Chickens absolutely love to spend their days scratching and pecking at the earth.
They hunt for tender young greens and shoots, seeds or berries, and delicious little bugs that are lurking within the topsoil. They will even roll around in the dirt after scratching, taking a lovely dust bath to help cleanse them of parasites and to cool off during the hotter weather.
Instead of leaving them in a dirt floor, permanent bare run, try putting them into chicken tractors or mobile pens as the weather gets cool. The grass is greener on the other side of that fence, and they know it. They will love you for it, and the thanks they give is worth their weight in gold… naturally turned primitive garden plots!
You can have them till your garden as the winter months pass with very little effort on your part! You can ditch the gas powered or electric tiller, and simply use a pitchfork to turn the soil where needed for planting, as you normally would after tilling a bed. Isn’t this amazing? No more machinery. No more gasoline. No more hard work.
Just let the chickens handle it, they’d LOVE to do it for you!
Using Chickens to Till Natural Garden Beds During Fall and Winter
If you have a chicken tractor (and if not, you should build one!), your hungry hens and your sleeping garden is in for a treat during the winter months! Chickens love to dig and forage, but established chicken pens usually don’t offer this. The ground is packed mud and manure, with little chance of anything being able to grow in it. Not only do the chickens get bored, that plot of ground may never grow again without some serious amendments.
Moving the chickens around the property in a portable chicken coop doesn’t have to be difficult, either! There are many lightweight designs and models, whether you build one or purchase one. The frequency with which you move the pen depends on the size of the pen, the recent weather, the condition of the ground, and the amount of chickens that are in the pen. I like to move my pens when the chickens have scratched up over 85% of the vegetation, or when rain water begins to puddle heavily. Both are signs that the hens are ready to move on to the next plot. I use a 100 sq ft pen, so my hens take over a week to prepare the ground for me.
How Do You Prepare the Ground After the Chickens Till and Clean the Bed?
Once the chickens are ready to be removed from the plot, I place plenty of straw the day before moving them. This serves many purposes on our homestead. Be sure that you obtain some organic straw for this, that is free of pesticides and herbicides if possible. Hay is also another wonderful option, and I personally believe hay smells far better; but, it won’t offer the same coverage that straw does. Check out all of the benefits to this process:
- When straw is placed before the hens are removed, they will eat many of the wheat berries that are left behind. This reduces the amount of seeds that will be left behind to sprout.
- Chickens will also shred the straw as they scratch, breaking it down and working it into the exposed earth. This helps to compost the chicken manure quickly, and attracts earthworms.
- Since the straw will be packed down, it will be less likely to blow away during heavy winds, and it will have a better contact with the soil; blocking out light.
- With mulching, weeds are kept low and easy to pull, while the straw retains moisture and provides consistent temperatures; protecting the roots from excess heat, drought, or cold.
Can Chickens Be Allowed on Old Garden Beds to Eat Dying Plants and Fruits?
The earlier you get the chickens onto a garden plot, the better! If you have harvested the very last fruits and vegetables of the season from a plot of annuals, let the chickens unleash their scratching fury. I do not recommend placing a pen around bushes or perennials, as penned chickens may destroy them. Free range chickens are a far different story, as they have the freedom to roam. For those beds that have nothing left to offer, it’s the perfect opportunity.
The chickens will knock down existing weeds, feast on unwanted fruits and vegetables, obliterate insect pests before they can overwinter, and they will help to dig up the old plants and turn them into the soil. Of course, they will fertilize the garden bed as well, but that is a given! Just don’t expose chickens to unnecessary poisons or insecticides if you are keeping it all organic; and for those who are not practicing organic homesteading, be wary of the potential for poisoning. You do not want to place your chickens in an area that received heavy pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide applications.
What Happens if Chickens are Left In Place for Too Long?
If the chickens are left in one spot for too long, the ground may become compacted, remain bare, and have poor drainage. You will likely never see anything grow in this area for years without intervention. Too much nitrogen burns the plants and makes the soil inhospitable for plant life. You will need to turn the dirt patch by hand, and incorporate outside top soil along with wood chips, leaves, animal bedding, or compostable paper products. As the nitrogen burns up during the composting process, the soil will slowly become acceptable for plant life. For heavily populated chicken pens that have existed for years, the damage done could be rather deep. It may take several years to repair the damage that the chickens did. Patience is a virtue in these situations, but after the chicken plot has been repaired, there will be a lovely garden full of rich soil to show for it!
What Plants Like Chicken Manure?
Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen, especially if the urine is collected. A majority of the nitrogen is actually contained within the chickens’ urine which makes it important that the droppings are composted quickly, or deposited into future beds by the chickens months before planting. Nitrogen is a nutrient required for foliage health and growth, and is particularly beneficial to leafy greens, grains such as corn, and tomatoes. If your lettuce, spinach, kale, corn, and other plants seem to be growing slowly and you have depleted soils (from years of gardening or neglect), chicken manure could help significantly. This is why allowing the chickens to till and fertilize the ground naturally is so beneficial to the garden. However, nitrogen should be limited for plants that produce tubers or root vegetables, as the nitrogen will cause the plant to dedicate more energy towards growing the foliage rather than the roots or tubers.
How to Use Chicken Manure in Vegetable Garden
Before you shovel loads of chicken poop into your veggie beds, let me brief you on how to use chicken manure in the vegetable garden without harming your plants. When using chickens to till the ground, the chickens must be moved at regular intervals. I like to move the pens once the chickens have stripped most of the earth; this will keep the nitrogen from climbing to levels that may harm your plants.
Chicken manure can potentially burn your plants with the high nitrogen content, so you must plan ahead when applying it to an existing garden; the poop must be composted! Try mixing the chicken manure into existing soil with straw, hay, leaves, wood chips, or other brown compostable items during the fall, or add it into your existing compost pile. You can also add it to a black soldier fly composting bin, which works incredibly quickly (these larvae can be fed to the chickens, completing the cycle!)
How Long to Compost Chicken Manure
If you choose to compost your chicken manure in place, it can take anywhere from 4 weeks to 12 months to properly compost. If there is a lot of chicken poop in a compost pile that is dry, isn’t very big, or has an imbalance of greens and browns, it’ll take longer; up to 12 months. Large compost piles with a proper ratio of greens and browns that are turned frequently and kept moist? They tend to compost fairly rapidly. Temperatures of up to 140 signal a compost pile that is hard at work and breaking down quickly. It could be ready in as little as 4 weeks if it is turned frequently and monitored closely.
What to Do with Chicken Poop
With all that has been previously mentioned, I personally recommend allowing the chickens to till and fertilize the garden areas rather than collecting and composting the chickens’ waste. However, if you’re not fertilizing and tilling with the chickens, be sure that all manure is composted.
If you are left with an excess of chicken manure, such as the amounts left behind by a flock of birds raised for pet consumption & meat, there are some people who buy it.