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Plotting future chickens - integrating with Back to Eden style woodchips and composting veggie beds.

 
Michael Cox
Posts: 1570
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Hi folks,

I'm not currently a chicken keeper but we've been throwing the idea around of adding chickens in to the mix.

Current limitations:
Time - the land is at my parents house and, during term time, we get out there one evening a week at most. The up shot of this neglected vegetable beds that are not properly prepared when planting times comes around and crazy intense bursts of activity when we finally get a bit of time. This won't change for the near future, but my parents (with an arrangement with neighbours for holidays) could check and feed chickens daily.

Fertility - our soil is pretty poor for the most part. A thin layer of topsoil over quick draining chalk, what top soil there is tends towards heavy clay. Beds have been ammended for years but are still pretty poor in terms of carbon and nitrogen. In part we often just run out of time to spread and mulch compost from the heaps sufficiently ahead of planting.

Weeds - bindweed is the bane of our vegetable growing existence. It tangles and spreads through crops and is next to impossible to banish from an area without near daily weeding. I've had some success on small areas through dedicated hands and knees work and thick woodchip layers. Not viable for larger areas! With our current compost heaps they go nice and hot for a while, but by the time we come to use it we often find bindweed reinvading!

Where chickens might help:
I'm a big fan of the Back to Eden style of deep mulching with chips - I've used it with good results in a few areas and the plants have thrived (I mostly put this down to better summer moisture retention), and I expect better results still over the next few years as the chips break down further. How I can see the chickens fitting in is to make them a nice large fenced run over some of our existing (bindweed blighted, but ammended soil) beds. I'd give them a nice deep layer of wood chips across the whole area (say 8"+) and regularly add lawn clippings/kitchen scraps/hedge trimmings etc...

Over the course of a year I'd expect them to thoroughly scratch out the bindweed, work the garden waste and chips into finer soil and supplement a bit of their own feed by foraging the pen and kitchen scraps.

In the spring before planting I'd give them access to the next penned area and use the nicely fertilised, improved soil - hopefully bindweed free! - for planting my annuals. The existing fence then keeps them out of the vegetable growing area for that year. That autumn I'd plant it with a chicken friendly fodder crop to get established and then rotate them back in again in the spring

I can see this saving us labour weeding and preparing beds, save us labour distributing compost (it is composted in situ and spread by the birds) and allow us to bring a much bigger area into cultivation than we can currently manage.

I know I've seen people using chickens for preparing individual smaller beds in a shorter period of time, but what do experienced chicken folks think of this plan? The chickens may also have occassional free range access to the rest of the garden, which includes around half an acre of scrubby woodland around the veggie beds.

Key Questions:

The whole growing area is currently about 15m by 25m. If I divided this into two main runs I would end up with around 200 square meters which the birds would have year round access to, being rotated off every 12 months. How many birds would be reasonable to work this area? I'm thinking around 10 layers to start with, but I'd like to eventually raise a few meat birds as well. This should give us a small surplus of eggs.

Layout wise - I'm thinking two large runs with an adjoining secure permanent run. The chickens could stay in their permanent run if needs be (for example if going away and a neighbour is looking after them) but they could also be let out directly into either of the two large runs, or out to free range the rest of the garden. I really don't want to build massive high fences for these runs, so I guess that means I'll need to clip wings. Does that lead to big problems if they do occassionally free range?

How brutal are chickens on young fruit trees? If we plant a few trees in their run areas are they going to kill them off? I was thinking that some root protection might be sufficient, especially if they have their wings clipped and can't fly into the branches. I was thinking that placing three car tyres around each tree, sort of in a triangle arrangement, then stacking some rocks and chunks of concrete might be sufficient protection?

If anyone has tried this and has direct experience - how did the soil end up? I imagine it would be pretty good, but possibly even too nitrogen rich?

I need to draw a few pictures I think, as I'm not sure I'm being clear.

Mike
 
Galadriel Freden
Posts: 345
Location: West Yorkshire, UK
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From my experience, a small flock of birds needs a pretty small space in order to do any significant damage to it! During the summer, we let our flock of seven hens free range over our entire back garden (about 10mx15m), and we found that they tended to stick to certain areas and on the whole didn't make much of a difference to the weeds or keeping the grass down. They liked to hang out (and thus distribute their fertilizer!) on the patio more than anywhere else. In contrast, when we keep them in small pastures (about 3mx2m) and move them every week to fresh ground, they can really work some magic on it; their efforts are concentrated into a small area, so they really eat a lot of weeds, place a lot of manure, and scratch up the whole area for bugs.

And to be honest, though the soil is much improved since the chickens have worked it for the past 1.5 years, it's best in the places I've mulched over with used chicken bedding. We use the deep litter system, and with the size of our coop, it needs cleaning out about once every three or four months. I usually just take the bedding and pile it about three inches deep on a vegetable bed and leave it alone. It suppresses weeds well and has turned some of my dry, compacted beds into black fluffy soil over a relatively short time--one to three months, I'd say. I no longer have a compost pile--my garden trimmings and weeds are chopped and dropped, and all kitchen scraps go to the chickens. Even the things they don't eat (like onion skins) break down much quicker than in the compost pile--maybe because they scratch it up and poo on it?

For fruit trees, my chickens aren't at all interested in any of my small trees, except for about two weeks in July when my dwarf cherry tree fruits. They are just able to jump up and grab the lowest hanging cherries Even when they are confined in the small pasture with a fruit tree they don't bother it at all.
 
Michael Cox
Posts: 1570
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Thanks for that - interesting that they didn't make much impact.

I think my suggestion is a little different from your observations though, as chickens seem to like really tossing and turning through a deep mulch. Also, from what I have seen elsewhere in the garden grass doesn't do so well in wood mulch material - or at least it's roots bind loosely and it is easy to hand pull. I imagine the chickens would have no trouble ripping roots up in these circumstances, and some of the area is already laid out in partially cultivated beds.

I guess we could subdivide the pens further if a more intensive impact is needed.
 
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