Gardening for chickens

Not all the fruit and vegetables that I grow in our garden are destined for human consumption. Some we share with the hens, some unwanted plants (weeds or excess production) are fed to the hens, some infested plants (brassica leaves with caterpillars or insect eggs on them) are also given to the hens and one plant in particular was planted specifically to provide chicken treats. This plant is a chokeberry.

Years ago I read somewhere how much hens like chokeberries and so, when I planted up the fruit cage, I planted a chokeberry. It started fruiting after a year or two and now it produces a crop each year which the hens do, indeed, adore. I’m careful to ration them, as I suspect, given the chance, they would eat all the chokeberries in one go, and who knows what effect that would have on their digestive systems?

Today I picked the first batch for them – beautiful black berries, to which I added a few red currants (as we have so many of those, I don’t mind sharing).

They go straight from the bush to the hens and you can judge for yourself how much they enjoy them (please excuse slightly odd orientation of this little film – I was juggling camera and berries whilst trying not to get mugged by hens before starting my recording):

If you search on the internet, you will discover lots about how wonderful chokeberries are: a “super-food” (I HATE that term), full of antioxidants. However, they aren’t particularly tasty and so I don’t mind the hens getting all the benefits!

Exotic trees

There is not a huge amount to be done in our garden at present apart from tidying. This is fortunate because the weather is currently not pleasant… wind and rain.

Earlier on in the week, however, we had some lovely clear, sunny days, with frost. We live less than a mile from the sea, so it’s rare to get really cold weather here, but we did get down to about -4.5°C overnight. The surface of the ground was frozen, but this was only to a depth of a couple of inches. And I know this because I had to dig some holes. After several months of waiting, my order from the Agroforestry Research Trust (ART) arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining – the plants are produced to order and there are only limited numbers, so you have to order in the summer for delivery in late autumn/winter.

I am delighted to tell you that I am now the proud owner of three rather exotic (well, exotic for west Wales) plants: a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens); a Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa); and a Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum schinifolium). Having just checked the ART website, I see all three are now out of stock, so I’m very glad that I ordered well in advance. But, why, you are probably asking, did I want these three particular plants? Why did I want them so much that I was prepared to order (and pay) for them so many months ago? First, I must say, that the Agroforestry Research Trust has a great reputation. Located on land on the Dartington Estate in Devon (not far from Totnes), it is run by the astonishingly knowledgeable Martin Crawford, and has an enviable reputation for the range and quality of plants available. Apart from anything else, I really wanted to support this brilliant organisation, but also, I wanted to buy good quality plants.

As for the three species I selected, well my motivations were based around producing crops to replace things that I currently ‘buy in’.

Siberian Pea Shrub may be the most talked about plant in permaculture and so I wanted to have a go at growing it. This is what the ART website has to say about it:

Siberian pea shrub. A large leguminous shrub from Siberia, reaching 6 m (20 ft) high and growing some 40 cm per year. The seeds, produced in numerous pods following yellow flowers, are edible when cooked (having a pea flavour), as are the young pods. A fibre is obtained from the bark. Bees visit the flowers and the species is a good fixer of nitrogen. A very hardy hedging and windbreak tree, hardy to -40°C.

It certainly sounds very versatile, but really my interest in it is for the ‘peas’, which I am hoping will make a valuable home-grown addition to the diet of my chickens. Of course, I will be delighted to see it fulfilling its role as a nitrogen-fixer, and perhaps adding a component to the diet of myself and Mr Snail-of-happiness, but it’s the chickens that I hope will get most out of it.

Similarly, I hope that Chokeberries will add an extra dimension to the diet of our chickens. Some months ago, I read an article that mentioned chickens’  love of Chokeberries. I now no longer have any recollection of where the article is to be found, but the information has stuck and so I thought it was worth giving it a go. Again, it may also be a useful addition to the human diet. The variety that I selected was ‘Nero’, about which ART says the following:

Black chokeberry. A shrub from North America, growing to 2.5 m (8 ft) high. It grows in any soil, in sun or part shade. It bears lots of black fruits, 7 mm across, which are edible with a good flavour when cooked in pies etc. Hardy to -25ºC. ‘Nero’ is a cultivar bred for large fruits with a high vitamin C content, and bears heavy yields.

The final addition is not destined for chicken consumption, but for humans. I am aware that the food miles associated with spices can certainly mount up. Admittedly, we only use them in small amounts, but I would like to do something to improve my self-sufficiency in this respect. We already grow our own chilli peppers, coriander and various herbs, but we use quite a lot of pepper and it would be satisfying to supply this need from the garden. A little research suggests that Piper nigrum, the standard source of peppercorns, is a native of India, grows to 10m and is not really suited to our climate. The best peppery alternatives are members of the genus Zanthoxylum :

Szechuan pepper. A very aromatic shrub from China and Japan growing 2 m (6 ft) or more high. The leaves can be used as a flavouring, but the main use is the peppercorn-like black seeds, which are used a spice (peppery and fragrant) – grown commercially as a spice crop in Asia. Grows well in any reasonable soil in sun or light shade; hardy to -20ºC.

