Raising chickens in a polyculture satisfies many of the needs of both the birds and the plants. Though it may be impossible to grow all chickens need all year, this nonetheless saves money, provides superior nutrition and hygiene for the birds as well as fertilization and bug control for your yard.
In order to reduce disruption to the soil and reduce personal energy input, perennials will provide the foundation for the chickens’ diet. If well established, most of these plants will not suffer from grazing, but will benefit from the chickens services.
In order to ensure sufficient dietary protein, worms or grub should be provided, especially in winter if possible. As with all things in a permaculture system, these will also serve multiple functions including waste disposal and production of fertilizer.
Finally, the method of feeding will determine what you grow and how much work is required on you part. The more the chickens harvest for themselves the less human energy is required.
What to Grow
Some things to consider before deciding what to plant:
1. What do you already have? Mature plants, if useful to the birds will provide shelter and/or fodder sooner than a new plant.
2. Look for multiple uses. Is there something you want to eat that your chickens also like, such as berries? Is there a mineral accumulator or nitrogen-fixer that can provide forage for your birds?
3. The benefits of foraging go both ways. The birds get food; the plants get bug control and fertilization. Mix the birds with your perennial garden.
The list that follows is broken down into several categories to help you choose plants that can fulfill multiple roles in your polyculture:
Trees and shrubs
Edible pods, nitrogen fixer, yellow fragrant flowers in May or June provide bee forage, as well. Shelter.
Edible leaves, berries. Variety of sizes. Look for self-fruiting
Including blackberries and raspberries, etc. Thornless is prefered by humans who need to extract chickens or eggs. Tolerates shade.
Tubers can be dug all winter (if the ground isn’t frozen) and fed to chickens. Leave a few for next years’ crop.
Nitrogen-fixing. Can make a nice lawn. Tolerates shade.
Mineral accumulator. Tolerates shade.
Easy to grow, calcium-rich
High in protien
Annuals for forage
Valuable as a bug habitat, though chickens will eat some
Swiss Chard/Perpetual Spinach
Source of iron and protein
Annuals for Winter Feed
Cure before storage
When worms have moved into a new bin, let the chickens into the old one.
Black Soldier Fly Larva (BSFL)
Self-harvesting. Needs warm weather.
If you have room for a tree or two, some of the best things you can grow for your birds are Mulberry and Siberian Peashrub. Mulberry, with their edible leaves and berries are prolific producers of berries for a couple months out of the year. Some mulberries need male and female for producing fruit and the male can be huge, so look for self-fruiting varieties. Also, they come in different sizes, including dwarf, so there is one for almost every yard.
Siberian Peashrub, another star, produces protein-rich pods that you can pick and store for your birds or let them harvest for themselves. As a nitrogen fixer, these help nourish your soil at the same time. Shelter is important for your birds, as they like to spend most of their time in the shade, so trees and shrubs play an important role for the birds.
Clover serves as a nitrogen-fixing groundcover as well as a perennial food source. If you want a sustainable lawn, this is the plant for you. Deep roots mean less watering for a greener lawn. Nitrogen-fixing means no more fertilizer. Also, over time, the nitrogen from your clover may become available to surrounding plantings via mycorrhizae in the soil.
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Comfrey, which my birds adore, has even deeper roots that bring up minerals from deep in the earth and the decomposing leaves deposit these minerals on the surface. This is great for Chickens because once established, the birds are unlikely to kill it off. Because of the possibility of toxicity, make sure comfrey is not the only food for your chickens at any given time. This way, they will not eat more than they should.
Black Soldier Fly Larvae have the strange and amazing ability to harvest themselves, if you like, directly into the chicken feed. Because they naturally climb up to pupate they can be trained into a chute for self-harvesting. Self-harvesting BSFL bins can be made for a few bucks. Protein is very important for chickens and BSFL are able to turn food scraps into protein very efficiently. If there is a way to keep the larvae warm this can be a fantastic winter food source as bugs, and indeed all forage is in short supply this time of year. Obviously, BSFL are not welcome house guests, but if the chicken coop or a green house is warm enough, they could overwinter there.
Some of the best things to grow for your birds are some of the easiest. Some call these amazing and nutritious plants weeds, because they grow so industriously without human effort. Plantain, dandelion, and lambs quarters are some of the most nutruitious greens you can grow for your birds. They also love mallow, miner's lettuce, and bindweed (but please don't introduce this noxious weed!). Use these native and adaptive plants liberally in your pasture.
Managing Foraging Areas
In an urban or suburban setting, free-range isn’t usually the best option because the birds will wear down one area and leave droppings where you don’t want them. On the other hand a bare empty run will not provide optimum hygiene to your flock and you will have to bring all their food to them. Something in the middle, therefore, is the ideal situation for much of the year.
Two good options are:
- Movable chicken tractor coop.
