Monday, May 2, 2011

The Labor of Chickens & Apple Guilds

Greetings.  So many of us in the Pacific NW and beyond are keeping chickens for their eggs.  I'd like to discuss and show how chickens can be used as effective labor to remake & revitalize even small areas of urban yards.

The picture below is from a small project I working on in North Portland (NoPo).  The central tree is an apple tree and the new garden guild area you see around it was part of the chicken run just a few days ago.  You can see that the chicken run was moved back behind the tree so the chickens could begin work on a new area...
The plants around the base of the apple tree are members of a new APPLE GUILD, plants that will attend to the needs of the apple tree while providing their own productive harvests.  These include:  Comfrey, Feverfew, Fennel, Iris, Clover, & Yarrow (see below).  

All the materials used here were found onsite:  rocks, wood, compost & plants growing in odd, isolated places, or thought of as weeds.  The chickens ate only weeds + food scraps & drank only rain water...
Thus, the cost of making this garden space = $0.00

Before the chickens cleaned up this area, it was a mess:
1.  Existing Large Apple Tree with poor fruit yields
2.  Compacted Soils
3.  Invasive thorny blackberry and weeds taking over the yard

Now, just a few weeks after the chickens tractored the area there is a young APPLE GUILD in place with excellent attendant plants providing the following benefits:


COMFREY  / Symphytum officinale
-          Dynamic Nutrient Accumulator:  deep roots of this plant accumulate all the following nutrients from the soil & loads them in the plant’s leaf & root growth (Nitrogen, Silica, Calcium, Potassium, & Iron)
-          Mulch Plant:  you can chop & drop large comfrey leaves as mulch several times each summer and they just keep producing more!
-          Medicinal Plant – externally for healing wounds, cuts, broken bones, & more.
-          Lovely, sweet, edible flowers that attract pollinators

Feverfew / Tanacetum parthenium
-          Insectary Plant attracting both pollinators and pest predators.
-          Excellent medicinal used to reduce fevers, treat headaches, arthritis, and aid in digestion

Fennel / Foeniculum vulgare:
-          Edible perennial: so tasty from stalk to leaf to seed.
-          Nutrient Accumulator: Sodium, Silica & Potassium
-          Beautiful Lacey Green Foliage


Yarrow / Achillea millefolium:
Yarrow does it all!
- Herbaceous perennial groundcover
- Fixes and accumulates into the soil the big 3:    N, P, K - Nitrogen, Phosphorus, & Potassium
- Insectary Plant:  attracting beneficial insects to the garden
- Herbal Medicinal:  Tea for colds & flu.  Tincture for fever, cramps, regulates menstruation.  Externally for wounds & stopping blood-flow.

White Clover

Clover / Trifolium spp.
-          Groundcover
-          Pollinator Attractor
-          Fixes nitrogen & phosphorus into soil
-          Red Clover is medicinal & beautiful


Iris / Iris spp.
-          Insectary Plant attracting beneficial insects to the garden.
-          Perennial ornamental flower – who doesn’t love Irises!  Many varieties and colors.

There are many plants that can go in an Apple Guild
to build diversity and resilience.
What are some of your suggestions???

I love chickens as partners in garden place-making because they are always ready to work.  Rain or shine, cold or not - they are ready, willing and able garden workers.
  • What do chickens give us besides their nutritious eggs?
- Chicken Manure is very high in nitrogen (N), a needed component in the soil for healthy plant growth.

- Egg Shell Calcium:  Once you eat the eggs, you can dry the shells and then crunch them down into little bits (so much fun!) and spread the shells onto garden beds to add calcium.  OR, you can feed the bits back to the chickens to add needed calcium to their diet.

- Chicken Field Labor:  chickens scratch and till the earth as a natural behavior.  They bathe in the dirt!  I have worked on small farm systems where a group of chickens were my best labor force.  We can place them in chicken tractors (moving enclosures where the chickens work for a period of time), or we can simply keep moving their run or yard to areas that need revitalization and weed control.  See my chickens at work & play in the video below:

- Chicken Mulch:  if you ever have the opportunity, place your chickens together with your yard mulch / yard waste area.  You can pile all weed cuttings, grass clippings, tree cuttings and leaves into part of the chicken area and those birds will eat all they want, poop a lot, and scratch it all into a very rich & fertile mulch you can take out into the garden.  It's not waste if it isn't wasted :-D

You can see the NoPo example of chickens at work and moving through the landscape in the video below:

CLOSING WASTE LOOPS:  By letting chickens go to work in garden spaces that need reworking or redesign + feeding them all the dandelions, grass clippings and many other weeds in the garden space along with kitchen scraps, I have been able to get free of having to buy commercial chicken feed.  The chickens egg production and quality have not lessened and one might surmise that it has improved.  So, here is yet another way we can close the energy and money waste loops running through our lives.  We get payback for these regenerative behaviors in so many ways - expected and unexpected.  Is this not the essence of permaculture?
Apple Guild + Insectary & Ornamental Island in a rapidly transformed garden space
worked in partnership with only 3 chickens.


  1. Tomatoes have many good relationships in the garden. I have found that two other companions for tomatoes are Calendula (commonly called Pot Maigold) and Borage. Calendula is a deterrent for tomato hornworms, and also a trap plant for aphids. Borage also deters tomato worms and enhances the vigor of tomato.

    Beebalm (also called Monarda or Oswego Tea), chives and mint are flavor enhancers for the tomato, also.

    Other plants that tomato can be planted with or near are onion cabbage asparagus carrots cellery and cucumber and parsley.

  2. A good vegetable companion guide is:

  3. What a lovely way to utilize your chicken farmers! I have a lovely crop of yarrow under apple trees in my parking strip, & harvest the flowers for tea, use young leaves in salads. Last winter any time I felt a cold coming on, out came the yarrow!
    I have a little garden a few feet away with echinacea, snapdragons, purslane, primroses & pansies, surrounded by the yarrow. This was just soil brought from next door, mulched with leaves & planted after the first winter.

    1. Beautiful! Yarrow is an excellent ground cover and medicinal. Thanks for sharing :)

  4. Seriously? Your chickens got rid of blackberries? Or did you hack them down before letting the chickens loose? I have also used chickens to do labor and find the post and netting method you're using much more tractable than a tractor (pun intended). For a single person with only a few chickens, a small chicken house and these light-weight elements for a yard are more easily moved than the typical tractor and allow the chickens a lot more room to scratch and peck. Easily shaped to odd spaces like these border gardens along a fence, too. I'm glad I found your blog! I'll be sharing! Thanks.

    1. Hi Denise,

      The chickens won't get rid of the blackberry. I cut those and used the stems in compost and dug out the roots before I let the chickens loose on the area to do the rest. Just 3 chickens in an urban landscape can do the base tractor work to transform most garden areas. I have another space these same chickens transformed and prepped around a dogwood that now has raspberry, salal, oregon grape, borage and other flowers. Stay tuned, new installments of the blog coming from Orcas Island where I now work on a large permaculture farm :D