The winter is a good time to plant trees so I have been creating a traditional ‘poultry orchard’ to provide my birds with shade and our family some fruit in the future.
Well OK, our family does get through a lot of fruit and I’ve always wanted to have a go at making apple juice and even cider if we had an excess of apples, but the origins of chickens are of course the Jungle Fowl of Asia where they naturally live under the dappled shade of the trees. Trees make chickens feel secure, providing them with protection from birds of prey and you’ll notice they prefer to sit in the shade on hot days to keep cool, so it seems like a ‘no-brainer’, an orchard would be a perfect solution, they could even manure the ground for me!
Hot temperatures are a problem
Poultry can handle the cold rather well. In Canada, there are temperatures of -20˚C and below and poultry are still being kept. Chickens can fluff out their feathers, just like wild birds and trap air to insulate them against the cold, but what about the heat (of our British Summers…)?
Chickens can’t sweat, so the only way they can cool down is by panting to remove heat in the air they expire, or by taking on more water and excreting more fluids to remove heat from their body.
Shade is essential for chickens on hot days and keeping their water cool or at least shaded helps them to cool them down as the temperature rises.
The poultry orchard
So as I mentioned in another post I wrote, I recently had the chance to buy an acre of land I had been renting for my birds and this opened up a number of new possibilities for me.
Previously, I couldn’t do that much with the ground I was renting but now I have been able to clean up some of the hedges, replace old fences and with electrified fencing to stop foxes and build some more permanent fences within the area to keep my birds confined.
The project has been to create a ‘Traditional Orchard’ that the poultry can also use as a run. I am hoping that the birds will do their bit with insect control and it is our intention to manage the orchard without chemicals that could cause harm to the local environment, or to our chickens.
When to plant
Fruit trees should be planted during the winter months when the sap has stopped rising. It’s quite a shock to a tree to be uprooted and replanted so it’s important to have the ground well-prepared before trees arrive. Apparently, the goodness is stored in the roots through the winter so avoiding disturbance and root damage is very important.
Digging holes for the fruit trees.
We prepared the ground by digging out a large circle to a spade’s depth. The soil in the central part of this area was then loosened further (since we sit on clay here) and was mixed with well-rotted horse manure. The whole area was then filled with a mixture of rotted horse manure, and sandy topsoil.
A stake was driven into the centre of the prepared area and some chicken netting was placed over the area and pegged down to stop the chickens from scratching it all out again! This will also stop the geese from nibbling the young trees as well.
I used rootgrow on the bare roots before planting to give the trees a good start. Rootgrow is made from naturally occurring fungi and is applied as a gel directly to the roots before planting them. The main ingredient is mycorrhizal fungi. These are organisms that co-exist naturally with the roots of trees. I prepared the rootgrow solution in an old plastic bin and then dipped the roots in before planting the trees.
Dipping roots in rootgrow in a plastic dustbin.
After part planting the roots, I gave a light topping of Bonemeal (slow release fertiliser) and then covered this with more soil.
The level of soil should match the ‘tide mark’ where the tree was previously planted. The graft (all fruit trees are grafted onto rootstock these days) should be well above the soil level.
When choosing fruit trees, you often need a pollination partner from the same group, or a group above or below. This basically means your trees will be in flower at the same time, or will overlap at some point allowing insects to pollinate them.
Adding Bonemeal to the part-planted tree.
The fencing we decided to erect was a little overkill for poultry but we wanted the orchard area to be secure from other livestock as well as look good. We decided to use some re-cycled Tundra wire that we had from our old fence. We opted for post and rail fencing on the outside, to match other fencing and electric wires were added on insulators to stop foxes from digging or climbing.
Protecting the fruit trees from geese
The young fruit trees are of course in danger of being nibbled by geese, they nibble everything don’t they! We used the spiral tree protectors around the base of the trees but they could still reach the lower branches and as I mentioned above, we didn’t want the chickens to scratch at the roots of the trees so we made some loops of chicken wire and put this around the trees to protect them until the trees are established.
Netting was used for complete protection of the trees.
The results are very pleasing. Although the weather was cold and wet and we created a lot of mud that only ducks can appreciate!
Now that they are all planted, I am very satisfied with the results. I can’t wait until they have got their roots down and come into blossom.The tree nearest to you in the photo here is a Cider Apple… I have great plans for the future!