Monday, February 25, 2013

Hens as Compost Turners in the Garden

Don and I need more garden beds. But we spent time, money, and a lot of muscle building the four raised beds that we started with, so we thought we would build our next four beds the lazy man's way, using a method called sheet mulching or the lasagna layer technique. It's a way to compost in place to build up soil for a new bed instead of digging down to get your garden. The biggest drawback is that you have to wait a season or so before planting.

Don and I recently set up some lasagna-layer beds, but I admit they didn't look like much. They looked like they'd take years to break down into something I'd be willing to plant vegetables in. Here is a picture of what we were starting with. It contains layers of cardboard, leaves, somewhat aged compost, and straw mixed with a week's worth of manure from our chicken coops:

Sheet-mulched raised beds before attention from our hens

Don and I know how much our girls love to scratch and forage for insects, seeds, and other food, so we wondered if we could use those skills to turn these beds and get the composting process going faster. Don built a pen that fit over our raised beds. There's a pop-hole that leads from our chicken tractor to the pen over the beds, as pictured and described in this post. We had already used the hens in this pen as herbiciders and pesticiders in our raised asparagus beds, but we wanted to see what they would do when we turned them loose on our future garden beds as well.

The first thing we noticed was that the new digs were a huge hit with the hens. They even ate about 50% less feed when on a fresh sheet-mulched bed, presumably from all the fresh food they find on their own. Here is a brief video of our girls having a good time working a bed this morning. It's the same bed I pictured at the top of this page, but it already is starting to look different due to the hen's attention.

Here is what the same bed looked like at the end of the day today:

Nike is pecking at something good in the compost pile!

Sharp-eyed Athena is begging for a treat-- got any meal worms?

After about three days of attention from the girls, the bed starts to lose the girls' interest, and they start eating a lot more feed. Perhaps they've found all the weed-seeds and bugs that they're going to for a while. They will be ready for us to move their tractor and pen to another bed or a different part of the yard. But this is what the bed will look like after just those three days:

Raised bed after three days of chicken-tilling efforts

There is no doubt about it: the chickens are speeding the decomposition process and composting our sheet-mulched beds into usable soil faster. They basically turn other people's garbage into the raw materials of a vegetable garden. And they do it without the noise, pollution, or expense of gas-powered tillers or other equipment. They literally work for chicken feed, and they are happy about it, and they add valuable nitrogen to the bed in the form of their own manure while they're at it!

One important decision we have left is how soon to plant after the chickens have turned the bed. Since they have deposited fresh droppings, and their manure can transmit salmonella, published advice is to wait for 90 to 180 days after the chickens have visited the bed to plant a food crop, depending on the crop. But we needed to wait at least that long before planting under the sheet-mulch system, anyway, so we have little to lose, and lots to gain, by having the chickens work the beds for us.

**Update on 1/18/14: We have been using those sheet-mulched beds to grow garlic, and I now have a fig tree growing very happily in one. I cannot believe how quickly the beds broke down into something usable and very fertile. I think the hens' manure and aerating-skills were a huge part of the success.


  1. I put my girls in dog crates in my raised beds and ground gardens to work over the soil. They eat all the weed seeds, weeds, and other bug type deliciousness for them. The broccoli plants in my raised beds are on their fourth year. They are supposed to be annuals. I am chalking it up to the expertise of my garden helpers and the extra nitrogen they "deposit" into their work area! HAHA! They are an absolute joy to watch working in the garden!

    1. Thanks for the ideas, Tracy! We'll have to share a broccoli dinner sometime! We do enjoy watching them at work, and we're so grateful the law now allows them here in Chesapeake.