Free-Range Chicken Gardens (Timber Press, 2012) by award-winning garden designer Jessi Bloom is the essential guide that will bring your dream home to roost. This chicken gardening handbook covers everything you need to know to create a beautiful, chicken-friendly yard including: chicken-keeping basics, simple garden plans to get you started, step-by-step instructions for getting your chicken garden up and running and more. The following excerpt on creating a custom chicken coop design is taken from Chapter 6, “Innovative Chicken Housing.”
A common concern of neighbors who are antichicken is that they think the presence of a flock will lower their property values. Indeed, a coop that hasn’t been designed properly can be unsightly and cause problems other than just being an eyesore. If you haven’t designed the coop with maintenance and cleaning in mind, you may end up neglecting it and it could smell bad, compared to a coop set up for easy cleaning. If a coop is not rodent proof, the structure can attract pests like rats that can take up residence with the chickens.
These are all valid concerns, but they can be avoided if the coop is thoughtfully planned and built well. So instead of settling for a chicken shanty, why not build a cute, stylish coop that is worthy of your chickens and your garden? There are many things to think about before sitting down at the drawing table or shopping for supplies. If you follow simple design steps, you will be sure to have a coop that is functional for you and for your chicken’s needs, and you will be proud of it.
Chicken Coop Space Requirements
I’ve often heard people say, “I don’t have enough room for chickens.” Usually, they are in an average urban lot of about 6000 square feet, and there is a legal limit of having three birds. My response is, “Why not?” You don’t need a huge amount of space unless you plan on having lots of birds. I’ve met chicken keepers with successful free-range chicken systems in beautiful backyards as small as 800 square feet. But nevertheless, your initial planning should be focused on the footprint of the coop design.
I have read many simple equations regarding number of chickens to available coop space, ranging from 1 hen needs from 3 square feet, to 1 hen needs 10 square feet, and I wonder where these numbers come from. Figuring coop space per chicken really depends on how big your chickens are and how often you allow them outside in a run or to free range. The more free ranging or confined ranging you allow, the smaller the coop needs to be. At night, chickens take up very little space in the coop. They perch on a bar and fall asleep. If your chickens are only using the house at night, then they may need a smaller square footage.
I recommend at least 10 square feet per bird. If a bird is living in a coop with a run attached, it should have an absolute minimum of 10 square feet total, 5 square feet inside and 5 square feet outside. An attached chicken run should be as big as your space allows. The smaller the area, the more the chickens will suffer from pests and social struggles.
Mobile, Modular, or Stationary Chicken Housing?
A chicken coop can be a permanent fixture in your garden or it can be a mobile or modular device. Occasionally you may want to move the coop into different areas of the backyard. Or perhaps you may want to think ahead if you ever have to move: Will your coop design fit through the garden gate and be transportable? You can also make your coop modular to help accommodate a possible move, or you could create it with wheels that can be removed. With a stationary coop, you will have more choices of materials and the weight will not be as much of an issue.
Tip: Think about what fasteners you use to build the coop. For example, screws may cost more and take longer to build with, but they allow for easy disassembly if you need to take apart the coop.
Once you have chickens, it is hard to stop accumulating them—almost like an addiction. It is best to plan for a larger space than you need, just in case, or to have the ability to add on more space.
The height of the coop is an important design factor when planning your hen house. The coop should be tall, mostly for your convenience: you don’t want to clean your chicken coop all hunched over. A taller coop has perks for the chickens too: it allows the chickens to be up off the ground, high on their roosts, which makes them feel safer, and allows more air circulation inside the coop.
How many doors? How big? A human door is a must, so you can easily access the coop and perform regular cleaning and maintenance. If the coop is small, that door can be the roof itself, on hinges, or an entire wall. Your chickens need to have their own doors, which should be about 10 inches tall by 10 inches wide. Chicken doors should be on hinges, so during the day they can be left open and during the night they can be shut for safety and security. An open door on a hinge can double as a ramp for the chicken to easily enter and exit the coop.
