You can take the fowl out of the jungle…
Howdy y’all. I might be writing this in part to feel better about the rather large chunk of change we’re investing in trees this year, but also to hopefully provide some food for thought in regards how you can begin designing a multi-layered forest garden for your flock. As with every how-to on the internet, your mileage may vary, dependent on climate, location, goals, flock size, management, et cetera, but I hope this can get the creative juices flowing in these doldrum days of slush and ice.
If we take the birds’ eye view on this, many of us have learned through experience that chickens love forests. The floors of forests provide a thick, fluffable medium of leafmold to scratch through for bugs and other tidbits. The umbrella like cover can not only offer protection from aerial predators and the elements, but can provide dry, shaded duffy areas for dust-bathing. And as anyone with semi-feral birds might tell you, they appreciate the roost space. I’ll note here and now that allowing your birds to naturally roost outdoors is an invitation to predation without working dogs, so please do not conflate a stand of trees with year round safe shelter. Large combed varieties in particular may not fare well in winter weather if allowed to roost outside on freezing nights.
Still, woodland pasturing of chickens, with attention to the health of soil and vegetation is a valuable practice, with careful observation and management. Here in Northeast Missouri, our climaxed ecosystem is something closer to “prairie oak savanna”, with tree cover accounting for approximately 20 percent of the overall space on healthy landmasses. In many parts of our chicken pasture, I am attempting to land on a similar pattern, with a wider variety of fruiting shrubs and trees for the benefit of chicken and chicken-keeper, though I am also working on denser plantings to create more “jungle” for our birds.
In this post I will evaluate some species we’ve been trying for our poultry forest garden, and offer some advice on implementing your own chicken-centric plantings. My personal evaluations are based on what these plantings can provide in terms of nutrition, shelter, and soil health/erosion mitigation.
The Canopy Layer
The long term overstory of a chicken forest garden is an ideal place for trees which drop their fruits after ripening. Attentive pruning to keep birds from climbing trees can help fruit reach full ripeness. This can be particularly useful with high value crops you intend to share with your poultry. While any fruit or nut trees that grow well in your area might very well be fine, (with the added bonus of having some pest/disease control as a result of pasturing birds with them) I’m focusing on a trees that aren’t fussy or particularly expensive. Many of these can be pruned to maintain a smaller size if desired, as an overly dense canopy can reduce grass growth and therefore the overall nutrition available to your birds. Again, I’ve found that at 20% canopy is about as dense as I think is workable for our system here, and so I admit that “Chicken Prairie Savanna” may be a more accurate, less catchy name for my planting approach.
Mulberry cannot be approached for its vigorous growth, precocious fruit-bearing qualities, and desire to live in spite of the elements. Red and black mulberry fruits are very attractive to chickens and can lend a nice, deep tint to egg yolks. If you’re fond of eating them yourself, the white/lavendar fruited varieties do not stand out so strongly, and you’re more likely to glean a good harvest for yourself. Some mulberry cultivars, such as Illinois Everbearing can produce crops somewhat continuously through the season. Weeping types can also provide shelter and entertainment for your birds. Mulberry trees are dioecious, meaning that only the female plant bear fruit, and they aren’t easy to tell apart. You can graft female scions onto male rootstock. I chose to order some quality mulberry trees from Burnt Ridge Nursery in order to propagate my own scionwood, and typically transplant weed seedlings (wild birds drop the seeds absolutely everywhere) for the purpose of grafting onto. I’m linking to Burnt Ridge because many of the plants in this article can be purchased from them, their trees are well-packed and of superb quality, and they have a wide variety of cultivars. They aren’t paying me, in fact, I’ve been paying them, for years.
I maintain some of our mulberries as large trees, and others are coppiced, pollarded, or otherwise kept smaller so the chickens can get their share before the wild birds.
Crabapples work great as chicken fodder for the opposite reason as mulberries: their fruits stubbornly hang on to the tree, gradually dropping off in the winter time with the freeze and thaw. This makes them a nice off-season treat in the year round pasture. They tend to bear heavily when established, so there’s plenty available for jams, jellies, and pies, well before the chickens get the squishy remains, and they typically fare better in the organic setting than regular apples. The creative orchardist can graft some eating apple branches on in places to diversify their yield. I am happy with the ‘Dolgo’ cultivar for flavor and growth habit.
Sometimes nothing I do draws more ire than promoting honey locust, but I can’t help but put it in here, because I like to put a little everywhere. Honey Locust, for the uninitiated, is an extremely thorny, pod bearing tree that will grow in the most barren, soil-stripped locations. The small, vetch-like leaves provide an excellent dappled quality in their shade, which does much to allow light through to the grasses beneath. Furthermore, it can fix nitrogen in the soil, and has a gnarly root system that can help with the erosion issues we all know chickens can create.
