Saturday, January 7, 2017

Chickens in the Garden. Hah.

We have had chickens for more than 18 months, currently a flock of 13 hens. Number 14 (I don't like naming them; my wife does) perished in the heat last summer, getting trapped in a raised bed garden and unable to escape the fencing.

As we have discovered, those cute pictures on gardening books that feature chickens are comfortable lies.

Photos like the one above (not our garden, not our chicken! They'd make short work of the Nasturtiums) make a novice gardener think that hens will simply avoid plants you want for food in order to get at the lovely scratch and chicken feed you set out for them. I'm guessing that these are the same urban owners who put little sweaters on their chickens and walk them on leashes. Perhaps they are working on a much smaller scale than we employ; our big garden measures over 5000 square feet, about 3000 of it in raised beds, so projects like building "chicken tunnels" and other elaborate structures run into the steamy reality of Virginia summers where weeds can grow 6 inches after a bad week of heavy rain.

Our experience with chickens shows us that they can be wonderful in and around fallow beds, where they turn and manure the soil. They turn compost faster than I can. I did add boards to keep them from kicking out all the topsoil and compost into the paths, but when I added mesh fencing to beds, chickens would get into the smallest hole, and often they could not get out. They do fly, a bit, and one variety, the Golden Comet, is a great flyer even when we trimmed back the feathers on their wingtips. Over the fence they went!

To prevent more dead birds and ruined crops, we will keep the chickens out of all the beds in summer of 2017. The flock will now have a nice shady run and  their own coop area for scratching and resting. In fall, we'll have 5' tall permanent horse-fencing around our strawberry-and-rhubarb spot and the asparagus bed we are gradually expanding to about 150 square feet.  One other bed will get the 5' fencing and host our winter-greens garden.

I enjoy our chickens. They are good entertainment, they eat a lot of bugs, and they give me breakfast every day of the year. They can, as this author claims, do many things that farm machinery or back-aching labor accomplish.

But, in the end, they are livestock, not pets. If you want to keep chickens, keep in mind that vigilance is the price of having them near a garden, let alone in one.

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