A commercially ideal lawn is a monoculture turf: one type of grass, cut to an optimal length, whose perfection requires maintenance with chemical applications, fossil fuels and a lot of water. The monoculture lawn became the homogenizing face of suburbia decades ago, and today, a lawn is often legally mandated in municipalities across the country, with gardening restricted to areas out of sight. Beyond cultural aesthetics, the manicured monocrop lawn has no useful function, nor is it environmentally sustainable.
Enter polyculture: gardening that mimics a natural ecosystem with many different kinds of organisms growing together in one place. Adding chickens into the polyculture mix creates a symbiotic system, where the chickens rely on the land and the land relies on the chickens.
A Yard With Purpose
In Joel Salatin’s book Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World (Center Street, 2011), Salatin describes his livestock pastures as a source of bursting nutrition:
“Each morning, I step out into the dew-speckled pastures, each drop a rainbow-studded diamond adorning orchardgrass, red clover, white clover, plantain, chicory—a whole salad bar bedazzled in morning’s solar glory.
I have thousands of expectant animals waiting for a fresh salad bar. They love me.”
Most of hobby farmers and chicken keepers don’t have thousands of livestock on acres of rolling beauty, but even for keepers of small flocks, it’s possible to shift expectations from a conformist lawn to growing a yard rich with nutritious forage for every egg in the nest box.
Growing A Yard Chickens Will Love
With chickens, what grows in the yard becomes their food, and, via the egg, eventually becomes our food. The more diverse an egg’s ingredients, the more complete the egg’s nutrition will be. Chickens have individual preferences for different foods just like we do, and giving them variety gives them choice, satisfying their natural chicken behaviors, personal tastes and individual dietary needs.
Inviting diversity into your living space increases chickens’ access to nutrition, reduces feed costs, invites and sustains beneficial pollinators, improves soil, builds rich compost through green manure mixed with chicken manure, and, in turn, grows better gardens to start the process all over again.
Rumor has it that one can’t garden with chickens because the chickens will lay waste to any and all growing plants. While chicken gardening does indeed pose some challenges, this isn’t entirely true. Author and chicken keeper Jessi Bloom motivates chicken keepers to create a garden one can tend successfully along with a flock of free-range chickens in her book, Free-Range Chicken Gardens (Timber Press, 2012). One chapter is even dedicated to plants with direct benefits to chickens, designed to create a supportive and self-sustaining environment that meets the flock’s needs. Ultimately, Bloom has created a tutorial for a chicken garden—that is, a garden directly for the chickens.
Chickens don’t disturb most plants once they’re well-established, especially deep-rooted bushes or hardy plants with deep taproots. If they can’t easily tear up the roots, they move on, so protecting plants at their most vulnerable is key.
Transforming a yard from monoculture to polyculture or permaculture—aka, permanent agriculture—takes time and even trial and error to find what plants work well for your space. As you begin raging against your monoculture, let these three chicken needs be your diversity guide: shelter, food and forage.
All chickens are at risk of predator attacks, but the free-range flock is the most vulnerable. If our domestic chickens were wild like their jungle-fowl predecessors, living in a natural environment would provide natural shelters from would-be predators. Imagine a forest floor, thick with diverse undergrowth, protein sources living under the leaf litter and fallen trees providing shelter: This is one type of environment you can try to replicate. Living on a well-kept monoculture, chickens are more visible to predators. While some breeds are more predator-savvy than others, some plants can provide adequate free-range protection, especially from aerial predators.
Evergreen trees and shrubs, such as gooseberry, juniper, rugosa rose and wintergreen barberry, are excellent choices for garden shelters. Raspberry and blackberry canes eventually spread and can become large over time to fill space. Thorny bushes and canes will provide protection even when their leaves are lost.
“Large predators, especially airborne ones, will avoid getting tangled up in a mess of thorns,” Bloom says.
She also recommends using plants with spiny-looking leaves as another deterrent.
Because chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything in the garden that’s edible. Growing a variety of seedproducing plants, grains and seeds can supplement their diet and help save on feed costs.
Plants that go to seed offer grain and essential fatty acids to a flock’s diet. Chickens like to peck seeds from the tops of long grass. Wheat is a great seed-producing grass, and chickens can eat these seeds whole without any processing. If you’re starting a garden with poor-quality soil, Bloom suggests growing winter rye, a hardy plant that tolerates poor soil environments. Rye can often be found in cover-crop mixes, and it can germinate in cool temperatures below 50 degrees F.
