I was still a newbie to backyard chickens when I wrote Keeping Chickens as Part of a Healthy Garden in 2012. Seven years later, I’ve learned a few things about gardening with chickens worth sharing, and issues brought up by commenters to the original article deserve discussion, too. Here are my answers to the most-asked questions about gardening with a small flock of laying hens.
Critter Cages and Chicken Fences
One of the questions I hear most often is “But don’t the chickens tear up your garden?” Yes, the chickens would love to scratch through every freshly cultivated bed, eat every cabbage to a nub and scatter mulch far and wide. To prevent constant damage, I use box-shaped metal cages fashioned from wire fencing to protect low-growing plants, as shown in the photos (above) of spinach and carrots. The cages also protect plants from rabbits and deer, which is why I’ve stacked two cages over the carrots.
I also have several rolls of knee-high chicken wire (poultry netting) that I use to erect chicken fences around crops I don’t want the chickens to eat, or vegetables grown with a deep mulch. Chickens love to scratch through mulch! And, while chickens are generally uninterested in eating tomato or pepper plants, they will destroy any ripening fruits within their reach. Installing a chicken fence takes only a few minutes, but it’s a mandatory job when you’re gardening with chickens.
Healthier Homegrown Eggs
My main reason for keeping chickens is to harvest healthier homegrown eggs. Chickens are very active, moving about all day but for an afternoon nap in the shade. Their constant exercise and exposure to sunlight leads to radical improvements in the nutrient profile of eggs from pastured chickens. Research sponsored by Mother Earth News showed that eggs from active, outdoor chickens had one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, and much more vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids when compared to factory farmed eggs.
Eggs collected from a clean nesting box do not need to be washed, because the shells seal themselves against contaminants as they exit the chicken. That said, my chickens sometimes go rogue and lay their eggs outside on the ground, or tromp into the nesting boxes with dirty feet. As a defence against salmonella, I do wash visible dirt from eggs under warm running water, and let them quickly dry at room temperature.
Managing Chicken Manure
Some people are concerned about possible health hazards from contact with manure, including me. When I work in the coop, I assume that everything I touch is as filthy as an unkept public washroom. I wear plastic gloves, take shallow breaths to avoid breathing the dust, and keep work sessions short.
Most backyard chicken keepers use some variation of the deep litter method on the floor of the coop, wherein the chickens are given coarse organic matter such as leaves, pulled weeds, grass clippings or sawdust, which they pulverise and mix with their own droppings. Some manure accumulates under the roosting bars, which is great for warming up a compost pile, but I don’t worry about getting every last bit. The chickens will scratch through everything over and over when they are confined in winter, turning it all into fluffy dirt.
The chickens themselves are miraculously clean. They spend much time grooming themselves and each other, and rarely show dirt except in rainy weather. Chickens are big believers in dry shampoo! They regularly clean themselves with elaborate dust baths, which they regard as a kind of spa. The abrasive action of the dust and dirt particles helps clean away parasites hiding in the chickens’ deep layers of feathers.
Chickens for Tick Control
In recent years, ticks that can transmit the potentially debilitating Lyme disease have spread to much of the US, all of the UK (especially southern England and the Scottish Highlands), and the Baltic countries of central Europe. I live in an area where Lyme disease-carrying ticks are present everywhere – on hiking trails, roadsides, and in many back yards, but not at my house. The chickens ate them. Using chickens for tick control really does work, and takes the worry out of spending time in your yard and garden.
Contrary to common belief, chickens do not eat anything that moves. I’ve seen them turn away from millipedes and ground beetles, and they ignore honeybees feeding right under their noses. But they love slugs and will chase down small grasshoppers, which seals their status as helpful garden allies.