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Chickens in the Garden

By Catie79 · Feb 6, 2015 · Updated Feb 21, 2017 · ·
Rating:
5/5,
  1. Catie79
    A lot of keepers start with the image of their chickens peacefully ranging through the yard, picking at unseen bugs on a carpet of green with a beautiful garden bobbing gently in the breeze behind them. And then they actually get the chickens and let them loose in their yard. The image starts to change rapidly.

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    Let's face it, chickens can be downright destructive. They scratch, peck, and eat. It's what they do. They can demolish a bed of greens in a day, leaving little behind. I learned very quickly that chickens mean business when it comes to food. That doesn't mean you have to lock up your chickens or abandon your garden! It just means that you'll have to adjust your vision a bit.
    With a bit of management, you can have the bug control without your chickens feasting on your prized broccoli and lettuce.


    Gardening with Chickens: The Reality

    1. Complete freedom does not always work. I started out with my chickens having all the freedom they could want, using a call to bring them running back when I wanted them. That worked great, until they started really roaming. They ran riot through my herb garden, obliterated the broccoli, and then kept going. It seems my expansive property wasn't enough, they wanted to check on the neighbors, too. She had a bird feeder and it needed to be checked daily by my flock. And all of my work teaching them to come when I call them? They chased the poor UPS guy down the driveway when they spotted him. They just wanted a snack, but I guess a flock of running hens isn't something people are used to seeing. I'm not joking or exaggerating, the man ran down my driveway with chickens chasing him. The flock also destroyed my yard when we were in a serious drought and the grass quit growing. I didn't have a way to consistently get them off of the grass and they scratched it to dirt. My entire yard. For the sanity of our country's postal workers and the sake of your lawn, consider limits on your chickens' range and build them before you need them.

    2. Chicken safe plant is a relative term. There are lots of lists about what plants are 'chicken safe'. Day lilies are supposed to be chicken safe, but a group of broilers decimated mine in early spring. The plants recovered and bloomed beautifully, but just about any plant can potentially take damage. It's just a matter of how much and whether or not they get eaten to the point of not recovering. If you have a valuable or well loved plant, regardless of how chicken safe it's supposed to be, protect it. Anything left with no protection in your chickens' territory should be considered expendable. Also, birds don't react to capsacian, the thing that makes peppers hot. That's a mammal thing. Chickens can and will eat habanero peppers. I know this all too well.

    3. Chickens are like cats. Containing chickens is not as easy as it looks. You think there's no way they could fit through that opening, but they manage just fine. They're also curious as cats. You think they won't notice that gap at the bottom of the fencing? They'll find it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day you'll look out the window and the flock will be exactly where you don't want them. Once one figures it out, the whole group will follow. Use fencing with small gaps and make sure the barrier is solid across the bottom where they can see and investigate. We've had good luck using plastic mesh on the inside of permanent fencing to keep small birds from popping through.

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    4. However, chickens can be thwarted. Some of the older keepers will remember those cars that would bump into a wall, back up, turn 90 degrees, and take off again. Chickens are kind of like those. It's breed dependent on how tall your fence has to be to deter them. If you have bantams or light breeds that are great flyers, you'll have more trouble. For a standard laying flock? Three feet is a good start. It won't keep them out completely, but keeps them redirected. It's great for flower beds where you want to keep them out and the chickens have no real drive to get in. Four feet will deter most of my adult girls and even my rooster, so long as it's not something they really want, like ripe strawberries. He'd rather stay with his ladies and they're not interested in getting their fluffy butts that high in the air. I use four feet on their pasture and once they're old enough to be laying, they tend to stay inside. Permanent fences are easier for them to get over because they'll scramble up then hop down. We run a four foot plastic mesh around the vegetable garden as a deterrent and that helps. They can't land on the plastic, it's not supported enough, which is more of a deterrent for chickens. If the chickens are young or the treat is amazing? Plan to clip wings and even that might not work. I've seen young chickens climb chain link fencing like oversized parakeets. If you're not going to clip wings or get aggressive with fencing, accept the fact you'll have feathered visitors, which leads to . . .

    5. Checks and balances. When I had an outbreak of potato bugs, my chickens managed that. Did I lose some leaves? Yes, but I also lost a lot of bugs. I was willing to take the damage in exchange for the bugs being handled. Same for my squash. I lost some of the squash to the chickens, but my harvest was still better because the bugs were managed. They play havoc in my flower garden, but when only in there for an hour, they're mostly after the bugs, not the plants. More good than harm. Consider giving your chickens some supervised time in your garden to turn over mulch and decimate the bugs. In small doses, they won't do enough damage to ruin your crop or flowers. Unless you have ripe tomatoes, then all bets are off. My girls LOVE tomatoes and will do anything to get them.

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    6. Height is your friend. Chickens are short, so put the high value stuff up high and keep any potential stepping stools out of reach. I hung my tomatoes up and grew them upside down. That kept them out of chicken range for most of the year. The girls could reach a few tomatoes throughout the year, but it wasn't a lot and the cost was worth it. They were so adorable hopping up and down, trying to get the fruit.

    7. Teach your chickens to come when called. This is a great trick when you're flipping something over and discover a mess of creepy crawlies you don't want. Carpenter ants are a problem here, and if I spot a nest, I bring the girls running. They can obliterate a nest and, with some practice, you can have your very own strike team for problem insects. Just be careful if there are critters you want to keep. I have to move fast to protect toads and salamanders. If I don't, the girls will snap them up in a heart beat. Also, be aware that chickens that think humans are Pez dispensers won't always differentiate between different humans. They will become the welcome wagon and you should warn guests.

