Chickens in the garden have been a mixed blessing in our green home; do some careful planning before rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Don't let me put you off even before you've started reading, and don't get me wrong; I absolutely love our hens; but if you talk to the boss, she'll give you a whole different slant on the subject.
In this blog I'll set out the pros and cons; I'll talk you through the nitrogen they provide for your plants, the unbelievably healthy free range eggs they lay, the way they control pests, and so on, but they can also be very destructive.
Just look the other way and they'll decimate your green beans, shred your broccoli and cauliflower plants and rip out your spring onion seedlings in search of earthworms and other creatures, both friendly and destructive.
Plus we'll have some thoughts on security; the term bird brain was specifically founded for your hens; they are incredibly stupid. Without planning, fox and mongoose, crowned eagle and nightadder can demolish your flock.
Above you can see Baby Brown hunting for pests and spreading the mulch. She was my favourite, always accompanying me when I was weeding, making delightful little clucking sounds, more of a pet than simply a fowl. Today she is no more; off with her head, cried the mongoose one night, sucking out her blood and leaving the corpse to shock me.
Her blood was upon my head; the hen house wasn't secure. So, step number one, what are the predators and how are you going to thwart them?
Even so, with a secure henhouse, the aerial foes that descend from the heavenlies on unsuspecting free range hens are not easy to control.
I believe a cockerel helps, and we're about to get one; we'll have to see how the neighbours react to that!
A very rare, and threatened Crowned Eagle took out Snow White; yes, our hens have names; they are our pride and joy. Once they have names you can never eat them, but the raptors are less sensitive to such niceties.
Sadly Crowned Eagles are a diminishing specie whilst there are millions of hens, so I can't begrudge him the meal; unless you consider these setbacks up front, you may be so disheartened that you give up when you've hardly got started.
It's difficult to rate the value of chickens in the garden; wonderful free range, omega-3 rich eggs may be highest on your bucket list.
For us it was pest control. The Mexican bean beetle has devastated our bean crop for the last three years; along with chickpeas, they had been the mainstay of our determination to reduce our reliance on red meat for protein.
The World Health Organisation is unequivocal on the subject; it's one of the main causes of cancer, probably because of modern farming methods; legumes, fish and fowl are the alternative, unless you have access to real organic red meat; it barely exists.
But the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray; those damn beetles are so destructive. Enter chickens in the garden one year ago; now we've again had a wonderful crop of green beans with hardly a sign of bug damage; the hens took out the larvae that were skulking in the mulch during the winter.
The chickens break the pest cycles, and all the while it reduces our feed costs, as they scratch for tiny larvae, cutworms, grasshoppers, snails and the like.
Currently there's a devastating plague of fall army worm of Biblical proportions in Southern Africa; I'm not sure whether it just hasn't reached us, but only one cob in the first hundred had very slight signs of damage. Chickens in the garden keep most of the pests under control.
Fly larvae sometimes appear in the worm farms; that's when we dig them out and let the hens in for a feast.
On the negative side, the chickens in the garden will completely eradicate the very beneficial earthworms in your garden, given half a chance. Should they be included on the invasive alien species list?
Second on my list of the uses of chickens is the value of the nitrogen their litter provides in the compost heap. For the pile to flourish one needs a higher ratio of nitrogen to carbon than is readily obtained in the garden.
So, twice a week the hen house is cleaned out, and the chicken litter is added to the compost pile; then it really takes off; turn it twice more to let air in and you'll have fine compost in a month or two; thick bits like corn stalks will need to be recycled again.
The worms in the compost pile seem to know how to scatter when the temperature soars.
Thirdly, your hens will provide weed control in the garden. They till the ground and save you hours of work; they are omnivores and by scratching they eat a prodigious amount of the undesirable weeds in your garden. Of course, they'll scratch out the boss' seedlings too and shred the broccoli in their desire for greens; more about that later.
Notice how they've kept the ground meticulously cleared in the corn patch; without them this would be waist high in weeds.
You have three options here.
In short, it all takes some planning; how are you going to let the chickens in the garden forage for the weeds but not destroy your treasured vegetables. Do you have the time to commit to caring for them?
Fourthly, as every organic gardener knows, your vegetables need a healthy amount of humus; and turning the compost pile is hard work. Without plenty of oxygen, an anaerobic process will render your heap ineffective and stinky.
Just let the chickens in the
garden into your compost piles; in search of worms and the teeming
microbes, they will be a great help in turning the decomposing garden
refuse, and letting fresh air in; they ferret around the heap for probably half the day, adding yet more litter.
Fifthly, instead of throwing your waste from the kitchen into the garbage, and hence on to the dump, you can feed it directly to the hens; or, you can toss it into a worm farm and then feed the wrigglies to the chickens. The race to end waste is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of each and every one of us.
The dumps are bursting with our trash; what can each one of us do to reduce it?
Interestingly, the hens are very discriminating; they know when food has past its sell by date. Every week I visit the green grocer and come back with six bags of waste; much of it is rotten and goes straight to the worm farms. If I'm undecided about the rest, the birds will pick out that which is edible and dismiss the rest; they love tomatoes and watermelon, for example but like us they turn up their noses at wilted lettuce.
What might surprise us humans is the attitude of the chickens in the garden to white bread; but our 100% wholemeal loaf drives them absolutely crazy with excitement. In some ways we are the bird brains!
