A Gardener’s Notebook

Chickens in the garden: Good for you, good for the soil

Special to The CambrianAugust 13, 2013 

Over five years ago we bought six baby chicks at a local farm store. They immediately formed a “pecking order” and each displayed a distinct personality. One was the meanest “chick” I’ve ever seen. We found another home for her.

Two were very friendly and liked to be held in our laps. One was strikingly beautiful; another laid green eggs. The “low girl on the totem pole” died at 2 years of age for no apparent reason other than the other hens didn’t like her and she finally “threw in the towel.”

Only two of our original flock is still living. Old age catches up with these feathered creatures at about 5 years. First they stop laying, their feet get arthritic, their combs get droopy and, finally, they just want to warm themselves  in the sun. Sound familiar?

For some time, I’ve wanted to add a couple of hens to the flock but wasn’t up to raising little chicks in my living room again. Once is enough! Then along came an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Our neighbor would raise two to three chicks as a school project if I would be willing to “take them off his hands” when they were mature. I now have two beautiful young hens, a barred rock named Penelope and a buff Orpington named Ginger. Sweet, gentle, tame and each laying about five eggs a week.

I get lots of questions about having chickens. “Don’t you need a rooster to get eggs?” is the most common one I hear. Hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs. Their eggs are simply “not fertile” unless a rooster is present to “do the deed."

The county Planning Department allows 19 hens per residence in Cambria but no rooster. They also require that any structure that houses chickens be a least 50 feet from a neighbor’s house or deck, which is difficult on small lots. Building a safe coop and outdoor run is important since raccoons, foxes and hawks can be daunting predators.

If you’re serious about keeping a few hens, your garden will benefit. Chicken owners normally use bedding such as shavings, sawdust, dry leaves or straw to control odor and moisture. The bedding can be collected with the manure. This mixture provides a balanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio) combination, and can be dumped into a composting bin and allowed to break down. Easier yet, turn the mixture into the soil in the fall and let it “feed the soil” throughout the winter. You’ll benefit from your hen’s fresh eggs and your soil will benefit from their rich manure.


Tip of the month . . .

There are many breeds of chickens to choose from. Some are better layers due to breeding, some are heavy and meatier, raised for the table.

Commercial eggs are generally white or brown, but chickens lay eggs from pink to green to blue. Egg color is a genetic trait so colors vary from breed to breed. Hybrid hens that lay colorful eggs are called “Easter-eggers.” There is no difference in the nutritional value of white, brown or colored eggs.

Lee Oliphant’s column is special to The Cambrian. Email her at cambriagardener@charter.net; read her blog at centralcoastgardening.com.

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