Recently one of my podcast listeners asked me, what can chickens eat out of the garden? He wrote: “A question that occurred to me recently is regarding garden waste. I recently finished picking all the green beans out of my garden and I was considering using the ‘chicken tractor’ to let the chickens eat down the rest of the plants. I’m just not sure if it would be bad for the chickens. I tossed a bean plant into their run, and they did eat it, but they didn’t tear into it the way they do some of the other plants I toss in. Anyway it occurred to me that it might be helpful to know what parts of a vegetable garden would be good or bad to tractor chickens over. What can chickens eat out of the garden?”
Using garden and yard waste as chicken food for your backyard chickens is a good idea in theory, but requires some thoughtfulness on your part. Feeding chickens scraps from the table is one thing, but not all plants that are edible to humans are suitable fodder for your chickens. In fact, there are many seemingly innocuous vegetables and flowers found commonly in backyards that are positively toxic to birds.
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Generally speaking, free-range chickens will naturally avoid the plants that are poisonous and nibble the ones that are safe to consume. This does not mean that chickens will never try munching on the occasional toxic plant. But don’t despair! A little taste test here or there is unlikely to kill your prized hens. Knowing what can chickens eat out of the garden will help prevent illness in your backyard flock.
The real danger arises with potentially poisonous plants and your chickens when they are not free to choose their snacks. Chickens in these situations (e.g. locked in a run with limited food choices) will tend to eat even poisonous plants out of boredom or lack of choice when it is the only option available. I experienced my own confined chickens making toxic snack choices recently.
Over this past summer I had the clever idea of putting up some temporary fencing around my vegetable garden in an effort to reduce the overall devastation to my backyard garden beds and flower plots caused by my free-range chickens. The plan was to put my chickens into the fenced-in garden plot (with a bucket of water) and let them scratch and peck among the rows of veggies. This scheme worked swimmingly with my older hens who enjoyed digging for worms and pecking at the downed over-ripe Romas that had fallen to the ground. After they laid their daily eggs, I simply plopped my “big-girls” behind the fence-enclosed garden plot until dusk when I put them to bed. Terrific.
I then decided to give my young pullets a turn at some ranging time in the fenced garden plot; this did not go nearly as well. My little knucklehead pullets chose to ignore all of the safely edible plants in the garden and to feast on only the most toxic options. They ate Rhubarb leaves. They devoured tomato plant leaves, but not the tomatoes. Ugh! In the end I stopped putting the silly pullets into the small, enclosed garden space out of fear for their safety. When permitted full access to my backyard they make intelligent snack choices and avoid the poisonous plants, but in the confines of the enclosed garden plot these pullets acted like they had a death wish.
As you clean out your vegetable beds for winter be sure to not toss tomato, eggplant, peppers, tomatillos or ground cherry plants in with your chickens. These are all plants in the nightshade family – deadly poisonous to birds or humans. Do not feed your birds bean plants, potato plants or rhubarb leaves — again toxic for your flock. Some safe garden fodder choices for what to feed chickens that are locked up in their chicken run would be: sunflower plant heads and leaves; bolted lettuces, spinach and arugula; the tops of radish, beet, turnip or other greens; or most herbs (e.g. oregano, bee balm, lovage, etc.), though not all herbs are safe.
Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.