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groundcover for chickens: ideas?

 
Nas Mus
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Location: Zone 8
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What are good invasive, evergreen groundcovers that can take foot traffic but do not grow more than about 4 inches?

I need to use them instead of mulch to cover the whole garden where I do not have anything growing (which will mainly be fruit trees and fruit shrubs), and also it would be good if my chickens can munch on them, but not enough to completely kill them off like they did with turf grass. The other option I can consider is a groundcover with all the above qualities except that the chickens won't eat it but can still walk on it (chickens can munch on fallen fruit from tress and shrubs).

Is that asking too much from a groundcover, or a mix of groundcovers?

thanks in advance, and sorry if this is a newb question, i'm new to all this.
 
Matu Collins
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Never be afraid of asking sincere questions here. As long as you are nice, these forums are helpful to everyone from the newest new to the most experienced oldtimer.

I do think you have a tall order but I'm sure you can find a solution.

A couple of questions: what is the soil like? How much sun does the area get? How much rainfall do you get? What is there now?

How many chickens? Will the chickens pass through this area as they free range or is the area part of a paddock or fenced in area?

A lot of questions, eh?

My first thought was that in the partial shade a mix of vinca vine and gill-over-the-ground could work in my climate.

the answer to so many questions is "it depends"
 
John Elliott
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Wild strawberries. I can't mow, stomp, yank, or dig them out, they keep coming back. But the chickens like them. They like the little dry, flavorless berries and occasionally there are slugs hiding out in there as an added treat.

If you want some, send me a PM with your address. I need to get out and yank some out from where they are getting a little too exuberant.
 
Clara Florence
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You could also try...

Creeping thyme, stunning purple carpet of flowers in summer.
Mexican (pink) evening primrose, known to go berserk in terms of invasiveness, pretty pink flowers. Can't kill it apparently.
Sweet Alice (alyssum) is a great ground cover that I use as a living mulch, brings beneficial insects, grows by scattering seed easily. Not sure how much punishment it can take from the chickens though. But it doesn't seem to smother other plants it's growing with either. Readily self seeds, we've even had it spontaneously grow in a pot with a dead tree that's no where near the garden, pretty random.

Why not go for a meadow mix? It's taller than 4" but can provide lots in terms of green manure, chicken fodder and habitat for beneficial insects. You can chop and drop it and it will grow right back.
 
Leila Rich
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Nas Mus wrote:I need to use them instead of mulch to cover the whole garden where I do not have anything growing
My number one question is why no mulch? There's always a reason, but I'm curious
My default groundcover is clover. Grows happily through mulch...
There's loads of varieties; one the call 'NZ white' or 'Dutch' is low-growing, nitrogen-fixing, nectar-producing and copes with chickens if they have plenty of space.
It will take over, but
Nas Mus wrote:which will mainly be fruit trees and fruit shrubs)
doesn't look to 'gardeny'.
 
Nas Mus
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Thanks for the responses.

I'm in zone 8 in UK (our UK zones are based on the same scales as the US ones, so no difference there). Soil is clayish loam.
Unfortunately, our houses and gardens over here are no where near as big as US ones. My chickens free range in 700 sq ft of my garden. 11 chickens.

I like the idea of meadow mix, but I don't think it will last in this much space with 11 chickens unless I get certain types of seeds to withstand the chickens, but I don't know what.

Wild strawberry seems like a very feasible idea. If it holds out as well as you describe it may be just the thing. Do your chickens also eat the leaves, or just the berries and does eating a lot of red eat the colour of their yolk or anything?

I don't want mulch because:

1. Extra work
2. Extra cost
3. Chickens flinging it everywhere.

However I will be composting around the trees and shrubs, if that can count as mulch (even though the chickens will be flinging that also).

Yeah I know it's not very "gardeny" yet, I do plan on getting more variety (probably with a vine layer next), but it's just a case of what can withstand the chickens. The most important step I need to work out right now is what groundcover/s. Clover is good, but it will not last with the chickens in this much space.

I think I will be better of with groundcover the chickens will not eat. Atleast it will stay there. Then I can have small areas with things like clover and chickweed that are covered with mesh, so the chickens can't destroy the whole patch, they can only eat what grows through the mesh.
 
