Chickens are one of the easier and more useful animals to have in your backyard gardens. In permaculture, they are often the example of 'each element performing multiple functions.' In other words, having chickens as part of your backyard ecosystem accomplishes several functions at once. Not only can they provide you with eggs and meat but their manure acts as fertilizer for your garden, their feathers and egg shells can be added to your compost piles, and they can help clean up your garden beds.
In our yard we have both a permanent coop and a chicken tractor that I move around the yard. In cold climates, just having a chicken tractor wouldn't be sufficient enough protection and insulation for the birds during the winter. Our permanent coop, on the other hand, is insulated and in an area of our yard that is quite protected. I find I am only adding supplemental heat to the coop for the few days every winter when it dips below -20 degrees. Conscious of zoning in permaculture (i.e. putting things that need your daily attention closer to the house), I also placed the permanent coop roughly 50 feet from the backdoor for ease of feeding them every day. When you're making a trip out to the coop twice a day in the snow, you want to make that journey as short as possible!
Though I would love to have the chickens roam free around the yard, if they did so, they would destroy the growing garden fairly quickly and decisively. Instead, I've opted for letting them move around in the yard and garden in a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a moveable coop on wheels. The tractor that we built houses two to three chickens at a time. Since we have five chickens, I switch out the ones that go in the tractor. Oftentimes, it's the naughty chickens...or the ones that I can manage to catch! There is a roosting bar and two nesting boxes in the tractor so the chickens are able to stay in there for days at a time.
Having this tractor allows me to pick and choose the areas of my annual garden beds where my chickens can scratch up and fertilize. I use the tractor in the spring and fall in my annual garden beds and place it in other areas of the yard during the summer. Check out my video below where you can see the tractor (and chickens) in action!
Do you have chickens or a chicken tractor? Please share in the comments below how you use them in your yard and garden!
In our growing attempt to produce much of our own food from our ¾ acre lot, I branched out from vegetable gardening into the realm of small livestock around this time last year – chickens were the obvious first choice. We eat at least a dozen eggs per week so what better way to become more self-reliant than by having a backyard flock. Keeping chickens has definitely become a growing trend, and ordinances in various cities around the country allow residents to keep domestic chickens in their backyards.
We don't have chickens just for their eggs, however. Permaculture teaches that 'every element performs multiple functions'. In other words, in addition to giving us eggs every day, we have chickens because they produce manure that can be used in the garden, they scratch the ground and eat bugs and their feathers are good additions to our compost pile. We haven't yet thought about keeping them for meat but that may be in our future.
We started out with 10 chickens mid-March 2013 and kept them indoors, in a cardboard box with a heat lamp, before 'hardening them off' in the garage and then moving them outside in May. The chickens helped us prepare the ground for our new garden beds last spring. We kept them in one area for a couple of weeks at a time so that they could scratch up the ground and deposit their poop. Raised garden beds were then built on top of these areas using a technique called sheet mulching. The chickens were then moved to a new location where they would repeat the same process.
A common reason people don't want to get chickens is that they are so destructive. It is true that given the chance, chickens would decimate a spring garden bed of greens in no time. However, it is important to understand that timing is key to keeping chickens and having them work for you. It is a question of when and where you put them and for how long throughout the growing season.
Although I won't allow them in my garden in the spring, we'll use the chickens to clean up the garden in the fall by building a temporary enclosure, built with chicken wire and moveable t-posts that encircles the area. The chickens get the benefit of the bugs and leftover garden goodies; the garden benefits from their manure which will be a great nutrient boost the following spring and we benefit by eating their delicious eggs!
This spring's project is a moveable chicken tractor that we will use to prepare some of the ground for our food forest of fruit trees and berry bushes. The tractor will allow us to keep the chickens in one spot for a limited amount of time, just enough for them to scratch and clear much of the grass and deposit their manure but before compacting the ground too much.
After the initial infrastructure, keeping chickens is a fairly low maintenance endeavor. What a wonderful gift to get eggs every day!
Do you have chicken stories, recommendations or questions? Share them in the comments below!