How to Create a Layered Landscape for Free-Range Chickens
Chickens fit in well with a layered plant landscape. Chickens thrive because this type of ecosystem provides shelter, food, and protection. Softscape elements are most beneficial added in layers. Think of your style of gardening as an integrated plant landscape with each layer working together. Imagine each tree or plant as building a plant community with symbiotic relationships, rather than isolated by itself.
Softscape includes all the living materials such as plant materials, flowerbeds, mulch, and soil. A layered landscape is important and beneficial because each layer builds upon the next layer providing elements such as shade, plant nutrients, and mulch. Think of your garden in beneficial layers from the tallest trees in your yard down to the bulbs you dig in the ground.
A forest grows in layers naturally because each tree or plant fills a niche that helps other trees and plants grow. Tall forest trees reach for the sun and provide shaded canopies for others. Smaller trees, shrubs, and perennials closer to the forest floor receive dappled sunlight and moisture for growth.
A harmonious, thriving garden is full of clusters of symbiotic plants called guilds. In biological terms, symbiotic plants are different plants that are grown in close proximity of each other for mutual advantage. These symbiotic plants build guild communities. In ecological terms, a guild is a group of species that have similar requirements to thrive and play a similar role within a plant community.
An example of a guild is a small tree with tulips and daffodils planted underneath for weed suppression, and used as a natural support for a beautiful climbing rose. An added benefit is that, to some degree, planted daffodils deter gophers, rabbits, and deer by sending out a year-round toxic fragrance that animals sense and move away from. If animals were to bite into the actual bulbs, the bulbs would burn and irritate sensitive mouth and cheek tissues.
Work with what you have in your garden and on your property. You can change some — but not all — elements. Know your garden and your property and their particular characteristics. If you have a known low, wet spot, plant something that thrives in a consistent wet spot, such as blueberry bushes or a willow tree.
The positives of a layered landscape
This layered plant landscape is similar to subtropical environments from which some wild chickens originated. Imagine your garden as a simulation of this environment. Don’t forget to add the necessary components of a fresh water source and a quiet place for hens to lay their eggs, such as a nearby chicken coop.
The same layered plant landscape that’s so natural for free-ranging chickens is beneficial for you, too. A layered plant landscape provides you with the same attributes of shelter, natural shade, edibles, aesthetic value, and sanctuary.
Shelter means protection from your environment, such as blustery winds, strong sun, or even close neighbors. Shade from a tree’s natural canopy is a gift on a hot summer day. The same food you enjoy growing for yourself can be potential food for your chickens, too. Many shrubs that have berries that attract birds can be food for your chickens.
A carefully planned layered plant landscape can be visually stunning and soothing to the soul.
The negatives of a non-layered landscape
The figure paints a picture of a non-layered plant ecosystem to show you a type of environment that wouldn’t be good for free-ranging chickens. This environment doesn’t provide shelter, protection, and a variety of food.
This scenario isn't good for free-ranging chickens because they have only lawn grass or one type of food on which to forage. They have no protective and screened shelter other than shade from the maple tree in the center of the yard. The maple tree’s first branches aren’t low to the ground; in fact, its lateral branches start at eight feet high.
The chickens have no protective shrubs along the fence or any other area in the backyard to hide or escape from a predator. The landscape gravel may attract the chickens toward the house for scratching and dust baths. Chickens are highly visible in the yard at all times with no landscape shelter. The non-layered landscape is not as enjoyable as a layered landscape for one to appreciate and spend quality time in either.
Structure in the garden
Besides creating a layered plant landscape, gardeners want to consider structure in the garden for themselves and their chickens. Structure is the bones of the garden or the bare skeleton of a garden using landscape plants. The structure in the garden consists of permanent landscape such as a hedge or a row of trees.
Garden structure is what anchors and remains constant in a garden. You may have seasonal changes in color, blooms, flowers, fruit, and so on, but the trees, shrubs, hedges, or perennial vines remain in the garden throughout the year. Their structure consists of trunks, branches, lines, and so on. Structure in the garden is usually the larger landscape layers of mature trees, hedges, and shrubs.
You have many choices of styles to choose from when creating your garden style and in planting your garden structure. Planting a garden structure is not only a foundation for your garden or property that will last for years, but also an investment in purchasing and planting all the landscape. Choose carefully, and consider hiring a landscape professional to guide you.
Implementing structure in the garden is one of the first phases of a garden and landscape design. An example of structure is planting a permanent screening hedge in front of a chain link fence across the entire back of your property or strategically planting aesthetically pleasing shrubs along a side of your home to create a softer look.
Structure such as mature trees and shrubs with deep roots are less impacted by free-ranging chickens than smaller shallow-rooted shrubs, perennials, and annuals.
The smaller the plant in your chicken garden, and the more shallow-rooted it is, the more likely free-ranging chickens will damage it. You may have to take precaution to protect these types of plants with temporary fencing or chicken-resistant methods.
After your garden structure with trees and shrubs is in place, continue to layer your garden with perennials, edibles, vines, herbs, bulbs, and annuals. When following your garden design, remember to check that your plants are non-poisonous to your free-ranging chickens.