What does a DIY composter have to do with raising chickens? Well, if you have chickens, you have chicken manure … and if you’re a gardener (like me) this unlimited supply of manure can provide you with an endless supply of the world’s best organic fertilizer!
In fact, out of the fluffy backside of an average-sized hen, 1 cubic foot of manure is produced every six months! All you have to do is a little simple math to realize that it doesn’t take long before you have to contend with a mountain of chicken poop! There’s an advantage to this abundant supply of waste, though. Unlike many other backyard animals (such as cats and dogs), chicken manure is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. To a gardener, this “black gold” is a highly sought after organic fertilizer … but to a chicken keeper who enjoys gardening, it has another advantage: It’s free! Even if you’re not a gardener, composting the coop bedding and manure will result in a rich soil amendment that can be incorporated into established landscapes.
Fresh chicken manure, however, should never be added to the garden without first being composted for two to six months (depending on the method of composting). In the past, I’ve been a lousy, lazy composter; I would throw the coop bedding and droppings into the compost bin, and that was about the extent of my effort. Successful composting requires turning the compost, keeping it moist, checking the temperature. I failed at all of these requirements. This year, however, has been different thanks to my:
• Composting Basics
As a Master Gardener, I like to refer to the University of Missouri Extension as a reference for all gardening-related topics; click on the following link to view the university’s guide on understanding, making and using compost: “Making and Using Compost.” Mother Earth News also has a helpful article this month, “How to Make Compost.” In a nutshell, here’s my general summary of composting: Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed by a process of aeration, heat, moisture and microbes. In a chicken coop, this organic matter consists of coop bedding and manure. When composting, the general rule-of-thumb is 1 part carbon (brown, e.g., coop/run bedding) to 2 parts nitrogen (green, e.g., chicken poop). However, because chicken manure is so high in nitrogen, a 1:1 or even a 2:1 mixture might be more appropriate. How long it takes to produce compost depends on the method of composting and how diligent and devoted the gardener is in turning, watering and monitoring the temperature of the pile. If done properly, the compost could be ready to use within two to three months. Otherwise, it’s probably wise to let it age for six to nine months before incorporating it into the garden soil.
A common method of composting is a simple heap or pile, or a constructed compost bin. Coop bedding and manure are added in layers to the bin and a third layer of microbe-rich soil or compost can also be added to help start the decomposition process. Adding moisture or water to the layers (material should be about as wet as a well-wrung sponge) will increase the internal temperature of the pile. It is recommended that the compost pile heat to 130-150° F and maintain that temperature for three days. Continue turning, watering and monitoring the temperature until the entire pile has been through the heating process. Then wait … Let the compost continue to age another three to six months; it should be dark, crumbly and “earthly” smelling (there should be no odor of manure).
• Benefits of Composting Tumblers
A compost tumbler is simply a container that can be rotated to mix the composting materials. The fact that the organic materials are in a sealed container also helps contain the heat generated by the composting process. The added heat, combined with the ease of turning the material, produces compost quicker than traditional methods. Here’s a list of proposed benefits of a tumbling composter:
- As mentioned above, it’s fast. Some sources boast that, “in as little as three weeks, you’ll have dark, rich compost!”
- It will keep rodents and raccoons out of the compost.
- Eliminates composting odors.
- As compared to a heap of rubbish, a tumbler has more curb appeal.
Even though the benefits seem appealing, Mother Earth News did a review on compost tumblers a few years back and came up with the conclusion that a properly attended compost heap worked just as well. However, if you’re similar to me, you don’t have the time, desire or the muscle it requires to properly attend to the compost bin! With this easy-to-do method, I’ve produced better compost in three months than I have in all the years I’ve been gardening!
- Two 55-gallon food-grade drums (I purchased mine from Craigslist for $15.00 a piece.)
- About 8 feet of steel pipe (We used some leftover pipe from a well-pump repair.)
