Unusually Clever People

My Chicken Gardening Dilemma

Chicken garden

Please excuse the dismal condition of my backyard.  It is winter, after all,  In a few months, the perennials will be in flower and the whole thing will be quite cheerful.  But here's my problem–and if you've got an idea, you might win a book, so read on:

I've been growing very little in the way of vegetables the last few years, in part because I travel too much to take care of them, and in part because the chickens free-range and will either eat or dig up whatever I plant.  But this year, inspired by Michele's fantastic book, I am determined to make more of an effort.  I've got a timer for irrigation and I'm prepared to use it.  Now I just have to figure out how to keep the chickens out of the veggies.  In addition to the six raised beds you see here (placed roughly where they will go–more clearing and adjusting to come), I'll put a straw bale garden back there along the fence, next to the run.  That's always been an easy place to exclude the chickens, because I only have two sides to worry about.  (video on my straw bale experiment here, btw.)

So!  I need help.  I need to figure out how to keep the girls out of my vegetable beds.  Fortunately, there's a new book devoted entirely to the subject of gardening with chickens:  Jessi Bloom's Free Range Chicken Gardens, just out from Timber Press. Everything you want to know about gardening with chickens–including how to keep them away from poisonous plants, a subject close to my heart–is here.

Chicken garden

And yes, as you can see, I blurbed the book.  So–you know.  I already know I like it, and I've already read all of its good advice and studied the very pretty pictures.

Now it's your turn!  What's your advice for me?  Short of fencing off half the yard, how can I keep the girls out of my raised beds?  What would you do for something short like lettuce as compared to something tall like cherry tomatoes?  My two smaller Ameraucanas can fly–at least a little–and they can squeeze into some pretty narrow gaps. So how do I keep them out but make it easy for me to get in? 

(And by the way, I don't really need a wooden structure around a vegetable bed.  I just thought that would make it easier to attach chicken wire or whatever.  I could even go taller than the boards, making them all straw bale beds.)

Post your suggestions, or just make a comment, and feel free to link to something you've tried or you like. Or ask your own chicken/garden question.  Next week, we'll have Jessi on to offer her ideas, respond to your comments and questions, and choose a winner!

Oh, and by the way–Jessi's doing a bunch of events, primarily on the West Coast, but she'll be in Maryland, too.  Check out her schedule here.

Also, there's a contest going on at Timber to win a chicken garden start-up kit.  Check that out.

 

Posted by on February 1, 2012 at 3:13 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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55 Responses to “My Chicken Gardening Dilemma”

  1. Brett says:

    A moveable pen one a 2-3 week rotation has been the only thing thats worked for me so far.

  2. john says:

    Amen to that. I’m sacrificing the occasional vegetable plant to a local digging skunk in order to not have to run chicken wire around my beds. who wants chicken wire covering everything? I looked at your photo of your yard and I really think the only way to avoid an ugly wire situation is to do this. its time to do some real re-arranging back there. I dont know what all is against the right side wall in the photo, looks like some jade or succulents maybe? but here is what I would do. I would move it out of the way (give it a chance) take what i like and keep it for replanting against other parts of the wall, compost what I dont and then move the beds towards the wall leaving myself three feet. NOW I can put up an easy little picket or pretty, short wood fence that I can easily see into and I’ve saved myself from having to fence off half of my yard. you have a really great cool yard. I think if you’re willing to move some things around you can save space and still leave plenty of room for the chickies. to me its the only way.

  3. Daryl says:

    Short of confining the birds to a pen with a top, I have not been successful in keeping chickens out of my garden. They manage to jump up on any fence and then hop into the garden. They also have an incredibly long memory.

  4. I live in rural PA and the farmer I buy my chickens from uses the braided electronic fence to create pens for his girls. It is inexpensive (relatively) and makes it easy for him to move the “grazing” area for the girls. You might want to check out Harvey Ussery – he writes for Mother Earth and actually has a workshop called “Chickens In The Garden.” http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/ws-ss-chickens-ussery.aspx

  5. Andrew says:

    Sadly I had to pen my chickens to save the garden. Now I have a lot more chickens, but by the end of the summer they had pretty much denuded the veggie and ornamentals. I think fencing the garden or the chickens is the only way. I have a hard time believing the cover of that book. My chickens would have relocated that gravel into all the beds in no time.

