I used to think of chickens as a threat. When I lived in Lesotho, my neighbor’s roaming chickens repeatedly ate the leaves of my chard down to the stems despite my attempts to fence them out. I couldn’t have imagined that I would see them as I do today, as my garden’s little helpers.
Even last spring when I bought four chicks to eat the earwigs and pill bugs who were devouring my vegetables, I didn’t foresee that they would be so valuable to my garden in other ways.
I wrote the post, “Chickens eat bugs in the garden,” soon after embarking on the experiment of using the birds for insect control by running them over vegetable beds in a mobile pen. I recognized their good work in that arena quickly, and here today, one year on, I can update to say that I’m still pleased with their effectiveness at snatching up meals of insect pests.
The pen is four feet by eight feet, small enough for almost any yard. It has old lawnmower wheels on the back, and it’s light enough for me to move with one hand.
A chicken’s eye view inside the mobile pen.
This spring I’ve been able to grow many plants from seed that I’d previously given up on because of the bug munching, such as carrots and beets. And I’ve been able to plant seedlings of many crops earlier than in past springs, such as eggplants and peppers.
This Anaheim pepper has fruit ready for harvest today (June 1), which is a month earlier than last year.
I would keep our chickens around if the only thing they did for us was feed on the dreaded European earwigs, but over the past year I’ve discovered a few more ways in which they contribute to the garden, significantly.
I used to make compost. You probably know how labor intensive that can be, and how sophisticated the process can seem if you are serious about it. Layer the materials just so, get the moisture level right, check the temperature, turn the pile, blah blah blah. Good riddance.
Composting is nothing less than a natural pastime for chickens. All I do now is throw a bunch of stuff into the chicken pen and out the other end a few months later comes a substance that is better than any compost I’ve ever made or purchased.
Almost every plant scrap from the yard goes into the chicken pen: pea shoots, carrot tops, tomato vines, fallen oranges, broccoli stems, thinned peaches. Almost every kitchen and table scrap goes into the chicken pen: onion skins, coffee grounds, avocado peels, bones, egg shells. If the chickens don’t want to eat it, they don’t. Most of it, they do. All of it, they scratch around, peck at, and poop on.
If their pen ever starts to stink, I dump in some tree trimmings (leaves and wood chips), and the smell goes away. And over a handful of months, the chickens’ sporting work turns all of that trash into this most beautiful product.
What is it? It’s not manure. It has absolutely no fecal odor. I think of it as chicken compost because it looks vaguely similar to the composts I’ve made in the past with my own hands, and its constituents are essentially a bunch of decomposed bits of things, including chicken poop.
To make this chicken compost, the only effort I put in is at the end where I sift out any big pieces, like sticks and avocado pits.
Of what help in the garden is this chicken compost, exactly? Pick it up and squeeze it in your hand: it feels spongy, full of air, like it can’t be compacted by even the strongest of grips. Because of this quality, it infiltrates water well. I’ve noticed this after adding it to the surface of the soil in my vegetable beds as well as when I’ve added it to my potting mix for growing seedlings. Yet it also holds onto the water and remains friable once it does eventually dry.
Furthermore, the plants themselves tell me that they are thriving in it. They tell me this by growing fast and putting out uniformly green leaves, as seen in these tomato seedlings grown in a mix that includes the chicken compost.
So I started skeptically with the chickens as a tool to manage the populations of earwigs and pill bugs in the vegetable garden, hoping they could be useful rather than a garden nuisance, and now I’m starting to see them as not only useful but nearly indispensable. I don’t want to go back to laboring over inferior compost piles, nor do I want to buy inferior compost or fertilizers — not when I can have this tidy cycle of resources that the chickens create.
Let me acknowledge the costs involved in getting this cycle of chicken contributions rolling. The chicks cost $5 each, I built a small, mobile pen for them which cost me about $100 in materials, including a waterer and feeder, and the ongoing feed costs are around $1 per month per bird (they mostly eat from the yard). But the benefits of their insect control service and compost production already seem to outweigh those costs.
And let me not leave out mention of these. If the purpose of a garden is to provide food, then . . .
(I’d be happy to share specifics on how I’ve learned to best run the chickens’ mobile pen through the vegetable beds for insect control, how I built the mobile pen, or anything else related to letting chickens contribute to a home garden and not be a nuisance; for example, if you want to let them roam freely for a bit, do it at sunset because they’ll be out for a limited time and they’ll return to roost in their pen at dusk without your needing to herd them back. All of these topics probably deserve their own post in the future. But let me know in the comments section if you’re curious about something now.)
You might also like to read:
You want your vegetables and fruit trees to grow well and provide you with good food, so you seek advice about how to create the best soil conditions for your plants.
You encounter this recommendation in Sunset’s The Edible Garden book about how to grow broccoli: “Feed with a high-nitrogen complete fertilizer before heads start to form.”
And then you try to figure out how to apply such a recommendation: Feed how much — a tablespoon, a cup, a bucketful? And what kind of fertilizer is considered “high-nitrogen?” What makes a fertilizer “complete?” And then you think a little further and wonder, what if the head of broccoli starts to form before I notice — should I still feed, should I feed more or less?
Maybe you also come across instructions about preparing your soil before planting, such as the tens of pages dedicated to the topic in the book How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. There are multiple diagrams, side notes, illustrations, suggested tools, and within the text you find the ironic phrase, “Do not strain yourself . . .”
Alas, after crunching your brain figuring out how to apply the recommended fertilizer and getting a workout from all that “double digging,” you’re convinced that fertile soil requires a degree in chemistry and an Olympian’s energy. You can go that route and you’re likely to get good results. But there is another way. In fact, achieving and maintaining fertile soil can be child’s play.
