Leafy veg can be good for you and your chickens, and so are ideal for a small garden
We recently added three new lovely ladies to our small flock. They came directly from the breeder’s shed and, over the last few weeks, have had to adjust not only to living with us and each other, but to having bark chips underfoot and open sky (and other birds flying around in it) above their heads. They’re getting used to us enough to relax and display their natural behaviour and, unlike young humans, they have a ravenous desire for anything green.
Our older hens are fond of greenery too – whenever they’re allowed to roam around the garden, they make a beeline for any patches of grassy weeds (we don’t have a lawn) before turning their attentions to digging up worms and slugs and things that are too small for us to see. When they’re confined to their run, we feed them leafy vegetables – a treat both for them and for us, as it makes the yolks of their eggs much richer and more delicious.
On a farm, or in a large garden, they would have constant access to as much greenery as they could fit in their crops. But, if you’re squeezing a few hens into the back garden, then it’s a little bit more difficult to keep them well supplied. Our girls are a bit spoiled, and we often bring spinach or a cabbage back from the supermarket for them, but we do manage to grow some leafy veg for them in the garden, and have discovered that the following plants (all easy to grow) give a good return for the space they take up. Whether you’ve got your own veg patch or just a kitchen windowsill, you can grow some of your own chicken food for your flock.
Sorrel is a herb often grown in kitchen gardens because its leaves have a lemony tang that make a graceful addition to soups or salads and a lovely sauce for fish. Although buckler-leaved sorrel is the gourmet’s choice, broad-leaved sorrel has much larger leaves. One of the first leafy greens available in spring, our chickens attack it as though they were ravenous piranhas.
Sorrel is easy to grow from seed, but you can also buy it as a small plant – and as, it’s a perennial, it will keep coming back year after year once you’ve added it to the garden. It’s fully hardy, so doesn’t need any protection from the weather, and isn’t fussy about site or soil. It grows to around 60 cm tall, but, in late spring or early summer, will send up impressive flower shoots that are twice as high – cut them off to encourage the production of more leaves.
Chard and leaf beet
Chard is an impressive leafy vegetable, with large, crinkled and glossy green leaves. The strong leaf ribs are often coloured – there’s a variety called ‘Rainbow’ that offers a selection of red, pink, orange and yellow stems and ribs. Chard is another vegetable that’s really easy to grow, unfussy about site and soil conditions and very productive. It’s around 60 cm tall and happy in containers if kept fed and watered. In very small spaces you can grow its close relative leaf beet (also known as perpetual spinach or spinach beet), which is plain green with much softer stems and leaf ribs, and only around 30 cm tall.
Chard is sometimes attacked by the leaf miner, which chomps away inside the leaves and causes see-through tunnels. Remove the affected leaves and feed them to the chickens (extra protein!); if the plant is badly affected then remove all of the leaves – by the time the plant regrows, the pests should have moved on.
Chard is a biennial plant, meaning that it will flower in its second year. You’ll need to grow new plants every spring for a continuous supply, but it’s very easily grown from seed.
Chickens absolutely adore lettuce, especially one with a nice crunch to it, but too much can give them tummy trouble, so don’t let them gorge! Lettuce is a small plant, so lends itself to being grown in containers and window boxes if you’re short on space. In the heat of the summer, it will appreciate a shady spot and plenty of water.
Lettuce is very popular with slugs and snails, which can eat seedlings and small plants to the ground overnight. To protect your crop, try using slug pubs (saucers full of beer or milk, in which slugs drown), or protective sleeves made from plastic bottles. Go on a slug hunt on damp mornings and throw any you find in the chicken run. And if you have very bad slug problems then you can buy biological controls that are applied to the soil in the spring, and there’s an environmentally-friendly product called Advanced Slug Killer that looks like conventional slug pellets, but is non-toxic to children, wildlife and pets and will be safe for you and your chickens.
Lettuce is an annual, so you’ll need to buy new plants every year or grow your own from seed. There are lots of different varieties, including some designed to be grown over winter. If you’re gardening in containers you can also try salad mixes or leafy cut-and-come-again lettuce, which doesn’t form a solid head and is intended to be cut for leaves several times.
If you’re growing lettuces to eat yourself, then the chickens will be very grateful for any that have been munched by slugs and look unappetizing, or that are running to seed and taste bitter.
Even if you have no space at all, then you can grow a leafy treat for your chickens – you just need a small spot in the kitchen for a jam jar or a small tray in which you can sprout some seeds. Choose seeds that are sold for sprouting (look in the health food shop or the seed display at the garden centre), as they won’t have been treated with chemicals before they were packed. The packet should have instructions for that specific type of seeds, but the general idea is that seeds are soaked in water overnight, then either kept in a jar and rinsed with water every morning and evening, or sown in a tray with a thin layer of compost or just kitchen paper that is kept damp.
Sprouts are either eaten whole (think of Chinese beansprouts, which are grown from mung beans), or the leafy parts are snipped off (like mustard and cress). They’re eaten when they’re very young, so they don’t need feeding.
Popular sprouts include alfalfa, sunflowers and buckwheat. Chickens will also love broccoli, radish and pea shoots (which are allowed to grow until they’re about 10 cm tall). Once you get into the swing of things, you can provide a portion of greens for your chooks once or twice a week, and the nice thing about sprouting indoors is that your crops aren’t ruined by the weather, pests or disease! You do have to be careful about hygiene, to prevent mould, so wash out your containers thoroughly before reusing them.
A plant you may not have come across before is comfrey. It’s another perennial, often grown by organic gardeners because comfrey has very long roots that find plant nutrients deep in the soil. These nutrients are concentrated in its leaves and comfrey can, therefore, be used to make a liquid plant feed, and also makes a good compost activator to speed up the composting process.
If you’re buying a comfrey plant (or root cutting), look for the variety ‘Bocking 14’, which is sterile and won’t self-seed all over the garden. And site your comfrey plant in a permanent position – once it’s growing it’s quite hard to remove. Down by the compost heap is a good spot – it’s not too fussy about a lot of sun, but it will soak up the excess nutrients that wash out of your compost and into the surrounding soil.
Comfrey plants are quite large – you’ll need to space them about a metre apart if you have more than one, and they grow about a metre tall. They have lovely purple flowers, which are much-loved by bees, so you’ll be adding much more than chicken fodder to your garden if you can find a spot for one. Comfrey is best grown in the soil, but I have kept plants happy in large containers for years, so that is an option if you don’t have spare ground space.
Remember that leafy plants – particularly ones from which you’re regularly removing leaves – will need feeding to keep them productive. Perennial plants enjoy a good dollop of homemade compost in the spring; throughout the growing season, try turning some of your chicken poo into a liquid feed by stirring a handful into the watering can once a week.
If your chickens are quite young, then they may not have encountered many plants, and may initially view leaves with suspicion and take only a quick nibble before backing off. This is natural and sensible behaviour; they’ll be back for more once they’re sure there are no ill-effects.
Chickens also have personal preferences, and they do change over time – possibly with the season and what else has been included in their recent diet. Our eldest chickens would often turn their beaks up at comfrey leaves (holding out for something better!), but the new girls gobble it up as quickly as they can. Spurred on by their enthusiasm, Cluck and Chewie now dig in too – if only to make sure they get their fair share!