Gardening With Chickens

A small flock of chickens, let loose in your yard, can, in no time at all, leave a swath of destruction in their feathery wake. They’ll eat every raspberry, tomato and squash blossom. They’ll down the chive blossoms. While dust bathing they’ll expand the flower beds so that dirt spills onto the paths. They’ll pull up the basil seedlings. They’ll peck holes in the cucumbers. They’ll leave manure everywhere. Left to their own devices, the yard would soon become bare, packed dirt with a few hollows for dust bathing.

But, it doesn’t have to be like that. Your garden could look like this:

Well, it could if you lived on a British estate and employed master gardeners.

For the rest of us, there is a compromise between hens run amok, and keeping them penned at all times. You can pick where and when you want your girls to roam. Yesterday the Gems spent quality time in the pumpkin patch, scratching up overwintering pests and weeds. I appreciated Agatha’s help.

A new book, Free-Range Chicken Gardens, written by a gardener who is also a chicken keeper, dispenses good, commonsense advice. Jessi Bloom (is that a perfect name for a garden writer?) talks about how to use fences, mature plantings and appropriate building materials to make a garden that both you and your hens can enjoy. Included are plant lists and garden plans, which are especially helpful for those in the beginning stages of gardening and hen keeping.

I have a few quibbles with the book. She says not to use pine shavings as bedding. Maybe in the Northwest there’s a different type of pine shavings, but here on the East Coast I’ve used them safely for many years. She also suggests that if your hen dies from unknown causes that you send it for a necropsy. Unless there’s a danger that your chicken had a serious, communicable disease, don’t ship your dead animals off to a lab, or your state vet will be inundated!

Smaller points aside, it’s a well-written and attractive book that will be especially appealing to the urban chicken keeper. To promote it, the publisher is having a giveaway. The winner receives a copy of Free-Range Chicken Gardens, a $50 gift card to McMurray Hatchery, a chicken coop plan, and a pound of organic forage and seeds for chicken-friendly plants. Let me know if you win.


  1. I love that last photo, it reminds me of a “scratch and peck” illustration. Its the sort of picture Lauren is so good at capturing but cant usually be photographed. its very comical. I also love the idea of a chicken friendly garden, its what I am already working towards.

  2. I don’t have a garden but if I did, it would have to be so well protected from gophers, ground squirrels, wild rabbits and deer, that no chicken would be able to get near it. I use pine shavings in my coop and always have. Of course, my chickens are free ranging all day, but I’ve never had a problem with the shavings.

  3. I am currently reading this book, and scheming to get my girls out into my larger garden — within limits! I have high hopes for success, even if all I can do is contain them within select small areas with fencing, hoops or other temporary housing. Mother Earth News’ blog ‘Community Chickens’ has a new post on the same topic, with a great YouTube clip of a guy in Australia, demonstrating his ‘chicken tunnels’.

    I just love that chickens seem to be moving from ‘oh — you mean I can have a few chickens in my (urban/suburban) backyard?’ to a deeper level, where they start to become an integral part of a real gardening system, right there with the the sun, the plants, the bees ……

  4. I’ve been following this blog for quite some time. I’m interested in having chickens (along with having a few honeybee hives). I am learning as much as I can about them while we look for a home and land of our own. It is my hope to free range the chickens. The book sound intriguing. And yes, I entered that giveaway you mentioned. Thank you for that link!

  5. I recognise that first picture ;-) and it’s definitely not my own garden where I have allowed my flock of 10 to wreck a swathe of the lawn yet again! My infamous orange net fencing (which you weren’t allowed to photograph!) is going back up as soon as the snow melts.


    BTW the last photo is brilliant!

  6. We use pine shavings, too… the red cedar shavings often sold in pet/feed stores for animal bedding is toxic to chickens. Pine shavings are not. I haven’t read this book (but I want it!), but perhaps it was just a matter of not clarifying… Hope this is helpful, as pine shavings are awesome and inexpensive (and often right next to the cedar shavings on the shelf!)

