chickens on the farm

12 Perennials to Plant for Free Chicken Food

Grow these 12 perennials as edible landscaping that will create free chicken food, shade, and shelter from overhead predators for your flock. 

If you’ve ever looked over the cost analysis for our homestead you’ll see that we haven’t been able to raise laying hens for eggs any cheaper than buying a carton from the store.

One of our perpetual goals is to figure out how to decrease the cost to keep laying hens and find sources of free chicken food. It’s one of the reasons why we keep homesteading records.

We have implemented using perennial plants to provide free food for our chickens. We don’t feed our chickens most of the year, nature does.

There, I said it. I prefer free chicken food.

12 Perennials to Plant for Free Chicken Food

My Free Chicken Food Experience

I guess you might think poorly of our animal husbandry skills now, that’s a risk that I’m just going to have to take.

But the fact is that I haven’t fed my chickens much in several years now and it turns out that not one of them has died as a result! In fact, we deal with very few of the chicken health problems you’ll read out about, if any.

As it stands now, we withdraw their winter feed ration somewhere around April 1st. It all depends on the weather and when the grass starts to green up. By then, I know that there is an abundance of free chicken food to be found for our expert foragers.

They have greens, worms, and sundry bugs for them to choose from, not to mention the bits of grain they are able to glean daily while working on scattering cow pies throughout our pasture. It’s actually the diet they prefer. Then we’ll reintroduce feed sometime around when the first blanket of snow covers the ground or when we stop noticing the melody of nighttime summer insects.

This has worked wonderfully for us for years! I love observing the richness of the eggs in the deep and vibrant orange color of their yolks. In fact, I can tell which breeds are better foragers and which aren’t just by looking at the yolks! The bad foragers won’t be joining my flock again. (*ahem*leghorns)

And what I love, even more, is watching our cost per dozen eggs keep dropping on the SmartSteader app! Especially when they’re eating free chicken food!

Plants to grow for free chicken food

Extend the Life of Chickens

I love that I can allow my faithful hens to live longer lives. I can cull out lower-production hens in the fall instead of spring giving them 6 more months of life after I realize they aren’t really producing any longer. Why not? It’s not like I’m feeding them.

It feels really good knowing that I can’t feed my family a more nutrient-dense egg and that it isn’t costing me a dime half the year.

Are there drawbacks to free-ranging your hens?

Are there drawbacks to free-ranging your hens? Sure there are a few, but for the most part, we’ve learned to either deal with them or accept them as part of the deal.  

Whether you want to share your garden harvest with your feathered friends, have them scratching and dust bathing, and their manure in your backyard, is a decision only you can make for yourself. Where you put your chicken coop really is an important decision.

Most of the time I grow enough surplus of vegetables (peas, beans, kale and swiss chard, pumpkins, cabbage, cucumbers), herbs, such as sage, rosemary, oregano, parsley, and thyme, and berries that I don’t mind, but as we head into the new year, we’ve decided that it’s time to coop our gals up to curb their appetite for our garden’s goodies.

But I don’t want to do so at the sacrifice of the healthiest eggs possible, and those gorgeous golden yolks you simply won’t find in hens with a primarily grain-fed diet.

Although when it comes to my blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, I do wish they would leave the eating to the ones that have already fallen off the plants. I really wouldn’t mind if they ate all the weeds.

We’re still in the planning stages of how we will provide them with that varied diet during the warmer months while still keeping them contained, but definitely in the plans will be growing edible landscaping that will create free chicken food with chicken-friendly plants, shade, and shelter from overhead predators.

If you’re interested in other ways of putting your gals to work and reducing your feed costs exponentially (maybe even down to almost nothing!) then check out the Permaculture Chickens documentary as well as these 36 free chicken feed ideas. There are a ton of innovative ideas in the video for free chicken food! Watch Permaculture Chickens and you’re gonna Rock Raising Chickens for sure!

12 Perennial Plants for Free Chicken Food

(Remember to check if these plants are invasive in your area before adding them to your landscape. Click photos for credit.)

