Keep your chickens from scattering the mulch May 3, 2013
My chickens free range, and there are a lot of benefits that go along with that. I love to garden… and there are a lot of benefits that go along with that, too. Sometimes these two hobbies are tough to combine though. Chickens love to scratch. They love to dig. They love to dust bathe. And none of this is particularly good for your garden. They’ll eat your newly planted seedlings just as fast as they will eat weeds and bugs. And even when they’re not eating your plants, they’re wallowing holes in the ground to dust bathe. They won’t care if they’ve just crushed all your petunias and scattered 20 cubic feet of mulch that you spent four hours laying down. So, if you’re like me, you might struggle to keep your garden beds free of chicken damage. Especially difficult is figuring out a way to keep your chickens from scattering the mulch out of your landscaping beds.
First I’ll share a couple of the traditional solutions to managing the damage chickens can cause to your gardens and landscaping, then I’ll tell you my secret way to keep your chickens from scattering the mulch in your beds.
Traditional: Use fences to exclude the chickens.
A simple solution, especially for larger areas like a vegetable garden, is to use a fence and just keep them out. Make it high enough that they can’t fly over, low enough to the ground that they can’t push under, and with small enough holes that they can’t squeeze through. In some circumstances you might be able to use fencing for selected smaller beds. If your plants aren’t edible or easily disturbed like vegetables and flowers, a low fence will probably suffice.
A little chicken wire fencing sometimes works in smaller beds, if you’re just protecting shrubbery… but it’s something of an eye sore, and it doesn’t always keep your chickens from scattering the mulch, either. Still, I keep this area in front of my house protected with wire because the deer like to eat the shrubs, too. (Durn deer. Sometimes I think I spend more to feed the deer than I do to feed the chickens!)
Traditional: Choose your plants carefully.
There are certain plants that your chickens will leave alone, once the plants are established (deer, too). In particular, I find that perennial herbs like oregano, thyme, lavender, mint, lemon balm, marjoram, chamomile and the like do very well. Sweet woodruff also makes the cut in my yard. The flock may peck at the leaves occasionally, looking for hidden bugs, but for the most part they just don’t seem interested in eating herbs in large quantities. The perennial herbs I use are strongly rooted, once established, and become tough to scratch out. The herbs spread and even seem to make the areas around them less attractive for dust bathing, since the ground isn’t soft enough to wallow out with the root system established.
In my area—it is so green and beautiful here in WV—there are plenty of other things for the chickens to eat, so they rarely bother regular annuals like nasturtiums, impatiens, alyssum, petunias, marigolds and so on. Deer are not nearly as easy to manage, so I tend to stick with herbs! Please note that if you live in a dry or desert area with little green, or if your chickens have a small, bare run, they will certainly be tempted to eat your plants, even if those plants normally wouldn’t be first (or third, or tenth) choice. Choosing herbs or other “unappetizing” plants will be especially important in those situations.
These traditional methods do work, but they have their limitations.
1. Not everything can be fenced. Our cottage has border beds around the porches and against the house. While I can stand having a little bed near the house fenced unobtrusively with chicken wire, I don’t want to set up a fence all the way around to protect the border beds. There are also other small beds in the yard, maybe four-foot-square each, that won’t be attractive if I fence set up a fence around them. The fencing would stand out like a sore thumb. Instead, it would be like a series of cages set up around the yard… and that “prison yard” look just isn’t what I’m going for.
2. You can’t get your plants established in the first place if your chickens keep digging up your seedlings. It’s one thing to know that the chickens won’t bother your established herbs, but it won’t do you any good at all if you can’t actually establish them because the chickens keep scratching out the seedlings before they get a chance to grow!
3. Even with established, carefully chosen plants, your chickens will destroy your mulch. They’ll scatter it looking for insects, spiders, and other bugs. Even in the fenced area of shrubs above, I occasionally have a chicken sneak in and dig around in the mulch. And without mulch, everything can look unfinished and even dilapidated. Using stone or lava rock rather than wood mulch may last longer, but it’s not a permanent solution. While the flock may not dust bathe in lava rock, they will still scratch it out looking for grubs. (Plus, the rock absorbs and radiates heat in the summer–not what we need in my area!)
So, a couple of years ago, I came up with a solution to keep the mulch down and undiggable around smaller plants and open beds. It seemed so simple once I’d thought of it, but it has worked magically for two years now. It’s been tested! That means I’m ready to share it with you
How to keep your chickens from scattering the mulch.
Secure your mulch with deer netting.
That’s all. Secure your mulch with deer netting on top.
Did you expect something long and complicated? Something expensive? It’s not; it’s so easy! Using netting on top of your beds will keep your chickens from scattering your mulch. How did I not think of this before? I use an “invisible” black deer netting with relatively small holes; if you have a netting with larger holes, you may want a double layer. The netting I use currently sells for about $20 for 100 feet x 7 feet.
I often use water permeable landscape fabric under the mulch in permanent beds—this part is up to you, though! I don’t use the fabric in a bed where I want to be able to change the landscaping a lot year to year, and I don’t use it with quickly spreading perennials where it might inhibit growth. I usually use fabric under shrubs or in areas with permanent plantings.
Just lay the mulch on top of the fabric (or the ground as you prefer). Then lay the netting on top of the mulch. Once your mulch is covered by the netting, just secure it with fabric staples or edging.
How easy is that?
To plant in the bed, you can cut through the netting, push back the mulch and then cut through fabric, as necessary. With larger plants like shrubs where a lot of earth must be moved, I usually find it easier to plant first, then lay the fabric, mulch and netting over top, cutting X holes where needed. Be sure to have the netting relatively tight against the mulch so your hens can’t get a toe stuck in!
I hope this idea will help chicken-proof your gardening this year. Please let me know if you’re going to try this method to keep your chickens from scattering the mulch–and let me know how it goes. Do you have any other suggestions for chicken-proof or chicken-resistant gardening? Please share in the comments!