- Temporary or permanent paddock system.
One or the other may be ideal for your situation depending upon predators, time and energy available, and the shape of your landscape.
Movable Chicken Tractor Coop
This works best on relatively flat land with a variety of forage. It can be used to fertilize, weed, and debug your lawn, too, but that will not provide as much food to your birds. With planning you can make your tractor to fit between planting boxes or on garden paths. You can also put the tractor over a bed that is done producing so the birds can clean up bugs and plant debris.
- Protection from Predators
- Can be easy to move
- Very small area for chickens
- Must be moved once or twice a day
Joel Salatin, the guru of poultry and rabbit tractors, has written extensively on the subject. His book You Can Farm is a great read and would be very helpful if you have some acreage, however, for city-dwellers, a search for “Salatin chicken tractor” may yield more helpful results. Salatin has dramatically improved the soil on his property using poultry and rabbit tractors as well as paddocks for his larger animals.
With more flexibility than the tractor coop, paddocks allow the birds more room so the birds don’t need to be moved as frequently allowing the owner more freedom. Also, paddocks can be designed around landscape features and can contain trees and shrubs, which the tractor would exclude.
The biggest downside is that the chickens are not fully enclosed, so lighter breeds and younger birds might escape and predators may get in. If predators are a concern, the birds will need to be closed in the coop at night. I have seen designs for a fox-proof coop and intend to try one, but cannot yet tell you weather it would work. This would keep the birds safe if I was out late of an evening or even went out of town. All that would be needed is an automatic watering system.
The coop should be easy to move so wheels are ideal. However, in the past I have put coops on skids instead. The coop pictured above used second-hand skis screwed to the legs of the coop. Ideally the bottom should be open so that waste disposal is not necessary. However, if rats are a problem a floor may be necessary; make sure it is as easy as possible to clean. As with any chicken coop, it should have sufficient roosting and nesting spaces, a way to keep out predators, and a way to get eggs out.
The enclosure can be made of welded wire fencing and stakes, or it can be made of a movable dog fence. A four-foot fence is sufficient to keep in a mature Road Island Red or Buff Orpington, but may not be sufficient for other breeds or younger birds.
To prepare for winter, grow seeds, grains, gourds, and grub. Seeds/grain can be stored whole to provide winter food and bedding, or the seed/grain can be separated from the plant to save storage space.
Gourds, if properly cured, can keep all winter and encourage rich orange egg yolks. They are also full of protein-rich seeds that the birds relish.
Grub must have warm temperatures to continue producing. If your chicken coop is warm enough in the winter, they can provide your birds with an ideal protein source all winter.
A Word About Breeds
You may find that modern breeds, especially the stellar layers or meat birds, don't forage well. Bantams are known for being better at foraging, but may be harder to contain and lay smaller eggs. If you have experience with a breed that does particularly well on forage or other things you have raised, please share in the comments below.
Finally, keep your expectations realistic. In a temperate climate, it is probably impossible to raise all of your flock's needs on a normal suburban lot. Make sure that your birds get enough food and don't deprive them. Share below what works for your flock and what they like to eat from your land.
Amelia Walker (author) from Idaho on April 10, 2017:
Alan, thank you for you informative comment! I am sorry about the dog getting those chickens.
I am fascinated to read about azolla, though. I don't think I had ever heard of it. Wow! A prolific, high-protein, nitrogen-fixing water plant! The Azolla Foundation website is an excellent resource and I will definitely be looking into this more.
jonnycomelately on April 09, 2017:
Excellent writing, Amelia and most interesting.
Until recently I have been helping a friend with her half-dozen chicken. Can't remember the breed - they were light brown, prolific layers, very friendly, good at foraging and dust bathing.
Until a dog got in and killed the lot!!
I have been growing Azolla for some time, a useful a nutrient-rich plant. I got the chicken liking it by first chopping it in a food mixer, combining it then with corn meal. Gradually I was able to omit the chopping and simply mix the two ingredients together. The chickens loved it.
Two tips: if Azolla smells even slightly of anaerobic conditions in the water, chickens don't like it, so rinse in fresh water and drain before use. Also, preferably feed freshly harvested.
Azolla has between 25% and 30% protein, plus a good mix of other nutrients and can be an economical substitute for more expensive supplements. Please refer to The Azolla Foundation and other websites for further information.
Amelia Walker (author) from Idaho on February 20, 2017:
It is a good idea to pick as many as you want or can find before putting the chickens in that paddock. The chickens can then clean up any that fall or are missed on the lower branches. The bushes will also provide edible leaves and shelter.
Rob Muldoon on February 18, 2017:
"Is there something you want to eat that your chickens also like such as berries?"
Is this a good idea? Won't the chickens eat all the berries? Fine for them but it doesn't sound much like sharing.