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Gardening with Free Range Chickens for Dummies

Gardening With Free Range Chickens for Dummies

Dogs and cats are so 20th century. Chickens are the new trend in ‘pets.’ They are colorful, cheerful, easy to care for, and productive. Think of all those fresh eggs! Dogs only give you sticks you have thrown for them to bring back. OK, sometimes they bring you the newspaper, too. Cats are too independent to bring you anything.

Of course, chickens have different needs than a dog or cat if you are going to include them in your life. They need a real house of their own. Believe me, you do not want to live with your chickens. Chickens need fresh air and a place to roam, scratch and eat. However, you do not want them in the garden, and you want to keep them healthy. If there are chicken veterinarians they are very hard to find.

Backyard chicken flocks are so popular that cities and towns are having to revise their zoning laws to allow them. No roosters, though. If chickens are in your future, or fantasies, you need to know the basics of chicken behavior and care while keeping a beautiful garden. Bonnie Jo Mannion, who has a degree in Avian Science, and Rob Ludlow, the owner of, have put together Gardening with Free-Range Chickens for Dummies which answers every question you ever thought of about caring for chickens, while also caring for your garden. They even have answers to important issues you never thought about.

The book is organized into three sections. The first includes general information about gardening with chickens. When I started gardening with chickens 30 years ago I was entranced with the idea that my free range chickens would eat all the bad bugs and slugs that might visit my garden. Disaster. They loved the lettuce seedlings and other plants even more. In my experience chickens need to be kept out of the garden, at least during the growing season. Mannion and Ludlow suggest a number of ways to handle chickens outdoors from permanent runs, to mobile chicken tractors.

I must explain that chicken tractors are not mechanical vehicles. These tractors are a way of confining chickens outdoors in a moveable structure that can be rotated through grazing areas.

While there is lots of information about caring for chickens there are also good and creative suggestions for the ways to integrate a chicken coop and grazing space into an attractive garden.

Section II goes into garden design in even greater depth, with information about specific plants that serve specific purposes, from plants that benefit the soil, provide shelter, that screen unsightly areas, and that are beneficial. For example, did you know that catnip, feverfew and artemesias have insect repelling properties. There is an excellent list of plants that are poisonous or dangerous for chickens.

The section on chicken behavior and psychology is also valuable for those who have no experience with these birds. If you truly want to make a pet of your chickens, Mannion and Ludlow give you advice. I have always felt chickens get a bum rap when it comes to their intelligence. They are smart enough to be friendly, and they all know when it is feeding time.

The third section deals with predators, sickness and injury. The instance of these challenges will vary depending on your location. One year we had trouble with weasels who killed 60 of our meat birds. I asked everyone what to do. Everyone said it is impossible to protect against weasels who can get through the tiniest hole in a coop. Still, that is a country problem, and there are precautions that can be taken against most predators and disease.

Gardening with Free Range Chickens for Dummies is an excellent book for people who are planning to raise a small backyard flock. It is unique in that it addresses your dual goal of raising a healthy flock of chickens and a beautiful garden.

I do have one quibble with this book. Mannion and Ludlow emphasize regular cleaning. They recommend cleaning out the manure box under the roost daily, cleaning out all the bedding every month, and deep cleaning and disinfecting the whole chicken coop twice a year. I would hate to think that this cleaning schedule would scare anyone away from enjoying a back yard flock.

I belong to the deep litter school of henhouse maintenance. I keep adding litter to the henhouse floor over the course of the year so that it is always dry, but I only clean it out annually. Nor do I remove all the manure and litter. This is because the bacteria in the henhouse is not unhealthy. Leaving some of the manure in the henhouse provides the beneficial microbes to start working on the new manure. In fact, a layer of manure will help keep your chickens warm in the winter. This is a legitimate way of managing your manure.

When you clean your henhouse it is a good idea to let the manure and bedding compost further before using it on your garden.

In all the decades of keeping chickens I have never had disease or a smelly coop. The problems that commercial operations have are not a problem for the backyard flock where they have plenty of room, fresh air, and a well ventilated henhouse. Gardening with Free Range Chickens for Dummies can set you on the road to having the same happy experience.

My backyard chicken flock in May

Between the Rows   August 31, 2013


Taking Stock of Experiments and Projects

The Roses had a successful year

Every spring we begin the gardening season with new energy and new plans. After a winter of reading and thinking we stride out into the spring sun to build and dig, to add and subtract with confidence and high hopes.

