It’s bitter cold and the ground is frozen rock-hard. Around here the crocus don’t even poke their leaves out of the ground until late March. But the seed catalogs are on my bedside table and I am thinking of green growing things. My animals are probably dreaming of them, too.
Many first-time chicken keepers have a bucolic image of their hens roaming freely and happily in the yard, looking like mobile decorative garden ornaments, while the garden blooms profusely from the manure and the hen’s consumption of bad bugs.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but it doesn’t work like that. Yes, chickens will meander cluck-chucking joyful noises. Yes, they’ll eat bad bugs, but they also eat the good. And your seedlings, your tomatoes, your spinach leaves and your sunflowers. They’ll take dust baths in your basil, obliterate the tidy edge between garden path and lawn, and leave their potent manure on your back porch steps.
I speak from experience.
My chickens and I have come to a compromise. They get to free-range in the fall, when they feast on fallen tomatoes and find cut worms and grubs.
In the spring they help dig up the raised garden beds and destroy tender weeds. During the growing season, though, the vegetable and flower beds are off limits. I’ll let them roam the lawn – especially the one week that the Japanese beetles emerge – but only under my watchful eye.
I’ve set up the compost area in their run, so they still get to shred and eat weeds and garden waste. While gardening, I keep a plastic container to put the grubs in to feed to the chickens at the end of my gardening session. The girls watch me through the fence. Marge keeps up a constant complaint – bring it here, where’s the bugs? Let me out, I’ll get them! But I don’t give in. Life is a compromise, and to have both garden and chickens, I have to keep them separate.
If you can’t bear to keep your hens out of the garden, then get bantams. They’re not as destructive when they forage and scratch. That is, unless you have a lot. A big flock of even small chickens will trample down your garden. Somehow, they go for your favorite plants first.