By Andrew Whitman
When you mention chickens and gardens in the same sentence, often one of the first responses from people is that the chickens can ruin a garden. The assertion that they will peck a hole in every ripe tomato they can find is a true one. However, we feel we have struck a peaceful balance between having a healthy garden and raising chickens and other animals.
Typically, we let our chickens run free around our yard as much as possible, but we do have a large pen to lock them in once the garden becomes vulnerable. That doesn’t mean that chickens and vegetables don’t mix, though.
First off, how many times a season do you pick a tomato that has a rotten bottom, an ugly split down the side, or some other undesirable blemish? Although it looks unappetizing to people, it goes right over the fence to our small flock of layers and they are more than happy to have it.
We do the same with scrawny ears of corn that did not get pollinated well, or one that is half worm-eaten. Even the weeds from the garden go to the chickens. That is not all—chickens love cucumber peels, seeds scraped out of a pumpkin, squash and zucchini that has gotten old or grown way too large, and all kinds of garden left-overs. It lowers the feed bill and chickens get really bored with bland feedstore layer pellets over time anyway.
When we raised rabbits, they ate carrot peels, broccoli stubs and leaves, pea pods, and even the husks from corn. Our cows always ate the dried corn stalks at the end of the season, so there was very little ever wasted from our gardens through the years.
Secondly, the animals give back, too. For example, we usually rake up the cut grass from our yard after we mow and use it like hay in the chicken pen. Every couple of weeks during the summer, we gather up the old “hay” from the pen and spread it around our garden plants, and the nutrients quickly seep into the ground and super-charge the plants. We no longer have to use chemical fertilizers for most of what we grow. We also crush up egg shells and spread them around our tomatoes to supply much-needed calcium. When we raised turkeys, they were great for pest control. As soon as our corn was about two feet high and the Japanese beetles attacked in mid-summer, we would turn the turkeys out and they would devour all the beetles they could reach. The ones beyond their reach, we could knock to the ground and they would snatch them up, too (but don’t let them near young, tender corn shoots that are only a few inches high, or they will eat those before anything else). The turkey also made short work of any grasshoppers in late summer.
These are just some of the many ways to strike a balance between the plant world and the animal world. I encourage you to experiment at your home and see how much farther you can stretch your God-given resources.