Tonawanda News

April 22, 2014

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Gardening with chickens

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — There is no need to get mad as a wet hen if you want to juggle flourishing flower beds, viable vegetable gardens and free-range chickens.

There are many reasons why you would want to manage both gardens and chickens. Fresh vegetables, flowering habitats for native fauna, fresh eggs and perky poultry personalities all come to mind. When my neighbor recently told me that a ruby ripe tomato that they purchased at the grocery store three months ago hadn’t changed in texture or color, I thought to myself, “I better start living off the land.”

Backyard chickens help with organic garden errands like weeding, eating insects that snack on your produce, keeping the grass in check, aerating garden beds and depositing fertilizer. When chickens have access to gardens and lawns, they will consume less of the costly (most likely corn-based) laying mash that their cooped cousins relay on.

I checked out the book “Gardening with Free-Range Chickens for Dummies” by Bonnie Jo Manion and Rob Ludlow to learn how to create harmony with my gardens and five new hens.

Since you want a perfect balance, do your research on space. If the flock of chickens is too large or if there is not enough space, your gardens will have craters and bare patches from over-foraging, and visible feces and potentially bad odor. For standard breeds, 250 square feet per bird is an adequate size for free-range chickens that have access to your garden. For bantams, you could get by with about half that size.

You will need to protect young tender plants from your feathered garden helpers. This can be easily accomplished with the use of a small meshed area or a glass cloche. Older gardens and adult plants usually only need a quick raking to get things looking pre-chicken visit, since free-range chickens don’t usually cause harm to established gardens.

Chickens do best with heavily planted landscapes. The layers of the gardens allow them secure locations where they can hide from predators, get protection from the elements and forage for food.

A small area that has tall trees, shorter shrubs and trailing flowers is superior to an area that is vegetation-free but huge.

The book does a fair attempt covering all off the categories of chickens that are suitable for your gardens. Understanding meat, egg laying, dual purpose and bantam chickens will help you decide on what you are able to care for in your backyard. The book also covers what they believe to be the best free-range, family friendly, cold-hardy and heat-tolerant breeds of chickens.

The authors warn (as I did when I first got my chickens) the dangers of naming not only your chickens endearing and tongue-in-cheek names, but also your gardens and coops. “Examples of chicken coop names are Coop de Manion and Palais de Poulet (French for chicken palace.) More fun examples of chicken garden areas could be Hen Haven and Chicken Little Run.” Coop de Coogan sounds good!

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it talked about both the gardens and chickens.

The perfect plantings for all your needs, growing good eats for chickens and people and other landscape considerations were covered.

The first half covered a lot of information about basic chicken care, like nest boxes, coop designs and food requirements. Since the book is called “Gardening with Free- Range Chickens For Dummies,” I should have known there was going to be some fundamental info in the beginning.

If you are familiar with “for dummies” books (who isn’t these days), you will recall that there are icons used in the book which include “tips,” “remember,” “warning” and “technical stuff.” I laughed when one of the warning icons said “Chickens can fly!” It’s true. They can fly and that is why having a solid perimeter fence is important, but I forget that we need to be warned about birds flying.

I wrote this article because it is getting more spring like in Western New York and we are able to garden once again, not because it is Easter time and chicks are more easily available. If you want pet chickens, wait another month (or two) and see if your mind has changed. If your mind hasn’t changed, check out your city ordinance to learn how to start living a more sustainable life. Chapter Three: Preparing Yourself and Your Family for Chickens will help you figure out city rules and your neighbors’ needs.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior and is a certified professional bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.