FROM THE GROUND UP: Adding chickens to the garden

METRO CREATIVE GRAPHIC

When it comes to the growing trend of raising backyard chickens, all the workshops and information I’ve come across have focused on the basics: coops and runs, breeds, feeds, brooding, and egg production. Now comes a delightful and informative new book, “Gardening With Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens,” by Lisa Steele that shows how to blend chickens with our yards and gardens.

The idea seems obvious, but the reality is that that gardening and chickens do not go together without a lot of planning. As Steele details, much depends on fencing and timing.

First comes a coop and perhaps a run; the birds need to be protected from suburban and rural predators such as foxes, raccoons, coyotes, hawks, owls, and other people’s dogs. (Says Steele, “Dogs are the number-one killer of backyard chickens.”) It’s safest to let your chickens run free only when you or the family dog are outside with them.

In addition to a coop to keep your chickens safe, you’ll need more fencing — to keep your plants safe, at least when they’re young. Chickens pose a threat to plants, particularly seedlings and new transplants. Inveterate scratchers, as chickens look for insects and seeds, they’ll tear up tender, shallow roots in the process.

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Steele recommends that if you plan to let your chickens roam your yard and garden, protect young plants with cloches made of chicken wire and ring newly-planted landscape plants with stones or bricks, at least until they are established. You can fence vegetable beds individually or protect the entire garden with a single perimeter fence. Since chickens can fly to about four feet, fence height and construction are important details, which Steele outlines in her book.

Timing is also important. Steele points out that spring and fall are the best seasons to let your chickens run free in the garden. In the spring garden, prior to planting, they’ll act like mini roto-tillers, loosening up the top layer of soil. An added bonus is that they will also consume weed seeds, insects, and grubs, getting your garden off to a good start. During the growing season, and especially when you’ve planted seeds or set out transplants, simply keep the chickens out of the garden. You can let them in again in the fall, where they will help with clean-up.

Another benefit to raising chickens is the fertilizer value of chicken poop, when properly aged. (Chicken manure is too high in nitrogen to be used when fresh; it will burn plants.) However, one thing I don’t understand is Steele’s statement that “as you add . . . compost, manure, or mulch with pine . . . needles, you will naturally raise the acidity of your soil.” I double-checked my memory, and found this from the Royal Horticultural Society website: “Most poultry manure is in the range of pH 6.5-8.0, being neutral to moderately alkaline.” You do need to be careful about avian-borne diseases when using the manure.

The way Steele describes it, chickens can become an integral part of the garden. They help with soil preparation and insect control, and in return they benefit from being able to get part of their diet from fresh herbs and vegetables, as well as from grass and insects. These, added to regular chicken feed, lead to eggs that are much more nutritious than factory-farmed.

Overall, “Gardening with Chickens” is an excellent how-to vegetable gardening book, woven throughout with information on chickens, as if they were simply another standard option in food growing, just like raised beds.

Lisa Steele is a “wife, homemaker, 5th generation chicken keeper, and master gardener” who lives in Maine. You can find more from her at her blog, fresheggsdaily.com.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to pcbaxter@verizon.net, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.