TL;DR : Gardening with chickens has its advantages but also has its inconveniences.
Advantages of keeping chickens in your garden
Controlling the insect population
On the plus side, it’s a lot of fun to garden with chickens. They’re always keeping a watchful eye on you in case you call them because you’ve found some goodies (earthworms, larvae and the like). They’re also really good at controlling your pest population, this means they’ll probably help save your plants (and fruit) from snails and slugs, read more about slugs and other garden pests on our blog.
Chickens in the garden will devour pretty much any insect or small critter that moves, including grasshoppers, potato beetles, slugs, snails and more.
They are also pretty good lawnmowers. Since they’ve taken up home in the garden we’ve never had to mow the lawn, not even once. We try not to let them out into the rest of the garden too much when it’s really hot in the summer because they end up ripping out chunks of dying grass patches.
They are also great picnic companions. The thing is, chickens need space to roam around and scratch around. If your garden is rather small, they will definitely not only only mow the lawn but also completely ruin it.
They’re great at weeding. If you get a chicken tractor you can use them to fertilize and clear up any spot you want, all the while protecting them from all kinds of predators.
Cohabiting with other animals (or not)
Our cats get along with them perfectly. We’ve already found them sleeping in or on the chicken coop. They’re not the least bit bothered about each other. There is the occasional scare when one of the chickens sees an earthworm or a lizard near the sleeping cat and runs for it. We sometimes end up with one scared cat.
Our cats watch over our chickens and sometimes even chase away other interested neighborhood cats. A chicken is too big for most cats to take on. I guess if one of them was hungry enough it might try its chance, but it’s not very likely. On the other hand though they will definitely go after chicks you don’t teach them not to. My grand parents had a dog which absolutely loved chasing around chickens. He had a favorite one, which never had enough time to regrow tail feathers. As you can guess terrorized chickens aren’t great egg layers. For this reasons you should make sure your chickens are never stressed out by any other animals.
We’ve had some other more or less strange encounters. The chickens are positively scared of turtles apparently (at least ours are). We found a small land turtle in our garden and it soon became their worst fear. We also have a hedgehog that terrorized them at night by getting into the coop and rolling eggs away.
We’ve also read that they are really a great help to beekeepers. They save hives from Asian giant hornets (these are a problem in France, especially in the south-west). In order to invade hives Asian hornets hover around the hive before launching their attack. Having your chickens roam around beehives allows them to gobble up the hornets, protecting the bees from these ferocious predators. We’re expecting to install a beehive (or more) in our homestead when we get one, so we’ll definitely try this one out for you guys. In the meantime we’ll just have to trust this man’s word for it. We’ve never seen one of our chickens eat a bee though. They really don’t seem interested in them, so they do get along perfectly fine in the garden.
Here are some articles about this in French and in English :
Helping around the orchard
This is kind of linked to controlling pests but I wanted to talk about it separately. You can rotate your chickens grazing spots regularly in order to keep your soil rich in insects and other organisms. Yet chickens are a great help in an orchard. A few weeks per year you can set them loose. The first fruit that fall will often be filled with insects that your chickens will feast on. One chicken can rid an entire fruit tree of bugs within an hour, breaking the life cycle of pests and disease.
They will also help boost your production by doing this. Not only will they help regulate the insect population by killing all the larvae that drop to the ground, they will also provide great nutrient for your trees. Typical fruit trees don’t need large quantities of nitrogen so you’ll wanted to limit the bird’s time around them.
The best moments to have them in your orchard are in spring and autumn. In spring the adult worms are coming out to lay their eggs, this is a crucial time for insect regulation. In the Autumn you should allow your chickens to eat the fallen fruit that that insects might use as housing throughout the winter. You will feed them for free while they, in turn feed your trees with their droppings. You get more eggs, more fruit and happy chickens! Isn’t that great?
So basically backyard hens not only provide high-quality eggs, but also serve as master gardeners, organic pest exterminators, manure benefactors, compost bins (just feed them your scraps and get nitrogen rich compost), ecological lawnmowers, weed removers (tillers) and awesome pets. Everyday we are blown away by the use of chickens in the garden!
