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Cheat Sheet

Gardening with Free-Range Chickens For Dummies

From Gardening with Free-Range Chickens For Dummies by Bonnie Jo Manion, Robert T. Ludlow

Chickens are gaining popularity quickly. Not only are chickens fun and educational, they are beneficial to you and your garden. When you free-range your flock, you gain helpful gardeners who aerate soil, rid plants of insects, provide composting, and, best of all, supply food — their eggs! Dive into the following articles to gain insight on good and bad plants for a chicken garden, layering your garden for free-ranging chickens, and solutions for guarding against chicken predators.

Growing Edibles in a Chicken Garden: Layer by Layer

Each layer of your chicken garden offers a chance to grow beautiful edibles. Take advantage of the different heights of plants to provide a stunning layered landscape and a multitude of good eats for your chickens.

Tallest layer

The tallest layer, also referred to as overstory, is the uppermost layer of foliage or canopy in a chicken garden. Examples include large trees like fig, macadamia, and persimmon trees. Chickens generally don’t harm these trees, and appreciate the shelter and protection they provide them.

Mid layer

Not all edible trees are tall and part of the overstory. Examples of mid-sized trees are fruit trees such as apple, pear, and peach. These trees require sun and should be planted just outside the edge of the overstory canopy.

Many edible trees come in standard and dwarf sizes. Consider buying a dwarf-sized edible tree if you have a small space, you aren’t feeding a large family, and you have limited time for garden chores. Some dwarf-sized edible trees are excellent candidates for containers and pots placed on a patio or in a courtyard. Always research your trees for size at maturity, optimum zones, and specific requirements before buying.

Shrub layer

Shrubs are a foundation in a chicken garden, because chickens like to spend time under these since they provide shade and protection, and they can provide food in the form of fruit, seeds, and berries. Generally, chickens don’t harm mature shrubs. Some trees can be grown as shrubs, like the pomegranate and pineapple guava. More examples of shrubs are blueberry bushes and gooseberry bushes.

Climbing vines

Climbing vines can be annuals or perennials. They require some type of support or structure, such as a small tree, an arbor, a fence, or poles. Climbing indeterminate tomato vines is an example of an annual vine. Grape and kiwi are examples of perennial vines. Chickens enjoy these fruits.

Perennials, herbs, vegetables, and annuals layer

Chickens enjoy eating edibles from this layer of the garden immensely. You can intersperse this layer throughout the entire chicken garden.

All kinds of greens can be planted such as lettuce, mustard, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard. Some herb choices are bronze fennel, lavender, nasturtium, and parsley. Berry buses are great too, some examples are blackberries and raspberries.

Groundcover layer

The groundcover layer of a chicken garden can fill in as a substitute for a lawn or a lawn-like area. Groundcovers can prevent soil erosion, suppress weeds, and thrive in hard-to-plant areas. Groundcovers can be beautiful, and smell wonderful as you step on them. Many groundcovers are edible, and some are chicken-resistant, such as rosemary (trailing type) and sweet woodruff. Not all edible groundcovers are able to withstand being walked on.

A good example of edible ground cover is alpine strawberries, low bush blueberry, and cranberry bushes. Please keep in mind you must have suitable conditions to grow these.

Handy Herbs to Benefit Your Chicken Garden

Looking for some plants to grow in your chicken garden that have beneficial qualities for your chickens? Look no further. Check out the following herbs that pull double-duty: They are lovely to look at, and they offer health benefits to your chickens:

  • Catmint: Nepeta cataria. Perennials. Hardy to Zone 3. Full sun. A good insect repellent for lice and ticks on chickens. Catmint can be stunning as a mass border in a garden with its blue flowers.

  • Comfrey: Symphytum officinale. Perennials. Hardy to Zone 5. Rich in protein, potassium, and calcium. Beneficial to chickens for their general health and laying, but their leaves can be harmful to humans if ingested.

  • Fennel: Foeniculum vulgare. Annuals. Zones 69. A striking plant (especially the bronze variety) up to six feet tall. Lacy pods of yellow flowers can attract butterfly larvae and beneficial insects. Full sun. Their foliage and seeds are good for chickens to eat for general health.

  • Feverfew: Tanacetum parthenium. Perennials. Zones vary by species. Easily reseeds itself in the garden. Feverfew is an excellent insect repellent if you dry its small daisy-like flowers.

