Grow: The endearing traits of hens

Hens are great cleaner-uppers of garden pests but you will need to keep them away from your favourite plants

If your heart is set on keeping free-range birds, consider allowing them to roam freely in certain areas of the garden for part of the day while fencing/ netting/ caging off more vulnerable areas such as flower beds

If your heart is set on keeping free-range birds, consider allowing them to roam freely in certain areas of the garden for part of the day while fencing/ netting/ caging off more vulnerable areas such as flower beds

 

I don’t keep hens, but as the occasional babysitter to my neighbour’s ‘girls’, I increasingly wish that I did. Not just for the steady supply of fresh, delicious, protein-rich, organic eggs (and even, sshh, the meat), produced sustainably and with the birds’ best welfare at heart, but also for the range of endearingly conversational noises – those reproachful squawks, convivial clucks, inquisitive chirrups as well as the ‘postoviposition’ cackling sounds – that hens like to make.

The latter in particular, made just after an egg has been laid, is marvellously, hilariously, ostentatiously self-congratulatory, sounding, as Mark Twain once described it, as if the hen has “laid an asteroid” rather than “merely an egg”.

Their sweet conversational noises and endlessly entertaining habits aside, hens are also great cleaner-uppers in a garden. Omniverous by nature, they’ll hoover up slugs, woodlice, leatherjackets and other annoying pests such as vine weevil larvae, while also greedily chomping on a variety of weeds, including dandelions, chickweed, fat hen, goose-grass and nettles. As for their nutrient-rich droppings, these make a very useful addition to the compost heap.

Which is not to say that hen-keeping and gardening go completely happily hand-in-hand. The truth is that, if left to roam freely in the garden, hens can do quite an amount of damage, stripping the foliage from certain favourite plants and trampling on emerging shoots in their perpetual search for food.

Nor are they at all respectful of tender seedlings and freshly planted transplants. Quite the opposite. Freshly-dug/ freshly sown beds are similarly irresistible to them; hens love nothing more than to spend their time scratching in the earth for tasty treats. And if you’re a keen kitchen gardener, then beware of letting the birds anywhere near your brassicas, spinach, or lettuce plants, which they’ll eat with a gusto similar to that of a herd of small children let loose in a sweet shop.

There are ways around this, of course. For example, if your heart is set on keeping free-range birds rather than restricting them to a run, then consider allowing them to roam freely in certain areas of the garden for part of the day (lawns, shrubberies) while fencing/ netting/ caging off more vulnerable areas such as flower beds and food-growing area.

You can also protect individual vulnerable plants with cloches/ netting. If that’s not an option for reasons of cost or aesthetics, then another possibility is to use a moveable henhouse with its own attached run, such as an Eglu coop or Boughton ark, that can be easily repositioned within the garden when required.

Yet another alternative is to build a permanent, fox-proof run, complete with henhouse, in one section of the garden, where the hens can permanently reside. Make it as generously proportioned as you can and in a sheltered spot that offers partial shade from hot summer sunshine, bearing in mind that the absolute minimum space requirement per bird is 1sq m.

Remember also that certain breeds such as Silkies (a type of Bantam) are smaller and thus more suited to gardens where space is at a premium, while others, such as the handsome, placid Buff Orpingtons, need a larger house and more space to roam. Noise, and in particular the issue of too much of it, is another thing to consider. Unless you live in the middle of the countryside, or have remarkably tolerant neighbours, don’t get a cockerel; they’re not necessary for egg production, while their early morning crowing is a noise best heard from a distance.

To protect your girls against foxes – a particular bane of urban hens - you’ll need to make sure that any homemade run is sturdily constructed of strong wire netting and 2-metre high fence posts, with the netting loosely overlapping at the top and bottom. Weigh the bottom down with lengths of wood/ paving stones but allow the top 30-45cm to hang loosely as a way of preventing greedy foxes from climbing it. Alternatively, build a wire roof. Many urban hen keepers also like to install an electricified wire along the top of their boundary walls/ fences as a very effective way of preventing foxes from gaining entry.

As for the henhouse itself, it might be an upcycled wendy house, dog kennel or garden shed, or the swankiest of purpose-built henhouses; but just make sure that it’s foxproof, waterproof and well ventilated, with nest boxes (one per three birds) and perches, while you’ll also need to provide your hens with feeders and drinkers.

Finally, bear in mind that the business of keeping hens is probably best done by those possessed of certain personality traits (for example, dependability), something I was painfully reminded of last week when I committed the cardinal error of forgetting to lock the door of my neighbour’s hen run one night, after the birds had made their way to bed. The next morning, I raced over to discover a neat pile of grey feathers.

A hasty count followed by a careful search confirmed that one of the ‘girls’ was missing. Overwhelmed with guilt, I considered how I might best break the awful news to my neighbours. Lie? Confess? Hide the feathers and feign ignorance?

And then I heard a contented cluck. Peering up high inside the henhouse, I discovered the missing bird sitting happily on one of the perches. Never have I felt more like giving a hen a bear-hug.

For a detailed guide to keeping hens, pick up a copy of Chickens; the Essential guide to choosing and keeping happy healthy hens by Suzie Baldwin (Kyle Books)

This week in the garden

Keep picking and deadheading sweeet-pea flowers to encourage the plants to produce more blooms. An occasional liquid feed (use a good quality tomato feed) also helps to boost flower production. If sweet pea plants are carefully tended in this way, they will flower throughout the summer months, giving you a ready supply of sweetly scented blooms until late September/ early October.

If you have a decent-sized specimen of Lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) growing in your garden (don’t mistake it with the far inferior lemon balm or Melissa officinalis), then its fragrant leaves can be used to make a deliciously sweet and lemony syrup suitable as the basis for tasty homemade ice-lollies, a refreshing granita or a sinfully-good summer cocktails. Readily available in most good garden centres, lemon verbena is a frost-hardy plant that enjoys full sun and a well drained , dry soil. While it will happily overwinter in mild gardens, it requires winter protection in colder areas. In my own cold-ish garden, I give it adequate frost protection by growing it in the polytunnel.

Check young trees for signs of drought, especially if they were planted this spring.Typical symptoms of drought damage include wilting foliage, yellowed/faded/curling leaves, dropped leaves, shrivelled shoots or branches, splits in the bark or a generally thinning canopy. Any trees showing signs of the above should be given a really good watering at least three times a month between now and the end of September.

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