Each garden comes with a sense of pride and the joy of sustainability. Imagine if you had a natural way to fertilize, control weeds, manage insects and improve soil aeration. Many of today’s gardeners have found this solution through backyard chickens.
“In the backyard, there are few better combinations than a chicken and a garden,” says Patrick Biggs, Ph.D., a flock nutritionist for Purina Animal Nutrition. “Along with fresh eggs and family fun, chickens are a natural and simple way to add to a backyard’s health and beauty.”
Read on to learn how backyard chickens can provide your garden with assistance.
“Chicken waste is an excellent source of fertilizer for both the lawn and garden,” Biggs says. “Manure from free-range chickens can break down naturally in the yard, providing valuable nutrients for the lawn. The correct balance for free-ranging is about 250 square feet of space per chicken.”
To use chicken manure as garden fertilizer, consider creating a compost area. This process can reduce the nitrogen levels found in raw manure.
“Composting is an earth-friendly way to turn organic residues like manure, leaves or bedding into a material that can be used to fertilize the garden,” he says. “After placing materials into a compost bin, microorganisms break them into fertilizer with the help of heat and oxygen.”
When maintaining compost, remember to keep it enclosed. Chickens love foraging for scraps in compost areas, and eating too many scraps can dilute the nutrients in the diet.
Another benefit of adding chickens to your garden is soil aeration.
“Chickens naturally scratch and dig the soil to forage for seeds and bugs,” Biggs says. “During this process, mulch and compost are spread, soil layers mixed and the ground loosens. Most importantly, oxygen is added to the soil and particle size is reduced.”
Because chickens naturally enjoy digging, Biggs encourages protecting delicate and new or young plants as well as those with ripening produce.
“If there are certain areas you’d like to keep free of manure or if certain plants should be off-limits, add a fence or chicken wire,” he recommends, outlining a chicken tunnel as an option. “This can also help ward off predators.”
Additional tips to protect young plants include: rotating chickens through different areas of the yard, placing stones around plant bases or creating tepee-like structures over young plants.
Natural weed and insect control
In addition to fertilizer and soil aeration, chickens can help control weeds and insects in your garden and lawn.
“Chickens love a lot of the things that gardeners do not – like weeds and insects,” Biggs says. “They forage for seeds and bugs, eat small plants and clean up fallen fruit and green leaves.”
Since chickens love many different types of plants, Biggs recommends creating a diverse plant ecosystem that includes layers of plants. Layering should include these types of plants: cover, lush and shade. Plant layers may include trees, shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses, annuals, vines, edible plants and ground cover.
“Well-planned plantings can provide soil stability and help filter rainwater runoff,” he says.
Considerations for cover plants are butterfly bushes, which grow fast, provide shade and are not eaten by chickens; and hawthorne, which has edible berries and leaves that chickens tend to avoid.
When it comes to toxicity, chickens will typically avoid poisonous plants. However, consider removing plants like poison ivy, boxwood, honeysuckle, nightshade, monkshood, oleander, tobacco and yew.
Raising free-range chickens
Consistency is important for chickens allowed to free-range in the garden. Training birds to know specific cues will help them return to the coop at night or during storms and maintain a balanced diet.
“Train chickens to come back to the coop when called,” Biggs says. “Start with small periods of supervised time in the garden and work up to longer periods. Maintain a routine with how and when you let the chickens free-range.”
Biggs emphasizes the importance of a complete feed in addition to garden treats.
“Plants and insects serve as treats for the flock, but they aren’t a complete diet,” he says. “To provide all the nutrients chickens require, offer a complete feed like Purina® Organic chicken feed each morning before letting birds out to free-range with access to the feed throughout the day.”