I’ve been intrigued by the idea of gardening with chickens for a while so was excited to attend a presentation about this at The Livestock Conservancy conference by Jim Edrington. Though Jim has worked at The Seed Savers Exchange for many years, he focused on sharing his experiences incorporating chickens in his gardens at home.
As you might guess, there are some challenges that may result from involving chickens in your garden such as keeping them from eating plants that you don’t want them to eat or protecting them from predators. With proper fencing, knowledge about appropriate (and non-toxic) plants for chicken gardens, and understanding of your chickens’ behaviors and needs, many potential issues can be avoided.
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So, today I want to focus on the positive aspects of gardening with chickens that I learned about through Jim’s presentation and other reading about this topic. Two of my favorite books about gardening with chickens are Jessi Bloom’s Free-Range Chicken Gardens and Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (particularly the ‘Putting the Flock to Work’ and ‘Chickens in the Garden’ chapters).
Here are seven benefits of gardening with chickens:
- Improved soil: Chickens love to help with hard work in the garden like tilling your soil. They can help to break ground for new beds or till in cover crops such as buckwheat (which bees also love) to improve the soil. Chickens can also till in organic matter like horse manure or grass clippings and will fertilize the soil with their manure. You can target your chicken labor in specific areas using temporary fencing or chicken tractors.
- Compost generation: Chickens can also help with generating compost for your garden. You could set up a compost area within their run or use a deep mulch bedding system in the coop to create loads of compost.
- Pest and weed control: Chickens can help to control pests in your garden like slugs and snails. As they forage, they can also help to keep weeds in check.
- Backyard entertainment: You don’t have to look far on social media to see how entertaining chickens can be! Be sure to provide fun activities for your chickens too. For example, you could hang a cabbage or dried sunflowers in the poultry yard during the winter to encourage your chickens to move and stretch.
- Healthier chickens and healthier eggs: Raising chickens within a garden can improve chicken health and provide you with healthier eggs. For example, Jim recommends feeding excess produce such as squash from your garden to your chickens to improve egg taste in the winter. There are also many herbs that can improve chicken health. Dill, cilantro, marigold, tarragon, and thyme contain antioxidants while fennel, basil, coriander, dill, and mint can be protein sources for chickens. Lisa Steele from Fresh Eggs Daily has many other tips about herbs for chickens in her book Gardening with Chickens.
- Reduced feed costs: By finding multi-purpose plants and planting the right amounts, you can grow enough healthy produce both for you and your chickens while reducing your feed costs. Sorghum, corn, barley, and squash are some of the types of feed that you could grow for your chickens. Another idea is to feed dried ground eggshells to worms (worms need grit) and feed the worms to your chickens. Or use the vermicompost to further enhance your soil.
- Garden clean up: After harvest, chickens are more than happy to help clean up your garden or munch on fruit on the ground in your orchard.
One of the most challenging parts of planning for adding chickens in my garden has been figuring out how to lay everything out – perennial and annual garden beds, chicken housing, fencing, etc. Here is an example of one of the many layouts included in Free-Range Chicken Gardens.