Leila Rich
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Leila Rich wrote: doesn't look to 'gardeny'

In case you thought I was being disparaging; I meant that clover is great in a wilder system, but can be pretty aggressive if allowed into a traditional garden.
You say you're not keen on mulch, but...
can you get free chipped wood over there? It's not everyone's thing, but I love it.
My experience with chickens is they fling everything, everywhere, whatever you do
and wood mulch could be great with that many chickens on a small area,
absorbing manure and reducing potential compaction/nitrogen/fly problems.
 
Clara Florence
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Nas Mus wrote: My chickens free range in 700 sq ft of my garden. 11 chickens.

I like the idea of meadow mix, but I don't think it will last in this much space with 11 chickens unless I get certain types of seeds to withstand the chickens, but I don't know what.

Wild strawberry seems like a very feasible idea. If it holds out as well as you describe it may be just the thing. Do your chickens also eat the leaves, or just the berries and does eating a lot of red eat the colour of their yolk or anything?



It's really hard with chickens in a small space, as they tend to scratch everything even if they don't eat it. It's their natural habit to dig holes and have earth baths as well as scratch up plants to find bugs to eat.
I'm not sure what could withstand that part of chickens. We have chickens in our yard too and everything they've gotten into has been scratched up within hours resulting in bare earth. We initially wanted our chickens to free range the whole yard but they are just too destructive and we've had to relegate them to a coop with a few citrus trees in it. Good luck in finding something that works for you though.
 
John Elliott
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Nas Mus wrote:
My chickens free range in 700 sq ft of my garden. 11 chickens.

I like the idea of meadow mix, but I don't think it will last in this much space with 11 chickens unless I get certain types of seeds to withstand the chickens, but I don't know what.

Wild strawberry seems like a very feasible idea. If it holds out as well as you describe it may be just the thing. Do your chickens also eat the leaves, or just the berries and does eating a lot of red eat the colour of their yolk or anything?



That many chickens in that little space, I think you are behind the growth curve with those numbers. It's going to be hard for anything to regenerate with those numbers. Unless you put them in a chicken tractor and move it around. I have 3 chickens in a 32 sq ft tractor and it gets moved twice a day. So 3 chickens rip up 100 sq ft in a day and it takes about 2 weeks for it to recover.

On the wild strawberries, they mostly go for the berries, but after the berries are gone, they will pick at anything that is green. They lay eggs with nice orange yolks, and the color doesn't seem to vary, even though their diet does quite a bit, depending on what is in season in the garden.
 
Matu Collins
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Location: Southern New England, seaside, avg yearly rainfall 41.91 in, zone 6b
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I wonder if you have the space to make paddocks for the chickens. I'd they just free range the whole thing they will scratch it to bits.

Mulch is your friend, I think, but maybe you will have to think outside the box to find cheap/free sources. Leaves from neighbors' trees, makes of spoiled hay, wood chips from tree service, municipal compost...

Chickens will find food under mulch and as they scratch they will cover their poo. Their poo is so strong and stinky that this mulch scratching will reduce work for you.

Any ground cover that is to thrive will probably need to take root for while without the chickens.

Juniper can have a low growing habit, not 4 inches but low, and the chickens don't eat it.
 
Nas Mus
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Location: Zone 8
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Lelila, it's ok I did not take anything as disparaging in any way.

John, what do you have that regenerates after 2 weeks of chickens ripping it up? 2 week recovery period after chicken rip is not bad, standard lawn grass would take atleast a month.

You all seem to have me reconsidering the mulch. I guess theres not much choice when you have a greater number of chickens than the amount of land can handle.

I have considered paddocks, but again not keen, as it reduces their daily free range space, and yard is small enough as it is. If I had bigger plot then definitely would use paddocks.
again not keen on tractor, if i was going to limit free range space in any way, it would be paddocks - least hassle. (I don't know whether i'm being lazy or want things to run as naturally untouched as possible)
 
John Elliott
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Nas Mus wrote:
John, what do you have that regenerates after 2 weeks of chickens ripping it up? 2 week recovery period after chicken rip is not bad, standard lawn grass would take atleast a month.


