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Chickens in the garden over fall/winter?

 
Ct Gilliam
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I'm curious if any of you keep chickens in your garden over the fall/winter season. And if so, have you noticed an improvement in soil fertility and/or a decrease in pest during your growing season. Our garden is fenced except for a gate that I must build soon. Then we're debating on whether to let some of our chickens forage over the remains of the garden for bugs and excess produce for a while this fall then again in late Winter/early Spring or just keep them there until time to plant in the Spring. We will also be utilizing ducks in the garden for slug control. Our ducks will mostly free range as they are awesome at foraging for their food and cleaning up any spilt or uneaten feeds (which helps keep rodents away!
So, we're looking at creating a temporary chicken house in the garden out of an unused dog pen and building a simple coop inside it. Our garden is heavily mulched "ruth stout" style with lots and lots of hay. This has been mostly great but we have had some slug and squash bug issues we're hoping the chickens and ducks can help us with and in turn reduce their feed bill a little more. We would love to hear opinions or ideas or your experience from any of you that have done this!
 
Abbey Battle
Posts: 63
Location: Wealden AONB
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Chickens will make a complete mess of your garden and eat anything green. Mine eat most insects regardless of friend or foe. They do not eat slugs. Where I live, there is a massive slug population. (perfect climate) My chickens just ignore them in favour of more tasty food.
As for my garden, well, I don't have a massive weed problem, they even take care of the bind weed. They don't eat brambles though. Ah well. They do dig big holes everywhere that the soil is soft enough, they have kicked the path shingle all over the lawned area. They have kicked the soil all over the lawn as well. They empty out all my pots and tubs. The patio is covered in their produce! I'm in the process of fencing off the patio as I don't like the constant cleaning of it.
They have scratched around the base of my fruit trees and damaged the roots so that now I suffer from suckers coming up.

They don't appear to eat wind fall apples, that is, unless I'm eating it at the time. Then they will snatch it away from me.

As for fertility, I'm afraid I'm no judge, I have very fertile soil after years of mulching.
 
Ct Gilliam
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Sorry maybe I didn't communicate that well. I know that chickens won't eat many slugs. I have seen mine eat some but the ducks are for the slugs and they do eat them like crazy! My garden area is roughly 50'x80' and at this time has lots of tomatoes, black eyed peas, sweet potatoes vines, and unfortunately lots of weeds in places (due to me being unable to work it for weeks because of a major flare up of the sarcoidosis). I'm going to put 5-6 hens in and see how they do. They'll be monitored daily and removed if they cause too much damage (which I don't expect). This is not your beautiful "better homes and garden" garden.  But it has been a very functional and productive homestead garden and I believe my chickens can help me out a little bit and I know there is lots of food for them in there. There are also 4 compost bins in that area. So I am excited and optimistic about this project. As a side note I do have a few chickens who fly out of their run in the back yard and go the the garden every day and spend part of the day foraging for their daily treats. The garden is 300'+ away and on the other side of the house but they make this trip everyday and spend quite a bit of time in there pecking around for bugs and other goodies they find.
 
Will Holland
Posts: 300
Location: CT zone 5b
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I say if you want the chickens to clean out your garden and fertilize as they go, 2 weeks in the spring before things break dormancy is enough. Longer than that and their effects will be long-lasting as others had mentioned. Giant holes you don't want, beds kicked down to nothing, everything trampled and a mat of poop so thick it'll take all spring to break through.
 
John Polk
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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I would say, a few weeks at the end of the season - clean up a lot of the insects & their eggs.
A few weeks prior to spring planting - they'll get a lot of the larva that are hatching.

As was mentioned, they will eat the beneficial bugs as well as the pests.
You probably wouldn't want them to wipe out all of the bugs.

 
William Bronson
Posts: 1128
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Sounds to me like you can let them in there until they start causing problems,then send them back to there original home.
This will also give their poop time to mellow over winter.
Basically you are paddock shifting.

 
Galadriel Freden
Posts: 345
Location: West Yorkshire, UK
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I rotate mine through my small suburban property year round.  During the winter, the vegetable garden becomes one of their paddocks, and they usually spend 1-2 weeks there then about 4-6 weeks off before rotating back on (note:  I still fence off areas that still have cabbages, garlic, etc, in the ground).  It works well, and they really tidy it up for me.  I don't think mine made a noticeable difference in pest reduction, but once I got chickens my soil fertility really sky-rocketed, both from their direct ministrations, and the application of their bedding to the garden.
 
Ct Gilliam
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We've had chickens for years and I've spent a lot of time watching them during that time.  I can't imagine that 5-6 chickens could cause very much trouble in our garden. During the growing season it would be quite different. But my guess is with the 4 compost bins in there that's where the birds will spend the bulk of their time. As I said its deep mulch all over the garden so if they dig a hole it's not a big deal. I'll just add more hay. So, we'll see what happens I guess but I intend to try it and see for myself. I was just curious what those of you who have tried it found. I appreciate your comments and opinions but it's something I have wanted to try so we'll be putting them in there soon. I'll be taking pictures and videos and recording my experience with this to share with those who are interested and we'll be looking for signs during our next growing season to see if it actually makes a difference in the garden. But the other side of the equation is if we can decrease our feed cost during this time.
 