The sugar and protein rich pods are not particularly attractive to chickens in my experience, though both our turkeys and muscovy ducks have been seen to pick them apart. I’ve ground up the pods as well as sprouted the seeds and have had better luck that way. Honey Locust developed an intense armor of big, nasty thorns as a response to prehistoric megafauna. Chickens are much less destructive, so if I’m planting Honey Locust, I go with the thornless type. While not particularly beneficial to the chicken per se, these are great trees to plant in high traffic, eroded, or slopey spaces in your chicken pasture just to ensure there’s something anchoring the soil. I do absolutely recommend these if you have goats or other ruminant livestock as an alternative feed source. Think of these as support plants, to help you reclaim problem areas for planting more valuable trees later down the line.
The understory of my chicken forest garden is comprised of dwarfed varieties of the above named trees, and a few additional shelter plantings. For the purposes of designing my chicken forest garden I find the understory and canopy to be a bit interchangeable, though I find the following trees are most useful if maintained on the smaller side.
Eastern Red Cedar
This one’s almost as maligned as the Honey Locust, and I can understand why, as a person attempting to grow apples organically. They do harbor Cedar Apple Rust, a very troublesome fungal infection, but by planting resistant varieties of apple and removing many of the existing cedars on our land, I hope that I’ll be able to have some control over the issue. As far chickens go, cedars are great. Other short, squat evergreen trees can have the same benefits as Eastern Red Cedar, but that’s what grows here. I will be attempting to plant some arbor vitae and pine to simulate the growth pattern of cedars, and will dutifully report back on how it went at a later time.
Anyhow, why do I like Eastern Red Cedar? I really don’t, but it seems to be the favored shelter tree for our flock. It provides thick, dense cover from snow, rain, beating sun and hawks, as well as a nearly impenetrable windblock. Beneath the cedars is a microclimate that sucks up and slowly releases warmth on cold sunny days and provides cool earth in the summertime. Our chickens spend so much time under them that some natural dustbaths have formed there. A problem with cedars other than Cedar Apple Rust is that they tend to shade out grass growth. I think no more than one or two per 1/4 acre is ideal. As far as human use, I too have taken shelter on the leeward side of a cedar during a blizzard, and the little berries are a key component in my home-cured pancetta.
Willows are so happy to exist here, and so quick to establish that they’re a sure way to create some for of shelter in a hurry for your flock. They have the added benefit of growing useful polewood for natural perches in your coops and wagons. A line of willows spaced at 2 to 4 feet will become an excellent windblock for exposed sites in a matter of a couple years. Our main willow planting is located just downslope of our winter chicken housing, where excess nutrient runoff can be reabsorbed into carbonaceous biomass. By employing coppice management, your planting can be harvested annually not only for polewood but easy chipping woody mulch.
The Shrub Layer
The shrub layer is perhaps the best place to locate perennial chicken nutrition: where they can reach it. Every ecosystem has a few shrubs that are happy to exist and provide abundant fruit. This is the perfect place for those not-to-tasty but well-adapted plants.
Siberian Pea Shrub
Ah yes. The classic suggestion from Bill Mollison’s Big Black Permaculture Book. Siberian Pea Shrub is exactly what it sounds like: a shrub from one of the harshest climates on Earth that produces protein rich peas. I’ve been establishing these in every paddock and had my first small crop last year. They are doing very well in our over-exposed clay-rich Missouri sidehill. The peas are small and digestible, but it would take an impossibly large planting to meet the primary protein requirements for our flock. Tough as nails, a good soil anchor, just stick it in the ground and watch it grow.
We’ve had a 100% success rate planting these, even over time as they’ve been abused by goats, deer, drought and flood.
Our farm makes a small but growing portion of our income from selling elderberry tincture. Elder has been very easy for us to start from cuttings, and so naturally we have it everywhere. Similarly to the aforementioned willows, elderberries thrive in rich soil, so our main plantings are downslope of our winter pig yard and chicken range. The thin, flexible branches are too light to support the weight of a chicken, so they must wait patiently to consume whatever drops during harvest. Our chickens love resting in the dappled shade of elder, pecking stray fruits, and subsequently providing some novelty blue chicken shit.
Dogwoods work well for us because they already exist all over our pasture. Their dense, scrubby growth makes a favorite place for hens with clutches of little chicks. They hold soil in firmly where chicken disturbance is an issue, and the Cornelian Cherry type produce an abundance of bright red late season fruits that our birds love, far more than we do, to be honest. An awesome producer, very responsive to fertility and wet soils.
A shrubby relative of the apple, serviceberries produce small, soft blueberry-like fruits with a mild taste. They are hardy as all get out and produce well after establishment. We keep a few for our own personal eating (they’re one of the earlier available fruits here) and have a bunch for the chickens. If you can keep the rabbits off of them, they won’t need much more in terms of maintenance.
