Hens in the Garden

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.

raised beds

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.

hen in the garden

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.


  1. HA! So true! My hens are on the same schedule in my garden- and even now, here in the pacific NW, I am having to limit access as our weather has been so mild I will be planting peas in a week!

      • If it’s any consolation- this is earlier than normal. It has been 50 plus degrees everyday for two weeks and not even a frost at night…

  2. Thanks for the info. I was hoping to get chickens in the near future…one or two years. Now I’ll know that my raised veggie beds will have to be fenced to be safe.
    Love the pictures.

  3. This has been my first year with chickens. In fact, I got my first birds in Feb. of 2009. They free range, but only when I’m outside with them. They usually stay close, but my buff orpingtons love to wander to my neighbors and scratch up the pine straw that covers the plants around his house. Nooooo!!! Get back over here or you’re going back inside!

    • I have two that like to stroll up the driveway. Quite comical to watch. Still have no idea why they want to go cross that road!

    • Mine have the same routine has yours Terry. I too let them roam in the spring in summer while I’m out but they can be sneakly little biddies. I look away for a second and one of them are in a flower bed!!!!

  4. Oh, Terry, how refreshing of you to post the ‘green’ garden photos of last summer at this cold, icy-blue time of year! You are right. The hens can’t discriminate between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bugs and just like my ground hog who emerges in the spring, they all (like us) savor the tender green shoots! Speaking of ground hogs, I did borrow and read most of the ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma’. Very enlightening and enjoyable. Now, if my ‘porker’ were only of such a diminuative size!

    • Had a groundhog get into my garden and mow everything down to 1 inch. I swear he didn’t bother reaching down – just chomped with his head up, like a lawn mower. Ate everything. My good dog Lily doesn’t allow groundhogs on the property.

  5. Still snow here too, but it will soon be time to tap the maples. Some good ideas on controlling the chickens in the yard. They are great on bugs!