A Chicken Named Dog

Adventures with a Flock Family

Category: Compost

Hugelkultur In Raised Garden Beds And The Miracle of Harvesting Nitrogen Out of Thin Air

I will admit to using hugelkultur long before it became popular, and it was really a result of finding the purchase of “dirt” prohibitively expensive when building raised beds. I also found that when I bought “dirt,” it just crusted up and formed a sort of caliche crust on everything, making it difficult to dig. Just this past weekend I bought a small bag of dirt for $2.73 at Menards, and it didn’t even form a one-inch layer on my smallest garden beds. I used that dirt, on a smaller scale, to see if it would be more cost effective to set up a garden bed for planting strawberries with purchased ingredients versus using layer bedding (a.k.a. chicken poop straw) in small raised beds. Cost-effective to buy dirt? No, not for me, and I can also make it much more easily than I can carry it, but hugelkultur, or mounding up a pile of logs with compostable and dirt-making materials has been apparently been a garden method used before.

Example of hugelkultur

Turns out that hugelkultur has a long culture of use in Europe, according to Permaculture.org:

Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany,hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.

For myself, my general dilemma is that I have a large garden space I want to prepare and no good means or money to buy dirt that I can haul in large quantities. Who has the trucks? The arm power? The patience? It’s much simpler to put cardboard in the base of my garden bed and fill it in with sticks I am trying to clean up, or fallen logs, branches, whatever I want cleared out of the path, then layer poopy straw, wood chips used as chicken bedding and kitchen veggies on top and put more straw or leaves on that.  My garden beds are large compost piles, essentially, with layers of wood at the bottom to hold moisture, layers of compost on top to provide nutrients, and presto-change-o-alakazoo, dirt is formed!

There is a book on this kind of sort of (and I use this term in the loosest way possible) “method,” called Lasagna Gardening,by Patricia Lanza, that I read years ago. The book advocates a specific layering pattern. You can read more about it here. I am not that precise.

I am rather averse to “precise” methods, and I don’t use peat moss as Patricia Lanza recommends in Lasagna Gardening and as is recommended by the other raised bed method of Square Foot Gardening because I have no desire to decimate someone else’s yard/ peat bog and emit a ton of CO2 into the environment in order to build my garden bed. The use of peat is not environmentally sustainable. And besides, I would have to pay for peat moss, which again raises that pesky barrier of getting enough material to fill multiple 4 foot by 12 foot by 2 feet garden beds, multiple, as in 5 and growing, not to mention an acre of other plantable land.

My “method” is born of a layering method that involves using all the organic matter I can to fill a garden bed and then I wait to see if it gets hot, if there is heat coming off the compost inside. If it’s not hot, releasing heat from the composting, then I go by smell. If it smells like rotting veggies, then I add a carbon source, usually straw. If it  smells like mold and is cold, I add a nitrogen source, like veggie scraps from my kitchen sink pile.  When a compost pile is actively breaking down nutrients, the microbes that digest the organic matter release heat, and this creates a sweet earthy smell. This heat is useful for killing off weed seeds and any possible harmful bacteria.  I like to stir up the uppermost layers of compost and then feel for heat in a day or two. Ideally, the raised bed stays warm for a few weeks, as I keep turning and mixing the top layers together. There will be mold in the pile, and some veggies that rot, but a well-balanced compost pile shouldn’t have any kind of bad odor.

As the compost rots, it builds great garden dirt. I tweak the mix depending on what I am growing, after the compost pile has been “hot” for a couple of weeks.  If I am growing a fruiting plant, I add a bit of calcium, in the form of oyster shells, or bone meal, because the calcium is important for setting the sweetest fruit, and I know that my particular mix has a lot of wood chips in it, making it more acidic, and the calcium source also helps balance the acidity from the pine chips. .

I sometimes “prepare” the bed by planting beans or peas in it before other crops to make sure that there is a usable source of nitrogen in the soil. Generally, I plant peas instead of beans because our spring is often cold and the peas are in preparation for tomatoes. Beans and legumes take nitrogen from the air and store it in root structures, which then break down and make nitrogen from the air available in the soil for roots of other plants. Plus, I like to eat peas.

How cool is it that nitrogen can be harvested from the air and deposited in the soil? I think it’s the equivalent of  a miracle, free fertilizer sucked right out of thin air? How does it work?  The Earth’s atmosphere (layers of “air”/gases surrounding the Earth) contains N2, or Nitrogen gas, and legumes (plants in the bean family) have the ability to convert this nitrogen gas into nitrogen for a plant.

