Greenpoint: Building soil, with some help from the chickens

The compost engineers at work. (Photo by Margaret Hartley)

The compost engineers at work. (Photo by Margaret Hartley)

As soon as we add something to the compost pile, the chickens jump up and start scratching it off again, spreading everything out in their quest for treats and worms.

They are very helpful that way.

With goat yards and chicken coops to clean out, and waste hay to pick up from where goats were tethered in the yard, our compost piles are like mountains. My husband, the soil maker, has compost systems, determining which piles are done being added to, which are active and where the next pile will be placed. And he likes to shape them into huge rectangular blocks, with straight sides and a flat top to take in the rain.

I’m not as systematic, and anyway I’m too short to achieve the symmetry my husband wants. I dig a hole in the top to insert and cover up the kitchen compost, a tiny portion of the pile’s mass. That keeps the chickens from strewing food around the yard and it speeds the breakdown of hard items like eggshells and orange peels. I throw yard and goat waste onto the top of the pile, which then gets kind of pointy. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because my husband’s neat work and my messy job are equally destroyed by the chickens, who have no regard for edges.

When they are done digging and scratching and pecking, the compost pile is a lumpy mess, with deep depressions and half-composted hay spread out on the ground. We pick it up with manure forks and pile it back on top of the pile — me sloppily, him neatly. And really, it’s all fine, since humans and chickens alike are constantly turning the pile as it breaks down and slowly turns into deep, rich garden soil. Black gold.

In the spring, we use the oldest pile, now fully composted, for potting soil as we transplant seedlings into larger pots to root and grow until it’s planting time. Then it’s time to spread it into the gardens.

Sometimes we dump compost by the wheelbarrow load and spread a thick layer to turn into the soil. Some years we just top dress the garden with a thin layer. This year we built the garden row by row, prepping beds by hand and spreading compost over the planting rows, turning it in with a garden fork, and cutting a furrow for planting with the arrowhead hoe.

Once the rows are built we put in seeds or transplant those potted vegetables and herbs, and then water them in with the watering can. It’s hands-on intensive, but it gives us a chance to nourish and baby every plant and to monitor how each is settling in during the first few days. Because the soil has so much organic matter it holds moisture well, and once the plants are established we rarely have to water.

The compost is the reason our soil is so good, and the soil is the reason our vegetables are so good. And those compost worms, along with scraps of the vegetables grown in that compost-rich soil, are the reasons our chicken’s eggs are so good.

So it doesn’t bother us that they work the compost piles. They are part of the system.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on July 3. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts

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