So, dividing your area into garden camps, fenced off from each other is perhaps the most effective way to manage chickens in the garden.
Four foot fences would do, with only an adventurous few flying over into the kale and broccoli, but I chose higher ones; then we can also use them for growing pole beans, gem squash and granadillas too, for example.
Each camp must have a gate, of course, to keep the pesky birds out, or they'll eat you out of house and home; designing and welding up a steel gate out of remnants in the workshop is currently being added; they are expensive to buy and not difficult to make. Steel gate design is now one of the skills I can add to Linked In. See Bernard Preston's new skill!
Another is learning to make a vegetable garden fence; if I can do it, so can you.
Can I make a plug for one of these new inverter welding machines? They are light and much easier to use, especially with the automatic darkening helmets; for every workshop.
We have three camps at present, with a fourth in the planning; two large ones on the left and right, and one in the centre for seedlings; currently they are encouraged to go into the middle one for a few days to fertilize, clean out any cutworms in the new compost, and spread it all out.
Tomorrow we plant the winter veg seedlings; 150 kale plants are in and there's still space for other vegetables; kale and eggs provide all the lutein and zeaxanthin needed to protect your eyes from cataracts and age-onset macular degeneration; it's the hens' favourite green for the same reason, I suppose; they need excellent vision to find those microbes.
The fourth camp is now complete; it's 600 square metres so we have plenty of room for expansion.
The consensus seems to be that a rooster is more trouble than he's worth; he'll wake you up an hour before dawn with his crowing, eat into your profits and supply no real benefit.
So be it; we've decided to go against the majority, and Rhett Butler has come to town and made his way without hesitation to the hen house. But Scarlet and the rest of the hariem are not impressed, and today he's definitely been given the cold shoulder; that's okay.
I'm told he's a definite asset to the chickens in the garden when the eagles threaten, so we'll see. He is a handsome devil, I must say; it's not obvious in this light but the flecks of cyan and grey are so beautiful.
One hopes the neighbours aren't too upset; I've added another double layer of plastic sheeting at the upper level to mute his voice in the early hours.
That wasn't too effective but a couple lengths of a discarded runner from the carpet shop did the trick; it's muffled his voice by at least 50%. The neighbours haven't complained; yet! We've had him three months now.
Perhaps best of all is in the matter of sex education for the grandchildren; already there's an understanding that now there could be chicks; I'd rather they discovered the facts of life in this natural way.
I didn't take the ladies' man to get acquainted with the girls! Here they are taking a sand bath; it's their way of dealing with bird lice apparently.
Laying birds don't often get broody but this austrolock hen is a known winner; thank you Connie for the beautiful addition to our flock; we've named her Togo.
It will be Spring in a few weeks, so I'm busy with a nesting box that will make her secure from the mongoose. Hoping she will find it to her liking!
The grandchildren are keeping back her eggs, rotating them every day, and within two weeks we hope Togo will take to her new duties.
Mobile chicken tractors are useful too but again some planning is necessary. Mark I was too large and heavy. It's effective, but I can't get it from one camp to another.
The original idea was that they would live permanently in the chicken tractor but after six months it became apparent that they need a permanent coop.
Simple chicken coops can be easily built at minimal cost using wooden pallets.
Mark II will be much lighter and because it does not need to be a safe haven overnight, it can be made of electrical conduit or thin steel rod only; inexpensive, and not heavy.
Free range eggs, or 'proper eggs' as they call them in England are hard to come by. Many times the hens spend no more than half an hour out of the sheds, and are squeezed in at eight per square metre of pasture. If you want to be sure, go to the farm and see for yourself, or keep your own chickens in the garden.
Various sites reckon you can work on 4 eggs a week from each hen, but we are averaging 6; I suspect it's the gourmet meals from the worm farms that is making the difference.
Surprisingly, despite their excellent diet of purchased laying mash, plus worms and all the greens for them to feed on, we were still getting soft-shelled eggs.
Can you feed eggshells to hens? Yes, sirree, you certainly can.
If you want true free range eggs, yet able to garden without their other pest-like attributes, like scratching out your seedlings, then the ability to make a vegetable garden fence is a must.
Yet another reason is the insecticide Fipronil; literally tons of eggs in the Netherlands are being returned to producers because of unacceptably high levels of this very toxic poison in eggs. Chickens in the garden and your own free range eggs may just save your life. Google it, if you think this is alarmist fake news.
Eggs and corn are the solution to zeaxanthin macular degeneration; don't be one of the two million Americans who are needless blind because of a deficiency; you need lutein too. Chickens in the garden have many benefits, not least you'll have a lower chance of losing your eyesight in your dotage.
And finally should chickens in the garden be considered one of the invasive alien species? They consume a lot of important earthworms in the garden, but they also provide many benefits, like the indigenous ladybird that keeps many other pests under control.
» Chickens in the garden
Bernard Preston is a semi retired chiropractor with a passion for enjoying healthy food; proper eggs, as the English call them, from your own chickens in the garden could be part of the deal in your family too.
In Africa you have to guard against the mongoose, or uchakide, and the raptors.
One of the things that I love about our green home is that it's led me into developing new skills that I might never have considered. Like, who needs to learn to weld? Now I think every able bodied male, and yes women too if it takes their fancy, should have one of these new inverter welders; it's so easy. See how I've learned to make a simple steel gate design. It's become necessary to create rotational grazing for our hens; bought gates are expensive.