When I first got chickens many years ago I had two initial goals: one was to let my flock roam free range and live as close as possible to how they would naturally. I imagined a sunny pastoral farm scene of them clucking around and chasing bugs. My second goal was to build my soil with their manure.
Since those first years, I have adapted my garden methods to allow for chickens to work side by side with me. It hasn’t always been pretty, I’ve had run-ins with predators, my chickens have destroyed plants—but the great thing is that I have learned from those experiences. I’ve also learned about all of the many other benefits that chickens offer gardeners. Not only does their manure offer a great nutrient source for our soil, but they can also help keep our garden pests in check and help me with weeding.
I talk to a lot of people who are afraid to let their chickens out of a confined coop and while I don’t suggest it is right for every situation, I believe that with a well thought out plan gardeners can benefit from the birds’ natural behaviors, and the birds will live a healthier life because of it. Also, if a garden is designed to be chicken habitat, the birds will be able to forage as they would naturally, requiring less food for us to provide for them.
I encourage anyone with chickens to consider designing a confined range system with rotational paddocks, which allows the birds to forage in areas of a landscape and can be rotated through different fenced zones at different times of the year. The plan is just like a rotational grazing program for livestock that is well managed. By moving animals through pasture paddocks before it is overgrazed, the livestock is moved to a new paddock so the land has a chance to recover and the pasture grasses can regenerate. In a chicken garden, however, it is nice to have much more than just pasture grass. They do best in a garden setting with many different layers of plantings, from the tree canopy to shrub layer to groundcovers. Not only can this environment give them more forage options, but it can also help give them shelter from predators and harsh weather.
A sample design of a paddock system “Free Range Chicken Gardens” by Jessi Bloom, 2012, Timber Press.
Chickens foraging on an eco-lawn. Credit: Jessi Bloom.
Just think: there would be less cleaning out the coop and run, more soil fertility in the paddocks and pest management all wrapped into one cohesive system. This can even work in vegetable gardens! The fencing and timing of rotations can be designed to allow your flock access to help you clean up after the growing season.
My hope is that chicken owners can think outside of the box and create a system that is beneficial for both us and the birds. If we allow the chickens to behave as they naturally would, they can offer us so many benefits—we just need to be prepared!
Jessi Bloom presented workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.
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