Did you know that you can use chickens as a garden tool?! Well, you can! And it’s kind of amazing!!! We first heard about gardening with chickens nearly 3 years ago now, but this is the first year we’ve actually done it ourselves.
Gardening with Chickens
Most people recognize that keep chickens realize that chickens and gardens can benefit one another. The chickens can eat most of your compostable items which they then turn into eggs and fertilizer for your garden. (Most of those compostables will be scraps from the food you make out of your very own garden, or from the weeds that you pull.) But what you might not know is that you can also have your chickens do some of your gardening work for you.
(There is a disclaimer and some notes at the bottom of this post, so before you stick your chickens in your garden space, please be sure to read the whole post, including the disclaimer!)
We used our chickens in a two different ways to help us prepare garden space this year. The first way we used them was to have them help clean up our garden from the fall, since I never got around to it… Oops. The second way that we used them was to have them help us prepare some new garden beds. Within that second way of using them, we used several different methods and found one to be the most effective.
Clearing the Garden
This one is really simple. Chickens that are good at grazing and foraging will be great at cleaning up a garden for you. Ideally, you have them clean it in the fall, but if that doesn’t work for you, have them do it next spring. If you are going to have your chickens clear your garden, there are a couple of things you will need, or at least, need to know.
The first thing you need is chickens. You can have one chicken do all of the work if your garden is small, but you’ll probably need multiple chickens. The number you need will depend on the size of your garden, the amount of time you have to let them do their work, and if you are able to target graze them or not. The second thing you need is a fence. If you want to effectively have your chickens clean up your garden, you’ll need to have a fence to keep them there. A mobile fence is amazing for this because you can put it wherever you want. If you have a larger garden like us, then you can make your fence the size you need in the spot that you need it so you can focus their grazing to a problem area. Mobile fencing isn’t a necessity, but it sure is helpful. The third thing that you’ll need (okay, maybe just want) is a mobile chicken coop. If you don’t have a mobile coop, you’ll be transferring them from the garden to the coop every day for as long as it takes until they have cleaned up the garden for you. Depending on how many chickens you have, how far your coop is from your garden, and how easy your chickens are to catch, maybe it won’t matter to you if you have to move them every day, but if you don’t want to do that, a mobile coop will be a life-saver.
No matter how you go about it, don’t let your weeds go to seed. If you do, you make your battles harder. Believe me, I’ve made that mistake before, and it’s not fun. If you are putting your chickens in your garden in the spring after having neglected the fall clean-up, chances are you had weeds go to seed. The chickens will eat some of that seed, but they’ll also spread it around your garden. If you leave them in one spot long enough, they’ll eat the weeds that sprout from the seeds, but chances are you will need to move them before that can happen.
The final thing you should know is that not all chickens are going to be good at any of this gardening stuff. We have a breed of chickens that are dual purpose (meaning they put on a decent amount of meat and also produce eggs), and they are great foragers, grazers, and egg layers. This means we get the most work out of them as possible. We also raise some Cornish Cross (birds raised exclusively for meat), and they are NOT good foragers or grazers. They will graze, but they are super lazy. They also poop an insane amount, which would mean you really would need to leave your garden unplanted for quite some time after they come through. Chicken manure is hot, and these birds make a LOT of it in a single day. It quite literally creates a great deal of heat as it decomposes and will burn any vegetation it gets on (think withered, dead plants, not up in flames). But they hardly scratch and they don’t eat a lot of greens, though they will eat some if given the option (which is why we have ours in chicken tractors). Make sure you know if your chickens are good at grazing before you bother to stick them in your garden. If they aren’t great at it, it might work, but you want this to be a beneficial relationship between the chickens, the garden, and you. The point is to make less work, and if the chickens aren’t doing that, then it isn’t worth it.
Creating a New Garden with Chickens
The other thing we’ve been testing out this year is to see if our chickens would really be as good as we’ve heard at creating a new garden. We wanted to prepare the second garden quadrant this year, so after letting the chickens clear the first garden quadrant, we put them to work in the second garden quadrant, testing out a few different methods along the way so we could compare and see what worked best. When we were learning about this, most of the new gardens we saw prepared were simply prepared by putting chickens in mobile fencing with a mobile coop and letting them work directly into fresh sod. Left long enough to do their thing, they would clear all of the vegetation from the area and create a new planting medium for their owners. And sometimes they’d add mulch of some kind directly into the area in a pile after the chickens cleared the space and let the chickens scratch and spread the mulch. It was definitely effective, but by a certain point in the growing season, the plants would be doing well enough, and the weeds would start to take over again. Their gardens did great, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d do better if they had their ground prepared even better, which lead me to two of the ways we tested this method.
