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The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
An all-natural approach to raising chickens and other fowl for home and market growers
with information on building soil fertility, replacing purchased feed, and working with poultry in the garden
13 | CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN
Our most recent strategy for putting the flock to work has been such a success, I want to share it with you. I had always assumed that use of working chickens in the garden was necessarily quite limited. That assumption changed after we put up a deer fence around our garden. Ellen and I had gardened here for twenty-four years with virtually no interference from the deer— but in recent years their pressure has become relentless. I held the deer at bay temporarily with the same electronet I use to confine my flocks, but knew from research that deer are likely to defeat electric fencing eventually.1 We decided to bite the bullet and invest the money, time, and effort into erecting a permanent wire fence to keep the deer out—12½-gauge galvanized woven wire, 4-inch mesh, 8½ feet high. At the foot of the fence we dug in chicken wire to a depth of 10 inches as an additional barrier to groundlevel intruders such as groundhogs and rabbits. I was not pleased, having to expend so much effort to protect my garden—until the fence started a cascade of ideas about new approaches to gardening within its confines. Prominent among those ideas was bringing in a flock of gardening chickens for the entire growing season.
couple of years. Along the far side of the fence was an area of newly enclosed ground that I planned to use as the garden’s compost-making area, and the fence seemed to offer itself as one wall of an enclosure for a flock of full-time composting chickens. Once I had adopted the fence itself as one wall, it was a simple matter to complete an enclosure with three more sides made of chicken wire on 1-by-3-inch wood framing, ripped on my table saw from roughcut oak fencing boards. I hinged a wire-on-frame door in an opening on one side, 48 inches wide, allowing plenty of clearance to haul compost materials in, or finished compost out, using either wheelbarrow or garden cart. I put wire over the top of the enclosure as well, to prevent attacks by both aerial predators such as owls, and climbing marauders such as raccoons (see figure 13.1).
Compost Corner When we put up our deer fence, I had been successfully using chickens as shredder-composters for a
Fig. 13.1 The Compost Corner, the wire enclosure in which the garden flock turns garden debris into compost. PHOTO BY BONNIE LONG
CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN
As soon as the wire was up, I planted vining beans at the base of the entire Compost Corner fence, except the door. By the time stressfully hot weather came on in midsummer, the beans had overgrown not only the sides, but the top as well, creating a dense, cool
Fig. 13.2 Fast-growing hyacinth bean vines quickly covered the enclosure to provide dense shade for the chickens inside. PHOTO BY
shade within, which also helped retain moisture in the compost heap (see figure 13.2).2 And at the end of the season, the spent vines were a big start on next year’s compost heap. Since the chickens would only be in residence in the warmer months, I built a minimalist shelter inside the enclosure, using exterior-grade plywood and metal roofing, to provide sleeping quarters and protection from rain. As soon as I put the chickens into the Compost Corner, we started hauling in all the organic debris the garden generated—just weeds initially, with soil clinging to their roots to “inoculate” the growing heap with soil microbes, and then spent crop plants as we harvested through the season. We also hauled in horse manure from a neighboring farm, countless cartloads of oak leaves, and many additional loads of fresh-cut comfrey—an excellent composting plant. As the heap became more active with decomposer organisms—pill bugs, crickets, earth-
Fig. 13.3 Hard at work. PHOTO BY BONNIE LONG
W O R K I N G PA R T N E R S
worms, together with the usual hosts of microbes and fungi—the chickens spent more time working it. While doing so, they also worked in the ongoing deposits of their own manure and the residues of the generous amounts of cut green forage—from lawn clippings to chard and mangel leaves to cuttings from small grain and cruciferous cover crops—I threw to them daily (see figure 13.3). By early fall the chickens had turned the heap of garden debris into about 2 tons of compost, applied in the greenhouse for the winter gardening season.3
Fig. 13.4 I mounted the new chicken cruiser on two plastic decking runners to keep the frame out of contact with the soil.
Chicken Cruiser As described earlier, what Andy Lee calls a “chicken tractor” I call a “chicken cruiser,” and I have used several of them over the years to employ chickens for tillage chores in the garden. Earlier versions hardly deserved the name cruise-er, however—they were a bit too large, clumsy to move within the tight confines of the garden layout, and not sufficiently durable. I made changes to past designs for a more nimble, solid, and durable garden cruiser. • ize: In my new garden layout (see below), S I knew that I would be using the cruiser in the garden a great deal, and that I would have to maneuver through some pretty tight turns. The cruiser therefore had to be small. I made it a mere 8 feet long, 40 inches wide—the width of one of our garden beds—and 26 inches high. The total area inside the shelter was almost 27 square feet. • eight: Another factor favoring maneuW verability was shedding as much weight as possible with materials and design choices. I used metal roofing recycled from previous shelters—some aluminum and some bakedenamel galvanized steel—to cover much of the top and half the sides. The rest of the sides and top I covered with 1-inch chicken wire,
which helped minimize weight and allowed more sunlight into the interior. • rame: “Strong but light” was the guiding F principle for making the frame. Fortunately, I happened to have on hand a few pieces of high-grade, clear fir, left over from redecking a porch, three-quarter inch thick. Its greater strength, in comparison with common construction-grade lumber, allowed me to use narrower framing pieces, reducing weight. The result, with generous use of diagonal bracing, was a light but rock-solid frame that was easy to maneuver among the garden beds. • urability: I spent the extra bucks for starD drive, stainless-steel deck screws to fasten the frame together. Given the constant exposure to weather, they should last longer than any other option. In order to keep the bottom rails of the frame out of contact with the highly bioactive garden soil, I mounted them on two runners cut from recycled plastic decking, 5½ inches wide, which should resist rot a lot longer than any wood alternative (see figure 13.4). In addition to increasing the frame’s resistance to rot, the plastic runners made the cruiser much easier to slide down the garden beds.
CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN
Fig. 13.5 After working up a new asparagus bed in the cruiser, the garden flock will return to compost making in the Compost Corner, to the left. PHOTO BY BONNIE LONG
• ccess: I allowed for access to the interior, for A use when feeding or replenishing the waterer, with a wire-on-frame lid over the section of the top not covered with metal roofing. • estbox: I provided the sheltered end of the N cruiser with a hinged piece of scrap plywood for easy egg gathering from the straw-lined nestbox mounted on the framing inside. I put eleven birds into the cruiser, one cock and ten hens—about 2½ square feet for each bird. This turned out to be too crowded, and I began limiting the number of tiller chickens to eight—3⅓ square feet each. Even that spacing is rather tight, but work assignments in the cruiser are periodic—while working in the Compost Corner, on the other hand, the flock has about 225 square feet available.
The first assignment for my birds in the cruiser was to work up new ground for an extension of our asparagus bed. I had made a start the previous fall with a heavy application of chicken-powered compost and a cover crop. Now I tilled in the cover crop by running the cruiser down the new bed, then made an additional pass, dumping in large loads of earthworm-rich compost which the chooks tilled in while picking out the worms. I then moved the cruiser elsewhere and planted my new asparagus plants. For the rest of the season, the garden flock alternated between the Compost Corner and the cruiser. There was always work to be done on the compost heap, so the assignment at any given time depended on whether there was a bed in the garden needing its cover crop to be tilled in.
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tendergreen, kale—we harvest whenever we need cooking greens for the table, in lieu of growing them as separate fall garden crops.
Predators To my surprise I have had no predator problems with my garden flock whatever. Raccoons are great climbers—but I think the distance established by the fence between the perimeter and the cruiser prevented them from recognizing the chickens in the cruiser as available prey. There was a single attempt on the Compost Corner—most likely by a fox—but the chicken wire we had dug in at the foot of the fence paid off. Digging predators are not stupid—they don’t waste energy on intensive digging if there isn’t a ready payoff.
Fig. 13.6 At the end of the season, when many gardens are abandoned for the winter, my garden flock (in the chicken cruiser, far left) is still getting beds ready for sowing overwinter cover crops.
A further change in our new approach to gardening was the devotion of fully half our garden beds to cover crops, for substantial and repeated increases to soil organic matter each year. Starting this past season, every other bed in our garden now grows cover crops, and the rest grow harvest crops. Then, in the following year, the beds that grew harvest crops will be planted to covers, and vice versa. Since a cover crop bed may be planted to several covers in succession during the growing season, there is plenty of work for cruiser chickens to do. On the last pass with the cruiser over beds in the early fall, I dumped into it large amounts of compost made elsewhere and allowed the chickens to till it in, while eating the earthworms in it—then returned the garden flock to the Compost Corner and sowed cover crops to protect the beds over winter. The fast-growing fall covers served as well to capture the soil nutrients in the droppings worked into the beds by the chickens as they tilled, and prevent their leaching to groundwater. The result was that as winter approached—a time when many gardens are abandoned or, worse, bare— my entire garden was lush with cold-hardy cover crops: clovers and alfalfa, winter peas, small grains, various crucifers. Many of the latter—mustards, turnips, rape,
A Future Project We have a minor problem with asparagus beetles each year. In the future, however, I plan to use the chickens in the Compost Corner to help with control of the asparagus beetles as well. Note in figure 13.6 that the compost enclosure is right beside the asparagus bed. At the end of the asparagus harvest, I will set up a temporary fence separating the asparagus bed from the rest of the garden, using either electronet or chicken wire. I will release the chickens through a small door or pop-hole in the enclosure’s wire, allowing the chickens to go after the beetles among the growing fronds, while keeping them out of the rest of the garden with the temporary fencing. In the fall, after I cut the asparagus fronds, I will give them another run, to scratch in the mulch for both the beetles, which hibernate in the winter, and their larvae. The rest of the time the pop-hole will remain closed, and the chooks will concentrate on making compost instead.