For Chris Shein, keeping chickens is a perfect example of “stacked functions,” a permaculture term referring to the fact that everything in the garden should perform several tasks at once. By where you locate a plant, what companion plants are sited near it, how their leafing and watering cycles complement each other, and so on, many functions may be addressed simultaneously. As the permaculturalist Toby Hemenway puts it, “Nature can do a thousand things at once.” And therefore, so should everything in our gardens.
Chickens gobble up weeds and bugs, poop out the most fertile manure there is, burble and cluck satisfyingly, are fascinating to watch, teach kids, are affectionate pets, and only lastly, provide eggs and meat. Some gardeners construct “chicken tractors.” These are wicker cages on wheels, like tiny corrals, in which a few chickens can be placed, then transported to the part of the garden that needs weeding or where the slugs tend to hang out. They are covered with their tractor and left there for a day or so of happy pecking, then when they are ready to be moved, that plot will be free of weeds and pests and well fertilized. Voila!
I cannot resist mentioning a pair of farmers I know who do this in a larger scale with an old flatbed truck they call a “R-egg-reational Vehicle.” Fitted out as a great big chicken coop on wheels, with ramp and latched windows for fetching the eggs, the truck moves into a field after it is harvested, and the chickens are let out to range. They pick and peck the field free of weed seeds, pests, and stunted plants, liberally fertilizing it with poop.
My favorite example of stacked functions is at the Food For Thought Garden, a suburban garden surrounding the Sonoma County AIDS Food Bank in Northern California. Doug Gosling, head gardener at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and his gardening partner Rachel Gardener have created the most ingenious urban garden I have ever seen, which serves more purposes than I can name.
In a very small space, this garden provides not only an array of fresh vegetables and fruits for the food bank but also a place of healing, where clients can come for quiet reflection or work in the garden for “horticultural therapy.” Gourds hang from arbors and trellises, and curved benches surround a small pond shaded by flowering vines. People can sit and talk, eat some lunch, or just stare at the water.
Once a year, the food bank hosts Calabash!, a fundraising event for the Food Bank drawing in the talent of local artists. When the gourds are ready for harvest, artists are invited to come to the garden to choose one from which to make a work of art. And such art! The inventiveness is breathtaking, and as the years go by, the artworks become more fabulously brilliant.
All these pieces are then auctioned off on the day of the Calabash! It is like going to the most exciting art gallery you have ever seen–and everyone benefits. All day we stroll the gardens to live music of gourd instruments from Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, and eat delicacies prepared from the garden. We bid on our favorite art pieces, meet old friends and new, and learn what’s been going on at the center. There is laughter; there are tears. Doug and Rachel greet us all, smile a lot, and seem happy to pass along their wisdom about a fence line, or planting vines in a small space. It is gardening as art, as healing, and as providing food for every part of ourselves. May they all thrive.