I just love chickens. To me, they are some of the most comical and entertaining animals on our homestead. They prove this every day as I go out each evening to feed them. One hen catches a glimpse of me and gives a squawk which alerts everyone else….. and…they’re….OFF!!
Doing this run, jump, fly sort of thing as a herd of chickens sprints my way.
Its true chickens have some unique behaviors, one of them being their love of “scratching”. Scratching is when a chicken uses her feet to “scratch” or “rake” at the ground in an effort to bring up bugs and worms to surface. If you have ever seen a hen scratch it is really quite amazing. They look forward as they scuff the ground with each foot then back up and peck at what they find. Over and over they do this until they are full.
(FYI: A hen can spot a worm 30 yards away. I have held them up and within seconds one of my ninja hens will come from nowhere and pluck that worm from my fingers.)
On the downside, scratching will uproot just about anything in seconds. This includes everything from weeds to your beloved tomato plants.
If you let your chickens loose anywhere in your yard and you have a garden they WILL find it and wreak havoc in record time. Trust me, I’ve done the legwork. My first year was a disaster. I let my chickens in the garden with me thinking they would eat the worms and bugs as I planted my little tomato plants in peace and harmony.
MOST DEFINITELY NOT.
What happened instead was they scratched and uprooted my new plants tossing them in the air without a care as to what I might even think about it.
So, then why on earth did I choose to permanently house my chickens right next to my garden? Well simple, I have learned to make them work for me and not against me.
Normally I only free-range my gals at certain hours of the day. Usually from 3 pm until they decide it’s time to roost which is usually nightfall. I do this for two reasons…..
This ensures that my eggs are always in the coop where I can find them. FYI: most free-ranging hens will lay their eggs when they want and where you want.
It also assures me that my hens are safe inside of their coop during twilight and daybreak when it is still a bit dark out. (If you still need to predator proof your coop, you can read How to Create a Predator Free Chicken Run)
When they are free-ranging, I check on them more often. Hens have a one-track mind especially when they are scratching for treats and can quickly find themselves in trouble without even realizing it.
So, if chickens will lose track of time, forget where they are and unintentionally kill plants without a care as to how I feel about it……how do I safely and effectively keep free-range hens next to my garden???
Over the years I have learned how to get my gals to scratch where I want and when I want. They are amazing bug eaters and I cannot tell you how much my garden has thrived since I have included my hens in my soil prep.
Chickens love slugs and grubs which in our area is a garden destroyer. So having my gals eat as much as possible for as long as possible has completely changed my summer harvest from dismal to amazing!
How to Free Range Your Chickens Next to Your Garden
Tip #1. Limit the Time You Chickens are Free Ranging
As you read above this is important for your hen’s safety and your egg’s safety as well. You can’t enjoy or sell your eggs if you can’t find them. Letting hens out later in the day will keep those eggs in nesting boxes where they will be protected until you collect them.
Tip #2. Have a Rooster
Roosters get a bad rap, but when it comes to protecting your flock nothing does it better. Not only will they warn the hens of impending danger but they will warn you as well.
Learn the sounds of your hens and rooster so you know when something is not right. Don’t have a rooster and want to add one? Read here on How to Safely Add a Rooster to your flock for tips.
Tip #3. Protect Your Garden
Once my garden is planted I keep a fence around it at all times. This keeps my hens out and my plants safe. Make sure your fence is chicken proof. I found this amazing poultry netting that is perfect.
It is electric, but I have found the openings are so small my hens cannot fit through so they don’t even try. Another plus is it also keeps out everything else. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, even raccoons have all been kept away with this fencing. I am so happy I invested in it.
Tip #4. Use your Hen’s Scratching Skills to Your Advantage
I allow my hens in my garden from September-May. This is helpful because my chickens will actually till up the soil and take it down to fine dirt which is perfect for planting in come spring.
It still amazes me what they can do to clumpy soil. After a few days of scratching, I can jump in and grab any rocks that are exposed.
Tip #5. Chickens Love Manure
In the offseason, I will use my garden as my compost bin. I usually put the manure around my garden in small piles and let my hens take it from there. They will scratch, rake and break down large chunks of compost so it can be worked more easily into the soil.
By adding compost to the garden you are using organic materials to naturally replenish the soil. Soil that worked to grow plants making it less than optimal for next years vegetables. Compost feeds the soil and is a great way to set up a healthier growing environment.
Tip #6. Chickens Also Love Bugs
In Northwestern PA where I live, bugs are a problem for my plants. I used to have the worst time controlling pests and because of this, I have lost many tomato crops due to infestations. Since I have enlisted the help of my flock, my garden as done much better.
The chickens are now eating the bugs, eggs, and larvae which, in turn, helps to control the population. This allows me to then lean on more organic solutions instead of relying mainly on dangerous chemicals.
Using your chickens to heal your garden soil is a great way to utilize what you have on your homestead.
Tip #8. No More Wasted Produce
A great thing about having my coop next to my garden is when I have an overabundance of vegetables and it ripens quicker than I can get to it, I now have a place other than the compost heap to put it.
Chickens LOVE produce from the garden and they will wait patiently for me to bring them treats. Zucchini, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, and melons are their favorites.
Remember to never give your chickens spoiled or rotten produce. Overripe is different than rotten and a good rule of thumb that I like to follow is, if I won’t eat it then I need to toss it.
Learning to house your hens next to your garden will not only benefit your vegetables but your chickens will love you for it. Tilled up soil is heaven for a hen and she will spend hours scratching for her own food. Food that includes bugs, eggs, larvae, even cocoons.
This will not only keep your hens happy but will save you money on feed as well.