If you are designing the coop from scratch, it’s best to start by drawing out the floor plan of the coop. Locate the walls, ventilation, roost bars, nest boxes, water, food, ladders, windows, people doors, chicken doors, and any other essential features (See the Image Gallery for an example of a chicken coop floor plan).
Chicken Coop Necessities
For the chickens’ safety, coops need to provide a few basic necessities: protection from the elements or extreme weather, protection from predators, and good ventilation. These elements should be first and foremost when designing and building your coop.
Protection from the Weather
Chickens need to have shelter from the wind, rain, snow, and heat. A sturdy, tight roof on the coop will help ensure that the rain won’t get in from above, but also consider and plan for the occasional sideways rain that can come in through a large vertical opening. Chickens can be affected by wind chill just like we can, so figure out the direction of the prevailing winds in that spot and plan to create a wall or plant shrubbery as shelter near openings. If snow is a problem in your area, you may want to slope the coop roof steeply and make sure that coop openings can’t get buried.
Protection from Predators
Persistent predators will try to pry their way in through doors and windows of the coop, so you will want to make sure the locks and hinges are secure and too complicated for little paws to open. Predators will dig and crawl under the coop, making your flooring choices important. They will even chew through wood to get at eggs or chickens. Knowing the predators in your area will help you in designing the coop, but for safety, it is best to be overprepared. Also read about fencing for more information on fencing materials and options for protecting chickens.
Air circulation and ventilation are important year round. Because chickens don’t have little toilets to flush, their wet manure accumulates on the ground (sometimes on the walls) and saturates the air with moisture and ammonia. Just like in our homes, fresh air needs to be circulated into the space and stagnant air needs to be ventilated out. A well-designed coop will have vents in low spots of the hen house as well as in high points. Whether you install windows or openings with wire mesh or ventilation hardware, it is handy to be able to open and close hatches over them to allow for different amounts of air circulation during different times of the day, night, or year. For especially hot and cold spells, or at night, it is ideal to have the flexibility to provide your chickens with fresh air flowing through the coop. If you can smell ammonia and you see cobwebs, then your coop needs more ventilation.
See "When Is It Too Hot or Too Cold for Chickens?" later in this article for additional information on chicken coop necessities.
The interior of your coop needs to contain a few must-have elements for basic good health for the hens:
• Nest box. One nesting box can serve 2 to 3 hens and they only need to be 1 square foot (12 inches tall, 12 inches deep, 12 inches wide) of space. My coop’s nesting boxes are in a large space in one area so the chickens can roost together. Chickens prefer to lay eggs in a dark, sheltered place, preferably off the ground a little bit, but if they are too high, they might need a ladder to get to it. You can hang burlap over the front of the nesting box to give them more privacy while they are going about their business. The best coop designs have access to the nest boxes from the exterior, so you don’t have to enter the coop to get the eggs. Nesting boxes can be made of many materials: a wooden box, a small pet carrier, or even a simple cardboard box (which must be replaced regularly). For years, my coop’s nesting boxes were obsolete city recycling bins.
Tip: Make sure your nest boxes are covered and the chickens cannot roost on the edges. Otherwise, you will be constantly cleaning manure off the eggs. A steeply sloped roof over the nesting box is a good way to prevent this.
• Roosting bars. Chickens like to roost on something at night while they sleep as a way to be off the ground where predators can’t reach them. Each chicken should have at least 1 linear foot along the roost. So if you have six chickens, you will need 6 feet of roosting bar. In general, the bigger the chicken, the bigger the diameter of the roosting bar. Smaller breeds should have a smaller diameter roosting bar. If you live in a cold climate, you may want the chickens to sleep flat footed so their bodies cover their toes to prevent frost bite, and for this case, using a 2 x 4 roosting bar (with its wide side up) works well. Perfectly uniform perches (or from materials that are plastic, wire, or sharp) are said to be a cause of bumble foot, which is an ailment that is also caused by vitamin deficiency. A roosting ladder made out of branches is a good way to provide multiple roost bars with some higher and some lower. Having roost bars at different heights is good for the different sized birds and rankings in the pecking order. If you make a roost ladder, make sure there are at least 18 inches between the rungs.
