By Anna Ackerman, writer, Bluegrass Greensource Blog 

Spring is bursting forth around our house. The daffodils are blooming, the roses are budding, the bush and tree branches are swelling at the tips, and the hens are laying again. We allow our hens to take a much needed break from laying during the short days of winter by not adding artificial light to their coop. It seems more natural for them, and we have plenty of eggs to hold us over. Plus, we want them well rested for the work we expect them to do in the spring: garden prep.

Every winter, we plant a cover crop in the garden, usually winter rye. It adds nitrogen back to the soil, and its roots penetrate the soil, keeping it light and fluffy. Then, every spring, we mow the rye down and till it under to replenish the soil. My dad has a 50-year old tiller that is always in some state of “repair” (usually in pieces on his workbench) – so depending on it to get the garden ready can be a gamble. The hens, however, are always reliable. They are anxious to stretch their legs and scratch for worms and hibernating bugs in the cold soil.

In just a couple afternoons, our three hens can turn a 10×4 foot plot. We have an open bottom pen, called a tractor. We put them in to keep them contained in one area, and also to protect them from the hawks in our neighborhood. They will spend several afternoons in one area of the garden before we move them to a fresh plot.

The best part is, while the hens are happily working for us in the garden, we can spend our time looking through seed catalogs and planning the summer crop; Heirloom Ground Cherries are looking like a good possibility in the garden this year!