Layers of Earth Atmosphere

Sounds like magic, but look at the picture above, the atmosphere level contains nitrogen that is captured by legumes and stored in these little nodules pictured below. This is a root system that has lumpy nitrogen nodules attached.

Nitrogen fixing nodules

New Mexico State University provided the nodule photographs, and this handy explanation of exactly how this process works:

Legume nitrogen fixation starts with the formation of a nodule (Figure 1). The rhizobia bacteria in the soil invade the root and multiply within its cortex cells. The plant supplies all the necessary nutrients and energy for the bacteria. Within a week after infection, small nodules are visible with the naked eye (Figure 1). In the field, small nodules can be seen 2–3 weeks after planting, depending on legume species and germination conditions. When nodules are young and not yet fixing nitrogen, they are usually white or gray inside. As nodules grow in size, they gradually turn pink or reddish in color, indicating nitrogen fixation has started (Figure 2). The pink or red color is caused by leghemoglobin (similar to hemoglobin in blood) that controls oxygen flow to the bacteria (Figure 2).

Healthy nodules have red centers

Ack, I am boring even myself with that description, even with the big pictures. Suffice to say that a type of bacteria on a legume root system helps the plant store nitrogen from the atmosphere in nodules at its roots so that the plant needs no nitrogen fertilizer. Making fertilizer out of thin air with no application needed. I will use that kind every time.

Cowpeas, soybeans, and fava beans, according to research, Walley et al., 1996; Cash et al., 1981, apparently fix the most nitrogen of any bean type, about 250 pounds per acre. Consider how much it costs to apply 250 pounds of fertilizer, at a rate of $10 for a 20 pound bag, and planting peas will net you $125 worth of fertilizer from the air. Combine that with savings “making” your own dirt, and building a raised bed using hugelkultur, compost, and nitrogen-fixing plants, and it really doesn’t get more cost-effective to garden. There is also no better man-made fertilizer around. Nature does these things best, and often most efficiently. If I want added fertilizer, I simply put worms in my compost pile, and I wait for them to make fertilizer. Notice how I let Mother Nature do the work, and that greatly reduces my work load.

Using compost and the hugelkultur method also helps a garden bed retain water. When a garden bed is filled with straight dirt, even finely sifted dirt, it drains water too quickly and compacts rapidly. Drains water quickly as in requiring watering every day. Personally, I have too many gardens to worry about watering every single day in a heat spell. I would lose too many plants if the gardens required watering everyday.

One might say that hugelkultur, composting, lasagna gardening, worms making fertilizer, and nitrogen-harvesting crops are all signs of profound laziness on my part, an apparent character flaw that attests to the fact that I don’t like garden work quite as much as I profess. I will say this: I love garden work, but it’s the simple economics of time management. I can’t manage all my plants and all my animals, and all the purchases, if the process is too fussy or expensive, let alone keep up with the watering in our increasingly variable summers. Usually when it’s 90 degrees F, with lots of humidity, I am worried about keeping my birds cool, setting out ice for our old roo, and I always put the animals first. I can’t water every garden bed and plant everyday, so while some might call it laziness, I call it sheer survival. Happily enough, it works, regardless of the perceived motivation. Hugelkultur, nitrogen-fixing, compost, and gardening–try it– just don’t pay for dirt, because it’s not really cheap at all, no matter the old saying.

Garden Boxes from Amish Ikea

We decided this year that we would experiment with some hard-scape in the garden with trellising and garden boxes.  So, taking a cue from the local Community Garden, we built some garden boxes with lumber milled at a local Amish sawmill.

When purchasing lumber from an Amish sawmill, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  First, the measurements are true cuts.  That is, you actually get a 2 x 8 x 12 if that is what you want.  If you compare the measurements to a box-lumber store, you soon learn that a 2 x 4 is not 2 inches by 4 inches.  From the MIStupid.com site (truly inspired name):

2x4s are not actually 2 inches by 4 inches. When the board is first rough sawn from the log, it is a true 2×4, but the drying process and planing of the board reduce it to the finished 1.5×3.5 size.

We purchased “rough cut” 2x12x8 and 2x8x8 for the boards.  That is, 2 inches wide, 12 and 8 inches deep and at least 8 feet long.  By standing the boards on their sides, the total height

Stacked and ready for assembly.

Stacked and ready for assembly.

of the garden bed would be about 20 inches high.  This should provide a good height for reaching in and working the plants.  I also planned to make the box 4’x8′ so that the reach across would not be too onerous.

