I'm a newbie here, and to the permaculture farming world, so I'm sure this is a well discussed topic (that I can't find in the forum).
I plan on getting some chickens, and getting them to do lots of work for me in the garden (deep mulch of course). My question is; Can I have the chickens go through the vegetable garden, de-bugging, while the veggies are ready or about ready for harvest? My question is really about their manure. Do I need to wait a set amount of days after the chickens have been through? Would it matter if the chickens were 100% free range (aka totally natural)? I know I have slugs and snails too, would ducks be any different?
2. Wait until you inbetween an old planting and a new one - they will go in and scratch the hell out of everything, tearing up everything as they go. They can turn a lush patch of green into bare earth in a matter of a couple of days. I have fenced in small areas that were super thick with weeds and put a flock of 10 or 12. They stripped it bare. I have found chickens to be the most effective tool to clear property - have you ever seen a chicken coop with even the tiniest plant in it?
3. I used to turn my loose in an area of well established plants about an hour before sundown because that only gave them enough time to go scratch around the base of the plants and then with dark coming they would head for the coop before they did too much damage to the plants.
4. Never turn them loose around seedlings or fragile plants - they will be scratched into oblivion.
5. Their manure, even though it is fresh, is scattered here and there as they wander and I have found that it is a great way to get my beds fertilized with no work at all on my part. I like the no work part, it is the essence of permaculture
As others have said, chickens scratch, they obliterate anything smaller than a cabbage, they also take a passing peck at everything so all your leafy greens will have holes in them, and anything they particularly like which in my case is Swiss chard will be reduced to sticks. In my opinion chickens only belong in a veg garden after harvest or before planting so they can clean up pests and eat anything I consider not good enough.
I've been using chickens in the garden (and for many other things) for about twenty years. I manage a hectare plot of ornamental gardens, a food forest and about 3000m² of vegetable gardens and I couldn't do that without the chickens and other poultry. We have about 50 chickens, a dozen or so ducks and some turkeys.
I'm sure I've posted in Permies before about this but I'll repeat it here. Observation is the key, watch what the chickens do and think how you can use that to your advantage (and theirs!). Go slowly and try new methods using all the the permaculture principles.
Jeanine has made some very valuable points but bear in mind that each garden is different, different breeds of chickens and even individual chickens are different.The main thing to consider is that you can't do this in a small garden, the chickens will destroy it and break your heart.
Our chickens are completely free-range and I use a lot of different strategies to protect my plants. Covering them with cages, using moveable cages, using very dense planting and the judicious use of sticks around plants.
There are over a hundred photos in one of my sets in this link, which show the techniques I use, the vegetables and so on that I produce and the overall results of my designs.
This is one example of a "before and after" shot. The chickens clean the paths and the beds to allow the spring sun to heat the dark earth and they also eat overwintering insects. I plant, with a few sticks around each plant to protect them, then heavily mulch the bed. The chicken manure helps to compensate for the straw's nitrogen robbery and keeps the earth warm to help the plants become established.
Once they've finished working, they go elsewhere - wherever I've disturbed the soil, turned over a bed of manure or cleaned out a goatshed. This photo is taken a few weeks later.
To address the food safety issue: if you are selling the stuff, regulatory peeps in the U.S. find fault with farmers who don't have everyone wash their hands before going amongst crops. So, as long as you can train your chickens to wash their hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom and avoid dropping anything in your fresh leafy greens,, those people and their supporters will be happy. However, these rules are about sales and have a number of exempt categories, including normally cooked stuff and farms making less than $25K in 3 years. Not that you can't get in trouble if someone says they got sick from your farm, but you aren't required to follow certain protocols if you are exempt. As for the reality, critters run through fields, fly over fields, and eat out of fields, and plants are grown in the dirt. Studies have shown most bad stuff goes away in open air in healthy soil in a reasonable amount of time. Been a while since I got the details on the studies, but I was near ground zero when the sh*t hit the fan about lettuce around 10 years ago.
As for good gardening hygiene, generally speaking, don't eat freshly pooped on leaves, especially raw. Don't fertilize, especially with a foliar spray, and right after harvest. If your using poop-based fertilizer, wash your hands before harvesting fresh leafy greens. Wait like 30 days or fertilize not the plant but in a place the plant can reach, or fertilize with things you can eat and won't spoil on the leaves, like coffee to avoid bad things on a leaf. I think the standard in the industry might be up to like 90 days for fresh maneuer fertilizing leafy greens and like 30 on fruittrees, but I haven't kept up. What I know is I got birds flying through the garden leaving presents regularly and I just harvest around those leaves and my biggest belly aches are from fish emulsion (that stuff is nasty) or too many sunchokes at once (high fiber food).
Oh my goodness, Irene, what a treat it was to go through your photos! I was viewing my dream garden! I love how you utilize sticks, branches, etc. for so many things and in so many ways. Your whole garden looks natural and happy, all the animals included! Very enjoyable!
This is the first year we've had ducks. They are different than our chickens in many ways - in the garden they don't scratch but they do trample. They will eat some crops readily (especially cherry tomatoes and berries) so best to turn them into the garden after fall frost (they will leave the root crops and late veggies alone). They do a superb job of hoovering up all slugs/grasshoppers/worms they come across and spend almost all of each day wandering about as a little huddle of insectivores. They have been eating some of the fall oats and peas cover crop but that's OK as they leave behind poop and fewer insects to winter over.
During the summer they were fenced in a new orchard area. Our chickens have been fenced for many years in our mature orchard/hazelnut plantings. Other than pecking at low hanging fruit, they aren't destructive to any of those crops and do a great job with insects and scratching up the dropped leaves. Both ducks and chickens have a niche on our farm.
Regarding manure, chicken manure is super high in nitrogen and will burn plants so it has to be composted for a few months at least. Some people make compost tea out of it to use some sooner but I haven't tried that yet.
I have a "poop shelf" waist high under the henhouse roosts. 90% of the poop in the henhouse ends up on that shelf and it makes it super easy to clean their house, no bending over straining. I just scoop the poop and dump it in the compost pile. Makes cleaning the shavings on the hen house floor much easier as they stay clean for months at a time.
I have never had ducks but they are a whole other deal, if you don't have a natural pond they need some sort of kiddie pool or other water source and it needs to be drained/changed frequently as it gets dirty VERY fast. Chickens are easy, ducks (without a self sustaining pond) are a whole lot more work and you should probably do some research to decide if you want to go that route.
You've gotten a lot of good feedback already so I'll try to keep this simple.
Although it does depend on what you're growing, in general, you probably want to keep your chickens out of your annual garden until you are done with the harvest. After that, by all means let them in and they will help clean it up and fertilize it for you. If you let them in while young plants and veggies are still growing and ripening, they will destroy it! It would be nice if you could let them in to catch tomato horn worms, but you can't unless you want all your tomatoes pecked all over as well. Also, free ranging through a garden will not drop enough chicken manure to burn your plants, unless maybe you have twenty chickens in a 5'x 5' space.
If you want to use the old litter and manure from the coop to fertilize, clean it out in late fall and put the litter around your plants. It will cool down over winter and you'll get great plant growth the following spring.
Again, you'll have to fence in every plant if you want them in your annuals before harvest. Perennials like berries and bushes are tall enough to escape damage, but young perennial plants can be damaged so use caution. The easiest thing to do is just let them in after harvest.
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