Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Garden Rules
Many people have asked me how I manage to have fairly decent flower gardens and still let the chickens free range around the yard. Most people would expect the chickens to scratch up and trample on everything, and to some extent they are correct, but you can have both if you follow a few rules..
One of the main strategies is that I don't mulch anywhere I wouldn't want the chickens to scratch. Of course, they are still going to scratch even bare dirt some, but putting down mulch of any kind is the exact same thing as putting a person in a room full of bubblewrap. They go wild. Can't help themselves. Chickens are absolutely sure that that next few inches of mulch is harboring a motherload of tasty bugs and by God they are going to fling that stuff everywhere until they find it. You simply don't go there. You will never win.
You can mulch with stone, but it better be heavier than pea gravel and hard pine cones work pretty good but are not absolute. My strategy is to just plant things close enough that the foliage serves as mulch, or use a non-invasive ground cover in between plantings. I also mainly use sturdy plants, such as iris, lilies, echinacea, mums, peonies and so on. The girls will make little trails through the beds but the flowing foliage of such plants usually hide them.
I have also included a number of flowering shrubs with arching habits as these serve as hide-aways for the girls when the hawks are out. And they are sturdy enough that the hens can't hurt them.
When I plant something new I always lay some small stones around the plant for a couple of weeks because the newly turned soil is an open invitation to scratching! They can no more resist that than they can the mulch.
If you insist on growing something that tends towards the delicate I would recommend putting it in a pot and then mulching the pot with stone. My girls have shown no inclination to eat my flowers; but for some bizarre reason they love to eat the perlite and fertilizer pellets that come with potted plants, so be aware of that. If I'm planting something that has arrived with commercial soil I always throw a couple of inches of my plain dirt over that stuff so the chickens can't see the "goodies" in the potting mix.
The vegetable garden is another matter entirely because they will happily eat most anything you have planted there in addition to scratching everything up. Now, you all know I have my garden fenced, which is mandatory, and a couple of runs available for the girls depending on the season and age of groups. This did take a bit of work to build, and is much more than what most people would be willing to do, but it works great for us and we didn't mind doing it. The runs come off the coop at a right angle and run alongside the main garden. Their main run is solely for the chickens but the other one, which includes the Goober Chicken Memorial Pen, is divided in two and can serve as a bittie pen or a larger run for adult chickens, mainly if we separate pullets or roosters. The larger section of this run can also be garden and this is where I have planted my winter crops this year. I sold George last weekend so I knew this run would be empty and just the right size since we don't plant near as much in the colder months.
This allows me to let the girls use the main garden now that the warm weather crops are gone. It's very handy to keep them in here on days when we need to leave before sundown or if there is only one of us here and that person needs to run into town for a minute. You can see the black gate in the back that goes into their main run and coop. Chickens are very much creatures of habit and if you disturb one of their beloved daily rituals, like getting out into the yard, they will get their cranky pants on in a hurry, so this is sort of a happy medium with them. Big enough that they feel they are "outside" but still safe from most predators and at the end of the day they go straight back to the coop without us having to worry if they all got in before dark.
By the time winter is over they have picked the garden pretty clean of bugs and larvae and fertilized it all over, even working in into the soil with their scratching. The only thing I don't like is that they have decided that underneath the blueberry bushes is the best spot to dust bathe and have dug huge holes there. I may have to fence off the fruit bushes for that reason but that would not be terribly hard to do just for the winter.