own notion of a spa treatment that is typically called a dust bath. Chickens will lie contently in the dirt and fluff it into their feathers. This act repels down mites and other parasites.
- Chickens thrive on variety in their diets. Provide them with plenty of options that include kitchen scraps, feed, seeds, grains, cracked corn, mealworms, and leafy greens.
- Provide plenty of straw during the cooler months and rainy seasons. This not only helps them to stay warm and dry, but it provides material for scratching in. It also serves as a welcoming environment for certain bugs and earthworms that chickens love to snack on.
- Never allow your chickens to become bored. Always provide feed and other scratching promoters. Change things up by relocating them to new areas of the property. Spark their natural curiosity by hanging up unusual food scraps that are not a regular component of their diet and that they will have to explore and work at a bit in order to eat away at it.
- Chickens appreciate affection and loving words. Take the time each day to provide them with attention. Children who have gentle dispositions will be ideal candidates for this task. Raising and caring for chickens will also teach children about the responsibilities of pet ownership.
The rewards of keeping chickens in the garden include organic composting, fertilizing and pest control, abundant crops of homegrown vegetables, herbs and fruits and a steady supply of fresh eggs.
When you purchase eggs from a local supermarket, you have no idea how long they have been sitting in the dairy case or whether or not the chickens that produced those eggs were cared for in an ethical manner.
On the other hand, when your children run to the hen house to collect the eggs each day, you know with certainty that the eggs were laid within the last 24 hours and that your chickens were raised in a caring, pesticide-free environment and fed a nutritious, antibiotic-free and hormone-free diet.
The prospect of making a hearty omelet stuffed with zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes from the garden for lunch is sounding better and better, all made possible with the help of your feathered garden friends.