Our friend the gourmet cook likes to talk about the flavor of fresh eggs as opposed to those you might get from the supermarket. He became so obsessed with using eggs only days old, rather than weeks (or even months), ones produced by backyard chickens with a well-rounded diet that, well, he eventually got some birds of his own.
He’d give me a half carton of his cherished product when the laying cycle was at its peak and those backyard eggs were indeed excellent. Everything you look for in a good, truly naturally nourished egg is there, especially that rich, gooey flavor. He claims that not only are his quiches and other egg dishes better (his hard-boiled eggs are divine) but that his eggs are the key to his baking success.
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For those who haven’t been keeping up, eggs are not thought to be the cholesterol risk they once were (though they are high in cholesterol). In fact, experts are again seeing them as a nutritional powerhouse, not dangerous to almost everyone.
Our friend is also a modest gardener — most serious cooks are — and now he’s all about what the chickens will do for his vegetable patch. Backyard chickens not only give you eggs, they give you fertilizer, he extolls. They’re a strutting, pecking form of natural pest control, and sure enough, when he lets them out of their coop during the unseasonably warm days we’ve been having, they wobble over to his snowless garden patch and start digging out grubs and who knows what other pests that are starting to move in the soil.
We’re not here to convince you to keep chickens. (We’ll let those delicious eggs do that.) And we’re not here to instruct you on how to raise and keep the birds, though we’ve had some experience. There’s a lot of information out there that will tell you that. But if you do keep chickens — and even urban dwellers are keeping chickens on top of their co-op buildings these days — here’s how to employ them in your garden.
Advantages to keeping backyard chickens — manure and pest-control — can also have their downsides. Chicken manure is very hot and can potentially hide pathogens. So it needs to be composted, like all manures, or at least overwintered before you plant your garden.
And when your patch is planted, the chicken’s inclination to pull up and consume everything in the garden, seedlings as well as pests, can mean frustration, loss of time, and even replanting.
Composting and properly containing your girls is all part of good chicken raising. Keeping coops and pens clean and recycling bedding properly takes care of the manure problem. And keeping your birds safely contained away from vegetable seedlings and emerging landscape flowers can also help protect them from cats, dogs, raccoons, and other chicken marauders.
Backyard chickens put out a lot of manure, about a cubic foot every six months. Chicken manure is hotter than cow or (even) hog manure and will burn new plants and discourage seed germination of greens and other direct-sow vegetables. Fresh manure may contain pathogens (PDF) that you don’t want to spread on your soil. Most home compost piles don’t heat up enough to effectively kill pathogens (or weed seeds for that matter). But over time sunlight, freezing, and natural decomposition will usually take care of any manure-borne risk.
When you clean your coop of all that manure and bedding, say every month or so, compost it with enough brown or carbon material to give you a one-to-two ration of green (the manure) and brown. If you use a lot of straw or sawdust in your bedding, this should be easy to do. Let it sit for a season, at least three or four months, before using in the garden. If it will be spread around established vegetables make sure its fully composted, say for a full year.
You can spread your coop cleanings directly in your garden as you put it to bed in the fall. The long winter and warming spring ahead of planting should take care of any pathogen problems as well as mellowing its potent nitrogen.
When protecting your garden and its seedling (and even maturing plants) from the scratching, digging and pecking that chicken do, it’s better to contain the chickens inside a pen or run than try to keep them out of the places where vegetables grow. A portable cage, coop, or chicken tractor allows you to run the birds where you like. I’ve seen one egg gathering family that made a cage just the size of their raised bed. They’d put a couple birds in the bed, cover it, and let them go to work, fertilizing and taking out pests ahead of planting.
On the other hand, I’ve seen a backyard turned over to the chickens and the kids given the task of keeping the birds in the yard and out of the garden and flower beds. We called them chicken wranglers. Let’s just say both the kids and the chickens got a lot of exercise.
Chicken are pretty thorough when it comes to cleaning your lawn of unwanted insects. We’ve seen reports that they even do a good jobs on ticks.
Containment is one of the responsibilities that backyard chicken raisers take on. Most cities that allow chickens require it (to see a fairly comprehensive and mostly current list of chicken ordinances, go here). Your chickens need protection, not just from pets but such otherwise cuddly predators like racoons and skunks (okay, skunks may not be so cuddly).
We’re discouraged when we see stories like this. Raising chickens is a commitment and can be hard work, something gardeners aren’t afraid of. Like all pets — and yes, most people I know treat their chickens like pets — they need our care. But any effort we expend feeding and caring for chickens is amply rewarded… and not just in eggs.