Plants for chickens


Nov 4, 2015
Durban, South Africa
I want to plant some bushes and plants in the chicken garden and have been reading lists of recommended plants and poisonous plants. And now I'm thoroughly confused! The same plant can be listed as OK in one article and be on a "toxic" list in another?!
For eg. Iris. It caught my eye on a recommended list as I happen to have a whole lot that could be divided. Then the very next blog I read puts them on the toxic list? There are several others too. Like Honeysuckle?
I was also wondering about indigenous (South Africa) bird attracting plants. Surely if they are recommended for garden birds they should be safe for chickens? (Our indigenous Honeysuckle being one of them). I'm thinking particularly of berry producing bushes to help feed the chickens. And insect attracting ones for the same reason.
I don't cultivate the lawn in their area much, so there's quite a diversity of grasses and weeds for them already. I've also planted a few herbs in cages. The plan being the chickens can eat whatever grows through the cage without destroying the whole plant.
(Love the fact my plants are in cages and the chickens are free :-D !!)
Welcome! We need some idea about where you live to make planting recommendations. Also, soil type, soil pH, sun or shade. In southern Michigan, I've got viburnums, spruce, birch, and mints and catnip around the coop and run. Fruiting trees and shrubs are good, also herbs and some flowers. They will demolish hostas and other edible flowers, but won't eat iris, so it will continue to look nice. Magnolias, lilacs, and some vines. Mary
I’ll comment on the things being on both the toxic and non-toxic lists. Practically anything you eat or the chickens eat contain something that can harm you or them. It’s generally about dosage. White potatoes contain a substance that can harm you, but a normal healthy adult human would have to eat over 50 pounds of white potatoes in one sitting to get enough to harm themselves. If you have certain medical problems or allergies it may take less, the more body weight you have normally the more you can eat without harm. Chickens being so much smaller than us would not have to eat over 50 pounds at a sitting, but they still can’t eat enough to cause harm, their crops just aren’t that big. The liver is pretty good about removing that toxin from the body so it’s not all that cumulative.

Cabbage is the same, it contains a substance that can harm your or their thyroid. But this one is cumulative. If you eat a bunch of cabbage every day, I’m talking a few pounds per day for humans, for a period of two to three weeks you can develop serious thyroid problems. If you already have thyroid problems it takes less cabbage to cause problems. Cabbage is often listed on here as a great treat for chickens, it is. Just don’t make cabbage a major part of their diet every day.

One thing you often see on the toxic list is apple seeds. Apple seeds, like a whole lot of fruit seeds, contain cyanide, clearly a poison. It’s a protection against some insects eating the seeds. But a chicken is vastly bigger than an insect. A chicken would have to eat a whole lot of apple seeds to get enough cyanide to cause a problem. I toss apples, with seeds, to mine in season. I’ve had chickens that free ranged in an apple orchard. They never ate enough apple seeds to cause any problems.

Another thing on the toxic list is dried beans. This one is real, it doesn’t take a lot of certain dried beans to cause serious problems, red kidney beans are the worst. But they can cause problems for you too. The way you handle that is that you cook them. That neutralizes the toxin. If you need to cook something before you can eat it, then you probably should cook it before you feed it to your chickens.

Then you have certain protections built in. Tomato plant leaves contain a substance that is toxic to them. But the leaves are also very bitter. You can always come up with an exception to any of this, some chicken’s instincts just don’t work right, but practically all chickens will take a bite of tomato plant, shake their heads in disgust, and walk away. One bite won’t kill them but it will certainly discourage them. This is only for the leaves. They love ripe tomatoes and ripe tomatoes won’t harm them. There is another side to this though. If the only green thing they have to eat is tomato leaves, they are more likely to eat tomato leaves.

There are a whole lot of different kinds of honeysuckle. I’m not familiar with the toxicity of any of them but it’s quite possible some kinds of honeysuckle are dangerous where others are not. I really don’t know on that one.

This stuff is not always cut and dried but for the vast majority of stuff on those toxic lists, the chickens are just not likely to eat enough to harm themselves. Either they can’t physically eat enough or it tastes so bad they are not likely to eat it. There are a few things out there that can poison them, but chickens have been free ranging all over the world where these things grow. They are available to the chickens yet chickens are not extinct.

I suspect you are in South Africa. I’m certainly not familiar with your climate and plants, even though I worked in Angola a while. I’m not going to try to recommend certain plants, but I suggest you look at those toxic lists and see if you can determine what is toxic about them, including dosage, and try to make an informed decision. Give them as much variety as you can, don’t just give them a concentration of one kind of plant. You should be fine.

One tremendous way to attract creepy crawlies and insects for them is to put a compost bin in that area. They will scratch the compost all over so it needs sides to keep that stuff contained, but they will love you for that. Well, maybe not you but they’ll love scratching in the compost. They won’t associate that as a gift from you.

Good luck!
Thanks for all that, Ridgerunner! You make some good points about levels of toxicity and amounts eaten. And some other interesting info too.
I am planning a compost heap in their space as soon as summer comes and I have some grass/garden cuttings to add to the kitchen scraps etc. Nothing's growing yet so nothing to cut!
But these chickens are big lazy layed back Orpingtons so scratching in a compost heap may be expecting too much from them! They are more used to lounging in a patch of sun waiting for their slave to bring their food

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