Between the Rows: Even dummies can raise their own chickens
Dogs and cats are so 20th century. Chickens are the new trend in “pets.” They are colorful, cheerful, easy to care for and productive. Think of all those fresh eggs! Dogs only give you sticks you have thrown for them to bring back. OK, sometimes they bring you the newspaper, too. Cats are too independent to bring you anything.
Of course, chickens have different needs than a dog or cat if you are going to include them in your life. They need a real house of their own. Believe me, you do not want to live with your chickens. Chickens need fresh air and a place to roam, scratch and eat. However, you do not want them in the garden, and you want to keep them healthy. If there are chicken veterinarians, they are very hard to find.
Backyard chicken flocks are so popular that cities and towns are having to revise their zoning laws to allow them. No roosters, though. If chickens are in your future, or fantasies, you need to know the basics of chicken behavior and care while keeping a beautiful garden. Bonnie Jo Mannion, who has a degree in Avian Science, and Rob Ludlow, the owner of www.backyardchickens.com have put together “Gardening with Free-Range Chickens for Dummies,” which answers every question you ever thought of about caring for chickens, while also caring for your garden. They even have answers to important issues you never thought about.
The book is organized into three sections. The first includes general information about gardening with chickens. When I started gardening with chickens 30 years ago, I was entranced with the idea that my free range chickens would eat all the bad bugs and slugs that might visit my garden. Disaster. They loved the lettuce seedlings and other plants even more. In my experience, chickens need to be kept out of the garden, at least during the growing season. Mannion and Ludlow suggest a number of ways to handle chickens outdoors.
While there is lots of information about caring for chickens, there are also good and creative suggestions for the ways to integrate a chicken coop and grazing space into an attractive garden.
Section II goes into garden design in even greater depth, with information about specific plants that serve specific purposes, from plants that benefit the soil, provide shelter, that screen unsightly areas, and that are beneficial. For example, did you know that catnip, feverfew and artemesias have insect repelling properties? There is an excellent list of plants that are poisonous or dangerous for chickens.
The section on chicken behavior and psychology is also valuable for those who have no experience with these birds. If you truly want to make a pet of your chickens, Mannion and Ludlow give you advice. I have always felt chickens get a bum rap when it comes to their intelligence. They are smart enough to be friendly and they all know when it is feeding time.
The third section deals with predators, sickness and injury. The instance of these challenges will vary depending on your location. One year, we had trouble with weasels that killed 60 of our meat birds. I asked everyone what to do. Everyone said it is impossible to protect against weasels, which can get through the tiniest hole in a coop. Still, that is a country problem and there are precautions that can be taken against most predators and disease.
“Gardening with Free Range Chickens for Dummies” is an excellent book for people who are planning to raise a small backyard flock. It is unique in that it addresses your dual goal of raising a healthy flock of chickens and a beautiful garden.
I do have one quibble with this book. Mannion and Ludlow emphasize regular cleaning. They recommend cleaning out the manure box under the roost daily, cleaning out all the bedding every month and deep cleaning and disinfecting the whole chicken coop twice a year. I would hate to think that this cleaning schedule would scare anyone away from enjoying a back yard flock.
I belong to the “deep litter” school of henhouse maintenance. I keep adding litter to the henhouse floor over the course of the year so that it is always dry, but I only clean it out annually. Nor do I remove all the manure and litter. This is because the bacteria in the henhouse is not unhealthy. Leaving some of the manure in the henhouse provides the beneficial microbes to start working on the new manure. In fact, a layer of manure will help keep your chickens warm in the winter. This is a legitimate way of managing your manure.
When you clean your henhouse, it is a good idea to let the manure and bedding compost further before using it on your garden.
In all my decades of keeping chickens, I have never had disease or a smelly coop. The problems that commercial operations have are not a problem for the backyard flock where they have plenty of room, fresh air, and a well-ventilated henhouse. “Gardening with Free Range Chickens for Dummies” can set you on the road to having the same happy experience.
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.