What is a Chicken Garden?

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A chicken garden is a growing space that is dedicated to cultivating foodstuff that is useful to both humans and chicken. Permaculture focuses on the mutually beneficial functions, through the natural interactions of chicken with trees, perennial plants and vegetables, thus building a regenerative system in which all elements thrive. 


Why grow a chicken garden?


Beyond the obvious reasons to plant a chicken garden (the beneficial effect on the people, the chicken, the space and the planet), growing a chicken garden will mimic the animal’s natural diet. This will improve the health of your flock, and indirectly yours as well (through the consumption of eggs and meat); the performance of the functions of chicken (scratching, tilling, turning compost over etc.) will improve, so your work will decrease, and cost for feed and maintenance will also decrease as a result.

Let’s look into more details about how to assemble these gardens, in order to understand the interactions better:

    Start with trees and shrubs 


    This is going back to the basics: domestic chickens are descendants of the Malaysian Jungle Fowl, a species adapted to living in the understory of mature eco-systems. This explains the omnivore nature of chicken, no matter the climate; when talking about their diet coming from a tree, for example, it doesn’t exclusively mean the fruit, the seeds or the leaves of that particular tree.

    We’re also talking about complex interactions with insects and other forms of life that are also directly linked to a tree species. Species that are fast growers, and produce a lot of leaf mulch, provide protein and, indirectly, a varied diet (insects, worms, grubs):

        • Acacia

        • Black Locust

        • Honey Locust

        • Redbud

        • Siberian Peashrub

        • Pigeon Pea

        • Autumn Olive

        • Goumi

      Some tips on preventing chicken from digging out your trees from Edible Acres:

      Permaculture Planting in the Chicken Yard – Integrating more layers and complexity! 

      Include native vegetation

      Chicken are very curious animals, and also relentless at searching sources of nutrition. If there is something growing in their habitat, or nearby, you can trust that the chicken will find it… and most probably devour it. This is where the Permaculture principle no. 1, Observe and Interact, comes into play. As the central element of your project, it’s up to you to notice what the chicken will eat spontaneously, find out what it is, and grow it sustainably. 

      Permaculture Design is also about finding beneficial relationships between the elements; your chicken will probably eat all kinds of berries, even the ones that are not edible for humans, so try to propagate those, and place them accordingly. Be sure to protect the plants for at least a year, until they get established.

      A few ideas about including berries close to the chicken yard: Chicken Yard – Integrating Fruit and Nut Production

      Chicken will also eat an array of herbs; if you already have the seeds, all the better. If not, you can probably source them from Nature, and then purposely include them in your chicken gardens:

        • yellow dock

        • sorrel

        • chamomile

        • mint

        • comfrey

        • sunflower

        • wild amaranth

      Plant the vegetables that they like most nearby


      This is pretty straightforward, and it probably involves less work if you include the compost that they will produce into the growing beds. There is a certain level of protection that is needed, as the plants need to be established before the chicken can eat the leaves, the fruit or the seeds:

        • Lettuce

        • Spinach

        • Cabbage, Kale, Bok Choy

        • Swiss Chard, Beet Greens

        • Squash (Butternut, Acorn, Summer)

        • Zucchini

        • Pumpkin

        • (Cherry) Tomatoes

        • Cucumber

        • Peppers

        • Peas

      If you can afford to separate the growing areas, so that the chicken can harvest what they need themselves, but then letting that garden recover while the animals are foraging elsewhere, that would greatly help with the overall yield. 


      Rotate them through gardens and orchards


      As mentioned above, the ancestors of chickens were free-ranging animals, capable of adapting to different habitats within different climates; they are also capable of providing for themselves, if they are afforded the freedom.

      What this means for your garden, for example, is that you can camp your chicken tractor and the flock on the garden space for about two weeks, for example on 40 m2 (400 sq ft), before the start of the growing season. They will take out all the weeds (especially those that establish before your annuals), look for the insect larva (the typical garden pests) that are dormant in the garden, and also eat any seeds that are left from last year. And while you might “lose” some vegetable seeds, this will also reduce the appearance of pioneers, which saves you a bit of work when it matters most, during the apex of the growing seasons.

      Saving the best for last, your chicken will absolutely love interacting with a polyculture orchard, which is also a Permaculture staple. They will eradicate the pests, before any damage is done, and also consume leftover fruit from the season before. The hard seeds will be a bonus, and a much needed one; this relationship is mutually beneficial, as the fruit seeds have a better chance to sprout, with more compost in the soil or after passing through the gut of an animal.


      Watch Geoff Lawton taking a chicken tractor through an area of a food forest: Geoff Lawton using his Chicken Caravan 30 in His Food Forest

      Allow chickento turn over composting materials

      This part is the most difficult to quantify, but the last 40 – 60 years have brought a deeper understanding of the complex interactions in the soil, between all forms of life. Thermophilic compost is a particular case, as this will provide a wide range of beneficial conditions for different life forms to thrive.

      Read more about Thermophilic Compost: https://vinepermaculture.com/blog/

      The average lifespan of the decomposers of organic waste is very short; so through the interactions of the chicken with this microbiota, especially in the cold season in certain climates, brings advantages beyond what we can quantify. The enzymes, the micronutrients, the fungi etc. bring nutrition that is otherwise unavailable to factory-bred animals. In a cultivated ecology type space, the chicken will take advantage of anything they can use, while also speeding succession. 


      Inspiration from Sean from Edible Acres again:


      As you can see, the wealth of interactions between humans, chickens and other living elements creates conditions for a regenerative system, where humans are at their rightful places of creative and highly beneficial designers of life-rich projects.

      The materials and technology needed for setting up a flock of chickens is easy to obtain, and the knowledge that solidifies the organic aspect of the operations is also available. These elements can be tailored to any situation. Furthermore, everyone can contribute to this interactive library of knowledge and know-how, all while feeding themselves and having lots of fun.


      Continue reading: Backyard Chickens https://vinepermaculture.com/backyard-chickens/

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