Chicken Paddock Planting Plan

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chicken coop in paddock area

Last spring’s Chicken Week seems a world away now as I look out onto giants mounds of fluffy snow. That week of posts introducing our first flock of chickens also discussed our plans and tips for chicken keeping. One of the central concepts in our plan is a paddock system. Chicken paddocks provide several benefits, including the reduction or elimination of expenses for commercial chicken-feed. In a nutshell, the paddock system works like this:

Multiple (i.e., four) fenced areas can be accessed from the coop. These areas are deliberately planted with vegetation that is healthy for chickens to self-harvest. The paddocks are also planted with an overstory (trees to roost in, especially for protection) and an underbrush (especially to hide from airborne predators). By planting perennial food, you further minimize the amount of work necessary on your part to feed the chickens (the plants come back every year). Paddocks are designed to be large enough so that chickens can forage there for an entire week without decimating the vegetation available. After a week, they move on to a new paddock. In a system with four paddocks, the first paddock will have three weeks to “recover” before the chickens are back to eat more.

Implementing our paddock system has been a slow process because it fell low on the priority list during warm weather. By the end of last summer (2013) we had created two paddocks to surround our coop. (The original plan called for four paddocks but we decided that two larger paddocks would be better.) This spring (2014) we’ll finally be ready to fill the paddocks with gobs of perennial, chicken-friendly food to give our girls plenty of yummy foraging material.

The Plan

chicken paddock plants

If you’re a visual person and you’re not interested in reading all of the how and why details, click on the image above to download a PDF version of our plan. Read on for the details.

The image above is a graphic depicting what and where we’ll be planting in our paddocks. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it.) The fenced area is 20 feet by 30 feet with the coop in the center. The area within the fence is divided in half by two off-set portions of fencing which create two (roughly) equal-sized paddocks. Each paddock is accessed by us through man-gate in the outside fencing and by the chickens through doors that open on opposite sides of the coop. (Note: The coop actually has four doors – one on every side – because our original plan was to have four paddocks.)

For a list of all the plants we’re growing in and around our Chicken Garden, click here. The plants are grouped based on the permaculture layer they belong to and are followed by a list of their most prominent benefits for purposes of this particular guild (garden).

Site Assessment

On the west (right) side of the coop the paddock fence falls directly onto our property line. Approximately 20 feet to the west of the chicken coop there is a mature black walnut tree in the neighbor’s yard. A large branch from this tree overshadows much of the chicken paddocks area and drops large amounts of black walnuts into our yard each fall. Last year our neighbor mentioned that he wanted to cut this tree down, however, he never got around to it. This spring we plan to ask him if we can help with at least cutting the large, overreaching branch off of the tree. (Here’s another example of why it’s important to have great neighbors!) Cutting off this large branch will provide more sunlight to the paddock area and will significantly reduce the number of allelopathic walnuts plummeting into our growing space.

South of the paddock area is the section of our property we call the woods. It’s about ¼ of an acre shaded by several mature cherry trees (not the edible kind) and a u-shaped ring of mature pines. Just a few feet from the paddock fence there is a mulberry tree growing in the crowded shade of a couple of small, sickly pine trees. We plan to cut these pine trees down in order to provide more sunlight to the paddock area and to give the mulberry tree breathing room.

East of the paddock area is a section of our backyard which is near a mature maple tree and our son’s play set (The Fort). The paddock fence begins juuust outside of the shade of the maple tree. It’s one of the sunniest spots in the paddock area.

North of the paddock there is an open yard space that we rarely use. It receives morning and mid-day sun but is dappled in afternoon shade from the neighbor’s walnut tree. The grass is quite patchy here – presumably from the impact of the nearby walnut tree. About 40 feet away from the northern fence is our clothesline and the entrance to the lean-to behind our garage (where I store chicken feed and lots of garden tools).

East Paddock Details

Let’s start by reviewing the East Paddock. The gate to the paddock is in the upper-left corner. All along the (shaded) southern fence we’ll be planting lettuce. The lettuce will be allowed to bolt and thus will self-seed year after year. We’ll also plant one or two large kale plants along the fence. These will serve as forage for the chickens but will also be ornamental.

The East Paddock will also be home to two blueberry bushes, planted in the southwest and northeast corners. These bushes are currently in very large pots in the Main Garden. I’ve been contemplating the best home for them for two years now. I love the idea of planting them in a chicken paddock because they provide both forage and understory for the flock, they’re close to the house for our personal convenience, and being planted inside the fence should help to provide some protection from deer. (Despite the fact that the deer could easily jump the four-foot fence surround our backyard, I’ve yet to see evidence of a deer in this area. My neighbor’s theory is that the scent of our dogs keeps them away. From most angles, deer would have to jump multiple fences to get to the berries.)

chicken paddock

This picture was taken in the fall before we divided the fenced area into two separate paddocks. However, it gives you an idea of what the East Paddock looks like.

The blueberry bush in the southwest corner of this paddock will have a neighbor – a water barrel. Our plan is to add a gutter to the east-facing slope of the coop’s roof and divert rain water into the barrel. (We intentionally created a metal roof for the coop so that rain water collected would not be contaminated by chemicals from roofing shingles.) The water barrel will be raised, likely on cement blocks, and will have two spouts: One accessible within the East Paddock and one sticking through the fence to be accessible in the West Paddock. The barrel we plan to use holds 30 gallons and is blue. The dark color – and its placement nestled next to the blueberry bush – will help to keep sunlight out, thus reducing the conditions needed for the growth of algae. There will be a sand or gravel filter in the top of the barrel to clear out large particles that may be washed off the roof.

