I never had much interest in gardening with chickens, ducks, rabbits, or any animal livestock. After all, I live in the middle of a residential neighborhood, on a lot that is just over half an acre, and I’m a vegetarian…
But today I’ll share what’s forced me to take a closer look at the benefits, sustainability, and self-sufficiency that maintaining a flock can add, and to admit that there is a lot to be gained by sharing a garden with chickens.
Beneficial Relationships between Chickens and Gardens
It all started at a PASA conference where I met Harvey Ussery and sat in on a presentation that detailed a winter greenhouse setup that incorporated a manure filled worm bin underneath, raised beds of vegetables in the center, and a couple chicken enclosures on the ends of the structure. The system worked together to recycle waste, produce organic fertilizer, shelter small livestock, and raise organic foods!
Then there was a visit to the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute where I first saw a chicken tractor in operation as it transformed an overgrown tropical field and cleared it of weeds, insects, and seeds; at the same time that it prepared the ground for planting, added organic nutrients, and yielded eggs for the kitchen. It struck me as the ultimate form of energy efficient, solar powered and low emissions farm equipment!
Things came full circle last month when I ran into Harvey again at the Mother Earth News Fair and later had a chance to speak with him about gardening with chickens and his new book; “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers.” These experiences combined to force me into looking at livestock from a completely different perspective.
Joys of Gardening with Chickens and Putting the Flock to Work
Harvey shared an overview of how chickens can be put to use in working the garden in a manner that is natural, and allows the birds to live a life that is healthy, and under the ideal conditions that they enjoy! Of course any livestock has to be properly managed and you must accept and work within the limitations of your specific site.
But chickens may be a great addition to the small homestead, market garden, and even in urban settings that don’t allow much room for other types of livestock. And the beauty of poultry is that they can be incorporated in a manner that increases the overall sustainability of a single household or of a larger community. Chickens add to soil fertility and food production while reducing some of the labor that typically falls upon the back of the gardener.
The three aspects of “putting the flock to work” by gardening with chickens that Harvey focused on during our conversation were tillage, composting, and insect control. Chickens can trash a garden area rather quickly if left unmanaged, but properly handled they become an asset and fit perfectly into the garden’s landscape. And it can form an arrangement that is beneficial to the gardener and pleasurable for the entire flock.
Chickens Can Manage the Garden’s Toughest Work
Why bother with a gas powered tiller or waste your own energy digging and shoveling when you can let the flock handle some of the chores around the garden? You know how difficult it can be to break up established sod… well a flock can make short work of that job. They’re just as competent at clearing a bed of overgrown weeds or turning under a cover crop, and they can take care of this business without leaving behind much in the way of weed seeds to germinate and cause further problems down the road.
Poultry will Relish the Garden’s Messy and Dirty Jobs
Composting can take time, effort, and valuable space, but add chickens to the picture and the work gets done faster and easier. Harvey creates a compost corner in the garden where the birds are allowed to scratch, graze, and root through piles of yard waste, kitchen scrapes, and other organic matter as they do all the turning, add their own nitrogen-rich poop into the mix, and feast on an assortment of goodies that must seem like a buffet dinner to them.
The Garden Flock Can even Organize a Security Detail
Free range chickens are great for chasing down bugs, ducks love to visit raised beds plagued with slugs, and while guinea are well known for devouring ticks, they are just as happy to dine on marmorated stink bugs. Give them complete access to the garden in the pre-season and again after the end of the growing season and your flock will go right to work removing insect pests. Harvey hasn’t sprayed a thing for insect control in over three decades thanks to his flocks.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: A Natural Approach
While I still don’t know if I will ever add any poultry to my suburban back yard, I can appreciate the value and benefits of maintaining a flock, even if it didn’t include the use of meat and eggs. Chickens have a lot to add to the sustainability of a garden, and the self-sufficiency of the gardener. Harvey’s book; “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock” is a great read for the curious organic gardener as well as for those seriously involved or interested in raising chickens.
There were many facts about chickens that I found fascinating such as the heritage breeds that are still around but rarely seen, the habits of predators and simple ways to protect the flock, efficient poultry management techniques, and the specific how to’s of gardening with chickens that are all covered in detail in the book. Harvey also has great insights on gardening and homesteading that I hope to share more of here in the future, but for now you can visit his website at The Modern Homestead or pick up a copy of his new book; “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.”
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