1. Elderberries

Fruiting Season – Mid-summer
Other Uses – Shade, Shelter, Medicinal, Pollinators


2. Mulberries

Fruiting Season –  Early Summer
Other Uses – Fruit for Jams, Baked Goods, and Wine


3. Siberian Pea Shrub

Fruiting Season – Summer
Other Uses – Nitrogen Fixation, Windbreak, Dye, Pollinators
(More on growing Peashrub here: Siberian Peashrub Plant Profile)

4. Crabapple

Fruiting Season – Autumn
Other Uses – Pollinators, Edible Fruit for Jelly, Pickles, High Source of Pectin

5. Russian Olive

Fruiting Season – Autumn
Other Uses – Nitrogen Fixation

6. Sea Buckthorn

Fruiting Season – Autumn
Other Uses – Nitrogen Fixation, Dye, Medicinal, Nutritious Food, Windbreak

Sea Buckthorn Tree

7. Buffaloberry

Fruiting Season – Mid-summer
Other Uses – Nitrogen Fixing, Dye, Nutritious Food, Windbreak, Pollinators

8. Chokeberry

Fruiting Season – Late Summer
Other Uses – Pollinators, Dye, Fruit for Jams & Wine

9. Hackberry

Fruiting Season – Autumn
Other Uses – Dye, Windbreak

10. Currants

Fruiting Season – Summer
Other Uses – Hedgerow, Nutritious Food, Pollinators

11. Gooseberry

Fruiting Season – Early Summer
Other Uses – Other Uses- Hedgerow, Nutritious Fruit, Pollinators

12. Serviceberry

Fruiting Season – Early Summer
Other Uses – Pollinators, Nutritious Fruit, Windbreak

Perennials to Avoid

Though some perennial plants can look good in your landscaping, there are some you want to avoid where your chickens range, such as daffodil, hydrangea, azaleas, and rhododendron.

Final Thoughts

If I had to start my own chicken farm, free ranged or caged, I will definitely take an opportunity to get completely free food for my livestock. Aside from the fact that it will be an ultimate pocket-saving technique, the chicken’s diet also will be mostly improvised.

What are your tips for getting free chicken food?


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  1. This year we made a chicken tractor with 3 roll out egg boxes. We drag it to new section of the yard every day and feed them kale, collard greens, nasturtium, broccoli leaves,cabbage leaves, apples, pears, beet leaves. ..anything extra from the garden. They are doing great!

    1. Chicken tractors are a great way to give your chickens fresh forage and keep them safe at the same time.

  2. My only warning with the list above is Russian Olive Plants (also known as Autumn Olive). They are an invasive species that are almost impossible to remove from your property once they get started. My old farm was full of them and they are not fun when making new pastures or clearing woods. Please consider this before planting! The chickens do love the berries, but I don’t think they’re worth the hassle later on.

  3. I have to laugh: at least half of your list is regularly part of our local/traditional people diet. I'm trying to keep the chooks away from those plants! Guess I'll plant a chicken garden closer to them and farther from my people food. : )

  4. We've been trying soaking feed more this spring and have noticed how much longer the feed lasts. Our chicks just came today and I'll have to soak theirs too as you suggested. (There are 4 ducklings in the mix too and they are such messy eaters. I'm looking forward to seeing if it will work for them.) Did you check out the Permaculture Chickens video I posted about a couple weeks ago? I think you would really enjoy gleaning from it. Scratch those "puppy" ears for me! I'll bet he's getting so big! 😀

    1. I didnt find our ducklings to be messy eaters, but they do need to wash their oil glands in their beaks. Best way to keep a wet mess out of the brooder, take a little tub of some sort, make a screen stapled to a wood frame that will sit securely on top of the tub. Then set the waterer on top of that. When they splash, the water lands in the bottom of the tub and no mess in the brooder. We did this with having ducklings, chicks, and turkey poults all together at once and it was perfect.

