Monday, January 2, 2012

Don't Bag Those Leaves!

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by Suzanne Roark

Every year it seems like we are behind the eight ball when it comes to getting ready for the winter. It’s not like we don’t know winter is coming and what we’re in for, we just always seem to get caught up in other things.

So you can image my pride and joy when I found myself with all the heat pans wired, in place, and ready to go for my chicken and turkey waterers way before Halloween! Wow, I’m good.

But who would have known we’d get dumped with 12 inches of snow on October 30? I mean, it was forecast. But, usually early snow just melts as it hits the ground. Whatever is left over melts in the warm afternoon sun that same day.

Not this year. This freakish storm not only dumped heavy wet snow on the region, it actually turned cold enough to make it stick! Many parts of the New England area still had green foliage on the trees. Which was one of the main problems. So many trees snapped and fell because they just couldn’t carry the load of heavy snow plus all that green foliage. Leaf turning is extremely late this year. A week after the storm, and my trees had just begun to turn and fall.

The worst thing was that our covered chicken pen partially collapsed. We can’t have our flock free range; we live in a town that likes to think it’s a city (being within any proximity to Boston does that, you know). The chicken pens are made of dog kennels with wire tops. Well, wire tops can only hold out for so long.

After a good cry, and three days of cutting and moving branches out to a large pile at the back of the yard we call “the way back,” we surveyed the damage of the coop. Not so bad after all—whew! Hubby was able to push up the top of the pen and secure it without too much effort. My chickens are happy again, clucking around without fear the sky is falling.

Up until this point I didn’t have any leaves to rake up and put into their pens. Usually I have tons of leaves on the ground way before Halloween, but fall is late this year and left me without my any leaves for my pens. The storm helped speed up fall, so to speak, and now I have lots of leaves on the ground. I never used to be so excited about raking up leaves, but since we got chickens I very much look forward to them.

Leaves under foot in the Narragansett’s pen.

The pens were built atop old sand piles that the kids weren’t playing in any more. That first year with chickens I found myself constantly raking out the pens because the droppings just seemed to sit on top and make a huge mess. After some serious thought on the subject—mostly that I didn’t want to do so much cleaning—I came up with using leaves as a flooring. It didn’t make much sense economically to use shavings, and I couldn’t keep up with raking the pen clean every day. But dumping huge piles of leaves in their pens did the trick. The chickens simply love to jump in the leaves, almost as much as the kids! I never worry about spreading them out, just leave it in a huge pile. Before long, the scratching and digging of the hens has the pile completely flat and spread out.

Using the leaves does more than cover up the poo. The constant scratching actually works the poo into the pile of decaying leaves, keeping their little chicken feet nice and clean. In fact, I so love having the leaves as a floor to keep their feet clean, I found other seasons of the year offer flooring options as well. I use grass clipping, pulled weeds, spent garden stalks or whatever I can find to dump in a pile for them to scratch through.

Best way to sop up the poo in the meat bird pen. Thank heaven for leaves!

Recently, I discovered the most excellent reason to keep up the piles—compost. When I was a kid, my father spent a lot of time fussing over his pile of compost. All that layering and turning, and more turning, seemed too complicated and too much effort in my hectic world. So, I never really took a shine to keeping a compost pile. I have instead used leaves in a variety of ways. One way is to use the leaves as mulch for my blueberry bushes. I also have never bagged a leaf, preferring to rake them into the “way back” and leave them in a heap to decay on their own. I never, ever, used that pile for compost though, because we had always added tree limbs and branches to the pile too.

But as it turns out, using all that garden refuse and fall leaves as flooring, my chickens have been living on a huge pile of compost. When we first built the pens we needed to step down into them, because that part of the yard sloped down. As fall approached I noticed that I was stepping up into the pens. I decided it was time to dig up some of that flooring to make the pen gates easier to close.

We took huge loads of composted leaves and garden waste out of the pens and dumped them straight into the garden. I was plenty shocked to find no sand. Instead we were digging up rich, black earth. Hens clucking around and scratching and playing in the piles had accomplished what I was too lazy to do myself. VoilĂ ! Compost with no real effort on my part—what could be better than that?

Hard to tell from this photo, but really, it’s rich and dark … ahh … garden dreaming already.

I still like to use the leaves to keep their feet clean and I love to watch them dig, but that compost is surely the best payoff. Even though my garden just went to bed a few weeks ago, I’m already dreaming of waking it up to start the another season and see how that rich, black compost will make my garden grow.


  1. Good use for the neighbor's leaves, too. Thanks for this great story!

  2. We have been using leaves for the last 3 years now in our duck/chicken pen and for the goats. In our part of the country people bag their leaves and set them out by the curb for city pickup. We don't have to travel far to get all the leaves we need for the winter. We clean the pens out in the spring and everything goes in the garden. Our soil is the best ever.

    1. We don't have chickens, our son does, but we have goats. How do you use the leaves for them? We also pick up bags of leaves along the curb when we go into town. We try to recycle everything we can. Thank you

  3. I too use my leaves in the turkey and chicken pens and I also use kennel panels to make a coyote safe pen. I put straw on top of any snow which makes the birds happier about going outside. In the spring, I rake out the pens and have a wonderful addition to my garden.

  4. I did this in reverse. We have had a compost pile in a dog kennel for years which means a lot of work turning the leaves, clippings, etc. One day I was daydreaming and thought, "I wish I knew someone with a couple pigs that I could borrow to turn the compost." Then I thought, "I bet chickens would do it." I mentioned it to my wife and to my surprize, she said "OK"! We got four adult hens from a farmer and put them in the compost pile with a small shelter and have had incredible compost ever since! The chikens handle tons of leaves every fall as well as the grass clippings from the back yard and all of our kitchen scraps.

  5. i use shredded paper for bedding inside the coop. our chickes are free range so i don't need to keep a pen clean. i also have a large garden. when i cleaned out the coop this fall, it all went in the garden. can't wait to see what i can grow next spring. this is my first year with chickens. they are very entertaining!


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