Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hazards of Gardening with Poultry by Ashley McNamara

A mugshot of one of the guilty parties. 
I can honestly say that I know a number of people that keep chickens in the mountains, and quite a few that grow vegetables in the mountains, but gardening at high altitudes is challenging enough that I don't know of anyone who grows vegetables specifically for their chickens. The current issue of Backyard Poultry magazine features an article on how to plant a "poultry garden", which gives instructions on how to grow vegetables expressly for chickens. The author, a master gardener, lives in Michigan, as lush and verdant a state as you are likely to find, and she writes, "Truth be told, our poultry like a lot of what  we like to grow and eat for ourselves" (she got that part correct). The author also instructs the reader, "A hoop of wire can protect your plants until you are ready for your chickens to eat them".

Yeah, right.

Last year I had a disaster in my vegetable garden. I had read in a number of sources (including Backyard Poultry) that you could make a "chicken moat" around your garden using chicken wire and bird netting. The idea is to free range the chickens and use them as predators to intercept caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other invertebrate herbivores, and then give the birds access to the garden to clean up, aerate and fertilize the space, after everything that is fit for human consumption has been harvested. 

Unfortunately it didn't work that way for me. I had my "moat" all set up, with a portable electric fence to keep the birds confined to a 1600 square foot area, and the raised beds holding the vegetable garden protected from the chickens by a system of dowels, chicken wire, bird netting and landscape staples. Everything went swimmingly for several weeks. The beets, peas and arugula were thriving and the chickens seemed pleased to eat bugs and dandelion greens and weren't spending inordinate amounts of time gazing longingly at the contents of the raised beds. Then one fateful day in late August when I wasn't home, one of the chickens managed to dig under the chicken wire, pulling up several  landscaping staples and creating a hole big enough for them to walk through. By the time I discovered what they had done, the entire flock had spent the afternoon gorging themselves on tender vegetable plants and were waddling around happily, their crops full to bursting. The only things they didn't devour were the onions and potatoes. I had a strong desire to cook up an enormous batch of chicken a la king that very evening.

I am very fond of my birds, but I have to admit that they have done more to sabotage my gardening efforts over the years than any other critters that I have had to deal with (yes, there are pocket gophers on my property, and deer that will eat tulips planted less than 4 feet from my house). Every time they have the opportunity, the little devils make a beeline for my begonias (arguably their favorite food) and they have ruined more than one crop of lettuce and carrots by scratching it out of existence. The only real favor that they do for me is poop. I then get to clean it up, compost, and shovel it onto my garden beds as a soil amendment.

This year, I have my chickens out on free range again, but you can be sure that they are being kept far away from the veggies!

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