Our family strives to be self-reliant and live a sustainable lifestyle. Experience has taught us that there is an easy way and a hard way to produce your own food. After learning from the hard way, we have designed the perfect solution to provide healthy food for our family regardless of the challenges this crazy world throws our way.
Would you believe me if I told you that it is possible to produce delicious seasonal fruits and fresh eggs with only a few minutes of work each day? Not only is it possible, but we have been doing it for years.
Do you want to raise chickens with very little smell and almost no work? The best way to feed and care for a flock of laying hens is to intentionally create a sustainable habitat that provides all of the chicken’s basic needs. In turn, those chickens happily work constantly and reduce the amount of labor that we need to contribute in order to produce our own food. This fantastic reality is our Backyard Survival Food Forest.
Our well-designed backyard food forest creates a sustainable ecosystem that:
- Creates an ideal habitat for healthy chickens
- Produces a substantial portion of the chicken’s daily diet
- Reduces or almost eliminates odors
- Yields eggs of high nutritional content
- Considerably reduces human labor input
- Provides an abundance of organic fresh fruit throughout the growing season
- Turns raising chickens into an enjoyable, relaxing pastime
We have had a little flock of backyard chickens for many years. We have made many mistakes and learned valuable lessons in the process. In this post, we will share with you our perfect solution for a sustainable food source that you can create in your own backyard that your family can enjoy every day as well as depend on as a survival food source when life gets tough.
Producing healthy fresh food in your own backyard doesn’t have to take a lot of work and money. It is all about creating a sustainable design that puts nature to work for you. Home food production gives you substantial control over the chemicals used to produce your food and provides you with fresh eggs and produce that will spoil you with the delicious flavors.
Why Raise Chickens?
There are many compelling reasons to raise laying hens. They are a critical component of a backyard survival forest. We raise chickens for the following reasons:
- Chicken eggs are a good source of fat and protein.
- Our fresh eggs taste much better than store-bought eggs.
- Chickens recycle our kitchen and garden waste into eggs for my breakfast.
- Chickens produce and deliver a high nitrogen fertilizer directly to our fruit trees.
- Chickens help to control the unwanted insect population.
- Chickens are entertaining and relaxing to watch.
- Chickens improve our ability to be self-reliant and provide for the needs of our family.
Raising your own meat chickens is also a great idea. I just prefer to raise chickens for the eggs at this point. This survival food forest design can also work to raise meat birds.
Backyard Survival Food Forest Design
Success starts with great design. Poor design will result in a significant amount of human input and less overall productivity. Good design results in a sustainable ecosystem that creates abundance with very little human input.
We will benefit for decades from the hard work we put into creating the initial design of our backyard food forest. The only physical input that our little food forest requires now that it is mature is weekly watering, annual thinning, harvesting, and pruning of the trees and shrubs. No weeding, fertilizing, spraying, or picking up dropped fruit. The chickens provide the majority of the required labor to keep the ecosystem in balance and thriving.
We gather the eggs daily and only make sure that the chickens have fresh water and food every few days because we use automatic feeders and waterers. The chicken coop is cleaned out once a year and the bedding replaced. The birds spend the majority of their time foraging in the open space which keeps the coop clean much longer.
Do not allow limited space to prevent you from creating a small version of a backyard food forest. If your backyard is big enough for a tree or two, it is large enough to build a survival food forest. Smaller spaces limit the number of chickens you can keep and still maintain a healthy balance. You may only need a couple of laying hens to provide for your needs anyway.
Now let’s get to work on some basic design principles.
Start by carefully observing your yard. What direction does the water flow? Can swales be dug to slow the flow of water off the property and water the trees? Where are the sunny and shady areas? Where would it make the most sense to create the food forest?
It was through observation that the idea for our chicken survival food forest began to take shape. I was taking our kids to the pumpkin patch at a local nursery when I noticed a brilliant design.
The old farmer had a large fenced area with a few fruit mature fruit trees and free-ranging poultry. He had beautiful birds roaming the area together; chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and even a peacock. I noticed that the birds were very healthy and the orchard was completely weed free.
