Can Chickens and Gardens Co-Exist?
By Cheryl D. Jones
Considering adding chickens to your garden plan? Read this article first.
Gardens and chickens co-existing is a debatable topic. There’s some amount of literature out there regarding sustainable garden techniques for the homesteader using chickens in the garden as help, but when you get into reading suggestions on how this works you notice that a lot of advice centers around keeping chickens OUT of the garden with a few exceptions. And a lot of seasoned gardeners and chicken keepers will agree with this sentiment. Yes, it’s true – generally, chickens are adorable destructive forces of nature that happen to thank you with eggs sometimes, but that’s not enough thanks when it comes to the total destruction of your flower beds. Is it even possible to allow chickens and your gardens existing, together, permanently and happily? Well, we’re here to tell you that it IS possible under the right circumstances. Indeed- it is!
Over years of trial and error and patience, and through lots of research and discussion among fellow gardeners, homesteaders, and backyard chicken keepers, we’ve compiled a general guide on how to make chickens and gardens exist together happily. And it’s possible to make it happen no matter where you live or how you live, or how many birds you have- given a few adjustments and reality checks.
A lot of people will recommend keeping chickens in an enclosed run, which solves all of these issues of course. And for many reasons, keeping chickens in a run is a great idea. There are many of us however that acknowledge the dangers of free range and risk it for the benefits. This article pertains to these chicken keepers and garden diggers.
Accept that there are plants that will always be targets for chickens.
First of all, there are plants that it will be impossible to allow chickens access to without complete disaster. Consider most anything you find edible, whether they are leafy greens or fruiting plants, to be on the menu. Chickens will obsessively devour these foods, dig up shallow growing potatoes and devour them, and jump up to high tomatoes on tall vines for a chance at a peck into a sweet and juicy tomato. Even older, experienced chickens that turn their noses up to a treat of lettuce will still eat it and scratch it to nothings, even if there are plenty of bugs and worms abound- given enough time. We’ve compiled a list of edibles that chickens will most certainly destroy, and if you grow these with free ranging chickens, your only hope is completely closing these plants off from chickens with good fencing.
*Berries of all kinds
*Most all kitchen herbs, especially the new green fleshy growth
*Squashes, summer and winter, and even gourds
*Sweet, mild, and even screaming hot peppers
And anything else that you find tasty, they will too. There have been some exceptions. For example, in my experience I have yet to have chickens destroy the roots of root crops, but they devour the tops. I’ve heard of chickens scratching up potatoes and eating them but mine have yet to do that to my potato patch, and mine have generally left the greens of the tomatoes alone.
Give them space, and minimal fencing works.
The good news is, if your chickens have access to lots of productive foraging area, they generally leave the greens alone. They also become easily distracted and even small fences that they can’t really figure out seem to annoy them enough that they don’t bother trying to surmount the barrier problem. For example, my flock of ten hens and a rooster are kept out of garden beds with two foot high chicken wire fences with about a half-acre of area that they free range in. That’s it. Plants will grow over the tops of the fences and sometimes get nipped, but my chickens won’t bother trying to leap a chicken wire fence if they have plenty of other things to do and eat. It’s also been reported that short picket fences of about the same height have the same effect. As long as a chicken can’t easily crawl under or through a gap, as long as there’s lots of room to occupy their minds and their bellies they give up on barriers pretty quick. A short picket or chicken wire fence is cheap, easy and quick to install too.
There are some ornamental plants, such has plants you’d put in containers like short growing salvias, petunias, calendula, impatiens, coleus, and others that chickens like to eat too. Include these in inaccessible areas or baskets like high hanging baskets or window boxes, and you won’t have a problem.
With the right plants, you can enjoy the benefits of the scratching and pecking!
Honestly, there’s a lot that chickens do that HELP plants, with all of the scratching, pooping, and pecking that they do. Around the bases of my established shrubs and trees, they clean out weeds and grubs, and they pick off bugs from plants, off of the ground, and even right out of the air! Since we established chickens on our property, we’ve noticed a drastic reduction in mosquitos, as chickens pick larvae out of pools and the pond, and they will eat mosquitos buzzing around in the air. Chickens can help keep containers of unruly petunias bushy and neat by their incessant pecking at new growth although this has to be watched. There are perennial plants that chickens seem to generally ignore that work fantastically in the landscape too, and are quickly filling in the beds that chickens have access to.
These plants include:
*Evergreens such as junipers and pines
*Hollyhocks and all malva
*Hens and Chicks
*Aruncus (all types it seems)
*Native North American prairie grasses and plants in general
There are many others, and a lot of discovering what plants your chickens will leave alone will center on a lot of trial and error. For example, I hear from plenty of other chicken keepers that their ferns and hosta are completely ignored by chickens, yet mine were devoured right away after my chickens discovered my shade garden.
Keeping mulch in the garden is a bit of a chore with chickens, but a weekly rake helps to not only remove the weeds the chickens miss (like those little woody tree sprouts!) and a chance to add more mulch and check your landscape for health and problems (and enjoy of course!).
If you want birds but still aren’t convinced… get ducks.
And, if your heart is set on a couple of farm-ish birds for pets and eggs and for hopeful garden help and still aren’t willing to risk your hard work in the garden, consider the humble duck. Ducks are gentle on the garden, eat the bugs, fertilize as they go, but won’t scratch or destroy your plants. There has been one exception to this in my experience. My poor elephant ear bulb sprouts haven’t stood a chance with ducks, but that’s been my only bad experience. Those wide floppy feet do walk over plants but they never do damage. Ducks will decimate slug, snail and grub problems very quickly, and for the quick bird they’ll destroy grasshopper populations as well. Even in a small yard, a small barrier keeps them out too. And on a husbandry note, ducks are quiet and healthy animals if you compare them to chickens, and are less needy. A duck or two might just be a better option for the gardener!
Chickens and gardens are possible under careful consideration and many exceptions. We hope that this article gives you hope and a better idea of what to expect when keeping a garden and chickens together.
Cheryl D. Jones, shares gardening tips and landscape ideas through her blog, newsletters and her nursery’s website.
Visit GreenwoodNursery for Chicken Coops and plants for that area as well as a full line of garden plants including trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and ground covers.
Join the Greenwood Gardeners Club free to receive Greenwood Nursery’s weekly newsletter, seasonal promotions and 10% off your first order.