Chicken-keeping is a growing trend in northern Nevada. Chickens are still considered illegal in most areas of Sparks, but are allowed in Reno and Washoe County. Chickens are a nice addition to your landscape, providing eggs, insect control and weed control. Integrating chickens as part of your pest management plan will require some thoughtful planning to protect both your flock and your plants.
Chickens are omnivores. They eat plants, insects and small vertebrates, like lizards, snakes and mice. Will they help eat insect pests in your garden? Maybe, but they won’t confine themselves to just pests. They will eat the beneficial insects too. My biggest disappointment with my own flock is that none of them will eat squash bugs! Will they eat weeds? Sure, if the weeds are tasty. But they will also eat vegetables and other plants you’re trying to grow in your landscape. They are particularly fond of young, tender shoots of edibles such as lettuce, chard, spinach, lawn grasses and other green leafy plants. They generally don’t bother cane fruits, fruit trees or landscape trees and shrubs, so they can have free run around those portions of the garden or landscape.
A big concern for anyone who keeps livestock in their backyard is the threat of poisonous or toxic plants. There are many lists on the web; a good site is www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants where you can search for toxic plants by animal species. Chickens are grazers and generally test plants by taking a peck or two, not consuming it all at once. Problems can arise when we inadvertently give them plant materials to eat that may be toxic. In general: no parts of avocado or potatoes, no leaves of tomato, eggplant or rhubarb plants, no unripe tomatoes or eggplant fruits, no apple seeds, no pits or seeds from peach, pear, apricot, cherries or plums, no seeds from brassica family (rape, cabbage, turnips, broccoli and mustard), no onions, no coffee, no chocolate, no tea bags, nothing moldy or spoiled and nothing sprayed with pesticides – this includes weed-and-feed-type products and preemergence herbicides. I try to limit pesticide use in the backyard where my chickens and other animals live.
So how do you combine your chickens into your vegetable garden? Many people, including me, don’t let the chickens into the vegetable garden until after harvest. Chickens will cheerfully dig up and consume the remaining vegetation, overwintering insects and many newly sprouted weeds after the harvest has occurred. I have individually fenced my raised beds, so I can control access to each bed as the harvest occurs and the beds are left fallow for winter.
Another method of incorporating chickens into the vegetable garden is to divide the garden in half with fencing. Let the chickens loose in one side, where they will turn the soils, eat overwintering insects and any new weed sprouts and add their manure to the organic matter in your plot. Meanwhile, grow vegetables in the other half. Come fall, switch the chickens into the vegetable patch after harvest and let the former chicken run settle and the chicken manure compost in place before you plant in the spring.
Melody Hefner is the Urban IPM and Pesticide Safety Program Coordinator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Interested in learning more about backyard gardening? Attend the Grow Your Own classes starting April 3. Visit www.growyourownnevada.com for more information.