Urban Farm Challenge: Growing Food for Your Chickens

We are excited to be participating in the Sustainable Eats Urban Farm Handbook Challenge this month! Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols have written a fantastic  new book Urban Farm Handbook: City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading, and Preparing What You Eat, which my new favorite Urban Farming resource.  I have been recommending it to clients and to friends since I first got my hands on a copy!UFHChallenge

Not everyone can garden *with* their chickens (for pest control, aeration etc), but gardeners with chickens can certainly grow food for their flock.  And in most cases, growing food for chickens means we are growing food for ourselves.  Afterall, what we feed the chickens is ultimately what we eat via their eggs and meat.

So, my Urban Farm challenge is to take a good look at 3 elements of your chicken system and ask yourself some questions:

1) What do you currently feed your chickens? Is your feed a pelletized product trucked from across the country? Is it a local, organic grain mix? What would you do if you were  in a bind if you had no feed?  How much are you supplementing their diet?  How sustainable is your current chicken food system?

2) What is already growing in your garden that you can feed your flock? What can you add to your garden specifically for the chooks?

  • Fruit from trees and cane berries
  • Greens – be it “weeds” or from a special chicken forage seed mix
  • Vegetables you’ve grown or after the leftover kitchen scraps  (go easy on any processed food snacks – we don’t want diabetic chickens!)
  • Seeds from plants you’ve grown
  • A fodder system – a simple way to grow sprouts for the birds in several trays that can be rotated
  • Worms – from your vermicompost systems (red or meal worms)
  • What else are you growing for your hens?

3) Is your garden set up so that plants are accessible for your chickens when you want them to be accessible, and protected otherwise?  How can you make your system easier for yourself to maintain and easier for the chickens to access? Below is a sample drawing from my book of a paddock system. You can fence different areas of your garden for the chickens to be rotated through, this allows the plants to be grazed at specific times of the year and then when the chickens are rotated to another area, the other zones have a chance to recover and grow back.

A sample drawing from my book: Free Range Chicken Gardens

Be sure to comment below about your chicken forage plans and let us know what kind for things you are growing specifically for your flock!  If you have a blog post about what you’ve done be sure to share a link.  And don’t forget to head back over to Sustainable Eats to comment as there will be a lot of great prize to win, including a copy of my book!


Gardening with Chickens: The toolbox

Let me share with you my tried and true chicken garden “tool box” full of accoutrements. Every gardener with a free range flock must have several devices to protect delicate prized plants from potential destruction.  Edibles are a high priority in my garden, however the girls have full access to the space year round which helps keeps pests in check…I just have to cut them off at key times throughout the season as crops are getting started and are ripening.

First up in the toolbox~
1)  Wire seedling barriers: Most small gauge metal fencing scraps will work fabulously. I bust these babies out when I direct sow any seeds throughout the growing season. I also keep it over my greens and other plants I don’t want chickens walking over the top of.  Always keep several chunks of wire meshing handy, and be sure to fit them to your garden bed size, but still  be able to twist, bend, adjust, and shape to your needs.  See page 48 in the book.

2) Bird Netting: This cheap, easy to find, practically invisible barrier will protect your plants and can be used over and over again.  I drape my berry crops and plants such as tomatoes when they are ripe for the picking, and birds steer clear of it. I’ve even used it draped loosely on a fence railing which worked great because chickens don’t want to get tangled up in it. Magic! See my blog post where I use it for my tomatoes.

3) Rocks! It doesn’t get any easier than this.  For any plants that get dug up while the ladies search for grubs in the soil — which is almost anytime we plant something new — ring these around the plant until it’s roots are firmly established. This is especially great for plants that need a little warmth as the rocks are a great heat sink.

And last but not least,  for your toolbox pack some patience.  These little birds are just doing what they know best: scratching soil and eating grubs.  It is up to us to make sure we are not setting ourselves up for failure. As you will read in my book Free Range Chicken Gardens, it all depends on your garden,  the number of chickens in your flock, and your routine.  With this in mind and by using some of these plant barrier tricks, you can keep your chickens natural behavior in check so that your garden will thrive.

Free Range Chicken Gardens: The first reviews are in!

