Grow your own chicken treats!
These eight herbs and plants for your backyard chickens are easy enough to grow for the beginning gardener and are old favorites for the experienced gardener.
From tasty and nutritious homegrown sunflower seeds and pumpkins to sweetly-scented mint and lemon balm, we've got some great ideas grow your own healthy treats. You and your backyard chickens can enjoy the health benefits of freshly grown produce on a regular basis straight from your own garden.
Just remember, you need to keep your pet chickens from nibbling new plants until they are fully established (we use net and simple temporary chicken wire covering tempting plants until they are big enough).
1. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflowers are decorative flowers but did you realize they are packed with seeds that your chickens will love? Sunflowers come in a range of sizes from two feet to six or more feet and they come in many shades of yellow, orange, and red.
Some are so dark red that they even appear to be black. Look for a variety that appeals to you, and plant a row of them in your garden about a foot apart. In August and September, the flowers will start to form seeds.
Before the local birds eat the seeds, cut the seed heads down. Dry the flower heads in a shed or garage, or in the rafters of your chicken coop. It's tricky to keep mice and birds from getting the seeds. Once dry, feed the seed heads, filled with nutritious sunflower seeds, to your chickens!
2. Leafy Green Swiss Chard
Chard is a healthy green for humans and a good treat for chickens. The chickens don't eat much of the stem, but they do eat the leaves and green parts (greens are a great supplement to chicken feed).
We plant rainbow chard because it's colorful. The chickens have mostly left it alone in the garden, but they do appreciate the leaves as a treat in their run. In a mixed garden bed, each plant needs about a foot of space once full grown. In a veggie row garden plant four inches apart in rows about a foot apart.
3. Cucumbers or Watermelon
I'm not sure which chickens love more if given a choice between cucumbers or watermelon. I think it might be cucumbers! We always give oversized cucumbers to our chickens and they gobble them up. A cucumber tetherball is their favorite treat!
Cucumber seeds are said to be a natural wormer. You can grow trellised cucumbers and even watermelon for your chickens.
We plant two to three cucumber or watermelon plants on a little hill of soil since they'll need a bit of space to stretch out. Each hill eventually grows to cover about six feet square feet.
Chickens love sweet corn. Grow a row for your chickens, and try our sweet corn tetherball for the perfect boredom buster.
Follow the seed packet instructions for your particular variety of corn. We plant our corn seed six inches apart in rows about 18 inches apart.
Chickens love pumpkins, and we have to protect ours every year from free-range chickens pecking holes in pumpkins.
You can plant pumpkins as late as mid-July in the northeast United States to harvest by Halloween. Plant some to do double duty as Halloween Jack o'lanterns and as chicken treats!
Pumpkin vines will take up a lot of space. Our pumpkins grow on one end of our garden and grow over our lawn towards the wood pile. Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds are also said to be a natural wormer.
Calendula officialis is a sunny orange or yellow edible flower and herb with soft edible leaves. We have calendula in the herb garden, as it has been used medicinally for overall health for centuries.
Dried calendula has a pleasant hay-like scent. My chickens don't really bother the plant when it's growing, but they will eat the leaves when we put them in the chicken run. Harvest flowers and dry to add to nest boxes or feed, or dry to prepare a tea or an infused oil for salves and balms.
Calendula is known to soothe and heal skin irritations and minor wounds when applied to the skin as an ingredient in a salve or balm. A tea made from calendula is reputed to help with digestive issues.
We pick the flower heads and dry using a dehydrator, and then pack into mason jars. Store jars in a cool spot with minimal light (I use a shelf in the basement which stays about 60 degrees year round).
Want to make a salve, soap, or balm? Use this dried calendula to infuse oil, to add to nesting boxes, or to prepare tea for yourself. The flowers of calendula will naturally heighten the yellow of egg yolks when mixed with daily feed.
Calendula grows about 12-18 inches high, and prefers full sun and well-drained soil. This lovely herbal flower is an annual, but ours self-seed each year so we don't need to replant it.
It's hard to find at our local garden center or nursery, so we brought seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds.
Mint is an edible herb with a terrific scent and some say its aromatic scent repels insects. There are many mint varieties: peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, lemon mint, apple mint, and orange mint.
Mint is a super useful dried herb. We dry this herb to prepare tea, and to add to chicken nest boxes. Mint grows about a foot high, likes sun, and is a hardy perennial that will come back every year. Many people recommend you plant mint in a container because it is a prolific grower. We just plant in an area where we don't mind if it takes over.
READ MORE: 5 Ways Chickens Can Help Your Garden Grow
We dry mint by tying a bunch of stems together and hanging upside down from a curtain rod in indirect light until dry, and then remove the leaves from the stems and pack them into mason jars. Mint is usually readily available from friends and neighbors, so check if they will share a clump before you buy.
8. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (as you might guess from the name) is lemon scented and their leaves make a great treat. The lovely and strong scent of lemon balm may also repel insects.
Feed fresh as a green chicken treat or dry this easy-to-grow herb like the mint above, by hanging bundles upside down and then packing dried leaves into jars. We use lemon balm for tea and as a pleasantly-scented addition to nest boxes.
Lemon balm grows about 12-18 inches tall, and it will come back every year. Lemon balm is a common household plant similar to rhubarb, so try asking neighbors and friends for a clump of theirs before you buy some.
Extra plant ideas for chicken treats:
Fresh herbs: try parsley, sage, lavender, bee balm (which is also a flower), basil, rosemary, oregano (a natural antibiotic as well as a great culinary herb).
Flowers: nasturtium, bee balm, viola, lavender (also an herb).
Veggies: kale, cabbage, winter squash, fresh greens, lettuce, beets, mangels, are healthy snacks and a great source of vitamins and minerals.
Here are some more resources on how to grow your own chicken treats:
- Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens by Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily
- Plant a Chicken Garden from HGTV
- Feeding the Flock from Home Resources from The Modern Homestead
What do you like best about gardening and growing your own healthy treats? Let us know in the comments below!
Photos via Daphne Cybele unless otherwise specified.
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