Jessi Bloom brings edible gardening and chickens together in her partitioned garden. The centrally located chicken coop provides a safe place for “the ladies” to roost and has three doors, each leading to a different part of the garden. The chickens offer a continuous supply of free-range eggs and ample manure that is composted and turned back into the garden to enrich the food plants.
• Sustainable food forest design combines vegetable, fruit, and berry production with free-range chickens
• Features a central coop that opens into each of three sections for easy chicken rotation
• Conveniently placed composters turn chicken manure into a rich amendment for food crops
The Free Range Chicken Garden
Jessi loves “her girls” and thinks that gardens and chickens make natural partners. “To a gardener, chickens are worth their weight in gold,” says Jessi. “Not only do they produce a nitrogen-rich manure that can be composted and used to amend garden beds, but they also help to keep weeds down and grass clipped, and they gobble up a variety of insects and grubs.” To get the most from her chickens’ behaviors, she allows her birds to roam in her garden, rotating them to different areas.
Jessi has divided her garden plan into three distinct paddock sections using cross-fencing. The chicken coop is the heart of the garden and is sited so that it borders each of the three sections. The three doors of the coop are cleverly hinged as ramps that open onto each paddock, so the chickens can be rotated quickly and efficiently. Before one section is decimated, the chickens are moved to another. To protect against predators, Jessi has surrounded the entire garden with a perimeter fence.
A rain collection system near the coop captures water for the chickens, and any excess can be used to irrigate the garden crops. Jessi suggests using a rain barrel or cistern to collect the water; depending on the roof type and use of the water, she recommends installing a “first flush” device to capture the initial dirty water from the roof after a storm.
A Food Forest Design
Section 1 is the largest part of the garden and contains a variety of plant materials, including perennial edible plants. “Fruit trees could be the uppermost layer of a ‘food forest,’ which contains several layers of useful plants that mimic nature,” says Jessi, who suggests a combination of trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, and ground covers to provide biodiversity. Section 1 also houses the three-bin composting system, which Jessi likes to site near the chicken coop to make coop chores like composting manure and bedding easier. Because of the size of this section and the types of plants located here–mostly woody trees and shrubs–this is where the chickens spend the majority of their time.
Section 2 is the smallest area of production in the garden. Hardy cane fruits–plants including raspberries, blackberries, and salmonberries that bear fruit on short woody stems–thrive here. “This section is a great place for chickens during the early spring months as the leaves are coming out,” says Jessi, as the birds help to weed and raise soil fertility. In the late summer and fall they clean up fallen fruit that could harbor pests. The thorny, upright plants provide the chickens with shelter from both predators and inclement weather. They also provide abundant fruit for the gardener and ample flowers for pollinators.
To keep the rampant canes under control, consider training them on a simple T-bar trellis system that uses wooden crossbars at either end of the bed, connected with plant-supporting wires. A few fruiting shrubs such as highbush blueberries could also be planted in this area if space allows. (Remember that blueberries need at least two cultivars to ensure cross-pollination.)
Section 3 is for intensive annual vegetable production. During the growing season, the chickens are allowed here in a chicken “tractor” (a movable, floorless chicken coop), which prevents them from destroying the vegetables. At the end of the season, they are given free rein to “do some cleanup,” Jessi says.
Eight raised beds hold vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers, and they are separated by generous pathways. Near the coop, Jessi has included cold frames to stretch the harvest season into winter and get a jump on spring seeding. A functional but decorative gated arbor separates this section of the garden from section 1 and can be used to support ornamental or edible vines.
Don’t have a spacious-sized lot? Jessi’s versatile plan can be tailored to fit virtually any size garden. In her book Free-Range Chicken Gardens, Jessi writes that a small urban lot that measures under 7,000 square feet should have no more than 3 to 5 chickens. Larger rural lots between 7,000 and 13,000 square feet, on the other hand, can support 5 to 8 chickens.
Jessi’s Garden Plan
40 feet deep x 35 feet wide
Section One: Fruit and Nut Trees
Jessi’s top picks include almond, apple, apricot, cherry, chestnut, crab apple, filbert, mountain ash, oak, peach, pear, plum, and quince. She says that fruit and nut trees are a natural match for a chicken garden. The chickens will clean up fallen fruit, and the plants are sturdy enough to withstand the scratching of the flock.
Section Two: Hardy cane fruits and shrubs
Aronia, blueberry, red or black currant, elderberry, gooseberry, honeyberry, raspberry, and rugosa rose are among Jessi’s favorites. Before adding fruiting shrubs to your garden, she recommends checking to see which ones will do best in your individual region.
Section Three: Vegetables and edible flowers
Chickens love their veggies too, which can work against the gardener if ripening crops are not protected from the flock. Use bird netting to prevent chickens from accessing your prized tomatoes or to keep the birds out of one zone altogether. Jessi says that chickens enjoy both greens and seeds, including dandelions, garlic, lettuce, mâche (corn salad), mustard, nasturtiums, sunflowers, and Swiss chard.
Plants to Avoid with Chickens
In a chicken-friendly garden, avoid plants that are toxic to chickens. This includes castor bean (Ricinus communis), milkweed (Asclepias species), monkshood (Aconitum species), ornamental tobacco (Nicotiana species), and yew (Taxus species).
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Excerpted from Groundbreaking Food Gardens © Niki Jabbour, illustrations © Elayne Sears and Mary Ellen Carsley. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.