My chickens free-range in the backyard most of the day, with unrestricted access to the vegetable garden. I don’t fence or otherwise protect my raised beds, and they’ve been very good about our unspoken “beaks off” policy when it comes to my vegetables.
The trick? Giving them a “salad bar” that they can call their own, a foraging pasture that grows in a 4×8 raised bed next to their coop.
Ahead of the rain today, I scattered several handfuls of seeds and lightly raked them into the soil. The varieties I sowed (White Dutch clover, Medium Red clover, Dwarf Essex rape, Austrian Winter pea, and buckwheat) are not only some of the chickens’ favorite greens to snack on, but they also make excellent cover crops. (And the seeds themselves? Well, since I feed my chickens a mix of seeds and grains, they went crazy thinking I was super spoiling them!)
Cover crops are also known as green manure, a type of plant grown to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. The cover crop is usually grown for one season, then plowed and dug into the soil right after it flowers (but before it sets seed).
Legumes, such as peas and clovers, enrich your soil by converting nitrogen in the air into nitrogen for the soil. Non-legume cover crops, such as buckwheat, spread so fast that they’re great at smothering weeds before those pesky things have a chance to germinate.
I’m not sure if this bed will always be a chicken salad bar, but if and when I decide to turn it over into a vegetable bed, I know the soil will be rich and ready to plant. In the meantime, I’ll be letting the cover crops flower abundantly in the spring to attract pollinators to the garden. A win-win-win!