Chickens in the garden
Locals gardeners wax enthusiastic on the usefulness of the backyard flock
Gallus gallus domesticus, aka the domesticated chicken, has lived with humans for centuries, to the benefit of both species. Local gardeners Jeffrey Williams, Nancy Leek and Hazel Van Evera are carrying on the chicken-keeping tradition.
While each gardener had different reasons for bringing chickens into her or his respective gardening processes—ornamental, food production, bug patrol and fertilizer production—other benefits quickly became obvious.
Williams—a driving-school instructor and local stag-horn fern expert, as well as a citrus aficionado—has kept chickens for about four years. He selected exotic, very decorative chicken breeds to raise—Crested Polish, Silkies, Frizzle Cochins, to name a few—for their attractive appearance.
“I thought chickens would look nice running around the yard, scratching up weeds, eating bugs and making the place look more farm-like,” he said while feeding a pear to his goat, Oreo, during an interview in his sunny garden. Williams gives the hens’ eggs to his neighbor, and when his neighbor, who raises livestock, butchers her animals, she gives him some of the meat. It is a good trade. “The chickens are my pets,” he said. “And they are great at weeding under the rose bushes.”
Meanwhile in Nancy Leek’s garden, 10 hens were vigorously foraging and weeding under a large pomegranate tree. The fallen fruits were being been picked over by the hens. Leek, who is a youth-services librarian at the Orland Free Library and author of a book about John Bidwell (John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer), started keeping chickens about 3 1/2 years ago. She wanted the fresh eggs.
“I thought that it would be fun to keep chickens,” Leek said. “I do so much gardening, I thought, ‘Hey, why not raise eggs, too?’”
Leek selected breeds that lay large eggs: Orpington, Ameraucana (the so-called Easter-egg chicken, which lays eggs with blue or green shells), and Rhode Island Red. When she collects the eggs “it is like finding treasure,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother to do it [keep chickens] if they weren’t giving me eggs every day.”
However, Leek has found the chickens have an entertainment value as well. “They are so fun to watch walking across the yard,” said Leek, smiling. And of their usefulness in the garden she said, “I don’t notice as many slugs, snails, bugs—I think they get ’em.” Further, the garden benefits from chicken poop. “I clean out the coop every so often and, boy, does zucchini grow great when it has been fertilized with chicken manure!” she said.
Ah yes, the poop. Manure production was Van Evera’s key reason for obtaining her flock of three chickens. She is an avid gardener and food preserver who runs the Chico Organic Gardening lecture series. It was her passion for and adeptness at gardening that motivated her to get chickens about a year ago. She wanted chicken manure to use in her large vegetable garden and small orchard.
Breed selection was not as important to her as it was for Williams and Leek. Van Evera uses her chickens to process garden waste. For example, she was juicing hundreds of pomegranates one afternoon—the juice she would consume herself, the waste was slated to go to her chickens for picking over, before it would go into the compost. She has an impressive composting set-up where the chicken poop and plant waste gets turned into rich, organic fertilizer. Like Leek, Van Evera noted the excellent pest control her flock offers.
“The chickens are great at keeping down the bugs,” she said. While egg production was not a major consideration, “I thought the eggs would be just a perk,” she said. She has come to appreciate the fresh protein packs. “I love the eggs!” she gushed.
Then two hens disappeared, and her rooster, Chaz, had his tail-end bitten off by a free-roaming domestic dog. She found his little mangled body upside down on the wood pile, and nursed him back to health. Van Evera and Chaz bonded through that ordeal. “They are so sweet—I’m in love with them,” she said with great warmth and affection. Van Evera added a covered dog run and fencing to keep her flock contained, and has not lost another bird since.
Predators recently became a problem for the first time for Williams. A marauding gang of raccoons made daring, heartbreaking daylight attacks on his flock, killing more than 20 of his beloved chickens over several days. Feathers, feet, legs and other body parts were strewn about his yard. He trapped and relocated the raccoons, and mended some holes in his fence, and has not had any troubles since. His flock of approximately 15 surviving chickens is safe.
Leek’s birds have not been hit by predators, but that was her major concern when she was designing the coop for her flock. Her husband, Jim, found a used dog run on Craigslist to secure the chickens when no one is home, and that has worked great. The chickens roam around her yard when she is home to keep an eye on them.
While the predators made a meal of their chickens, Williams and Van Evera both said they would not butcher their birds. Even if someone else took care of the butchering, they said they would not eat their own chickens. Leek, on the other hand, said that while she would not butcher them, she would eat her birds; her son, who keeps chickens in his Livermore back yard, would do the butchering.
As integral parts of these three gardens, the chickens are beneficial to both garden and gardeners. Scratching the soil, eating bugs, and eating weeds and fallen fruit are all instinctual and beneficial acts. These chickens have their basic needs met: access to the outdoors, sunshine, soil, grass, bugs, exercise, clean water and fresh air. The chickens also bring a lot of joy to their keepers, and that is worth a lot these days.