Mostly centipede and bahia grass, two fast growing tropicals. There are also two types of clover, a couple varieties of alfalfa, oats, browntop millet, and sometimes I will throw some rye seed into the mix. I also encourage "weeds" like dandelion and chicory and prickly lettuce, so that there are some big tap roots in the soil, bringing up nutrients from the lower horizons. This year the chanca piedra (Phyllanthus urinaria) has taken off in a couple of places, and after discovering how useful it is, I also encourage it, even though it doesn't have a tap root.
 
Nas Mus
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mixture of fast growing stuff sounds great.

Ok, so I've just learned that decomposing mulch from things like wood chip takes out a lot of nitrogen from the soil.

Now a lot of chicken poop kills off soil so that nothing grows in it. But if the soil has been mulched with wood-chip, then does that mean I can actually keep a lot more chickens, say 20, without worrying about the soil becoming dead due to too much chicken poop (my biggest worry is the soil becoming dead due to too many chickens on too small a piece of land)? After all the excess nitrogen in the chicken poop will be balanced out by the decomposing mulch? Or is it something else in chicken poop that kills off the soil for years? If it is just the nitrogen, which is balanced out by the decomposing mulch, then it is mulch all the way for me.
 
Clara Florence
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Wood chip will decompose too slowly to take up all the excess nitrogen. We use lucerne hay as our ground cover in the chicken pen but even that decomposes slowly compared to the build up of manure. Mind you we have a flock of over 30 chickens in an urban yard. I know its a stretch but would you ever consider swapping your chickens for quail given the amount of yard space you have? You could maintain quite a nice garden in the space you have with free ranging quail, although it will take more eggs to get an omellette.
 
John Elliott
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Clara Florence wrote:Wood chip will decompose too slowly to take up all the excess nitrogen.


I know that is the common wisdom, but the common wisdom was developed up in some northern climate. Here in the South, where the soil temperature rarely drops below 50F, wood chips decompose plenty fast and are quite good at problems of "excess" nitrogen.

The only thing that is going to solve this is some experimentation on Nas' part. Make some temporary paddocks for the chickens and see how long it takes one area to recover, how long they scratch it to bits when they are let in, and then how fast it springs back. On that last part, it may make a difference how much wood chips are left around to balance out the manure.

I wish I could find that link for the YouTube video of the guy who had a pasture on which he rotated cattle and goats, and then chickens. He had it down to a science how long you leave each one on before moving them.
 
Clara Florence
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John Elliott wrote:
Clara Florence wrote:Wood chip will decompose too slowly to take up all the excess nitrogen.


I know that is the common wisdom, but the common wisdom was developed up in some northern climate. Here in the South, where the soil temperature rarely drops below 50F, wood chips decompose plenty fast and are quite good at problems of "excess" nitrogen.
.


But isnt the OP living in one of those Northern climates? She is in the UK, which I dont think has a warm humid subtropical zone. I live in the subtropics in the Southern Hemisphere, its very hot and humid here for much of the year but we find woodchips to be the least useful mulch for us. It really depends on your local conditions.
 
Nas Mus
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Chicken poop feeds excess nitrogen, woodchips decomposing take out the excess nitrogen? surely this is a perfect combo to keep soil in good shape ready for planting when the need arises by simply removing woodchip mulch in the areas to plant in?

I'm not sure if I made sense in my last post, but I thought woodchips taking out the nitrogen from the soil is good in this scenario, because chicken poop has a lot of nitrogen, so the woodchips and chicken poop balance each other out (obviously depending on chicken numbers and how much woodchip mulch there is)?

Also, harwood woodchips last about 2-3 years?

 
Angelika Maier
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I would probably try clover it is good for the soil. And it is usually in lawn mixes that means that it takes foot traffic.
 
Leila Rich
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Nas Mus wrote:if the soil has been mulched with wood-chip, then does that mean I can actually keep a lot more chickens, say 20, without worrying about the soil becoming dead due to too much chicken poop (my biggest worry is the soil becoming dead due to too many chickens on too small a piece of land)?

I just saw this.
While it would be theoretically possible to have that many chickens on 700 square feet,
if they're not being rotated, no matter what mulch you have it is more than likely to quickly become a smelly, denuded desert.
and from my perspective, a poor environment for chickens.

I'm very much in favour of chip, but I'd see it as a possible solution for your current situation, not as an opportunity to add more chickens.
 
