Opening a box of just delivered peeping baby chicks is an exciting spring event. Perhaps not as dramatic but just as fascinating is dropping bean, squash, corn, lettuce, and many other garden seeds in moist spring soil. Both chicks and seeds promise delicious future food.
About the time those spring chickens start laying, the summer garden is fading and tired as fall’s days shorten. Then comes one of the least exciting of garden chores. Dried vines, leaves, stems, tomato cages, and row markers need to be carted off to tidy up the space to rest for next spring’s planting. It’s not lots of fun, but many people could make the chore easier by letting chickens do some of the work.
Chickens love to get out of the coop and explore beyond their run on crisply fall days. Always in search of tasty grubs, insects, worms, and seeds, they leave few piles of vegetation unscratched in their enthusiastic search for food.
Many people let their chickens have the run of the yard and few sites are as calming as a flock of hens striding over the lawn seeking lunch. But, there’s a problem. Hens concentrate their scratching wherever they find mulch. If you create a thick bed of mulch around precious fruit trees or flowers, the hens are likely to scratch it all away. Raking it back takes work, but there are ways to put the chickens to work while reducing autumn chores.
Many people have been forced to build stout fences around their garden to keep hungry deer away from crops. The same fence can be used to keep chickens inside the garden. It’s easiest if the garden is adjoining, or very near, the chicken’s run or coop. Simply make a temporary fence connecting the run to the garden and let the hens in. They’ll scratch up all the dead plants and break many into small pieces that can stay in the garden over winter. They’ll eat bits of lettuce, chard, kale and other greens too bitter for people and devour any half rotten tomatoes and partially spoiled squash or pumpkins they discover.
A flock of chickens foraging in a vegetable garden for a few days makes cleanup work much easier, while keeping the girls busy and providing them with food that would otherwise go to waste.
There are several ways to easily channel the chickens into the garden yet keep them away from the yard. One is to construct a garden inside a large chicken run, or, even better, have a double run system. Inside a large sunny chicken run fence in a small garden area to keep the chickens out during the growing season. It’s essentially an enclosure inside an enclosure. At the end of the growing season leave the garden enclosure gate open to let the girls in.
Another solution is to create a double run. On any year one side is the chicken run while the other is the garden. Reverse them the next year. Chicken droppings from this year will fertilize next year’s crops. Usually the easiest way to route chickens into the proper side is to have two pop holes from the coop. One leads to each side of a big enclosure with a fence dividing it in half between the doors.
Temporary fencing also helps manage chickens in a way that encourages them to do some work and enjoy new forage. Several companies make fencing that is lightweight and doesn’t need tools to install. Every eight or ten feet is a fiberglass pole with a horizontal bar near the bottom. Hold the pole and fence upright, step on the bar and the lower part of the pole goes into the ground to hold the fence upright.
Temporary fences can be used to create a garden within a chicken run or channel chickens to a more distant garden. To guide them to a detached garden run parallel temporary fences between the run and garden gate about two feet apart. The girls will walk between them to reach tasty goodies in the garden.
Hens foraging in a fall garden will eat many pesky insects hibernating in plant debris and weed seeds. While churning up soil and breaking down plant stems they’ll feast on them, reducing garden pests next year.