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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.