Nas Mus
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Leila Rich wrote:
While it would be theoretically possible to have that many chickens on 700 square feet,
if they're not being rotated, no matter what mulch you have it is more than likely to quickly become a smelly, denuded desert.
and from my perspective, a poor environment for chickens.

I'm very much in favour of chip, but I'd see it as a possible solution for your current situation, not as an opportunity to add more chickens.


I know, I would never have that many chickens in that small an area. I just wanted to see if it would be possible to stop the soil from getting so much nitrogen that nothing would grow in future. So basically, sticking decomposing wood around areas with an overdose of chicken poop is one way of helping soil regain or keep it's health. I guess that would work with all high carbon products?
 
Leila Rich
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Nas Mus wrote:I would never have that many chickens in that small an area. I just wanted to see if it would be possible to stop the soil from getting so much nitrogen that nothing would grow in future. So basically, sticking decomposing wood around areas with an overdose of chicken poop is one way of helping soil regain or keep it's health?

Oh good, I was getting a bit nervous
My thing wouldn't be so much the excess nitrogen as the huge mechanical damage chickens do in a confined area: eating everything, scratchiing...
 
wayne stephen
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What about the rotating composting paddock system proposed by Lady Balfour ? Deep mulch with constant addition of compostable material for a year . Let it rest then use it as a garden bed for annuals . I have noted that even in cold Kentucky winters the hens are able to find some insects under deep mulch . They eat kitchen scraps and quickly convert to manure . They really speed up the composting process with their scratching . I am planning on trying a variation of this in the spring . Probably combining electric poultry netting / portable coop ala Geoff Lawtons tractor with Balfours more rigid plan. My plan is to quickly establish a deep bed with horse manure and old hay 12 inches or more deep and add to it all year .
 
Mark Chadwick
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Well I use stable litter, principally sawdust with horse poop and pee as a bonus, that I get free from a nearby stud. There's mountains of it, plus free prebagged poop by the tonne.
In one year the seven hens on seventy square metres have added seventy five mm of magnificent fertile soil - I do also have two compost bins in there in constant use. Nothing more exciting for the girls than being let loose on a cubic metre of worm riddled compost. I'll also add a bale of straw occasionally and tip in lawn clippings if the bins are too full. Best recent change was the creation of a most that drains to the gate, we've had a wet winter, the run off is incredibly rich and causes leafy greens to leap out of the ground!!
We're building new beds soon so the loose soil will be screened of larger lumps and a fresh load of stable litter will reset the nitrogen cycle.
We have thriving fruit trees in the run and I've fenced off a small area that's got a corn crop sucking nitrogen out of the ground that will be a shady patch for the hot months ahead then become feed when ripe. I might try the same with sunflowers too....
 
Guerric Kendall
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Just like no one plant is perfect, no chicken will thrive on one groundcover. They need protein; insects, larva, eggs, worms, etc... You won't find those in a field of greens.
 
Peter Ellis
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Guerric, you may not find all that in the ground cover, but if it is healthy soil growing a good cover, the chickens will find the insects, worms, etc. It is a big part of what they do.
 
John Polk
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Another good ground cover is True Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis, or Camaemelum nobilis) a.k.a. English chamomile, or Roman chamomile. NOT the German chamomile! The English chamomile will spread a blanket about 4-6 inches (10-15cm) deep. As the old proverb says "Like a chamomile bed, the more it is trodden, the more it will spread."

If, and that's a big IF, the chickens can be kept at bay long enough to let it go to seed, they will replant it every autumn for you.
 
Nas Mus
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Thanks for the help and suggestions everyone.

Mark, your setup seems interesting. But I'm not sure I understand exactly what you are doing to get "In one year the seven hens on seventy square metres have added seventy five mm of magnificent fertile soil"..?
If you have a setup with 7 chickens giving extra fertile soil in just 70 square metres, then that is incredible, normally that many chickens in that much space would make soil so hot with their poop after a year, nothing would grow in it. Could you explain a bit more in detail please? I'm not sure if it's something to do with the horse manure or the corn you are growing?