  5. I agree. I use custom mixed organic whole grain feed. Fermenting and/or sprouting does indeed decrease the demand which pays for the extra cost of the feed. Also the wet feed is not scattered about and wasted. For day old chicks I have it ground and feed wet mash for 2 weeks. Out of 27 chicks I lost zero. I am
    planting comfrey for feed and to dry leaves in bundles for winter treats. I never thought about chickens on the cars and porches. Should be an interesting summer! Glad to have our Great Pyrenees (thanks to Big Ollie and Belle!) for a guardian too!

  6. Another thing I have done that has cut down on the amount of feed I need to give them is sprouting it. I mix whole grains and seeds in half gallon jars and soak them one day and then rinse them once a day for two more days. It brings them just to the point of little sprouts sticking out – and it more than doubles the bulk of the seed as well as the nutrition value. It's a minor chore – takes about 4 min. a day to do – but the girls love it and my feed bill is half what it would be otherwise.

  7. One of the simplest and fastest growing plants for chicken feed (my hens love it!) is Azolla – a plant similar to duckweed – that grows on a pond. Studies have found it to be around 15% protien and high in other nutrients as well. In the summer it will double it's mass every three days. Anything extra can be put on a compost pile or spread around plants as mulch or put in a planting hole. Just do a google search on Azolla and you will find lots of info. My girls really love swiss chard and comfrey and miners lettuce (which is native here in OR) too, so I grow lots of those along with all the other greens. I also dump lots of leaves in their run in the fall which encourages lots of worms and other creepy crawlies that the hens love…

  8. I cut cost by giving them the veggies that are just past prime we get from the local food bank. They can't give it to the people who NEED the food because it's considered inedible

  9. This is what we're planning on doing too! I'm planning on working them as a tilther for seedbed prep. Hope it works well for both of us and that we have nice, clean, poop-free front porches this summer 😀

  10. We have tried free ranging, and we usually have a few loose but they really do make a mess even though we have the garden fenced. They like the easy food around the barn, roost on stall dividers and poop on the wall below them. They poop all over our sidewalk and porch and scratch out our wood chips from our landscaping. This year, my husband is going to build them a coop up by the garden and we are making little habitral type tunnels for them to go around the whole garden, keeping weeds down and pest eaten that cross their paths. Then we are going to make lightweight cages to fit over our raised boxes, just tall enough for the chickens to walk under and 'gates' we can open to let them in from their habitrails. This way, they can dig up weeds and bugs ahead of planting the boxes and be let into boxes like the asparagus after it gets tall. I like the idea of the berry bushes and maybe we could incorporate a row of bushes that once established, we could fence as well for the hens using the same concept and let them into those rows after we have harvested what we wanted for ourselves. Great ideas, keep em coming.

  11. I would add Tagasaste, comfrey and perhaps even sunflowers to your list. The sunflowers can be a seasonal thing or harvest the heads whole and throw some to the crew during winter. 🙂
    Kei apples are another too.

    1. I was thinking the exact thing. I bought some mammoth sunflower seeds and have the idea to grow a bunch of them and when the seeds are ready to harvest, just throw the flower pods over to the chickens so they can eat them right from the flower. Plus I also have the goal to get a bee hive and I’ve heard sunflowers are a great source of pollen for bees.

      1. I didn’t manage to plant sunflowers this last year but had one grow in the old hen house which grew a dinner-plate sized seed head. It was COVERED in bees! 🙂

  12. Reformation Acres field fencing with a single line of electric fencing (to keep the cows from rubbing on it) works too. We free range our chickens in our back yard, with access to our 5 acre horse/goat pasture. We use electric netting fences to separate paddocks for rotation grazing, but the chickens go right through which is what we want

  13. How large are you planning to make your chicken “habitat”? It looks like you are planning for a few trees or larger bushes so I’m wondering how you will keep the chicks from flying out. I’m interested in adding some perennials to our chicken run as well. They were free ranging up until a few months ago when we started planting again and wanted to keep them out of the garden. Sound familiar? My husband has sprouted some alfalfa to put in their run and I want to put some climbing roses on the outside of their run to cover the chicken wire. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with planning.

    1. I think that we should check with cooperative extension for good chicken food perennials for Maine

  14. Reformation Acres locate free pallets for you fence for the garden it keeps mine out as long as there aren't any broken boards they can squeeze through

  15. I thought free ranging would help with feed costs. Mostly I ended up with chickens on the cars, in the garage, begging at the doors, figuring out how to get over the fences into the gardens. Then I ended up with a lot of soup. The turkeys could certainly kill a garden but they also roamed far and wide eating acres and acres of sweet clover. Turkeys were cheap!

  16. Quinn, I have the same problem Rachel mentioned in your blog comments with my monitor (desktop running IE, and my laptop, also using IE) I have ever since you changed to this new site/added the tags! I can only read the first five letters on each line in the bottom or top inch of the screen, annoying, but I've learned to live with it by now, lol 🙂 Actually, I have this issue with every site that has the buttons running along the left side of the screen, I wish everyone would move them to the bottom or right hand side!

  17. This is my first visit. Your social media buttons cover your text. After you work so hard to pass on information, why obscure it?

    1. Hi Rachel, I’m so sorry you’re having troubles here. I’m not sure what the problem could be… could you maybe share what type of device & browser you’re using? This is what I see. Thanks!

  18. We're not going to be free-ranging anymore because they destroy our gardens which is why I'm looking at supplementing their summertime feed costs since they're expensive enough to keep now when we've only been feeding them in the winter.

  19. I found this list very informative as I do with most posts on this blog. In my defense, I wasn't trying to take away the good information that is provided, but rather I was just adding that there is 1 in particular on the federal invasive species list( that has been banned in a couple states and another that was similar sounding so a heads up to avoid confusion. As Luke mentions, here in Michigan, planting Autumn Olive can actually be a felony with steep fines and imprisonment ( So be wary of what plants you introduce to your property.
    I'm all for doing what you can to cut costs on feeding your chickens, but my suggestion would be to use a native plant(which depending on where you live, may include Russion Olive). -Another great resource:
    Good luck with your chickens!

  20. Reformation Acres If you free range your birds they could spread them throughout your property, also flying birds can come and eat them and spread them. Lots of seeds aren't digested and will be spread through their droppings. I'd just do a little research and try to choose the most native fruiting plants you can find before you decide to plant anything. I'm betting some of these are native to whichever state you're in, elderberry probably is for sure.

  21. Blane Jonas You say it like it's a bad thing, invasive plants are a pain in the ass. In Michigan there is so much autumn olive and buckthorn it's actually taken over in some forests and turns open fields into thickets. The woods turn red around where I am, not because of leaves, but because of invasive bittersweet which kills and chokes out native species. It's really nothing to roll your eyes at, but it's probably too late anyway. I know it's ironic that humans complain about invasive species, but yeah, it's sad to try and walk through the woods which used to be open and is now just choked out. That's just my two cents on the manner.

      1. Nah. It’s much easier to complain than to manage forest undergrowth

        Which is probably the real problem, not the invasive. Since “we” (as in non-natives) first came to this land we’ve been bringing in species that weren’t here to begin with. The difference between then and now is that folks actually worked the land and kept them from getting out of control. Who has time for that these days. Americans are too busy watching tv and recreating.

        We just moved to 42 acres… our invasive species (that I’ve found so far) are wild grapes, barberry, multi flora rose, honeysuckle. We aren’t going to just let them go but take the time to go out and DO something about it.
        And goats very well be a part of that management system 😀

        1. barberry is a very important medicinal, it contains berberene which is known to treat and cure many serious problems and diseases. It and the others are native to North America, or relatives of them are.

      2. Consider placing pallet in chicken pen fill open areas will soil, plant seads cover with chicken wire so they can’t scratch up and plant your seed, , as they grow the chickens can graze, I’m planting black berry bushes around the chicken pens, as welas gardenias to help with rlthe smell, chickens can have the berries they can reach I get the berries on the outside …

  22. We tried fencing but had such a rough timing getting people here to keep the gates closed or when our heifers blew threw the electric fencing they liked to visit the garden. They would run their bodies alongside the deer netting till it gave way and they were inside the garden. We were were constanly having to chase the chickens out anyway. :/ Hopefully, we'll come up with a good system for containing the hens and keeping them on that varied diet that makes such awesome eggs!