  6. Abby says:

    In a previous lifetime, when I lived in the country, we kept a flock of chickens. They were penned, but a couple would escape. Maybe because they had several acres to roam, they did not damage the garden while keeping the bug population to a minimum. Now that I live in the city, if I could keep chickens, I’d go with a moveable pen, aka “chicken tractor”, partly for their own protection as I have a Cooper’s hawk as a daily visitor to my backyard.

  7. Cindy S. says:

    I have no idea how to keep chickens out of the garden. My neighbors keep theirs in a fenced off area. I would like to build a moveable pen and borrow those chickens now and then for my garden. By the way, I love the picture of your garden. Looks like a good place to sit outside.

  8. Michele Owens says:

    I control my chickens by not being as nice as you. I let them out of their fenced yard only about an hour before sundown. So they get a little freedom, but don’t have time to get into too, too much trouble.

    So glad you’ll be growing more vegetables! The quality of dinner in your house is sure to go through the roof.

  9. Ed says:

    I’ve found the oven and/or the freezer to be escape-proof.

  10. Loie Valentine says:

    How about a greenhouse for the veggies or going vertical along the fence?

  11. Salud Garcia says:

    A neighbor fences sections of her vegetable garden and lets the girls in when it won’t hurt the plants. She keeps them moving so they don’t seem to notice that they can’t get to everything.

  12. Leslie says:

    I agree with everyone else–pen the chickens. You’ll keep them safe from predators, and keep the plants safe from them.

    The only time I let my hens loose around my raised beds is after I’m done for the growing season. Then they can scratch and eat overwintering bugs and weed seeds to their hearts’ content.

    I also agree that gravel is not practical. Have you ever tried cleaning chicken poop off a gravel walk? How about straw, which you can then compost and add to the growing area? You’ll still need to watch where you step!

  13. Li'l Ned says:

    I think a tractor or movable fencing would be best, at least for the first year. I love the photos in Jessi’s book, of beautiful chickies wandering through the shrubbery …….. but your veg garden looks like mine: not a lot of shrubbery. I bought a second-hand mobile dog pen at ReStore, which, at only 4 ft high, the girls quickly learned how to fly out of. However, it is small enough to be easily movable, and it is easy to cover with a few spare wooden trellis panels which keeps them in, and hawks out. I will say that I am truly inspired by the book, and am thinking about planting some actual shrubs and maybe even smallish (fruit) trees. I love the jungle look possible in Northwest gardens (I would certainly count Eureka climate for this), though where I live broadleaf evergreens are few and far between. I will look forward to seeing what you come up with. And I would love a copy of the book — I borrowed the one I’m reading from the library, but consider it a keeper and would like my onw.

  14. Kaviani says:

    Make the common PVC hoophouse, but cover it in wire mesh or chicken wire rather than plastic. This should also keep birds and squirrels off the crops, too. You would need to get clever for an entry, though.

    http://westsidegardener.com/howto/hoophouse.html

  15. Kerry says:

    Something I have on my wish list for season extenders is Quick Hoops Bender tool from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This may be of help to you for keeping the chickies out of your beds. You use the tool for bending electrical conduit into nice 4′ or 6′ diameter hoops for each raised bed. Then cover with bird netting (you may have to rescue a sparrow or garter snake now and then) or Agribon cloth. The cloth would have the added advantage of season extension and also would help keep pests such as cabbage moths or squash bugs off of your crops. Would have to open it up a bit when it was time for pollination, however. How about creating a ‘spa’ for your chickies? Give them their own special place in the yard that is most desireable from a chickies viewpoint? Dig a little swell under a small tree or some shrubbery and put some sand there for their dust bath, then plant some tasty greens and place a waterer nearby. Whenever you handpick beetles or hornworms from the garden, this will make a tasty treat for your hens. Always serve the bugs in the chickies’ special spot and they will develop that expectation as they are definitely creatures of habit.