If you’re interested in backyard chickens, you might be interested in this awesome Kickstarter project I just read about (a year late I know). I’m waiting for updates to be able to watch the video since I wasn’t a backer.
Disadvantages of gardening with chickens
On the downside chickens hang around a bit too much. Their enthusiasm (and hope to land some worms) makes them stick around. A chicken around a pitchfork or a shovel in motion is rather dangerous (for the chicken), but they don’t seem to notice.
Eating toxic substances
Talking about dangers to chicken : we discovered that our chickens had quite a taste for rhubarb leaves. This is one thing we found quite odd because rhubarb leaves contain poisonous substances, including oxalic acid, which is a nephrotoxic and corrosive acid that is present in many plants. We, humans, can be poisoned if we ingest leaves.
Apparently they don’t mind too much, but we still try to keep them away from it, even if it’s mostly just for the rhubarb’s sake. Most people tend to believe that chickens won’t eat anything that isn’t good for them. Our chickens have never fallen ill even though our housemates have tried to feed them pretty much everything they could think of. Usually they just ignore them. They absolutely adore our food most of the time though. If we picnic outside they’ll usually try to make off with a least part of the food. Don’t throw out your scraps after diner, think of the chickens’ breakfast.
So the most annoying part is that they dig up pretty much everything. They leave most large plants alone but they’ll dig up or stomp on everything that is smaller sized. They’ve dug and torn up whole rhubarb plants (they really do have a problem with rhubarb). They also love jumping up and grabbing ripening tomatoes. Once they’ve had a taste of blood, you can’t stop them. If you want to protect your plants you’ll have to fence them in (the plants or the chickens, it’s actually up to you here).
Protection (for or from?!)
Oh, and our garden has always been closed from all sides (so they can’t get out), there are not many predators for chickens in town (beware your chickens may disappear overnight if they are not well protected) and if anything happens in the chicken coop we’re immediately woken up because our room window opens directly on their part of the garden. This is not the case if you live in the countryside or near some woods. Here in Europe, the main threats to chickens in the countryside will be foxes, stray dogs, and ferrets. Rats will also try and get at eggs and chicks (but will have to reckon with angry mom!).
If you don’t want your chicken to hang around in the rest of your garden (for your sake or for their sake) you can easily fence in your garden or fence in your chickens. It actually depends if they are the predators (poor plants) or the prey (foxes love chickens, but they are not the only ones).
Personally I think the best solution would be a rotation (like crop rotation). I encourage anyone with chickens to consider designing a confined zone with movable fences, allowing them to forage each area at different times of the year. This will stop your chickens completely depleting the soil (of plants and insects) of a particular area of your garden and will also enrich your soil with manure. Chicken tractors are also great for this. I briefly talked about them when telling you about our chicken coop.
Of course your chickens will never be as happy as free-ranged chickens if they are half-locked up, but sometimes their safety requires it!
If you don’t want free ranged chickens or if you don’t think your garden can handle it (you may be right), yet you still want the give your hens some free time in the garden, here are some tips:
- Allow the chickens in the garden a half hour to an hour before night falls. They’ll have time to have a little fun, to get some insects, and then they’ll leave all by themselves around dusk to return to their coop. Don’t forget chickens want the garden bugs more than they want your plants and veggies. The key here, is only giving them enough time to get the bugs. If you leave them in the garden for too long they will eat all the bugs and move on to your plants.
- If you have a small garden and small flock you could do supervised visits for short periods of times. That means you stand there or sit there basking in the sun and (maybe you) protect your plants by chasing them away if they get too inquisitive. Getting them back in their pen might be an issues if you have more than a few hens and they are very obedient. We draw them back in with a bucket of food. Also be sure to always protect your seedlings because they will not resist a chicken attack.
- If you have a small garden, you could actually protect your individual plants with chicken wire or something similar. You can also only garden in raised beds high enough for you chickens to ignore them. That way your chickens can have access all the time and would even help you with the weeds. Be careful though, chickens do flap their wings and “fly”.
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