  7. I’ve always used cedar shavings in the nest boxes (off and on for fifty years or so) and used pine for bedding…it’s hardwood that is toxic..maple, oak, etc. Cedar is toxic to dogs I understand. Hardwood can harbor fungi and allergens for both chickens and humans.

  8. I’ve used pine shavings for at least 20 years.
    My hens would make any soccer player green with envy, they can kick mulch as far as the eye can see.

  9. That last photos is priceless. She’s like, HEY, that chicken looks like me? Where’s that pathway? I wanna go there!

  10. Love all the pics here. We are currently planning on enlarging the already large covered run that our girls have for when we are out at work. When we are home they have pretty much (because it’s winter and no veg is growing) full access to the garden, which they are rapidly trashing and covering in manure (despite us laying a beautiful lawn last year lol). We recently expanded the flock and so the situation re the garden is not getting any better, but I hope, by some judicious netting, to claim back some of it and rotate the land around a bit for them. They are all ex-bat girls who have come to spend their retirement with us and I never want to make them feel constricted again.

  11. I have had 6 chickens since August and had always planned on them being free range. But, a large hawk comes and sits on the fence overlooking their yard (which has a top) both weekend days when I am home. The girls make a ruckus when he appears. I can only assume he ‘visits’ on workdays, also. Good to know about the different shavings – I only use pine with no ill effects. Can’t get much else at the Agway in Topsfield.

  12. I’ve had my Ladies since last April and over the winter have been fertilizing my garden with their used pine shavings whenever I clean their house. Do you know if I need to add anything to the garden to neutralize it? I’m thinking maybe some lime? Love this website! So informative.
    Susan we’ve had hawks land a couple of times in our yard, but I only let the girls out when I’m home. I use to hang out in the yard with them now I just keep a close eye on them and make sure the golden retriever is out with them. That seems to work. They a little older than your girls which I think makes a difference. They’re bigger and have learned from past visits by the intruder!

    • Straight chicken manure in quantity can burn the garden. I let mine compost for a year before using. I also make sure that I mix in leaves, garden waste, etc. so that it’s not straight manure. Don’t worry about the occasional droppings – although you don’t want your chickens pooping on plants you’re going to eat! As far as hawks being protected by dogs and people – you know if your dog is up to the job (as does the hawk!) I know someone who lost a bantam hen to a hawk while the owner was sitting on a chair on the lawn watching the flock. Unusual, but possible. Still, I let my hens out while out gardening. It’s a small risk to balance with the benefits.

      • Thanks Terry, so I should probably remove whats in the garden now and mix it in with my other compost waiting a year to then fertilize the garden. I appreciate your input along with the bit on not letting them poop on the plants we will be eating. Sounds like it should be understood, but never hurts to remind us! Thanks :)

  13. Susan – I think I should add that we have woods, plenty of bushes and some pine trees around to protect them from flying invaders. They must have very good eyesight, hearing or both because they pick up on a hawk way before I do. Sometimes I’ll even throw some seed into the pines trees to get them to stay on the parameter of the yard and not out in the open when I’m not out there with them.

    • In my previous home we also had woods and cover. The first hen that I had taken by a hawk was a Polish. They’re just not as aware! Where we now live, Red Tail hawks nest just a few hundred yards away in the woods behind the coop. The chickens are so used to seeing hawks fly that they don’t run. Every situation is different!

      • Both your experiences are so interesting. I may try letting them out in March when I am on Spring Break and in the garden working. Although they have a good size yard, it doesn’t seem fair that they don’t get to wander at will. Thanks for the info.

  14. We live in the Pacific Northwest and when I spread wood shavings in our pens they are always cedar or pine, with no ill affects at all, excepting maybe for the mites. My chickens roll in the shavings with pure ecstasy, and then spread themselves to fully take in the sun and shavings.

    I love your blog, your book, and all you have to offer. Thank-you!

  15. So far we haven’t had chickens that are that interested in my flowers. The garden yes but mostly for bugs. I guess we are lucky. I always hear about the destruction and have yet to see this here. We do have a large area for them to range on and I think that helps alot. Nothing is better that sitting on the swing watching your kids and chickens in the evening! Love this life!