Rus Williams
pollinator
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Location: Zutphen, The Netherlands
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We got 4 chickens recently, at the end of the season, and they were in a sad little coop and run. I'd let them out into the young forest garden area of the the garden (about 150m2) and they'd happily scratch and peck all day long. Now they're in a much larger run with compost and veg trimmings and seem just as happy as long as they get green stuff (dandelion leaves if they don't get much veg trimmings.)

I'm about ready to let them onto the garden area. I'm probably going to fence them on a couple of beds at a time for a day or two (we have 450m2 about 10th of an acre) and let them do their thing. I'll move the when it gets scratched up as much as I want, then I'll plant a winter cover crop.
 
Ct Gilliam
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That sounds awesome! Sounds like a good plan to me! I'm constantly fascinated by our chickens! They are so productive and resourceful and so much fun to watch. I'm starting to view it as a partnership between us and the chickens. And I'm wondering what untapped potential is there in this partnership. May sound corny but I'm on a mission to find out. We are going to be starting on our chicken food forest this fall and winter and I'm so excited about it! We have so many projects going here but the ones with the chickens are definately some of my favorite!! Thanks for sharing. Keep us posted. I'd love to hear how your birds do in your gardens.
 
Mike Turner
Posts: 309
Location: Upstate SC
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Chickens and ducks have year around access to my garden (and the rest of my property). So far, the only plants they have bothered are lettuce, spinach, carrots (which I grow in my chicken free hoop house).  They also eat any tomatoes they can reach (trellis to keep most of the fruit above chicken reach) and strawberry fruit (temporary fence during fruiting season).  The other plants (squash, melons, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, ocra, beans, cole crops, mustard, onion, leeks, asparagus have never or rarely been bothered.  Since adding chickens, slugs, squash bugs, crickets, grasshoppers, earwigs, pill bugs have almost vanished from the garden and I've been able to start growing summer squash outside of the hoop house again (borers and bugs used to rapidly kill any exposed summer squash plants). Occasionally they will scratch up a newly transplanted cole or onion seedling, but an observant gardener can easily spot and replant them.
 
Ct Gilliam
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Thanks for sharing Mike. I expect that I won't have any real negative effects from putting 5-6 chickens in an area as large as this garden. I'm hoping for some positive effects. But we'll see I guess. If we never try anything different we'll never learn anything new right?. I do appreciate you sharing your experience. It was helpful!
 
Irene Kightley
pollinator
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Location: South West France
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Our chicken shed is in the veg garden 3000M² and the chickens (About 50) and twenty or so ducks have access all the time. (The turkeys are banned from the kitchen garden) They all forage on a hectare including a little food forest and the gardens and ponds around the house and sometimes have access to several grazing areas nearby to help keep the tick population under control for our sheep and goats.



I've a set in flickr if you'd like to see how I manage the chickens here : https://www.flickr.com/photos/hardworkinghippy/albums/72157615288270606/with/7366358570/ and lots of photos in this forum to show that they do very little damage to the garden. 

Observation of their behaviour, taking steps to prevent problems and experience have helped me enormously to integrate them into my garden design and I could not manage a hectare on my own without my chicken army.
 
Emily Smith
Posts: 53
Location: West Central Georgia
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My completely unseasoned and amateur guess is that the ratio of chickens to garden space is what will make the difference between a wrecked garden and a healthy one.  I've got around 400 sq.ft. of garden space, and 8 21-week-old chickens.  They pecked my cucumbers (un-trellised), tomatoes, and strawberries.  But they left my peppers alone.  This is our first year with chickens, but what we did was start feeding them in the garden in mid to late August and just leaving them there for the day.  I feed them kitchen scraps, and am also experimenting with the "throw it on the ground" composting technique.  The idea is they'll spend each day there until spring, eating kitchen scraps, scratching around the yard debris I toss in there, and hopefully finding bugs and such.  Then in spring we'll see what that did to our soil (mostly red clay--testing for fertility in a couple of weeks).  Because we have a higher bird-to-space ratio, I'm going to keep them out of the garden when it's time to plant.  I'll probably put them on yard patrol at that point

My problem right now is keeping the bird in the garden. They just hop up onto the gate and down into the yard whenever they get bored with the garden.  I don't mind them in the yard so much as they aren't helping out with the garden if they're not in it.    Poultry net with a hot gate would probably fix this, but I can't invest in one right now, or any time soon.

I'd love to hear other people's experiences, too.  Maybe area and flock size would be helpful to include, though. 
 
Rhonda Crank
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Hi, Our garden is rather large so we let them in by sections. If I have a winter crop planted I simply don't put them in that area. We use the deep mulch garden method and have seen improvement in soil fertility and major reduction in insects like potato beetles and squash bugs. They do get some worms I'm sure, but the worm population is deep because of the years of mulch and chicken/pig cleanup we've done.
 
Mike Turner
Posts: 309
Location: Upstate SC
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I started digging some of my garden beds in preparation for winter/spring plantings.  I've had chickens and ducks free ranging in my garden since last fall.  Compared to when I dug the beds last fall, this fall I am seeing more earthworms and only a few (4 so far) beetle grubs (found only near the edge of the garden).  Last fall, I found many more grubs, also cutworm/borer pupae, wireworms, slugs, snails, ground beetles, and tiny white millipede looking critters, none of which I found so far this fall.
 
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