In the fall, while we are hoping we still have time to plant some bulbs (we do) it is time to review and see how our projects and experiments turned out.

Our big project this year was really big – an eight foot fence around the vegetable garden to keep out the deer. The fence protects the vegetables, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and lettuce that the deer really decimated last year, but it also encircles the red raspberry patch, and the row of black raspberries.

The fence is successful in that it does keep out the deer, and seemed to be keeping out the rabbits so we were happy. The crop rotation put the Brussels sprouts in a new bed where they did not do well so that bed got an extra helping of compost this fall. It is newly planted to garlic which will be harvested in July.

Garlic Harvest 2012

The garlic crop, my second, was a big success, and I give a lot of the credit to seed garlic that I got from my neighbor Rol Hesselbart. Huge cloves!

Floating Row Cover on planting bed

My first experiment in the spring was using floating row covers in the Early Garden right in front of the house. This protected spot was created by the lasagna method in 2010, an experiment that was wonderfully successful. The soil is fertile, well drained and gets sun all day long. It is a great place to plant greens early in the season. Last year the rabbits thought so, too.

I thought that the floating row covers which are designed to get crops off to an early start would also protect them from the rabbits because the covers are pinned down. I was right and I was able to harvest lettuces and other greens for my own meals. The rabbits had to make do with nibbling the lawn.

Apparently by August the rabbits had found a way into the fenced vegetable garden so the late planting of greens was attacked. It took me a while to remember that floating row covers work as protection. Better late than never. The row covers were arranged and I was able to get a small harvest there.

Some may remember the great Tomatoes in a Strawbale experiment that left my husband wounded and bloody. This experiment was not very successful. The hole in the strawbale to hold compost was so difficult to create that we did not make it very big. I did not think this was too important. I thought the roots would grow into the wet and rotting straw and get sufficient nutrition. I was wrong.

The strawbale was placed at the end of the Herb Bed where it was regularly watered. The two cherry tomato plants I inserted into the compost and straw grew and produced fruit, but without the vigor they had in the vegetable garden. When I recently pulled the frosted plants out of the strawbale I saw that the roots were stunted. They had not been able to grow strongly through the bale as I expected.

What could I have done differently? When I saw that the young plants were not really thriving I could have begun a fertilization schedule as I do with my potted annuals.

If I want to try this next year, what can I do that will bring more success? I can make a larger planting hole.

If I want to change the experiment slightly what can I do? Instead of using a strawbale, which has the advantage of being weed free, but is very dense and not as I nutritious as I thought, I could use a haybale. Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill told me that if I leave a haybale out in the weather all winter any weed seeds will rot and the hay can be used as a planting site or as mulch with no danger of importing seeds.

Because the point of an experiment is to learn, no experiment can ever be called a total failure. A hypothesis, such as tomatoes can grow well in a strawbale, is tested. The results of the hypothesis are evaluated and examined. The tomatoes did not grow well because the root system did not develop properly. Then a new hypothesis can be considered, and tested next year.

As a gardener I sometimes feel I am perpetually in a high school science class. And that is a good thing. Therefore, I have already picked up four haybales and stationed them in the garden for further experiments next spring.

What experiments did you try this year? Did you get the results you desired or expected? Did you learn enough to formulate a new hypothesis? Please let me hear from you by emailing and we can compare notes in a future column. ###

Between the Rows  November 3, 2012

The chickens had a happy year, too.


Chicken Encyclopedia Finale on National Poultry Day

Chicken Encyclopedia by Gail Damerow

Chickens have been much on my mind over the past two weeks as I participated in The Chicken Encyclopedia virtual book tour with the participation of 15 of us chicken loving bloggers. I am one of the bloggers who gave away a copy of the book and passed on some information. However, I also passed on some misinformation. Happily I have been corrected by Gail Damerow and the editors at Storey Publishing and I want to make the correction.

I said that when a chicken egg is fertilized the chick develops from the white, and the yolk supplies nourishment. I got that half right. Gail correctly explains, “The germinal spot on the surface of the yolk is what becomes the chick”.
So a more accurate description of what happens is that  a pale, irregularly shaped spot of cells on the surface of an egg yolk is fertilized and then becomes the embryo. So technically the chick develops within the white, but not from the white.  My apologies.

