Hmm, I need a catchier name for this garden!
Anyway, the 6-bay chicken garden rotation system is a low-labour, high-yield intensive vegetable gardening system designed to produce a continual supply of food for our household throughout the year.
The core idea is to have 6 separate fenced-off garden bays connected by a central aisle. Each bay is about 4.5m x 2m (16′ x 6.5′) in size. Five of the bays are growing vegetables at various stages of maturity, and the sixth is open to our small flock of chickens.
Our chickens are housed in the scratch yard. They are fed in there, and that’s where we have their water, shelter, nest boxes and roosts. It’s an area about 10m x 4m (approx 30′ x 12′), so plenty big enough for a small flock. I lock them in there at night, since the area is surrounded by corrugated iron and very secure against foxes and dogs.
Each morning I open up the gate to give the chickens access to the aisle and the current chicken bay. The other bays have gates to keep the chickens out of the garden beds.
The chicken bay is an area where the poultry can dig in the dirt for worms and grubs, have dust-baths, and generally just be happy chickens. We throw in scraps from the kitchen, weeds, and trimmings from the other garden bays for the chickens to eat.
I also throw in raked leaves, horse and cow manure, lawn clippings, prunings, etc – anything that you’d normally put in a backyard compost bin – to form a compost pile in the middle of the bay. The chickens scratch through it, cleaning up any stray seeds or insects, mixing it up, and adding their own manure to the mix.
Every month, I rotate the chickens to the next bay in the sequence. This is the bay that has been growing vegetables the longest, so most of the plants have stopped producing and are dying back or going to seed. The chickens attack these plants with gusto! They gorge on the fresh greens, the seeds, the fallen or missed fruit and vegetables. They also clean up all the snails, grubs and other insects that have moved in since the plants were first sown.
Meanwhile, I prepare the bay that the chickens just left for a new garden. I rake out what’s left of the compost pile evenly over the bay. If there are any large or not-yet-decomposed bits, I gather them up and throw them into the new chicken bay to start the next compost pile.
I shovel a path down the centre of the bay to form garden beds, and I put pavers, timber or wood chips along the path to provide easy weed- and mud-free access. I spread a straw mulch on the newly formed garden beds, and I plant them out with herb and vegetable seedlings appropriate for the time of year.
At any given point in time, as well as the freshly-planted bay, the previous bays in the rotation sequence will have 1, 2, 3 and 4 month old plants in them. As a vegetable variety reaches the end of its productive life in one bay, a similar variety will just be hitting its stride in the next bay that I planted a month later. The food supply thus continues without interruption.
All of this chicken-moving and garden preparation takes me a couple of hours, once a month. I don’t need to do much weeding, since the chickens are eating stray seeds and digging up weed roots before they gain a foothold. The chickens also interrupt pest lifecycles; while problems are not eliminated completely, pests normally don’t build up enough of a population to cause major problems.
Living in the country, we have a lot of pressure from birds (particularly cockatoos and satin bower birds) and possums. So I’ve completely covered the whole perimeter (sides and roof) with chicken wire to keep the wildlife out. If I didn’t do that, we wouldn’t get a single tomato or bean! The internal partitions between the bays are half-height, about 1.2m (3′) high. This is high enough to stop our chickens from jumping into the growing bays, but it makes it easy to throw trimmings and weeds over into the chicken bay.
All the different elements work together over time, complementing and reinforcing each other. Together they form a system that gives us a continual, uninterrupted supply of fresh vegetables and herbs without the feast-or-famine cycle we’ve had with previous gardens.
And as an added bonus, the chickens provide us a continual supply of the highest quality eggs, thanks to their healthy diet and happy lifestyle!