  • Lavender: Lavandula species. Zones vary by species. Evergreen shrubs. Full sun. One of the most popular and well-loved herbs. Lavender is a good insecticidal herb. Plant a row of lavender around your chicken coop. Put dried lavender in your chicken coop for an enhancing fragrance and to calm chickens.

  • Nasturtium: Tropaeolum majus. Annuals and perennials. Zones vary by species. Full sun. A great general herb for chicken health. Extremely attractive with vibrant edible flowers. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties. Its seeds can be used as a natural chicken de-wormer. It also has insect repellent qualities. It reseeds itself.

  • Rosemary: Rosmarinus officinalis. Perennials. Evergreen shrubs. Zones 610. Full sun. It has showy flowers that come in blue, pink, and lavender, depending on the variety. Many different varieties in different forms. Use as a small hedge for groundcover. Its aromatic scent repels insects.

  • Sage: Salvia spp. Perennial evergreen herbs in Zones 910, and annuals in colder zones. Full sun. Many different varieties, and quite striking in a garden setting. Sage is a good herb for chickens’ general health.

  • Wormwood: Artemisia absinthium; or mugwort: Artemisia vulgarius. Perennials. Hardy to Zone 4. Beneficial as an insect repellent for chickens, prepared as a steeped tea mixture. Grow next to your chicken coop to help control external parasites.

Checklist of Poisonous Plants to Chickens

Toxicity is a natural defense for a plant, and some common garden plants are potentially poisonous to chickens. Unlike other types of livestock, free-ranging chickens have a keen sense of what is good for them, and what is not, and will most likely not touch or eat anything potentially poisonous to them. However, there are always exceptions, so it is important for you to know what plants do have potential poisonous qualities in your garden. Never hand feed your chickens any of these plants or confine your flock near these plants.

This is a short list of some of the more common garden ornamental plants that are poisonous to some degree:

  • Azalea: Rhododendron spp.

  • Boxwood: Buxus spp.

  • Buttercup family: Ranunculacea. This family includes anemone, clematis, delphinium, and ranunculus.

  • Cherry laurel: Prunus laurocerasus.

  • Daffodil: Narcissus spp.

  • Daphne: Daphne spp.

  • Foxglove: Digitalis spp.

  • Honeysuckle: Lonicera spp.

  • Hydrangea: Hydrangea spp.

  • Ivy: Hedera spp.

  • Jasmine: Jasminum spp.

  • Lantana: Lantana spp.

  • Lily of the valley: Convallaria majalis.

  • Mexican poppy: Argemone mexicana

  • Monkshood: Aconitum napellus.

  • Mountain laurel: Kalmia latifolia.

  • Oleander: Nerium oleander.

  • Rhododendron: Rhododendron spp.

  • Sweet pea: Lathyrus spp.

  • Tobacco: Nicotiana spp.

  • Tulip: Tulipa

  • Wisteria: Wisteria spp.

  • Yew: Taxus spp.

Keep Your Chickens Safe from Predators

Where there are chickens, there are predators. Be aware of potential predators where you live and be proactive so your chickens aren't attacked. The following table offers ways to keep your chickens safe from each common predator.

Common Chicken Predators and Solutions for Avoiding Attacks
Chicken Predator Solution
Domestic dogs Build a fence around the perimeter of your chicken coop and pen.
Raccoons Use clip latches with spring-loaded locking mechanisms on chicken doors or place padlocks on chicken doors.

Place quarter-inch wire hardware cloth over chicken coop windows; secure windows even more by installing iron bars.

Construct a fence around all sides of your outside pen. Make the fence of half-inch wire hardware cloth on a wood or metal frame.
Coyotes Use a coyote roller bar secured to a perimeter fence.

Create a well-secured chicken coop and an outside pen that is protected on all sides.
Foxes Lock up chickens safely at night.

Construct a fence of half-inch wire hardware cloth around the perimeter of your pen. Bury the fence one foot deep and one foot outward so that the underground part of the fence is L-shaped.

Refrain from keeping free-ranging chickens if you suspect you have a fox living nearby.
Birds of prey Avoid keeping pure-white chicken breeds.

Provide a layered garden structure to limit visibility.

Add screen tops to a secure outside pen.
Minks and weasels Make sure your chicken coop and secure outside pen do not have holes or gaps that minks and weasels can squeeze through.

Trap and relocate them to a wildlife habitat.

Hire a professional to trap them, or call the state wildlife agency for help.
Snakes Close up holes in and around the chicken coop area.
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