Gardening with Chickens as Sustainable Partners

October 14, 2011

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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  • Thanks for the article, Kenny, interesting article.

    One day I’m planning to keep chickens but I hadn’t thought of using them to manage the land (chicken tractor style).

    Food for thought!


  • Luke

    Great article! I am convinced that once I own my first house I will keep my own flock. I will have to read Harvey’s book


  • Thanks for the great article! It’s just what I needed right about now. I’ve had chickens for a year now and have also been increasing my backyard garden. The most interaction the two have had is when I throw the chickens the veggies from the garden that we are not eating. Which feels like a great first step. Recently I bought some flexible fencing to give the chickens access to grass and just today I realized that I can move the fencing into my spent garden beds and have them clean it up. I guess I’ve shied away from it over concern about chicken manure in garden beds. But with this many months out til next season, I’m sure it’s fine. I’ll check out your references too. Thanks again!


  • Helen/Snooky

    another way to plow up the ground is to locate a goat or goats in an area covered with sawdust from a sawmill and let the sharp hooves dig the sawdust and their litter into the soil. I did this one winter, used a doghoust to shelter the female goat and staked her behind my trailer (60 ft by 10ft or so area) to create a wind break for her. Between her hay and grain – some of the bedding included old grass from the summer – the area produced the largest beets and carrots I ever grew. Just like at Walnut Acres, now you know how old I am. The chickens manure creates great veggies also but you need a dog to keep away the groundhogs. They are edible also, after all, they are grass fed without antibiotics. Varmints aren’t bad eating and are just as good as venison.

  • What a wonderful idea – having chickens as garden companions! I would like to have some simply for the eggs they’d produce – I didn’t even think about other benefits they’d provide, like clearing out bugs. Great post! Glad I discovered your blog.

  • Helen/Snooky

    Another thing I learned about chickens, we had barred rocks, rhode island reds, and aurcuca that were born in the winter so the farm lady gave me the unwanted nests along with the uncooperative hens. Those chickens could fly. I was told that you needed to cut the feathers on one wing to keep them unbalanced…wrong…a site I recently found said that one of the wing bones needed to be cut to stop them from flying. I couldn’t have done that, it is hard enough to kill them the first time for dinners… A bunch of the birds flew up to the neighbors horse barn and made themselves at home. The roosters enjoyed flying from one rise to the lower road a couple of city blocks away. (I use city blocks for distance reference because I am from Philly) You need someway to stop the birds from escaping (they do return at night to the house you provide) but they are not really easy to keep in an enclosure without a roof.

  • Kenny Point

    Thanks for visiting the site Alan and Luke and good luck when you get your chickens! You’re welcome Sara and I’m sure the chickens will enjoy the garden access once you install your fencing.

    Rob, the chickens are great garden companions and really can act as partners in creating a sustainable homestead. Thanks for the tips Helen, I think that Harvey relies on fencing to contain his flock and even though they could, they don’t fly over it.

  • I have had chickens for some 30 years now and can say yes, if you have smaller breeds with an uncovered pen then escapes will be a problem. Clipping one wing will help but the feathers will grow back when they molt and the job will need to be redone. I just raise heavy breeds like white rocks, aussies, barred rocks, and rhodies. Chickens are a great garden clean up crew but their manure can spread salmonella. Just be sure to wash well any vegetables that will be eaten raw.

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