Sometimes you ask for green beans and get sunflowers. And then you get the green beans also.
That pretty well sums up my life with chickens so far.
In late April I picked up six two-day-old chicks from the feed store in a cardboard carrier that looked disconcertingly like a Go Chicken, Go! carry-out box.
I knew nothing about chickens, as evidenced by my order: three Buff Orpingtons and three chicks “in a mix of colors,” please. Without smirking, the owners’ daughter hooked me up with a Rhode Island Red, a black Australorp and a black-and-white Barred Rock.
Driving off with the chirping box on the floor of the truck, I felt the same mix of total unpreparedness and great hope as when I brought my first child home from the hospital.
The chicks are all females, so I can have fresh eggs later, but their main purpose is to hunt grasshoppers.
Kansas has 123 varieties of grasshoppers, according to K-State, and I feel certain they have all dined in my garden.
Last year the winged pests annihilated the pole beans, my favorite crop for fresh eating and freezing for winter deliciousness.
As soon as the chicks were big enough to move from an indoor brooder box to the outside coop, I began letting them free range inside my one-acre, chain-link-fenced property.
Instead of heading for the vegetable garden, the chickens started hanging out in the flower beds. They seemed to like the shade and the feeling of being hidden.
Their favorite flower bed is a large maintenance-free oval of heat-loving plants that resow themselves every year: zinnias, morning glories, four-o’clocks and sunflowers.
Last year, the grasshoppers ate the petals off the sunflowers as well as the leaves. The naked stalks were ugly but I was too upset about the beans to care.
After a few days of letting the chickens scratch around under the flowers, I started herding them toward the veggies.
I have a portable “playpen” made out of 10- and 5-foot panels of chicken wire and 2-by-2s that I use when I want to keep the anti-bug squad near a certain area: the squash plants, for example, when I spotted a squash bug on my round French courgettes. When the chickens are in the pen, I put shade cloth over the top and a water dispenser inside to keep them comfortable.
In one of those lucky coincidences that work out better than any human planning, the rows of pole beans are next to a large mulberry tree. Chickens, it turns out, love mulberries, so I have no trouble keeping them near the beans.
They peck at the ground for the fat black berries and occasionally steal them from another chicken’s beak. But when grasshoppers soar into their field of vision, they chase them down and gobble them up. It is amazing to watch.
So, unlike last year, the beans are flourishing and flowering.
And to my great surprise, so are the sunflowers.
They are ringed with fat, perfect petals and huge furry leaves. The four-o’clocks are taller and more colorful than last year as well.
In addition to eating grasshoppers, I suspect the chickens’ scratching loosens the soil so more water can soak in and keeps weeds down, and their droppings are a natural fertilizer.
The chickens have also taught me about animal behavior. They panic and scatter if I chase them off the porch or the gazebo, but if I walk slowly in the direction I want them to go while calling: “Here, chick, chick, chick, chick,” they follow.
And if I let them play in the flowers and work in the veggie patch, everybody wins.