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Chickens in the Garden

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Fun, Funny Garden Companions

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By Mary Beth Ryan, 
Happy Thymes Garden Club, Sumner

I don't know what possessed me. After all, I grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm and knew nothing about farm animals. I had just purchased a home and quarter-acre lot in town. This was a return to Sumner where I grew up (during the 30 years whiIe I was away, a freeway had taken the farm). However, I wanted to raise chickens along with the flowers, vegetable garden and small orchard. After a tour of the "city chickens" in Seattle, I knew it was for me. I have learned to love them dearly and friends sit through stories of their child-like antics that not even baby stories of my daughters could match.

Chickens are smart, humorous, colorful, amusing, and even affectionate in their own way. They can be a great garden helper or rip your perennial garden to shreds. Mine have done both.

It started with a phone call to City Hall regarding the animal ordinance for pet chickens within the city limits. I knew that Seattle had an ordinance which limited the size of the flock to the property size.

"We've never been asked that!" was City Hall's response and they referred me to animal control. Animal control had no rules, either, except that I should get the neighbors' informal approval, and keep the chickens off the residential street. To me, that meant no rooster, a coop and fencing, and a talk with all five adjoining back-yard neighbors. Fortunately, we are all on good terms and they were as curious about chickens as I was.

The feed store in town had chicks and a poster on the wall showing different breeds. As the feed store employee picked up a chick he called out its breed and I said yes or no based on what the adult looked like in the poster. I bought five. I also bought the poster.

As the chickens grew, we worked the dirt together while I was on my knees digging and scratching. I hand-fed them worms and clucked along with them as we worked the garden. Unexpectedly, I became the "Alpha Chick." Friends have said I "talk poultry."

Yes, a chicken flock really does have a "pecking order". And I also found that some are natural gardening partners...they stay nearby, understand "no," and enjoy being in close proximity. Chickens naturally need to scratch and dig. That can be great when you're turning over sod to make a new garden bed. They eat the bugs, slug eggs, weed seeds and use their sharp toenails to tear apart dirt clods. However, they also like to eat your beet greens, chard and low-hanging fruit (they found the raspberry patch).

They can tear up a newly planted seed bed in minutes or make a "dusting" place in your roses. Now, they spend the spring and summer in an ample pen. I throw produce trimmings in to them as I harvest from the garden. Any visits outside the pen are made under tight supervision.

But in the fall they shine. Turn them loose and they are like machines, cleaning up bugs, overripe fruit, and vegetable tops going to seed. Like fat, round vacuum cleaners they delight in kicking up the dirt to gobble garden delicacies.

Of course there are the extra bonuses...fresh eggs (which I share with neighbors) and manure (which I share with garden friends). The coop is cleaned out weekly and the soiled bedding is stored in a covered garbage can. Visiting gardeners help themselves, filling buckets with the dried fertilizer.

I make a manure slurry to pour into newly dug planting holes. I also work it into the raised beds before covering them for the winter. I give those girls much credit for my super-size tomatoes...now if they would just stay out of them.

Chickens can provide useful manure—and be fun gardening friends!

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