Keeping chickens can be an extremely rewarding experience. They can be used as part of a sustainable growing system, to provide eggs and perhaps even meat for your family. Those who grow fruit, vegetables and herbs will also find that keeping chickens can have a number of other benefits. Chickens will scratch up fallow areas and their manure can be used to return fertility to the soil. What is more, they can help to keep pests down by eating insects, slugs and other creatures. Both polytunnels and fruit cages can be extremely useful when keeping chickens. These structures can be used in a range of ways by those who keep chickens.
In this article, we will look at how to use polytunnels and fruit cages for chickens:
Choosing Polytunnels For Housing Chickens
When choosing a polytunnel to house chickens, the first thing to consider is whether you will be keeping chickens in the polytunnel at all times, or only during the winter months. You may also consider choosing a polytunnel that is primarily to be used for food production, but to which chickens are occasionally introduced. How exactly you intend on integrating a polytunnel and chickens will determine which polytunnel is right for you.
Full-Time Housing For Chickens
If you intend to keep chickens in a polytunnel at all times, then it is important to choose a polytunnel cover which provides some shading to protect chickens from the hot sun during the summer months. Polytunnels with covers that provide some shade can be used to house livestock (including chickens) throughout the year.
A full-time chicken housing polytunnel may be used to keep a coop inside, or might have built-in roosts and nesting boxes for the hens. However such a polytunnel is fitted out and laid out, ventilation is crucial, both for the well-being of the hens, and for the well-being (and comfort) of those who tend them. It is important to make sure that any structures built within the polytunnel to house hens are adequate for their needs, and are easy to clean out.
If you do plan to buy a new polytunnel for housing hens full time, it is worthwhile considering its position in relation to your composting area, and to food growing areas. Keeping your chicken housing polytunnel close to these areas will make it easier to deal with their waste and recycle nutrients back into your garden.
Winter Housing For Chickens
Another option to consider is moving a mobile chicken coop or other chicken housing into a polytunnel during the winter months, to provide the hens with a little extra protection from cold temperatures. You could consider choosing to grow food during the summer, before switching over to lifestock-housing when the main growing season ends. In this scenario, you should choose a clear polytunnel, usually used to grow food.
While this will be perfectly suitable for growing food year-round, you could also consider replenishing fertility by keeping chickens in it (rather than overwintering plants) over the coldest part of the year. Another benefit of this is that the chickens can also eat many of the pests that might inhabit the structure, making it easier to grow plants in your polytunnel the following year.
Allowing Chickens Into Food Growing Polytunnels
Another way in which chickens can be integrated with polytunnel growing is that they can be allowed intermittent or occasional access to the polytunnel. Even if you do not choose to house chickens in a polytunnel, for all or part of the year, chickens living elsewhere may still be of help to gardeners growing plants in a polytunnel.
While chickens will tend to eat everything in sight if left unattended, allowing them access to a food growing polytunnel during certain times of the year will allow them to scratch over beds, aerating and fertilising the soil. They can also eat pests and keep the polytunnel plants safe from a range of these creatures.
Integrated Chicken and Food Polytunnel Systems
Another interesting way in which having a polytunnel and keeping chickens can do hand in hand is that a chicken coop can be placed adjacent to a polytunnel in such a way that it benefits from the heat gained by the polytunnel to keep chickens warm. There are a range of sympathetic interactions between polytunnel systems and chickens, which can be taken advantage of by those who want to create truly sustainable garden and food production systems.
Using Fruit Cages as Permanent Chicken Runs
Fruit cages can also be extremely useful for those who keep chickens. Often, chickens will require a secure run in which to range. While free ranging chickens is the best option, in some areas, predators may pose a threat, and logistical factors may make it difficult or impossible to give chickens entirely free reign.
Chickens can be housed in permanent runs, which can give them space to scratch, forage, and enjoy the sunshine. A fruit cage could be used for a deep-litter system, the base material from which can later be spread on growing areas. Alternatively, a fruit cage (or multiple fruit cages) could be used to house forest gardens or polyculture fruit orchards in which chickens can forage without danger from predators.
Using Fruit Cages as Temporary Chicken Runs
Fruit cages could also be used temporarily as chicken runs. Chickens could be allowed into fruit cages containing fruit bushes and/or fruit trees at certain times of year, to keep these production areas freer from pests, and to help add fertility back to such systems. Fruit cages could also be used to separate different foraging areas for hens, so that hens can be rotated between different production areas to eat different things when those different things are in season (or to keep chickens away from certain production areas when they are needed to grow certain crops that might be eaten by the hens.
Using Polytunnels to Grow Food for Chickens
Even where chickens are kept separately from a polytunnel, and never enter it, a polytunnel could still be used to grow food for your chickens, or to supplement your chicken’s diet. In a sustainable system, it is possible to produce food for chickens yourself rather than relying on bought chicken feed.
Chickens could, for example, be fed on:
- Scraps from fruits and vegetables.
- Brassica bases and outer leaves.
- Weeds (such as chickweed) removed from polytunnel beds.
You could also grow crops specifically to feed your hens. As well as growing a range of leafy greens, you could also consider growing a grains, and a variety of seeds. Quinoa and amaranth could be two useful plants to grow, both for humans and for your hens.
Interestingly, you could also consider breeding insects or worms in your polytunnel than can help with composting, and can also be used to supplement the diet of your chickens.
Using Fruit Cages to Grow Food for Chickens
Fruit cages can also be used to grow food remotely from chickens, that you can then take to the area where you house your hens. Chickens will absolutely love any excess fruit that you grow – berries will disappear in next to no time. You can also give chickens a range of herbs, which can be good for their health.
Perennial herbs that are good for keeping chickens healthy and pest free include:
There are also a number of annual herbs that can be good for your hens, including:
If you are growing these herbs in a polytunnel or fruit cage, or elsewhere in your garden, then giving hens some of the excess can be a good idea.
As you can see from the above, there are a range of different ways in which gardeners or farmers can use polytunnels and fruit cages to make it easier to keep chickens in a domestic or commercial setting.
Of course, keeping chickens can be a useful part of any food growing system, and the eggs they lay can be the perfect accompaniment to other ingredients from in polytunnels, fruit cages or elsewhere in a garden or on a farm. Check out our recipes section for a range of different ideas for how to incorporate eggs and fresh produce in a range of different delicious meals.
Do you keep chickens? Do you have a polytunnel or fruit cage? How do you combine these things? Share your experiences, tips and suggestions for how to use polytunnels and fruit cages for chickens in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.