Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Gardening with chickens - a beginner's guide to (moderate) success

Spring is here - at long last!!  I'm chitting potatoes in my windowsill (well aware that other gardeners did that months ago and will be eating new potatoes not long after I got mine into the soil) and have spent my pocket money on seed packets.

Today I got the kitchen garden kinda-sort of ready.  It was sloooow work - partly because I twisted my knee the other day and can't really bend it. Or put much weight on it. Or climb stairs. 

But I digress (which is all too easy to do when you're wallowing in self pity). The other reason why it took a bit longer than usual was my feathered assistants.  So here are a few nuggets of wisdom, should you ever decide to employ chickens on your little plot of land.

Go to your kitchen garden and survey your plot. If you're a lazy gardener like me, you mulch your garden in winter - basically this means the soil will be covered with hay from your guinea pigs, whatever grass clippings that haven't rotted away, and perhaps bits and pieces of the Christmas tree.  The bonus is that this has blocked out most of the sunlight so there won't be as many weeds as there might have been.  But now the cover needs to go, so you can get the soil ready for planting.

Remove whatever weeds there are.  This may be a challenge.  You must do your best to be one step ahead of your chickens so they don't get in your way.

You will fail at this.

A chicken on an earthworm mission is basically like you, back when you were 16 and smoking cigarettes and riding in cars with boys: convinced it is immortal and totally unwilling to let anything stand in its way.

But try your very best not to, you know, injure it with a hoe or rake over its little feet.

It also helps if you have eyes at the back of your head (people with small kids might have an advantage here), so you don't accidentally trip over your chickens when you take a step backwards...

Gardening with chickens helps you build up a healthy degree of tolerance and patience. It is not uncommon to rake over the same ground several times because your helpers have a slightly different take on the concept "neat pile".

Now it is time to get firm with them.  If you're planning on actually growing things in your kitchen garden, you'll need to find a way of keeping the chooks out for the next few months.  For me, that means that whatever pocket money I don't spend on seed packets, I spend on fencíng.

Your assistants will not appreciate this. You will be at the receiving end of resentful glares. This is something you'll just have to live with.

With the main kitchen garden done(-ish), fenced in, and ready for planting you can move on to the raised beds, assuming you have some.  I do.

Start by removing the winter duvet on the strawberries.  Feel yourself surrounded by eager little helpers, again. Cruelly restrained from working on the main plot, they happily move on to new pastures. Chickens have short memories, bless 'em.

This is the point where you decide not to plant out the new strawberry plants until your helpers have gone home for the day.  Their hind legs would mean a miserably short life for any baby plants that got in their way.  Look at these drumsticks at work:

So you move on to the next raised bed. And are immediately joined by the work force who feel that the most interesting bit of soil is the one you're working on at any given time.

You may also want to discard your gardening tools altogether. At the end of the day, tiny rakes are for amateurs. No one can comb your soil more professionally than a motivated chicken.

So if you're wondering what I've been up to since my last post, it's this. Looking after my chickens. (Also I've squeezed in a trip to Hamburg, a long weekend in London, work-work-work, fun nights out, and plenty of Viggo cuddles)

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need" (quote: Cicero). "And if you add chickens, you have endless entertainment" (quote: The Blogless Sister)

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