Chickens can be an integral part of your whole gardening system. Here's how to best utilise them.
Words Wendy Maddison
The main principle of permaculture that I find to be so simple, yet revolutionary, is the concept of considering multiple uses for things that you add to your garden system. This means that my cat is justified (at least in my mind) because not only does she keep rodents and bugs at bay, but she also provides companionship, cuteness and cuddles.
When it comes to chickens, they tick a lot more boxes. They utilise kitchen scraps, create manure, lay eggs, spread compost, dig over fallow vegetable patches, control bugs, and are way more entertaining than television. Even if you aren’t a permaculture fanatic, this still constitutes a great resource for your garden.
To make the most of these positive attributes, it’s not a great idea just to give them free-range of your garden. They will dig up your seedlings, poo on your deck and eat your lettuces.
Conversely, restricting them to a corner of your garden does not allow them to function to their full potential, which requires that you actually integrate them into your garden system.
Planning is the key, and the less space you have, the more important this becomes.
For the backyard garden, it is often best to first provide a house with a small run, plus an additional safe area for your chickens to range freely. Keep the chickens away from your deck, paths and other ‘human areas’ unless you enjoy the feeling of stuff squishing between your toes or wish to have chickens wandering through your house. Then have fences (either permanent or moveable) for the other areas of your garden where you may want your chickens to go to work from time to time, like your vegetable garden. This way you can limit them to those areas when required.
I find that the best time to let my chickens loose on my vegetable garden is after a crop has finished when the soil needs to be cleared of accumulated bugs, plant scraps need to be cleared up or dug in, and fresh compost can be spread. In the process of looking for bugs in soil, compost or mulch, chickens will scratch around and turn everything over.
From a permaculture standpoint, your chicken house should be located in your ‘kitchen garden’ zone. This means they are close enough for daily gathering of eggs and letting them out to roam after laying, if required. The chicken house will also be close to the compost bin, where you can place used straw, poo and uneaten scraps.
When you have an orchard or food forest zone further away from the house, place your chickens at the boundary between this and the garden zone, so that you can utilise this area for free-ranging, while still being able to use the chickens in your kitchen garden if required.
In orchard or food forest settings, having chickens eating emerging bugs, pecking at weeds, scoffing diseased fruit and dropping manure throughout the year is an excellent plan. I used to have an issue with coddling moth until I started running chickens under my apple trees – the larvae simply didn’t have a chance.
Food forests have the added advantage that, if planted well, they can provide 80 per cent of your chickens’ nutritional requirements.
If you have the space and a larger flock that you prefer to keep fenced off, an excellent system is to have several different ‘yards’ for your chickens through which they can be rotated. Place them surrounding your chicken house so that each yard can be accessed through a different door, which can be closed off when the chickens are ‘grazing’ in another area. Alternatively, create a fenced ‘corridor’ from the chicken house with doors to different grazing areas that can be opened or shut.
The yards can be planted out in chicken greens, which can be alternatively grazed and then re-established to provide a constant supply of green feed and regular clean ground.
Nothing is stopping you from including your vegetable gardens in these yards, and they can be included in the rotation when they need digging over and cleaning up.
For simplicity, Kings Seeds sells packets of Chicken Greens containing a combination of biennial greens that you can use to plant out in your foraging areas. For the purists, look to plant comfrey, clovers, chicory, plantain, dandelion, beets, cocksfoot and herbs like parsley.
Many of these plants have good root structures, so if you allow them to be grazed but not hammered to death, then they should be able to regrow for the next grazing session. You can either plant them out in the garden or in moveable planters so that they can be removed from the chicken area to recover.
In addition to greens, chickens will enjoy fruit. Utilise chicken fencing for planting vines to provide grapes and berries.
Another alternative that may work better for smaller gardens is the chicken tractor. This moveable chicken house (with a run) allows you to shift your chickens onto different areas of your lawn or garden, depending on your needs and available feed.
This is a smaller area for your chickens, so if your chickens have free-ranged before they may find a tractor too restrictive.
Whether you have a full rural permaculture setup or just a small back garden, with a bit of thought and planning chickens can become an integral part of your garden system. They will take up some of the hard work for you, make you laugh, give you yummy eggs and deal to those bugs that are the bane of every gardener's life.
More from Wendy on finding winter wellness in the garden in the July 2023 issue.
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