If there were statistics on such a thing, I would be willing to bet that the data would show that chicken owners are much more likely than your average American to have a garden. Chicken-keeping and vegetable-growing come from closely related impulses. You want to eat eggs, you want to eat squash, and you like the idea that, with a little effort, you can do it without leaving the premises.
There’s also this idea that chickens and gardens have a symbiotic relationship. The garden waste helps feed the chickens, and the chicken waste helps feed the garden. Plus, the birds can help till the soil and keep the insect population in check. Together, they form a functioning backyard ecosystem that will keep you and yours in eggs and produce.
This is all stuff and nonsense.
Not that it’s actually false. It’s just very selectively edited. The whole truth is much more disagreeable.
The whole truth is that, when you have chickens and you have a garden, the chickens will expend all their time and energy, as well as whatever intellectual horsepower they can coax from their seven brain cells, trying to get into the garden.
And, no, they’re not going to eat the waste. Or the bugs. They’re going to eat the tomato that’s one day short of perfect. When that’s been pecked to a seedy red pulp, they’ll start on the tomato that’s two days short of perfect. And so on.
There are some things they don’t like to eat, but the only way they learn that is by taking a bite. And then, because their gastronomic memory has a half-life measured in seconds, they’ll come back for another bite the moment they can’t find a tomato that has even a hint of blush. Only after they’ve done irreparable damage will they figure out that they didn’t want to eat the thing in the first place.
Not that I’m angry or anything. I tell you this in the spirit of sharing, so that you new chicken owners will know what to expect.
Specifically, expect to lose tomatoes as a matter of course. But also expect that your first winter squash, a beautiful specimen of a variety whose name I can’t remember but whose fruit can approach thirty pounds, will have a big hole pecked out of it when it is still weeks away from being ripe.
In the spirit of fairness, I will point out that it might be, at least in part, your own fault. Particularly if you, like me, are something short of vigilant in the fence maintenance department.
Our garden is fenced in with – ha! – chicken wire. At some spots, that chicken wire is only eighteen inches tall. Generally, this is sufficient. We learned early on that chickens weren’t watching Sesame Street the day Grover explained the prepositions. “Up,” they understand. “On,” they understand. “Over” is beyond their ken.
If the fence were eighteen inches high with a bar at the top, they’d fly up to the bar, and then into the garden. But if the top of the fence isn’t something they can roost on, they can’t wrap their minds around the idea that they can simply go over it.
Now, if natural selection were left to take its course, I would think that any creature that can fly would have a very well-developed sense of “over.” One of the wonders of domestication is that we can breed birds that simply have no idea that they have all the necessary equipment to breach a fence.
So, although an eighteen-inch-high fence will keep them out in theory, it will only do so in practice if all the fence posts are secure and straight. If one of them gets loose and leans in, the chickens will simply start walking up the fence until their weight flattens it and they can stroll right in.
Since our fence posts are just bamboo sticks hammered into the ground, this does sometimes happen.
That’s when we lose our tomatoes. And that’s when we got the hole pecked in our squash.
I was pissed about the tomatoes, but I was really pissed about the squash. It was the first obviously set fruit, and I wasn’t expecting too many over the course of the season. When a plant yields a squash that weighs thirty pounds, you can’t expect it to yield a dozen of them.
So I’d been watching this squash carefully. I mounded the marsh hay under it so it wouldn’t touch the ground, and I tracked its progress as it went from just a bud to a promising sixteen-inch adolescent.
Its adulthood was still a long way off, and I worried that the crater our chicken had pecked out of it would let in rot, or insects, or both. Should I just keep it dry and expect it to heal? Should I cover it with packing tape? Should I try to cauterize it somehow?
I would like to say that I came up with the solution myself. That I thought the problem through, considered all the factors, took inventory of the materials at hand, and voila!
But I didn’t. Kevin did.
I was obsessing over the problem, combing the Internet for ideas, worrying that I’d lose my giant squash, and Kevin looked up from his online chess game just long enough to say, “Drip wax on it.”
Drip wax on it! Now why didn’t I think of that? We took a tea light out to the garden, and the job was done inside five minutes.
It might not work. Moisture might seep in and get trapped there. Some bug might decide a nice wax burrow was just the thing. If the wound shows any signs of decay, we’ll have to move on to Plan B, whatever that is. Meantime, though, I’m much happier knowing that my squash has a nice wax seal on it.
While we were out dripping wax on the squash, we also secured all the fence posts and added taller chicken wire at particularly enticing spots, just in case. That chickens and gardens can’t coexist harmoniously is irritating, but we’re not planning to give up either one any time soon. Instead, we’ll have to learn to live by Rural Maxim #732: Good fences make good chickens.