Saturday, 9 October 2010

Chickens Weed My Garden

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life



Over the summer we built a highly mobile pen to house poultry with the help of our first WWOOF volunteer.  It was intended for the turkey poult we ended up with, without much planning.  When I designed what we now call the poultry schooner, it was with multiple uses in mind.  It wasn't to be just a place to keep our poult, but also a means of allowing our laying hens to do a great deal of our fall garden cleanup.  This year we reorganized the garden so that all our beds are three feet wide.  The poultry schooner is also exactly three feet wide.

This means that it fits neatly over the beds where we've been ripping out our tomato plants as the first frost approaches.  The growing turkey was moved to the pen normally occupied by the hens, and the hens were set to work under the schooner in the garden.  Scratching through soil, tearing small seedlings from the ground, and eating insects in every stage of development is what chickens want to do.  The poultry schooner facilitates them doing it to our benefit.

Not only do the hens perform the service of weeding the beds, but they also add their manure to each bed at the same time.  I wouldn't be keen to add manure to a bed in the spring, when I was about to plant my crops.  But now, in October, planting is at least five months away, and longer for most crops, and we also have months of sub-freezing temperatures to look forward to.  I can't refer you to any science on pathogens in chicken manure, nor their breakdown.  I know I have healthy living soils in the garden, and I trust the hugely diverse microbial populations there to process a light topping of raw manure by the time I'm ready to plant.  The hens only occupy any part of the garden for two days, so we're not talking about an excessive build up of manure.

On the first day the chickens decimate any seedlings, and work the top few inches of soil.  This light and superficial working of the soil would pass muster with living soil enthusiasts as no harm is done to the structure of the soil, mycelium, or (many) earthworms.  The chickens also are eager and happy to help me with the work of breaking down half finished compost.  I don't turn my compost pile but once per year. This year about ten gallons of the stuff from the bottom of the pile was tossed in to the hens on their second day of occupation on each garden bed.  Their excitement with this material was abundantly clear. They showed more interest in the half-finished compost than in their morning grain ration.

The plan was to lasagna mulch over each bed as the chickens were moved on to the next newly cleared area.  But through procrastination I discovered yet another benefit of using my hens in the schooner.  Just days after the hens were removed from a bed, a whole new crop of seedlings sprang up in the lovely, loose soil.  Of course most of them were weeds.  When I was finally ready to do the lasagna mulching, it occurred to me that I could make the hens happy, save myself some work, and deplete the store of weed seeds in my garden by placing the hens back on the beds they'd already worked for just an hour or two.  I was able to rotate the hens over four beds in the course of a day's work, and they cleared all of them of weed seedlings with chilling efficiency.

It seems to me that this technique could be used to great effect to combat the worst weeds.  Even if chickens have no interest in eating a particular plant in the seedling stage, their scratching will decimate the seedlings anyway.  The fact that four hens can clear a 30 square foot area of such seedlings in a matter of hours suggests that the process could be repeated several times in the weeks of waning sunlight in autumn.  Come springtime there would be far fewer seeds left near the surface capable of germination.  Add in a good lasagna mulching job, and the weed pressure is bound to be minimal.

I'm looking forward to spring 2011.