There is nothing more wonderful for a gardener than sharing the love of gardening with another. In this case, we are talking about sharing that love with your chickens! Not only will chickens love to be included in your garden, but they also can take some of the gardening work off your shoulders. In this post we will go over how you can work with your chicken’s instincts to prep and clean up your garden during the growing season, fertilize your soil, and till your cover crops under when the timing is right.
Respecting the Chicken-ness of the Chicken
When we work in tandem with chicken’s instincts, they pay us back in saved time in the garden and precious fertilizer. Your flock’s first priority is finding food. When you put them out in a vegetable garden that’s at peak bounty, of course you are going to lose your best peppers, most plump tomatoes, and leafy lettuce. Don’t make that mistake! Instead, using what we know about a chicken’s daily schedule we can set up systems that take advantage of their wants and needs.
Daily chicken activities include scratching to search for snacks, pecking for bugs, taking dust baths to clean their feathers, and drinking water. The first of these activities I want to focus on is scratching. Have you ever really stopped and looked at a hen’s foot? They are mini velociraptor feet! Their long toes and large talons are perfect for ripping apart piles of debris, tilling the soil, and aerating organic matter. When you give a chicken a pile of compost or mulch, the first thing she is going to do is spread it out for you as she searches for bits of food or earthworms. Put that garden rake away and release the chickens!
Another note on scratching is that chickens love perimeters. Whether it’s the perimeter around a tree trunk or a fence, they will find it and use it as their guide to find bugs. Use your poultry's affection for margins to your advantage. Pile compost at the base of a tree or shrub and watch your hens spread it out for you. Place mulch or straw along the sides of raised garden beds and they will scratch it out onto pathways or across your beds. This chicken instinct is my personal favorite to use in the vegetable garden.
The next activity we will go through is pecking. Chickens use their beaks as much as their feet as they search for food. As the hens peck, they lean towards the smaller bits of plant matter. They love plants that are in their initial stages of sprouting, more specifically, the first seven days once the seedling breaks the soil. How could this come in handy in the garden? Weeds! If you can run your chickens through your garden in the early spring as weeds break dormancy, you can save yourself a ton of time in weeding and hoeing.
There is the added benefit of chickens eating bugs as they go through your garden too. Unfortunately, the one bug that is our main culprit every year is the one bug they won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Squash bugs. Chickens won’t eat them and it breaks my little green thumb heart. Alas, we have to leave that pest in the hands of the gardener and her soap bucket.
The next activity is dust bathing. Chickens will take it upon themselves to scoop and swoop dirt up and under their feathers to keep fleas and mites at bay. The dirt agitates parasites and bugs and keeps chickens healthy and, despite the dirt, clean. When garden beds are dry and bare and you want to incorporate aggregates for fertilizer, like rock phosphate and green sand, sprinkle it over the surface of your garden beds. Then release your chickens and watch them go to town dust bathing. As they fluff up the soil, they mix the aggregate for you and get a dust bath in the process.
The last activity is finding water. Be sure to provide your hens with a source of clean water if they take up residence in your garden for a certain amount of time.
Not All Chickens Are Created Equal (For Garden Work)
I have found that garden work is best left to laying or dual-purpose heritage breeds. The instinct to forage has not been bred out of these varieties and their robustness doesn’t fade as they gain weight (like the Cornish Cross). Our chicken-in-the-garden experience has been exemplary with the Wyandotte, Leghorn, and Australorp breeds. They are hardy birds that work for their food and are constantly scratching and pecking, even in the wintertime!
Managing Chickens In The Garden
The first point of action for getting chickens to work in your garden is setting up barriers. If you release chickens into your garden without barriers, you are handing them an all-you-can-eat buffet. At any given point there many be a plot that begs for chicken prep or cleanup, but there is a neighboring plot that has something you want to harvest for yourself. Using barriers helps concentrate your birds on the area you need work and keeps them from getting at your precious lettuce greens. Let’s go over some barrier options.
The first and easiest barrier option is setting up a temporary fence that divides your garden or partitions off a section for your chickens. You can be very serious about your fence and go with a solar-charged electric fence or you can go low-maintenance and buy a roll of galvanized 4’ tall 2”x4” fencing. We have gone the low-maintenance route here at Green Willow Homestead and have had zero issues. With the galvanized welded-wire fencing, be sure to buy some fiberglass snow stakes to use as “fence posts.” In the spot you’d like to secure your fence to the earth, simply weave the fiberglass stake through the welded wire fencing down towards the ground, then hammer it down so ¼ to ⅓ of the stake is below ground. We set stakes every 8’ to 10’ with the welded wire fencing and it stayed up all summer! Shade is still needed for your birds, especially if the summer sun is at full throttle. Purchase a small tarp and zip-ties so you can secure a shaded spot to a portion of the fence, preferably on the southernmost side of the temporary barrier. You can set up these temporary “corrals” around a few garden beds and let your chickens go to town.
