Monday, November 23, 2015

The Benefits of Gardening With Chickens

I was driving into my favourite small town recently - it's 40 minutes from our home and is the cutest little village in our area.
It has plenty of heritage listed buildings in it and the countryside is beautiful. Anyway, the little farm to the left as you enter the village always has a sign up "chook manure for sale". But on this particular day that sign read "sold out".
It made me smile. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I was thinking of the garden of the person who had bought that last bag of chicken manure. Of how well their plants were going to grow and thrive, how lush and healthy their garden was going to look.

And then I thought of my own garden at home - of the lush bed of herbs, the corn that's as tall as I am and the cucumbers and zucchinis that are visibly growing by the day.
Like the person who purchased the last bag of chicken manure, my plants are growing and thriving thanks to that wonderful stuff.

The only difference is that I didn't have to buy mine, or shovel it, or manually apply it to the garden. My chickens did it for me.

Inspired by Linda Woodrow's gardening methods, our chickens live in our veggie garden.
One large enclosure is sectioned off into smaller pens - sized to suit the amount I want to grow in any garden at any one time, and also sized to optimise the power of the flock that goes into it.
None of the pens are the same size, and some have a roof of bird mesh, others are open and one is a poly-tunnel that has a canopy of passionfruit to shade the summer veggies. Each pen is different and each is more suited to different purposes.

Aside from the clucky mamas, none of the chickens are living in the garden at the moment. They are in mulched pens, with only some basil, decorative ginger and other plants for them to peck at. They are fed sprouts and greens daily though, so they are perfectly happy and healthy. They'll be employed into the garden again shortly, because for two of the pens this is the last crop rotation before the chickens need to come in and de-bug, weed and re-fertilise the soil.

Both of these pens have been growing veggies for me since March. The initial produce that were planted in there was hungry veggies like beetroot and rainbow chard. In the less well-worked areas went celery, tomatoes, herbs and flowers. In a corner where the chickens hadn't done much at all went the onions.

Eventually I plan on getting the veggie patch to the stage where the chickens are always in a garden - so that every square centimetre of ground is productive and they will always have a job to do, which also means we'll have food all year round. It's a work in progress and regenerating soil takes time.

So exactly what role do my chickens play in the garden? 

1 / Fertilising & Digging Over

Chickens living in the garden do a fine job of fertilising it all on their own and they also give the soil a good turning over at the same time.
By gardening this way a lot of my work is cut out, happily taken on by the flock of happy hens.
I don't have to buy in manure or even collect it from my own sheds.

So that's the manure and the digging over taken care of.

2 / Kitchen Waste

I give our chickens the kitchen scraps directly into the garden. It's thrown in every morning and they all fly madly after it. They eat their favourite parts, and the things they don't enjoy like onion skins and potato peel simply breaks down into the soil quickly.

3 / Compost & Mulch

The other part of my in-garden compost system is mulch.

My chicken pens are kept well mulched. After all, it's the soil I'm trying to look after and bare ground quickly dries out and all life in the top layer leaves it. The hens will have a hard time getting their nails into that.
Throw some mulch in though and pretty soon they'll be scratching away like champions. All that mulch, manure and food scraps being turned over daily by those willing and powerful legs will be making you a fine soil to plant your spring crop into.
I also find large quantities of mulch applied during the rainy seasons slows water down which prevents run off and loss of nutrients.

All in all it's a very basic system and it's one that works for me.
It doesn't mean I don't ever have to lift a finger in the garden, or that I don't sometimes give a particularly hungry plant a handful of compost, but it does cut down a lot of work and the chickens will love you for it. They will reward you with good soil, tastier healthier eggs and the enjoyment you can get from watching them work.

I suggest you give it a go, put your own twist on it, find out what works for you and enjoy watching your happy hens doing some of the hard work for you.

How does your garden grow? I'd love to hear any tips or tricks you've got to share - leave a comment below

Sarah x

PS Make sure you check out The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow. It's an easy to read Australian book that is jam packed with information for beginner gardeners through to those that have been doing it for years.

PPS Soon I'll be sharing a buyer's guide to selecting chicken breeds suitable for suburbia.

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