I've been at this "chickens and gardens" thing for a couple of years now and I have to say that my garden has never looked better, and I believe chickens have made the difference. From the start I felt that the poo was going to be as valuable a harvest as the eggs and boy was I right. The Nitrogen and micro nutrients that it provides have made my garden so lush and floriferous. My peonies and delphiniums and hydrangeas barely needed staking because they have nice strong stems, something they have always lacked. Also, my roses are less bothered by Japanese Beetles because the girls are mad for the grubs. I was concerned that the plants that rely on self sowing seed to renew themselves would suffer from the girls weeding sessions, but that doesn't seem to be a problem. The penstemon, borage, and feverfew came back better than ever. I know this might sound like bragging, but it's not me, it all them.
How to do it?
Chickens and gardens should go together beautifully. They eat all the bad bugs, slugs and weed seeds and provide us with nutrient rich fertilizer. My pastoral fantasy of chickens clucking and pecking around the blossoms can be easily disrupted by Daphne kicking all my mulch onto the lawn or Bobby choosing to scratch up my seedlings. In order to keep the harmonious relationship between chicken and garden we need to take some precautions.
First, the proportion of garden to chicken is important. There is a big difference between 6 hens in an acre garden for a few hours a day and 30 birds full time free ranging a quarter acre. Realistic expectations need to be exercised and the right balance reached. Because we have a predator problem where we live our girls are in their large run most of the time and come out when we can be out with them, which works out fine for the garden.
What works in one garden might not work in another. I've heard people say "my chickens never eat the..." and that turns out to be someone else's chicken's favorite. Also, I find that nothing is chicken-proof in the spring when it's all tender new growth just poking up. If you can protect your garden a bit during this time it gives it a chance.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
Physical barriers are sometimes what is needed to protect plants. My girls are poor flyers so a short fence is all I need to keep them out of the vegetable garden during the growing season. Between the nightshades and Rhubarb that have toxic leaves and all the tasty things that I want for myself it just makes sense. It's just best that they never find out that strawberries are just beyond the fence. Emerging bulbs and new Spring growth might need just a little extra protection. A piece of chicken wire bent into a short dome and placed over the area to be protected usually does the trick. For newly transplanted seedlings I sink short bamboo stakes into the ground with about 4-5 inches above ground. One or two of these for each seedling will make scratching no fun and the chicken will move on. Once the plant starts to get bigger you don't see the stakes anymore. Chicken tractors are good for containing birds to a specific area outside their usual run.
Give Them What They Need
Chickens want to scratch and snack. If you make sure they have a place to dust bathe, scratch and graze they will do less damage to the rest of your garden. This Spring we are planting a high omega-3 poultry pasture that should keep the girls happy and distracted from other plants. The mix consists of flax, ladino clover, Birdsfoot broadleaf trefoil, alfalfa, red cowpeas, and buckwheat. New test results show that eggs from hens raised on pasture show 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D as typical supermarket eggs, as well as 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene. Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs.aspx#ixzz1HSF62nZt
I'm working on a list of chicken-proof plants for the garden around my coop/run. When I say "chicken-proof" I mean firstly that it won't harm the chickens, and second that they won't mess up the plants too badly. I know there is a great list of toxic plants (http://www.poultryhelp.com/toxicplants.html), but if you are like me it's hard to look at a list of forbidden fruit and think of "what can I do?". Some people believe that chickens know to not eat things that are bad for them, but then again I constantly hear about how chickens "drop dead for no reason". There is always a reason even if it's not obvious to the observer. They may be ranging in an area where all the plants have died back for winter and you think "what can hurt them". Well, maybe the foxgloves dropped their seed earlier in the season and they could give them a heart attack. We can't remove all the garden dangers, but we can learn about what's in our environment and steer them in the right direction.
Trees, shrubs and tall perennials over the chickens heads are usually safe from too much nibbling. As an added bonus they provide some cover and shade. It's usually the middle to front of the boarder plants that need more thought put into them.
Acanthus - bears breeches
Achilla - yarrow- I've heard mixed results from people about chickens eating this, but it's said
to have health benefits so I say it's worth it.
Alchemilla - ladies mantel
Allium - On the toxic list, but haven't had any problems. Something to think about.
Armeria - sea thrift
Aruncus - goat's beard
Aquilegia - columbine - Strictly speaking is toxic, but have never seen a chicken touch it.
Bamboo - be careful, can be intrusive
Caryopteris - Bluebeard
Celosia (cockscomb - I had to include this just for the name)
Centranthus ruber - Jupiter's beard
Chelone - Turtlehead
Cotinus - Smoke Bush
Currents -red , flowering
Fescue - Elijah Blue never gets looked at by my girls, even when little else is available.
Gailardia -blanket flower
Hakonechloa- (like other ornamental grasses, they will keep them trimmed if given access too early, but if protected till larger are left alone.)
Honeysuckle (some have poisonous berries, some not. be careful.)
Humulus - Hops vine
Iberis - Candytuft
Iresine -blood leaf
Iris - the root is toxic, but I have never seen a chicken try to dig to get one
Kniphofia -Torch lily
Leucanthemum -shasta daisy
Lychnis coronaria, rose campion
Mertensia virginica - Virginia Bluebells
Muscari - grape hyacinth
Nasturtium - They may nibble, but it's supposed to act as a natural wormer, so who cares!
Perovskia - russian sage
Physocarpus - ninebark
Physostegia - obedience plant
Polemonium - Jacob's ladder
Salix integra Hakuro Nishiki - Variegated willow
Sempervivum - Hens and chicks (funnily enough)
Silene - campion
Stachys - Lamb's Ear
Symphytum uplandicum - Variegated Russian comfrey
Tiarella - foam flower
Tradescantia - spiderwort
Weigela florida - needs some protection from the girls when it's small