Introduction: Edible Hedges - Getting the Most Out of Your Plot With Tree Fodder and Tree Hay
This is a very ancient method of providing nutrient and in our case also extra space, for livestock. It actually predates farming, going back to a time when people herded their livestock in public forests and even turned them out in the Winter to forage, letting them become 'wild' and find their own food until they were 're-domesticated' again in Spring. Even though common land still exists and the laws concerning forage may still be in force, it is probably easier to create a forest environment in your own garden rather than take up herding! We keep poultry in our garden, chicken, quail and fantail pigeons but tree fodder can be used for all kinds of livestock.
PLANTING HEDGES & TREES HAS A FIVE-FOLD VALUE:-
1. It provides vertical space - hens will perch and preen, converse and even roost in trees and hedges..
2. Leaves may be eaten fresh and also branches can be cut and stored as 'hay'
3. Hedges disrupt flight paths, thus deterring predators like hawks and other birds of prey
4. Hedges are a great habitat for wild life including wild birds, particularly needed in urban environments.
5. Hedges make great shelter belts cutting down soil erosion from wind, providing natural shelter and cutting down wind chill, creating higher temperatures and better growing conditions.
TIPS FOR STARTING WITH HEDGES
In the photos above you can see how we planned our garden right from the start to incorporate hedging. When we came here to this abandoned field and ruined house, our first thought was just to plant wind breaks or shelter belts to cut down the drying and chilling effect of the westerlies from the bay. We travelled by motorbike in those days but it's surprising how much bare root hedging beech and hornbeam you can get on the back of an old-fashioned tourer.
Bare roots are best
Bare root stock is the best way to buy, not only is it cheaper but the trees having been grown directly in the ground rather than in a container, will have had room to produce a comprehensive root system. Even if you do not have a grower near you who can supply bare rooted hedging, you can find suppliers on line who will send you hedging through the post, in the Winter and early Spring, when the trees are dormant. As there is no soil or containers to be accommodated, this is also a much cheaper way to buy plants through the post.
The bigger the hole you can dig, the better
When you plant make sure you dig a hole much larger than the root ball. If you are on clay schist like we are or any other type of rocky ground, take a crow bar/pick axe and break up the area at the base of the hole, so that your hedging will be able to quickly establish a good tap root to reach down to the water table. Some years ago we visited a couple who had built their own house and had used a mini-digger, which was on-site, to dig the planting holes. They had the same height and breadth of growth to their hedges but probably in half the time as those in our garden.
Water even when it is raining
Even though you will be planting your hedges in the Autumn/Fall and Winter months and they will get established probably in the wettest part of the year, they will need watering in Spring, when they start to come into bud. Trees and hedges consume a great deal of water at the start before they get those tap roots down. Harvest as much rainwater as possible. Your trees will also be great converters for grey water too, so keep all your washing water and if like us you do your laundry in natural soaps, then save all that water too and use it for your hedges.
Step 1: Nutritional & Medicinal Value of Hedging and Tree Fodder
When the poultry came along, I did like the idea that they could and would use the hedges as a secondary and additional layer in which to roost and socialise but I little thought then about it providing nutrient other than aphids and maybe the occasional unlucky caterpillar (see above). I have to admit that I found out that my poultry were eating leaf fodder by accident - they showed me!
The mother hen above is jumping up to pull down the hornbeam leaves for her chicks. This is just one method... you will see how my poultry eat leaf fodder in the film in Step 3.
There is not a huge amount of detailed research available on the actual nutritional value of specific leaves but I have pieced together what I could find. This ranges from studies into pollution, using tree leaf nutrients as a marker to actual charts of leaf fodder breakdown, which includes basics such as crude protein and fibre as well as more detailed mineral analysis. I do feel though that there is a great deal more to come and with the renewed interest and need for fodder, this is sure to happen. Overall and just from observation our chickens are consuming leaves from June through to September. I compared this to the charts on-line for leaf fodder nutrition and find these as the high protein and high fibre months.
Trees growing on rich soil will produce nutrient rich leaves with differences in mineral content also occurring in limestone areas, where, for example, Sodium, Magnesium and Potassium content are higher. There are also some nutritional differences between the lower level leaves and those in the crown. This is interesting as one of the forms of taking tree fodder or making tree hay was to pollard the tree by removing the crown.
The following are the mineral contents of the beech, Fagus sylvatica, which, along with hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, my birds are seen eating in the film:
The main minerals (over 20g per kilogram): Calcium and Potassium
followed by: Iron, Phosphorus, Sodium and Sulphur
and in trace amounts: Cobalt, Copper, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium and Zinc
Molybdenum is involved in enzyme activity and also in the assimilation of sulphur to allow for effective liver cell detoxification, antioxidant protection and brain and nervous system function.
The crude protein content of the leaves is around 20% (dry matter) falling off to around 14% in September. Fibre, hovers around 25% throughout the season but peaks in July to 27%. Fibre is of great importance to poultry, in that not only does it aid the digestion of the bird but non-digestible fibre actually fosters the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Beech leaves are also used in tisanes or herbal teas because they contain anti-oxidants and Vitamin C.
Hornbeam (above), Carpinus betulus, which is another of our hedging trees the birds consume, contains similar amounts of protein to beech but less crude fibre it also contains measurable amounts of boron, which works in synergy with other nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and Vitamin D, (which it converts to D3), to maintain mineralisation of the bones. Boron is also linked to cognitive brain function.
Research on sheep and their consumption of tree fodder has brought to light the role that tannins and phenolic compounds, which the plant produces to prevent leaf damage, may play in the prevention of parasites in and on the animal. Sheep, self-medicate for internal parasites by eating leaves, such as oak that are rich in these tannins and phenolic compounds. I have also read of mares about to foal eating leaves such as willow and poplar, the former for its pain killing abilities and the latter for its anti-inflammatory compounds. Traditionally beech leaves have been used for poultices and the tea as both an anti-inflammatory and for the treatment of respiratory conditions.
Step 2: Poultry in Motion - My Birds and the Various Ways They Eat the Trees.
The idea of tree fodder is inextricably linked with the changing landscape, the full domestication of animals, the concept of farming and the clearance of the forests. It should therefore come as no surprise that this practice of feeding livestock, which started with the prehistoric herders and mostly finished in Europe around WWII is, through forest gardening, permaculture and modern silviculture, undergoing a revival. Although ostensibly seen as a way of feeding ruminants and of particular and prescient value in drought-ridden and soil-eroded areas, there is no reason why it can't be used in our own gardens as a great way to feed poultry.
And now if you'd like to see my poultry in action, sit back and watch the film.
If you want more information on feeding poultry a natural diet and for free then please take a look at my blog where I carry a whole series of articles on just this topic and from my experience of keeping poultry in an organic forest garden for sixteen years http://holistic-hen.blogspot.com
In my Tree Fodder article on the blog you will also find a film from Ted Green (Tree Fodder Specialist) at Knepp Castle Wildland Project, showing the feeding of tree hay to cattle and horses. This year I will be experimenting with cutting tree hay in July to keep for my poultry.
All the very best from sunny Normandy,
Pavlovafowl aka Sue