• Bed pans. The placement of the roost bars should not be overhead from waterers or feeding areas, for obvious reasons. Instead, have the roost bars placed over an area with removable pans, which you can slide out and clean the manure out of easily. Old plastic window box containers work well, or even old cookie sheets from thrift stores.
• Water. Of all the chicken chores, providing clean water ranks among the most time consuming and most important. Be sure to have the water in an area the chickens can’t climb on top of, preferably off the ground. I have several waterers for my birds, including an automatic gravity-feed waterer on a cinder block and a hanging 5-gallon bucket with nipples. There are many kinds of waterers and feeders on the market—plastic or galvanized hangers, troughs, tubs—that can be found at feed stores in a variety of sizes, materials, and prices.
• Feeders. Chickens need to have feeders that are easy to reach and free of manure, dirt, and other debris. Similar to water, it is best to have the feeder elevated so rodents can’t reach it and chickens don’t roost on top of it. Hanging feeders are a good method, or having an automated system with a gravity feed. I have simple plastic troughs that are easily moved after the chickens have finished eating, and I also use a gutter that hangs low on the wall. There are many types of feeders you can make yourself, like a large-diameter PVC pipe or a 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled at the bottom and sitting in a larger flat container like a container plant pot base.
• Food storage. It is wise to keep feed in a metal container, such as a galvanized garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. Plastic containers can be chewed through easily by rats.
See easy DIY tips on how to build a nipple waterer later in this article.
Optional Chicken Housing Items
While some items aren’t required for all coops, they can certainly make tending your flock easier.
• Electricity. Electricity in the coop makes life easier, especially in the winter months when you may need to heat your waterers, or you want to have artificial lighting inside your coop so the chickens continue to lay eggs. If you choose to put an electrical outlet inside your coop, be sure to have a GFI outlet and locate it as high as possible, to prevent it from getting wet or pooped on.
• Artificial lighting. In the deep winter, it is nice to have lights in the coop, if not for increased egg production, then to see what you are doing in the early morning or late afternoon hours. A simple digital or analog lamp timer is especially helpful in turning your light(s) on and off on a schedule. Chickens don’t need lights on all the time, and if you choose to provide supplemental lighting for egg production, your chickens may only need a few extra hours of light per day, for a total of 14 to 16 hours. Most hardware stores carry simple, inexpensive timers. If your power goes out, the timer will probably need to be re-programmed.
• Storage. It is helpful to have storage either in the coop or close by for feed, bedding, and cleaning supplies. Having a spot to hang your cleaning tools inside or outside the coop will make chores much easier.
• Rainwater harvesting. Having a gutter on your coop leading to a rain barrel or cistern is good for water conservation, storm water management, and a great source of nonchlorinated drinking water. Metal is the preferred roofing material for collection of water that is going to be consumed by animals or humans. If your roof is asphalt, it may have contaminants, but the water is still good for watering ornamental plants.
• Heated waterers. Heated waterers are definitely worth the increased expense and can save you from having to carry water and to ax your way through ice every morning during the winter. Most feed stores and pet stores have water bowl heaters for dogs and horses. They are simple devices you put inside the water to keep it from freezing or they have heated bases. You can use a heated seed mat or even a crockpot if you are in a bind, but be careful that the water doesn’t get too warm.
• Automatic door openers. Automatic door openers can be especially handy if you travel a lot and don’t always have a chicken-sitter to help let your chickens in and out while you are away. An electric system will take a certain amount of planning and installation, to make a door open and close on a timer. Manual pulleys work well to open doors from the outside.
