Chickens in the garden

Family portrait - chickens © Isabelle van Groeningen

Family portrait

I’m all excited: after more than ten long years, we are about to have chickens again. Another chicken-loving friend has given the Garden Academy chickens for our 10th anniversary. It has just taken us rather long to get their fox- and ferret-proof cage and a comfortable home sorted, but now we are finally ready for them.

Serious egg-laying chickens

Our new girls © Isabelle van Groeningen

Our new girls © Isabelle van Groeningen

My first close encounter with chickens was when I went to visit a new client who wanted me to renew her old herbaceous borders. I was appalled: her three impressive Rhode Island Reds were perhaps brilliant egg layers, each producing 365 eggs a year, they were also the most ferocious scratchers in the garden. The few perennials still in the borders were sitting like little wigs on top of the soil, their roots scratched free in the busy search for grubs. I had no idea how we were going to get a new border established nor how to tell the client this. The solution came thankfully on four legs: a fox caught all three of them and that was the end of the chicken era in the garden and new borders moved in.

Decorative chickens

My enthusiasm was therefore lukewarm the day Gabriella excitedly told me she organized us some chickens for our garden. The problem of where to put them she had already solved (we had no lawn or other free space in our garden): our neighbour who just had a large lawn in his very long garden, kindly agreed to host our wonderful new chicken house. As there were neither fence nor hedge between our gardens at the far end, we could easily access the chicken coop to let them out in the mornings and close up at night, and the chickens automatically found their way into our garden as our tightly planted beds and borders offered much richer pickings than a boring lawn.

Weeding assistants

Henry and his girls - chickens © Isabelle van Groeningen

Henry and his girls

My lack of enthusiasm quickly dissolved: these were no egg-laying machines, these were Brahma Bantams: birds with feathery feet that dislike intensive digging around in the soil, as they do not want to get their feet all dirty. They just gently scratch in their search for insects. Soon I started to notice the benefit of Henry the cockerel and his two light brown girls Brunhilde and Kunigunde and the white Mathilda. Their constant roaming through the garden scratching around in search of food, strongly reduced the weed problems in the garden. Especially in the early spring months we used to have a lot of annual weeds like speedwell. These disappeared, strongly reducing the amount of weeding that we used to have do.

Pest control

They also proved to be perfect pest control assistants: small slugs, vine weevils, saw flies and other troublesome insects were no longer an issue. The only problem were the tulips. We used to put out some extra wheat for them to eat during the day. This, with time also attracted pheasants into the garden. These large attractive birds love tulip bulbs and have a knack of locating them. The hundreds of tulips lovingly planted in the autumn completely disappeared during the winter months, leaving only those few where the birds could not reach. After that I gave up planting tulips. I have since made up for lost time in Berlin, treating myself to borders packed full with a wide range of tulips.

Compost-cleaners and improvers

Compost spreading © Isabelle van Groeningen

Compost spreading

The straw with its droppings out of their coop would go onto the compost heap, adding some extra-fertility.  In the autumn we would pile the compost onto the vegetable beds and leave them to do the work of spreading it. By spring time, the beds were evenly covered whilst all possible grubs and seeds had been lovingly removed, giving us a nice clean start with extra-fertilised compost.

A friend throws all his kitchen waste and compost material in the bottom of the chicken run. In the course of the season this increases in height, and after the winter he has the most wonderfully worked over, enriched compost material for the garden.

Why I love chickens?

small and fluffy - chickens© Isabelle van Groeningen

Small and fluffy

Not only do I appreciate their great assistance in the garden, I love the cosy company they offer. When you’re gardening they will come and look to see if you have by any chance not dug up some big fat juicy worm. When you open the back door, they come racing up to the house, in the hope you are going to throw some kitchen scraps. Much of the kitchen waste not fit for the compost heap will be happily pecked away. To have an excuse every morning and every evening to walk through the garden in order to let out, and then lock up the chickens. Their built-in timer that drives them automatically to bed before darkness makes me smile. Their time-keeping is so reliable, you can put an electronic timer on their door.

Which chickens will they be?

Dwarf Buff Cochins © Isabelle van Groeningen

Dwarf Buff Cochins

We are about to get five Buff Dwarf Cochins. They are supposed to lay about 2 eggs per week and have a good-natured social friendly character. Their broody, motherly nature means we’ll have to keep an eye on them. We lost a chicken once who decided to make a nest somewhere in the garden. Each morning we’d see her as she’d come out to feed, and then she would disappear as if by magic.  We looked everywhere but could not spot her nest. In the end we discovered she had found a warm, sunny spot against the house wall hiding under a winter-flowering jasmine, just next to the path we walked several times a day. Sadly, we discovered her the day the fox found her and her clutch of eggs. C’est la vie!

Conclusion of the story

If you like your eggs, you must choose a reliable layer, but keep them well-and truly locked in their cage. If you like the social aspect of chickens, the comforting company and their gardening assistance as they weed and eat your pests, go for one of the pretty ones. I love their soothing clucking as they worked their way round our garden. Ours will not have quite as much freedom as their predecessors did, I will have to go to them, rather than them greeting me at the office door. They will have much richer pickings with all the scraps our kitchen produces. It will be nice to reduce the waste that gets collected each week. Writing this makes me even more impatient. I can’t wait for them.

Inspecting the vegetable garden © Isabelle van Groeningen

Inspecting the vegetable garden

IMPORTANT!

Just to remind you: on the 3 of October we are closed, instead you can visit us from the comfort of your sofa in a wonderful documentary about the Garden academy on RBB television: „Eine blühende Schatzkammer mitten in Berlin“ at 15:35.

Sweet sweet home - chickens © Isabelle van Groeningen

Sweet sweet home