If you are already growing your own fruits and vegetables and reaping the benefits, how about taking it a step (or a peck) further?
The popularity of chicken farming in the city has increased such that the site backyardchicken.net gets about 100 new members a day. And, locally, Seattle Tilth has had to go from offering two Chicken 101 classes a year to 10, and still the classes fill up each time.
If you are considering expanding the edible portion of your garden this year, consider the points below to sustainably and successfully incorporate chickens into your own urban space.
It’s all about location
One of the most important decisions before welcoming chickens into your backyard is the location of the coop. People make the mistake of being more concerned about coop aesthetics than the health of the chickens. Several considerations will help make chickens more comfortable.
Chickens prefer not to share their coop or dinner with rats or other furry creatures, and they like a secure coop. Keep the coop away from other buildings so you can get around the structure to stop any unwanted activity or digging.
Attach a tight wire mesh around the base of the coop, and dig it into the ground to secure it. Make sure to have overhead screening as well to keep aerial predators out.
The coop will also have better air circulation if it is set in the open. Full sun may make the coop more like an oven, so some afternoon shade on the structure is best. The girls will have the option of sunbathing if you provide outdoor space in at least part-sun.
If you are struggling to decide on an area, check on the requirements for your city. Seattle, for example, requires that you keep your coop 10 feet away from your neighbor’s house and in the backyard only.
Another consideration is: Where will the best viewing of the coop be? I treat my coop as a work of art and entertainment so it is placed within view of my kitchen window and deck. Keeping the coop in easy view helps to keep your chickens safe.
Or place it next to the vegetable bed so your chickens can keep you company as you plant and harvest. This makes it easy to toss them veggie scraps as you tend the garden.
Getting some needed space
Speaking of the garden, chickens have a very different interpretation of your lush paradise. If given free rein, chickens see it as a no-holds-barred buffet.
You can keep your chickens and your garden safe by creating a minimum of 8 square feet per bird in the outdoor chicken run. Chickens also love to take dust baths to keep down pests, so make sure they have access to some dry soil either under the coop or in a tray that you replenish as needed.
To maintain your coop, you will need materials like bedding, water and food, and remove “spent” materials. Leave space for buckets and wheelbarrows and for you to climb in, if need be, and do some scrubbing. Some folks put a compost bin near their coop so they can scoop directly into the bin.
And where will you store supplies? Plan for space in a nearby shed, or perhaps make the coop large enough to have its own supply closet or build a shed/coop combo.
Also, make sure that you have a pathway so you can access the coop daily in all weather conditions and that it drains well to avoid a mud pit.
It is tricky in urban areas with typical small yards to let your chickens “free-range.” They do love this option so they can fully express themselves. Keep your birds away from tender or cherished plants by simply putting up a short barrier (1-foot-high minimum) in a designated area. Use materials such as sections of chicken wire, bamboo stakes or other decorative and portable fencing.
It is also amusing to work alongside your chickens as you weed or plant. They “help” by eating worms and unwanted pests, such as slugs and aphids.
You may also want to plant a “chicken garden,” an area with plants grown specifically for the chickens to graze.
Or you could build a temporary “chicken playpen,” or be adventurous and build a chicken tractor that is fitted with wheels, allowing for mobility in the garden. Set the playpen or tractor in a new garden area or on a lawn you are eliminating or, even better, an excessively weedy area.
I’ve also admired gardeners who built a portable full coop with enclosure that fits perfectly on top of their raised beds. Using any of these methods allows the chickens to help harvest, hunt for insects and fertilize the beds simultaneously.
More information available
Thanks to the chicken craze, it is now easier to obtain supplies and also valuable advice. Seattle Tilth (www.seattletilth.org) teaches classes on chickens several times a year to meet chicken enthusiasm in our city and provides other resources on how to get started with your new, feathered venture, as well as giving back to the garden via their manure.
Or see how other people are raising chickens by attending Seattle Tilth’s Chicken Coop and Urban Farm Tour on July 14.
There are still many things to consider before starting your chicken venture, so feel free to contact the Garden Hotline with any additional questions, at (206) 633-0224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a good self-help book on urban farming, pick up a copy of “Your Farm in the City” at the Seattle Tilth website or at a local bookstore. Also, attend the Northwest Flower & Garden Show this February and visit the Garden Hotline, Master Composter/Soil Builders and Danny Woo Garden folks at our combined booth, Nos. 2302 and 2304, to have your questions answered in person. The Danny Woo Garden chickens will be joining us each day.
JULIE KINTZI is a Garden Hotline educator with Seattle Tilth.