In November we told you how to start your own organic veggie patch, and now we’ve put together a simple guide to keeping chooks to help step your organic garden up a notch.
Why choose chooks?
These gentle creatures will soon become an integral part of your organic garden maintenance; helping to cull pesky insects, snails and slugs and eradicate weeds, whilst their manure will provide a great natural fertiliser for the lawn and veggie patch. In return for a safe, dry place to sleep, plenty of room to range, fresh water and supplementary grains, these backyard birds will reward you with endless benefits to your garden, as well as eggs and more nutrient-rich vegetables for your kitchen.
How do I get started?
Adding chickens to your garden can offer a bounty of benefits, but before you rush off to choose your hens, there are a few basics to know first:
- Get the go ahead – Before you even think about getting chickens you need to know you’re allowed to. Check local council guidelines to ensure there aren’t any restrictions in place, and if you live in close proximity to your neighbours it’s a good idea to check that they don’t mind a few new additions either.
- Feathered friends - Chickens are a flock animal and prefer company, so consider purchasing a minimum of two or three to get you started.
- Know your breeds – There isn’t just one perfect chicken for everyone out there, so put in the research to find your ideal match. Think about whether you want a high egg producer like an ISA Brown, a beautiful ornamental breed like the Frizzle, a hardy breed like an Orpington, or a highly child-friendly breed like the Rhode Island Red.
- Sweet dreams – Have an area set up for when you bring your girls home. You can purchase ready-made coops and runs, build your own or even transform an old shed. The most important thing is that it’s predator-proof to keep your hens safe at night, and well protected from unwanted rodents and bad weather. The coop also needs to be well ventilated, easy to clean and be large enough for the number of chickens you are introducing – around four square feet per bird is recommended. Whilst they might be free-roaming during the day, your chooks will need roosting perches to sleep on at night and nesting boxes to lay eggs in, as well as a patch of the garden, or bowl, filled with dirt or sand to bathe in (this helps to prevent lice and mites).
- A balanced diet – Your new backyard friends will get a large proportion of their food and nutrition from foraging in your garden, but they will still need supplementary poultry pellets. You can also feed your chickens a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables (nothing spoiled) to supplement their diet, as well as occasional rice, oats, pasta, beans and bread, though avoid foods high in fat or salt.
What will they do for my garden?
A gardener’s friend and a fantastic pet, chooks are full of character, incredibly social and can be cute and cuddly too. Though free-range is best, it’s a good idea to put in place some boundaries to protect your plants at certain times of year. Chickens love foraging for worms, so you might want to keep them away from freshly mulched beds or patches with young seedlings. However, over in the vegetable patch your new chooks will work wonders; turning over soil at the end of the season, fertilising it, removing weeds and culling pests all year round.
Add some straw to your chook’s bedding and you can chuck any soiled matter straight on to the compost heap to give it an extra boost, plus it's easy cleaning for you! Chook poo is very high in nitrogen, so leave it on the compost heap to break down for as long as possible to make it safe for sensitive plants. Covering plants in beds with cloches or wire cages will also protect them from too much nitrogen if your chickens have access.
The bottom line
Over time you’ll start to notice your home-grown organic fruit and veg is healthier and more delicious than ever before thanks to the extra nutrients, vitamins and minerals in the soil, helped along by your incredible fertilising chooks. It’s organic made easy!