The idea of keeping chickens in the garden is (frankly) ridiculous. Chickens left to free range in a vegetable garden will decimate it in no time. That said, chickens can be a great asset to the garden.
Raising chickens is great fun and they give you eggs. Egg layers in and of themselves are a great addition to any homestead, large or small. And is there anything better than fresh eggs?
But what if, in addition to the eggs, your backyard chickens could provide an extra hand (or foot, as it were) in your gardening efforts?
Taking advantage of their natural desire to forage is a smart way for gardeners to get a little bit of free labor in the garden, and your chickens will love it!
Chickens in the garden help eliminate pests
While you won’t want your chickens in the garden when it’s newly seeded or actively growing, you can let your hens scratch and peck their way through your garden areas before you plant your crops. Chickens eat all kinds of bugs and grubs, helping to eliminate pests in the soil.
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Use your flock as a rototiller
When you’re prepping for growing season, it’s a great chance to let your flock’s natural urge to forage. Give them access to your garden bed (they’ll even jump up into raised beds) and let them go to town. Chickens love to have new soil to turn over, and their busy feet will break up the soil surface as they seek out little tidbits to eat.
If you planted a cover crop in your garden beds, let the chickens work that area, knocking down the plant material and scratching it into the soil.
If you have had a compost pile for any amount of time, you will know how it teems with bugs and grubs (and here in Hawaii, cockroaches — ick). It’s a veritable chicken buffet!
Those creepy crawlers are a great natural source of protein for hens. And in their efforts to find those delicious little nibbles, they’ll scratch through your pile, helping to break it down even faster. Their scratching can help reduce the number of fruit flies in the compost pile, too.
If you turn your compost regularly, you can let the chickens do part of the work for you. They’ll scratch around in it, helping to aerate the pile. When they’re done (or while they’re working) you can flip the compost over and create a fresh mound.
If your compost is ready for use and you’ll be spreading it in an area that doesn’t need to be protected from chickens (like a newly planted garden), all you need to do is dump the compost in a pile where you want it. In no time flat, the chickens will have it spread out for you.
You can also use a tactic that works well for me: Place a compost ring inside the chicken run. I have fruit trees in their area, so I set the compost ring next to the tree and add waste as I have it. When it’s full, I remove the ring and let the chickens go through it, spreading it right there, so I don’t have to move it anywhere.
Chickens that are confined to one area can still be a big help in your gardening system. When the garden generates lots of leaves and small trimmings, toss some into the chicken pen and let your girls go to town.
Entertainment for them, and nice shredded yard waste mixed with chicken manure for you. (Once it’s all shredded, you’ll need to set this lovely mixture aside for a month or so to age in order to avoid burning your plants with the fresh chicken manure.)
Be aware that grass clippings in the chicken coop are a bit of a grey area. Some people think that cut grass can lead to sour crop, but others have had no issue. I’d use caution here.
Let them tackle tough yard areas
We have an area of very aggressive grass with lots of clumping roots that we need to eliminate. I like to move a few of my hens into a portable fenced area, so they can happily scratch and gobble up what’s there, all the while loosening the roots and eliminating a ton of work for us.
Turn kitchen and garden waste into eggs
It’s good to be reminded once in awhile that through the miracle of Mother Nature, your flock is transforming kitchen scraps and garden waste into something edible in a single step.
You could compost those scraps, but by feeding them to the chickens, you save on feed and get an egg for the breakfast table the next morning.
Your local nursery sells bagged chicken manure, but if you keep a flock of hens, you have ready access to fresh chicken poop. They’ll poop on the move, of course, but the area where they nest at night is essentially a manure collection area.
And friends, that is some good sh*t. Collect it all and allow it to rest for a month or so before you add it to an actively growing garden. You can also transfer it to a fallow garden and let it sit over the winter months. By the time spring arrives, the soil will be beautiful and full of nutrients from all of that poop.
End of season clean up
As winter approaches and gardening season comes to an end, you can finally let your girls be garden chickens. Invite them in to gobble up any remaining parts of garden plants that will otherwise be damaged by frost.
Hints & Tips for Keeping Chickens in Your Backyard
- How to Grow Fodder for Chickens
- Make a Chicken Swing
- Feeding Chickens on a Budget
- Butchering Chickens
- Mistakes I Made in the Chicken Coop
- Put Your Backyard Chickens to Work in the Garden
- Grazing Boxes for Chickens
- Plant a Chicken Garden
- Do Your Hens Need Supplemental Light?
- Chicken Coop Supplies
- Controlling Mites
- Keeping Chickens Cool in Extreme Heat
- Build a Chicken Coop Extension from Pallets
Originally published in September, 2014; this post has been updated.