And so, on a frosty day earlier this week I planted my three specimens. They don’t look like much at the moment (hence the absence of photographs), but with any luck they will settle in well and we (and the chickens) will be enjoying peas, pepper and chokeberries in the next few years.

Free range chickens and caged vegetables

I read an interesting post the other day about chickens as protein harvesters and then my attention was drawn to another post about reducing the amount of brought-in feed for chickens, and yet another about creating a chicken foraging system. All of which set me thinking about my own hens and their inputs and outputs.

Aliss hard at work: cultivating and eating pests

Now, I’m quite clear about the outputs: eggs for us to eat and barter, fertiliser and compost activator, entertainment, pest control (slugs and snails), weed control, cultivation (particularly useful for incorporating new material into the “rubbish” beds) and consumers of left-overs (although few and far-between in reality). There are also a few minor things like feathers for craft projects. So, we get a great deal out of them Even if I just consider the saving on the cost of nematodes to control the slug population and the number of eggs now available to us as a protein source, I feel that they make a great contribution to our economy.

However, when I consider the inputs, I realise that we are buying quite a lot in for them – layer mash or pellets and corn are the main items, but we also use Poultry spice and Vermex to make sure they are healthy and worm free. When we first started keeping chickens they remained in a run and all the food, apart from the grass that they quickly ate, was bought in. As we have come to understand the value of hens in the garden, they are allowed free access to most of it for most of the time. This means that they consume less bought food and instead eat wild plants, slugs, snails, grubs and worms. As chickens that have been brought up outdoors, we find that they are eager to eat worms and molluscs (although they are not keen on the caterpillars of the white butterflies). We do, however find that they don’t like to be confined and they (as the descendents of jungle fowl) particularly like spending time foraging under the willow hedge and associated shrubs.

We started off with a chicken ‘coop’ that claimed to be big enough for four hens:

Our coop when we were building it.

Don’t be fooled by such claims! The house part has a perch that will accommodate three average-sized hens; the run itself barely has room for four of them to move around once there is a drinker and a feeder in there (even if they are suspended). The result is cramped hens and food and water either knocked flying or full of muck. We soon realised that this was no way to go on and started putting them in the fruit cage, with a net tunnel leading back to the coop so they could lay in the appropriate place. Of course, once the fruits started appearing we found ourselves in competition with the hens. I like raspberries way too much to want to feed them to chickens, so they were banished from the fruit cage. By this stage, they were all used to coming when called and happy to go in and out of an expanded run attached to the original coop, so since the garden was already terrier-proof we hoped it might also be chicken-proof and decided to let them roam free.

Gytha – the Houdini of chickens

I have some news: a terrier-proof garden is not, in fact, chicken-proof. The late lamented Gytha was particularly good at getting out. We used to get phone calls from our neighbours opposite to tell us she was sitting on our front doorstep! Once all escape routes had been blocked in that direction, she took to escaping into the field behind to run around with the sheep. At my age, you really don’t want to have to call round to the neighbouring farm to ask if you can please have your chicken back! Finally we worked out how she was getting out and blocked that egress. After that the only issue was protecting the vegetables. Unsurprisingly we have found that whilst chickens like to roam free, vegetables are quite happy to be caged! So, we have chicken exclosures rather than enclosures. This seems to work out well for the welfare of both hens and veggies.

Our next task is to focus on producing some crops specifically for chickens. I have yet to research what might keep them worm-free (any suggestions welcome, but I’m guessing at least garlic) and fully supplied with vitamins and minerals (comfrey perhaps?). But I have read somewhere that they like chokeberry (Aronia), so I have one of those on order from the Agroforestry Research Trust and I’m hoping that Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) might be a good source of food for them (some seeds are on their way from Lithuania as I write) as well as flint corn (as grown by Carol Deppe). In addition, I’m broadcasting wheat seed in the fruit cage in the hope that some will germinate and provide heads to be eaten directly by the chickens once the soft fruit season is over. I plan to turn the small overgrown area at the front of the house into a source of chicken feed since i don’t really like gardening out there as I’m not a sociable gardener! Finally, I hope to up my production of worms in the wormery… another great food for chickens. Although I don’t envision being self-sufficient in chicken feed, I would like to reduce external inputs without compromising our human food production. I’m hoping too, that the result will be healthy and happy hens.

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