I slipped on my Slogger boots and walked through the dew-soaked grass toward my garden. Opening the gate, my white hen trotted to greet me.
“Good morning, Lucky Duck!”
My daughter named this hen when we brought our first flock home four years ago. With her snowy feathers, she reminded my then 3-year-old of a duck, and the name stuck. Though she seemed cute at the time, Lucky Duck turned out to be the bully of the flock. But with us, she’s a fun blend of both feisty and friendly.
After greeting Lucky Duck, I counted the other four hens as they paused their pecking to look up at me. Though a fence surrounds the garden to keep predators out, hawks lurk around our property, and I want to ensure each hen is accounted for.
Most days when I enter the garden, I find the hens under the canopy of the black-eyed pea vines, between rows of spindly okra stalks, or enjoying the shade of the leftover pole beans. Not until I owned hens did I realize their nature is to live in brush.
Normally by October or November, I’ve cleared out all the spent crops from the summer, putting the garden to rest clean and uncluttered. But this year I’m delaying my final clean-up. It provides protection for my girls, and I can’t get myself to take away their shelter just yet.
I’ve never considered myself a “farm girl.” In fact, a couple of years ago I spoke at a writer’s meeting and made reference to my chickens. One lady approached me afterward and said, “So you live on a farm?” I’m sure confusion was written on my face, so she clarified her question. “Well, you said you have chickens. I assumed that meant you live on a farm.”
I suppose her sentiment isn’t an uncommon one. But, no, I don’t live on a farm. Nor do I consider myself a farmer. I’m a hobby gardener with backyard chickens. And up until this season, I viewed my hens for the practical purposes they served: they give me eggs to eat and manure to help me grow food to eat. And they eat ticks. That’s always a plus.
But this season, I’ve noticed my heart softening a bit.
Something leaps inside me each time I greet my hens in the garden, watching them frolic in their newfound freedom. For most of their four years with us, they’ve spent their days inside a spacious chicken coop. And from time to time, before our rooster unexpectedly died, we let them free range in the yard.
But to let them free range in my winding-down garden — in their preferred environment — this has brought me more joy than I ever imagined it would.
Initially, my motivation for letting them roam free once the main summer crops finished fruiting, was purely practical. They eat the leftover bad bugs and fertilize the garden with their nutritious manure. And having compact, clay soil, I knew their scratching would help aerate it, promoting a more root-friendly soil structure for next season.
Never did I realize, though, the satisfaction I get, watching them enjoying life beyond their practical purpose as garden helpers. Working in my garden alongside them, their presence and companionship adds another dimension to working the land — enjoying nature for more than scenery.
As owning backyard chickens becomes a more normative activity, I hope we will all embrace not only their practical benefits but also the fun and joy a backyard flock can bring. I hope in the mainstream, people will realize owning chickens doesn’t equate to owning a farm, and caring for these “pets” that provide nutritious eggs as well is something many of us can feasibly do.
Early last spring, we added another nine hens to our flock, anticipating the diminishing egg supply from our older hens. Though these nine took up residence in the old hens’ coop, I’m dreaming up ways we can move our new flock to frolic in the same freedom their older sisters enjoy.
Of course, the unfortunate reality is when spring comes around and the new crops go in, the hens will have to vacate their new home at least until the crops establish themselves. But I’ll deal with that next year.
For now, you’ll find me in my garden, hanging out with my girls, enjoying this additional perk of backyard living.