Thanks, everybody, for your comments in response to my chicken gardening dilemma. Jessi Bloom, author of Free Range Chicken Gardens, chose a winner and offered all kinds of interesting ideas for keeping the girls out of the vegetable beds.
First, our winner is Kerry, who Jessi chose because she loved her ideas about creating a chicken "spa." (Oh, please do not let my chickens find out what a spa is. I'll never hear the end of it!)
Okay, here's what Jessi has to say on the subject:
It is no surprise that Garden Rant readers have a lot of great suggestions about how to handle your free range chickens and a vegetable garden. No one wants to go through all of the hard work of growing your own food to have it scratched up or eaten by your hens.
There are a lot of factors in deciding what to do and it depends on several things: how many chickens you have, how serious you are about growing food, what kind of food you are growing, and how does your garden currently function – is it good chicken “habitat” with a lot of food and shelter for them, or does it have sparsely planted beds with an expansive lawn and a few raised raised beds? The same solution isn’t going to work for everyone.
For this situation there are a few main options:
1) Protect your plants with some kind of barrier method. This is what I do personally in my vegetable garden and in a recent blog post I wrote about what I keep in my “chicken garden toolbox”. By using these tools, you can still employ the chickens to help you with tasks like pest control without confinement, but it might be kind of annoying to set up, move and take down your barriers every season. And then there is the aesthetics factor. I personally don’t mind it one bit and early spring my veggie garden starts out with a little touch of steam punk style. Then it quickly turns into an edible jungle.
2) Keep your chickens in a separate area away from your food crops. If you have too many hens to free range or your garden is only for your own food production, this is going to be a lot easier for you to manage.
3) Integrate your chickens into your garden by using a confined range system. My favorite method would be to use paddocks. Basically you rotate the flock through different fenced paddocks or zones at different times of the year. Much like a rotational grazing system that a smart farmer would use with their livestock on pasture so the land isn’t overgrazed. You could have different types of edibles (perennial and annual) in each and rotate them out when the crops are ripe or starting to get overgrazed. I envision many ways of doing this and it is great for the chickens to food to forage, keep pests in check and help with soil fertility without a lot of work on your part after the initial set up.
Amy, on page 88 in the book there is a sample drawing with 3 rotational zones for edibles which you could use as a guideline if you wanted to go that route, but for now you may find that barriers are the easiest way to manage. And, if you are up for a redesign and I am ever in your neck of the woods I’d love to stop by, have a few drinks and help you come up with a brand new chicken garden with lots of edibles!