  16. John Seymour says:

    My guess is that your book will find a readership here in Arlington, Virginia.

    Our County Board will be considering — probably sometime during the next year — an amendment to its zoning laws that would permit backyard chickens — subject to limits (very small flock, no roosters etc). Currently, backyard chickens are effectively prohibited, given restrictions on lot size and distance to fenceline.

    Although the proposal is still conceptual, it has already aroused considerable negative community sentiment. Numerous community residents have expressed serious concerns about rodent infestation, among a host of other issues, and question whether backyard chicken coops make sense in an “urban village” like Arlington. At least one County Board member has expressed support for the proposal, which seems to be part of a trend toward urban gardening generally (local, organic food etc.). In any event, you might keep an eye out — there will most certainly be a big battle on this issue.

  17. Meryl says:

    I’ve had some luck fencing off the garden in the early part of the year (when the veggies really are defenseless) but letting my girls in once the plants are bigger and stronger. I still lose some now and then, but if I let them get into baby salad greens I’ll never get a salad for myself!

  18. Frank Hyman says:

    We use inflatable snakes to keep the birds out of our ripening fruits. Only cost $8 at the garden center. Move them every time you pick (about every other day) and the birds never figure it out. Might work for the hens too. Good luck.

    As for the people struggling to legalize hens in their community, you may want to get the upcoming July/August issue of Chickens magazine–I”ll be describing how the Durham City Council went from “no f– way” to unanimous consent on legalizing hens.

  19. Suzanne says:

    Amy,
    I looked at the post on your straw bale garden. How quickly did the rice straw decompose at the end of the season? I’ve used it for mulch in my veggie garden & it seems to last forever; the good part about it is no weeds, unlike “regular” straw.

    Good luck on keeping the girls out–mine have their own pen and never come into the yard. My Labrador & visiting German shepherd would probably scare the hens to death–or something worse!

  20. Jessika says:

    We’re doing a low-strung cable wire fence this year across the bottom of our garden. We’re coupling that with potentially clipping one wing, just so the girls are not as inclined to fly up and over. Having had a HUGE yard in the past with plenty of room for the tractor… I’d really vote against the chicken tractor. It’s a pain and leaves destruction in its mist. Plus, it’s a lot less safe for hens from predators (you’re speaking to someone whose flock suffered a tractor raccoon attack with not great results). You could also feed your girls in the coop and then let them out for the second half of the day. At least then, they won’t be quite so ravished and veggie-hungry!

  21. Becky says:

    Bird netting over the beds- you can use stakes to blanket it up higher once the plants grow higher. You have to secure it on all sides and then get under it to weed/harvest, but it does work. My chickens hate it and stay away from it.

  22. ST says:

    Motion detector sprinkler? http://www.amazon.com/Contech-CRO101-Scarecrow-Activated-Sprinkler/dp/B000071NUS

    Sounds like your irrigation system is already in…shouldn’t be too hard to set this up. I haven’t gotten one of these, yet. But I have an unruly dog and 3 chickens so I’m thinking of giving it a go.

  23. My chickens do not like rosemary… and rosemary grows in full sun like my vegetables and it is evergreen… so I am thinking about planing rosemary around the outside of my raised beds… not sure if it will work but I only have 5 chickens and they are kind of lazy anyway, so I have hope.

  24. Jewelfry says:

    We have 2 & 1/2 acres for our chickens to roam and they still prefer to come all the way up to the deck and our back door to poop. Does anyone have any suggestions for potty training?

  25. skr says:

    How about using concrete reinforcing mesh to make a hoop house. Its the welded wire mesh with six inch squares. It comes in rolls so when you unroll it it has a bit of a curve. It could easily be covered with bird netting or chickenwire. It is also easy to lift off access veggies. I also use it to make tomato cages. What i do is cut the re-mesh into 3 square modules. There will be pokey wires sticking off one side. Bend those back to become hooks. Now you can hook the modules together to make whatever size tunnel or tomato cage you need. They can also be stacked on top of one another to make a 10 foot tomato cage. Plus, at the end of the season they stack up nicely and dont take up too much space. They can also be hit with a propane torch to sterilize them at the end of a season unlike pvc.