I remember a little over a year ago I turned in the manuscript, pictures and drawings for my book about gardening with chickens, and while it was this huge sense of relief to meet such a monumental deadline, it also made me very anxious.  I told my editor at Timber Press that I imagined it is how I would feel if I was sending my child off to boarding school or college — I did the best I could to prepare it for the world ahead, and it was in their hands to groom, critique and  prepare for publication.. which ultimately means be judged by the public.  What will everyone else think of it? My baby, my hard work?  The idea of gardening with chickens has been laughed at before.  I am no stranger to having someone judge my work, especially when it comes to my garden design skills, that I can handle.  But I was not a trained to be an “author”.  I just wrote from the heart and wrote what I would want to see in a book like this.  And with a huge sigh of relief the first few reviews that I have seen are good!  People like it!!

From  Publishers Weekly

“Through personal experience and in-depth interviews with other backyard chicken farmers, Bloom, an award-winning garden designer, takes you from her early chicken-raising days, which she recalls as about ‘as easy as herding cats, to the ultimate goal of maintaining a flock that will contrast and co-exist with a backyard garden. She gives tips about keeping the backyard from becoming a barnyard; selecting from a diverse palette of poultry from Rhode Island Reds to Easter Eggers; growing the plants that will benefit from hens and beautify a lawn; keeping ‘a simple chicken emergency kit; regulating coop temperatures; and keeping predators away. Noise reduction ideas will also help keep neighbors’ potential annoyance at bay. The presentation is enhanced by detailed charts — how many square feet of yard for how many chickens, the chicken lifecycle, feedings from egg to chick to pullet to hen — for help in creating a chicken-inclusive environment in a variety of settings. Bloom offers a comprehensive guide from mating to medicine that will particularly help beginners, and vivid color photography by Kate Baldwin helps Bloom make a persuasive case.” 

From Booklist:

“Award-winning landscape designer Bloom states that “the heart of this book has you look at your garden as a habitat for your flock.” Chickens and gardens work together synergistically since chickens reduce weeds and pests, aerate the soil, produce fertilizing manure, and provide food. Bloom’s guide to these “pets with benefits” includes comprehensive information applicable to both small urban and large rural lots pertaining to landscape design, fencing and hardscape materials, chicken-friendly plants, garden and coop designs, and predators. Details on fence fastenings and coop kits, along with numerous illustrations, full-color photos, charts and tables, garden layouts, and useful tips (“Cut Miscanthus plants in late winter and use the dried grass as bedding”), offer a wealth of practical advice. Beyond that, this how-to presents an ecofriendly, holistic view of human-animal relationships while addressing self-sufficiency and food issues, core motivations for the burgeoning organic, homegrown movement.”

A long blog post review here:

From someone on Goodreads:
This book is quite extensive in the information that it gives and it is perfect for any gardener who wants to bring chickens into their garden. There are beautiful photos of gardens with chickens, many plant pictures to illustrate the points that are made in this very useful book. This book displays the symbiotic relationship between chickens and gardens, if done properly, and how the two aspects of your backyard can benefit one another.

If you know of a gardener who has been toying with the idea of having chickens roaming around, this is the perfect book. Not only does it go into what types of gardens are chicken friendly, it also touches on the different types of chickens, which would be best for the purposes of the owner/gardener, but there are many useful tips about plants and garden design that will assist in creating the perfect habitat for your free-range chickens. Coop designs and elements necessary are also touched on, as well as natural habitats for the chickens. Plus the author touches lightly on plants that are harmful to chickens, as well as diseases and how to prevent a few of them.

I know that I will be purchasing this book, once I have a place to have both my own garden and a few chickens for those fresh eggs. There is plenty of information for the newbie chicken owner, and it does suppose some basic garden knowledge on the reader’s part, though does have a short section in the back in regards to the different ‘zones’ for gardening. This book has been well-researched and put together in a very pleasing manner.

Miniature green eggs!

Joy: Over the winter holiday break our two youngest pullets finally started laying. This is always exciting for me — its like the girls hit puberty and have finally graduated into being apart of the mature lady flock.  Silly I know, but I hug and congratulate them like Margaret from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret the classic coming of age book by Judy Blume.

