Gardening with Chickens: Making Compost (It’s Free Fertilizer!)

Chickens walking in bare garden soil

When you have chickens, there’s no need for commercial fertilizers. [Photo courtesy of Gardening with Chickens/Voyageur Press]

[Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of three blog posts featuring excerpts from Lisa Steele’s book, Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens. Read the first post on Getting Started and the second post on Garden Pest Control.]

There are three main ways chickens can help with composting in the garden. You can integrate your chickens with a compost pile, let chickens act as a go-between when it comes to food waste and the garden, and help them along to create compost right inside the coop over winter.

Integrating Chickens with Your Compost Pile

Chickens were born to scratch and turn over soil. They can’t stand to see anything piled up. Thus, chickens are the master compost spreaders. Let them at your compost pile whenever it needs turning, and they will turn it for you. As a bonus, they provide plenty of nitrogen-rich green material in the form of poop as they work the soil with their feet, searching for seeds, bugs, and other goodies to eat.

Let Chickens Compost in the Garden

If you rotate your gardens, planting some in the spring and some in the fall, why not let the chickens into the resting garden? They can help keep the bugs and weeds in check and also deposit their droppings.

As part of this plan, use the chickens as your conduit when composting. Normally, you’re taking your garden trimmings and kitchen scraps and depositing them into the compost pile to decompose slowly. Try this instead: Eliminate the compost pile altogether by letting your chickens process your kitchen waste for you. Feed any appropriate scraps to your chickens; they will digest the food and turn it into manure and then deposit it in the garden. You saved yourself several steps and provide your chickens a more healthy, varied diet.

Just let the garden and soil rest for 3 months after you have rotated your chickens off before you plant your crops.

Compost Inside Your Coop

The coop combines brown matter and green matter just as you’d want in composting. The carbon-containing coop litter, whether it be shavings, straw, hay, or even pine needles or dried leaves, is the brown matter. And the nitrogen-rich manure that your chickens provide on a regular basis is the green matter. Thus, you have your compost ingredients right there in the same place. I have to say, it’s brilliant!

Allow the manure and bedding in the coop to accumulate and decompose inside the coop all winter, then in the spring you clean the whole thing out and have beautiful compost for your garden. [Editor’s note: This is sometimes called “the deep litter method.” Lisa explains the step-by-step process in detail in her Gardening with Chickens book.]

Manure tea is a convenient way to give plants a boost of nutrients. [Photo courtesy of Gardening with Chickens/Voyageur Press]

Make Chicken Manure Tea

Chicken poop tea adds nutrients, enzymes, microorganisms, and other good things to your garden soils as compost does, but the liquid form makes it convenient to give a drink of tea to new transplants or plants that need a bit of a boost.

Cover of Gardening with Chickens book by Lisa Steele

Lisa Steele’s book is called Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens [Photo courtesy of Gardening with Chickens/Voyageur Press]

Make a “tea bag” for the manure — such as an old pillowcase. Fill it about 1/3 full with aged chicken manure and partially decomposed straw from the bottom of the coop litter. Tie a piece of twine or clothesline around the top of the pillowcase and then set it in a large plastic pail, barrel or trashcan that leaves some room for water. Add water — about twice as much volume as the pillowcase contents — making sure you cover the pillowcase and its contents completely. Leave the ends of the twine or clothesline hanging over the side of the pail. Then set it uncovered in a sunny location. Dunk the pillowcase up and down a few times a day to agitate the water and introduce oxygen to the solution. After about 2 weeks, remove the pillowcase and discard the solid contents into your compost pile. To use the tea, dilute it (1 part tea to 4 parts water) and it’s ready to give plants a boost.

A note of caution: Fresh chicken manure is extremely high in nitrogen, which can burn young seedlings or plant roots, so you will definitely want to let the manure age for at least 3 months, and preferably 6 months or even a year, before using it on your garden. Also, using fresh chicken manure in your garden increases the chance of spreading diseases such as salmonella and E. coli, so be sure to let it age before you use it on edibles.

About Lisa Steele: Lisa is a lifelong gardener and chicken keeper. On her popular Fresh Eggs Daily website and Facebook page she shares tips on keeping chickens, as well as gardening advice, DIY projects, and  recipes.

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