BIRDS ON BEDS
03 Sep 2011
Using chickens as an integral part of your raised-bed vegie gardening
Birds on beds
Using chickens as an integral part of your raised-bed vegie gardening
by Raphael Wood
Based on the principles of crop rotation, there are five raised beds in this system, all growing different vegetables year on year, but the unique thing about this garden is that one bed is home to a chicken tractor.
The chooks pick all the weed seeds and bugs out of the soil and turn it over with their natural digging instinct, which is where the term “chicken tractor” comes in.
Having chooks in the yard will make you see your weeds as a free food source for them and not an annoying chore to be done.
Fresh eggs, pretty pets and a garden that overflows with produce without lifting a finger. Sounds perfect? Well, the system works wonders for this Canberra gardener.
Based on the principles of crop rotation, there are five raised beds in this system, all growing different vegetables year on year, but the unique thing about this garden is that one bed is home to a chicken tractor. All five beds are identical in size and a mobile chicken coop, built to the same dimensions, is moved around the beds in order to cultivate, control pests and fertilise each bed as the tractor spends its time there.
The poor-quality soils of the Canberra region, a sloping block and limited space meant that using raised beds was really the only option for good vegies in this suburban yard. The chickens are housed in a coop custom-built for the purpose. It is made of sturdy hardwood and clad with fibro cement sheeting, which makes it heavy enough to be fox proof but light enough to be lifted by two people. The coop sits neatly on top of the raised bed timbers. It has a hen house at one end with the nest boxes and perch tucked in, to protect the chickens at night and in inclement weather.
Feeding the soil
The chickens are fed all the house scraps and garden and lawn clippings, while all garden waste, such as autumn leaves and weeds, are also placed in the coop where it is turned over and becomes a living compost heap. The chooks pick all the weed seeds and bugs out of the soil and turn it over with their natural digging instinct, which is where the term “chicken tractor” comes in. The chooks turn the soil over down to about 30cm and the worms do the deeper work. There is a door allowing the chooks to freerange out of the coop, but the downside there is you may need to fence in the other four beds.
Any gardener who can run a compost pile can manage this “deep litter method”, as the only issue to overcome is keeping the bed from heating up too much and going anaerobic (which becomes smelly) when it gets too wet. So a supply of straw or other carbon-rich material (such as leaves) is kept handy and added to the bed when needed, particularly after prolonged rain.
You need to move the coop at least twice a year. Depending on your location, and seasonal differences, this might be in the middle of summer and winter, or pre-spring and autumn, in time for the first drop, when the first crop has run its course. This part really depends on your location. In Canberra, it is best done four weeks before the start of spring and at the end of summer in time for winter planting.
Once the bed is moved, you have a “fresh bed”, which looks like a soufflé, piled high in rich organic matter and fertiliser.
This fresh bed is too hot to plant out immediately with high nitrogen and low pH levels (acidic), but cover with a thick layer of straw and watch the next shift of nature’s workers move in: the worms. There can be so many worms in the soufflé that it’s possible to reach down and pull out handfuls of them at random. They work through the pile in ascending layers, turning the organic matter into rich soil. The picture below shows a core of the fresh bed soufflé, the deepest, processed soil at left, moving up to the active worm layer, into the anaerobic layer to the top layer, on which the worms are also working, albeit a different species.
Once the bed has rested for a month, it’s time to plant. This is now Bed 1. The pH of the bed after resting is around 5.5, which favours plants such as potatoes, corn, watermelon, pumpkin and garlic.
The planting strategy is fairly straightforward. Immediately following the tractor, the first crop planted in Bed 1 is one that loves high nitrogen and doesn’t mind the soil to be a little acidic. The standard cucurbit and corn crop can fit this bed — just be aware of the pH requirements as this is really the only trick to this system.
Now fitting back in with the standard crop rotation strategy, Bed 2 is planted with nitrogen-loving, mid-range-pH suitable vegies, commonly the Solanaceae or nightshade family — tomatoes, chillies, capsicum and eggplant crops.
Bed 3 is then planted with root crops and alliums, such as onions, carrots, leeks, parsnips, spinach and beetroot, after a light dressing of lime to neutralize the pH if required (pH test kits are cheap and very useful).
Bed 4 should have another addition of lime in winter when the the legumes and brassicas are planted.
Feeding the chooks
Don’t forget to grow some food for the chooks, particularly over winter. Having chooks in the yard will make you see your weeds as a free food source for them and not an annoying chore to be done. You may even find yourself managing the dandelion population for your chooks’ green feed instead of cursing every beautiful ball of seeds that comes up and gets scattered across the yard.
During the last weeks of summer, remember to plant a late crop of the brassicas in all the beds and as many spinach and kale plants as you can fit in. They will last all winter and provide fresh nutrient-rich greens all winter long to keep your chooks healthy and strong — and hopefully laying a bit longer into winter.
How many chooks should I have?
Chickens are very social animals, used to living in flocks with a pecking order, so you should have at least three. Then it’s a question of how many eggs you want and how much room you have for your chickens and vegies. The average chicken will pop out 5–6 eggs a week, slowing down in winter when they rest. Commercially made chicken tractors come in different sizes with a recommendation for how many hens will comfortably fit; if you plan to build one yourself and want to use this rotation system, decide how many chooks you want and how much room you have for vegie beds, then build the tractor and your beds accordingly. Work on the rule of thumb of one large hen per square metre. The one in this garden comfortably houses three happy hens (well, normally, but the in-laws were staying for a week in these photos). The beds and tractor are 2.4m x 1.2m or 2.88m2.
Do I get large or bantam chooks?
You can fit more hens in if you go with bantams, but they don’t suit this system. The large hens are much stronger diggers and it is the digging and turning over, not just scratching the surface, that make this work. Bantam eggs are also much smaller, in general, and don’t quite fit an egg cup.
Raphael Wood breeds chickens and draws plans for chicken tractors. He can be contacted at email@example.com or see his website www.bluelacedgold.org.au.