Friday, November 19, 2010

I wanna learn permaculture

My chickens are doing wonderfully! They're digging on their coop, scratching up a storm in the run, and practically killing each other every time I pull up a dying kale plant to toss in for them. (OMG, they are seriously hilarious.) I must be in some kind of chicken nirvana, and we're not even getting any eggs yet. (And we won't until spring, so don't ask.)

But this whole chicken thing, paired with an article in the most recent "Urban Farmer" magazine, has pushed me again to want to investigate permaculture. I'd love to give you a brief discussion of the highlights of permaculture, or a quick glossing of its main points, but the simple truth is, I don't know. I do know that it has something to do with creating systems in your environment that reinforce each other, and I remember a nifty drawing I saw once of a permaculture garden where you could practically feed a family of four from the 30' diameter circle surrounding your family apple tree, but otherwise.... I know that I know nothing.

But my chickens are making me think. Chickens are fertilizer machines. Chickens love to eat grubs, bugs, and all manner of other things that I do not want in my garden. Chickens scratch and aerate soils. These things are good.

However, chickens also decimate crops. Chickens scratch up seedlings. Chickens eat an entire year's crop of lettuce. Chickens roost on my neighbor's car. These things are bad.

There must be a practical way to capitalize on the good, while at least minimizing the bad. I have heard and read stories of people with chicken-bearing gardens who only suffer minor heartaches, but I'm not sure how to make this happen here in my own backyard.


I think permaculture might provide a key. A principled method for integrating the two in a way that neither destroys my crops, nor pisses off my neighbors. (Currently my neighbors are either quite happy that I have chickens, or quite blissfully ignorant--I'd like to maintain the status quo in this instance.)

So it's off to the library website to reserve a copy of Gaia's Garden. Other suggestions?


  1. Sounds like you need an IE to do an optimization analysis for you....
    (I think he'd work for eggs.)

  2. An "IE"? Is this like doing SEO on a website? Do I have to figure out metatags for my garden now?!

  3. I've always thought mandala gardens are beautiful. Not sure how they'd work in our temperate climate, though.

  4. This is a great link! Turns out you use your chickens kind of like goats, turn them out to do their job when indicated (not 352 days/year), then herd them back up again!

  5. Look at your chickens as predominantly a biological solution. So put them on areas where you need fertilisation, aeriation, bugs eaten.

    Keep them away from areas that are freshly sown or planted, with the use of portable fencing (I use plastic mesh given by a local farmer and metal stakes).

    Just keep them rotating- it just depends on how many you have and the area of land you have to play with.

    I always put mine to bed at night in their coop, because of foxes (in rural Wales, UK).

    Remember when you grow veg to allow 1/3 for you, 1/3 for other wildlife and 1/3 for failure. Then you will be pleasantly surprised when these ratios work in your favour.

    Finally, it's a good idea to put their cop next to a greenhouse/ polytunnel, as the body heat from the chickens at night raises the temperature of the polytunnel, keeping the plants warm when the temperature dips.

    Just a thought!

  6. I built a very lightweight mobile pen for my layers that matches the dimensions of my garden beds. I can put them on an individual bed as I want them working there, typically in the fall as a given crop is cleared out. They stay on that one spot for a few days at most, scratching and aerating, adding manure, working in compost and reducing the insect load. I found that it was useful to give them a couple days on the bed, move them elsewhere for a week or two, and then put them back on the same bed again for as little as a few hours. That allows them to scratch up all the opportunistic seedlings that germinated after their first scratch through. In this way I hope I'm reducing the store of weed seeds in the top few inches of soil. If you want to see a picture of this, search for "poultry schooner" on my blog.

  7. Hi,

    I suggest "earth user's guide to permaculture" by Rosemary Morrow. This book is the one after multiple attempts to get my Dh on board with permaculture really demystified it for him.

    Is permaculture the answer to your chickens? sorta... it will give you a frame work to think about your chickens and their functional role in your backyard system. This will then dictate things like how many, how you want to house them, where they should be on your block, etc.

    Kind Regards

  8. @ waltzinexile,

    I am curious about "IE", too. Is that?
    - Internet Explorer
    - Inate Existentialist
    - Interesting Expert
    - Incorrigible Experimentalist
    - Inverted Ecolologist
    - Invertebrate Exhumer (like, digs for worms)
    - Icky Egger
    - Intensive Enclosures
    - ?

    @ Robyn,

    I am pondering a combination of the chicken schooners that Kate mentions, and the Crunchy Chicken's mobile-mini chicken coop (holds 3-4 hens, docks to the portable chicken run). Then, someone mentioned they had gone to all raised garden beds, all 10x3 feet - and made their portable hoop-house style chicken run the same size.

    My thought, if I ever get building, is to make the small enclosure/house, and use the chickens to clear the existing foliage on one section of the garden at a time, and rotate them across the garden as they achieve that goal. If I plant each section reasonably well planned as to similar growth patterns and maturity, I should be able to use them for debugging for a few hours or days where the plants can tolerate a little attention, and move them along before they cause any real harm. That would take an easily moved enclosure (to contain the chickens, protecting them from dogs, other predators, and traffic on the road), and enough planning and attention from me to make it work.

    I know that putting the chickens on the garden means I won't be feeding chicken scratch those days - they scatter and waste too much of the millet seed (I had a usable crop of volunteers from where I scattered chicken house leavings).

  9. I've been thinking about this a lot since you posted and may try a trial run with chickens in the spring. One thought that occurred to me is that instead of making the portable run exactly the size of my raised beds, I'd make it 1' wider all around. Then the chickens can have a go at the weeds that are trying to infiltrate from outside the corners of the beds.

  10. Thanks everyone for the great feedback! This is definitely giving me a place to get started. I love this blog, and I love my readers!

    Embarrassingly, I requested the "Earth User's Guide" via interlibrary loan, only to see it on the lending shelves of the eco-center I work for *headesk*. Ah well.

    Emily, had you posted on FB about chicken resources? (Someone did, and I made a mental note of it, then totally failed to get back to it.) If so, I would encourage you to check out That's actually been my primary resource so far--they've got a great "So you want to raise chickens" intro guide. In addition to that, I use/abuse the forums over at; they've been really invaluable.

    I have Jenna Wogenrich's (sp?) new chicken-raising book on order, but don't have it yet. Really, I can't think of any particular books I use. I'm an internet farmer, what can I say?

  11. Well ... there's this. It has worked for me.