Various Bramble Fruits
Blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, or whatever does best in your location are an obvious choice for the chicken pasture. Ours are worked into a dense, multi-species hedge that the birds often shelter in. Low-hanging fruits and drops are usually gobbled up, and I get a few handfuls a day from the higher up portions. Extra thorny wild types can provide some barrier or safety from predation, but you know me, I’m pro thorn.
The Herbaceous Layer
Tender, tasty, and healthy greens are an important part of your flock’s overall diet. Some, like comfrey, will keep coming back, though being able to allow time for regrowth will keep your patches in better health. I use white clover in all my pasture mixes, and whenever I have the opportunity to reseed bare soil, such as when digging tree holes, or when the chickens have been in a paddock for longer than is ideal. It generally seems successful in taking year round, but I think my best plantings have occured in late winter during freeze/thaw cycles. (Think maple tapping time). Spread it on a new moon if you’re feeling extra magical.
Good pasture management for chickens requires that we fix any disturbance we create. In terms of grass seeds, asking someone at your local farm supply what people are planting right now is a good way to figure out what you ought to be seeding. I’ve had good luck planting little plugs of tough perennial native grasses in degraded areas… so far Eastern Gama Grass has established best for me, though Indian grass and Little Bluestem also hold some promise.
Medicinal herbs for chickens, such as oregano, thyme, and wormwood may all have a place in your design. While some birds may have a propensity to self-medicate as needed, you may have to harvest these yourself if you wish to include them in their diet.
The Underground Layer
Turnips and beets are a regular part of my pasture seed mix for filling in bare spots, though to be fair, those are annuals, and the pigs find them first. Sunchokes are, as always, a clear choice for utilizing underground growing space on pasture. They can quickly form a thicket of tall, stalky, sunflowers for shelter/windbreak, and subsequently be unearthed late in the year for a treat. Our chickens don’t really get to excited by them unless they resprout, but our ducks do like a nibble.
Establishing and maintaining your plantings
So those are a few exciting plantings for your chicken project. Great. But what observations have you made in regards to your existing pasture? Are there trees already there? Do they serve a function in your project? Have you seen the chickens interact with the space for a full year of seasons? It can be tempting to clear space for something exciting, and even more tempting to order a great bunch of trees that you’ll have to care for. I’m very familiar with the feeling. Still, if this is an idea you’ve only begun to explore, take some time to make appropriate and careful site observations. Notice how water flows over the land in wet weather, which spots are prone to flooding or drying out. What are the chickens’ natural patterns of travel, and what are your own natural patterns of travel when performing chores. Is there enough space for a portable coop? Wagon? Truck or tractor?
In general, it’s probably best to locate your tree plantings away from fencelines. Trees can be a springboard to allow predators in, or chickens out, and over time they can ruin your fence.
When planting trees, its important to remember that chickens are naturally curious about soil disturbance. Overturned soil and the base of a seedling is an invitation to scratching and dustbathing, and therefore root disturbance. I’ve seen hens scratch so vigorously that they’ve kicked particularly shallow rooted seedlings out of the ground. And the only thing more attractive to a chicken besides bare earth is bare earth with some straw on top. Many of my best foragers show up at the plantings site as soon as they see a shovel. As much as I love the relationship between chickens and trees, they suck to plant trees in front of.
What has been most successful in my experience is to create an impenetrable ring around my new seedlings for the first three or four years. A sturdily supported ring of tight wire fencing, all exposed dirt seeded to white clover, thick mulch and some heavy chunks of wood to deter scratching is the baseline, in addition to whatever rodent protection you might need. Our chicken orchard also has pigs in it on occasion, so I use two t-posts per tree guard.
In order to keep low growing fruit on your plants until fully ripe, exclusion by way of rotational pasturing/paddocking is essential. Different cultivars may have different ripening times, so with some creative planning and a good spreadsheet, a chicken orchard can be planned out week by week for some part of the season.
In all, I continue to work on our own chicken/tree program because I’ve come to believe that pasturing chickens in the mainstream way, across broad fields of grass, is severely limiting to what a chicken is, and does. The time, effort, and energy required to move hundreds of chickens multiple times a day (in pastured broiler settings) may be toward a worthy environmental cause, but it comes at the cost of expecting the flock of chickens to behave like something other than a flock of chickens. I do believe that rotational pasturing of chickens is important, in terms of chicken health, soil health, and human health. Unfortunately, pasturing in chicken tractors is a two-dimensional solution for an animal that was meant to exist in three. When the financial bottom line is not the bottomest of lines, as in our project, we have more room for diversity in habitat, full range of chicken expression, a multiplicity of yields, and sue me if I’m wrong, a better tasting product. So please, take the dive, and plant a jungle for your domesticated jungle fowl.