I admit it – I’m somewhat of a romantic. I daydream about my home becoming a kind of Eden, where the golden retriever lounges on the porch, wildflowers bloom along the hill, chickens cluck about the yard, and strawberries ripen in the sun.
Reality isn’t as idyllic. They failed to mention it in THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA or ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. Or if they did, I skimmed over it in with my rose-tinted glasses. But there is a dark side to paradise.
True, chickens are productive members of a farmish life. During the height of summer, we get as many as seven or eight fresh eggs a day, and because of the different breeds in our 12-chicken flock, the eggs come in blues, greens, tans, and speckled browns. They are beautiful, and flavorful.
And when we are feeling more pragmatic than sentimental, chickens make an excellent dinner. Keep in mind that “free range” also means “tougher than hell.” But that’s why we have a pressure cooker.
In addition to being productive and delicious, however, chickens possess another prominent characteristic – they will eat anything. Absolutely anything. They are like feathered locusts.
In Eden, that means they eat the leftover table scraps and the unwanted weeds and bugs in the yard. Here in the real world, though, it means they eat everything else, too.
I’m not always quick on the uptake. Last summer I planted two raised beds with strawberry plants. I watched the flowers bloom and tiny green strawberries appear. And, just as they began to ripen, disappear.
In the meantime, there were other mysterious goings-ons. Like the rhubarb plants whose leaves were riddled with bite-sized holes.
And then it struck me. Chickens! As they free-ranged their way across our yard, they were consuming everything. Including just-ripened strawberries and rhubarb plants. Yes I know, rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic. Our chickens appear to be perfectly healthy eating machines.
I announced loudly off the back porch that if they attacked my plants again, we would be having chicken for dinner, with a strawberry glaze. The flock seemed unfazed. My dad later suggested it might be easier to just put a fence around the strawberry beds.
So this past week, when I noticed the strawberry and rhubarb plants emerging from the moist soil, I got out the heavy artillery. I will not relinquish Eden! Our chickens WILL free range, and our strawberries WILL be fruitful. I spent most of an afternoon erecting around the strawberries what I learned at the local hardware store is called “welded wire fencing.” And tomorrow I will do the same to some of our many rhubarb plants. Be forewarned, chickens – the free-range smorgasbord has been closed!