How to Turn Orchards into Chicken-Friendly Edible Areas
Creating a free-ranging chicken run or zone works well in orchards. Chickens easily forage around the trees, and on fallen fruit in an orchard. Trees are considerably higher in height than chickens, so the fruit doesn’t come into contact with the chickens, making it safe for humans to eat.
An orchard is defined as a piece of land intentionally planted with trees for food production. Orchards can have many sizes and varieties of trees, but generally they’re fruit and nut trees.
Putting your chickens to work
Chickens benefit an orchard by eating falling fruit, bugs, insects, maggots, and caterpillars, and by fertilizing the orchard at the same time. Chickens foraging in an orchard can eat and decrease orchard pests without the use of pesticides.
Some common orchard pests are the apple maggot, codling moth, plum curculio, grubs, worms, larvae, and the European earwig. Different types of pests eat different areas of the fruit. Caterpillars gravitate to the apple core, while apple maggots feed on fruit flesh.
Allow chickens to free-range in your orchard in early spring before adult pests emerge and affect your fruit crop. Return them to the orchard after your crop starts ripening. Pest-ridden fruit usually drops first, leaving the unaffected fruit safe on the trees. Chickens clean up all the dropped fruit and effectively lower the insect pressure for the next year.
Planning your orchard
You can find fruit trees specific to your region and plant zones. Seek help through local nurseries, clubs that specialize in home orchards, rare fruit tree nurseries, and cooperative extension offices.
Fruit trees need plenty of sun and well-drained soil. Planting young fruit trees may mean an investment of three to five years before your first edible crop. Consistent pruning and care throughout the year is always key with these types of trees.
As with other plants and trees, research requirements such as size at maturity, chill hours, and recommended pollinators for trees to flourish. What are chill hours and pollinators? Here’s the scoop:
Chill hours are a standard measurement of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit that many types of deciduous trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs require to flower well. Chill hours are an especially important measurement for fruit trees to bear fruit.
Pollinator is a transfer of pollen from one part of a flower to another or from one plant to flowers of another for fertilization and seed production. Some fruit trees can be self-pollinators, while others require certain desirable varieties to act as pollinators.
Plant a chicken-friendly edible cover crop. The cover crop enhances your soil in the orchard and provides more food for your chickens. Remember not to let your chickens overgraze your orchard. Rotate them in and out of this zone throughout the year.
Although citrus orchards are common, don’t hand feed your chickens any citrus. Chickens generally aren’t interested in citrus trees or dropped citrus fruit on the ground. Here are some of the many different theories why chickens can’t have citrus:
Chickens are one of the few animals that can actually make their own vitamin C. Feeding them citrus would result in excessive vitamin C in their bodies.
Citrus contains tannin, limonene, and other natural substances that are toxic to poultry.
Eating citrus may interfere with chickens’ calcium absorption, affecting eggshell quality.
Examples of fruit trees for a chicken garden
If you have orchards full of one of the following fruit trees, consider giving your free-range chickens some time there:
Apple: Malus spp. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Some species have showy fruit and flower buds. Many varieties are available.
Apricot: Prunus armeniaca. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Have showy fruit and flower buds.
Cherry: Prunus spp. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Have showy fruit and flower buds. Come in sweet and sour varieties.
Fig: Ficus carica. Deciduous trees. Zones 7–11. Versatile tree for espaliered design, containers, and in the garden. Wonderful fruit and foliage.
Mulberry: Morus. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Fruit resembles small blackberries. Chickens love to eat the fruit.
Peach and nectarine: Prunus persica. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Beautiful stone fruit. The symbol of summer fruit.
Persimmon: Diospyros spp. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Beautiful foliage for the garden. Fuyu Persimmon orange-colored fruit is firm and shaped like a flat tomato.
Plum: Prunus spp. Deciduous trees. Zones vary by species. Beautiful stone fruit. Many varieties are available.
Pomegranate: Punica granatum. Deciduous shrubs or trees. Zones 7–10. Beautiful ornamental fruit. Fruit can be messy when opened. Chickens love to eat the seeds.