The nesting boxes are located in this paddock so I was careful not to plan anything nearby that would hinder access. There will still be chicken-food underfoot, however. The entire paddock will have a ground cover of clover, chickweed and strawberries. I currently have just a few strawberry plants located out of the general walking path, but I realize these may need to be managed as they spread. It all depends on how much management the chickens do for me! Chickweed will of course be great fodder for the chickens. And besides making excellent forage for our flock, the clover will also fix nitrogen into the soil.

To the north of the coop we’ll place two sage plants flanking the front door. Sage is aromatic, which should slightly counter any mild odors that arise from the coop when the deep liter bedding is in need of changing. I wanted to use something here that would be chicken-proof, pretty and useful in other ways than feeding the flock. Sage does the trick… we’ll dehydrate some of it for cooking and I think the plants will look cute underneath the twin windows!

The section in front of the coop has a few other dual-purpose stars. Along the fence that runs north-south (dividing this space from the West Paddock) I’ll plant some lupines. These tall, gorgeous flowers will feed pollinators, pretty-up the space and will also fix nitrogen into the soil. They’ll reside adjacent to a section of more ornamental kale along with a few turnip plants. The kale will look pretty while serving as forage. The turnip leaves will serve as forage and the roots will act as dynamic accumulators – reaching down into the earth to bring up trace minerals other plants may not collect.

Directly against the northern fence I plan to grow quinoa. The leaves and seeds of the plants will provide forage for our chickens while the tall blossoms will provide a bit of understory, as well as an aesthetically-pleasing screen when looking at the paddock from the house. I’d like to try harvesting seeds in the late fall to store for winter feed. I’m hoping these will self-seed, however, I may need to plant them annually.

South of the tall quinoa plants we’ll grow more lettuce, curving it around the spaces near the northeast blueberry bush. The blueberry bush’s neighbor along the eastern fence will be scarlet runner beans. I selected these beans for several reasons: They can make use of the existing fence as a trellis; they are one of few plants that will grow well near sunflowers (more on that in a minute); they have beautiful flowers (which is good because this section of fence is the view our eastern neighbor sees of the paddock), they provide food both for chickens and humans; and they fix nitrogen into the soil. Beans are an annual, but an easy-to-plant annual and so full of benefits that I couldn’t resist including them in our plan.

As I mentioned, the beans will be neighbors with sunflowers. I just love how beautiful sunflowers are and their seeds are an excellent food source for chickens! Unfortunately sunflowers are allelopathic, which means very few other plants will grow well near them. After doing extensive research I found mixed experiences on companion plants for sunflowers. Beans, however, seemed to consistently fair well when planted near them. To further isolate the sunflowers from the other plants in this paddock, the sunflowers are located next to the gate, giving some additional space that would already be mostly plant-free. Sunflowers are an annual but tend to self-seed. I’ll have to keep an eye on the self-seeding because I don’t want them spreading.

West Paddock Details

Plant choices and placement on the other side of the coop were created just as intentionally as the east side. On the shady southern side of the paddock we’ll plant lettuce and kale. Nearly the entire western fence line will be supporting blackberry canes. These canes will provide both forage and understory protection for the chickens. In addition, they will provide a living screen so that our western neighbors see green rather than chickens when they look into that portion of our yard.

chicken paddock

This picture was taken in the fall before we divided the fenced area into two separate paddocks. However, it gives you an idea of what the West Paddock looks like.All of those pallets found a new home long ago. 

The northern fence of this paddock will be lined first with tall yarrow flowers, followed by a row of shorter borage plants. Yarrow has beautiful, cloud-like flowers that come in several different shades. The plant has medicinal value (I use it in tea) and is a dynamic accumulator. From my reading it sounds like chickens are unlikely to use it as forage, but it could be given to them a dried feed in the winter. Borage is also a dynamic accumulator with medicinal value, and is a favorite of pollinators. The leaves and blossoms of borage are edible; however it’s unclear to me whether or not the chickens will use it as forage. If the chickens eat them – great! If not, they’ll make a beautiful wall of flowers during the growing season and can be used for human consumption or compost-conditioners after harvest. These are both self-seeding annuals.

Underfoot the chickens will have access to chickweed and clover. Between the coop door and window I’ll plant some lupines for aesthetics and to condition the soil with nitrogen. But the star of the West Paddock will be the dwarf peach tree growing just off center in the space. The tree will provide overstory protection and roosting space for the chickens. Any fruit that drops will provide forage and the fruit that doesn’t drop will find its way into canning jars in my kitchen! I chose peaches because we like to eat them and they are self-fertile (don’t need a second tree for pollination). We do however have plans to convert the nearby Woods into a micro-orchard, so eventually there will be more peaches nearby.

Outside the Paddocks

Our plan also includes a few plantings just outside the paddock area. To the north we’ll build raised beds running parallel with the fence and flanking the gate. These beds will be planted with mounding lavender. The lavender will serve as an aesthetically and aromatically pleasing barrier between the coop and the Backyard where we entertain and play.

The smaller raised bed will contain a post with a solar-powered light at the top. The post serves several purposes: It provides light at night, a trellis for scarlet runner beans in summer and sculptural interest in the winter.

Both beds will contain a living, edible mulch of purslane, which can be fed to the chickens or eaten by our family in salads and side dishes.

To the east of the paddocks we’ll plant a flower bed of black-eyed susans (which I received as gifts this past fall) and echinacea (coneflowers). Both will serve as cut flowers and the echinacea can be used for tea and medicinal purposes.

Now We Wait

I can’t wait! I can’t wait for the snow to melt so I can get started with planting in the Chicken Garden. But even after we get everything into the ground, I know it will take time for the plants to fill-out into the lush habitat I’m envisioning in my head. Hurry-up spring… I’m ready!

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