Raising plants above your hens' eye level helps protect them.
I love my hens, but I seriously considered making some chicken soup last summer when, in the space of an hour, they decimated my vegetable garden. Chickens, by nature, love to scratch the soil looking for bugs. In the process they can dig up seedlings, disrupt mulched pathways, and generally wreak havoc. Luckily, with a little planning, having a nice garden and free-ranging chickens does not need to be mutually exclusive.
My chickens spend most of their day safely enclosed within the confines of their coop and run. This is for their own safety--lots of predators, including dogs, raccoons, and coyotes call my urban neighborhood home--but also to protect my plants. I do, however, make a point of letting them out to poke around in the yard every day so they can stretch their wings, dust their feathers, and look for bugs. Here are a few strategies I've come up with for protecting my plants while letting my hens have some fun:
Pay attention. The best way to avoid chickens from making a mess of a garden is to supervise them while they are out. My favorite trick is to toss some cracked corn into a part of the yard I don't mind them scratching around in. This tends to keep them happy and preoccupied for a least half an hour.
Pick your battles. Our girls love to dust their feathers in the dry soil underneath a hydrangea by our garage. I gave up trying to grow anything under there, because they always make a beeline right to that spot. Since I've set aside this area as their own personal chicken spa, they tend to leave other nearby plants alone.
Protect seedlings. When chickens are out scratching around they have a single minded focus: finding some bugs. They could care less if you just planted a cabbage seedling in the spot they are scratching about in, and will accidentally dig the seedling right up. After I plant seedlings, I often place a cloche (a plastic or glass bell-shaped jar) around them. This basically creates a protective bubble around the plant and gives its roots time to grip the earth. Once the seedlings are firmly rooted, I remove the cloche.
Cover whole beds. A hoop house covered with row cover fabric, plastic, or shade cloth basically creates a chicken-impermeable tent over your plants. I use this tactic for plants that my hens find particularly irresistible, including beans and peas, salad greens, and kale.
Start a container garden. My chickens never bother plants growing in containers. My theory is that looking for food above eye level just does not occur to them. Either pick planters that are taller than your chickens or set them on crates to raise them up.
Plant perennials. I try to grow plants like sage, lavender, daylilies, and shrubs near the chicken coop, because these perennial plants have deep roots and are not disturbed by a little scratching around on the surface.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Images: All images by Willi Galloway)