One of my happiest childhood memories is of my mother’s bantam collection.
I say ‘collection’ because this flock of birds must have featured just about every variant available at the time.
When I opened the coop to collect the tiny warm eggs each morning, a rainbow flurry of feathers would burst out into the field, tumbling in the red earth with their chatter.
So, I know, that apart from all the good they can do in your garden, chickens make delightful and engaging family friends as well.
Gardening with Chooks
First of all, you need to be aware that although chickens love eating weeds and so can be the answer to your weed nightmares, they are not picky or careful when it comes to your treasured garden and would view your veggie plot as a smorgasbord.
You will need to fence off areas of your garden that you do not want them in but don’t dismiss the fact that chickens are wonderful pest and weed controllers so let them free range over areas that are between plantings.
And oh, the poo!
Chicken droppings are an on-tap fertiliser when you have chooks.
In a small domestic set up you are probably never going to have too much but if you do?
It’s something other than eggs that you can also share with the neighbours.
Got snails? Not for long with chooks on the job!
Let them lose and they will happily collect them for you or here’s a great game a good friend of mine loved as a child.
Karen’s mum would give her brother and her an old milo tin and ask them to collect the snails from around the garden for the chooks.
She made it more appealing but paying one cent a snail but I’m not sure what the going rate today is. You could add curl grubs to the bounty as well!
Home Sweet Henhouse
While you can make a chicken house yourself from scratch, there are kits and even ready-made coops available starting from about $200 with the sky being the limit.
All sorts of designs and shapes can be found but don’t forget that your chickens will need an area to exercise in as well.
An enclosed ‘chicken run’ is actually a legal requirement and provides protection for your chickens while giving them a place to spread their wings and scratch around the earth.
Second-hand coops and runs are a consideration, but you will need to ensure that all parts are cleaned and disinfected before use.
Built yourself or second hand, ensure that all materials and finishes are safe for your chickens.
Non-toxic stains and paints are a must and check there is nothing that could catch or trap feathers, feet or beaks.
The best structural protection is to bury chicken wire that is firmly secured to the bottom edge of runs and coops and continues completely under the ground of the area.
This is to stop predators from digging under your structures and getting to your lovely chickens.
As for space the general guide is 0.5m per chook in the hen house plus 1m in the run.
You will want your chook house to capture winter sun and be provided with summer shade so situating under a deciduous tree is one option.
I like the idea of a thick evergreen bush as it also has insulating properties and will provide winter warmth and chickens do like to feel cosy under protective branches.
Avoid gum tree though as branches have the tendency to drop.
Face the windows (wire covered) east or north and nesting boxes should be on the south side, so they remain in the shade. ‘Somerzby Pet Products’ sell chicken coops and runs: somerzby.com.au
Which Chick for You?
Hybrids are usually bred to be more prolific layers, but they have a shorter lifespan than most pure breeds and don’t lay for as long either.
They are a consideration but so are the many pure breeds.
Of these, Australorp are great layers and make excellent pets as their nature is very friendly.
Other pure breeds to consider are Barnevelder, Cochin, Dominique and don’t forget Bantams which are miniature versions of full-sized breeds.
Day-old Chicks are cheap, and they are cute, but you may end up with males as sexing is not always possible.
There is extra care needed too as you will need to keep them warm with either a heating lamp/pad and you should keep them separate from other poultry as they can be rather nasty to them.
Pullets are chickens that are under a year of age and the usual starter chicken that most people buy.
At this age their sex and their laying ability has been determined.
Another term used is ‘Point of Lay ‘chickens – these are around 18 to 22 weeks of age and are ready to start laying.
Feeding Your New Mates
A balanced diet is crucial for everyone and that includes chickens.
While they do love your kitchen scraps, weeds and pests, they also need a lot more to survive and this is where modern chicken feed comes in.
You will need to feed either pellets, grains or a mash and then there is also ‘crumble’ which is basically crushed up pellets.
These mixes have the protein, minerals and vitamins that your chooks need to thrive along with the additional calcium for good eggs.
Food scraps and foraging are part of the equation along with feed and happy chooks enjoy a little ‘scatter’ which is whole grains tossed upon an area for them to graze upon.
Chickens are often accused of attracting vermin, disease and even snakes.
While failing to keep your coop and run clean may attract pests, the answer is simply to be a good, clean chicken keeper.
There are plants that are toxic to chickens so you will need to do your research but a few common ones you need to be aware of are: avocado, beans, the leaves of tomatoes and rhubarb along with generally toxic plants like trumpet vines, azaleas and daffodils.
Probably the biggest issue you will face with chickens is that they really don’t like stress.
They won’t deal well with boredom, sudden changes, aggressive coop-mates or even changes in diet so all need to be managed by slow introduction sand/or the removal of stressors.
ike any animal, they can become sick, diseased or suffer from a pest infestation so you need to be alert to changes in behaviour that might indicate an issue.
An excellent book for an in-depth exploration of all aspects of chicken keeping, particularly in Australia, including a handy health section is: ‘Backyard Chickens: How to Keep Healthy Hens’ by David Ingham (no not that family!)
CHERALYN’S GARDEN RESCUE
Kelsey of Wyong wanted to know the council regulations for keeping chickens as she’s not sure if her plans of a chicken mansion on her average home block and flock of eight will be permissible.
Loved this question Kelsey, thank you and it prompted me to write about chickens this week, as you can see!
In general, chickens must not be kept under such conditions as to create a nuisance or to be dangerous or injurious to the health of the community.
Chickens must not be kept within 4.5 metres of a dwelling, public hall, school or premises used for the manufacture, preparation, sale or storage of food.
Chicken yards must at all times be kept clean and free from offensive odours.
The floors must be paved with concrete or mineral asphalt underneath the roosts or perches.
Yards must be enclosed as to prevent bird escape. For most home zones you will not be able to exceed 3m in height for your chook house, it will need to be located in the rear of your home and have a floor area not exceeding 15m2.
A maximum of 10 chickens is ok and roosters are not recommended in residential areas.
There are additional regulations pertaining to heritage zones, waterfronts and easements and additional rules that pertain to other breeds of poultry so you will need to check in with council for those.
As we are in lockdown still, how about some gardening podcasts? A few I really enjoy are:
Real World Gardener: realworldgardener.podbean.com; 3cr Gardening Show: 3cr.org.au/gardening; All the Dirt: allthedirt.com.au/podcast; Gardening Australia Podcast: just search ‘gardeningaustralia’ on any podcast platform.
You can also catch up with me over at thegardeninggang.podbean.com
THIS WEEK YOU COULD PLANT
You could plant artichokes, asparagus crowns, beetroot, broad beans, cabbage, celeriac, celery, endive, garlic, kale, lettuce, mustard, late season onions, parsnip, peas, potatoes, radish, rhubarb, salsify, silverbeet, English daisy, delphinium, dianthus, gloxinia, gypsophila, marigold, roses, spider flower, statice.
Moon Planting Guide 24th – 30th July: Full Moon which means the sowing and planting of root crops and perennials is best done now.
Cheralyn Darcey is a gardening author, community garden coordinator and along with Pete Little, hosts ‘At Home with The Gardening Gang’ 8 – 10am every Saturday on CoastFM963
Send your gardening questions, events and news to: email@example.com