For me, I still think the best option for the amount of space and chickens I have is to have small areas (about 1 metre square) around the yard with fast growing weeds like chickweed in one area, clover in another, comfrey in another and maybe some mixed weeds in another. Each area will be covered with wire mesh (low to the ground) so the chickens cannot get into that 1 metre square and completely kill that particular weed off, but they can eat whatever grows out of the chickenwire whether from the top or from the sides (and with a a good few square metre patches of fast growing weed, they should have a fair bit of munch on most days hopefully). As for the rest of the bare yard where nothing is growing (and really that should end up just being a lot of paths all around those square metres, fruit trees and shrubs), I think woodchip mulch is really my only option, I don't think any other groundcover can survive the chickens.
 
Leila Rich
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Nas Mus wrote: Each area will be covered with wire mesh (low to the ground) so the chickens cannot get into that 1 metre square and completely kill that particular weed off, but they can eat whatever grows out of the chickenwire

A version I've seen that works really well is to use very solid frames covered with chicken wire.
I'd use the one with 'holes' about 4cm diameter, not the tiny stuff.
It allows plants to grow in their natural, forms (until the chickens can reach through for a feed, which will stimulate more plant growth...)
You definitely need something that won't bend under the chicken's weight.
Old metal shopping baskets and crabbing traps work well!
One thing I suggest growing under wire is silverbeet (Swiss chard). Chickens love it and it grows like mad!
 
Guerric Kendall
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Peter Ellis wrote:Guerric, you may not find all that in the ground cover, but if it is healthy soil growing a good cover, the chickens will find the insects, worms, etc. It is a big part of what they do.

It is, but another part is scratching in the ground. They won't be able to find as much in a thick root and plant system.
 
Peter Ellis
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It you don't think chickens can scratch through root systems, perhaps you have a different sort of chicken than I am familiar with.
 
Guerric Kendall
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Peter Ellis wrote:It you don't think chickens can scratch through root systems, perhaps you have a different sort of chicken than I am familiar with.

Perhaps. Over the years I've raised Buff Orpingtons, Red stars, Dominiques, Dark Brahmas, and Colombian Wyandottes, Golden Campines, Brown Leghorns, White Rocks, Easter Eggers, Salmon Favorelles, Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, Blue and Splash Cochins, Rhode Island Reds, Blue Andalusians, Golden Polish, Black Stars, Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Speckled Sussex and Cuckoo Marans. They've all been able to mat, compress, and burn through plant and root systems, but never scratch through them until the plants are dead and half-decomposed.
 
Mark Chadwick
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Nas Mus, I think that the key element in my run is the stable litter. Reasonably fine sawdust, well laced with urine and manure- lots of carbon for the nitrogen to react with particularly when constantly agitated by the birds. (I do remove chook manure from the coop to use in the vege patch).
We started out with black peat clay, turns to glue when saturated, thoroughly infested with onion weed. Within the run I planted:2 apples, 2 pears, an apricot, grapefruit, mandarin and lime,recently added a small clumping bamboo and some flax like habitat plants and a 4sqM corn patch. Espaliered to the outside of the fence are: a plumcot, peach, nectarine, apple and grape vine all under and inter planted with beetroot, chard, lettuce, zucchini and cucumber.
All this plant life must suck lots of nutrition from the soil. It's hard to find anywhere that's not full of roots!
I do plan to rest the run in late autumn (fall) by moving the chooks into a similarly sized dog run we have not used for dogs for a while.
At least once a month I add around a cubic metre of stable litter, and we have two compost bins there that the chooks get access to when they cool and worms are present (think feeding frenzy). Occasionally a bale of straw will be added too.
I took 120kg of screened topsoil/compost out of the run on Saturday and you wouldn't know anything had been removed to look at it.
The chooks are fed Barastoc Top Layer Crumble, kitchen scraps, greengrocer waste (mainly lettuce and brasicas), garden over production and a handful of wheat in the evening. Currently we are getting 6 or 7 eggs daily.
I should say the flock comprises of 2 Barnevelders, 2 Welsummers and 3 Rhode Island Reds. We plan to add 3 Wyandottes around Christmas.
If the corn experiment works well we'll have summer shelter that will yield feed once ripe as well as drawing down on the BH nitrogen load. The low wire enclosure over been pluck is something I've been thinking of trying, perhaps with wheat.

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