Now, to celebrate National Poultry Day Storey is giving Storey blog readers a chance to win: a signed copy of The Chicken Encyclopedia,  a signed copy of Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich and The Fresh Egg Cookbook by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, as well as an “I’m a Chick Magnet” refrigerator magnet and a chicken-breed poster. Kathy Mormino, from ADozenGirlz, The Chicken Chick™, has donated a gift certificate for custom egg carton labels and a super-cute “Got Eggs?” T-shirt. Fellow blogger Lisa fromFresh Eggs Daily has donated a rustic handpainted mailbox sign (with hanging chalkboard) and a chicken window decal. And we top it all off with For the Love of Poultry, a special anthology of the entire first year of Backyard Poultry magazine! This basket of chicken goodies could be yours if you leave a comment here or on the appropriate post of the Storey Facebook page. There are two baskets so you have a double chance to win.

You even have a another second chance  to win all those goodies by going to the Mother Earth News blog or their Facebook page. Leave your entry comments by March 25.

To end the tour I want to remind you of all the chicken lovers and experts who you might want to visit again when you are in need of more information or  inspiration.

3/2 For the Love of Chickens

3/3 Vintage Garden Gal

3/4 The Garden Roof Coop

3/5 Common Weeder

3/6 Chickens in the Road

3/7 Garden Rant

3/8 Fresh Eggs Daily

3/9 My Pet Chicken Blog

3/10 Coop Thoughts

3/11 BoHo Farm and Home

3/12 Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs

3/13 A Charlotte Garden

3/14 Farm Fresh Fun

/14 Farm Fresh Fun

3/15 The HenCam

3/16 Life on a Southern Farm

3/17 ADozenGirlz, the Chicken Chick™

3/18 North Coast Gardening


We Have a Winner! And It’s Bloom Day

I am happy to announce that Gracia is the winner of Storey Publications book The Chicken Encyclopedia.  Send me your mailing address and I will have Storey mail the book directly to you.

Congratulations! Have fun with your chickens.


While Gracia is celebrating  with her chickens I am celebrating my snowdrops on this Bloom Day. To see what else is blooming across the  country visit May Dreams Gardens. Carol, thank you for hosting this beautiful and useful meme.

More snowdrops


Chicken Encyclopedia – Storey Blog Tour & Giveaway

The Chicken Encyclopedia by Gail Damerow

The chicken is a familiar farm animal, but even those who are setting up backyard flocks may not be aware of the more arcane facts of their life. Some may not be aware of the most basic facts of their biology. I cannot count the number of times people have told me they would love to have chickens producing eggs in the backyard, but they just cannot stand the thought of having a rooster. BASIC FACT: Hens, like women everywhere, do not need a male to produce eggs. Hens, like women everywhere, do need a male to produce a baby.

Chicks in mailing box - keeping each other warm

Related Basic Facts: A rooster fertilizes an egg before it has a shell and before it is laid in the nest. The white of the fertilized egg is what becomes the chick, while the yolk is there to nourish the chick as it develops. That is why day old chicks can be sent to a new chicken farmer in  the mail. The newly hatched chick needs no food or water for three days. Of course, those of us who have picked up a cheerily cheeping box of chicks from the post office are happy to get them into their brooding area as quickly as possible, to give them the warmth that is essential, as well as food and water.

Chicks in brooder box - warm, fed and watered

Gail Damerow’s Chicken Encyclopedia published by Storey will answer hundreds of other questions about chickens. Some of the answers will help you decide what kind of flock you want to have. There are always aesthetics. So many breeds from big handsomely feathered birds like the Faverolle to the Silkie to a nearly featherless hybrid.

Chicken Encyclopedia - Comb Styles

Even the shape of their combs might influence your choice. There is the familiar single comb, but also rose combs, pea combs, strawberry and pea combs.

When I first had chickens the winters were colder than they are now. Some of the birds with their tall single combs would get frostbitten which was alarming to see in January, but they always recovered by June. Chickens with smaller combs like the rose comb did not suffer as much from the cold. Nowadays it doesn’t seem to be an issue at all.


I have chosen different breeds over the years, fat golden Buff Orpingtons, cheerful Barred Rocks, elegant Silver Laced Wyandottes and others. It is nice to have a pretty mixed flock clucking around but the last few years I have only ordered Araucanas/Americanas, which is the way Murray McMurray hatchery labels and sells them. These are the chickens that lay those pretty blue eggs. I haven’t chosen them because of the prettiness of the eggs, but because they are such good layers, easily laying reliably into their third year. What I give up is a mixed flock of beautifully feathered birds. I don’t think Araucans are the most attractive birds you can get, but I decided I need to be practical in getting more eggs for my buck.

