Our gardens have always been an important part of our life plan but our soil is clay. We have been using a modified version of free-ranging chickens to improve our soil. The results have been dramatic! We get twice the harvest in half the space as before.
We have many gardens around our home. There is a cottage garden in our front yard, a Japanese inspired shade garden, a rose garden, herb gardens off our back deck, and Grandma’s perennial flower beds around her apartment. Our biggest garden has always been our vegetable and perennial fruit garden.
Our soil is clay. In fact, the local art center used to do summer classes where the whole class would go dig up their own clay and take it back to the studio where each student would throw and fire pots. Hysterically funny that we are trying to get potatoes and carrots to grown in that same clay, isn’t it?
Composting Helps Improve Soil
We make and use compost. It works great! In fact we made the soil that makes up the rose and Japanese shade gardens. The Japanese shade garden came about because on the south side of the house there are several cottonwood trees and their roots are growing above ground and no grass would grow there. There are also several service lines running underground there so the gardens are built up mounds making everything grow essentially above ground. The cottonwoods provide the shade (along with lots of Sumac trees, our version of Japanese Maples) under which we have Hostas, several different Lilies, and mint,because it likes the shade. There is also a bamboo fountain that spills into a rock-lined pond and a zen garden and rake. Tiki torches keep the mosquitoes at bay most of the time.
The rose garden is in the spot where there used to be a cement patio and the ground was horrible underneath. Composted soil has amended the existing soil and now roses grow and bloom profusely in what was once barren soil.
Vegetable Garden Soil
There was never enough compost to amend the vegetable garden, however. We tried all sorts of ideas. Cameron hauled manure from our neighbors corrals and allowed it to age on the garden spot. We always pile our grass clippings in the rows and around the plants and do everything we can to keep the soil loose.
Grandma’s flower beds and our herb gardens are raised beds. Ours are built of wood and hers are built with cinder blocks. We fill these beds with a mix of potting soil and compost and continually mulch with grass clippings to help the beds retain moisture during our hot summers.
Then we found out that the other problem in our equation is our well water. There is a lot of alkali in the water that comes from the well we use for outside. It leaves a white sediment on bare dirt. We have 2 wells, one for outside use and one for inside use. Our inside water isn’t good for plants at all. So now, how do we fix this problem?
Cameron and I have done a lot of research and tried a whole bunch of experiments over the years. We feel like we have found some remarkable solutions that I would like to share so here is how our chickens help us raise loads of yummy vegies. We will deal with the water+clay soil issues in another post.
Improving Soil Using Chickens
Bring on the chickens! We hit on the idea of building a new chicken coop next to the garden spot. The old chicken house had become a shed out of necessity a couple of years earlier. In the discussion of where to build the new coop, we decided to put it next to the garden and then the ideas began to flow.
We split our garden spot in half and give half to the chickens for their fenced in yard. There are so many predators that allowing our hens to roam has always ended badly. That’s where the modified free-range phrase comes in. Their yard is large, allowing them to scratch and hunt to their hearts’ content, but fenced. In fact, 2 electric wires run around the top and the bottom on the outside to prevent anything climbing over or tunneling under.
Chicken Yard This Year, Garden the Next
The chicken door to the great outside is actually on the opposite side of the coop from their yard. They go out the door, down the ramp and around the back side where there is a strategically placed crab apple tree that gives great shade in the summer. That part of their chicken yard stays the same every year. There are 2 structures inside the fence. They provide shelter from heat and great places for dust baths for the chickens. Our chicken shelters are always inside the chicken yard and we move them periodically throughout the summer. The wooden gate that allows us into the chicken run is permanent as well. The rest of the yard changes yearly.
Most of the time, we move the fence that surrounds the chicken yard in the fall right after the frost that makes us pick the last of the tomatoes and pull the plants and gather up the pumpkins, squash and gourds and pull the carrots. Then the chickens get to scratch and eat and enjoy the plants that are left. Sometimes, we simply run out of time before the ground freezes too hard to move the posts. In that case, we just wait until spring and then they clean up the garden. It is amazing how fast all that dead stuff goes away once the chickens get into it!
So we use steel posts, sheep wire on the bottom and chicken wire on the top to make our fence. To move the chicken yard, we just lock the chickens in the coop at night and don’t let them out in the morning until they have a new yard. Then we roll back the fence to the point where it stays the same every year and pull out the posts that are left. Cameron has a great system worked out so we don’t even have to pull all the posts. Some of them make the new fence.
We restretch the sheep wire and the chicken wire around the posts. Next, fasten it with zip ties to the posts and at the point where the sheep wire meets the chicken wire being very careful to stretch the wires up and down as well as around. One year, we had a dumb little Polish pullet that thought the sag between the 2 kinds of wire made a great place to roost. We had a terrible time getting her out of there. So now we are careful. The electric fencing goes around last as a security measure.
Now we have traded places with the chickens. Our garden will be where they were last year. Usually in about February there is a thaw that allows us to clean out the coop and leave it on the garden spot side. By the time it is time to plant, it is old enough manure to till into the ground and it won’t burn new plants.
We also use grass clippings to mulch around the plants and between the rows in our gardens. It helps to hold the moisture in and kind of helps keep the weeds from growing so fast. I mean they are weeds though so…
How Many Hens Does it Take to Till a Garden?
Throughout the growing and harvesting season, we dump lots of organic matter into the chicken run for the chickens to eat. Things like pulled weeds, extra-large zucchini and cukes. The ends off the beans, shells of peas, even the skins from the tomatoes during processing and corn husks end up dumped in various places in their yard. All the good stuff that the hens eat give us eggs with golden tasty yolks, too.
Right now we have 25 chickens. Last summer we had 32 but this winter was hard on all of us and 7 of our ladies did not survive the cold and confinement. We have had as few as 8 hens but this idea works a lot better with more chickens in our size garden.
HOW DOES ALL OF THIS HELP OUR SOIL?
- The chickens do a lot of tilling that doesn’t leave the soil open to erosion. They dig holes for dust baths, scratch at the grains we throw out to them everyday and gently till the ground but not deep enough that the soil blows away in the wind.
- The soil is fertilized throughout the season. No more hauling in bags of chemical fertilizer or hauling pickup loads of manure from neighboring corrals. What a savings of time and money!
- All the organic matter that is scratched into the soil really loosens it up. To our amazement, we have found that it doesn’t get harder as the rain stops and the heat moves in We have been able to successfully grow LOTS of potatoes and carrots again.
- We have seen a huge increase in our garden’s production. Same amount of space, better yields.
- Along with the savings in time, there is a cost savings in our little experiment. Because of the eggs we enjoy and share and the way the chickens fit into our garden plan, it takes the cost of keeping the chickens down too.
- Because of their close proximity to the garden, the hens also help keep up with the bugs. We have noticed less grasshoppers and potato bugs invading our produce.
With all that our ladies contribute to our garden project, the eggs are kind of a delicious bonus. We have toyed with the idea of getting them little straw hats and overalls but that would just be too much work. We definitely appreciate how they make us look like such great gardeners though!