Chickens big benefit to the garden in a timely way

There’s more to consider than fresh eggs when raising chickens at home. For gardeners, that includes keeping both chickens and plants safe and productive.

Chickens love to dig in the dirt and that can be a problem. Take advantage of their natural tendencies by allowing access to the garden when they can do the most good and denying access when they can do the most harm.

Concerned about bugs, ticks and other pests? Chickens devour them. In the spring they’ll happily aerate the soil hunting for tasty treats.

Photo by Deborah J. Benoit. 
Wire cloches can be used to protect small plants from chickens.
Photo by Deborah J. Benoit
Wire cloches can be used to protect small plants from chickens.

They leave behind droppings high in nitrogen and work them into the soil. They’ll scratch up or pull out young weeds and incorporate compost to help prepare your garden for the coming growing season.

If you plan to add a new garden bed in a grassy, weedy area, chickens confined in a fenced enclosure or chicken tractor will clear the area completely. 

Once you’re ready to plant, ban them from the garden. They’ll eat newly sown seeds and emerging seedlings. Their scratching in the soil can damage tender roots.

In the blink of an eye, they’ll defoliate young plants, dooming your planned crop before it’s had a chance to grow. More mature plants may not suffer significant harm from allowing chickens access to the garden, but chickens won’t hesitate to peck at an interesting looking cucumber or vine-ripening tomato.

While protecting crops from chickens’ mischief is important, so is protecting chickens from the dangers the garden can present. If you’ll be treating the garden with fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides or other chemicals (organic or otherwise), they may be harmful to the chickens, so it’s best to keep the birds at a safe distance.

In addition, be sure to practice good biosecurity by keeping your chickens away from areas where wild birds gather, such as bird feeding stations and duck ponds, to avoid transmission of avian influenza and other diseases.

Food crops such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplant are all part of the nightshade family and eating them can be harmful to chickens. Other crops unsafe for chickens to consume include rhubarb, onions and dried beans. At the end of the growing season, after you pull up the plants that aren’t chicken-friendly, let the flock loose in the garden to clean up remaining plant material.

If you grow berry bushes or fruit trees, chickens can help clean up fallen fruit and insect pests. Of course, like other birds, chickens love blueberries and similar fruit. Watching a chicken eyeing a ripening berry on an overhead branch and jumping straight up to grab a beak full is sure to bring out a laugh — and thoughts of how to preserve the berry harvest.

Portable fences can discourage chickens, and row covers or bird netting can provide a barrier between chickens and a forbidden feast. Wire cloches can protect small plants.

If you prefer to keep all your plants safe and chickens out of the garden but would still like to use chickens for pest control, consider a double fence spaced about four feet apart around the garden. The flock can patrol the area between the fences and intercept any pest crossing their path on its way to the garden. Bird netting across the top will keep chickens contained and on patrol.

Chicken manure is a great benefit for gardeners who own chickens. Because chicken manure is considered “hot” and can damage plants, coop litter and manure need to be composted before use.

It makes a good addition to your compost pile, or it can be applied to the garden in the fall and allowed to compost over the intervening months until spring. Read more information on composting chicken manure.

Soil amendment, pest control, fresh eggs and a touch of humor. What more could a gardener ask?

(Deborah J. Benoit is a University of Vermont Extension master gardener from North Adams, Massachusetts, who is part of the Bennington County Chapter.)