Chickens: Feathered Friends Or Foes?
Raising small flocks of backyard chickens has been a trend among city dwellers for a decade or so, and putting the birds to work can be a boon to gardens. You can use them for tilling, grubbing for worms and for their manure, which makes excellent free fertilizer.
But raising chickens does bring challenges, especially if you give them the run of the yard.
“These ‘free-ranging’ chickens will eat large amounts of insects, grasses and seeds,” said James Hermes, an extension poultry specialist with Oregon State University. “They will also eat ornamental and vegetable plant gardens in their search for insects.”
Hermes suggests keeping a few of the birds in chicken “tractors” or coops that can be wheeled around the yard and placed where convenient — say, between the wide rows of a vegetable garden.
Chickens “put nutrients (manure) in the soil and remove some of the small weeds,” he said. “And they will eat insects. If there are bugs on the plants they will get them, too.
“But they also will get the small tender plants, like tomatoes. Corn stalks a month or so old — they won’t damage those.”
Lisa Steele, author of the new “Gardening With Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens” (Voyageur Press), subscribes to a seasonal form of management for her 12 chickens.
“In the spring, I have them out there eating bugs,” she said. “They also stir up the soil — cultivate it.”
But keep them out of the garden in the summer or until you’re ready to share it with them, Steele said. Use barriers around the plants, or install fencing while the plants are small.
The birds “eat whatever is left over after the harvest,” she said. “During the winter, I use their manure for fertilizer and compost.”
Chicken manure is nitrogen-rich, so let it mature for a while — four to six months — before applying it around plants, or it may burn them.
Many people design their gardens in part to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. Steele designs gardens in part for her chickens.
She uses a variety of plants — mostly herbs — for boosting egg production (fennel, marjoram, parsley), changing egg yolk colors to orange (carrots, marigolds, watermelon), as feed supplements (chervil, dill, oregano, sage), for healthier baby chicks (basil, dandelion, tarragon) and to boost immune systems (blue cornflowers, rosemary, thyme).
Steele writes that she hasn’t found any research to prove herbs’ specific benefits, but she finds that overall they augment her chickens’ immune systems and keep them healthy naturally.
“I put fresh herbs in the nesting boxes to calm setting hens, repel insects and rodents, and add an aromatic scent to the chicken coop,” she said.
Allow the chickens access to the kitchen compost when it needs turning and they will spread it around for you, she said. “As a bonus, they provide plenty of nitrogen-rich green material in the form of poop as they work the soil with their feet, searching for seeds, bugs and other goodies to eat.”