Backyard Birds: Poultry in the Veggie Patch?

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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Bigmac2342 writes: “I want to add chickens to my homestead. I have a garden with all the usual garden-type plants and vegetables, and I’m wondering if I should let my flock pasture in the garden for pest control and general foraging, or will they eat/destroy my plants?”

First of all, shout-out to Bigmac 2342, for commenting your concerns on my blog post. It’s much appreciated. I hope you get those chickens for your homestead ASAP. You won’t regret it.

Now, as to your question to allow them to forage in your vegetable garden, the short answer is no. I would not put any poultry in my vegetable garden, period. Now before anyone freaks out, I’m not saying not to allow your chickens to be outside, to forage for their own food, or to use them for pest control. On the contrary, chickens should be outside most of the time, doing all of the things mentioned in Bigmac’s question.

The issue is the location: the vegetable garden. While it may seem like an ideal spot for natural pest control, having chickens in an active, producing garden can post health concerns. Let’s remember that though chickens are green, mean, bug-eating machines, they’re also known for being huge poopsters, capable of spreading disease and fecal-based illnesses.

Not only should you be concerned with chicken poop in your vegetable garden, Bigmac is also thinking in the right direction, that chickens are notorious for destroying plants when they forage. Because they scratch with their sharp claws to expose bugs, worms, etc., chickens can (and will) uproot plants easily. They also eat most plant material, especially those garden goodies, like tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and zucchini. I can tell you it’s frustrating to find a row of heirloom tomatoes, with bright, ripe fruit polka-dotted with peck marks in all of them (It’s somewhat soul-crushing!).

Another point here is that many of us who grow produce for farmers’ markets or on-farm sales can not sell produce that has been exposed to livestock feces. State health departments could shut you down as a potential health threat.

But don’t fear! There are ways in which you can incorporate poultry into your homestead while allowing them to forage for both plant and protein sources. I have seen many mobile pens used for both laying chickens and broilers. We used an open-bottom mobile pen for our broilers, and Matt made one large enough to accomodate batches of 150 birds at a time. And, because these pens are big, we’ve put turkeys, goats, and rabbits in them. Just fasten a couple cattle panels, 4×4’s, a little chicken wire, an entry door, and a tarp, and call it a day. These can easily incorporate nesting boxes and a roosting bar for layers, and the pens can be moved throughout your property.

Mobile Broiler Pens

I texted my homegirl, Mendy Sellman, of Rus-Men Farms Naturally Raised Meats, in Galion, to have her send me a picture of her mobile broiler pens. She used a PVC pipe and chicken wire plan she found online. She texted, “They are affordable to make, easy to assemble, easy for me to move by myself, and the chickens get plenty of air, but are also protected from the elements.”

The benefit to a mobile pen is twofold: pasture and safety. An open-bottom mobile pen allows your birds to forage for plant and protein sources, which is optimum for healthy, naturally raised poultry. The pens can be moved daily to keep your birds clean and give them opportunity to forage on fresh ground. And, we have found that our pen worked tremendously well for keeping predators out without having shut a coop door every night.  

The downside to this style of pen is that is isn’t really usuable in the winter. Ohio is known for it’s terrible weather, and poultry definitely need a winter coop in some sort of a building. This is why most small producers, like Mendy and myself, only raise broilers in the summer. Keeping layers throughout the year is much easier, and I plan to tackle that topic in another blog post.

Now, if building a mobile pen isn’t on your radar, and you like the idea of totally free-range poultry, then you can try to keep your chickens out of the garden. Bird netting is relatively inexpensive, and may help keep other unwanted animals out of your vegetables. Depending on the size of your garden, you can try making a perimeter of tomato stakes around the garden and draping the netting over the plants, securing the netting at the ground. Chickens are smarter than they’re given credit for, and will easily figure out how to get under the netting if it’s not secure. They may also try to peck vegetables through the netting.

What I will also add is that unleashing your poultry on a garden that is not in use, or is done producing for the year, can be a great way to naturally dispose of rotten, left-behind veggies or unwanted weeds. Chickens will clear a garden patch fairly quickly, while saving you time and effort at the end of the season. You can move a mobile pen overtop of a garden that needs clearing, and just let your girls do their thing!

Bigmac 2342, I hope this gives you a few ideas on how to maintain your flock and your garden. Each homestead is different, and you’ll figure out what works best for you and your flock. I will be answering another reader question in next week’s blog. If you have a question, please leave a comment below or message me on the Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.

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