Sustainable Gardening with Chickens : (do they need locking up)

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Chickens are arguably the best first step into sustainable gardening and self-sufficiency. The multiple ways the humble chicken can help create closed-loop systems in our gardens are not discussed as much as they should be.

In this mad world we live in, with the massive dependence on frail supply chains where there are cracks appearing weekly, it only seems logical to us here at Self-sufficient home life that starting to build resilience and home-based stability makes sense.

The chicken is the gateway to this process, but the birds come with a catch. They like to scratch in the soil. (Read garden where the worms are).

This behavior is either adorable to you or terrifies you, depending on how you see things. This post is about differing perspectives on keeping chickens and how to approach keeping them in your garden.

What is the best method of keeping chickens?

There are two main choices to keeping chickens, with several variations of the two to consider.

  • Let them out and let them range freely.
  • Let them out and fence them out of areas.
  • Lock them up and let them out occasionally.
  • Lock them up and have defined spelling zones.
  • Lock them up permanently.

The list covers the choices we have as gardeners, and each family will know what they need and prefer. There are pros and cons to each choice that we will go into detail below. Let’s begin.

Are chickens safe to free range in my garden?

The notion of free- ranging sounds lovely.

It brings images of serenity and harmony to mind, with contented chickens happily working their way around the garden, diligently picking the destructive insects hidden within the folded leaves of your prime vegetables growing in the sun.

This is a dream many sellers of chicken things will present to the un-witting and the dreamers. Unfortunately, the reality is far less harmonious than what is depicted above.

The harsh reality is wherever there is moist ground and mulch above…i.e… your typical vegetable patch…. the chickens seem compelled to excavate the zone and spread your mulch, seedlings, and plants where you don’t want them, and usually where they won’t grow.

Can chickens even be trained? I don’t know, but I would be surprised. The choices are simple here. If you grow vegetables and have chickens, they must be separated.

Free-ranging is not a write-off if you have an orchard or an area where the chickens can roam without re-designing sensitive areas.

Some people only have trees, so this method of keeping chickens is a good choice as the feed costs are far less if the chickens are free to fend for themselves.

There are missed opportunities with this approach as you will see further down the page.

chickens scratching through mulch under a mango tree

Controlled ranging can work.

This is a step towards more control of the chickens and will suit many who have veggie gardens and fruit trees.

Larger blocks of land work best with this method because of the extra room needed for the chickens to self-feed during the day.

A smaller block of land could work with supplemental feeding if needed. The benefits of this method are lower or no feed costs and less active maintenance for the owners.

A pro with this method is pest and insect control are enhanced. The chickens will still move mulch around and expose shallow roots, so some diligence is required to keep that in check.

There is still an opportunity cost if you let the chickens out all day and have garden beds, though.

chooks moving mulch
Mulch being moved by a chicken. It was in a pile before she arrived.

Part time free range and part time locked up.

This is a system we employ when we have the time to keep an eye on the chickens and can push them back from areas we don’t want them to be active in.

It is far more hands-on, and it depends on the garden type you have as to whether it will work for you.

The chickens still move a lot of mulch about, but the ground recovers pretty quickly if we only let them out once a month or so and only in a zone where they can do minor damage.

The chickens would love to get out more often and try to sneak out through the gate if we are not on the ball.

This system works well when you want to harness the scratching habits of the chicken; this is the entry point for sustainable gardening with chickens. We start to get returns other than just eggs from them.

For a sustainable, resilient, self-sufficient way of growing food, all possible advantages must be used to our benefit. Symbiotic partnerships with chickens are up there with the best known to man.

chook pen being deeply dug up by chickens
Pen floor being excavated as the chickens chase grubs hidden deep.

Using spelling areas with chickens.

This method is handy if you have some spare areas to fence in that are close to or even attached to the chicken pen.

The idea is similar to spelling paddocks or fields for livestock and farmers in general. It allows the ground to regenerate to a degree before restocking it again.

With chickens, this regeneration can occur with a crop of plants that the chickens will happily take to. It saves on the feed costs while letting the chickens do what they do.

We have noticed that during the first few days in a new area, there is little scratching of the ground. There is always some light ground scratching, but the deep excavation habit is noticeably missing.

Once this heavier groundwork begins, move them to another spelling zone or back into the main pen. The benefits of this method are you can manipulate the scratching behavior to your favor.

Permanent confinement.

This sound drastic, but it isn’t if you look after and work with your birds appropriately.

This method is most suited to the smaller yards. While it may appear to be the least beneficial to the gardener, I would argue strongly that it is potentially the most beneficial and economical of all the methods above.

The reason for this claim is that the scratching habits of the chicken are wholly contained and can be used to your advantage.

Understanding the natural systems of compost creation and how many wild creatures use this instinctively can give us some insight into how valuable the confined chicken can be to you and your plans of self-sufficiency and sustainable living.

A great example is the scrub turkey found on the eastern seaboard of Australia. This bird makes nests that are large mounds of leaf litter. These mounds harness the biological activity of microbes to create the required temperature to incubate the eggs.

This is compost creation. The heat is generated by the breaking down of leaf litter into soil. This happens naturally, and the turkeys know about it.

The pen where your chickens are confined is like a shallow turkey nest, and you can harvest the organic soil created by the chickens’ scratching over time.

The chickens are not looking to lay eggs deep into the pen base but are simply chasing grubs, worms, and other small insects in the litter.

This is the opportunity that many of the methods above lose out on because with those methods, the chicken’s day is spent out under fruit trees or similar and cannot be exploited in your favor in a meaningful way.

The confined pen allows this the most.

straw base for chicken pen
Insects live under the straw. This encourages the chickens to excavate and turn the soil over creating compost.

Now, if you are a creative thinker, you are probably thinking right now that with some thought, you can create designer compost mixes with the chickens by mixing different scraps and litter onto the pen floor, and you would be correct.

There are other things you can do with the feed you give them; we will have more about that in a future post.

The point to press home here is the chicken is a powerful soil creator, and this dovetails perfectly with sustainable living and self-sufficiency (article on how we do this here). It truly is a partnership worth getting into, and the more you get involved with the method, the less effort it takes to produce some of the best food and vegetables you can get without chemicals or fertilizers.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the humble chook. You can save a ton of money by using the chicken pen as a seed bank creator that supplies you with many free seedlings each year. Article link here.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.