The truth about how to garden with chickens is that there are things that work and others that don’t. While adding chickens to the garden offer some benefits, there are some not so great things about it too. Here we’ll uncover the best practices to get the most out of gardening with your chickens to make it a win for everyone.
How to Garden with Chickens 101
If you are like me, I had visions of my flock frolicking through my lush garden, munching on bugs, sunshine streaming down upon us, me working near by and everything perfect in my little world.
This, of course was BEFORE I let chickens into my garden! Once I did, those idyllic visions of me gardening with my girls sadly disappeared into a plume of dust. In the blink of an eye.
My fateful reality check of what it’s really like in the garden with chickens happened right after I transplanted a bunch of cute little seedlings. Enter the chickens. Oh, they were happy and frolicking, for sure. That part of my idealistic vision was true. They happily danced right over to those fresh transplants and plowed them over, dug them up and made a mess of everything.
THIS WAS NOT HOW I PLANNED IT!! UGH!
After crashing of my chickens in the garden vision, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to garden with chickens. There is a perfect marriage between your flock and your garden so that everyone wins. I’ll show you how. But first let’s talk about why you’d want them in there to begin with.
Benefits of Chickens in the Garden
Maybe you’ve heard that chickens are good for the garden. It’s true. They’re a great addition. They can make your work so much easier, if you do it right (or a LOT harder if you don’t). Let’s look at some of the benefits of chickens in the garden:
This one is a big drawing point for everyone! Who doesn’t want the chickens to eradicate the bug problem in the garden? Chickens love to eat bugs and will search for them tirelessly. This is a good thing!
Chickens LOVE weeds. Especially the young, tender ones. They’re a great organic way to help control weeds in your garden.
The thing chickens do best (besides eating constantly) is poop. A lot. Around 45 pounds of poo per hen per year. That’s a whole lot of poo! If you put that waste to work for you, you can create some lovely compost to later put in the garden (don’t put it into the garden while it’s fresh. It needs some time to mellow or it will be too strong for your garden and kill it all).
If you have your compost set up in a way that chickens can help, they will. I turn mine with a big snow shovel and once the chickens see me with the shovel, they come running to report for duty. They love digging through compost and can make your job of managing it easier.
Chickens spend their days scratching and searching for food and other interesting things they might uncover. If you put that natural behavior to work in your garden, you get help tilling and breaking up the ground and general aeration practices.
Organic Matter Spreaders
Pile up leaves, compost or pretty much anything, and chickens will make short order of it. They’ll have it flatten and spread out before you know what happened. When I clean out the coop in the winter months, I’ll often dump the bedding straight into the garden in big cart loads. It just takes a few minutes for the chickens to spread it all out for me nice and even and flat. It’s a beautiful thing. (Why do something your chickens can do for you?)
Garden Waste Clean Up
Those tomatoes that are discovered half eaten by some bug? The big zucchini that somehow hid from you and turned into something the size of a bus? The chickens will gladly devour these things for you. (And even better, will give you richer eggs for having eaten the veggies and bugs you throw their way). They also help clean things up at the end of the harvest season if you let them into the garden spaces to explore.
Yes, there are crazy amazing benefits to a garden with chickens! It’s true. The trick is to use the benefits without sacrificing your garden in the process. Chickens can (in seconds) destroy all your hard work and careful cultivating. They don’t mean to. They’re not being terrible on purpose. It’s just their nature to curiously explore, look for food, and dig around in the dirt. The fact that they disrupt plants doesn’t register to them as a no-no. And all those beautiful, ripe veggies? They think those bright red, vine ripe orbs are there for them, like winning the chicken lottery. Who would think twice about eating them??
Ways to Garden (Safely) with Chickens
The truth is, we want chickens in the garden. To a certain point. But we want the garden still standing at the end of the day. Here are some tips and ideas to help both your garden and chickens co-habitat and for your world to live in (relatively) peaceful harmony (at least when it comes to the gardens and the chickens).