• Interior paint. While it is not necessary to paint the interior of the coop, a painted surface can make cleaning much easier. Also, red mites like to hang out in the cracks and crevices of your coop, making your hens uncomfortable at night when they roost. By having a painted interior, presence of mites will be easier to monitor. There’s no need to have designer color and wall treatments; just a coat or two will do the trick. Be sure to let the coop air out for a few days before locking the chickens in at night.
• Fake eggs. Fake eggs are nice to keep in a nesting box. They encourage chickens to lay where you want them to, because a chicken will think that if another hen thought it was a good spot to lay an egg, she will follow suit.
• Decor. Chicken coops can have artistic flair, and while the chickens may not appreciate it, we will. Hang a wreath on the coop door, decorate the exterior walls, add a flower box to the side, hang a trellis on a side wall, or grow a vine to soften the structure.
Chicken Coop Style
This is where you have the chance to have fun and get creative. Why not make your chicken coop a design feature or accent in your garden? You can have a stylish coop that matches the design or colors of your house and compliments your landscape. Styles can vary from the simplest utilitarian structure with a few details to a stone-clad Tudor-style chicken house complete with a chimney. Popular coop styles include everything from classic monitor barns (barns with a raised ceiling in the center that allows for overhead storage and has a tall center roofline) to a modern architect-designed metal enclosure.
I like to make the chicken coop fit with the surrounding structures. In a cottage garden, I would design the coop to match. If your house is a Craftsman, follow the same details in roofline, trim, and colors. If there is a brick façade on your house, why not repeat that on your chicken coop? Design it so it makes you happy, since you will be visiting it every day. Browse ideas from websites and take chicken coop tours in your area. Many major cities have annual coop tours where chicken owners open up their hen houses to the public for a weekend and you can see what others have done and ask questions.
In choosing building materials for your chicken coop, there are many options to consider.
Roofing can be made out of lots of materials. Metal is a long-lasting material that comes in many different colors and is ideal as a surface for collecting rainwater. Asphalt shingles are less expensive and still very durable. Plastic corrugated roofing works well too and comes in many different colors, even translucent to let in more natural light, but it has a low insulation factor. Maybe you will consider a green roof, where you can grow plants that work well in your climate. A “green roof” is a good way to insulate the roof, keeping your chickens warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. No matter what material you choose, consider the slope of the roof and which way it drains, and consider using gutters leading to a rain barrel.
Tip: The roof on your coop should slope away from the run or anywhere that the chickens are, so you can avoid having a muddy mess.
Many coop walls are made out of simple framing and some sort of plywood. If you live in a cold climate, you may want to insulate the walls to prevent heat from escaping, but be careful to design the walls so that they are rodent proof, since rats and mice love to live in coop walls. Exterior walls can also have siding to protect the coop from the elements. Painted plywood will work, but a layer of siding will add many more years to your hen house.
Of the many options for flooring for your hen house, all have their pros and cons. Maintenance and cost are the two main factors for choosing a floor material, but also consider how predator proof it will be.
• Dirt flooring. Dirt flooring in your coop is the least expensive, assuming you don’t need to import new soil. You should only consider a dirt floor if you have well-drained soil, or it could become a mucky mess. Dirt flooring offers the least protection from predators and could harbor parasites unless you have well-managed deep litter mulch or clean often. Soil will stay cooler, which is great in the summer months, but could be too chilly for the chickens in the winter months.
• Wood. Wood is mentioned in most coop building references as a good flooring material, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless your coop is elevated at least 2 feet off the ground and wood is the only option available for you. Rodents can easily chew through wood, and it absorbs spilled water and manure, making it a potential sanitation and maintenance issue. If a wood floor is sealed or made out of treated material, it could enhance maintenance and longevity. But keep in mind the toxicity with all treated wood, especially where chickens will be spending a lot of time. Many people who use wood place a tough laminate surface over it.
