Author Lisa Steele has been around chickens her whole life. How important were the birds to the family? An old photo of the Steele homestead in Massachusetts shows the house still under construction while a much bigger barn for chickens was complete and ready to go.
Steele, the author of “Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens” (Voyageur Press, $22.99), grew up across the street from her grandparents’ chicken farm and as a child raised chicks of her own. After college she worked on Wall Street, but when her husband retired from the military, the family headed to Maine where the cost of living was lower and Steele could once again have chickens.
“We have not eaten store-bought eggs in almost 10 years,” said Steele. “It’s an excuse to be outside, and people don’t realize how friendly chickens are. When we step outside they come running.”
The urban chicken phenomenon may have started as a fad but it’s persisted because raising chickens has so many benefits, Steele said. She wrote her book because guidance for gardeners with chickens is scarce. We caught up with Steele, who also writes a “chicken lifestyle” blog (fresheggsdaily.com), to chat about pest control, compost and which plants get the biggest boost from the presence of poultry:
Q: Do chickens and gardening go together?
A: While it’s estimated that one-third of the U.S. population consider themselves gardeners, only about 1 percent own chickens. So there’s a good chance that anyone who has chickens does garden. I think the few people who raise chickens who don’t have a garden end up planting one, if only to grow things for their chickens to eat!
Q: Why write the book?
A: While most chicken keepers love feeding their chickens garden and kitchen scraps, I’m not sure they realize the immense benefits that chickens can have in a garden, including natural pest and weed control, aerating the soil and providing unlimited fertilizer. Things like chicken feathers, manure and eggshells make wonderful fertilizer, and sharing your harvest with chickens makes for a more nutritious, varied diet for them, which translates into more delicious eggs. I had been gardening for years before we got chickens, but it wasn’t until we started raising a small flock that I really started to appreciate the full circle of it all. We feed our chickens trimmings from the garden, they poop, then we compost that manure and use it to fertilize the following year’s garden. It’s a beautiful thing.
Q: Does owning chickens and gardening lead to a more sustainable household?
A: Doing either is a wonderful way to provide not only fresh, healthy food for your family, but also a great educational experience for kids. ... Chickens are small, perfectly manageable even in suburban or urban areas, and they’re one of the few animals that provide food without actually sacrificing their lives in the process. So families that want to be more self-sufficient but are not ready to start butchering the family rabbits can raise chickens and enjoy them as pets even as they supply food. A garden full of fresh vegetables and a coop full of fresh eggs go a long way toward feeding your family a nutritious diet.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in gardening with chickens?
A: Chickens will eat not only the bad bugs in the garden, but also your earthworms, toads, snakes and good bugs. They’ll dig up weeds, but also eat your seedlings. They’ll eat veggies and then scratch up the roots of your plants. Good fencing is the key to gardening with chickens. Fencing and timing. During the offseason, before you plant your seeds, and after the harvest are all good times to let your chickens have free rein in your garden. During the growing season, our garden is off-limits or we would have nothing left.
Ringing the base of plants with stones or pavers and, of course, not using any pesticides or chemical fertilizers is really important when you let your chickens free range.
Q: You promote growing herbs as good for both chickens and people.
A: Not only are herbs really easy to grow, they continue to produce all through the growing season and in fact thrive when you pluck and trim them. Herbs are also incredibly beneficial to both chickens’ and your family’s health, not to mention a delicious and easy way to flavor your cooking.
Q: Is it true that chickens can actually help the gardener?
A: When you let chickens do what they do naturally, which is scratching in the dirt looking for weed seeds and bugs, they unintentionally till the soil for you, aerating it as they go. They do a wonderful job of eating any bugs that had planned on overwintering in your garden in the fall, and then eat all kinds of bug larvae in the spring. The fact that they also poop as they “work” is just one more benefit, since chicken manure is high in nitrogen and an amazing garden fertilizer.
Q: You talk about passively composting bedding and waste in chicken coops. What advice would you give gardeners who want to use chicken manure as fertilizer in the garden?
A: Chicken manure is not only high in nitrogen, but also higher in calcium than other animal manure. That’s beneficial for crops that like extra calcium, such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Because it’s so high in nitrogen, chicken manure should be aged for several months before it’s applied to the garden. A good practice is to clean your coop in the fall and use the straw/manure/feathers to mulch your garden through the winter, giving it time to age before you plant. During the growing season, compost the coop litter and then use it the following spring on the garden. If your chickens roam the garden, I wouldn’t worry much about the small amount they will poop around your plants.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, Hennepin County Master Gardener and Tree Care Advisor.