As I began to study permaculture, I was amazed to learn that we had been doing everything the hard way. I began to experiment with the design and learned that we could have healthy birds that produce plenty of eggs for our family and at the same time have delicious organic fruit without sweating every day to make it happen.
Stacking functions is a term used in permaculture to illustrate that in a good design every element will perform more than one function. In our design, chickens do more than just lay eggs. They fertilize the plants, till the soil, control insects, reduce weeds, consume excess produce, and facilitate compost production.
Many backyard chickens are kept solely for the eggs they produce. Owners work hard to provide for all of the chickens’ needs in exchange for those eggs. We recognize the valuable labor that chickens can provide and put them to work.
Build a Good Strong Fence
Chickens are highly destructive and need boundaries. They are welcomed tillers as long as they stay in the area that needs tilling and not in your flower garden. Secure the perimeter of your little urban food forest with a fence to keep the chickens safe from predators and protect your garden from the birds. A neighborhood dog can destroy a flock of hens very quickly. The fence is not just to keep the chickens in, it is to protect them.
Build a Sustainable Passive Solar Chicken Coop
Our first chicken coop was a little homemade coop with a run that was located in the corner of our backyard. The chickens were fed kitchen scraps and expensive grains. This method took a lot of time and energy. They smelled bad and we were constantly cleaning the coop. It seemed like a huge investment of both time and money for the return.
We moved and had the opportunity to start over from scratch. This time we built a small passive solar designed shed which included nesting boxes and places for the birds to roost. Using a small shed as a chicken coop may seem like overkill but it works great.
The front of the coop faces south and has a repurposed industrial glass door and window to allow natural sunlight into the coop. A large attic vent has been built into the gable on each end of the coop to encourage airflow and prevent moisture from building up inside of the coop. During the summer, the screened front window is also left open to increase ventilation.
The sun shines onto two 4-foot concrete block walls which provide the thermal mass to retain the heat from the sun during the day and radiate the heat back into the coop at night. The overhang shades the window during the summer to keep the coop cool.
The cheerful artwork on the interior walls of the coop was created by our two young daughters who felt that the chickens needed more color and nice things to look at in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that? Our goal is happy chickens who lay lots of eggs.
The chickens exit the coop into the fenced orchard through a little door in the back. We built a supply closet on the east side of the coop that is accessed by a door on the outside. The chickens lay the eggs inside of the coop and they roll into that closet where we can collect them without going into the coop.
The height of the shed allows for the birds to roost on bars that have been strategically placed at multiple levels. The chickens always fight for the highest roost, but there is plenty of room for all of the birds. The passive solar design of the shed keeps the chickens warm in the winter, cool in the summer, protects them from predators, and allows for the easy collection of eggs. Best of all, the chickens have free access to the food forest and spend the majority of their time safely foraging under the trees.
Building Rich Soil
The soil in a forest is rich and full of life. The goal is to duplicate that rich soil in our little food forest. That means that we take advantage of any quality organic matter that we have available. We dump wheelbarrow loads of grass clippings (without chemicals), leaves, straw, garden waste, weeds, wood chips, and anything organic we can into the orchard and let the chickens work their magic.
The annual tree prunings are cut into small pieces and left on the ground under the trees to decompose. The chickens do a fantastic job of facilitating that process with all of their scratching and with regular deposits of nitrogen. The soil in that chicken survival food forest is dark, rich and full of life.
Planting Chicken Fodder
We supplement the chickens’ diet with grain but the majority of the diet comes from kitchen scraps and what they forage in the food forest. We have intentionally planted the foods that are healthy for the birds, increase the nutritional value of the eggs and that will grow year after year without any help from us.
Plant your food forest with plants that create the ideal chicken habitat and high-quality poultry food sources in mind. A mulberry tree is a nutritious food source for birds and people alike. You might consider some of these sustainable food sources for your chickens:
Good Chicken Fodder Trees
Trees produce large amounts of food and take advantage of high open spaces. Fruit trees, Russian olives, nut trees, honey locust (pods), and oaktrees (acorns) are just a few examples of good trees to plant in a food forest to feed chickens.
