Gardening with Chickens in the High Desert

Reader Contribution by Micki Brown
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Vegetable gardening is a way of life for me – has been for as long as I can remember. My vegetable gardens are always evolving. What I call the “upper garden area” started out as ground that was simply roto-tilled and amended with lots of homemade compost and peat moss (to help give the native desert sand some water-holding capability and lower the pH). It was about 12 feet by 25 feet. The following year, I extended it about 35 feet in length, which lasted about four years.

Then, I acquired my first chickens — rescued from neighbors that were moving (if we didn’t want them, they would be barbecued) — and their coop. Free-range chickens in the yard meant my veggie garden needed a fence to keep the ever-hungry birds from eating everything. Up went a quick and easy chicken-wire fence, which wasn’t very attractive, but it was effective.

The following winter, I decided more chickens were in order so I ordered a dozen baby chicks and two ducklings for early spring arrival. This meant I needed a space to keep them after they were out of the brooder – the old chicken coop was not big enough to handle more birds. I decided to construct a new coop at the east end of the veggie garden and extend the garden length on the west end. The result was a garden area that was 10 feet wide by 32 feet long.

Instead of just moving the chicken-wire fence, I decided to construct a more permanent and more attractive fence to keep the chickens and ducks out of the tasty salad bar. That fence was constructed from treated 4-inch-by-4-inch posts connected with two-by-fours. Attached to this structure is black plastic mesh fencing — lightweight, inexpensive, easy to use, and effective.

Use Shade Cloth for Desert Gardening

The next thing added was an overhead shade cloth structure. High Desert summers can be quite hot — so hot that plant growth stops. A lot of veggies such as squash, tomatoes, peppers and such thrive in warm temperatures, but it can actually get too warm. Optimal temperatures are around 75 to 85 degrees F Pollination stops around 90 degrees F and growth stops at 95 degrees F — the High Desert’s summer temperatures can get much warmer than that. Shade cloth helps by reducing the sun’s intensity and reducing the temperature by as much as 20 degrees. I used 40-percent shade cloth, which is the percentage recommended by Greenhouse Megastore for bedding plants, herbs, Iris, lilies and vegetables. I purchased a 12-foot-by-32-foot shade cloth with reinforcing tape and grommets on the outside edges. I built the overhead structure from 2-by-4s and attached the shade cloth with screws and washers at each of the grommets. This was very effective at helping the plants grow better through the summer heat, and helping me stay more comfortable while gardening.

Next, I added the fencing material between the top of the fence structure and the overhead shade structure. I had decided to add a couple of turkeys to my flock of birds and quickly found out that a four-foot high fence is not enough to keep turkeys out of the garden. I got more of the same black plastic fencing material and attached it all the way around. A couple of benefits that I hadn’t initially thought of became evident – it keeps the population of feral cats in my yard from using my veggie garden as their litter box, and keeps wild birds from eating my crops.

Raised Beds for Square-Foot Gardening

The final addition to that part of the garden is raised beds. I decided to make my gardening experience a bit easier, both in maintenance and in harvesting. Based on the given space I had to work with, I decided to construct six raised beds, each four-feet-by six-feet and one foot deep. This allowed for one foot of space between each bed and a two-foot path around the beds. The book All New Square-Foot Gardening recommends making the beds only six-inches deep, however, I decided to make my beds a foot deep because I like to grow root crops such as carrots and beets, and I wanted to give them plenty of room to grow. Also, because I rotate where my crops are planted from year to year, any place I plant those crops will be deep enough in coming years. The reason for the four-foot dimension is that it is a good width to be able to reach into the middle and not have to step on and compact the soil. The six-foot width is what fit into my given space.

It is usually recommended to use wood such as cedar or redwood because they are more resistant to rot than standard construction-grade wood, but I decided to go the less expensive route so I could put the money toward better soil. I also chose not to use any anti-rot wood treatments because I prefer to not use chemicals. I may have to replace some of the boards every few years or so. A friend suggested that I line the inside of the beds with plastic to help keep the soil from drying out, but I didn’t want to add that element to the area either – and the soil mix that I created will help retain the moisture. The bottom of each of the beds is lined with plain brown corrugated cardboard as a weed barrier and then topped with 24 cubic feet (more or less) of soil mix.

Materials List for a 4-by-6-Foot Raised Bed

• Wood of choice
• Six 8-foot 2×6 boards cut into four 4-foot sections, and four 6-foot sections
• One 8-foot 2×2 board, cut into 11-inch pieces
• 32 3-inch wood screws
• One 4-by 6-foot piece of chicken wire or hardware cloth to attach to the bottom if gophers are a problem

The pathways around and between the beds include a weed barrier fabric topped with a blend of shredded wood mulch and wood shavings.

For the soil, I decided to create my own mix from bagged materials. It is less expensive to purchase soil mix by the scoop from a nursery or other source, but I was concerned about weed seeds being blown into the piles of soil while they were still at the nursery. I wanted to start my new beds out as weed-free as possible. I have had enough issues with weeds over the years — I garden organically and do not use herbicides such as Roundup or other harmful chemicals. With the soil mix added, the beds were ready for planting.

Micki’s Soil Mix Recipe

The soil mix below will fill one of the garden beds discussed above:

• 15 cf Kellogg All-Natural Garden Soil
• 3 cf peat moss
• 2 cf coco peat
• 1 cf vermiculite
• 1 cf perlite
• Amend with compost as needed

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