The next barrier option is building a small chicken tractor that fits over your garden plots or beds. With a small chicken tractor, there’s the added bonus of overhead protection from sun and predators. The tractor can be as rudimentary as you like, a simple four walls and a roof that’s open on the bottom. A-frame styles also allow for good structural integrity (think triangles are stronger than squares). Be sure that you give the chickens enough height within the tractor, about 2’ at least, so they can stand up comfortably and have their waterer fit too. Another feature to include is nesting boxes for your layers, if they are of age. The size of the tractor will also dictate how many birds you can fit in at one time comfortably. My rule of thumb is one chicken per four square feet of room. Be sure to check the garden plot to see how their progress is coming and move them to a new plot once they’ve accomplished their necessary garden task. Using the tractor is also great for preparing brand new beds, say if you wanted to turn a patch of lawn into soil. My final suggestion is to make the tractor as light as possible, so moving it from one garden bed to another doesn’t require too much elbow grease.
Planting Cover Crops, Feed Your Chickens And The Soil
The next chicken-in-the-garden topic I want to touch on is planting cover crops. Cover crops are a fantastic way to add fertility and organic matter to the soil. Legume varieties like field peas fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. All cover crops when cut down and incorporated into the soil provide organic matter that feeds microbial life, giving you healthier soil for growing vegetables. Planting of cover crops can be done at any point in the season for your garden, but in order to get the chickens in on the deal it’s best to stick to early spring and mid to late fall plantings. Spring cover crop planting can happen as soon as the soil can be worked, AKA when the ground is no longer frozen. This is late March or early April for us here in growing zone 5b. For fall plantings, stick to sowing seeds at least 30 days before your first average frost date. For us in Wisconsin that translates to mid-September.
Chicken-approved cover crops include alfalfa, clovers, ryegrass, kale, field peas, rape, turnips, mustard, buckwheat, millet, and flax. You can buy these seeds in bulk and make your own mixes to save a little money. If you are intent on saving time, here are some great poultry blends for cover crops that you can purchase pre-mixed. The best mixes for early spring include red clover, peas, winter rye, and kale. The best mixes for the fall are buckwheat, winter rye, red clover, and field peas.
Timing is everything with cover crops. When preparing a garden bed with cover crop planting, you have to account for the time it takes to sprout the seed, get it to the chicken-approved foraging height, and finally the decomposition window needed prior to vegetable planting. Sprouting depends solely on soil temperature and moisture. Keep your eyes on the weather forecast in early spring and watch for a string of warm sunny days followed by a day of light to medium showers. Sowing seed just prior to a day of mild wet weather is great to get your seeds germinating on the right foot. I start watching for perfect cover crop planting weather around mid March (if there is no snow on the ground). Soil temps above 38 degrees are best. I’ll cast seed on a leveled mulch-free garden bed the day prior to a rainy forecast. Then I will check the beds once a day to monitor growth. Once the cover crop is 3 to 5 inches tall, I’ll release the chickens. Any taller and the amount of nutrients available to the chickens decreases. Again, this time frame all depends on soil temperature and moisture. Once the chickens have sufficiently dessicated the cover crop, I’ll leave it to decompose for three weeks, otherwise the nitrogen is tied up in the decomposition process and won’t be available as food for your growing vegetables. Once the three weeks is up, in go my vegetable transplants and seeds!
In the fall, the process can be repeated, without the need to wait for decomposition prior to planting since planting is done for the year.
Garden Prep and Clean Up, Brought To You By Chickens
Mentioned earlier in this post, there are a ton of opportunities to get your chickens working in the garden. Let’s go over some more examples to get you excited about including your birds this growing season.
Adding organic matter, like dried leaves, mulch, and straw, is a wonderful boon to soil life. Using materials like these in lieu of spending a fortune on bagged garden soil has kept our garden beds full and our wallets intact. In early March or late October, I will place a bale of straw and wheelbarrow of wood chips on every garden bed. I'll also rake leaves and toss them in the beds if time allows. At this point in the year there are no vegetables to worry about. The chickens go to town ripping apart the straw bales and wood chip piles, spreading it out all across the garden. As the chickens work, they poop a LOT. The nitrogen in their manure mixes with the carbon in the straw and wood chips creating a thick layer of compost. I marvel at how such little work brings my garden so much wealth.
At the end of the growing season, let your chickens run through the garden beds and eat the rest of what you don’t want to clean up. Spare zucchini and green tomatoes won’t go to waste when a chicken is afoot.
Our Chicken-In-The-Garden Schedule At Green Willow Homestead
Next, I’ll take you through our annual routine to inspire you to try some of these steps in your garden.
Late Winter (if there is little to no snow)
I hope this post inspires you to incorporate chickens in your garden this coming growing season! Do you have any tips for using your backyard poultry in the garden? Comment below and let us know!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live a toxin-free life and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Sustainable Dish
6. Zero Waste Home
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. In The Company of Women