Good Chicken Fodder Shrubs
Shrubs are safe from the destructive nature of chickens once they are established. Chickens can eat the fruit as well as many of the greens on shrubs. We planted goji berries in our orchard as a nitrogen fixer for the fruit trees and discovered that the chickens love the highly nutritious leaves.
Barberry, buffaloberry, coffeeberry, currant, elderberry, hackberry, hawthorn, goji berry, Russian olive, sea buckthorn, serviceberry, and Siberian pea shrub are all good choices for poultry. Make sure that you protect the young plants from the chickens until they are well established.
Good Chicken Fodder Plants
Herbaceous plants can be planted where chickens roam or planted elsewhere and intentionally harvested for chicken food. One 30 foot row of Swiss chard will feed a flock of 25 birds throughout the growing season. We like to plant fodder beets that store all winter in the ground to provide fresh food for our birds.
Some good choices of plants that make great chicken fodder include alfalfa, buckwheat, chickweed, chicory, cleavers, clover, lemon balm, oregano, sage, purslane, amaranth, calendula, comfrey, dandelion, fennel, lamb’s quarters, plantain, hairy vetch, mint, and kale. We give our chickens all of the garden waste with the exception of tomato plants. They are especially fond of raspberry prunings.
Good Chicken Seed Crops
Seed crops are great for chickens. Our girls love dried sunflower seed heads as well as the seed heads of amaranth. After we harvest the corn, we give the chickens all of the cobs and stalks. I am amazed at how much they eat. Within a few short weeks, it all disappears and been turned into eggs and soil.
Other ideas include barley, millet, oats, quinoa, and wheat. We harvest the entire plant and toss it into the orchard and let them have at it.
Perfect Chicken and Fruit Habitat
All of the organic matter we add to the orchard significantly contributes to the health of the soil and productivity of the food forest. The chickens work hard to till it up and add nitrogen in order to produce the best-tasting fruit ever.
Our chickens are healthy and lead very happy lives. This microenvironment can be duplicated whether you have 2 trees or 50 trees. Once the system matures, it can almost sustain itself, as long as there is the right balance between birds and habitat. Do not raise more chickens than your design can sustain.
Designing your Chicken Food Forest
Once you have spent significant time observing your yard, decide where you are going to establish your food forest. Edges are a great way to increase the productivity of small spaces. Notice in these photos how I have taken advantage of all of the edge space on the outside of the fence to grow vertically and increase the productivity of the space. Some of these plants are part of the tree guilds I have created as discussed later in this post.
Draw your design on paper. Make a lot of notes. Do you already have trees that you can incorporate into the food forest? An established tree can be a great asset. Incorporate the tree into your design. It doesn’t have to produce fruit to be highly valuable in a food forest. Don’t worry about any lawn that you have established. Just fence it in and the chickens will quickly till it up for you.
Incorporate Forest Layers into Your Design
There are 7 main forest layers you may want to consider incorporating into your design. Think about what levels of plants you see in a forest. They take up much of the available vertical space and no piece of ground is left barren. The forest layers include:
- Overstory tree (large nut or tall trees)
- Understory tree layer (semi-dwarf fruit trees, hazelnut)
- Shrub layer (elderberries, currants, comfrey, goji berry)
- Herbaceous layer (mint, purslane)
- Root layer (Jerusalem artichokes)
- Ground cover (clover, grasses)
- Vine layer (grapes, hops)
Depending on the size of your space, you may not be able to incorporate overstory trees or perhaps not even semi-dwarf trees. No problem! You can still do this. You can use dwarf fruit trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines. When space is limited it is especially important to take advantage of edges and vertical space.
Consider Establishing Chicken-Friendly Tree Guilds
A guild is a group of plants that are intentionally planted near each other because they have properties designed to benefit each other. It is similar to companion planting. Guilds should be designed within your food forest to take advantage of as many of the forest layers as is practical and produce food for both people and chickens.
Each guild designed for a backyard food forest should include:
- Food for people
- Fodder for chickens
- Nitrogen fixing plants to feed fruit and nut trees
- Nutrient accumulators to produce organic mass to build soil
- Forage to attract pollinators
- Insectary plants to attract predatory insects for pest control
The guilds below are designed to work together in a chicken food forest and provide fodder and habitat for the chickens. These are just suggestions. Use your imagination to design your guilds to fit your unique circumstances.
