Chickens and gardening go hand in hand. It's all part of being more self-sufficient and sustaining your family from what you can produce. I had been growing vegetables and herbs for years before I started keeping chickens, but it wasn't until we got the chickens that I felt the circle was truly complete.
I have always used natural fertilizers, pesticides, foods and nutrients for my garden, and that is even more important when you allow the chickens access. A wonderful source for fertilizer, bone meal and other garden additives is The Espoma Company.
You don't need a lot of space to grow enough vegetables to feed your family, herbs to use for cooking and a few flowers to brighten up the plot. So plan on planting a little extra for your chickens this spring.
Crushed eggshells are great in the garden. They add calcium, which helps prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Their sharp edges help deter slugs and snails, both annoying garden pests. They are also greatly appreciated by the wild birds who benefit from added calcium to make hard shells, just as chickens do.
And you can even use halved empty eggshells in a cardboard carton to start seeds in. Just poke a hold in the bottom and fill the eggshell with potting soil. When they are ready to go into the ground, plant them 'pot' and all. The calcium carbonate will slowly seep into the soil and nourish the seedlings. If you crush the shell pot a bit when you plant them in the ground, the seedlings will have an easier time establishing their roots.
Save your plastic berry boxes. They make wonderful mini greenhouses to start seeds in. Just line them with coffee filters, add some potting soil and seeds, then water and put them on a nice sunny windowsill. The condensation will be trapped inside and keep the soil moist.
In the last year or two, I have added a lot of variety to the herbs I now grow. Not only do the chickens benefit from herbs in their nesting boxes and home-brewed herbal tea, but I like to use fresh herbs for cooking all summer and then dry them for use in the winter.
Nasturtium is a wonderful addition to any garden. It is not only pretty, but it repels insects, the chickens love to eat the leaves and blossoms, and it acts as a laying stimulant, antiseptic, antibiotic and natural wormer for them.
I also grow watermelon, pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard just for the chickens.
They don't mind misshapen, buggy, or over- or under-ripe vegetables. Nothing goes to waste when you raise chickens. During the growing season, they get all the bug-eaten vegetables plus all the ends and scraps - and after I have harvested the crops, they enjoy all the roots and leaves (note: tomato and rhubarb leaves can be toxic to chickens so discard those)
All spring and summer I find myself picking bugs out of the garden to feed to the girls.
And weeds automatically go into a large rubber tub for the girls to eat when I'm done in the garden.
Of course, letting your chickens roam freely through your garden during growing season isn't such a great idea because they will munch on everything - veggies, blooms, leaves, good and bad bugs - but in the fall or spring letting them have access to your garden can be quite beneficial. They will turn the soil and eat the weeds, helping you prepare for the next spring's planting. They will enjoy pecking and scratching and exploring new territory. They are wonderful little tillers !
Their manure also makes wonderful fertilizer for the garden. I use the deep litter method and each spring clean out the coop of all the straw and decomposed manure which it goes right into our compost pile to be used in our garden the following spring.
I throw squash and pumpkin seeds right into our compost pile and let the vines grow wild all summer. The ducks especially love squash blossoms, and both the chickens and ducks love the pumpkins and squash once they are ripened.
So this spring when you are planning your garden, plan on planting a little extra for the chickens. They will appreciate anything you are willing to spare and it's much more economical and healthier than buying vegetables or commercial chicken treats.
Use their eggshells, manure and free labor to help fertilize, nourish and till your garden - then thank the chickens for their contribution by sharing the bounty.
Also check out this great book on gardening and creating a gorgeous yard with chickens in mind: Free-Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom.