Unused backyard spot. Level of difficulty: shade & chickens
May 31, 2016 8:14 AM   Subscribe

There's an eyesore of a barren area, about 2m,5 x 2,5m (8ft x 8ft), in my backyard. I want to do something about it. Challenge #1: part of the area is permanently shaded. Challenge #2: I have two free-range chickens eager to eat everything tender and green.

Here's an approximation of the layout (left being west). Our house, balcony and the stairs down to the backyard are on the right. The Problem Area is in the lower left corner.

The Problem Area is surrounded by a wooden fence in the south, on the west side there's a high-ish concrete wall (with a ledge in front of it), and in the north is a garden shack, overgrown with ivy and with the door opening to the Problem Area. We're in a moderate climate (coastal Holland), where it rarely freezes but rains quite a bit. During the summer it can get quite hot in the back yard, as it gets no wind.

There used to be a little lawn in the Problem Area, which the chickens have completely destroyed. (Mowing a tiny unused lawn was stupid anyway, so good riddance.) But now it's bare, ugly, compacted topsoil. Underneath some 50cm (1,5ft) of topsoil there are the cement foundations of a shack that once stood here (drainage is still fine, though).

So we have
- shade
- shallow topsoil
- evil chickens
- shack door that needs to be accessed daily

Fencing the area from the chickens, even temporarily, isn't possible (they are very good at getting around and over fences, and this is their favourite sunbathing spot.) Things can be planted as long as I take care to cover the roots from scratching and digging. Plants that my chickens leave alone: blackcurrants, gooseberries, rosemary, ivy, most evergreen shrubs and anything with hard, inedible leaves, anything growing above 1m (3ft). Things they eat: everything else. Raspberry, red currant and blackberry leaves don't last a day. Not to mention vegetables and most herbs. Roses. Lavendel. Azaleas. Rhododendron - my girls like it toxic. At least they're still alive...

I've entertained all sorts of ideas: a shady pergola? A DIY outdoor pizza oven? A container garden? Treetrunks for mushrooms in the shade? Just planting the area full of little evergreen shrubs or sharp grass? Hottubs and trampolines are out of our budget.

What would you do?
What practical, clever, pretty or fun option am I not thinking of?

(NB the answer can't be ivy; I know from experience that ivy grows there, but we have too much of it already and it's a pain during the hayfever season.)
posted by sively to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
How are they with plants that have bird netting tented around them? I have deer issues, but this allowed my 2' service berry to grow to a self-sustaining size over 2 years. I had chicken wire at the ready if that was not enough deterrence.
posted by childofTethys at 8:54 AM on May 31, 2016

Rocks, moss and ferns!! We have a shady zone that we've basically turned into Hobbiton by cultivating a bunch of moss on large rocks and hills that we've built up, and interspersing ferns around all that. It's quite nice.

We used the info off this site, and also searched for 'Moss graffiti' to get a bunch of hits on how to cultivate moss.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:02 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

A great yard needs a hammock to be fully complete. Or a hanging daybed if you're feeling ambitious.
posted by areaperson at 9:17 AM on May 31, 2016

Seconding ferns and moss... my yard is basically gone wild (outside of Boston in the U.S., so likely a bit harsher climate than Holland), and moss and ferns do very well in the shady parts with no maintenance. I don't know that they're chicken-proof but they are certainly songbird- and squirrel-proof. Hostas might also be a good option.

And hammocks really are lovely. If you can keep the hammock in the shed and only bring it out when you're using it (leave the stand or tree/wall attachment points up), it will last a lot longer.
posted by mskyle at 9:36 AM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

We have a colorful woven hammock that is hung up when the people want to enjoy it. If your trees would support on, there are non-invasive ways to hang a hammock, and we leave ours pre-set for quick installation
posted by childofTethys at 9:57 AM on May 31, 2016

We have a small corner of our yard covered in artificial turf -- it's green and lush and it looks just like real grass. Because it's such a small corner, the landscaper didn't even charge us for the material -- it was a scrap left over from another job.

Another thing you could so is to lay down flagstones and plant scotch moss or irish moss in between them.
posted by Ostara at 2:25 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

How about moving the chicken coop to this area (I assume you have a coop for nighttime)? Chickens biggest threat is heat so a shady area for their coop is ideal. Plus you said they like this spot. You might consider adding a run for them and only letting them free range occasionally. When I first got chickens I was all, ""FREERANGE!!!!" but after accidentally stepping in enough poop and having all my plants constantly destroyed I made a large run and limited free ranging to times when I was sitting or working in the garden and could supervise the chaos.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:53 PM on May 31, 2016

Hey, thanks for all the suggestions! I l ike it that you guys dig hammocks, too. We already have one hanging underneath the balcony.

Oh, I love the idea of a rocky, hobbity moss garden. My only concern being that the chickens may scratch the moss to get to the bugs underneath. (And I'll have to do a test run with ferns to see if they're too tasty.) But this is something I'd like to try.

WalkerWestridge, the chicken coop is under the stairs, where it's protected from the elements, although it would look pretty in the barren corner, too, come to think of it. Freeranging is indeed destructive, but I've managed to rein in the chaos over the years by establishing a garden of plants they don't like to eat (or can't reach) and leaving all the weeding to the girls. They're big birds and the yard is rather small, so limiting their space even more wouldn't feel right... I tried netting to save my raspberries but they kept messing it up, and I worried they'd end up stuck in it in their gluttony; I'd practically need to build wire cages around tastyplants.

Still interested in hearing more ideas if anyone has any!
posted by sively at 4:27 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a dream of having a backyard with sculptural, musical instruments. Your shady spot might be perfect for a garden xylophone like this or this. You could Google musical garden for more ideas. If you like this route, check out the websites of the Huntington Gardens childrens garden in Pasadena and the Toronto Music garden for ideas. You could include topiary and a nice bench to create a magical little spot to play with sounds. (I know this sounds like it's for kids, but I would do it even if I didn't have kids!)
On a very different note, I'm hoping to do a bean teepee this year. That may need more sun, but is there a flowering vine you could grow instead?
posted by areaperson at 6:15 PM on May 31, 2016

Update: OK, moss does not go with chickens. They go crazy scratching it like it's a winning lottery ticket. So, if you're someone who stumbled upon this thread looking for advice on moss gardening with chickens, it's 'don't'.

But I did go with the (half)shaded rock garden idea, so thanks for that! I scavenged the classifieds for interesting rocks and even a bit of discarded garden wall, and also laid a little flagstone path to the shed. I think it'll look nice in time with the things the Greedy Ladies seem to leave alone: astilbe, carex, creeping rosemary, thyme (and woolly thyme between the flagstones), cotoneaster, a row of cherry laurel shrubs along the back wall. And ferns (I used holly ferns in the hope they'll be less tasty than softer ones), although their fate remains to be seen.
posted by sively at 12:02 AM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

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