Fresh eggs are the most obvious benefit of keeping a small flock of backyard chickens. But the benefits of raising chickens reach much farther than that—they also make excellent garden assistants. Here’s how chickens can provide help in the garden through the seasons.
Important Caveat: A flock of backyard chickens can be incredibly destructive, wreaking havoc on your lawn, landscaping, flower beds, and vegetable gardens if given free rein, but with some proper planning and supervision, gardening with chickens can be beneficial.
Fall: Clean Up & Fertilization
Once your vegetables are harvested, let the chickens have free rein. They’ll not only eat any leftover leaves, stems, and stalks that remain but will also break up the vegetation left behind into the ground, which will improve soil structure while nourishing it. The chickens will also gobble up any stray bugs planning on wintering in the garden, which should help cut down on insect invasions come spring.
Winter: Maintenance & Spring Prep
Allowing chickens continued access to the garden plot throughout the winter will help to keep weeds controlled and the soil turned and worked over. If your garden is fenced, confining your chickens within that secure area will not only keep them limited to where you want them working, but will also help to keep them safe from predators. Chickens will continue to fertilize the ground through the winter, and the manure will compost, along with any remnants of the previous summer’s plants, leaving you with beautifully fertilized, weed-free soil come spring. If you are fortunate enough to live in a warm climate where gardening year-round is possible, then putting your chickens to work in between harvests is a great way to modify the above four-season plan while still harnessing the weed-eating, bug-gobbling, and soil-aerating skills that chickens possess.
Note: While chicken manure is good for gardens, it’s best to let it age for several months before planting in it—this will reduce the presence of pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella and lowers the nitrogen level so the fertilized soil doesn’t burn your plants. Fall fertilization is a perfect time to prepare the garden for spring planting.
Spring: Nature’s Rototillers
Spring is the perfect time of year to give chickens unrestricted access to your garden. They will be happy for the opportunity to roam freely, get some sun, and stretch their legs after being cooped up all winter. Chickens are nature’s original rototillers—they scratch in the dirt looking for seeds and bugs, and their sharp little claws gently turn and loosen the soil for you.
Because chickens only turn over the top few inches of dirt, they are far easier on the ground than mechanical tillers. And while they are inadvertently aerating your soil, they are also eating all kinds of bugs that might have overwintered in your garden, as well as any errant weed seeds. But because chickens will indiscriminately eat bugs, including beneficial earthworms, it’s a good idea to trail alongside them and rescue any worms you can find before they do. Collect them in a bucket of dirt and add the worms back to the garden once the chickens are done for the day. (Earthworms are good at aerating the soil too.)
Once you have sown seeds or planted seedlings, your garden will need to be off-limits to your flock, but don’t forget when it’s time to thin out seedlings to give them to your chickens! The sprouted seeds are super nutritious and your chickens will love them.
Summer: Pest Control
Once the growing season is underway and your plants have grown a foot or two, it’s time for maintenance work from your flock. Since anything within reach is fair game for the chickens, it’s best to only allow short, supervised excursions to the garden to let them chase bugs and nibble on any weeds that have popped up. Again, since your chickens don’t discriminate, be sure to carry a bucket to collect good bugs, such as praying mantis and spiders, to keep them safe. Alternatively, if your chickens are penned up, you can handpick pests such as Japanese beetles and Colorado potato beetles off your plants, do a bit of weeding, trim back your herbs, and then offer the bucket to them as an afternoon snack.
Don’t Forget To Share!
Throughout the growing season, remember to share any bug-eaten, blemished, or stunted vegetables with your flock, as well as anything you prune or trim back. They will enjoy many kinds of vegetables, including peas, beans, cucumbers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, melons, squash, leafy greens, and root vegetables such as beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and carrots, in addition to any culinary herbs, including basil, parsley, oregano, sage, and marjoram.
Lisa Steele is an author and 5th generation chicken keeper who shares a farm in Maine with her husband, mixed flock of chickens and ducks, two dogs, and a cat. She writes the natural chicken keeping blog Fresh Eggs Daily. Visit www.FreshEggsDaily.com.