By Tammy Churchill
If you have a backyard flock and want to increase the soil health of your garden, did you know that you can use chicken manure as a fertilizer? Assuming you follow a few simple steps, your plants and your soil will love you. You’ll also have the added benefit of getting rid of all that chicken poop in an environmentally friendly way.
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Is chicken manure good for gardens?
Fortunately for chicken owners everywhere, your flock’s manure is an excellent fertilizer for almost everything you want to grow. It is a natural source of nitrogen, which promotes leaf development. Chicken manure has the added benefit of being both a complete fertilizer and a soil amendment.
What’s the difference between fertilizers and soil amendments?
Fertilizer refers to the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, known by the abbreviation NPK on store bought products.
Synthetic fertilizers are the chemical equivalent of these three macronutrients. They are immediately available to plants, whereas natural fertilizers, like chicken manure, have to break down to be accessible. Faster is not always better, however. All that nitrogen can create a dramatic increase in soil microorganisms, which in turn can deplete the organic material in the soil. This decreases the amount of water it can hold and can lead to the washing away of topsoil.
Not only does your flock’s waste contain nitrogen, it’s delivered in a package rich in other macro and micronutrients that are slowly released to surrounding plants. This can increase soil biodiversity and thus the accessibility of the nutrients.
Who would have thought that getting rid of all that smelly poop could be so good for your garden? But there’s some important safety information to keep in mind.
What are the challenges of using fresh chicken manure in the garden?
Before you deposit all the chicken poop that has been piling up in your chickens’ coop and run into your garden, there are some important issues to keep in mind.
- Fresh chicken manure can damage your plants. No need for alarm, though, since it isn’t unique to your flock’s poop. Any excess nitrogen harms plant roots, resulting in dried-out and withering leaves and possibly killing the plant.
- Chicken poop carries the risk of transmitting pathogens such as e coli and salmonella to people and animals.
- To state the obvious, fresh chicken droppings smell …at least at first. Once the outer edges dry out and start to break down, this stops. If it’s a thin layer in your garden, this takes a day, maybe two.
How do you use chicken manure as a fertilizer?
While fresh chicken manure in the garden has its challenges, that doesn’t take away from the benefits it provides to the soil. The trick to using this natural fertilizer safely is time. You can either age it or compost it. Both bring down the nitrogen levels to plant-safe levels and decrease the risk of contamination.
Aging chicken manure
This is as easy as it sounds – leaving it alone as it breaks down over time. The best way to age chicken manure is to put it directly onto an empty patch of garden that you are looking to fertilize. Doing this in the fall gives it time to break down before spring planting. It’s also possible to create a single large pile and distribute it to where it is needed later.
- Pros of this method: more of the nutrients remain in the finished product.
- Cons: The area is not available for planting for several months, and it will smell until the surface layer breaks down. It’s not for long – a week or so for a large pile, a day or two for a thin layer – but you won’t want to plan an outdoor party immediately after starting the aging process.
Composting is the method of breaking down organic (as in formerly living) matter. It combines carbon and nitrogen sources with air and water to encourage natural decomposition and speed up the process. This method allows you to divert yard waste and whatever food scraps that weren’t given to your chickens from the landfill.
- Pros: The natural heating of the pile can kill any seeds that might be present in the chicken poop along with potential pathogens, and the process, if done correctly, is odor free. It also gives you the opportunity to add any yard clippings and food scraps to provide more volume and add trace minerals to the final product.
- Cons: there is a loss in volume and nitrogen levels as they are consumed in the composting process.
How do you use aged or composted chicken manure?
Once your chicken poop has been aged or composted, you can use it in your garden. It is safe to apply directly to your lawn, flowers, or any trees or bushes that need some added nutrition or more organic matter in the soil.
My favorite test to see if my compost is ready is to see if plants will grow in it. I put some fast-sprouting seeds (radishes are my favorite) in a small container of my latest batch of compost. If the seeds grow, the compost is no longer too high in nitrogen, and it’s ready to be applied in the garden.
Can you use composted chicken manure in a fruit or vegetable garden?
Repeated planting of annuals in the same garden bed can reduce the health of the soil. Fortunately applying composted chicken manure in your fruit or vegetable garden can provide the nitrogen and other nutrients your young plants need to provide you with a bountiful harvest. It also bulks up the soil with additional organic matter to help it retain water, which is increasingly important as drought is affecting more and more gardeners.
If you have hot composted your manure and kept it at 135 degrees or hotter for at least 2 weeks, that should have killed all the pathogens and weed seeds. It is also important to note that you need to turn the pile at least 5 times during that time period so that the manure on the outside (where it is not so hot) winds up on the inside where it is heated up.
If you are cold composting, which is basically aging manure, it needs to be aged for at least 4 months before being used on food crops.
What is manure tea? Can you make your own?
Another way of using your aged or composted chicken manure is to create manure tea or compost tea. It’s an excellent way to stretch the benefits of your aged or composted manure over a larger area of your garden.
You can find manure tea kits online and in garden centers, which are simply aged manure in a water permeable bag. You can make your own by putting a few cups of manure in either a burlap bag or an old pillowcase and soaking it for a couple days in a bucket of water. The recommended ratio is one cup manure per gallon of water.
While you could put the manure directly into a bucket with water, you’d have to filter it out at the end. I have found that creating your own compost tea bag makes the whole process much easier.
Once your tea has had a couple days (and up to a month) to brew, remove the bag and dispose of its contents back in your compost pile. Spray your fertilizing liquid in your garden as you would a commercial liquid fertilizer. Some research even shows that applying compost tea directly to the leaves can prevent phytopathogens on a variety of plants, including tomatoes.
Using this method allows you to fertilize a larger area with the same amount of compost, and having all the nutrients in a liquid form makes the nutrients easier for plants to absorb. Using both direct application of the composted manure and the tea will provide both slow and quick release of nutrients to your garden soil.
Knowing how useful your flock’s manure is in your garden can make mucking out your chickens’ poop more rewarding. You are turning their waste into a macro- and micronutrient-rich fertilizer, bulking up the organic material in your garden soil, and keeping the manure out of the landfill and waterways. You save money and create a more sustainable system in your backyard at the same time.
Tammy Churchill is a Master Composter and enjoys sharing the joys of sustainable living as an Eco Team Docent at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation. She spends her time spoiling her hens, wrangling worms, and creating gardening gold out of food scraps, yard trimmings, and chicken poop.
You may also read my post about Compost: My Only Fertilizer.