Monday, October 17, 2011

The Lazy Gardener's Guide To World-Class Compost

Here's what you do:  forget those instructions about gathering your various compost ingredients, layering them carefully, wetting them down and turning them frequently.  Instead, get two or three hens--or six, if you are ambitious--and put them in a shed.  If they have access to the outdoors, and they should, an 8'x8' space will accommodate six layers luxuriously.  You want your hens to be able to go outside:  the air and grass and bugs are good for their bodies and their souls.

You get a couple of bales of hay that is too old to be fed to cows, technically known as "mulch hay," and spread some of it on the floor of the shed.  The hens will rejoice in this, pecking at the hay seeds and scratching around until even the longest stems are nicely shredded.  This is the beginning of your compost pile.

As the hay in your chicken shed--the term of art is "bedding," or "litter"--becomes soiled, just sprinkle some more hay over it.  This will keep the surface clean and free of smell, and the hens don't care what's underneath.  Even better, as the bottom layers of hay start to decompose with the help of the chicken poop, they will help to keep your hens' feet warm in the cold weather.

But hay is not all you add to your bedding-cum-compost.  All your garden waste--your overgrown zucchini, your spent broccoli plants, your Halloween pumpkins--goes into the hen house.  So do your kitchen leftovers, including eggshells, which the hens eat to recycle their calcium.  You can throw in coffee grounds and tea leaves, too.  Although the hens will not eat them, they make great fertilizer.  Your birds will love bits of meat and fat, but bones will attract rodents, so put them into your (now greatly diminished) trash.

Then in the fall, when the garden is finished, you shovel the soiled bedding into your garden cart and dump it on the garden.  You will notice that the hay has been shredded, the poop has mostly vanished, and there is a good bit of fine dust:  this is the organic fertilizer that your hens have made for you out of the kindness of their hearts, the super-nutritious manna that will give your young plants a terrific start in life next spring.

Since chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen, it needs to age before it comes in contact with plants.  I let mine sit and ripen in the empty garden, absorbing rain and sleet and snow, from October to March.  If you are in a climate that allows year-round gardening, you will have to pile the soiled bedding somewhere and let it age for several months before using it.
When you've finished dumping the litter on the garden, go back and spread a clean layer of hay on the shed floor.  Give the hens a couple of apples, sit and talk with them a while.  They have fertilized, turned and shredded your compost for you.  Backyard alchemists, they have transmuted your kitchen waste into golden-yolked eggs.  They deserve a bit of thanks.





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