- 1 foot PVC pipe (to fit over the steel pipe)
- 4 1/2 inch lag bolts, hex nuts and washers, sheet metal roofing screws
- 17 1/2 inch metal strip
- 4 hinges, 2 metal handles, 4 metal draw latches
- Jig saw, drill and drill bits
- Frame: pressure-treated lumber: 4-by-4 posts – 8′ 2-by-4, galvanized lag screws
My husband estimated that we spent $150 on the tumblers (which seems like a lot of money). But when I priced a non-DIY alternative, they run around $150 a piece. Because we constructed two, we did save a little money and, anyway, I love the finished product!
• Step 1: Access Door
Mark the rectangular outline of the access door.
This is the entrance you will use to add and remove materials. This is also a good time to mark the position of the hinges (on the top of the door) and the latches or hasp (at the bottom) that will be used to keep the door shut.
• Step 2: Cut the Opening
Using a jig saw, cut along the marked outline of the access door.
Using metal roofing screws, add a 17 1/2-inch metal strip to the bottom inside of the opening. This strip will add some support to the door and keep it in place.
Add hinges to the top of the drum and latches or a hasp to the bottom of the access lid (to keep the lid securely closed).
• Step 4: Mark and Drill the Pipe Axle Holes
Measure and mark the center of the top and bottom of the drum.
Using a forstner, spade or a saw drill bit, drill holes large enough for the pipe you are going to use for an axle.
• Step 5: Add Ventilation Holes and Mixing Bolts
Using 1/2-inch drill bit, drill a random pattern of holes on the side of the drum. (These holes are needed for ventilation and drainage.)
Insert 4 1/2-inch bolts, washers and hex nuts to a few of the predrilled holes to aid in mixing the compost (or to keep it from rotating as one big clump).
This can also be accomplished by adding an additional pipe or fin to the inside of the drum.
• Step 6: Assembling the Base
Click on the photo to view a larger image…
3 vertical 4-by-4s (44 1/2 inches) perpendicular to 3 horizontal 4-by-4s (40 inches) at the base. The three vertical posts are held together at the top by a horizontal 2-by-4 (89 3/4 inches)
The pipe (or axle) goes through each drum and middle vertical post and rests in a hole drilled halfway in each horizontal side post. A 2 1/2-inch section of PVC pipe is added between the drums and support posts to keep the barrels from sliding. See photos below...
One of the features of the tumblers that I appreciate is that they’re the perfect height for a wheelbarrow to be rolled under the access door to either add materials or remove compost! For the first batch of compost, I only used coop bedding (straw) loaded with chicken manure. I added water as needed to the future compost and gave the barrel a few turns each day.
During the first couple of weeks when I opened the lid to check of the condition of the compost, the heat was intense! At first the odor of chicken manure was noticeable, but after a few weeks the aroma was the sweet smell of compost! In two short months, the straw and manure had been recycled into a dark, rich compost!
Even though I’m thrilled that I’m finally composting using a fast, easy and efficient method, I’ve already learned a few strategies to make the compost even better. Adding more than just straw and manure (i.e., kitchen waste, garden extras, leaves) to the barrel makes for a richer, higher-quality compost. Also, shredding the material before adding it to the tumbler speeds up the decomposing process. (I use a push mower with a leaf bag attachment.)
As for the tumblers … Why two? When one tumbler is full, I water it down and then start turning it for a few months. During the months that I’m spinning one tumbler, I’m filling up the other one! I spray-painted them a dark green for two reasons: The dark color absorbs more heat, which aids in the process, and I liked the way it looked … If you decide to spray-paint the barrels, sand the drums first, even if the paint can states, “No sanding or priming required”! FYI: The paint doesn’t adhere to the plastic without sanding first.
I have the benefit of having a husband who is not only skilled in carpentry, but willingly goes along with all my dreamed-up projects. If your skills and resources are limited, I did find a few similar DIY instructions that might be easier to accomplish. Click on the links below:
To see what else is happening on our Southwest Missouri property, visit …the garden-roof coop.
To view my latest DIY projects – follow me on Facebook at Rebecca’s Bird Gardens