Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Brown hens searching for insects in the garden. Original watercolor by Kim Haworth.

Keeping Chickens

You can buy a lot of eggs for what you would spend for keeping chickens, but there are benefits other than eggs. Chicken manure is like gold for enriching the soil in your garden beds. The straw from their compound can be used as mulch with that little extra bonus of nitrogen mixed in. Chickens eat bugs, lots and lots of bugs, as well as snails and slugs. They are pleasant to watch as they go about their chicken business, they have distinct personalities, and make very good pets.

My grandmother always kept a couple of banty hens in her back yard. Bantys are smaller than "regular" chickens, so consequently their eggs are small. But they were delightful little creatures that were always underfoot and looking for a hand out. Whenever we mowed the lawn or turned the soil we were followed by a herd of hungry hens searching for an easy meal.

The Chicken and the Egg
Keeping chickens in an urban environment is becoming more and more popular as people are looking more closely at their food sources. Healthy hens lay about 5 eggs per week. The amount of eggs they lay depends on the length of daylight hours and the age of the bird. You can expect more eggs during the spring and summer than during the winter months. My friend Bill Stephens had hens that lived for almost 20 years! They stopped laying when they were about 10, but he kept them as pets and consumers of insects after their egg laying years were behind them.

The Coop
Raccoons, skunks, and foxes are always on the look out for a tasty treat. These creatures are nocturnal, hunting mainly at night, so chickens need to have a secure place to roost at night.

The coop should be located in a sunny area of the yard, have an enclosed area which is protected from the elements where the birds will sleep, and a fenced area where they can scratch and take a nice dirt bath if they desire. Each chicken will need 2-3 square feet of space inside the coop and 4-5 square feet in a fenced outside run. The surface inside the enclosure should be covered with straw or pine shavings and cleaned weekly. There are many excellent designs on-line for building a chicken compound.

Where to Find Chicks
Purchase chicks at a local feed store. They will need to be kept at 90 to 100 degrees for the first week, decreasing 5 degrees each week thereafter. A 100 watt light bulb will provide ample heat in an enclosed area. Handle the chicks gently and frequently to get them used to being around people.

So long as your yard is well fenced, you can let the chickens out of their compound during the day to scratch and search for insects. Provide a shallow sand wallow where they can take a dust bath. The chickens must be returned to the coop at night, but if they have been brought up around people, it's not difficult to round them up.

What They Eat
Chickens love to eat vegetable scraps, bread crumbs, egg shells, and of course, cracked corn, milo, and chicken pellets. Fresh water should be available at all times.

Check local laws and ordinances about keeping hens in your area. There may be stricter ordinances about keeping roosters that don't apply to hens, who don't crow at O'Dark Thirty!

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