Hens and gardens

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Charlotte the hen has two new feathered companions, but seems less than enthralled. A sedate hen of mature years, she is clearly flummoxed by the antics of these point-of-lay young things. I have always thought the henhouse was a microcosm of human existence and the two new hens have only cemented this opinion. They have so many similarities to young teenage girls. They preen themselves endlessly, squawk and squabble. They have no respect for authority or boundaries, do whatever they want, and are frankly outraged whenever they are shut up in their pen (which they regard as something akin to a maximum-security jail) after a few hours of running riot in my garden. 'OMG, this is just SO unfair; she is SUCH a control freak', I can almost them saying.

We have had hens for nearly eight years but these were always bantams until the arrival of Charlotte, an Isa Brown, last year. She did not prove to be a problem as she is a quiet, genteel bird. The arrival of the new girls has given me pause for thought on whether hens and gardens really mix. The new birds managed to dig up a number of newly planted specimens with their large, questing claws, within hours of being allowed out of their pen for the first time. They have also dug around established plants, exposing a large amount of the root systems. When we only had Charlotte, I could leave her out all day without a second thought, as she never did any damage and seemed to spend a lot of time just relaxing in the sun.

Breakfast time in the hen house

The new birds also show no deference to fences and were found wandering in the street on the second day they were let out. We erected a temporary barricade to restrain them to what I thought was a fairly generous area of the garden for them to run around in, complete with a compost heap and lots of leaf litter, but they immediately flew over the netting or crawled under it, in search of greener pastures. At the moment, I have to supervise them when they are out to make sure they don't get up to mischief. I have put small metal obelisks over newly planted specimens to give them some sort of protection. Charlotte watches it all (such as my futile attempts to round them up with a garden rake to get them back in their pen) with an air of puzzlement. I can see her thinking nostalgically, like me, of the good old days when none of this was happening and all I needed to do was clap my hands for her to wander obediently towards the hen house.

A fresly laid egg makes having chickens worthwhile

So much for all the negatives of having hens. There are definitely pluses to having them. Hens also love kitchen scraps, so there is a feeling of virtuous satisfaction in having stale bread, old leftovers from the fridge and vegie peelings eaten up and turned as if by magic into sublime fresh eggs. I have also discovered that hens love many weeds, including wandering jew, so each day I feel motivated to pull up a bucketful of weeds for them, thereby improving my garden. The droppings from the hen house, mixed with straw, are a great addition to the compost heap.

To mollify the birds when they are confined to their pen, I have begun shovelling in partly decomposed compost for them to scratch around in. This has the benefit of allowing them to get rid of all the curl grubs that live in the compost, add in their droppings to the mixture, and help the decomposition process in general. I then plan to shovel it out again onto my garden beds. This idea was suggested to me by a wise gardener/hen owner, and I am very grateful for the advice.

Having to supervise them when they are let loose has meant I do get more gardening done in that area - which is definitely looking better. To pass the time, I have even given liquid fertiliser to each and every plant in these border. Having hens also gives lots of amusement in watching the interactions of the birds, understanding their calls, and getting an insight into their pecking order. Hens each have individual personalities - bizarre but true. If only I can somehow harness their vigorous digging into an area for a new border - now that would make them truly garden worthy.