Free-range chickens and gardening? It is indeed possible in large gardens where there is a variety of habitats. And much more than that, once you have become used to the company, antics and habits of chickens that are as much part of a garden as you are, it is hard to imagine life without them. It is only when you have regular and close contact with them when they are living a healthy and unhindered outdoor life that you realise how intelligent they are.
Of course, a few adaptations have to be made and compromises found. Gardeners often remark, “How can you cope with chickens’ large, scratching feet? What about spring when it comes to sowing seeds – don’t chickens scratch out all the seed? How do you stop them having dust baths in finely-raked soil? Don’t they peck and ruin all your broccoli?”
It is true that most chickens that are kept for egg-laying purposes tend to be fairly large breeds with large feet. But if you are keeping chickens as pets in the garden, then smaller bantam breeds, such as Dutch bantams, are a better choice – their feet are little and don’t do so much damage. When sowing seeds outdoors, you can sow them in rows and then protect the rows with a neatly arranged barrier of criss-crossed twigs – the jagged ends of spruce branches are an ideal source for twigs for this purpose. Chickens must have access to dust baths – it is necessary for their health – but if you provide them with one or two specially made spots where they can do this, they tend to revisit them regularly rather than roam all over the garden looking for new sites. Some things, though, can’t be avoided; chickens love to eat the young foliage of plants belonging to the broccoli family, and you must grow them where they are out of reach and sight of your chickens. Otherwise, grow something else!
Accommodating free-range chickens in the garden does incur a lot more planning and work, but their presence brings so much pleasure and gives the garden another purpose. I find visitors to the garden become spellbound watching our three resident black Silkies, especially when they are lying on the grass together in a fluffy bundled heap in the sunshine, stretching out their legs – not a care in the world, unfettered and free.