Lisa Steele is a 5th generation chicken keeper and Maine Master Gardener, and she knows that better gardens make for happier, healthier chickens. Her twin passions for raising chickens and working in the soil started as a child, when she lived across from her grandparents’ chicken farm and her family planted a large vegetable garden. After a short stint on Wall Street (where she raised herbs in the windowsill of her tiny apartment), she moved back to New England to farm and proudly carry on her family traditions.

Lisa is the founder of Fresh Eggs Daily, the popular natural chicken keeping site, and the author of several books. She provides her readers with her easy, fun and accessible approach to integrating gardening and backyard chickens for a more productive flock and more bountiful harvest. We asked Lisa for some advice on raising chickens and gardens together.

What are the top three garden plants that chicken keepers should consider growing in their gardens to feed their flock?

While chickens will enjoy all kinds of garden produce, happily eating not only the fruit but also the leaves, stalks, tops and trimmings, what I really like to plant for my chickens is herbs. In fact, my chickens have their very own herb garden right next to the coop that they are free to nibble on when they are out roaming the yard. The culinary herbs are not only perfectly safe for chickens, but also offer them all kinds of health benefits. Most herbs are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals and contribute to overall flock health. My chickens' three favorite herbs are oregano, basil and parsley. Herbs will grow almost anywhere and aren't too picky about soil conditions, so they are perfect for the beginning gardener. Herbs also benefit from periodic trimming, so allowing your chickens to nibble on them is actually helpful!

If a gardener wants to start raising chickens, what changes should they consider making in how they garden?

Well, chickens can be helpful in the garden during the off season, aerating the soil, scratching for bugs and bug larvae, eating anything left over after the harvest, etc. but if left to their own devices, they can be incredibly destructive, so before you decide to add some chickens to your backyard, fencing in your garden, or building the chickens a nice large pen is a good idea. Then you can control when you allow your chickens free access to your garden areas.

What is one thing you will never garden without, and one thing you’ll never allow in your garden?

One thing I always love planting is peas. They are one of the first things we can get into the ground here in Maine and they mature quickly. Plus our chickens love munching on peas. They can also be planted along the fencing of your chicken pen or run, so they climb up the sides. They'll hide ugly fencing and also provide the chickens some shade in the summer along with a delicious treat.
One thing I no longer plant is white potatoes. They are part of the nightshade family (along with tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) and contain a toxin that can be harmful to the chickens if they eat the plants in large amounts. As a result, I've switched to growing sweet potatoes instead. Not only are they a completely different family (morning glory) and the entire plant is safe for chickens to eat. Plus sweet potatoes are more nutritious for the chickens and for our family. And I personally think they taste better! I do plant other nightshades in my garden but make sure to pull out the plants before letting our chickens into the garden in the fall.

What should gardeners know about using chicken manure as fertilizer?

Chicken manure is one of the best livestock fertilizers there is for a garden, containing more calcium than other types of fertilizer, but it's very high in nitrogen, so it needs to be allowed to age before using it on the garden or it can burn tender young plants. There's also a chance of pathogens such as E.coli or salmonella being present in any type of animal manure, so letting the chicken manure sit in a compost pile for several months (3-6 is recommended) allows time for the pathogens to be killed and for the nitrogen levels to dissipate a bit. I like to clean my chicken coop out in the fall and spread the straw, feathers and manure over my vegetable garden. By spring when I'm ready to turn the soil over and plant, the manure has had time to sufficiently age.