15 November 2015

What to grow for your chickens

In urban gardens, it’s hard to let chickens free range, although obviously that’s what they’d prefer and is better for them. But to compensate, we can grow a few easy, hardy plants that they love and are great for their health.

I don't feel guilty about this arrangement. Our vegetable garden is an extension of our fridge and pantry, and chickens cannot range through a vegetable garden that is also productive. Our chickens' lives are much happier than their counterparts in battery cages or even commercial free range flocks.

Plants they can reach

Every winter we sow oats (and other manure crops) in unused parts of our garden. We don't leave them in long enough to actually turn into oats, but the tall, grass-like leaves are sweet, even to human taste. Chickens love them.

The oat leaves are most easily seen to the right of the photo.

The ones planted near the chicken run get a thorough gnawing by our birds, because the plastic mesh of their fence is big enough for them to poke their heads through. They can reach leaves that wave close to their fence, but they can’t dig up and destroy those plants. The same goes for silverbeet and broccoli that sometimes grows there.

Last month we moved their fence a bit so the oats were growing inside their run. It was short-lived pleasure for them: the next day the plants were completely destroyed.

New access to oats!

The next day: all gone.

Plants to throw them

Most days when I wander through the garden, I tear off some oat leaves and throw them into the run. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because I tear them into smallish pieces (5 cm long or so). Very long bits of grassy stuff can occasionally cause blockages in their crops. (This is not a problem when they are able to tear bits off plants rooted into the ground, because they can tear off whatever size they like.)

Silverbeet and lettuce leaves are soft enough that chickens can tear off mouthful-sized portions even from loose leaves.

You can also throw them anything that has done its dash in the garden. At the moment ours have been feasting on bolted kale, broccoli, lettuce and carrot tops. (We don't rip everything out as soon as it bolts, though - it's good to leave some to flower for the bees, and to set seed and therefore turn into free self-seeded plants in the future.)


At the moment there's a clear strip of soil outside the chicken run where the fence was moved inwards a bit. Once it rains (tonight, I hope - the garden is so dry!) I plan to transplant a small bunch of self-seeded baby silverbeet plants into that strip, and to scatter some oat seeds. I might have to think of a way to protect them from hungry beaks until the plants are big enough to cope with gnawing.

The lazy way

All this might sound like too much work, but it's easy. Oats and silverbeet grow like weeds and take no tending at all, apart from a bit of moisture to get them started. 


Best of all, what's good for your chickens is good for you. Lots of greens and insects delight your birds, plus make their eggs richer in healthy fats. 

For everybody

Oat leaves may be sweet, but they probably won't make their way into your salad any time soon. However, there is another creature who might be delighted at what you've grown. Our cat eats oat leaves every day! It's funny watching his carnivore teeth trying to chew a leaf. He manages, though.

Other treats

Remember that chickens are not vegetarians. I often notice that when they escape into our vegetable garden their first priority is tossing aside the mulch to get to the tiny beasties that live underneath. Give them some wild flesh by tossing them snails, worms and insects whenever you can can get your hands on them.

Four happy hens ignoring the oat leaves for a start, while
they concentrate on the soil organisms they've uncovered
in the newly-accessed ground.