A year ago, I got my first backyard chickens.
I had this wonderfully romantic idea that my little flock of four would range freely throughout the backyard, delicately plucking all the nasty bugs off my plants, possibly even helping me pull up weeds while I whistled Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah and they clucked along in harmony.
I had no idea.
By the time I realized the full destructive nature of these fierce and feral little raptors, my garden was toast.
Chickens and a perfect storm
Last summer was a perfect storm in the garden: five years of drought coupled with raccoons who will dig up multiple beds in a single night in search of fig eater beetle grubs, and capped off by the work of my talented free-ranging chickens.
It’s not so much that the chickens eat all the plants. They enjoy a balanced diet of greens and protein. So with the plants they don’t eat, they just dig them up looking for bugs and worms. (Those grubs the raccoons like so much, by the way, are like chicken sushi. The birds go wild for them and fight over them same way they do things like hornworms, earthworms or grasshoppers.)
Now it’s a funny thing about plants—expose their roots to enough air and sun, and they just up and die. And it really doesn’t matter who’s doing the digging, the raccoons, the chickens, or me.
Chickens, drought and raccoons
I finally stopped the raccoon attacks by getting rid of the grubs with milky spore powder. The drought has sort of taken care of itself. But I handled the biggest issue, the chickens, with a three-pronged attack.
Phase 1 was to fence off a portion of the yard as the “chicken yard.” This was a lot of trial and error until I got it right. The first fence was 4 feet high. They laughed at me as they sailed over it. I raised it another foot, and they still could use their ninja escape skills to get at my garden. It wasn’t until I got the barrier up to 7 feet with some bird netting that they stopped sailing over.
For phase 2, I planted sacrificial crops along the outside of the chicken yard fence. This would entice them to eat those first in the event they got out. I planted wheat grass, crimson clover, and chia.
The final trick was to cage my beds. Believe it or not, it’s easier to cage a bunch of plants than to cage chickens. The plants never complain.
As I enter my second year with chickens, I’m older, and wiser to their fowl ways.
The girls only get to free-range near my food beds during “supervised playtime.”
– Su Falcon, Editor in Chief
The Dirt on Organic Gardening Magazine