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    8. Predation is a thing. If you have your birds free ranging, you will lose some. It's a fact. It may not be for months, but something is going to get them. They're prey for a lot of animals. Hawks, racoons, bobcats, owls, foxes, coyotes, loose dogs, they will all happily take a chicken. If you can't deal with losing one of your birds, only let them out when you're standing right with them. I mean right on top of them. If they're on the other side of the yard, they're in danger. Foxes work fast and they'll learn your schedule. The more your girls are out, the more risk there is to the flock. Be aware, choose your level of risk, and make your peace with it. I free range or pasture my flocks all day and yes, we have losses every year. It's nature in action. I prefer to have my girls out all day so I've made peace with the costs. Secure coops, solid perimeter fencing, easy access to cover, and being active on the property will all deter predators from moving in to the buffet. Learn when your local predators are active and make wise decisions. If you can have a rooster, go for it. They definitely help with predation losses by staying on lookout and sending the flock running for cover. Stories of roosters physically defending their flocks are usually exaggerated and are not a reason to keep a rooster, but my most prized rooster survived encounters with a hawk and a bobcat. Those spurs are not for show.

    Conclusion

    When I go out to work in the garden, my free ranging laying flock is right on my heels. My fluffy little shadows have learned that food seems to appear wherever I go. It's actually a nice perk. We have extended conversations about all sorts of topics while I'm working. My Barred Rock girls are big talkers and will let me know exactly what's on their mind while my Turkens are constantly knocking things over. My Chanties are more polite.

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Recent User Reviews

  1. jsr5
    "sounds familliar"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed May 24, 2018
    Guess we are not the only crazy chicken people that have long conversations with barred rocks and yes thay are great talkers and conversationalists. Can tell you are a loving chicken parent. You sound like me fand the wife whenb we talk about our fluffy butts mommas lil red hens pretty girls and favorites. Ladies etc. many terms of endearment and yes When I let them out I always warn the Rooster that it is his watch now and I"m holding him responsible for th eladies.
  2. Liz7
    "Exactly!"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed May 23, 2018
    I also had that romantic view somehow, even though I had chickens as I grew up, they were pets, maybe that's why! LOL. We have so many bugs and mean flies here in Germany, that I protect most of my vegetables with a net anyways, but if I'm on the left corner planting something, my gang of four chickens are on the opposite corner gulping my little plants young leaves!!! It's not funny, but later I also laugh, they are so naughty! :lol: Sometimes, I just let them eat something they like, they are so spoiled because there is so many greens around, but if they get any type of cabbage plant, that's it! Leaving the potato plants for them to room around was another bad idea I had, the loved to bathe there and were taking out potatoes and garlic cloves all around:eek:, AYAYAY!!!
  3. Susan Dye
    "Lovely and Realistic"
    5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed May 22, 2018
    What a sweet article. Very realistic approach to free ranging your flock. Sensible solutions to fencing for protecting the flock and your garden.
    BY_Flock likes this.

Comments

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  1. Jack Speese
    I know my chickens would love to free range, but there are just too many hawks around. We are surrounded by woods, which is great for providing shade in the hot southern summers. Thanks to the woods heat isn't a problem in the summer, and when the leaves drop the pen gets sunlight in the winter. But the woods are also home to other predators like raccoons. I don't want any losses due to predators (inevitably it's your favorite, special pet hen that they grab). And with so many predators around, it's not a question of losing a bird now and then. They'll eventually wipe out the flock. So I raise my chickens in confinement (coop with a large run with a top). When I weed, I throw the weeds in the run. They love it. I've also heard of alternating your vegetable garden and chicken yard each year. That sounds like a neat idea if you can arrange it that way. I've had a vegetable garden in the past but where we live now there's not enough sun. I've also read that certain breeds are better at escaping predators than others. Mediterranean types are very active and alert, and ones like Brown Leghorns and Welsummers have plumage similar to the wild jungle fowl which affords them some camouflage (versus white or buff varieties which show up easily).
  2. Kentucky girlz
    This is such a great article! i had one big talker, my black Australorp named Zelda. She died recently and i miss those conversations. I'm hoping some of my new babies will start talking, but right now they still run like the devil is chasing them if they see one of the big girls, so we don't get much time for conversation. the ripe tomato thing is SO MUCH TRUTH!!! lol When I have a tomato that gets holes from slugs or snails, it goes over the garden fence and my chickens go after it like it's the best thing ever!! Except for a ripe banana, I think they would poke each others eyes out for a ripe banana, i always pull it apart in small sections and toss it to them because when a put a whole banana on the ground they turn into little fluffy Mr. Hydes trying to get at the banana flesh.
      Sgtv4512 likes this.
  3. FRM
    Love this article! I let my chickens in my garden once in a while. They love Broccoli leaves, which is fine because my plants are huge and they only get the bottom leaves. I try to watch them to be sure they are not eating the blooms of the pea plants or anything like that. They don't bother my strawberries maybe because when I serve those to them they are cut up along with banana's and blueberries! They won't eat a blueberry unless it's cut up! Spoiled I guess!!
      Downtown Chickens likes this.
  4. Pixelvt
    I have 7 raised beds, each with a 3 foot fence around it, they never go in. I have other gardens protected the same way. Once perennials get established not to bad. But try planting grass seed, this can be nuts. Buy a hay type matt at Lowes they come in rolls, they will keep the little beaks out LOL Scratch, scratch, scratch.
  5. N F C
    Nicely written!
  6. lovepeeps

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