Forage for the feathered ones

PUBLISHED: 13:28 29 May 2014

Off to forage

Off to forage


B ack in the ‘old days’ commercial feeds weren’t readily available to the backyard poultry keeper. In fact it was just as well that the current legislation on feeding kitchen scraps to your flock were not in force as that was often the only source of feed for the small scale.

Plants of the month

It’s two for the price of one again this month as, with the rest of the column, I want to cover both beauty and bounty this month.

Hardy Geranium

(Geranium sp)

For me this has to be one of the best plants for the border and in particular for gardens that are subject to a bit more ‘traffic’ than normal, be that people, pets or poultry. The hardy geraniums are amongst the popular perennials in Britain and I know from experience as we grow quite a few varieties both in the garden and for sale off the gate, and they never fail to attract buyers.

They are incredibly tough plants and easily survive trampling. They don’t grow too tall, they out compete weeds by smothering them and flower prolifically. Better still if they become a bit tatty to look at then simply strim them off or cut them back with hedge cutters and providing it’s still the growing season they will bounce back delivering a new flush of foliage and an abundance of flowers.

The breeds of hardy geranium available on the market are very diverse with variations in foliage type and colour, and flower form and colour. In fact it is fair to say there will be something for everyone in terms of look.

Dense and clump forming they can attract a bit of a peck during the early growing season but protect them with an upturned wire hanging basket until they are large enough to poke through it and they will out face the chickens fairly quickly. They also have the ability to bring together bulbs, shrubs and other perennials in the border, knitting the scene into a very eye-catching look.

The one pictured is Geranium “Ann Folkard” and is one of my favourites due to the incredibly warm and deep magenta flower colour. It’s not as vigorous in its clump formation so doesn’t spread quite as much as the others, but it makes up for this by going vertical and can be used as a scrambling climber with other larger shrubs.

Propagation is simple enough, as with many of the plants I’ve picked out in the series so far it can be completed by division during the spring or autumn.


July is a time when most currants and berries are in full harvest and whilst only a fool would think such tasty treats are poultry proof it doesn’t exclude them from being grown and harvested successful where there are chickens.

Providing you protect the plant with netting until it’s twice the height of the tallest bird in your flock then there is no reason why you can’t manage the plant in such a manner that the chickens can enjoy the low hanging fruit whilst ensuring there is sufficient further up for you for the kitchen.

The key is to familiarise yourself with the different types of growth. The new shoots (which will fruit next year) will have smooth bark the colour of strong tea. The second year growth will have already have fruited in the last season and the bark will be a rough grey colour and it may carry a loose bunch, or strig, of fruit stems. The bark of third year growth is black and rough to the touch. These will not have borne fruit in the last season but they will be carrying the important second and first year growth.

If you prune the bush to grow in a more upright manner then you should be able to encourage more of the new growth to appear out of ‘chicken reach’ but leaving a little of the new growth to supply a small quantity of fruit at chicken height. This will then mean the chickens spend more time picking off pests from the plant and eating the fallen fruit (thus reducing the risk of disease) than tucking into the main harvest.

If you consider the facts it becomes more apparent; a chicken on average will consume one bushel of grain a year; this may sound quaint and achievable, however a bushel is approximately 60lbs (27.2kg) of wheat. In order to grow that amount of wheat you need 1,000 square feet or a 17m x 17m space, so it’s easy to appreciate the need for commercial feeds in a small scale or garden set up.

That said, you may want to reduce your reliance upon such feeds by providing some level of forage for your flock, and there are two ways in which you can achieve this.

Firstly, don’t be overly tidy or clinical in your gardening approach. Let leaf litter accumulate in corners, allow for a bit of annual weed growth in places, and encourage some damp or boggy ground somewhere. All these techniques will bring insects, worms and molluscs into the garden which the chickens will feed on. The annual weeds will also provide a valuable source of greens as well as a nutritional seed source too.

The second way is to specifically grow plants that will ultimately be used for the chickens, but ones which will first deliver benefit to the beauty of the borders. Legumes such as pea, broad, French and runner bean come in a wide variety of colours and forms and can easily be grown within a border. If left to run to seed and dried they are particularly beneficial for chickens being high in protein. It is best to mince or grind them before adding them to the feed, but they will be eagerly eaten. There are also other vegetables such as sweetcorn, ornamental brassicas, cabbages and kale which all provide an excellent source of supplements. If you dot them around within the borders then they can be eaten by the flock without appearing to create huge gaps in the overall look of the planting plan.

Then there are some specific garden ornamentals that make great grain and seed providers for your flock come the autumn, but put on a stunning display during the main part of the growing season.

Sunflowers come in a vast range of varieties with something suitable for most gardens. Once the plant has gone over, you can either harvest the seed, adding a little to their feed, or simply give them the whole head!

Foxtail barley can be grown pretty much anywhere and is a far better source of protein than corn, and if you have a particularly warm or sunny aspect to the garden then why not try ornamental millet? Both make perfect partners for more naturalistic planting styles, and let’s face it, if you are ranging chickens in your garden, then you are probably erring more towards the au naturel garden as opposed to the municipal parks approach – so why not throw flowers and forage together in one.

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