I grow herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers alongside my hens as season follows season. Vegetable-growing works well with hens. Think back to the Second World War, when many families grew veg and kept chickens. Nothing goes to waste as you can always feed surplus vegetables to chickens.
You must plan where to grow your vegetables and how to protect seedlings, young plants and some vegetables if your hens are free-ranging. Netting is an option, as is a vegetable cage. Low fences are also an idea – you can get rolls of green, sturdy chicken wire 2ft high – hens can't really fly over these. They fly onto fences, such as post and rails, because they can perch on rails on their way, but they can't perch on chicken wire. Alternatively, you can use raised vegetable boxes, tunnels, cloches, containers or hanging baskets.
Some people mulch around precious plants and seedlings with rough gravel, use crinkly lawn edging or twiggy sticks – all should prevent scratching feet.
Another idea is to use an edging of box or rosemary but this would, obviously, take some time.
To a large extent, what hens eat in a garden depends on how much grass they have access to. The more land they have to free range, the more likely they are to feast on weeds, wild herbs and grass and less likely to eat precious plants, flowers and herbs.
I can't emphasise enough how important grass is – my sister in law bought two 20-week-old hybrids recently which had been kept in a barn and put them in a run with grass and they went crazy, pecking at it ferociously as though it would be taken away at any moment. If hens have only a little space to roam and a small area of grass and greenery they will soon eat all the grass and anything else green. It follows that if you keep your hens enclosed and let them out to free range every so often they will eat anything that's green, including vegetables, herbs, weeds, beech hedges and some of your flowers.
Our hens won't touch snowdrops, crocuses, primroses, violas, buttercups, daffodils or tulips. Other flowers they shouldn't be interested in include lavender, roses, asters, camellias, dahlias, azaleas, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums and iris. Most evergreen shrubs, especially prickly ones, are unlikely to be eaten. Strong-smelling herbs such as rosemary, mint, lemon balm and feverfew are not attractive. Mine don't eat parsley or chives but I know of hens that do.
Hens shouldn't touch carrots, parsnips, leeks, onions, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and courgettes. Climbing beans should be fine, once established, as they won't be able to reach most of them (protect seedlings).
Hens love surplus sweetcorn.
You could also grow sunflowers and feed them the seeds. Spinach, chard, kale, broccoli, cabbage and lettuce (except for spicy oriental leaves) will be popular; beetroot leaves are relished and my hens also eat beetroot and love Jerusalem artichokes, which I let them nibble on when I have a surplus. They shouldn't, however, eat the leaves, so this is a good vegetable to grow.
On the berry front, hens love strawberries, raspberries and all edible berries except blackcurrants.
I managed to video my hens stripping elderberry branches - a whole 16 seconds before my camera packed in!
Tuesday, December 11
V is for Vegetables
Hens love weeds such as chickweed (so named because chicks love it). Your hens will also eat dandelion, comfrey, sorrel, horseradish and dock leaves if desperate. Perennial geraniums, hollyhocks, nasturtiums and their seeds, busy lizzies, lobelia, pansies and hostas are all said to be popular.
My chickens eat elderberries with no ill effects, although these are said to be toxic. We have a beech hedge in the garden that the hens do not touch; however I have noticed a neighbour's hens, which are enclosed with no grass, have stripped all the leaves from the beech hedge as far as they can reach.
Other flowers chickens will tuck into include marigolds (the petals make their yolks even yellower); violets, border pinks and sweet peas. There are always exceptions. Some hens eat parsley, lavender and even artichoke leaves which mine have never touched. On the whole, hens will eat anything that tastes similar to grass.
Unfortunately they won't eat nettles (although I have read that some do eat wilted nettles), bindweed, plantain, moss, ground elder, mallow or anything too bitter. I sometimes see mine eating dandelion or dock leaves, but these are not favourites. Hens will be useful in the garden – they are very good at breaking up soil after you have dug over the vegetable garden in the winter; they forage for pests and produce droppings, an excellent fertiliser.
My hens love following me around when I am digging the vegetable garden and are practically under my fork as I turn the soil so that they can grab worms. Whist we should also allocate bare earth where your hens can enjoy their dust baths – ours love the soil areas under the hedges - hens clean themselves by flicking dry soil into their feathers and this helps keep them free from parasites. For more astounding facts follow the ABC link on my sidebar.