  26. wilson says:

    Wire hoop houses over eavh raised bed i an option. Or you can arrange your beds so that they have an aisle wide enough to run a chicken tractor up and down them.

  27. anne says:

    Jewelfry, your deck and back door area may just look like the best place to roost. Try building a nice roosting area away from your house closer to the chickens’ coop, and see if that helps (of course, now they’re in the habit of coming to your house though).

    As for the veggie garden, a barrier of some kind, or a herding dog, are probably the only sure-fire solutions. I would consider dividing the yard into chicken and veggie garden areas, with a nice barrier in between.

  28. Perhaps construct a chain link structure around the veggies / flowers, cover it with flowering and fruiting and veggie vines so it becomes an ‘arbor’ with a gate, and let the chickens have the rest of the yard to roam. If you did the same on the other side, containing the chickens, you could have a grassy path in the center.

  29. Kat says:

    I used 1x2x8 pine strips cut into half at a 45 deg. angle, so that I ended up with two stakes from each board that each had a flat end and a sharp end. I put two stakes at one corner of each raised bed, and then one stake in each of the other three corners. I stapled chicken wire starting at one of the doubled up stakes, work around the bed, and finish up at the other doubled up stake. The double staked corner was my “gate.”
    Now, in my experience, the chickens *could* fly up and into the bed, but they never did. There was enough forage to keep them interested elsewhere, and they hated the hoses that were in those beds.
    The chicken wire doesn’t look so hot for the first few weeks, but once your seedlings come up your eye goes right past the fencing and all you see is the green.
    We’ve just moved out to where we have a bit of land now, so my entire garden will be fenced in to protect it from the chooks, the rabbits, the deer, the dog, the goats…

    (BTW, I bought your “First Garden” at the MG conference on the Washington beach last fall, and read it as we were in the process of moving from our own first garden. Wow. It was really good counseling. Thank you!!!)

  30. Has anyone here tried a chicken moat? Similar to Michelle’s idea, only there are two fences making a wide, arbor-covered chicken run around the vegie garden. I first read of it and saw a cool diagram in some permaculture book, and after a frantic search I cannot find out which book, but here’s a link to an article about them (with a diagram) in Mother Earth News: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1988-05-01/Garden-Pest-Control.aspx

  31. Rawl says:

    Make an attractive veggie cage. Tall enough for you to walk around in, with a door. Grow the veg up the sides. Better than caging the chickens.

  32. Kat says:

    Um, my comment was deleted?
    Can you let me know why?

  33. A hoop frame with an “Agri-bon floating row cover” (very snuggly attached).

  34. ksb says:

    I don’t have chickens so take my advice as you wish …
    It seems that you want to let the girls keep their independence and that you don;t want to faff with having to remove wire mesh to access your toms so …

    1) Perhaps raise all your wooden frames up using straw bales (with the raised bed being a frame on the top of the straw bale stack. This will not only get them out of the reach of the girls but will make them easier for you to tend.
    2) Use your vertical fence space for mounting window box type containers.
    3) Green roof on the shed/growing space?
    4) Build your wooden raised beds higher/high enough and fill the first 1-2′ with straw bales.
    5) Grow veggies/plants specifically for the girls – the “if you can’t beat them join them” approach
    6) Grow crops that fruit high up – corn, beans, etc
    6) Is there anything they don’t like walking on that you could use aas a warning track around all of your beds? e.g. a 1-2′ wide band of “x” in a 12′ x 16′ (or whatever dimension you need to surround you beds). Kind of like a moat but maybe made out of something they don’t like. You will know this magic substance better than I.

    That’s it. That’s all I got.

