A composting gardener’s best friend is … a chicken
Puppy dogs, move over. In the garden, a human’s best friend is a bird.
It’s good to have a gardening friend, especially one who can help with the composting, and weeding, and bug patrol – and still have the energy to provide an egg for breakfast most mornings. We’re talking, of course, about a feathered friend, the chicken.
While most folks’ only acquaintance with the bird stems from its exalted position on the dinner plate, the live fowl can provide many years of dedicated service in the garden with minimal time or dollar investment.
The chicken as composting assistant
Chickens love to dig and scratch in the dirt. That’s where they forage for food.
So if you toss veggie scraps in their pen or turn them loose on your compost pile, you may never have to turn that pile again.
Of course, their efforts won’t be nearly as neat as your own. But if a commercial composting operation can use chickens to turn, so can you.
Can’t stand a messy compost pile? Simply reshape the mound or windrow when they’ve eaten their fill.
Alternatively, sheet compost in the garden by spreading vegetable scraps out on unplanted rows or beds. Their scratching will quickly turn that garbage into black gold.
The same action will help to spread and incorporate compost you buy, too.
Put chickens on bug and weed patrol
You don’t want chickens scratching around in newly seeded rows or recent transplants. But you can use them as biological bug zappers when plants mature.
Let a couple of chickens loose among the established rows each evening about an hour before nightfall. You’ll never see another hornworm on the tomatoes again. In fact, a host of creepy crawlers will disappear.
If chickens patrol the garden on a regular basis, weeds won’t be as big of a problem, either. All of that scratching clears out emerging grass and weeds.
The chickens will return to the roost on their own before dark. It may be necessary, however, for you to watchdog your helpers while they feed. Hawks and other marauders consider chickens to be a tasty treat.
Restricting their time in the garden to about an hour each day will also limit their destructive powers.
Chickens are social creatures, so you need to have at least two. But avoid roosters unless you want to go into the poultry business or harvest lots of chickens for your own table.
Sans rooster, a hen will lay an unfertilized egg every day or so throughout their adult lives, living for 5-10 years on average, depending on breed and living conditions.
With only hens, you and your neighbors won’t have to tolerate any irritating crowing at odd hours, either.
Once you’ve had some time to evaluate the capabilities of two hens, then you can decide if you need to add more chickens to your composting and gardening power team.
Be aware, however, that hens take a little time off from their egg laying duties during the winter months unless you artificially create more favorable lighting conditions.
How to pick a chick
First, research zoning regulations and/or HOA rules to make sure you are permitted to have chickens on your property.
Then, seek out a layer operation in the region and source your hens from there. A small, organic farm could be ideal, since they are likely raising heritage breed chickens.
The eggs from heritage hens may look and taste much the same as those produced by their conventionally-grown sisters. But the plumage of a Rhode Island Red, Dominicker, or other older breeds can be much more colorful than production hens and provide extra protection against airborne predators.
Other traits can make one breed preferable over another, too, depending on an owner’s objectives.
Commercial egg producers will cull layers (battery hens) when they reach 1-3 years of age because egg production slows over time. That’s when/why a farmer might be willing to sell a few birds.
Considering there are about 325 million layers in the US, the loss of one egg per week per hen is a big deal for a commercial producer. But these older ladies will do just fine for a backyard flock.
You can also find chickens for sale at country auctions and online. There are backyard chicken groups on the popular social sites, too.
But a few words of caution:
Unless you plan to go into the chicken business, don’t be tempted to buy peeps. Yes, they’re cute, little balls of fluff. But if you don’t want roosters, know that even the specialists hired by professional poultry producers to help them distinguish the gender of hatchlings sometimes get it wrong.
Buying an adult bird eliminates the guesswork and prevents your yard from being overtaken by too many chickens.
Also know that even hens make noise. They’re not nearly as irritating as roosters, but they’re not silent during the day as they go about their scratching and egg laying.
Fortunately, they are quiet at night unless something disturbs their slumber.
Managing your garden helpers
Too many chickens can destroy a yard or garden. That’s why you’ll probably want to start with only two. You can always add more later.
Build or buy a secure chicken house or coop. You don’t want rats and mice getting in because snakes will follow the rodents. Mice can squeeze through a ¼-inch gap, so build it tight.
Don’t forget to cover all chicken runs with wire mesh or other protective cover to keep your helpers safe.
As for food, chickens are domestic creatures, not bred for living in the wild. They will likely need supplemental feed even if they are allowed to forage all day, especially in the winter.
Treat them well, keep ’em fed and watered, and those hens will reward you with well-turned compost, a bugless garden, and free eggs for many years to come.