Working Girls: Use Chickens to Till Your Garden

The Gardener

If you have chickens in your backyard, may I make a suggestion: put those girls to work! Chickens love to scratch and dig, a habit that is annoying if they get loose in your garden accidentally, but quite handy if you want to prepare your vegetable beds for winter. The hens will eat any plants left in the beds, gently till the soil as they look for insects, and leave little deposits of, um, fertilizer as they work.

Here are a few hints on getting the most out of your avian labor force:

Keep them contained. Placing a chicken tractor (a portable coop) right over the bed is the best way to get the chickens to do your work for you. Tractors have open floors that give the birds easy access to your soil. These simple little coops also allow you to keep the chickens safe and in one spot, which encourages them to focus on the task at hand: cleaning up the bed. Just three or four hens can completely clear and till a 3 by 8 foot raised bed in two days. My friend Cherie built the tractor pictured above to fit exactly over her raised beds, which is super handy.

If you don't happen to have a chicken tractor, or the inclination to build one, you can also construct a hoop house over your bed and drape bird netting over the top. Carefully secure the netting to the ground (I like to use U-shaped landscape fabric staples) to prevent the hens from getting out or tangled. Put a few hens in under the netting, make sure all the edges are secure, and then let them go to work! Just be sure they have access to water. Put the hens back in their coop for the night to keep them safe.

Get the girls started. Toss a bit of cracked corn over the garden bed's soil to encourage the hens to start scratching.

Move them around. Once a bed has been cleared move the tractor on to the next one to keep the hens occupied, as bored chickens tend to peck each other more than ones with a job to do.

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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 Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.

(Image by Willi Galloway)