This post is part of Storey’s virtual blog tour. Be sure to visit the other bloggers who are giving more information and responses to the Chicken Encyclopedia.  Also, you can win a copy of this fascinating book by leaving a comment below by midnight March 14. Be sure I have your email address, and I’ll announce the winner, chosen randomly, on March 15.  Storey will send your copy of the Chicken Encyclopedia once I have your mailing address.  The other blogs are also having Giveaways so you have many chances to win this great book. Thank you Storey!

2-Mar     For the Love of Chickens
3-Mar    Vintage Garden Gal
4-Mar    The Garden Roof Coop
5-Mar    Common Weeder
6-Mar    Chickens in the Road
7-Mar    Garden Rant
8-Mar    Fresh Eggs Daily
9-Mar    My Pet Chicken Blog
10-Mar    Coop Thoughts
11-Mar    BoHo Farm and Home
12-Mar    Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs
13-Mar    A Charlotte Garden
14-Mar    Farm Fresh Fun
15-Mar    The HenCam
16-Mar    Life on a Southern Farm
17-Mar    ADozenGirlz, the Chicken Chick
18-Mar    North Coast Gardening

Storey Publishing has its own blog which is full of information and fun. I know because I once contributed some chicken lore. I guess I just did a little crowing there.

Fox went out on a chilly afternoon

I was about to start cooking yesterday when I looked out the kitchen window and saw my chickens all a-flutter and one in the mouth of a fox. A healthy and beautiful red fox. I opened the window and started yelling and banging my frying pan and lid. Everyone really got excited.

The fox dropped the chicken and had trouble finding the hole in the chicken fence, but finally pushed his way through. The chickens went flying in every direction.

The fox fled up the snowy lane – then stopped, looking back at the hen house. I started banging even harder and after a long hesitation the fox loped off.

Three chickens

Three of the chickens ran back in the hen house, along with the rooster who lurked in the far corner. The other chickens flew off and hid under the tractor shed. I tried to herd them in, but to no avail. When the sun set I went out to the henhouse and found all ten chickens, and one very quiet rooster in place.

I took the photo of the chickens but Gary Lehman took the picture of the fox for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. I think the photo is of ‘my’ fox’s brother. A close resemblance.

Start a Free Range Chicken Flock – Contest

Dreaming of free range chickens? Dreaming of sun yellow egg yolks? Dreaming of buk-buk-buk songs in the back yard? Dreaming of cheerful, domestic and productive chickens working for you and keeping you cheerful and domestic?  This is your chance to win Free Range Chicken Gardens book by Jessi Bloom and published by Timber Press – as well as a

All you have to do is go to Timber Press and enter their contest by February 17. You have seven days left to enter.

I wonder if the henhouse plan will look anything like the Taj Mahal of henhouses I wrote about here.


Free Range Chicken Gardens – Timber Press Giveaway

Free Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful Chicken-Friendly Yard

Yesterday I heard a discussion about the environmental and economic situation on the radio. One speaker laughed and said we’ll all be stocking up on gold and backyard chickens. I don’t have any gold, but I do have backyard chickens. As do many of my rural neighbors. However, I know that gardeners who live in town on small lots are also setting up backyard flocks. The town ordinances allow up to ten chickens. No roosters!

If you don’t already lust after your own flock of pretty egg layers, a browse through the beautiful pages of Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom with seductive photos by Kate Baldwin and published by Timber Press will send you off to find the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog.

To further seduce potential chicken farmers, Timber Press will giveaway the Free Range Chicken Gardens to one lucky person who will also win a complete chicken garden start-up kit, including:

All you have to do is go to the Timber Press website and sign up for this great prize.

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book, which is dense with information about chicken house design, predators, keeping your garden safe from the chickens and beautiful photographs of charming gardens and all kinds of elegant chickens, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to enter your name before the February 17.

Just think what it means to have your own small chicken flock. Delicious eggs with marigold yellow yolks. And wonderful manure for the garden. Feed yourself and feed your soil.

Proof That Heath Loves Farms

Heath - A Right to Farm Community Roadside Sign

For more Wordlessness click here.

My Ornamented Life – Part 3

The Rooster crows, but the Hen delivers

One year my boss at Greenfield Community College gave me this ornament. I thought he was giving me a compliment, but no. He was merely acknowledging my flock of chickens and the eggs I brought to give out at work.

Have you even been given ornaments at work? Were they compliments?

We have lots of other chicken ornaments on our tree. I think chickens are cheerful, domestic and productive. I emulate the chicken.