I learned to grow vegetables and fruit trees while living on the outskirts of a rural village in Africa, where no chemical fertilizers were available and where everyone’s days were filled with chores like fetching water from the spring and hand-washing clothes. Food was grown in the simplest and most expedient way. When I returned to the U.S. and took training classes to become a Master Gardener I learned a lot, but I also very often remember listening to a PhD’s lecture and thinking, “It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
Well, who am I and how do I know? I’m just a guy who’s been doing it a simpler way for more than a decade now, and I eat the proof that my soil is fertile every day.
For my vegetable beds, I add about two inches of compost each year. I usually add about an inch in late winter before planting tomatoes and corn and peppers, and then I add about an inch again in late summer before I plant my cauliflower and cabbage and onions. There’s nothing special about those times; it’s just when I usually do it.
I merely spread the compost on top of the soil. I don’t dig it in. There’s no need. It gets incorporated into the soil naturally, eventually.
Compost laid; to be spread once lettuce is harvested.
Sometimes I use compost that I’ve made in my yard, which includes some of our chickens’ poop, and sometimes I use compost from the Miramar Greenery in San Diego, which is what my sons are helping me load in the photo at the top. I’ve noticed over the years that plants grow better with my compost compared to Miramar’s, but unfortunately I’ve not yet been able to produce enough of my own.
For my fruit trees, I sometimes add a little compost too, but only if I have more than my vegetable beds need. Mostly for the fruit trees I just keep a thick layer of wood chips as a mulch under them. Over time, the wood chips break down and are incorporated into the soil just as the compost is in the vegetable beds, but I tend to only replenish the wood-chip mulch once a year. I like to do it now, in late winter, so the rains soak the mulch for free, but I do it at other times if good wood chips become available then. I aim for a new, replenished depth of about five inches each time. There’s nothing magical about this depth, but a thinner layer will vanish into the soil more quickly and a thicker layer gets awkwardly close to low-hanging branches.
Fresh wood-chip mulch under a young Pinkerton avocado tree.
Sometimes I also get wood-chip mulch from Miramar Greenery, but often I get wood chips from a tree trimming service who is working in the neighborhood. It means they don’t have to pay to dump their load elsewhere, so it benefits both of us. I was lucky enough to get a load dumped last week, so I’ve been replenishing the mulch under my trees over the past few days.
One steaming pile of wood chips.
Is compost really enough for fertile soil in vegetable beds? As I said above, I eat the proof every day, but so do others. My friend Erik, for example, has added only compost on his vegetable garden for a number of years and his plants do as well or better than mine.
And are wood chips really enough for fertile soil under fruit trees? Again, the proof is in the pudding. I couldn’t imagine getting any more fruit out of my Valencia orange tree:
But it’s not just me. The other day I visited a friend who has an extensive orchard in her backyard. This woman is a certified arborist and a certified Master Gardener, she grows an astonishing variety of fruit trees — from Jan Boyce avocados to Honeyheart cherimoyas to SpiceZee nectaplums — and she puts nothing more than a thick layer of wood chips under them.
(Paul Gautschi follows a similar routine up in Washington, and Ruth Stout was doing something similar a hundred years ago.)
How is it that compost and wood chips do all of this work — creating and maintaining soil fertility without any additions of specially formulated fertilizers or constant tillage to loosen the soil? That is a question whose answer is book length. But here is a list of some specific effects that compost has on the soil, along with an attached bibliography for deeper reading.
And here is an excellent publication by Linda Chalker-Scott of Washington State University on the documented effects of using wood-chip mulch, which you’ll find are nearly the same as compost.
However it works, and however much we do or don’t understand it, the evidence is there. You can give your mind and your back some rest, and perhaps give your kids some fun with a shovel every now and then. For a simpler path toward soil fertility exists.
You might also like to read:
(listen to the Karl Hammer episode about compost)
Did a little experiment with mixes for starting seeds. The “Stone” medium on the left is an E.B. Stone “Seed Starter Mix” that I purchased. The bag says it contains primarily peat moss and perlite.
The “Alder” medium on the right is a mixture that I made up using two parts E.B. Stone “Seed Starter Mix” (so, peat moss and perlite), two parts compost (from the Miramar Greenery in San Diego), and one part dirt from my yard (sandy loam).
My aim was to see what effect including soil and compost would have. I sowed Corvair spinach in both mixes. My observation is that adding soil and compost had a beneficial effect. Wouldn’t you agree?
Why? I don’t know. The spinach seeds in the Stone mix actually emerged a day earlier than the seeds in the Alder mix, but since then the seedlings in the Alder mix have rocketed past the Stone seedlings. Maybe the soil and compost have added nutrients and microbes that the germinating seeds didn’t use but that the baby plants have appreciated. (Why do I think this? Here’s a video of Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost explaining why he adds so much compost to his potting mixes, used by many successful certified organic vegetable farmers. Also, here is a publication by George Keupper that explains the contributions of both soil and compost, as well as other ingredients you might add to seed-starting and general potting mixes.)
Anyway, I’ll definitely add some soil and compost to my seed-starting mixes from now on.
Gardeners and farmers are kin, and I’ve found myself listening incessantly to a particular podcast where one farmer, Chris Blanchard, interviews other farmers. The Farmer to Farmer podcast has given this gardener wheelbarrows of food for thought.
Some of my favorite episodes are the ones with:
Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm, from whom I gained a deeper appreciation for soil,
Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Family Farm, from whom I learned a whole new universe worth of insight on potatoes,
Bob Cannard, who challenged me to reassess my relationship with weeds,
and Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company, who would be entertaining enough to listen to even if I didn’t care about compost. But maybe the most fascinating thing I heard in the interview was that he raises hundreds of laying hens that live solely off of his mountains of compost.