Chickens make quick work of composting
Photo by Sheryl Campbell
Compost is black gold! It is the darling of the vegetable gardening community. So much so that people will spend untold hours and lots of back breaking labor creating it. This effort seems justified for an end product that builds the structure of your soil, adds accessible nutrients for your vegetables, and (as top dressing) protects your garden from drought and winter-leaching.
To get it, gardeners spend hours gathering up raw materials, turn the heavy compost-in-the-making frequently with pitchforks, and monitor moisture and temperature so they can adjust the pile as needed.
But there are many ways to make compost, and not all of them require so much work. If you are sold on the benefits of compost for your garden, but are looking for an easier way to have it, read on for some lazy ways of getting to the same end. We long ago gave up cranking compost tumblers, weekly turning of compost piles, and careful formulations of brown-to-green materials. Here on our farm we now employ:
- Quick Chicken Composting
- Super Slow Bedding Composting
- Lazy Garden Composting
Quick Chicken Composting
This has to be the easiest way to make compost. It’s also the fastest! Make a compost bin right in your chicken yard (or near their coop if they free-range). The result will be perfect compost within about 2 months from spring through fall. These compost piles get hot enough internally to kill weed seeds!
Since our chickens live in a large fenced in pasture area we simply cordoned off two of the corners with a few straw bales creating triangular composting areas with straw bales on one side and fencing on the other two sides. Into the chicken composter go kitchen scraps and spoiled garden vegetables. Tomato and apple skins from canning go in as well. Dying plants at the end of harvest are added. The chickens eat some of the vegetable matter. The rest they churn over and over, creating a perfect environment for worms and sow bugs who help them with the composting process.
The extra insect life from composting is bonus food for the chickens as well. If you grow any kind of vegetable for very long you’ll come to realize that you’ve also gotten very good at raising bugs. We often succession plant beans, pulling the older plants as soon as they populate with bean beetle larvae. The plants and bugs go straight into the chicken composter. Spoiled hay and old straw are also nice carbon additions.
Keep two chicken compost bins in action so that you can fill one full then let the chickens do their thing for the next two months while you fill the second bin. When you empty the first bin of beautiful compost for your garden you simply start a new pile right in the same place. In the fall, break up any of the straw bales that are disintegrating and use them as the bottom layer of a new pile.
Use animal bedding to make wonderful composting the slow way. Photo by Sheryl Campbell
Super Slow Bedding Composting
This method takes two years, and involves a little more work as the piles need to be turned a couple of times. But it’s still a lot less work than traditional methods. Because animal manure is used in these piles they also get hot enough to kill weed seeds. Which is good since both hay and straw end up in the piles and these often have seeds mixed in.
We raise chickens, guineas, and sheep so we developed this composting method as a way of recycling the used bedding. The same method should work well if you have other birds or mammals. The birds sleep in a coop at night where we use a deep-bedding system of pine shavings. During the winter, and during early spring lambing, the sheep are housed in an open barn with a deep-bedding of straw. By the end of winter we have quite a lot of partially decomposed dirty bedding to remove.
My husband created compost bins using four salvaged wooden pallets lined with chicken wire. Setting them directly on the ground (so the worms could find the compost) he tied them together with heavy duty Zip Ties. A row of these bins stretch in a line between the two animal houses.
Each spring we muck out the barn and coop putting all the dirty bedding in a large round wire bin beside the pallet bins. This lets in lots of air and rain. Over the summer the contents compost down to less than half their original size. My husband then turns it all out into the first pallet bin. In the spring, the wire bin is filled again, and the first pallet bin gets turned over into the second pallet bin. At each turning, he mixes in soybean meal or bone meal to speed the composting process. By fall, Bin 2 goes into Bin 3, Bin 1 into Bin 2, and the large wire bin is turned into Bin 1. By the third spring Bin 3 is ready to use directly on the garden, as beautiful black compost.
This method takes a long time, but involves minimal work on your part. If you have animals you must do something with their dirty bedding. You might as well make lazy compost.
Make a straw bale compost pile right in your garden. Photo by Sheryl Campbell
Straw Bale CompostingBeing a slow and cool composting method, this process will not kill weed seeds. But it makes compost within one year with little work. Simply be careful about putting in materials with seed. Make a square or rectangle of straw bales. Place them two bales per side and build them two bales high. A long piece of slotted PVC pipe placed vertically in the middle of the pile will allow air into the center which will cause it to compost more rapidly.
For more details about what to add to the pile, where to place it, and how to tend it, read my earlier post on BuildingYour Garden in Winter. This is a great composting method to place directly in your vegetable garden as a quick place to dispose of harvested plants. If your garden is near your kitchen as mine is, it is also a wonderful place to take kitchen scraps.
Scatter a cup of soy bean meal across the top of the pile every foot or so of material that you add. Once your compost bin is full, simply let it sit for a year and it will have fully composted.
Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.