18 November 2019

How to really put your chickens to work in the garden

I’m very interested in how to use chickens as tools for a better vegetable garden and how to simultaneously give them a better life with plenty of greens and insects. I'm searching for the cleverest ways to do it. After all, we've got great fundamentals to start with: chickens eat weeds and pests, and they produce manure. There are ways of making this come together! But it’s also quite possible to keep chickens without making the most of their garden-enhancing potential.

At the outset, it’s worth stating that letting chickens roam in your garden is not an option. Everyone who has chickens will already know that! They can be very destructive.

So how can we best combine them without actually, well, combining them? I’m curious to explore this further and have some upcoming posts on it.

I got a head start recently when I visited some sustainable gardens in New Plymouth as part of the Taranaki Sustainable Backyards Trail.

In this post I'll describe two gardens that taught me plenty. I’m sure there were more that were worth visiting for new takes on this topic, but I ran out of time to get to them.

Eco-Gran’s retreat

One of my favourite gardens was the garden of ‘EcoGran’. What a great permaculture garden! It’s a compact area that’s packed with food-producing plants (and, of course, chickens).


Tricia keeps her chickens quite separate from the garden and seemed to have at least two coops and runs, which were separated from each other by a little pop door.

One of those runs and the chickens that call it home are her main composting system. All her garden waste gets thrown in there. Here she explains what she does with it.


She told me that she rakes it up every couple of weeks. She also sometimes makes a heap of the smaller stuff that gathers in the run and piles sticks over it, which gives the compost protection from the birds and time to mature underneath it. Aside from that she often gathers the loose stuff that has broken down and decayed across the ground of the run, and has of course been mixed with chicken poo, and uses that directly as compost on her garden.

The pile and one of its workers.

I think the key here is to gather it up fairly regularly, perhaps three times a year. Over the years I have thrown a lot of food scraps and green waste into the coop, but left it too long before gathering it up – as in years, I’m embarrassed to say – and ended up with extremely alkaline soil, as proven by certain crops that fail in it and laboratory soil testing. Some crops thrive in it, though.

One of Tricia's simple but perfectly functional coops.


Koriko

If you are interested in permaculture, this garden is to die for. I felt like a fashionista must feel in a high-class shopping mall. It’s a much bigger space than most of us have in town, but oh, productive garden inspiration doesn’t get better than this.

There's a stream and an old patch of stunning native bush at the bottom of the garden.

Owner Dee in her food forest
I joined a tour with the owner, Dee, who showed us the round raised ‘mandala’ beds she’s built. First she built a moveable chicken “tractor” out of lightweight pipe, then she built several round garden beds to fit it!

Mandala gardens.

The coop.


When the crops in each garden are finished with, on goes the chicken tractor and her three hens. The chooks work it over for a while, living and sleeping onsite as they do. Inside the coop are a perch, a water dish (weighted by stones) and a nest box made out of an old lawnmower catcher! It has holes drilled in the bottom of it and straw inside. The chicken tractor has shade and wind protection attached to it, so the birds are protected from the elements. Dee also gives them commercial food each day.

Chickens are always a hit with the crowd!

Inside the coop.

Once the chickens have done their work removing crop remnants, decimating any weeds and their seeds, and adding their droppings, they’re moved away. Onto the garden Dee piles a layer of organic matter such as compost, then cardboard and some hay. She makes holes in this to plant the next crop.
If there’s no work for them to do in the mandala garden, Dee has other greens-filled places she puts them.

The finished product - until the cycle begins again!
Dee's website is at korito.co.nz. Personally I am very keen on doing a weekend course with her.

I hope this has given you some ideas of how to make the most of your birds in the garden. Please leave comments below with any strategies you have!

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