Ask the Master Gardener: Chickens in the garden need coop, fence

By: Laurie Meyerpeter Placer County Master Gardener
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Question: I just got chickens and I want to let them free-range in my yard. Is this practical or will they eat my garden plants? Answer: Chickens and gardens are not always a practical mix. While chickens do eat destructive garden pests and insects, add nutrients to the soil and can be beneficial to a garden; they can quickly become garden pests themselves. Chickens are destructive to plants primarily through their vigorous scratching for seeds and bugs and their tearing up of young seedlings or newly planted shrubs with their enthusiastic search for grubs and worms. They will also eat young seedlings, as well as low hanging fruit. There are several ways to combine chickens and gardens. First is to fence the chickens. Keep them in a tight coop with a run. A tight coop is a good idea anyway because it will keep them safe from predators at night. An outside run will allow them to scratch and peck and “be chickens” but in a confined area. A second method is to fence the garden, especially the vegetable garden. Sprouting seeds are highly sought after by chickens and young seedlings that aren’t eaten directly are often scratched completely out of the earth by happy hens and left to dry out in the sun. Fencing will also protect the garden from other pests like rabbits. Sometimes, late in the season when all plants are mature, the gate can be opened and under watchful eyes the chickens can be allowed to forage and eat bugs in the garden. In an ornamental landscape, newly planted shrubs may need protection as well. Freshly dug dirt and the accompanying worms can be extremely attractive to hens, and chickens have been known to uproot even larger plants with their vigorous scratching. A small circle of wire around the shrub is a good precaution until the shrub is established. The best method is a combination of methods. A good coop and run will keep chickens safe and keep them contained when new shrubs are planted, seeds are sown, and gardens are young. Fencing will protect plants not only from chickens but from other pests. And a combination of methods will allow you to have more control over both chickens and other pests, and at the same time allow the chickens to have occasional access into gardens for beneficial pest control but with your oversight and direction. Have gardening questions? Call the Master Gardener hotline at (530) 889-7388,