First, on Christmas day our pretty girl the Silver laced Wyandotte laid her first smallish brown egg after 8 months; what a present!  I’ve been hearing her cackle and sing about those eggs at 10am sharp every morning.

Next on New Year’s Eve day, I found two of the sweetest eggs I have ever seen– miniature green ones!!  Our shy little grey bantam Ameraucana (or Easter Egger) was nesting in a bale of hay in front of the horse stall.  I hope she learns to lay in the nesting boxes like everyone else, and quick!   The eggs are so small that I think I’ll need 2-3 for every one regular egg called for in recipes.

Isn’t it adorable? So tiny compared to our brown leghorn’s egg!


December 9th, 2011 3:45pm 

Weight: 1lbs 2oz  

Height: 9″

I’m such a proud mama to announce that the stork has delivered my beautiful baby hatchling book!  It has been  incubating for quite some time now; I’ve been keeping a close eye on temperature, making sure everyone involved has handled it carefully — luckily I have had the best publisher on the planet (Timber Press) who has adopted this baby as their own and provided everything it has ever needed during its development.

I am so grateful for everyone who has had a part in its creation – from all of the wonderful chicken lovers who shared their gardens, the writers who shared valuable guidance  to the  librarian who let me return books late and everyone who tolerated my insanity during the whole period.

I look forward to sharing this baby with the rest of the world and hope it inspires chicken lovers and gardeners everywhere!

Chicken Lover Gift Ideas – 2011 edition

Last year I put together this list of gift ideas for the chicken lover in your life, so naturally, this year I’m doing it again!

On the top of my list is of course: this fantastic book!

Of course I am shamelessly biased…  It can be ordered here: Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard

Next up is anything HANDMADE – support crafty artists on my favorite go-to site : ETSY search for handmade “chicken” items You can find anything from chicken coops, tshirts, costumes to art prints and everything in between.

Why not surprise your chicken hugger with this special seed mix just for their flock?  This Omega-3 Chicken Forage Blend seed mix from Peaceful Valley belongs in every chicken garden!

And seriously, who wouldn’t want a chicken hat? Because I love wearing beanies in the winter to keep my noggin warm, I have been on the look out for a charming, but slightly tacky new addition to my wardrobe which involves chickens.  I am known to occasionally sport this fashionable Hen Bag, so I think this Chicken Face White Wool Hat  makes sense, right? It would be great for when I want to embarrass my fashionista friends or my children in public.  Check out ETSY for a great variety of handmade chicken hat styles!

Protecting your plants from chickens

At this time of the year I take a few simple steps to protect specific plants from my chickens.  Right now it is tomatoes, which are ripe for the picking… the other day I caught my oldest buff orpington trying to hide from me with a little red tomato in her beak.  She is so sneaky and smart, hopefully she didn’t teach anyone else!  None the less, I knew it was time to get out the netting. No use in taking the risk without it – my tomatoes are doing great.
I use regular bird netting, because it can be easily customized (height, length) with scissors for just about any plant or grouping of plants, it is easy to reuse, cheap, and it is practically invisible so it doesn’t become a huge eyesore, but the chickens don’t mess with it at all!  I just put it along the perimeter of that area about 3′ tall, with a few rocks at the base so they don’t sneak underneath and voila! No more tomato theft from the hens! Doing it later in the season prevents plants growing through the mesh and creating a mess when it comes to clean up time.
There are many more ideas and info on materials that can be used for protecting plants in my book – which if I haven’t mentioned already, you can pre-order it already!
simple bird netting

Simple bird netting does the trick!

easy to use & easy to install

my vegetable garden always looks like a jungle at this time of year, but I bet you can't see the bird netting! or can you?


Growing Chicken Treats = Red Elderberry

This is one plant that I absolutely love to have around just for my chickens. Sambucus racemosa is a Pacific Northwest native shrub and is super easy to grow, thriving in all kinds of growing conditions (sun or shade, dry or moist soil, etc).  Every bird within a mile radius knows when the elderberry fruit is ripe and comes for it.  Most farmers will tell you that it will grow in pastures because livestock won’t eat it…because the stems and leaves are toxic and most animals know better than to eat it. It can actually become weedy, but it is easy to control and I don’t hesitate to cut it down entirely and let it regrow if it gets too big for the space it volunteered  to grow in.  The Sambucus genus’ edibililty factor varies from species to species.  The red berries are edible if cooked but not nearly as sweet as other species and varieties- see these for sale: purple, blue golden etc..  Another benefit for this plant: the large white clusters of flowers are frequented by hummingbirds and butterflies!

