reading time: 7 minutes
Gardening with chickens is an adventure for you and them. Elizabeth Mac He shares tips for keeping your birds (and plants) healthy and safe.
Story and photos by Elizabeth Mack When I moved into my small hobby farm a few years ago, I had two requirements: chickens and gardens. Soon I brought home my first little flock of chickens and let them loose in my new decorative bed. Within minutes, they destroyed roses and zinnias and ate clumps of hosta leaves. There’s nothing chickens love more than a freshly covered garden. If you’re hoping to plant ornamental plants or beds within a scratch’s distance of your flock, you’ll need to take a few precautions, plant smart, and limit how free your flock is to roam.
One of the first decisions new chicken owners must make is how to manage their flock: free-range, supervised free-range only, confined range, or a full-time confined pen. Each style has its pros and cons, and the decision varies from person to person.
Keen gardeners have additional considerations. As a master gardener, I planned to let my new flock have free field on 2 acres. I pictured my girls raking the grounds, keeping my flower beds free of weeds and insects, and rotating my raised vegetable beds each spring and fall with their scratchers. In fact, my chicken destroyed my new decorative bed, scratched all the bedding on the sidewalks, and started foraging in the neighbors’ newly planted rose garden. That was the end of their free range.
Try all options
Over time, I tried all the options, and finally settled on my own management style – what I call “restricted free range”. Since we had the room, we built a pen in a field where the girls could roam, but were fenced in to keep them out of trouble (and keep them out of my gardens!). They have plenty of room to forage on fresh grass and weeds that are never overworked, as overworking an area can lead to a mud barn. I have a walled raised bed vegetable garden next to their barn, and every spring and fall I open the gate to let them scrape the dirt and get rid of any vegetable scraps.
For suburban backyard chicken owners, the options are limited. If you want chicken And Garden, you may have to keep them in a confined path if you don’t want them to eat your tomatoes or petunias, or at least let them out under close supervision. Know that a well-covered bed is a magnet for chickens.
Garden bed protection
There is only one way for the gardeners and chickens to have a happy coexistence, and that is exclusion. You can either exclude chickens from areas of the garden, or you can exclude them from individual plants. Both require some type of fencing material. Most gardeners rely on poultry netting or hardware cloth.
If you don’t want to fence your entire garden and prefer to fence off individual plantings, make sure the fenced area around the perimeter of the planting is large enough for the plant to grow throughout the season. The first time I tried this, I surrounded salvia plants and tomatoes with poultry netting in early spring, but by summer, the plants had outgrown their protection and the chickens were having a nice daily snack.
A better solution is to add poultry fencing around your garden beds. This has the added benefit of keeping those rascally bunnies cutting vegetables away. If you want to enclose a garden, make sure the fence is at least 36 inches long. Chickens will quickly jump over a 24-inch fence. While you can completely enclose the garden by mulching the top, this makes harvesting and weeding more difficult.
Some gardeners swear by natural repellents, like citrus, lavender, or marigold, but in my experience, they don’t work. Another option is to build a “corridor” around your beds with poultry fencing. Create a semi-circle walkway with wire fencing a few inches longer than the chicken. Place it on the borders of your garden. They will roam the garden feeding on insects and weeds, but remain confined.
After several years of fighting to keep my chickens out of my gardens, I finally called a truce. Now I grow a few vegetables for the chickens in my raised beds, and put up a fence around what I don’t want them to eat. They love kale and Brussels sprouts (and the accompanying cabbageworms!). I used to put my tomatoes in a hedge, but now I let them eat the lower fruits, and I pick the higher ones that they can’t reach myself. I also grow my cucumbers so they can’t get inside the fence, and I let them peck the fruits on the outside of the fence. Everyone is happy.
Few things should be avoided
If you’re planning a free walk and don’t want to put up a fence in your garden, be aware that you’ll want to avoid some plants that are poisonous to chickens.
While small amounts of onions can be tolerated by chickens, large amounts can cause hemolytic anemia in poultry and should be avoided. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause tremors and jaundice in chickens. If you live in a climate where avocados can be grown, you’ll want to keep them away from your chicken, as the pit and skin contain the toxic substance persin. Poultry are particularly sensitive to this toxin, as are most domestic animals, so it is best to avoid them.
Eggplant contains the toxic substance solanine, so keep chicken away. This family of plants includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. Never feed chickens green peeled potatoes, which can lead to serious health problems, even death. Keep in mind that the problem is the leaves, not the meat. Chicken is good with ripe tomatoes, but not with green tomatoes. When my chickens are in my vegetable garden, I’ve never seen them eat green tomatoes, only very ripe ones, so maybe their natural instinct tells them to avoid them.
When I started designing my garden beds, I knew I wanted some chicken-friendly farms for the girls. I grow some herbs, like oregano, basil, lavender, and rosemary, outside of their coop nesting boxes. When I clean out the bins, I throw in some fresh herbs to help repel moths and keep them smelling fresh. When they are in the nest boxes, the chicks nibble on the weeds. While most herbs have numerous health benefits for chickens, there are a few that should be avoided. Nettles, wormwood, germander, and chaparral can be toxic in large doses.
Poisonous ornamental plants
Unfortunately, there are many aquarium plants that are toxic to chickens. I’ve found my chickens stay away from these, but to be safe, avoid planting any where they will be foraging. This is not a complete list, so if you’re not sure about your plants, check toxicity before planting:
- castor bean
- Cardinal flower
- Ivy land
- Laburnum (seeds)
- lily of the valley
- St. John’s wort
Delicious ornamental plants
The good news is that there is still a wide variety of ornamental flowers and shrubs that are not only safe, but that chickens love as well. Roses, nasturtium, and marigolds are favorite foods for chickens, and marigolds have the added benefit of being a good antioxidant and parasite blocker. If you scrape off the weeds before they emerge and find yourself in a yard full of dandelions, even better! dig up the “weed” and feed it to your flock; The whole chicory is edible (for chickens And humans!) and are full of nutrients.
One of my favorite plants is the plain old sunflower. I grow annual sunflowers near my chicken coop, and when they start to wilt again in the fall, I pull them up and let the girls snack on the seeds. They love it.
If you have a habit of throwing coffee grounds on your lawn, you will need to keep it away from your flock, as the remaining caffeine can be toxic to chickens. In fact, the only benefit that coffee grounds add to the garden is to reduce soil compaction, and only in large quantities. Research has shown that coffee grounds, as is widely believed, do not add acid back into the soil, so it is best to toss it in the compost.
Avoid pesticides and let your chickens feed on weeds. Dandelions are also an essential early spring bee pollinator.
Chicken owners should also forgo treating their yards and any farms–or at least the area their flock will be feeding them–with pesticides. However, you will find that you will have less of an insect problem if you keep chickens, as they will eat most insects, even Japanese beetles. Also avoid using any garden pre-showers, such as Preen-type products, or other toxic herbicides (including dish soap and salt). Mulch to prevent weeds. When I clean my canals, I throw pine shavings in the garden beds and use them as a mulch ring around the trees.
Sit back, let the weeds and bugs go, pull up a chair, and watch TV with chickens chasing down their next snack. It’s easier, safer and free entertainment. Gardening with chickens has its challenges, but with a little planning, your gardens and your chickens can coexist peacefully.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mac He keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work appeared in Capper FarmsAnd from hereAnd The first for womenAnd NebraskalandAnd many other print and electronic publications. her first book, Healing Springs and Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with raising chickens. Visit their website, Chickens in the Garden.