Hello! This is Kenny Coogan of Critter Companions, and I’m Shell’s guest blogger today to talk about Creating a Chicken-Friendly Garden! So excited to be here!
I’d like to share my knowledge on questions I typically get asked , and those questions center around how to protect your chickens and your plants from each other!
During Florida’s version of Winter, like we’re in right now, it’s a great time to be working in our gardens. We have the ability to grow year round here and honestly, I love making people who are in places covered in snow right now just a little bit envious!
An example of a Winter Garden in Florida!
Gardening with Chickens can be very enriching for everyone. I love watching my chickens scratch around in the dirt, aerating the soil and picking out bugs to eat (especially the bugs that are damaging to my garden!). My garden plants benefit from the natural fertilizer deposits from my chickens, and the chickens get tasty snacks as well as shelter from wind, weather, and predators by being under the cover of larger garden plants.
The key to a Chicken-Friendly Garden is BALANCE.
Those of us lucky enough to have backyard poultry in Florida generally don’t have to worry about protecting our flock from the cold. Chickens can tolerate a dry cold much better than our hot and humid seasons. This is due to their inability to perspire, which would remove heat from their bodies.
A chicken pecking at the frosty ground - they're OK in the cold!
During our mild Winters, adding a little extra mulch from our gardens or straw to their night quarters is usually sufficient. For extra cold nights, providing wind breaks or possibly heating elements for your coop (or at least the water bowls) is necessary if you want to maintain your flock’s health and egg production.
For the rest of the year the heat is our biggest hurdle. Free range chickens will often be seen trying to submerge themselves in the cool moist soil underneath a canopy of foliage. My flock, which lives primarily in a large coop, are provided play sand and piles of rich composted soil to offer them a variety of substrates to cool off in.
Providing multiple sources of water is essential as well. Chickens that are approaching overheating will pant and raise their wings away from their body. Increasing air flow naturally by removing wind blocking structures or by adding fans can help combat the heat.
A hawk perched on a garden fence post.
I’ve learned that Florida has more wildlife than my hometown in New York. Gardeners with backyard chickens need to protect their birds year-round from predators such as opossums, raccoons, skunks, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, snakes, rats, and domestic cats and dogs too. And don’t forget the aerial predators like hawks, eagles, and owls. Most of these predators are nocturnal hunters, however, they pose a danger any time of day.
Some of the ways to protect your chickens from predators include the following:
- Natural landscaping of bushes and low trees, along with physical structures in which they can hide from aerial predators (by hiding under them) or ground predators (by flying to places above the ground out of reach) are very useful. Physical structures like arbors and pergolas, benches, lean-to’s, dog houses, etc., can serve purposes of both hiding and getting up off the ground for chickens when they need it.
- Fortifying your coops so they are impenetrable. Try welded wire skirts that are inserted into the ground so that animals can’t dig their way inside, small-holed mesh so that predators can’t reach in and grab your chickens, making a double-fence around the coop for extra protection, and planting bushes and other plants along the outside of the coop to obscure the view inside by predators.
This coop has tight mesh wire to help protect the birds.
- Make sure your yard is fenced. It won’t keep all the predators out, but it serves as a visual barrier and can keep the larger predators at bay.
- If you’re in an area where you can have roosters, a rooster will protect his flock with his life, and they are very good at it! Roosters not only fight with predators they also serve as an early warning system and make sure their flock goes into hiding.
To protect your garden from the foraging habits of your chickens, you’ll need to protect your young plants and seedlings. You can do this with wire cages, bell jars, or a green house. Chickens rarely disturb established plants, so once your plants get to a certain size, they’re pretty safe from pecking and scratching behaviors that happen naturally.
Bell jars are helpful to protect delicate plants from chickens.
Also, providing kitchen scraps can help curb their appetite for your baby plants. My chickens, for example, love melon rinds. You can feed them plant-based scraps like fruit and vegetable peelings and cores, eggs, and more to supplement their diet, but scraps and such should never exceed 10% of their total diet.
Your garden can provide extra nutrition and healthy supplementation for your flock. I always recommend that you plant extra things just for them! I have some helpful tips here for gardening for your chickens.
- Let them do the weeding! Fence off your plants to protect them, and the chickens will pull and eat weeds (and any bugs that might be lurking) between the rows and along paths.
- Some plants that many consider weeds are healthy for your chickens (and for you!) Let the chickweed, dandelions, plantains, purslane, and thistle stay.
- Some herbs and other plants that are good for chickens are catnip, fennel, feverfew, lavender and rosemary – which all act as insect repellent when they eat them and even just rub up against them. Nasturtiums have antibiotic and antiseptic properties and are a natural dewormer and you can harvest leaves and flowers to add to their snack time feast.
Nasturtiums are beautiful food and medicine!
- If you have areas of your yard you want to enrich the soil – try growing cover crops like buckwheat, clover or rye. Millet and oats will improve the soil and once established you can allow your chickens in and they’ll eat the greens (or keep it protected and just harvest to add to their diets as needed).
- When it’s the end of a growing season, let you chickens in to knock over dead/dying plants and weed the area. They’ll add their own special brand of “fertilizer” and till the soil for you. When they’re done, just a quick raking and it’s ready to plant again!
Finally, there are some plants that, once established, will keep your chickens from digging up the soil. Those include juniper, mint, roses, and sweet woodruff. They work because of their density and their ability to hug the ground, creating a mat that chickens can’t penetrate unless they’re VERY persistent.
Chickens and gardens CAN coexist, with a little care and planning.
Free ranging your chickens in the back yard and growing a garden can happen side by side. If you remember that chickens do not know how to distinguish what you want them to leave alone from other snacks, some strategically placed fencing, ground cover, and other blockades will allow you to balance the chickens and gardening for their mutual benefit. It is not despite my chickens, but because of them, that my gardens look so lush.
Thanks and hope you enjoyed my article. It was fun to write for Shell’s blog this week, I appreciate the invitation. Take care, and I’ll see you somewhere around Tampa Bay!
Kenny Coogan has a beautiful homestead sustainable garden in Tampa with chickens and food growing happily together. He has a Bachelor of Science in Animal Behavior and a Master’s in Global Sustainability. He is a columnist for several publications and has authored books for children and adults alike about animals and gardening. His newest book, “Florida’s Carnivorous Plants” is available now as a pre-order. Please visit his site to learn more: https://www.
For more chicken articles from Shell’s, please check these out!