  23. Thanks for the warning 🙂 My thought is that if the chickens are eating the fruit as intended and scratching through the ground where the plants are, there aren't going to be too many seedlings popping up. (I know I sure can't get anything to grow where the chickens like to scratch! 🙂 )

  24. Yeah, sure, some of these can be invasive, but honestly the whole reason we're cooping our hens up is becase I can't get a darn thing to grow wherever they've been foraging. The whole purpose here is so that they eat the fruit (which is how the plants propogate obviously) and in my experience any seedling that pops up where the hens are scratching isn't going to make it very long so I'm not worried about it.

    1. I’ve seen coop plans with a completely fenced garden on two sides of the coop, the backside had a hatch to push soiled bedding out into the compost pile, and a main entrance to the coop itself. The idea was to allow the birds to forage in one “garden” area while you grow in the other. It is completely up to you as to the size of the garden enclosures. The birds get to forage and be pest control while fertilizing next year’s garden. I like the idea of having elderberry available for the mother cluckers to eat. Every bit of immune system building is welcome.

      1. Yes, I have seen those too. It is very intriguing and I have mulled over that idea dn how it might fit with our setup. Have you tried it?

  25. I put a fence around my garden so I can keep free ranging my chickens. I agree when you free range, you have to "be prepared" for what comes with that….sigh….sometimes the circle of life requires a live trap 🙂

  26. I put a fence around my garden so I can keep free ranging my chickens. I agree when you free range, you have to "be prepared" for what comes with that….sigh….sometimes the circle of life requires a live trap 🙂

    1. you obviously don’t have coyotes…or eagles, hawks, etc. Yotes here have been known to try dragging small children off, and are extremely bold. They come almost into town in rural areas, and are sometimes seen in the outer areas of cities. Cougars are not unheard of now in Saskatchewan either, they have been expanding ranges for decades now.

      1. I homesteaded in Northern Alabama for 5 years. Our place bordered BLM lands. I had to watch my girls while they were foraging, we had coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions etc. Smartest birds I had were gaming hens, they laid enough eggs for us and could get into the trees pretty quickly if needed.

        1. That’s great that you found a breed that works good for you in your area. We have many predators in our area as well.

      2. I we have coyotes here but I’ve found that a Great Pyrenees solves a lot of problems.

    1. Most of the hens we’ve raised are good foragers. I can think of 2 exceptions which are the leghorns and Anaconas. When we replenish our flock we tend to get Barred Rocks, Speckled Sussex, Sex-Links, Wyandottes, and Brahamas (the latter of which might just be because I think they’re pretty 🙂

      1. Good to know. We got one of those chick-ordering brochures, and I don’t think we’re going towards Leghorns (we live in too cold a climate, according to the brochure…) and I really liked… well, everything else. 😉

      2. also silver dorkings- a medium sized chook, not a heavy breed for cold climates ( but did okay in our sub alpine climate of about 60 nights a year under freezing), she was the most resourceful scavenger of them all. Also very proactive are rhode island reds ( good layers, good size for the pot, friendly, good foragers. very personable chooks.

    2. Our araucana’s were great foragers, maybe they were Ameracauna. I understand they are a breed that have been domesticated ‘recently’ so they have foraging still in their breed. Our leghorns were also terrible foragers; they have been domesticated and bred for their reliable laying gene.

    3. Dominique are the best foragers we have raised. Very docile, follow us around like a puppy, lol.

    4. I’m in the south and Buff Orpington’s are Wonderful foragers for me as well as my Australorps. I have culled a lot of breeds out and these seem to be the best for us.

    1. that depends on where you are. Russian Olive is used as a shelterbelt and ornamental in Saskatchewan, because our climate is almost identical to that of most of Russia. It is far from invasive here.