Quite often there is this rustically romantic idea about a small flock of chickens walking through your garden, scratching at troublesome weeds, pecking at pests and leaving small amounts of all-natural fertilizer behind as they pass through. Unfortunately, for those of us who are familiar with chickens, there is seldom any warm and fuzzy feelings related to a chicken running free in your garden. Personally, I would describe it more along the lines of pure panic!
As chickens are omnivores, meaning they can consume both plant and animal matter, their presence in your garden can be both positive and detrimental.
Have you got any grape tomatoes that are just about ripe? You won’t if your chicken finds them. And that nice layer of compost that neatly surrounds your prized produce…well, I’d put good money against it being neat and tidy if a chicken is anywhere around.
I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read touting the benefits of chickens in your garden. And in all fairness, there is some truth to this. Chickens are absolute machines when it comes to insect removal! Their skills at catching grasshoppers is quite impressive. But chickens like to eat vegetables too. And should one of these scratching machines decide to work the ground up around one of your bush beans, then you can expect them to fill their crops with any tender roots that they find.
And it’s not just when the garden is green and growing that chickens can be destructive. A few springs back, I planted a patch of potatoes and neglected (forgot) to put a fence up around the new planting. After all, it was just a bunch of bare loose dirt with nothing sticking up. What could go wrong?
Well…everything went wrong. One of my Australorps starting kicking around in the loose dirt and discovered a buried sprout, growing off of my potato stock. That girl must have sent out the ‘I’ve got something good’ call, because the entire flock joined in. By the time I had gotten there, there were holes everywhere in my garden and two of my chickens were running around with potato stock dangling from their beaks. (I think it’s worth stating that I had only been gone 30 minutes!)
There’s no doubt about it, for the vast majority growing season you will want to be chicken free with regards to your garden.
Are Chickens Good For Your Yard?
So now that we’ve established that your garden should be chicken free (provided you actually want to eat anything from it) what about the plants that you don’t intend to eat? Will chickens be a blessing or a curse to your yard?
Chickens will do a remarkable job of clearing your lawn of undesired insects. In this regard, they are beneficial. However, it should be noted that chickens do not distinguish between wild berry bushes and prized landscaping – and they will annihilate the later. In this regard, they can be a nightmare.
Another issue that is worth noting is a chicken’s innate drive to scratch at the ground. While it’s true, they will consume any pest that might find hiding in amongst your decorative wood chips, they will also fling these said wood chips to all four corners of your yard. And for the record, they are REALLY good at this – especially if there is a slippery weed barrier for the wood chips to slide across.
However, expensive landscaping not withstanding, chickens can be of benefit to your yard. They are especially adept at finding mice. For a chicken, finding a mouse nest would be like me finding gold buried in the backyard. Clearly, this would be something to get excited about. And if/when they find one, you can count on your flock to quickly dispatch any occupants hiding inside.
Also, chickens are not litter trained, meaning they go pretty much where ever they are when the need hits them. This is good from a fertilizer standpoint as it does not concentrate in one location. But, should you be the type of person who likes to run barefoot through the yard…
Can Chickens Run Free In The Garden?
Chicken waste is extremely high in nitrogen. And as nitrogen is a key building block for plant growth, you would definitely benefit from having it in your garden. A good time to do this, is at the end of your growing season.
After your produce has been harvested, allowing your chickens to run free in a finished garden is practice that is highly recommended. Those birds will provide you a real service by cleaning up any bugs that are leftover, as well as larva that might be waiting for the return of spring. Chickens will also feed on any plants or roots that might appeal to them, converting the end of season waste into fertilizer that will feed next year’s plantings.
How To Protect Your Garden From Chickens
Protecting your garden from chickens is not as hard as you might think. With a little bit of time and effort, you can ensure that you and your family will be able to reap the benefits of your garden’s growth.
The best way to ensure that your garden is protected is by surrounding it with a fence.
While chickens can fly over a six foot fence, they generally don’t. Our flocks are especially loathe to make the effort to fly that high as they are free-range. Consequently, there is lots of other things available to fill their time.
A rooster, however, can be a different story. If your boy is intent on a hen and she flees over the fence to the garden, then it’s a pretty good bet that he will expend the effort to get to her. And after he has finished with his business, then he (and she) are sure to notice the bounty that surrounds them.
For our garden, we’ve been able to get by with simple bird netting that stands about waist high. This material is very lightweight and easy to work with. It’s been our experience that the flock will generally push at it, but back off.
One exception to this is if the weeds lift the bird netting slightly off the ground, allowing a chicken to get its head underneath. Once that happens, they are sure to go after the food that they can see. However, if I am able to keep the netting flush on the ground, the flock will stay out of the garden.
Do Chickens Clear Land?
One of the neat things about owning chickens is how creative flock owners are always developing new ways of employing the natural behavior of this amazing bird.
Chickens in a confined area will quickly scratch and peck at the land to the point where no vegetation remains.
Utilizing this innate behavior, flock owners will build ‘chicken tunnels’ where the chicken will spend it’s day, running back and forth over the same area.
By constructing these tunnels to specific dimensions, gardeners are able to use the birds to prepared garden beds – fertilizing and clearing the land for future planting.
Personally, I find this technique to be quite impressive. Not only is this livestock providing you with food, via eggs and meat, but you are benefiting from the work that they instinctively do for you. It really is a case of optimum return for the flock owner.