Flock-Friendly Landscapes: Gardening with Chickens
by SCMG Janet Barocco
Just as there is no single way to garden, there are many methods of keeping chickens. Some gardeners find ways to incorporate their flocks into existing gardens through trial and error. Others design and plan their landscapes to include chickens from the very beginning.
1. Chicken Scratch: Educate yourself about keeping chickens
Ask the locals: While the Internet and public library are good places to start learning about keeping a home flock, they don’t hold a candle to local poultry experts and enthusiasts. Seek out the practical wisdom of farmers, breeders, feed store personnel, the community college animal husbandry department, the local Grange, 4-H club and veterinarians in your area.
Is it legal? It is legal to keep small backyard flocks in all Sonoma County cities except Rohnert Park. Numbers allowed, property set-backs and enclosure requirements vary, so check with your locality’s planning department.
Be a good neighbor: Discuss your intentions with your closest neighbors and address their concerns. Your assurance and the lure of fresh eggs go miles to promote neighborly good will.
2. Hatch a plan: Ask, Assess, Envision
Now it’s time to design what Jessi Bloom, author of Free Range Chicken Gardens, calls
“The Chicken Infrastructure.” This is when you decide what, where and how your flock will fit and function within your landscape.
-Size, garden type and layout of your landscape.
-The number and breeds of chickens your property can handle.
-The type and amount of access your flock will have on the land.
-Daily maintenance routine of flock and garden.
Examine your expectations:
-Why do I want chickens? Garden helpers, egg producers, pets?
-What are my expectations for my garden—decoration, food production, relaxation, habitat for other species, including chickens?
-What type of gardener am I—fastidious? Relaxed? Do scattered mulch or droppings on the pathway bother me? Are there prized petunias or veggies I need to protect?
-How do I envision incorporating a few chickens into my landscape and garden routine? -Will they be free range, supervised, or confined to the coop and run?
Just make sure your chickens have adequate space, food (including fresh greens), fresh water, sunlight, air and access to soil for dust baths.
Assess what you have: Sketch a plan of your garden, pathways, house, outbuildings and property lines as close to scale as possible. Overlay the original with tracing paper and note sun, shade and wind patterns, water sources, trees, living spaces, compost area, fences and other permanent features.
Envision: On another overlay, mark location for the henhouse and run. This is the most significant hardscape element of your design, so consider its location carefully, allowing for potential future changes such as additional runs to expand the flock’s access to the rest of the property.
3. Enclosure options
Chickens are curious, active seekers. Their enthusiastic scratching and digging can wreak havoc in gardens. Savvy gardeners who free range their flocks devise systems that minimize damage and maximize benefits chickens bring as garden helpers.
For example, months after bringing our pullets home, I realized the limitations of having built the housing on the west side which precluded their help with bug and fruit patrol in the east orchard. Now what? A couple of options: construct a chicken “tractor” and move the flock there when needed, or construct a more permanent run from west to east. I chose the latter and created a narrow perimeter corridor, west to east, using plastic fencing and lightweight poles inserted into PVC ground sleeves. Labor intensive but inexpensive and adaptable to change, the fence still works after three years.
Enclosure, exclusion, and protective options for flock and garden:
Coop and run isolated and separate from garden
Coop and run with connecting additional runs for seasonal access to garden
Part of run closed off seasonally
Rotating paddocks (closed pens) emanating from a permanent coop (option to close one or more seasonally)
Chicken “tractors” (portable, floorless enclosures allow movement of flock to specific areas)
Groundcovers, large stones, or wire cages to protect root zones from scratching feet
Chicken “moat” (double-fenced, predator-proof corridor around garden perimeter allow chicken patrol for bugs and fertilizer deposit)
Supervised free ranging
Hen-friendly hardscape for paths and patios: Stone, paving blocks and bricks are easily swept, scooped or hosed to manage droppings. Decomposed granite, path fines and small gravel are less costly choices. The chickens will weed these. Therefore you won’t need landscape fabric beneath which breaks down and presents a health hazard if chickens ingest it.
4. Specific plantings for chickens
Chickens are foraging creatures that seek variety and they need protection from predators. If you plan to free-range them even occasionally, expanding the layers of your landscape with multi-purpose perennials, natives, herbs and vines benefits not only your flock’s health but pollinators, birds, soil organisms and humans. Even if you must keep your flock confined most of the time, more diversity provides fresh food to daily supplement your chickens’ diet. Some seed companies offer forage blends specifically for backyard chickens.
Food forest, garden beds, seeds sown in flats, “meadows” sown under wire frames or sprouts germinated in jars are some ways of growing fresh food for your chickens.
Suggestions for forage and habitat: Currant, gooseberry, arbutus, elderberry, grapes, kiwi, passionflower, comfrey, tree collard, clover, rosemary, myrtle, hawthorn, lemon balm, mint, feverfew and sunflower.
Greens to grow for chickens: Chard, kale, spinach, dandelion, purslane, chicory, corn salad, dock, sorrel, miner’s lettuce, clover, chickweed, mustards, lambsquarters, clover, alfalfa and sprouts.
For a photo album of garden chickens, click here.
Resources for Chicken Gardens:
Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard, Jessi Bloom.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway.
Chickens: Tending a Small-Scale Flock, Sue Weaver. Bow Tie Press, Second edition, revised and expanded, 2011.
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of chickens as garden helpers…, Patricia Foreman. Good Earth Publications, Inc., 2010.
Murray McMurray Hatchery’s: Chickens in Five Minutes a Day, Page Street Publishing Co, 2013.
Chickens: The Essential Poultry Publication, Bowtie Magazines.
Henhouse: The International Book for Chickens and their Lovers, Buddy Wakefield and Stephen Snook, Write Bloody Publishing, Austin, TX 2012.
Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock, Judy Pangman, Storey Publishing, 2006.
The Illustrated Guide to Chickens: How to Choose Them, How to Keep Them, Celia Lewis, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.
The Chicken Book, Page Smith and Charles Daniel, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1982.