Chickens, or How to “Level Up” your Garden System

by Khrysti Smyth

Have you noticed that backyard chickens seem to be popping up all over the place lately? You might know people who have their own and rave about how entertaining and adorable they are, and how much better their home-grown eggs look and taste (all true, of course). Maybe you’ve heard that keeping chickens can enrich mental wellness and healing for trauma victims and the elderly, and can even help get kids outside and away from their phone screens… at least until they start taking dozens of “chicken selfies”!

"Little Red" gives her best selfie demonstration.

“Little Red” gives her best selfie demonstration.

My company, Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, has been helping families setup their own backyard flocks for the past six years. One brisk and drizzly evening this June I tagged along with my partner company – urban agriculture powerhouse Green City Growers – to their illustrious Fenway Farms rooftop garden to help harvest veggies and spring-season crops, making way for the next round of deliciousness to be planted. Once I settled down a little from my overwhelming giddiness (it’s a magical place – their spinach leaves were as big as my whole hand!), I was immediately struck by how much biomass was left on the spent lettuces and microgreens we were pulling out.

And how much I knew my chickens would really love to eat it…. And by “eat”, I mean ECSTATICALLY DEVOUR.

Any self-respecting flock would come running to tear into all the tasty greenery, gobble up any buggy critters, and turn the whole mess into delicious eggs and crazy-rich compost in the process! (Have you ever seen a chicken run?  It’s hilarious.)

Just LOOK at all these gorgeous greens!

Just LOOK at all these gorgeous greens!

Adorable, but what does this have to do with my garden…?

Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with ways to manage our green spaces more holistically, using nature’s example to conserve nutrients and resources. We compost organic waste from the garden and kitchen to reduce our “trash” footprint and turn it into natural fertilizer and healthy soil for our plants. We might even collect rainwater from the roof or greywater from the house to reuse in the garden.

The goal is a complete, all-on-site system, eliminating the need for “waste” materials to be trucked out or enrichment materials to be purchased and brought in – making the whole process more efficient and easier because you have designed your system such that one becomes the other.

Reprinted with permission from Justin Rhodes of AbundantPermaculture.com.

Reprinted with permission. Justin Rhodes, AbundantPermaculture.com.

This is how nature works. Sure, there is some movement of materials between sites that helps with ecological balance at different scales – excess silt and waste gets washed downstream with periodic flooding, seeds come in as burrs on a deer’s leg or carried by wind or water, etc. But everywhere you have a wide variety of critters whose job is specifically to transform molecules from “waste” into “nutrient”, right there where it falls, and other organisms that are really good at using up those nutrients and turning them back into “waste”. It’s a ridiculously efficient system: the original “zero waste” program.

Ok, yes, we get that.  But where do the chickens come in…?

Ok, this is where it gets exciting… Are you ready?

"Miss Lucy" knows that my trowel means a tasty treat will be coming.

“Miss Lucy” knows that my trowel means a tasty treat will be coming.

Adding chickens to your garden operation means you get to use the same fantastic waste-reusing, nutrient-creating composting system you already have, but make it EVEN BETTER AND MORE FUN!

Your garden produces veggie waste in the form of thinned seedlings, pruned leaves, maybe cuttings and trimmings that were a little buggy, cut grass, dead leaves, and (you’re going to love this) WEEDS AND PESTS! If you have chickens, ALL of this waste can get tossed into their run for them to tear up and chomp down.

Thinning out some lettuce seedlings? Toss it to them. Pull up some renegade wild Oxalis?  They’ll go nuts! Find a tomato worm? Plan to spend your next 5 minutes in delighted revelry watching them play a rousing game of “chicky keep-away” as they fight over it.

You might even find that your kids suddenly want to help you weed the garden, just so they can feed it to the chickens!

And as a result you’ll ensure you have a whole happy flock of feathered friends who come a’runnin’ every time you come outside. A couple of my more clever girls scurry over as soon as they see that trowel come out… because they KNOW.

Little “Miss Lucy” will even jump up on my shoulder to be sure she’s first in line for garden treats.

Little “Miss Lucy” will even jump up on my shoulder to be sure she’s first in line for garden treats.

Not only will your flock turn all of that garden waste into the best eggs you’ve ever had, but the big fat strawberry on top of this delightfully green sundae is that all of the bedding and waste from your chickens’ coop and run – that already-perfectly-balanced mix of “brown” carbon-rich bedding and “green” nitrogen-rich droppings that is the end product of all of that garden waste that you gave them – can then go into your compost bin to make your very own, home-grown, extra-fabulous amazing compost that much better.

There is some setup involved to be sure your girls have everything they need to thrive. At a minimum you’ll want to be sure that they have a safe and secure coop and run with enough space (I recommend at least 10 sq ft of enclosed “outdoor” space per bird.), that they have free access to clean water and nutritious food, and that you start with healthy birds from a reputable source. Once they’re all settled in they basically require a similar level of care and attention as a cat, except they live outside, they’ll earn their keep, AND they make you breakfast in the process!

So what are you waiting for…? Get yourself a flock of darling little hens and put them to work!

Note

Khrysti will hold a backyard chickens workshop on Wednesday, September 23, 2015, 6:30-8:00pm at Green City Growers in Somerville, MA. Register online for “Yardbirds’ Backyard Chickens 101.” 

About the Author

Khrysti Smyth, the Chickeness, operates Yardbirds Backyard Chickens in Boston, MA, and provides a full range of chicken related services to Greater Boston.