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for the garden
desert gardening basics
April, 2010, Page 55
Photography by Richard Maack
Phoenix resident Caroline Van Slyke calls these three hens her “girls.” They include a Cinnamon Queen, Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Buff Orpinton.
Seasoned gardeners share stories about raising backyard poultry
Simplified living. Knowing where your food comes from. Better nutrition. Stress reduction. Whatever the reason, many homeowners are reaping the benefits of transforming traditional yards—front and back—into vegetable gardens and edible landscapes filled with fruit-producing trees and vines. Tending a small flock of egg-laying hens goes hand-in-hand with this back-to-basics lifestyle, and it’s a trend that has been gaining momentum in the desert Southwest.
Six local gardeners, all chicken enthusiasts, share their experiences, offering encouraging advice for those new to the concept of backyard poultry.
“If you can care for a dog, you can tend chickens,” states Jill Green, who has raised chickens in the Arcadia area of Phoenix for 25 years. “And as long as you don’t have a rooster, chickens make less noise than dogs,” she adds.
“I grew up in El Paso’s suburbs and didn’t know anyone who raised chickens, but it’s not difficult to learn,” comments Scottsdale resident Kim Cherry, who owns four hens.
“The bulk of the work related to raising chickens is on the front end, with research and preparing their shelter,” notes Caroline Van Slyke of Phoenix. She obtained her first flock from Rent-A-Hen, a local business owned by experienced gardener Jim Dennis. If the chickens don’t suit you, says Dennis, Rent-A-Hen takes them back within 60 days.
“Having chickens is not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that needs to be thought out,” Dennis admits. In particular, you must offer shelter that protects them from predators and the summer heat. However, once properly set up, day-to-day maintenance tasks are minimal and become part of an enjoyable routine, he says.
“When visitors come through my garden gate, they describe the sound of chickens clucking as soothing,” comments Green. “There’s something about watching them peck around that takes people back to a simpler time.”
A pair of Rhode Island Reds—considered excellent egg layers—wanders past vegetable beds at the Arcadia-area home of Leah and Jack Notebaerts.
Another common theme voiced by these gardeners is the entertainment value of their backyard fowl. “Chickens are funny,” says Jack Notebaerts, who tends eight hens with his wife, Leah, at their Arcadia-area home. “Sometimes we pass on the TV and sit in the garden and watch them run around and interact. If there’s a juicy bug that they’re competing for, a soap opera of tricks and deception ensues. It’s better than TV.”
“I was surprised at how much personality hens have,” Cherry concurs. Sitting in a family member’s lap, her hens make pleasurable noises as they are stroked, just as cats purr and “talk” to their humans. “Our flock congregates at the glass patio door to stare in until we open it and give them a treat. We named this routine Beaks at the Back Door,” she says, laughing.
Some breeds are more docile than others, making them good choices if you want to interact with your chickens. “The breeds I recommend are all very gentle birds,” states Carolyn Hills of Scottsdale, who has raised chickens since childhood. “A child could reach under the hen and take her egg if she is still in the nesting box. She might protest loudly, but she will not peck.” Hills suggests Barred Rock, Black Australorp, Blue Andalusian, Buff Orpington, Rhode Island Red and Wyandotte.
Benefits of Chickens
For people who already tend to gardens, make compost, and enjoy animals, raising chickens is a logical step along the way to a self-sustaining organic lifestyle, Cherry
maintains. Chickens can enhance gardening efforts, she notes, and add to simplified living in many ways.
—Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient, and chicken manure is the most nitrogen-rich of all animal manures, according to Hills, a Master Gardener with University of Arizona Maricopa County Cooperative Extension. “One chicken produces enough manure in a year to fertilize 100 square feet of garden,” she says. However, fresh chicken manure never should be applied directly to planted beds because it may “burn” plants, she cautions.
Caroline Van Slyke holds a Cinnamon Queen hen in the “free range” area outside of her chicken coop. Once a rusted metal shed, the structure was repurposed into a henhouse by her husband, David.
Van Slyke adds chicken manure to her compost pile to decompose, then incorporates finished compost into garden beds. Although she has had three chickens for only one year, she already has noticed improvement in the quality of her vegetable plants.
—Chickens gobble up cockroaches, crickets, scorpions and termites. “I used to have ants everywhere, but not since the chickens arrived,” says Cherry.
“Chickens also control garden pests such as squash bugs, although they need to be monitored or they will eat the foliage,” cautions Green. However, if you have a patch of green weeds, your chickens can make quick work of it because they like foraging on fresh plant material.
Connection to our food supplies
—“Raising chickens helped my 13-year-old daughter, Catherine, understand where food comes from and to develop respect for those sources,” says Van Slyke. “It seems that the last couple of generations have a gap in knowledge when it comes to comprehending that food doesn’t originate in a fast-food restaurant or grocery store.”
—Fresh eggs are flavorful and nutritious. “Our eggs have dark orange yolks and clear whites, whereas factory eggs have flat yellow yolks and murky whites,” states Notebaerts. Also, some chicken breeds produce pretty shells. Hills suggests Araucana or Ameraucana for blue-green eggs, and Marans for eggs the color of milk chocolate. (You might also find chickens that lay colorful eggs sold as Easter Eggers.)
Jill Green holds a basket of organic eggs that she and husband Hal collected. “Once you’ve scrambled up a ‘real’ egg, you can never be satisfied with anything else,” she maintains.
Hens for hire
If you aren’t sure whether chickens suit your lifestyle, consider following Van Slyke’s route. “I spent seven years trying to convince my husband, David, that our family would benefit from backyard chickens, but he wasn’t keen on the idea,” she recalls. He finally agreed to try three young layers from Rent-A-Hen.
Dennis, of Rent-A-Hen, says he hand-raises chicks to acclimate them to humans and pets, then turns them over to their new household when they are about six months old and ready to start laying. “I like to raise my hens so they are more socialized than most,” he notes. “I feel this creates a more caring, fun and interactive environment for the birds and the people. My goal is to be sure they are successful.”
The Van Slykes’ “trial period” was indeed a success. Two of their hens are so tame that their 2-year-old son, David Elijah, can catch them and hold them in his lap. And the husband? He’s a convert, according to his wife. “He even built them a protective picket fence with narrow openings so they can’t poke their heads out and our dogs can’t poke their heads in,” she says. “At the end of his busy day as a banker, David finds it relaxing and restorative to be around the chickens.”
Photos - Clockwise from top left:
Vegetables in raised “salad boxes” have the benefit of flood irrigation, which provides plant roots with a deep soaking.
Jack and Leah Notebaerts (pictured) built a chicken coop and raised vegetable beds from recycled wood and chicken wire. The hens like to nibble on insects, but the wire keeps them from eating the garden crop, they say. Every four weeks the couple removes the bedding material, with its nutrient-rich chicken droppings, and places it in their compost pile.
Located out of sight behind a front-yard wall, these raised planting beds provide a substantial amount of fresh produce for the Notebaerts.
The Van Slyke’s garden is planted with tea roses, perennials, herbs and vegetables. Birdhouses on pedestals attract another feathered breed.
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