Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Chickens in the Garden

Micaela Truslove, Broomfield County Extension

My husband and I jumped on the urban poultry bandwagon about two years ago, and we haven’t looked back. Once you get used to the saffron-yellow yolks of homegrown chicken eggs, there’s no going back to the watery, pale yellow grocery store variety. You’ll find no shortage of articles and books touting the benefits of raising your own chickens, and though they do have their challenges, the garden can benefit from a backyard flock.

Compost: Now that it has the nearly undivided attention of our girls, our compost has never looked better. The chickens spend the majority of every day in the compost pile rototilling the contents into wonderful black humus. Hours and hours spent scratching and turning means our compost is done in at least half the time. While they are in the pile scratching around, they are also incorporating their manure. The bedding and manure from the coop also go into the pile each time I clean it out. I try to keep this in the “holding” rather than the actively cooking pile so they don’t have access to it right away. I slowly add the mostly composted material from the bottom of the holding pile into the cooking pile.

Chickens are very curious and get up to all kinds of 
antics. Photo: Micaela Truslove
There are also other chicken byproducts that make it into the pile. Crushed eggshells go out with the kitchen waste and feathers from the bedding and their daily activities are also added. Though eggshells are rich in calcium, studies have shown that they don’t make any significant difference when incorporated roughly crushed. They need to be finely ground, which is more than I’m willing to do. Our soils also tend to be rich in calcium already. If there is a deficiency, as evidenced by symptoms such as blossom end rot in tomatoes, it is usually due to uneven moisture, which inhibits uptake by the plant.

One important note on chicken manure – it should be composted before going into the garden, just like any other manure. This is especially true if the manure is going anywhere near edibles. There are crops that are more risky than others as far as food-borne pathogens are concerned. Those fruits and vegetables that are in direct contact with the soil are more likely to be contaminated than others, and care should be taken to wash produce thoroughly.  This goes for any manure. To avoid possible contamination from harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, do not harvest crops for at least 120 days after adding fresh manure.

Weed control: I have to say that this has been a very marginal benefit. One of the things on the top of my “reasons to get chickens” list was that they would help keep the weeds down. It is true that they are voracious omnivores, but they have shown little interest in the most problematic weeds in our back yard. Maybe they’ve decided that there is a steady enough stream of good stuff coming from the house that they needn’t bother with the twisting forest of bindweed that we are plagued with (dang it!).

However, they are fantastic at keeping the lawn nice and short. Grazing is another favorite activity, and they eat grass until they are literally stuffed with it and the blades of tender green shoots protrude from their beaks because their bellies are literally too full to swallow any more. If chickens suffer from a vice, it is most definitely gluttony.
Eating a container of yogurt and fruit that
spent too long in the fridge. With chickens,
nothing goes to waste! Photo: Micaela Truslove

Insect control: We never tire of watching our girls going about their business. They are incredibly curious and a little dippy, which makes for hours of entertainment. One of their favorite pastimes is chasing insects that manage to find their way into the chicken yard . They race around with the unfortunate morsel hanging from their beaks with the rest of the flock in hot pursuit. For some reason they never just gulp it down when they catch it, so there is always a game of keep away before the insect is finally consumed. If I find an army cutworm hiding at the base of a small plant or a grasshopper munching on my lettuce, into the chicken yard it goes and hilarity ensues. They spend a good deal of time after an irrigation tugging on worms in a cartoon-like fashion.

One trend that I recently discovered is the idea of having a “chicken moat” around the perimeter of the garden. The thinking is that the chickens will intercept many of the insects trying to enter, hunting them down like a pack of velociraptors from a movie. They really are quite effective at this, and very quick. It also means that they do not have free access to the garden because they don’t quite understand that it is okay to eat mallow, but I would rather they didn’t decimate the rest of the veggie patch, which they’d do in minutes if allowed. So the pictures you see on Pinterest of perfect raised bed gardens with nasturtiums spilling over the edges and chickens roaming the perfectly manicured pathways politely plucking bugs from the plants while leaving them intact is misleading at best, at least that has been my experience. 

As far as using crushed eggshells as slug control, there are mixed reviews as to their efficacy. Slugs are sensitive to irritants such as diatomaceous earth, which wound their slimy outer coating causing them to desiccate, the evidence is mixed as to whether or not eggshells perform the same function.

Though there are a few challenges to having chickens roaming the garden, we have found that there are great benefits as well, not least of which is the entertainment value. If you are thinking of getting a backyard flock of your own, my advice is to limit their access to desirable plants and instead give them their own space. Allowing them access to the compost pile will do wonders, and will save you a sore back from having to turn the pile regularly. They will keep your insect problems in check and provide plenty of nitrogen-rich manure. One study from the University of Missouri found that one four-pound chicken produces a whopping 28-80 pounds of manure every year! And you certainly can’t beat the fresh eggs.

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