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What weeds can ducks eat out of the garden? Recognizing duck-safe plants helps your birds forage for healthy foods while helping you with garden work!
Ducks provide us with many services; their nutrient-rich eggs, meat for those who harvest their birds, and hours of entertainment with their silly antics. But another way that backyard ducks can be employed is as caretakers in the garden. This concept requires a bit more supervision on the part of the farmer in order to be successful as ducks in the garden can easily be both destructive and rewarding. But if you’re willing to make the effort, you could be working in the garden alongside your flock of ducks — a bucolic dream for some.
Ducks love to forage for insects, with slugs being one of their favorite snacks. Many of us gardeners struggle with these pests chewing away on our leaves and roots in the garden. To help with slug control, ducks can be released into the potager to forage for these slugs along with snails, pillbugs, cabbage worms, and more. When foraging for food among taller, well-established plants, the ducks tend to leave the vegetation alone in preference to the insects. It is not advisable to allow ducks to roam a garden freshly sown with seeds or young seedlings. Though their webbed feet do not scratch at the plants or ground’s surface, their weight and maneuvering can crush small growth. Their bills can also scoop up any plant not well-rooted as they turn the top layer of soil for slugs and the tender sprouts of weeds.
There are a wide variety of weeds that ducks will happily remove from your garden space. Should the following be invading your raised beds and garden rows, your birds can safely ingest the following duck-safe plants:
- Creeping Charlie
- Fat Hen
- Purple Deadnettle
- Wild Strawberries
- Wild Violets
Caution should be exercised when vegetables and fruit are grown in the garden that can be toxic and even deadly to ducks. Though they are naturally fairly diligent about avoiding poisonous weeds and produce, be warned that the following are harmful to your flock:
- Black Locust
- Calla Lilly
- Coffee Bean
- Elephant Ear
- Tomatoes (all parts but the fruit)
More information about duck-safe plants and which are toxic (and specifically which parts of the plants are toxic) can be found here.
In return for their pest and weed consumption, ducks offer the garden fresh fertilizer. In fact, duck manure is the only manure that can be instantly applied to the garden safely. Because of its water-like consistency, it quickly breaks down and is absorbed into the soil. Their droppings do not burn any vegetation nor the roots and, generally speaking, duck manure tends to carry fewer pathogens in comparison to other poultry and other types of animal waste varieties.
Weeding and pest control with ducks is certainly good for the garden but does heed some care. First, I would never leave my garden unattended while the ducks are employed. Though helpful, they have no hesitation in devouring leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and chard. Ducks also are quick to go after any peas, flowers, berries, beets, or tomatoes so if these items are included in your crop rotation, be sure to partition them off with a temporary fence or poultry wire. They also love a good mud and water bath so if the garden is freshly watered or soaked with puddles, it’s best to leave the ducks out until things dry up a bit. The number of ducks introduced to the plot is also worth considering. A small garden can easily be worked by two to three ducks in a relatively short time. Too many ducks would result in havoc.
Ducks need a variety of plants and insects in their daily diets. The compounds in weeds and bugs keep them healthy giving hens the ability to lay nutritious eggs filled with a plethora of vitamins, omegas, and minerals. Should ducks not have the ability or opportunity to forage in the yard, pasture, or garden, there is still an avenue for delivering these essentials. Simply hand-pull, cut, and deliver duck-safe plant growth to your flock inside their coop or run as a snack or as a part of their daily food ration. They will appreciate the effort, as will your garden.
As with most services provided by animals, some breeds are better at performing certain functions than others. Duck breeds that are better foragers naturally include the Indian Runners, Magpies, Pekins, Welsh Harlequins, Khali Campbells, and Cayugas. Their voracious appetites keep them searching for food so they are sure to get the job done. I personally prefer employing smaller weight birds in the garden so as not to unintentionally smash any vegetation — my Magpies frequent the garden regularly.
Do you use ducks to weed or garden, lawn, or pastures? What duck-safe plants to they prefer?
Originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and regularly vetted for accuracy.