I have always allowed my chickens to free-range, but the bird flu shenanigans last year made me reconsider how I could continue to let the have their outdoor space but in a more manageable way. In addition, the covid shenanigans have encouraged me to think more holistically about the garden and how to make it more productive; preventing the poultry from trashing every square centimetre would be useful in this regard!
I didn’t manage to get the hens enclosed until late spring last year, and what with other projects and post-pandemic fatigue, did not get my head around the garden either. Outdoor space is now such an important resource for wildlife, I have multiple requirements from my little scrappy patch of field: it has to work for me, the wildlife, the livestock and the pollinators.
I bought some seeds earlier in the year in case there was a rush again in the spring:
Obviously these are more for the wildlife and pollinators, but I am not overly concerned with growing my own food as I have a great local veg box scheme which I am keen to support, and the apple trees and feral raspberries I have at the moment are about my level! I am wanting to increase the natural food for both wild birds and the poultry, and something I feel is going to be increasingly important going forward: shelter.
My garden is at the bottom of a slope on clay, so is very heavy and gets waterlogged almost instantly when it rains. Likewise, it dries and cracks during hot weather, so trying to balance out these factors is where I am aiming for with the green manure. Heatwaves are remarkably difficult to manage for with chickens and I want to provide natural shade where I can. I think hens like buckwheat but I will find out if they prefer the foliage or whether it’s more the seed, but bees love the flowers and it is a good green manure so will protect the soil. All birds love sunflowers seeds, and cropping these will hopefully provide them with an autumn boost, but in addition provide some shelter as they have such large leaves.
One shrub that does brilliantly is fuchsia, and I will be transplanting some cuttings in the spring to replant in the Henclosure. Again, it will provide shelter as the foliage arches over creating shade, and the flowers are still going strong at the moment, well in to November. I never realised that fuchsia berries were so prolific or indeed so enjoyed by the hens, but the little red lozenge-shaped fruits seem really popular, although some hens seem more partial to them than others…a few of them race over to me as soon as they see my near the shrub but others ignore my outstretched handful. The Cream Legbars are just coming to the end of their moult, hence the rather moth-eaten look.
I have a number of hedgehog roses (Rosa rugosa) too, and the large rosehips are also popular with some of the hens, and pollinators (especially bumblebees) love the simple flowers. They also make for some gorgeous autumn colour in the garden.
All these hens produce a lot of manure, and I have recently cleared a patch of ground which faces south, and covered it with this compost as well as the contents of my wormery. To keep it protected while the worms do their thing, I have topped the area with a large sheet of black plastic I had acquired from somewhere. I’ve weighted it down with plant trays and dud bee boxes, and will wait and see how it looks in the spring. This will hopefully create a seedbed instead of using bought potting compost, as although I always use peat-free, it is still transported and bagged in plastic. I will use my repurposed bee boxes to protect any seedlings: I staple sturdy plastic on to some, and use a queen excluder on others depending on what/how much protection the seeds need.
I have huge numbers of nettles as well as lemon balm and catnip, which all look the same! I collected some teasel seeds last time I was at the Thermosolar bees and I need to work out where to sow those as they too will provide some food for the birds and the bees. Chickens love lemon balm, and I have a large stand of comfrey in the Henclosure too which is fabulous as the hens eat the nutritious leaves and the bumbles love the flowers.
What plans do you have for your outdoor space? Have your needs and wants changed as a result of the last year or two?
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