When the first garden quadrant was finished, I moved them into the second garden quadrant. A portion of this space was prepared by putting tarps down for a few months to allow it to kill off any grass, weeds, and seeds. I got out the broad fork and “tilled” half of the area that was tarped, and then moved the chickens with their coop and netting to this new location. Most of the vegetation was dead, but there were still some things that didn’t want to go away, like the burdock. I left the chickens in that spot for a few weeks, and when they were done there was nothing left. They did an amazing job of clearing that patch of land.
Then I moved the chickens down to the other portion of the formerly tarped area. I really should have re-covered this section while the chickens worked the first portion, because it allowed the grass and weeds to begin to grow again. But I figured it might be good for them… more vegetation for them to eat. I did NOT broad fork this patch before putting the chickens on it, and I saw a huge difference. While the chickens still did a nice job clearing the area, they didn’t do nearly as good of a job. I could have left them there longer, but I really needed to move them again, so I did.
The last section I moved them to wasn’t so much to have them prepare it for planting as it was to move them out of the way. That, and so I could get a comparison of how good of a job they would do on a fresh plot of grass. In this last section, I had not tarped the ground, I had not broadforked at all, I simply put the chickens in to do their chicken thing. They did a pretty good job of making a dent in the vegetation in their temporary run, but it was so very clearly not as effective. Truly, they had barely scratched the surface. There was still a lot of vegetation in the area, and while I could see the dirt, they hadn’t started to dig any holes for dust baths or even make any dents in the ground. I didn’t leave them on that patch for quite as long as the other two patches, but even so, had I left them there for another week, they still would have had a long way to go to make it truly comparable to the first two sections.
However you do it, when the chickens are done, you’ll need to check the area over and do any weeding that remains.
What I’ve Learned
So what did I learn from all of this? That chickens can be amazing helpers when it comes to gardening. Not only are they composters and fertilizers, they are effective weeders and tillers. My tips? Get a broadfork. Buy one based on your soil conditions (there are different kinds) and how often you think you’ll use it. If you have a broadfork or choose to get one, broadfork before you have your chickens work an area. It makes their job much easier and helps them to be more effective. If you are going to prepare a brand new garden plot using chickens, tarp first if you can. It’s not a must, but it helps a lot. If you aren’t going to tarp, make sure you have a long time (weeks or even months) to let them work the area (depending on how big of a space you are making and how many chickens you have).
And don’t let your weeds go to seed!
Disclaimer: I have been told that the FDA recommends letting a garden area rest for 90 after chickens have been in the garden before planting. While that might be acurate, I do not have the data on that. I assume that they recommend that for adding chicken manure to a garden before planting as well as having the birds themselves in your garden space. Whether or not it’s true, I would speculate that they want to limit the possibility of food contamination. Another reason one might want to wait to plant after having chickens fertilize a garden (either through the work of the chickens or through the help of us) is that chicken manure is know for being “hot” manure, which means it quite literally creates a lot of heat as it decomposes, and it can burn your plant roots. You will have to exercise your own discretion on the matter. Just because a lot of people do something does not necessarily make it safe or good, but I will say that there are lots of people who prepare their gardens this way (and plant immediately after the chickens work the area) and don’t and haven’t ever had issues. Whether or not there is an actual issues or it is just a safety precaution on the part of the FDA, I cannot say. Again, I wasn’t able to find the information, but if you are, please, feel free to share the links in the comments below.
We’ve used chickens to prepare our gardening space this year, and it has been so helpful! And because of our plans for our garden spaces, we were eventually going to be working our way to a system that would allow us rest periods in the gardens before planting after the chickens went through anyway, more so because of the chicken manure being “hot”, and also to get the most out of our planting space and our chickens. If you are interested in giving this a whirl and want to exercise caution, you can have your chickens do your garden clean up in the fall which will allow plenty of rest time for the manure before planting time comes around again. This year we have been allowing for about 30 days of rest time between the chickens and planting, but in the future, we’ll have more time in between because of the way we are going to rotate things.
This is definitely not a practical method of gardening for everybody, but if you have chickens and a garden, it’s certainly worth considering. Have you ever gardened with chickens before? If not, do you think you’ll ever give it a try?
P.S. Keep your eyes open for next week’s post! We’re going to be having a giveaway sponsored by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for your fall garden planting!
And if you missed it, check out last week’s post about gardening with tarps. The two methods work together like a charm!