• Concrete. Concrete is a long-lasting, predator-proof material that is easy to clean. Having a poured concrete floor can be costly for large coops, but it can be worth the investment for your peace of mind. If you choose poured concrete, plan on having it poured with a slope toward a drain, for when you hose out the coop.
• Concrete pavers. My flooring material of choice for inside the chicken coop is concrete pavers. Pavers cost a bit more that poured concrete, but you have more flexibility if you need to move the coop or get underneath it for some reason. The bigger the pavers, the better: mine are 2 feet square. Be sure to properly prepare a gravel base under the pavers for stability and good drainage.
• Gravel. Gravel is another inexpensive material that can be a good base flooring in your coop. It is less expensive than concrete products, and provides good drainage. But it is similar to dirt floors with regard to cleaning and being predator proof. If you choose gravel, I recommend that you do not use large round gravels like cobble or washed gravel, but instead use crushed rock with “minus” in it, which is the dust from when the rock is crushed. Be sure to use a plate compactor on the gravel to eliminate any air pockets that can make it easier for predators or pests to dig underneath.
For floor bedding material, the most commonly used are straw, wood shavings, and leaves. I rotate different materials on a regular basis. Make sure the material is dry and isn’t allowed to get moldy, which can kill chickens.
For nest box bedding, it is easiest to use the same material you are using for floor bedding, but I particularly like nest box liners. They look like Astroturf and provide a soft bed for the egg, air circulation, and are easy to clean so you can reuse them. They are available in poultry catalogs and some feed stores for only a few dollars each. As gardeners, we spend a lot of time cutting back plants, and we can use many plants as bedding and nest box material. I often use dried grasses or leaves as bedding when it is available. Just be sure it is dry and free of mold.
When Is It Too Hot or Too Cold for Chickens?
Most chicken breeds will thrive in temperatures of 40ºF to 85ºF and can live in much colder conditions. Dehydration and heat stroke are common causes for death in hens.
Cold: Certain breeds will be hardier than others, and large combs, wattles, and feet can be susceptible to frostbite. You will see a drop in egg production when temperatures drop. But most chickens can withstand cold as long as they are in a dry, draft-free shelter, and have other hens nearby giving off body heat.
The most important thing is to provide plenty of fresh water.
Using a tank de-icer or small pet water heater is a good way to prevent ice from forming in waterers and could save your chickens’ lives. These devices can be found in pet stores and feed stores, especially during the winter. Some chicken keepers choose to use a heat lamp to keep the birds warm and as a light source to help continue egg production, but be careful: chicken coops commonly catch fire from heat lamps. You should feed the chickens in the late afternoon so their crops are full when they go to bed.
Heat: Chickens don’t sweat and will often pant when they are overheated, like a dog with their beaks open. When temperatures are constantly over 85ºF, usually shade, ventilation, and plenty of fresh water are enough to keep the birds comfortable. If you have a smaller hen house or a large number of birds, you may need to add a fan in the coop to make sure air is circulating on the hottest days. If chickens are contained in a coop or tractor with a metal roof or siding, make sure they have extra fresh air since a metal structure can turn into an oven. Some breeds are better adapted to warmer climates than others.
Building a Nipple Waterer
Building your own chicken waterer is cheap and easy, and this design keeps the water clean. You’ll need:
• 5-gallon bucket with lid
• 11/32-inch drill bit
• 3 poultry nipples (with rubber grommets)
Drill three holes in the bottom of the bucket, spaced equally in a triangle for maximum efficiency. Place a rubber grommet in one drilled hole, followed by one poultry nipple, and repeat until all three grommets and nipples are installed. Hang or fasten the bucket with a rope, chain, or cable so the bottom hangs just above the hen’s height. Fill with water, and cover bucket with the lid to keep the water clean.
Taken from Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard (c) Copyright 2012 by Jessi Bloom, Photography by Kate Baldwin. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.