This past spring, I set out to design and maintain a sustainable garden in my backyard — and a big part of that project has involved using chickens to fertilize my soil and help process my compost pile. All of their pecking, scratching, and depleting the backyard of its resources can be redirected and contained to one pile of carbon and nitrogen for them to feast on. The result of their effort is the fresh, nutrient-rich soil that only a marriage of compost and chickens can produce.
My chicken-and-composting journey began when I flew to Florida to ride out the pandemic. What I’ve learned throughout the process is this:
- Baby chicks need a lot of care, including time under a heat lamp to keep them warm and healthy.
- Mixing electrolytes into their water helps chickens stay hydrated.
- Chickens are messy. Very messy.
- Their care comes with a hefty price tag — from the heat lamp to the brooder to the chicken coop, there is a lot to build or purchase up front.
- Chickens eat and eat and eat. They also shit and shit and shit.
That last bullet point is where enlisting them to help with my composting efforts paid off. Having them peck at compost is a great way to cut down on the amount of feed they require, and their resulting manure makes a perfect addition to the remaining compost because it’s so high in nitrogen. That’s important, because the science behind the perfect compost pile relies on its carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
The alchemy, if you’re curious, is rather simple: Mix together a pile of one part green matter (nitrogen) to 24 parts brown matter (carbon). Let it sit in the sun, stirring occasionally and adding water as needed to keep it moist, and you’ll eventually produce a nutrient-rich soil. How long it will take your soil to develop will vary based on the speed of decomposition. You can research the approximate ratios of carbon to nitrogen in the specific materials you’re using — or you can rely on your sense of smell and observational skill to estimate how balanced your pile is. If it is getting rather smelly, add more brown matter to the mix; if your pile isn’t changing into soil, add more green matter into the mix. Plus: more sun, more water, and more stirring.
Check out the video above for more about the science behind how this natural process works, and a few tips and tricks to consider if you want to give it a try yourself.