Gardening with chickens can be a lot of fun. They’re often underfoot (and under shovel) doing some of the grunt work, like removing weedy sprouts and wriggling ground pests. The problem is that chickens don’t know when to stop helping.
Growing food in small spaces is challenging enough on its own, but add a free-ranging flock of hens and gardening gets difficult. My chicken-deterrents have been 4-by-8-foot raised beds with removable fencing made of rabbit wire. Fenced beds, along with some access to established plants in the yard that the chickens can get into, has kept my flock out of the beds most of the time.
This growing season, I have only one raised garden bed because we’re changing our yard layout. All I planned to grow this year was a variety of organic lettuce and some onions, so I prepared the bed a few weeks ago, adding some garden soil, compost and peat moss. I mixed it up well with the help of the chickens and then planted the lettuce seeds and onion starts. The onions are thriving, but the bad batch of lettuce seeds never sprouted. What did sprout throughout the fresh garden bed was 32 square feet of poison ivy.
The onions are now booby-trapped.
Until I manage to overthrow the poison ivy, I’ve decided to garden around the chickens’ dust bath—the flock’s exclusive hangout. My thought is they’re less likely to bathe around my plants because they love their bath, but the area is only appropriate for certain kinds of plants. Rows of beans, for example, can’t work here—they need to be in a raised bed and protected with fencing. But this area can handle some hardy perennials.
My blackberries and peppermint are thriving there, unfenced and always undisturbed by the hens, so I planted chocolate mint plant and rhubarb plant—what I’m looking for is ground coverage that’s also edible. For fun, I put in a couple jalapeño plants, too. If they all do well, I’ll put in a few more things, but for now I need to protect the roots of the plants I have.
The danger of chickens to the garden is less about what they can peck with their beaks than the damage they can cause by digging at young roots. If I protect those tender roots until the plants establish themselves—and until the chickens get bored with the newness in the garden—the plants will be in less danger later on. When I finished planting, I staked a tomato cage around each new plant. Of course the chickens were curious, and they tried to get to the base of each plant before I could get the cages over them. But, once the cages were in place, the chickens could only dig several inches away, leaving the new plants untouched.
Surrounding my odd group of tomato-caged mint, rhubarb and jalapeños is one of the rabbit-wire fences I still had lying around. The chickens can leap onto and inside the fence, but they most often don’t. They’re already uninterested in the new plants. Once I get to the extensive weeding and mulching that needs to be done in this impromptu garden and its surrounding area, the plants will pique the flock’s interest again. It’s only temporary; I have no doubt they’ll look for easier trouble elsewhere.