Gardening with Chickens
by Lisa Steele
Put your chickens to work for you in the garden for healthier chickens and a more bountiful garden.
Gardening with chickens is a win-win.
Chickens and gardening go hand in hand.
It's all part of being more self-sufficient and sustaining your family from what you can produce with your own hands on your own land. I had been growing vegetables and herbs for years before I started keeping chickens, but it wasn't until we got the chickens that I felt the circle was truly complete. Gardening with chickens is now a way of life for us.
I have always used natural fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and nutrients for my garden, and that is even more important when you allow your chickens access to your garden plot. You don't want to apply anything to the soil or plants that could be harmful if the chickens eat them. I use their eggshells, manure and free labor to help fertilize, nourish and till my garden - and then thank the chickens for their contribution by sharing the bounty at harvest time with them.
Each season, I use our chickens a little differently in the garden.
If you just let them have free range year round, you'll end up with nothing growing in your garden because chickens will just as soon eat your veggies as they will bugs and weeds. So strategically planning your chickens' visits to the garden is critical. Chickens needs to be carefully supervised and controlled while in the garden.
Spring Gardening with Chickens | Tilling and Aeration
Chickens are the original rototillers. They love to scratch in the dirt looking for bugs and weed seeds. If you allow them access to your garden plot before you plant, they'll not only clear it of any tender weeds and insects that managed to survive the winter...but they'll also work the soil, turning and aerating it - far more gently than a tiller will. If you have any winter mulch left in the garden, they'll help to incorporate it into the soil as well, preparing your garden for planting.
Summer Gardening with Chickens | Thinning, Weeding and Bug Control
Through the growing season, it's prudent to keep the chickens out of the garden so they don't munch on your growing plants. They'll happily eat all your veggies, blossoms, leaves, good and bad bugs - but when it's time for you to thin your seedlings or to weed the garden, be sure to give the trimmings to your chickens to enjoy.
I hand pick all kinds of garden pests off my plants and collect them in a bucket of water for the chickens as well. And when I weed the garden, all the weeds automatically go into a large rubber tub for the girls to eat when I'm done in the garden.
Fall Gardening with Chickens | Harvest and Clean-up
Chickens don't mind misshapen, buggy, or over- or under-ripe vegetables. Nothing goes to waste when you raise chickens. During the growing season, they get all the bug-eaten vegetables plus all the ends and scraps I use when I'm cooking.
Once you have harvested all your vegetables is the time to once again let your chickens into the garden. They will love picking through any stalks, roots and stems that are left, and help by breaking them up, so they can be incorporated into the soil more easily. The nutrients in the remaining plant matter will help to feed the soil through the winter as it decomposes.
(Note: tomato, white potato, eggplant and rhubarb leaves can be toxic to chickens, so discard those before letting your chickens in to help.)
Winter Gardening with Chickens | Soil Prep
One of the big benefits of raising chickens - besides their delicious eggs of course! - is the manure they produce. Chicken manure is one of the most prized fertilizers due to its high nitrogen content. However, the nitrogen can burn plants if applied directly to the roots or leaves. Instead, chicken manure should be aged for at least three months to let it mellow out a bit. This also reduces the chance of pathogens like salmonella or e.Coli being present in the manure. You can compost the manure in a compost pile over the winter to use it in the spring, or practice the Deep Litter Method of natural coop heat/in-coop composting.
Also, in the fall when I clean out my coop in preparation for winter, I rake the soiled straw over the garden and let it act as mulch as it decomposes over the winter.
Using Eggshells in the Garden
Crushed eggshells are great to sprinkle in the garden. They add calcium to the soil, which helps prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Sprinkled around the bases of your plants, their sharp edges help deter slugs and snails, both of which are annoying garden pests. They are also greatly appreciated by the wild birds who benefit from added calcium to make hard shells and keep their bones strong, just as chickens do.
And you can even use halved empty eggshells in an egg carton to start seeds in. Just poke a hole in the bottom of each shell half and fill the eggshell with potting soil. Add a seed, water and set the carton in a sunny windowsill. When the seedlings are ready to go into the ground, plant them 'pot' and all. The calcium carbonate will slowly seep into the soil and nourish the growing plants.
Note: If you crush the shell pot a bit when you plant them in the ground, the seedlings will have an easier time establishing their roots.
Growing Herbs for the Chickens
Over the last couple of years, I have added a lot of variety to the herbs I now grow. Not only do the chickens benefit from herbs in their nesting boxes and home-brewed herbal tea, but I like to use fresh herbs for cooking all summer and then dry them for use in the winter. Fresh or dried, nearly every culinary herb has wonderful benefits for your chickens - and they love them.
Growing Vegetables for the Chickens
Pretty much any garden vegetable that you might grow for your family will be fine to share with your chickens. Tomatoes, white potatoes, rhubarb, eggplant and onion are noticeable exceptions - all of which can be toxic to chickens in large enough amounts.
I grow extra peas, watermelon, pumpkins, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard just for our chickens and ducks. Those are all favorite treats of theirs. I even throw squash, cantaloupe and pumpkin seeds right into our compost pile and let the vines grow wild all summer. The ducks especially love squash blossoms, and both the chickens and ducks love the pumpkins and squash once they are ripened.
Growing Flowers for the Chickens
There are lots of types of edible flowers that you can not only use to garnish cakes or cocktails, but that the chickens can enjoy as well. Some of the more common edible flowers are roses, violets, sunflowers, nasturtium and Echinacea.
So this coming spring when you're planning your garden, plan on planting a little extra for the chickens as a thank you for helping you in the garden. Feeding them garden trimmings is much more economical and healthier than buying vegetables or commercial chicken treats. You don't need a lot of space to grow enough vegetables to feed your family, a few herbs to use for cooking and a few flowers to brighten up the plot - plus enough for the chickens too!
I've got loads more tips to help you get started gardening with your chickens....
For more information on putting your chickens to work in the garden, check out my book Gardening with Chickens.