Having chickens in your vegie garden can be a disaster. Most chicken owners would have experienced the heartbreaking disappointment of chickens getting into freshly planted garden beds, full of next season’s seedlings, and destroying the lot in a matter of hours.
However, managed the right way chickens can work with you in the vegie garden: to eliminate pests and weeds, fertilise, turn the soil and prepare it for your next planting. As Bill Mollison famously stated, ‘You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency’, and the same goes for chickens with pests and weeds.
When designing chickens into your vegie garden, think about what a chicken’s needs and outputs are. They need shelter, food, water and company. They provide eggs, fertiliser, meat (if you are so inclined) and manure. They are great at eliminating pests, eating grass and other unwanted weeds, clearing areas ready for planting, and eating fallen fruit and spent plants.
So when designing chickens into your vegie garden, think about how they can do all these things for you, and how you can give them what they need with minimal effort.
Having the chicken house reasonably close to your house makes it easy to collect their eggs, and to give them your food scraps each morning. It also means you can hear when something is wrong. If you have a loud exuberant rooster, don’t place them too close to bedrooms however.
Encroaching grass and slugs can be a gardener’s worst nightmare, and trying to keep them at bay is a never ending task. Surrounding your vegie garden with a chook tunnel allows the chickens to do the hard work for you, while keeping your seedlings safe. This way the chickens can forage around the edges of your garden, creating a weed and pest free barrier to your growing beds.
A chook tunnel doesn’t have to be high to keep them in: it can be a simple wire tunnel. Make sure you dig it into the ground at the edges, to keep predators out.
If you want to move the chickens through the garden beds at the end of the growing season, to clean up any unwanted bugs and weeds, and to turn the soil, use moveable chook runs. These can be attached to the permanent run, to allow chickens access to one bed at a time.
Moveable runs work best when beds are similar in size, and the run can be moved from one to the other. When you have finished growing in a bed for the season, place the run over it, open the gate for the chooks to get in and they can prepare the bed for the next season. Linda Woodrow, in her book The Permaculture Home Garden (Viking/Penguin 1996), suggests round chook domes over round beds.
Inputs And Outputs
Keeping in mind the inputs and outputs, make life easy for yourself by having:
the hose outlet near the chook house for water or, better still, collect water from the chook house roof into a small tank or barrel
the household compost bin near the chook house, so that you can add soiled straw bedding when you add your food scraps, to help balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio somewhere undercover nearby, to store grains.
Place medicinal plants around the outside of the run to allow chickens to self-medicate when needed; for example, plants such as wormwood and mugwort are said to help with lice and ticks. Make sure chickens have shade too. If you have fruit trees within their run, make sure the roots are protected, as prolonged exposure of the roots to chooks will be detrimental to tree health. Plant deciduous climbers to grow over the run, to provide shade in summer and let in the light in winter.
Depending on the amount of room you have, it is also good to give chickens space to free range. If they are in the same run for a long period there will be few greens or bugs left for them to forage, so it’s important to feed them scraps from the house and garden, or to let them out into an open area to free range on grass and bugs. Your run can have multiple gates allowing them access to different parts of the garden.
With the right design, chooks can be an essential part of the backyard vegie garden, doing the hard work for you and supplying you with many useful products that can help your system to thrive.