Earlier this year, I attended the 2012 San Francisco Garden and Flower Show. While at the show, I had the opportunity to interview Jessi Bloom about her new book, Free Range Chicken Gardens, How to Create A Beautiful Chicken-Friendly Yard. Jessi is a talented garden designer whose work emphasizes ecological systems, sustainability and self-sufficiency. Recognition of her work includes awards from the American Horticultural Society, Washington State Department of Ecology and Sunset Magazine.
ChickenWaterer (CW): Thank you for meeting with me today and for sharing your knowledge with us.
Jessi Bloom (JB): Thank you for inviting me.
CW: You were a landscape designer and gardener before you began keeping chickens. How and why did you decide to add chickens to your garden?
JB: Actually, I started both together. I had an interest in gardening and was in school studying horticulture at the time. I had just purchased my first property and I realized that I didn't have great soil. I thought chickens would be a great source of manure for the garden, so I started my gardening with my chickens simultaneously.
CW: So you came to chickens because you wanted the manure and got eggs as bonus, versus wanting the eggs and getting the manure as bonus.
JB: Yes. I don't look at eggs as the primary benefit of keeping chickens. It's definitely a nice benefit, but it's not the only reason I have them.
CW: Another thing that's different about the way you keep chickens is that you free range your birds versus keeping them isolated in a coop and run. What are the benefits of free ranging?
JB: First and foremost, you can take advantage of the chicken's manure. That's true whether they are in a coop or free ranged. However, if you have them locked up all the time, they can't help you with pest control in your garden. One of a chicken's favorite activities is to run around looking for insects and grubs to eat. If your chickens are cooped up, they can't help you with that chore.
CW: Ok, so those are great benefits to the gardener. What are the benefits to the chickens?
JB: If you think about how a chicken would live naturally, they're not cooped up. They live in jungles and forested lands. We've put them in cages and made them into egg laying machines. One of the reasons that I let my chickens free range is because I believe in giving them their freedom and allowing them to roam around as they would naturally.
Chickens acclimate very well to a gardens if the garden is designed for that purpose. If your garden is just a lawn with a few shrubs here and there, or just a little patch of perennials or veggies, it's not habitat for chickens, so they are going to eat those plants and cause a lot of problems. One of the reasons my book has done so well is that people didn't realize that you could create chicken habitat.
CW: As a landscape designer, I assume you have some distinct opinions about the placement of structures and plants in a garden. Can you share some basic principles about how to construct a good landscape garden and chicken habitat?
JB: Many of the same principles of traditional gardening come into play when designing a chicken garden. You should design your garden with a tree layer, a grass layer, a ground cover layer, etc. etc. Having all that diversity allows the chickens to have many foraging and shelter options.
CW: How do you balance between the aesthetics of the garden and the practical considerations required to keep free range chickens?
JB: I always look at aesthetics, but function comes first. When I design a garden for aesthetics, I always start the plan by thinking about the season that has the least amount of interest. I then make sure the garden design includes elements that add interest during that season and then work backwards through the seasons to create a complete design. For my garden, it's the Winter season because I have six months of bare branches. My garden designs make use of ornamental plants that are very showy. I also try to add plants that have different attributes that create interest throughout the course of the year.
CW: Are there some plants that you think work particularly well, or less well, in a free range environment?
JB: I have a detailed list of plants in my book, but there are some general principles at work. Certain plants have textures that chickens don't like, so you should avoid them for that reason. A plant like juniper falls into this group. Then there are really delicate herbaceous plants such as bleeding heart (dicentra formosa). This is a perennial ground cover that comes up early in the season and it can be very damaged by chickens scratching Other categories of plants that I would not recommend adding to the garden would be any plant that is irreplaceable because of its rarity or perhaps because it's special because it was received as a gift.
CW: Readers of this web site have a strong interest in vegetable gardening. Some of the more popular crops grown include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans. Is there any particular advice you would give vegetable gardeners who want to free range their birds?
JB: Gardeners have two options. They can fence chickens out of food gardens entirely, or they can take protective measures for those types of plants. Let's take tomatoes as an example... Chickens aren't interested in that plant until it's fruiting, so I wait till they are about to ripen and then wrap the plants in bird netting. It takes a little extra time to do this, but if you are going to have free range chickens, it's worth spending the time to protect your crops.
CW: What is your favorite tip for those that keep chickens?
JB: Don't be a chicken hoarder. You don't need thirty chickens in your small backyard. It's critical to balance the number of animals you have versus the space you have.
CW: You just published a book called Free Range Chicken Gardens. Can you tell us a little about that book?
JB: The heart of the book is about creating chicken habitat. When writing the book, I asked myself what a gardener would want to know about chickens and garden design and focused on that rather than on medical information or information on butchering that can appear in many chicken books. My book is about plants, design, and ensuring that the garden is created in a way that chickens don't destroy it.
CW: How do you see your book being different than other chicken books on the market?
JB: As far as I know, there aren't many landscape design books out there that cover chickens and most of the chicken books on the market tell readers that chickens and gardens don't mix. My book is just the opposite. I try to encourage and inspire my readers by showing them free range chicken habitats that are also very beautiful gardens.
CW: If folks would like to purchase your book, where can they buy it?
JB: It's widely available at on-line bookstores like Amazon and people can buy it directly from me at my blog, GardenFowl.com. I'll even sign it for them.
CW: Jessi, thanks for joining us today.
JB: Thanks for having me. It's been fun.
Photos shown above are by Kate Baldwin.
Free-Range Chicken Gardens is published by Timber Press.