Most of the gardening folks I know don’t just garden; they work with whatever size property they have to maximize resources and achieve some left of self-sustainability. For many, that means a vegetable garden, an herb garden, maybe a couple goats, sometimes rabbits.

For a huge percentage of the gardening population, this means keeping poultry, whether that’s chickens, ducks, geese, or other species. 

But how does keeping poultry really work in tandem with a fruit garden? You see all sorts in information on the internet; some people claim free-ranging poultry is the only way to go, while others are adamant that a chicken anywhere near a strawberry bed spells disaster. Which is it?

Well, I’m a longtime poultry owner as well as a gardener, and I can personally speak to the impact of these “big three” species on my gardens and mini-orchard: the chicken, the duck, and the goose. Unfortunately I’ve never kept pigeons, quail, peacocks, or some of the other less-common poultry species (bucket list!), but for most gardeners, these three are the most likely offenders… or the most likely to create a beneficial symbiotic relationship in your permaculture design. 

Chickens and the Fruit Garden

As a complement to your fruit garden, the chicken is probably the most effective weed & pest control bird available. I really, truly do highly recommend the chicken – as long as you put some time and effort into making sure the relationship is carefully stewarded.

Cleaning out a chicken coop onto the garden, for example, is a great way to boost soil fertility, but you have to make sure that bedding is aged – if it’s too fresh, it can burn sensitive plants. All bedding and coop material MUST be composted before being heaped around your plants as fertilizer.

However, I’ve also turned this scorch-factor to my advantage. When I have a patch of ground I want to turn into a planting bed for the next year, I will often clean out the coop and spread the manure in that area. By the next spring the manure is composted, the ground pre-fertilized, and the weeds have been killed off to boot.

As weeders and pest-control, chickens can also do great work; they are voracious hunters, and they scratch up the soil instead of just surface-hunting. This helps turn up any nasty little grubs hanging out just below the surface.

Now with that said, there’s a definite downside to letting chickens roam your berry patches and orchards. Chickens are insanely useful, but let’s be real: they’re also insane. These birds will eat basically anything, including green, underripe blueberries (grrr), foliage, and basically anything that strikes their fancy.

Additionally, chickens can jump and fly short distances, so are perfectly capable of getting up into a fruit tree to work on your juicy apples, plums, pears and more. It’s absolutely imperative that you keep them out of fruit gardens and orchards during fruit development and harvesting seasons.

Post-harvest, letting chickens wander the fruit garden will help clean up any remaining windfall fruit. This helps avoid attracting unwanted pests and harboring disease within the rotting fruit. As the janitorial crew, chickens do great work!

Ducks and the Fruit Garden

I love my ducks. I really do. But they are absolute utter slobs, and even I can’t deny it. If deprived of a pond, they set out to dig their own – heck, even if they have one, they STILL dig with their shovel-like bill. If you have tender-rooted berries, this is a real problem.

Further, ducks are omnivores and opportunists. Your berries – ripe or underripe – are not safe, so don’t let ducks roam a berry patch once the blossoms have set fruit! This isn’t just your edible fruit you need to worry about, either; ducks will eat ANYTHING…

…including poisonous berries. I was pretty upset when one of my original three ducks (he was named Doodle, just in case you were wondering) died of a pokeberry overdose. I hadn’t planted the weed, he’d just been able to reach it through the wire of the fence, and that was the end of that bird of very little brain. If you grow berries that have an underripe, slightly poisonous stage (garden huckleberry, for instance) or a poison-pit fruit (chokeberries?), you are going to have to keep a very close eye on your ducks. 

On the positive side? Ducks are really, really dedicated foragers, and if you have a slug problem, they will take care of it immediately. Chickens tend to go hide from the rain, and often miss out on these slimy pests. Not the duck. A rainy day is still great foraging weather for these rubber-booted birds, and while your chickens are hiding from the drips, the ducks will be busily hunting and cutting down the pest population.

Geese and the Fruit Garden

Geese have been lauded for centuries as “weeders.” However, be aware that geese will happily try LOTS of things that aren’t vegetative in nature. (Like the side of my barn, when they’re bored. Doesn’t matter how much food they have available… if they’re bored, they’ll go experiment trying out something else to eat. Even duct-tape.)

Geese are theoretically great if you are looking for weed control in your fruit gardens, and it was a longtime project of mine to get my blueberry patch fenced in to protect weeder geese from foxes. However – and this is a BIG caveat – this system only works if your weeds are more tender than the foliage of your fruiting shrubs.

Tall, tough grass isn’t attractive to a goose. If you can get them into the berry patch in very early spring, when the grass is just sprouting, you have a chance. If you don’t move them in until July, and the grass is already two feet tall, the weeds are no more attractive than your bushes are – so you’re in trouble!

Even when conditions are right, I know better than to leave those curious, gigantic birds alone with my fruit-bearing shrubs too long. I know my geese, and I know that if the grass doesn’t please their palate on a given day – or if curiosity gets the better of them – they are perfectly capable of stripping bark, foliage and fruit from whatever shrub is within reach.

Once the grass cover has been suitably “mowed” or fruit has been set, it’s time to move the geese on to new pasture. I can’t emphasize enough; they go for tender, new growth first. Once any new weed growth is beaten down, don’t assume they’ll start working on the older weeds; geese will be just as happy to eat your fruiting shrubs.

Additionally, I would strongly recommend keeping geese away from fruit gardens during the winter months. When snow is on the ground and the flock must be fed grain to get them through the winter, they still crave roughage, and will go for bark and buds.

No, even the woodiest, most dormant plants aren’t safe; geese will strip every bud from every dormant plant within reach (just ask my grape vines that were trellised along the poultry fence. RIP Concords.).

If you’re looking for weeding ability, the traits seem to run more or less the same in both heritage breeds as well as the more production-oriented birds; I’ve raised both Tolouse and Embdens, and I haven’t noticed much difference in foraging ability between the two.

Keeping Poultry in a Fruit Garden

As a gardener, do you feel comfortable letting your poultry roam amongst the berries? I do – but only in early and late months of the year, before the berry plants have set fruit (and then again after the berry patch’s respective productive season is over). I think chickens, ducks and geese have a lot to offer the fruit gardener; soil nutrients, invaluable pest control, weed control, and more. This coexisting symbiosis of animal and plant cover in the same ground is the foundation on which the globe’s ecosystems depend, and as long as the gardener is careful about stewarding that relationship in a responsible, thoughtful manner, I vote yes – poultry belong in every gardener’s life…

…just maybe not when the blueberries are ripening!

This post was originally published in 2022. The post has since been updated to keep information and links current.

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