Corn is fun and easy to grow, and chickens love pecking at the kernels. Corn also stores well on the cob, and its high concentration of carbohydrates helps keep chickens warm through cold winter nights.
A sunflower patch can grow enough seeds to supplement a flock’s diet through winter, and provides them with something to do during the off months. Cut off the flower heads when the leaves turn brown and hang them to dry, or cover the heads with netting to keep wild birds from eating the seeds while they dry on the plant.
Many of the things we grow in the garden can be shared with chickens, with the notable exceptions of raw onions, green-skinned potatoes and unripe nightshades. Excess, broken, damaged or leftover watermelon, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes are just some of the garden foods that can help feed a hungry flock.
When chickens aren’t eating feed, they will forage from dawn until dusk, sweeping a yard and garden clean of ticks, pest larvae and the occasional whole mouse. Not only will chickens chase buzzing pollinators for amusement and eliminate weed sprouts from the garden, but they also enjoy hardy perennials (i.e., weeds) that are impossible for them to destroy.
- Clover is a legume found easily in yards that aren’t treated with chemicals. However, if you do find your yard without clover, seeds can be scattered or confined to one area, but wherever it’s grown, it will always remain. Clover grows well where grass tends not to grow well. It doesn’t grow as tall as grass, so it can be mowed less often. Clover is a great nitrogen-fixing groundcover that fertilizes plants and grasses growing near it.
- Alfalfa is another forage legume, but it can grow up to 3 feet tall. For foraging, alfalfa is best when it’s young or later when it’s mowed down for forage or mulch. Annuals, such as salad mixes, can be scattered and allowed to grow several inches until they’re ready for foraging.
- Fruit trees work double duty in the yard. Aside from producing many pounds of food for humans, fruit trees provide both shelter and forage for chickens. Whatever falls to the earth will become chicken food, and the chickens will be more than happy to eat both the fruit and any pests that inhabit it. Apple, cherry, peach and plum trees are great additions to any diverse chicken garden.
- Edible flowers, mints and herbs can be valuable in the chicken garden for medicinal purposes when eaten. Perennials are hardier, and once established, chickens will use them as cover or forage, their roots strong enough to deter scratching. Many aromatic plants deter pests from the garden and the coop, too. However, many annuals aren’t strong enough to stand up to chicken abuse. Nasturtiums, for example, are edible and healthy snacks, but they should be grown in hanging baskets and allowed to cascade into reach.
Make The Chicken Garden Work For You
Chickens are motivated by food, but they’re also realists. Chickens will eat what they can reach or what falls to the ground, but they’ll leave the rest, opting for something that’s easier to get. To grow vegetables within your polyculture, grow vertically whenever possible and protect plants from the flock until they’re well established. Continue growing foods and forage for the chickens within their reach so they’re deterred from eating your veggies.
The more diverse a yard and garden, the less likely the flock will bother garden vegetables. Given enough low-lying options planted for them, chickens tend to stick with their personal favorites. If you happen to share favorites, plant enough for everyone.
An Alternative To The Polyculture Lawn
If you can’t give up the monoculture lawn for a more natural landscape, you can create a polyculture chickenscape in raised beds. For confined chickens, grazing frames made of shallow raised beds can grow forage right inside the chicken run. When the top of the bed is framed with hardware cloth, chickens can’t reach the roots of the plants, but they can forage as greens grow through the wire.
With a little controlled anarchy, nature will decide what your yard is missing, because it’s programmed for biodiversity. Continue mowing the areas you want to keep for yourself, while giving other areas back to nature for your chickens.
Start small by bringing in one new plant or seed at a time, scatter seeds in a protected spot, or block off a small section and plant a self-sustaining garden all at once. Soon, clover, dandelions and plantain will be growing wild among other so-called “weeds.” Your chickens will amuse you by plucking seeds from the tops of plants you’ve yet to name, and they’ll race to win their favorite berries that fall to the ground.
A polyculture yard is more carefree than a monoculture one, and it can be just as beautiful and enjoyable. It’s also more nutritious for chickens and for eaters via the egg. So say goodbye to the monoculture and hello to your new polyculture ecosystem.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Chickens.