Charlotte Popescu, an experienced henkeeper, gardener and author of chicken books, is in no doubt: hens are gardeners’ friends. You just need to know what you are doing, and take a few precautions …
I grow herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers in my garden alongside my hens.Vegetable-growing works well with hens. Think back to the Second World War when many families grew their own veg and kept their own chickens successfully. Nothing goes to waste as you can always feed surplus vegetables to the chickens.
PROTECTING YOUR PLANTS
First you must plan where you are going to grow your vegetables and how you will protect seedlings and young plants from your hens. You will need to protect some of your vegetables if your hens are free ranging. Netting is an option, or building a vegetable cage. Low fences are also an idea – you can get rolls of green, sturdy chicken wire which is 90cm high – hens can’t really fly over this. Hens fly onto fences such as post and rails because they can perch on the rails on their way over, but they can’t perch on chicken wire! Alternatively, you can buy or make raised vegetable boxes and cover with netting, use tunnels, cloches or invest in hanging baskets.
Some people mulch around precious plants and seedlings with rough gravel, use crinkly lawn edging or surround with twiggy sticks — all should prevent scratching feet. Another idea is to use a clipped edging of box or rosemary but this would, obviously, take some time to develop.
There are always exceptions to what hens will and won’t eat – like us, different hens have different eating preferences. The following likes and dislikes are based on my own experiences:
To a large extent, what hens will eat in your garden depends on how much access to grassy areas they have. The more land they have to free range, the more likely they are to feast on weeds, wild herbs and grass; it follows, therefore, that they are less likely to eat your precious plants, flowers and cultivated herbs. The time of year is also important – they are less likely to eat your all your plants in late spring and summer when there is plenty of greenery to choose from.
I can’t stress enough how important grass is – whenever I buy a couple of new 20-week-old hybrids (usually raised in barns by agents who then distribute them), the first thing they do is peck avidly at the grass when I bring them home. If your hens have only a little space to roam around, and a small area of grass and greenery, they will very soon have eaten everything that is green. If you keep your hens enclosed and let them out to free range every so often, they will eat anything that’s green including vegetables, herbs, weeds, beech hedges, some of your flowers and they will dig up anything newly planted!
FLOWERS, SHRUBS AND HERBS
Your hens shouldn’t touch snowdrops, crocuses, buttercups, foxgloves, hyacinths, bluebells, daffodils or tulips. Other flowers they shouldn’t be interested in include lavender, roses, asters, camellias, dahlias, azaleas, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, and irises. They don’t tend to eat daisies or dandelion flowers. Flowers that chickens will tuck into include marigolds (the petals will make their yolks even yellower); pansies, violets, border pinks and sweet peas – I would be surprised if any of these lasted for long! Perennial geraniums, hollyhocks, nasturtiums and their seeds, busy lizzies, lobelias, primroses and hostas may all disappear. I have just discovered that my hens like to eat apple blossom as it falls from the trees but that, of course, is not a problem! You would be safe to grow some sunflowers as long as you protect the seedlings, and you can feed the seeds to your hens when you have enjoyed the flowers.
Most evergreen shrubs and bushes, especially prickly ones, are unlikely to be eaten. For example ivy, laurel, box and conifers shouldn’t get devoured. Interestingly, we have a beech hedge in the garden which the hens do not touch; however, I have noticed a neighbour’s hens, enclosed with no grass, have stripped all the leaves off the beech hedge as far up as they can reach. Strong smelling herbs such as rosemary, mint, marjoram, sage, lemon balm and feverfew, are not attractive. Some hens eat thyme and chives, but mine don’t. Herbs that can prove popular include parsley, tarragon, dill and borage.
VEGETABLES AND FRUIT
On the vegetable front, your hens shouldn’t touch carrot and parsnip tops, leeks, onions, potatoes, squashes, pumpkins and whole courgettes. Climbing beans should be fine once established as they won’t be able to reach most of the beans, although you need to protect seedlings, maybe with small cloches.
Sweetcorn will be fine as it grows high up, but hens will love nibbling at any surplus cobs you can give them. Spinach, chard, kale, broccoli, cabbage, turnip tops and lettuce (except for the spicy oriental leaves) will be popular; beetroot leaves are particularly relished, and my hens also eat beetroot and love Jerusalem artichokes which I let them nibble on when I have a surplus in the winter months. They shouldn’t, however, eat the leaves, so this is a good vegetable to cultivate as the tall plants will provide shade. Surplus courgettes and marrows will prove popular if you cut them in half as hens rather like the seeds and flesh. Rhubarb leaves would be eaten if my hens got the chance, but they are toxic due to the oxalic acid and so best avoided.
On the berry front, hens love strawberries, raspberries and all edible berries except possibly blackcurrants which can prove too sour. My chickens eat elderberries with no ill effects, although these are said to be toxic. Windfall apples, pears, plums and cherries will all get eaten.
Weeds that hens love include chickweed (named because chicks loved it), hairy bittercress, dandelion leaves, fat hen, garlic mustard, wild garlic, lesser celandine, clover, comfrey, sorrel, horseradish leaves, cleavers and groundsel. Dock leaves get eaten as a last resort, and my hens don’t go for yarrow but some hens may eat it. On the whole, hens will eat anything that tastes similar to grass. Unfortunately, they won’t eat bindweed, plantain, moss, ground elder, mallow or anything that is too bitter and will probably only eat nettles if there is nothing else on offer.
HELPING IN THE GARDEN
Your hens will be a useful addition to the garden – they are very good at breaking up the soil after you have dug over your vegetable garden in the winter; they forage for pests such as slugs, snails and woodlice and produce droppings, an excellent fertiliser. My hens love following me around when I am digging the vegetable garden and are practically under my fork as I turn the soil and they grab the worms.
Your hens will dig up newly planted seedlings unless you protect them
Your hens will make craters in areas of bare earth
Your hens will find their way through gaps in fences and holes in netting to get to juicy, green vegetables
If you have a small garden you will have to clean up chicken poo off paths and patios!
If you rake your leaves into piles, beware of hens scattering them all over the garden again as they love to rummage for tasty bugs