I like to give my backyard chickens plenty of room to move about in but there are a couple of downsides to letting them free range throughout the whole yard. I’m going to use my skills as a Permaculture Designer to create a chicken friendly yard for them!
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The Trouble With Free Ranging Chickens
There. Is. So. Much. Poop.
I can’t tell you how much poop chickens make then the dogs eat the poop urghhh just all kinds of gross and going out to the hot tub without shoes on is unthinkable now after one family member smushed a big soft pile between their toes……alright it was me. I trod in the biggest pile of chicken crap on my way to the hot tub with a glass of wine after a particularly bad day at work.
Chickens are destructive creatures and I’m seriously wondering what the hell people were smoking when I read articles that said they weren’t destructive. They will destroy your garden, lawn and scatter your compost heap all over and lets not forget the aforementioned poo. Indeed, chicken tractors are used to clear and manure ground for planting or gardening!
After the birds ate the blueberries and tore up my hugelkultur raised bed, we realized we had to contain them in an area but give them more space than the run offered to reduce problems with cannibalism.
I have finally convinced the husband that we need a fence (funnily enough it was when he stepped in chicken crap coming out of the hot tub) and to create an area for the birds. I managed to inspire him with this picket fence made out of pallets and the opportunity to start using his birthday power tools. Now he’s on board for a cute white picket fence with a gate and I can get designing the space to maximize food production.
Permaculture Chicken Run
My coop is near the house, in a zone 1 area. I have to go to the chickens every day and when I positioned the coop, I placed it where it is shaded by the red maple in summer and warmed by the winter sunlight during the day, however it gets the prevailing winds right into where the food and water hang. Luckily, permaculture can help with that!
I’ve been observing this area of the yard for over a year and armed the the knowledge form my permaculture course I’m now working on the design.
You can view this short video on YouTube and see the current space:
The chain-link fencing separating the backyard from the side yard and garden is going to have the plastic screening removed to let in more light. This will also allow the area to have more plants able to grow because it won’t be in permanent shade.
When planning the space for chickens, it needs to be filled with plants which are safe for them to peck at and eat. Chickens also scratch up the ground a lot so a grassy area won’t be grassy for long! Grazing boxes with hardware cloth allow for the birds to peck the seedlings growing through without the birds tearing up the boxes and ground. Chicken wire can also be used around plants to protect shrubs and other plants getting established from their voracious pecking and eating.
Just like I mentioned in the video, I want to use one side for people to harvest and the other side for the chickens to feed on. To do this, there are a couple of ideas, heavy shrub plantings on the outside of the fences or, plant in the chicken yard and protect the shrubs with a second inner fence made of chicken wire. This second fence can be buried into the ground to deter digging and burrowing critters from getting in.
What to Plant in a Permaculture Chicken Yard
The space will be designed to be a food forest but unlike the backyard orchard food forest, this space must be designed for the birds and the bees!
Chickens can help keep fruit trees free from pests as well as manuring the area. Plantings of persimmon, apricot, hazel and pawpaw should work nicely in the space however any tree which will drop it’s fruit will work in a chicken yard.
For this particular area, I intend to plant the following trees:
- Asian persimmon such as Fuyu
- American persimmon
- Early, mid and late pawpaws
That’s a lot of trees in the space right? Pruning will help ensure the trees are kept at a manageable height allowing more to thrive in the space.
Some of these trees such as the pawpaws, medlars and quince are being grown from seed so they will take some time to grow and get large enough before they can go into the area. The others will need to be purchased as 2 year old trees locally or online.
Small islands of trees with guild forming plants can be created in the space and protected by makeshift chicken wire cages. Gooseberry is thorny and will help protect the tree with the thorns if planted around the tree as can other thorny shrubs like roses, raspberries or a small thicket of brambles (blackberries). You can also use shrub prunings and tree branches to make a physical barrier.
Hazel makes a fantastic windbreak and will help to buffer the wind blowing in the snow to the coop if planted to the northern side as well as providing delicious nuts for you to harvest.
Some of the Permaculture Designs
I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some of the permaculture designs for the chicken yard so you can see how this looks on paper and how it will evolve into planting and implementation in the chicken yard in 2018. You can watch the video below or read on to see the designs in more detail.
Being artistic is not my strength and my coloring in the lines is somewhat to be desired! Both designs are similar and although I considered the chicken tunnels and inner wire fencing to protect plants around the edges from the birds, I felt that it wasn’t natural and what the space needs. I’m heavily influenced by the English hedgerows of my homeland which I miss that are filled with so many species of plants, the hum of bees and the chirping of birds and I hope to create something similar with different plants here in my own backyard.
Both of the designs are a forest in design with many species and stacking heights. The second design is more energy efficient in terms of being able to access the coop to clean out and collect eggs without having to bother with opening gates and navigating wheelbarrows.
It’s a Lot of Work
When I asked my husband what he thought of the design, his response was “Looks like it’s a lot of work and a lot of money.” granted, it looks kind of crazy because there are so many plants in there but, it isn’t going to be as expensive as he thinks!
Firstly, I am already growing the following plants from seed:
- Asian pear
All of these slow growing trees I opted to grow from seed that I purchased in order to keep the costs down. I could have bought the trees and planted which would mean I get a quicker harvest but growing by seed allows me to grow more and build skills in pruning, training and even grafting. Many of these plants can grow in the permaculture food forest and backyard orchard area as well as this permaculture chicken yard.
We have other plants around the homestead which are not in ideal locations which include 3 grapevines, 3 blueberry bushes, a blackcurrant, an elderflower, raspberries and a jostaberry. All of these plants are really easily propagated by cuttings and will be moving to this new location.
Some plants I will need to purchase; hazel, mulberry, gooseberry, thimbleberry, persimmons and plums will all be purchased once I find the varieties I want in the right price range!
The materials we’re going to need to buy will be wood for the fencing and the grazing boxes and woodchips. The local city dump has lots of woodchips which they will deliver if you buy a certain amount; luckily I need a lot for the front yard permaculture design area, the food forest and the garden as well as this permaculture chicken yard so it makes sense to me to get it from there and take a week’s vacation to move it around the homestead! If you do your research there are probably places where you can get woodchips for free in your area.
If you are lucky enough to have gardening friends ask if they have any seeds or plants which they wouldn’t mind sharing. Do you have some seeds or plants to exchange or perhaps some homemade preserves or baked goods? I’ve traded seeds with many friends here in Utah and in some other states too which allowed me to get more varieties or new plants entirely without costing very much at all. Permaculture need not be expensive and I encourage you to try it in your garden.
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