Compost has justly earned the nickname ‘black gold’ among gardeners. But as with so many things, I had my share of false starts at composting before I found a system that worked. This post shares the story of how chickens became my allies.

Matilda with a clutch of chicks she adopted in 2015.

Attempt #1

My very first attempt at composting was a tumbler system. Basically, it was a 55-gallon cylinder mounted on an axle. A couple of handholds were placed at the top and bottom of the barrel to facilitate tumbling it around its axis.

There were a couple of problems with this. First, my initial attempt was smelly because there were too many nitrogen-rich grass clippings and not enough carbon-rich material. I’m talking about the kind of smelly that permeated not just our yard, but that of our nice next-door neighbors, too.

I apologized profusely and, as was their wont, they were very gracious about the mishap.

Thankfully, the odor from that first attempt dissipated after just a few days.

The more serious, chronic issue was that, fully loaded, the cylinder was too heavy for me to rotate. I had to depend on the man-strength, as I call it, of my husband.

He was good about it when reminded, but there were a lot of other things to do and after a few half-hearted attempts, the tumbler was abandoned.

(It did go on to find a new home thanks to the marvel that is Freecycle. I wonder if the new owners had more success than I did!)

Attempt #2

Undaunted, I presented a blueprint for a three-bin composting system to my husband. We duly chose a location for this monstrosity, bought the materials, and constructed it.

The idea was to layer organic materials into the left-hand bin. After a month or so, since aeration facilitates the composting process, you were supposed to flip everything over into the middle bin and start a new batch in the now-empty left-hand side. A month or so later, the process was to be repeated: middle-to-right, left-to-middle, fresh materials put in the left.

Great idea! And it probably would have worked really well if only I could have brought myself to actually do the flipping.

Enter Chickens: Stage Left

As I mentioned before, I grew up in a homestead-type environment. We had a big vegetable garden, an orchard of dwarf fruit trees, and a grape arbor.

We also had animals: rabbits, chickens, geese, and a blue-eyed Pekin duck that I named Benji.

As an adult, I wanted chickens for years before we got them. I don’t actually like eggs all that much and had no intention of raising chickens for meat. Mainly, I wanted them because I think they’re fun to watch and I had fond memories from my childhood.

What I didn’t know was what excellent helpers they were going to prove themselves to be.

You see, I was no fan of grabbing a pitchfork and turning quantities of organic matter over for purposes of compost-making. But my hens, given bushels of fallen leaves from the lawn, clipped plant stalks, pulled-up weeds, and the like, were completely in their element.

They scratch around to their heart’s delight and once or twice a year, I pull the garden cart around and collect quantities of compost to enrich the soil anywhere that I think could use an extra boost. (I have just a few peonies and they always appreciate a nice thick top-dressing of compost, courtesy of the chickens.)

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story isn’t that I think you should get chickens if you want compost, though they do make peerless partners for that purpose.

Truth is, composting happens all the time in forests with no human (or hen) intervention whatsoever.

Rather, the takeaway is to keep learning and trying new things until you find systems that truly work for you.

Sometimes, that means a joint venture partnership, like I have with my hens. Sometimes, it means just getting out of the way and leaving well enough alone. And sometimes, it’s something in between.

The important thing is that it works.

Do you have a system for compost? What works for you?