Open the Garden Seasonally
I allow my girls in the garden from the end of harvest in the fall until spring planting. During that time, they can go crazy. Dig up things, eat whatever they want, leave their poo in it wherever it lands, etc. I don’t care what they do because I’m not trying to grow anything (except for the places I AM trying to grow things, then those are still off-limits).
(This photo below shows the chickens the day the garden gate closed to them for the season! It’s always quite a shock to them the day it happens! ha)
Fence the Garden
It goes without saying that if you have free range birds, you’ll need a fence around your garden. And, if you plant things too close to that fence, they will reach in and eat it. (I learned this the hard way one summer that I used the fence as a bean trellis. I found out my girls actually LOVE beans. The leaves, the pods, Anything. Everything. Yea. That.)
“Free Range” Tunnels
Another trick some people do is to create wire tunnels (like this) around the outer edge of the garden where you allow the chickens to wander to eat bugs without being able to destroy your plants. I’ve never done this myself, but I’ve talked to people who have and they love this method.
Wait Until Your Plants are Mature
Some people let their chickens in to the garden once the plants are big enough they can withstand the constant pecking and scratching of a chicken. If you go this route, just know that those hens will NOT think twice about eating the tomatoes within their reach, plucking the thriving kale plant clean, making your carrot bed a dust bathing station or eating chunks out of your zucchini. If you don’t mind sharing your produce with them, and the benefits of having them there outweigh your smaller harvest, this is definitely an option to consider.
Use a Chicken Tractor
A chicken tractor is a portable chicken coop that you can move around daily from place to place in the garden. The chickens will be contained within the tractor, but can eat the bugs and weeds beneath them. If you want to make a chicken tractor of your own, here’s a step by step guide with lots of photos. You can also search for chicken tractors on Pinterest and get lots of ideas.
This advice is especially good for those blueberry bushes (and the like) you’re trying to grow fruit on. My chickens discovered the young blueberry grove belonging to my neighbors and ate every last berry! They also devoured my gooseberries. (They’re not good at sharing). If a fence around such things feels a bit much, get some netting to cover the bushes/trees during their blooming (the chickens love the blooms as well) and berry growing seasons.
Add Chicken Wire
You can ‘enclose’ the plants you’re wanting to protect in chicken wire, hardware cloth or other similar kinds of barriers. Or cover your raised beds with a wire dome to keep the chickens out of places you don’t want them in. This selective protection will allow you to give your chickens some garden time but keep them from destroying everything in sight.
Leave the Big Weeds or Add Rocks
If you don’t weed your garden, you won’t uncover bare patched of dirt that attract chickens. Alternately, you can weed and add big rocks, again, to cover the bare soil and discourage digging.
While I’m talking about how to garden with chickens, I thought I’d throw in a couple of bonus tips.
Plant extra veggies that your flock will like (my love kale, tomatoes, zucchini, beans, strawberries, blueberries (any kind of berries, really), and more). While my flock is locked out of the garden during the growing season, they’ve learned that if they hang around on the other side of the garden fence they will inevitably get treats in the form of fresh veggies.
Plant a Chicken Garden
Every year we plant a garden just for the chickens and bees. They love it. We fill it with blooming things that the bees will love and a chicken foraging mix for the flock. Here’s more information on planting your own chicken garden (and where to get inexpensive seeds).
Chickens and gardens go together fabulously, once you learn how to garden with chickens in a way that’s a win/win for everyone. My way of making it all work is the seasonal approach. They’re allowed into the garden from around October until May. Then, they get the boot. I plant a chicken garden for them to forage in to their hearts content, doing what chickens do. And I also plant extra veggies so I can feed them fresh veggies without taking away from what I’m hoping to harvest for myself.
Your solution might not look like mine, but hopefully you gained some ideas from the above and can come up with a plan that works for you. Good luck. And happy gardening with your chickens!