  35. Laura Bell says:

    You could use some of that plastic fencing that is often seen on construction sites for cordoning off protected areas (http://farmfencing.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/plastic-mesh-fencing.jpg ). For direct-sow plants you could do your planting, then lay the fencing on top (raised slightly above the soil line to encourage curious hens to move along). The holes in the fencing are large enough for a larger plant to grow through, but small enough that your girls won’t be able to scratch around in it. You could also wrap it around a homemade PVC tomato cage (mine are 2′ x 2′- much bigger than the flimsy wire things sold in the stores )to keep little beaks away from ripening veggies, or drape it over hoops to protect a row of veggies from the same. Much easier to work with than wire mesh & just as long lasting. Zip ties or earth staples would hold it together or anchor it to the ground. End of season just roll it up & stash it in a corner.

  36. If you look at the 2nd and 3rd photos on my article here (http://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-soil-management/sheet-mulching), you can see I used chicken wire and cut off bamboo poles to keep the rabbits out this year. I know it would have to be taller for chickens, but it was fairly unobtrusive aesthetically.

    But what I really wanted to mention was the other part of your problem – irrigation. You can see in those same photos that I had a 12 inch sheet mulch this year. Normally I would wait a year to plant into that, but I went for it this year and most things did great. And I hardly had to water at all. The mulch held water for weeks and weeks.

    Good luck!
    Phil

  37. TracyInNH says:

    A few years ago we free ranged our chickens. When it came time to plant the veggies, I made my fence along the long side (that they have access to) and planted sugar peas on it. I would toss them some peas when they were ready, and they ate off those plants and then they actually left everything else pretty much alone. Your biggest problem will probably be the bright red tomatoes, so you may want to “hide” them in the middle of the garden. I’d give it a go at least one year to see how bad it will be, and work from there – you might be surprised!

  38. Kathy says:

    Movable housing (tractor) and let them out when you are there to enjoy their foraging activities. I’ve been reading “Keeping Chickens”, Hobson & Lewis. Try page 68. Someday I want a backyard just like yours! Its beautiful. Even in the middle of this bizarre winter.

    Kathy @ Skippy’s Garden

  39. DeborahB says:

    I’m not going to be much help either. We have 16 chickens so it doesn’t take them long to do some real damage. We’ve considered chicken “tractors” to be able to control what garden area the girls work over, but we wouldn’t be able to put very many in it at a time. They have a fenced acre of their own, but I also let them out to roam freely for a while on nice days. I stay out with them, to make sure they’re safe and also to shoo them out of sensitive areas like my primula beds. They love any areas covered in fallen leaves or mulch or compost even more than plants, so maybe you could make your girls a play area with leaves or mulch. When I call my girls back to their pen, they follow me happily. One side of their yard has raspberries all along the fence, on both sides. They spend much of their summer in under the raspberry canes, for the shade, berries, the Japanese beetles, and of course the shelter from hawks. On the other side of the fence, we have all the raspberries we can eat, and almost no beetle damage.

  40. Kathleen says:

    I second bird netting as a solution. Chicken wire and hardware cloth have been too unwieldy and painful, but since I have to use shade cloth in the summer anyway (we’re deep in the heart of the desert), I just leave my hoops up year-round (poly to bird netting to shade cloth and repeat). With raised beds, you could attach brackets to the sides of the beds for easy installation or removal of your netting supports.

    I have also had some success at “training”. Our rooster (Bach) is easily distracted away from tasty seedlings with raisins. Where he goes, the girls tend to follow…in rooster-less flocks, it may help to lure away the alpha hen.

  41. Ayse says:

    I’ve had to things work well:

    1. A small garden bed planted for the chickens. They love strawberries. And dust bathing in the turned soil.

    2. 3-foot tall chicken wire around the planting bed, on stakes.

    Of course, what I really need is a fence that will keep my two labradors out of the tomatoes. They seem to think I grow the tomatoes for them.

  42. I vote for a net-covered hoop house or mini covers made of curved chicken wire stapled to frames for individual beds. They are easy to make and what I have used.

    You only have a few chickens and will mostly want to protect young greens and seedlings–other plants will probably be (mostly) unmolested once they’re established. I had chickens for years and one of the biggest pleasures was watching them freely roam the garden. From your paintings and posts I can’t imagine that you’d pen them up. No judgment on those who do–just sayin’. (P.S. Bantam breed chickens are way less destructive.)

  43. Leon Kowalewski says:

    T posts with some 6″x4″ fencing (at you local hardware store). With one side “latched” to get in and out of your gardens. Use the aluminum wire pieces to secure to posts.

  44. Elsa says:

    Not to be too much endorsing you buy a whole bunch of stuff, but Gardener’s Supply has these pretty cool insect nets that are pop-up cubes, and fit over 3×3 beds. They have worked really well at keeping insects off my crops, and they might be enough of a deterrent to keep your girls out of your veggies. They also make a taller pop-up for bigger crops.

  45. Put the girls to work…build a chicken tractor : ) http://www.gardengirltv.com/how-to-build-a-chicken-tractor.html or use hoops with thing sheeting that keeps out bugs and maybe chickens… http://www.gardeners.com/Super-Hoops/39-392RS,default,pd.html Good Luck and happy gardening!

  46. John says:

    My previous response is missing (?).

  47. Fava Bean says:

    We built an open-topped panel system to protect our raised beds from neighbourhood cats. There are a few photos on my Flickr page:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8960712@N02/sets/72157629150063433

    With chickens you may need something to enclose the top, but this system has been easy to use and very effective at keeping critters out of my veg bed.

  48. SJ Smith says:

    Whatever you decide on, you will need consistency. A signal or cue, so that when they have learned you dislike something, they will avoid it again. That means staying home for at least a bit to get them trained.

    I have a larger yard, but the same problem. When I plant, I put a sheet of concrete reinforcing wire on top, with a slight bend. That way, it bounces when they try digging. Then I put a bright hula hoop on top. Why? Ummm …. embarrassed to say; but I was upset one day when they would not stay out, and tossed it at them like a frisbee. Scared ‘em enough that the hula hoop is pretty much a territory marker now. It made the point I had tried to make for almost an hour. Whatever you do, do NOT stand over the bed. That’s like being momma hen saying… come here young uns, there’s good eating here. Every new bed I plant gets the same treatment. If I plan on being away, a 2 or 3 ft chicken wire should be enough to deter them.

    I do like Bretts idea of reorganizing things too…. but could really use the prize. lol. But if you reorganized, then putting up temporary fencing when you travel should be quicker and use less material.

  49. Nearly 60 says:

    Verses the eggs you get. Chickens crap a lot ever where. They eat fresh sprouts to death. I hate it when they scratch up my fastidious perennial border.
    3 chickens on 5 acres are confined cause they follow my shadow, their protector. Just so far.

  50. I admit I have my garden fenced off from the girls, but I do love to have them in there, my little garden buddies. Sometimes they are too zealous with their work and they dig up the roots of my stuff. I have some open grid garden trays that I turn over top of new seedlings and around my perennials I make a triangle buffer zone out of cut logs. This stops the digging up of my plants. I grow a few kale in the same spot every year just for the chickens and they work those over all year! But when the strawberries are up–no chickens allowed.

  51. I love your backyard winter of summer. It has both charm and character. Lots of it.

  52. Deb says:

    How about dedicating an area to chicken-friendly plants? We used to have free range chickens and I didn’t have that much problem with them except for the lettuce. And their scratching. But we have a sizeable acreage so they had lots of room to forage. Maybe plant them their own lettuce patch ahd hope that distracts them enough. I do like the site of chickens wandering around.

  53. Laura S says:

    I have 6 chickens- Australorps, Wyandottes & Barred Rocks and they don’t know that they can fly over 2ft tall chicken wire, while I can easily step over it.I buy the stakes that go with it and move the stakes and wire where I need it and it keeps them out. I was pretty shocked that it worked. Who knew it was that simple?

  54. Sharon says:

    I don’t have any personal testimonials since I’m still researching having chickens at all, but a quick search led me to some easier suggestions of sprinkling coffee grounds around the plants or using wooden “skewers” around the plants. I have to wonder if they are skewers you would use for barbecue or wooden dowels though. Either suggestion is worth a try on a few plants before spending all that time putting up fencing.

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