I was recently asked what plants could be grown in and around a chicken pen, to provide the chooks with additional food and some green pickings. Here are my favourite plants for chickens:
Food Plants For Chickens
A classic permaculture recommendation is to plant a mulberry tree in or just outside the chicken run. The berries will drop into the pen and provide a high-quality feed. It will take a few years to get established, though. Pigeon pea and tagasaste are also often recommended in permaculture books.
Comfrey around the outside of the pen will love the manure, and is great to feed to the chooks. Very useful around the garden, too. Comfrey grows very fast, so a relatively small patch will provide you with constant pickings.
Thorny raspberries around the pen will provide some additional protection from predators, some food for you, and leaves and prunings for the chickens. Bamboos will provide fast-growing shade and wind protection.
Make a bottomless cage out of a timber frame covered with chicken wire (1/2 inch is best, so the chooks can’t get their heads through it). Sow some seed (oats, wheat, or even just cheap bird seed mix) onto the ground, and place the cage over the top so the chickens can’t get at it. As it grows up through the cage, they can nibble it. You can periodically move the growing cage to start a new patch, and let them eat the old one down. Radish is also good, since it grows so fast.
Herbs in general are good for the chickens. Parsley, rosemary, sage, etc will grow well just outside the pen. You can occasionally cut a bunch of herbs and throw them into the run. They’ll provide the chooks with some greenery to eat, but also lots of minerals, micronutrients, etc.
Marigolds look pretty, and feeding the yellow flowers to the chickens is not only good for them, but makes their yolks even more yellow. Chickweed, clover, alfalfa (lucerne) and dandelions are welcomed, as well, although you have to explain to people why you’re growing weeds!
Field corn and sunflowers are very good plants for chicken food. Let the heads dry, and you can store them up for winter. Then just throw a head or two into the pen every few days, or as a weekly treat. Jerusalem artichokes, a relative of sunflowers, are pretty plants and provide edible leaves and tubers for the chickens (and tubers for you, too!).
Fruit trees can be planted inside the run, with 1/2 inch chicken wire cages around them to protect them while they’re young. The chickens will clean up any fallen fruit and eat any fruit fly larvae, and will enjoy the shade as well.
If you have a pond, you could try growing azolla and/or duckweed in it. These are surface plants that will thrive on the nutrients in the pond water and help keep it clear. They grow and reproduce very fast, and you can periodically scoop out handfuls to throw in to the chickens.
Not all plants for chickens are about food: wormwood, rue, nasturtium, nettle and tansy repel some parasites and intestinal worms.
What have you tried? What additional plants would you recommend?
Update: Here’s another good list of useful plants for chickens: Integrating Chickens Into Your Food System.