Walking down the garden to let out the hens this morning, I again contemplated their advantages to the gardener as well as the cook. Eggs from your own hens bear no resemblance to shop-bought eggs – as anyone who buys my surplus regularly will testify. Supremely fresh, with golden yolks and oh, such taste. They are like they are because of the garden. I’ve blogged before about our hens, but haven’t offered tips on their benefit to the garden, nor cautioned the beginner as to potential problems which you should consider before buying hens for yourself, your children or grandchildren.
Hens are not difficult, but require a regular routine. They need letting out in the morning and shutting in at dusk, which can prove tricky if you are out at work and particularly so during the winter, unless you have a TOTALLY secure house and covered pen. Holidays could be a problem unless you have a kind neighbour who will care for them in exchange for eggs. You should not overstock, but assess available space for keeping them in the first place – even a coop with run attached (safety from foxes, badgers and marauding dogs) will need to be moved every few days. Too many birds, and your grass will be scratched to bits; it will become a mud bath in winter – though the birds will benefit from dust-bathing in summer.
But to thrive, hens must have greenery, which is where your garden benefits. Firstly you can feed them weeds! Groundsel, dandelions, chickweed and docks; keep harvesting dock leaves but don’t let this invasive perennial run to seed and you’ll keep it under control. Just watch how the hens love it. Secondly you can throw into the birds’ run any thinnings of beet, spinach or perpetual spinach, turnips, salad leaves, cabbage, broccoli and other greens. Thirdly, in any available space, grow extra salads and greens specifically for the chickens; sorrel (herb) is a good tonic, too.
Clean their house regularly and add the droppings to your compost bin or compost heap, layered with your usual compostings. I’ve been keeping hens for 40 years, in the past raising them from eggs set in an incubator (very educational) though you have to wait a long time for them to come into lay – around 20 weeks from hatching) and a large proportion will be cockerels which become a nuisance! I now buy point-of-lay birds (around 16 weeks) from a very reliable source: Cyril Bason Ltd will supply in small quantities and deliver to your door; collecting your first eggs from a new batch of hens is always a joy.
Covering all there is to be said about keeping hens cannot be done in a single blog post. If you have queries, please leave a comment, and I’ll answer as much as possible in future posts or e-newsletters.
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