The plants in a guild should be planted in close proximity for the greatest benefit. I plant some of the plants in our guild outside of the fence to protect them from the chickens as shown in the photo above. You do not have to plant all of the plants listed in the guild. We just provide you with a variety to choose from that work well. It is best to select perennial plants which will grow back year after year and do not have to be replanted each year. There are many more options for each guild than the few that I listed here.
Mulberry Tree Guild – Fruiting mulberry tree, autumn olive, goumi, gooseberry, currant, semi-dwarf fruit tree, comfrey, dill, parsley, garlic, chive, yarrow, mint, and white clover.
Fruit Tree Guild – Standard or semi-dwarf fruit tree, hazelnut, Russian olive, Sea Buckthorn, horseradish, highbush cranberry, comfrey, vetch, garlic (around the base of fruit tree), chives, lemon balm, dill, fennel, and yarrow.
The photos below are of an apple tree guild that we planted using permaculture design. We needed a privacy border next to an outside fence and a windbreak for the garden. We decided to use apple trees because they are both beautiful and productive. The trees ripen consecutively with the first apple tree in the hedge producing about the end of August, the tree on the other end (Black Arkansas) producing in November. This design provides us with a constant supply of fresh apples for 4 months.
To help make sure that these trees could receive sufficient moisture without watering, we dug a swale on the south side of the fence to capture the runoff from the street and easement. Just to the north of the trees, there is a small hugel bed where we planted insectaries and medicinal herbs. There are young buffalo berry bushes, barberries, catnip, mints, and comfrey planted on the street side of the fence. This young apple guild is showing significant promise as a beautiful, productive asset to our home.
Oaktree Guild – Oaktree, hazelnuts, Siberian pea shrub, gooseberries, currents, horseradish, comfrey, borage, white clover, mint and lemon balm.
Walnut Tree Guild – Walnut tree, mulberry, black cherry, sour cherry, honey locust, elderberry, chokecherry, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, comfrey, yarrow, grapes, and daylilies. It is important to note that back walnut roots exude a chemical called juglone that inhibits the growth of some plants nearby.
Service Tree Guild – Service tree (AKA Saskatoon blueberry, juneberry, deerberry), semi-dwarf fruit tree, Russian olive, runner beans, buffalo berry, groundnut, comfrey, horseradish, lemon balm, white clover, mint, garlic, chives, parsley, and grapes.
Hazelnut (Filbert) Tree Guild – Hazelnut tree, elderberries, currants, gooseberries, lovage, comfrey, horseradish, mint, sweet woodruff, chokeberry, yarrow, and white clover.
Get Started! The Clock is Ticking
A sustainable supply of fresh fruit and eggs without significant work is the dream of every prepper. We have learned how to turn that dream into a reality. Our chickens provide us with fresh eggs and very healthy fruit trees. We provide them with a happy life, fresh water and a little bit of grain. It is a delightfully sustainable system that you can design into your own backyard.
Do not waste time dreaming about creating this food forest someday. Get to work and plant your foundation trees right away. You can add the chickens and other plants later. Trees take many years to become established and provide the maximum benefit. Worry about the chicken coop and the fence and everything else later. Get those trees planted as soon as you possibly can. This is an important investment in the future.
A survival food forest is an ideal way to prepare for many of the unexpected challenges in life. It provides you with the ability to live off of what you can produce on your own property. It is beautiful, quiet, and adds value to the landscape. It is a great way for children to connect with nature in the midst of the city. If things get really tough, those birds would be able to survive without supplemental grain and still provide eggs because of the mature food system that you have created. Building the food forest requires quite a bit of planning, physical labor, financial resources, and time. The resulting payoff is huge and worth every sacrifice.
Sit in your backyard and observe for a little while. Do you have a lawn area that could be converted into a beautiful food forest and provide your family with delicious organic food and eggs? Perhaps it is time to make a change and build a more secure future in your very own backyard.