On one of those precious warm days last week, when the snow and ice were in retreat, and the sun was so bright it gave me sunburn, I was lucky enough to be home from work early and spent some quality time in the garden organizing the spring clean-up chicken patrols.
Helen and Mrs. Hall have a list of garden duties which they perform without complaint and with very little supervision. They have egg laying duty, of course, and also soil fertilization chores, which they gladly perform. They gladly perform it better in some places, like on my concrete elephant, than others, but I'm not complaining. Pest control is a chore that they work at diligently, eating insects, and scratching up ant nests. They've even been known to kill voles in the garden when they can. Thank goodness chickens are small, because they peck at anything that moves and I'm not sure they would have the patience to make sure they weren't eating their keepers if they were dinosaur sized.
One of their most exciting chores is to aid in soil preparation for planting in the garden. This means they get to use their feet to scratch all the old plant residue up so they can get to the dirt and eat hidden bits and bugs. They love this job, but they aren't so good a moving big tangles of dead plants, so they need my help to get started.
This is the first year I didn't remove the asparagus stalks in the fall. I left them up all winter, and once I got over the guilty feeling of not having done a fall chore, I decided I liked the texture they added to the back yard, and the habitat they provided to all the little birds which fluttered around in them through the winter when they were trying to hide from me and the dog. I checked the blog, and the first spears of asparagus were harvested in early April last year. This means it was time to cut the stalks, and let the chickens do a little clean up.
I did learn something interesting about chickens while wielding my machete to chop old asparagus stalks. I wondered if chickens would have an instinctual fear of an iron blade. I mean, chickens weren't created just to be back yard companions to nerdy gardeners, like myself, but primarily to be eaten, and I thought that thousands of years of throat chopping might have resulted in some natural aversion to having a machete near the throat. You know, like how they take cover when a hawk flies over the yard, even though they have never been attacked by one. Turns out, they don't naturally fear weapons, not really. I stalked my chickens and pretended to threaten them with my machete and they didn't even blink. They just scooted over like they would be more than happy to let me by. It could be that they know I was faking, or maybe they could tell that not only do I have terrible aim, but that my bade is about as sharp as a plastic butter knife.
I don't know if you remember my loving complaints about the morning glory vines that took over the back corner of the garden last year, but the photo above shows just how much they spread by the end of the summer. I don't even want to think about the battle I will have with them this year.
This photo is the same area last week. The dead vines look like they are in mounds because there are hidden tomato cages buried in the tangle. What a chore! Even though it seemed futile, I took pains to pull every seed head off the cages so I don't transport more morning glories as I move the cages around.
Even before I had the vines out of the way, Helen and Mrs. Hall were working hard to get the soil ready for plants. They were scratching and pecking their little hearts out. I appreciate their dedication to their work.
As an incentive to really get them focused on the areas that need the most work, I have been sprinkling cracked corn the weediest spots before I leave for work. In just a few days they have really made a difference.
The chickens are my year round compost turners. Every day I dump our kitchen scraps in the pile and they dedicate a large percentage of their day picking through it for tasty bits and earth worms. In the process they deposit fertilizer in the compost, and do a pretty good job of keeping it mixed up.
After cleaning up all the morning glory vines, I raked the compost into a bucket, and sprinkled some on each of the raised beds.
This got the chickens extra excited since there were now new tasty bits and earthworms in each bed to scratch for. As I write this, they are probably out there working to turn the compost into the garden soil. Good chickens. Imagine what I could accomplish if I had a few pigs to put to work!
And since I've been bragging about the usefulness of my ladies, I might as well mention that when I look in my lopsided little bird house on the back fence, I find that the nest inside is made with lots of chicken feathers! Also some mud and trash, but it's the chicken feathers that look the most cozy. Even the local wildlife knows how to put the chickens to use.