There are days when I come out to the backyard and the chickens run over to greet me, clucking and shaking their booties in a way that says: “Hey! Look what we did! We’re so proud of ourselves!” That’s when I know to expect the worst. I can’t tell you how many times they have somehow managed to wiggle their way through fencing into a newly seeded garden bed, or one with lovingly planted tender seedlings, and scratched and torn and uprooted whatever budding life was there and munched on the rest. The sight of the damage has reduced me to tears at least once — it is so demoralizing to lose hours of work and, in the case of the seedlings, all the work that has already gone into growing them. Of course, the fault is ultimately mine: I should have attached the chicken wire, or whatever was supposed to keep them away, more securely. When this happened again this week, I found myself thinking whether we are perhaps paying too high of a price for having free-range chickens.
Yet the utterly compulsive chicken instinct of scratching, pecking, and kicking serves its purpose in the garden, too. I have often put the “chicken tractor” to work to prepare a garden bed for seeding a new crop. They eat slugs and insects, contributing to the pest control of the garden. And, as it now turns out, they also help with harvesting. Another day this week, I came out to the garden and saw something pale yellow poking out of the soil by the fence. I walked over to look, and this is what I saw:
This is mashua, a perennial originating from the Andes. I planted it last year knowing that it has many uses, one of which is that it produces edible tubers. But then at some point I forgot about it. It was the chickens who dug them up. If it wasn’t for them, I might never have remembered to harvest the tubers. I threw these new (to me) edibles into my roasted root vegetable dish that same evening, and the end result was delicious: the roasted mashua is mild and slightly sweet, and has the same texture as a baked sweet potato. So while there are times when I wish my little garden helpers were a little less eager… at other times, they are truly invaluable in doing what they do best.