Gardening with chickens: 4 problems to expect July 29, 2016

Gardening with chickens: You may have visions of living the good life, the agricultural life, and being more sustainable by producing your own garden veggies and chicken eggs in your backyard. But the trick is being properly prepared for the challenges. For instance, the pet chickens you love so much are not going to respect your garden boundaries. If they can go in, they’ll go in. And you may not like the results!

Chickens are foragers, not gardeners.

Hornworm and hen

Forage this, girls!

That’s not to say chickens won’t help with your gardening efforts, but it’s not a fairy dust and rainbows situation where adding chickens will instantly make gardening easier. You have to know how to take advantage of what they provide. It’s also helpful to understand what to expect with your little flock, so you can realistically prepare to take advantage of all the wonderful help they can provide.

Gardening with chickens doesn't require a fence this tall

This garden is not only secure against chickens, but against deer as well.

Four things to expect when gardening with chickens

  1. They will eat garden pests, sure… but they’ll also eat beneficial insects–and low-hanging produce.
  2. They’ll do some weeding for you… but they’ll also trample and scratch up your seedlings.
  3. The chickens will fertilize your soil… but they’ll also spread weed seeds around in their poo.
  4. They’ll cultivate your garden… by reaming holes for dust bathing into the dirt and root systems.

So how do you manage when it comes to gardening with chickens? It’s all in the timing.

Here’s how to think about each of these issues.

Chickens eat garden pests:

Let your chickens in the veggie garden when they can’t scratch up small seedlings or eat your tomatoes. Later in the season, your plants are established, and the ripe tomatoes of indeterminate types are higher up, out of the reach of hungry beaks! Chickens will also eat various caterpillars, potato beetles, squash bugs, and so on.

They’re far better than YOU are at handpicking. That said, they also don’t take the same care to only get the bad bugs, or to avoid hurting the plants.

But they do love hornworms.

Gardening with chickens: Hornworm

This is a hornworm that I caught eating my sun-golds.

You can find hornworms by looking for eaten leaves.

eaten tomato leaf

Hornworm damage

You can also spot them because the hornworm poop is large surprisingly easy to see, so you will find it scattered beneath the plant.

hornworm poop

The hornwork I picked opened up it’s backflap–entymologists, please tell me what the technical name for that is… it was CRAZY–and then pooped out this little doo-doo raspberry on me. Happy gardening!

NOTE: Please use caution if providing hornworms to your girls, because there are mixed reports of toxicity. In the small quantities you are likely to find—lawsie, one hopes you’re finding small numbers!—hornworms are not likely to post a problem if they’ve been eating your tomato leaves.

Solanine in tomato leaves is mildly toxic; it’s the same substance you find in green potato skins. The issue is that hornworms do eat other nightshade-family plants that are far more toxic. If they’ve been eating something else before they got to your tomatoes, it could cause problems. Use your judgment with mature birds, and don’t offer hornworms to young chicks.

Chickens weed your garden:

Let’s be honest. Chickens are not going to weed your garden completely. However, if you’re letting them into a garden of mature plants, newly sprouted weeds will most certainly interest them. Plus, their scratching around looking for bugs and grubs is going to overturn those weeds just as easily as they would overturn your young plants.

Gardening with chickens CAN help with weeding if you’re judicious and only let them in the garden after your garden plants are large enough.

Tomato garden, gardening with chickens

When your plants are this large, your chickens are unlikely to damage plants if they’re allowed to forage in short sessions–but they will eat low-hanging fruits!

Chickens fertilize your soil:

Gardening with chickens means you have lots of good fertilizer to amend your garden soil! But use only well-composted manure. A few fresh poos directly in the soil aren’t going to hurt anything. That said, you want to make sure your droppings-filled bedding  is well composted before you spread it around. Otherwise all those weed seeds will be germinating into a carpet of invasive plants, right in your garden.

(Ask me how I know! Don’t do the “Well, I can till in a little fresh manure, just not enough to burn the plants” thing. Burning the plants is not the only concern, believe me!)

Tomato racemes against the sky

Tomatoes like rich soil, but avoid the weed seeds by using fully composted manure

Chickens cultivate your garden:

Dust-bathing chickens are laugh-inducing hilarity that will certainly cultivate your soil a little. But you also don’t want big holes in your growing garden. And although you can certainly wash off the veggies, if you can avoid having them them showered with the dirt your chickens toss around, then all for the better.

When gardening with chickens, if you struggle with your girls getting into your garden just to dust-bathe, consider providing them with a better dust-bathing spot outside the garden. Build a frame, or use a kids’ sandbox. You can even use a plastic storage container, if you can find one that’s wide and low.

OR, simply let them into the garden in the off season. Let them wallow holes to their hearts’ content

Stone garden seat

You can sit and enjoy the garden, even in the off-season!

 

 

 

 

 

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