Chickens find shelter and food under the elderberry shrub

I let several red elderberry shrubs grow in the larger animal’s sacrifice area behind the barn where the chickens have been hanging out when the fruit is ripe.  This is a treat they can’t always reach so I give them a hand.

and our little call duck needs some too!

Do you have a plant that you love to grow just for your chickens?

My Limping Chicken

My chickens don’t get injured or sick very often, so when something is wrong, it is very obvious. A few days ago one of my girls started limping.  I first checked the most obvious: bumblefoot which is an infection in the pad of their foot.  No signs of scratches or problems anywhere on her feet.  She seemed very balanced while she hopped around on one leg, had clear eyes, ate and drank with no hesitation and other than the limp, she seemed totally normal.  This is my 3 year old Easter Egg hen “Cheeky” who happens to be missing a toe (she got stepped on by the horse) and that healed beautifully.  I assumed it might be a strain or injury from jumping off the roost…. or other crazy chicken acrobatics…but no, it was from a legband!

this was the culprit...for sale at a feed store. Never again ...

In the past few years I’ve had trouble identifying specific hens as we add younger birds of the same breed to the flock.  I wanted to make sure I could identify the ones that were of different ages, so I got some of the older girls leg bands – the little plastic spiral kind.  Cheeky had one and it had gotten so high up on her leg that her feathers covered it.  People.. chicken legs are not round like the little plastic spirals (which don’t give) and they ride up the leg!   This thing had cut into her leg deep enough that when I removed it she started bleeding. Oh the guilt!  I cleaned and treated her wound then separated her from the flock for 24 hours.

She seemed to enjoy isolation in the brood box... she even laid an egg just a few hours afterwards

After dinner that day I took her out for a "walk" with her bandage on & she was already putting weight on her leg

 The next day she was up and running around when I let her out of the box, so I let her range with the rest of the flock.  All is good now.
I’ve heard of people using zip ties and coloring them to identify hens, but the bottom line is they need to be monitored.   Also, it is a good idea to keep on hand medical supplies and somewhere to isolate a bird just in case of emergency.

Virtual Homestead & Garden Tour

Recently I went on a garden tour extravaganza and was totally inspired! Stay tuned for several blog posts on that event…  But one thing that I kept thinking is that I could never have my home on an actual tour- think of all the stress of making things just right so complete strangers can take pictures of it!  I mean, really..would you not judge me for leaving weeds that stand taller than you? or letting my greens bolt (hey its for the bees and seeds), would you step in chicken shit? Probably! So, when I saw that NW Edible Life was doing a Nosy Neighbor Virtual Homestead & Garden Tour – I thought how brilliant! We can share pictures and be inspired by what everyone else is doing, without the stress of making everything perfect! So why not include my little homestead?
For some background and for specific details on my place check out the article written by Valerie Easton earlier this spring in the Seattle Times A sustainable Northwest garden of Eatin’ and Eden. Older photos are here & you can meet the animals here.  I’ve incorporated edibles (mostly perennial) into all of the landscaping but grow specific annual edibles in a rabbit-proof area.  We harvest rain water, use solar power for hot water, and just recently I started driving an electric car all in an effort to live more sustainably.  My dream would be that someday we live self sufficiently, but for now we are a lo0nng way off and have a lot of work ahead.
One advantage about our location is that we have a lot of space, but on the other hand it takes time to develop and manage.  In ten years we’ve barely cultivated half of the space that we want to.  One disadvantage is that we work in the green industry which means during the growing season our work week can be 60+hours and our garden can get a bit neglected.
Goals for the future: build a root cellar, a PV solar system, get dairy goats and have time to milk them,  then move to a farm in the San Juans and live completely off the grid.  Ha! I can dream right?
Now for some photos: