A Hen’s Garden
Chickens are primarily bug eaters who also snack on greens. Feeding hens grains began with the industrialization of agriculture. No one cutting grain with a hand scythe would spend all that time and energy to feed hens.
My hens live in the Fowl Fortress, to protect them from coyotes and hawks (our hawks won’t be able to carry one away but they could tear them up pretty badly). After losing Chickpea to a coyote while we were only so many yards away made me eliminate any open foraging time for the girls. This wasn’t healthy for them. I haven’t invested in a solar electric fence yet, to make a ‘day’ coop for them to forage in relative safety, but that may be on my investment list for the new year. The largest problem is poor design in the garden, which I’m trying to remedy as easily and inexpensively as possible. I didn’t know how to fit in chickens, or where the garden was going when it began nearly three years ago. I have weedy areas, and I have chickens. To bring them together safely is the problem.
Sometimes we bring the hens into the fenced yard with our 100-pound African spur thigh tortoise (Gammera); however, that yard is also where some of our cats live. We’re not sure if Moose, Chester and Cody would behave themselves around hens, so unless we prevent the cats from leaving the house for the day, then we can’t carry the hens into this grassy yard to graze.
Inside the Fowl Fortress there is a layer of muck composed of old straw, the hard bits of veggies and fruit fed to the hens, old scratch and lots of chicken poo, made into an anaerobic muck by recent rains. Once turned up we discovered lots of the grain had sprouted, which the girls sucked up like noodles. This muck was also turning the hard ground below into prime soil. Why couldn’t we use this muck in a more productive manner?
If I couldn’t bring the hens to the garden, then I thought I’d bring the garden to them. Inside the Fowl Fortress I propped up four big boards in a square, then filled it with some of the rotting straw and muck from the coop. I topped it with Bermuda grass – laden soil from one of my raised beds. This was the bed, in fact, where I composted in place for the past year. What rich, chocolate-colored, worm-laden soil! If not for the invasive grass it would be perfect.
In this new garden, along with the Bermuda grass, my daughter and I planted oregano we divided from one of our plants, nettles, borage, some other kind of grass weeds that had sprung up after our Fall rain, plus we scattered corn and mixed organic grains which we feed the hens and pressed the seed into the ground.
Miranda wired together a bamboo lid out of scrap pieces. The idea is that the plants can grow up through the lattice of the bamboo lid and the hens can stand on it and eat greens. Oregano is a good medicinal herb, as are nettles, which reputedly encourage egg laying.
I also dig up chunks of weeds or Bermuda grass in this mercifully looser post-rain soil, and throw the whole mess into the Fowl Fortress and let the girls forage and exercise those strong legs by kicking through the heap. It is only logical that the strong kicking motion of foraging hens strengthens their bodies so that they have fewer egg-laying illnesses (egg-binding primarily), and of course their nutrition is much better with greens and bugs
This is by no means a permanent solution, but until I find the right design that keeps healthy, safe hens and eliminates weeds without a lot of work, then a chicken garden and weed-tossing is the way to go.