"Hens and gardens"

The arrival of two new hens poses a challenge for the garden.
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.

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.

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.

 Reader Comments

1/9  Susie - 2261 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 25 September 2011

Like you we have 2 new hens who think far too much of themselves. Our newbies Barbie and Phyllis are about 4 mons. old and are tearing up my garden, my husband turns the earth for them and encourages them to help him with the compost. We both agree with your observation on the personality of hens.

Thanks, Susie. I think they do settle down a bit as they get older! I may follow your advice and start digging a new garden bed for them to scratch around in.

2/9  Beverley - 2113 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

I loved the article on hens so much I read it through again. We dont have hens but I have lots of memories of my grandparents garden & lots of hens and chickens raised. They always referred to them as the chooks. The chook yard was about the size of my whole backyard. Beverley.

Thanks, Beverley. Those chooks had a good-sized yard by the sound of it! My grandparents also had chooks - a very big flock on their citrus orchard at Arcadia. Deirdre

3/9  Libby - 2093 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

Love your story on hens. We have put our hens to work with a movable run using a roll on wire and stakes. We move the hens every few days and they are great for preparing the vegie gardens. They clean out all the bugs, turn the soil and fertilize at the sametime.

I like the sound of that movable run. Will look into it! Deirdre

4/9  Rae - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

Thanks for the post Deirdre. We are considering addings some hens to our yard but haven't yet committed. It does seem like a lot of work!

I think the key is to maintain the boundaries from the start. This was where we went wrong because if they didn't know the rest of the garden existed, they would be quite happy with the area I let them out into. Also their wings can be clipped to stop them flying over fences. We have not done this - maybe we should! Deirdre

5/9  Mark - 2047 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

Thanks Deirdre I will forward this to my sister who has black orpingtons which she only lets out around sunset to limit their de-mulching time. On another note I have a Salvia Costa Rica Blue which is very floppy in growth. Can you tell me when is the optimum time to prune please?

Your sister sounds very sensible! Re your salvia, you can prune it now - I have done mine. Sometimes I do it lightly at this time and then very hard in November as it stops flowering for a month or so then. You can also cut bits off any time of year as it regenerates quickly. But it needs a good hard prune at least once a year to control it. Deirdre

6/9  Caroline - 4105 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 26 September 2011

Loved reading this article as it has given me a real insight into what effect hens have on your garden. I have toyed with the idea in the last year as to whether to get a few hens and now feel well armed with info to make a decision.

Thanks, Caroline. Hopefully the other suggestions from readers will help. Deirdre

7/9  Maree - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

Thanks Diedre, I am feeling guilty about my chooks, as yours seem to have such a grand life! Costa suggests you use chooks in a mobile run to prepare garden beds and get rid of weeds around fences in pastures because they are such efficent scatchers.Maree

Thanks, Maree. Your suggestion re the mulch was helpful to keep them occupied in their hen run and I like that mobile run idea. Deirdre

8/9  Mary - 2031 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 September 2011

Thanks, Love chooks. And how they help tune us into nature, with its quiet sensitivities and wonders. M M

Thanks, Mary. Yes in spite of all my complaints, I wouldn't be without them! Deirdre

9/9  Mary - 2031 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 30 September 2011

not about hens. Your salvias brighten our driveway, and their cuttings will delight even more corners and spaces. Thank you. Mary

Thanks, Mary. Glad they are doing well. Deirdre

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