Another aspect of purchasing from an Amish sawmill is that they do not adhere to the same work schedule or supply lines of, say, a Lowe’s.  I placed my order, and five weeks later got a call.  They had part of my order cut.  It seems that they were having supply issues getting logs big enough to cut the 12″ wide.  They were also having some issues getting in pine logs.  Where the Community Garden opted for oak beds, I chose pine.  It would be lighter to build and move by myself and just a tad cheaper.

They are also “rough cut,” which means you should probably handle with some strong work gloves.  They are not the smooth boards from the box store.

The final benefit of buying from an Amish sawmill is the price.  I ordered enough lumber to build a dozen 4’x8′ boxes (3 each of 4″x”12″x8′ and 4″x8″x8′ with enough 4″x4″s to cut into corner posts).  Total bill: about $300.  Cha-ching.

We also learned, as we loaded up our 8 foot, single axle trailer, that the Amish cut their lumber long so that you can square the ends up to your desired length.   That means we had boards that were, on average about 9 feet long.  The 4x4s were even longer (14 feet).  Simple math should have told me that the center of the weight would be behind the axle, which in hauling violates the rule of thumb that the weight should either be before (closer to the hitch) or over the axle.  We were back-heavy.

A single-axle trailer, when back-heavy, will begin to fishtail at about 45 miles per hour.  Panic ensued.  Brakes applied.  Trailer did NOT lose its load, flip the truck or cause any other mishap.  We drove slowly home, thoroughly chastened.

In order to build the boxes, I need to cut them by the power outlet and haul them to their

By using a paddle-bit, the recessed holes prevent legs from find the ends of the lag bolts.

By using a paddle-bit, the recessed holes prevent legs from find the ends of the lag bolts.

garden home.  I chose, since I was hauling by myself, to borrow from Ikea and make ready to assemble kits.  I squared and cut to length by the power pole, drilled pilot holes in all the ends, bored out a recess (to prevent the lag bolts from sticking out of the side) and assembled the small sides to the corner posts.



Ikea-inspired, the end awaits its sides.

Ikea-inspired, the end awaits its sides.


I am then able to haul them to place and with a cordless drill bolt them together.




Layered with wood, chicken straw and dirt from the city compost, our bed is making fine tomatoes.

Layered with wood, chicken straw and dirt from the city compost, our bed is making fine tomatoes.

They are, I must say, a big success.

We love our garden beds.

Avoiding “Killer Compost”

Real Compost

Real Compost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As previously noted, we go to significant lengths to obtain organic straw and haw.  There are three very good reasons (two of which are ultimately part of the same reason):

  1. Non-organic straw and hay have been directly linked to allergic burns and rashes on our skin
  2. Our chickens and ducks eat the straw and hay, and we eat their eggs
  3. The straw and hay become compostable matter which goes directly into our garden–and we eat the garden products

So, whether the straw and hay intersects with our skin or other organs, what we introduce to the garden becomes a part of us.

So, we hook up the trailer and drive the 25 minutes to into the hinterland to a farm committed to organic growing.  His straw and hay is a bit more expensive, but thus far we have had no allergic burns, and we are optimistic that our compost will be “clean” as well.

MotherEarthNews.com has an update to an earlier story about “killer compost”–compost that once put in the garden or around plants, proves toxic to those plants.  The story, “Killer Compost Update: Herbicide Damage Still a Major Problem,” details how “persistent herbicides” refuse to break down, traveling from ground, through animal, through compost to the end-user, killing the very plants that the compost was supposed to nourish.  Persistent indeed.

The article outlines some very specific persistent herbicides found in toxic compost in Vermont last year (2012): picloram, clopyralid.  Since these are regulated and controlled, the researchers asked the Vermont Agency of Agriculture who was using these chemicals.  No one, legally, was using them for the prior two years.

Digging deeper, the researchers isolated the source not to the compost, but to the feed given to the horses from which the compost was made.  The herbicide had made it through the cutting of the field (which was the initial source of the spray), through the industrial feed/food manufacturing process, through the horses’ digestive system and through the composting process.  That includes cutting, processing, digesting and composting (which involves heat), and the persistent virulence of the product remained intact to the point of killing (it is a herbicide after all) the plants on the receiving end of the compost.

We will continue to make our own compost, with our own birds (they are fed organic feed) and unsprayed straw and hay.  We may not be completely clean (overspray from neighboring farmers may result in incidental cross-contamination–but hopefully in minute parts/(m)(b)illion), but I trust our birds to peck, scratch and lay cleanly.  And, as spring nears, their bedding will become a positive addition to our tomatoes, squash and sunflowers.

If, after reading the article linked above, you wish to act, I encourage you to follow the articles prompt and write to the following:

This has to stop. Clearly, EPA labeling requirements and state regulations aren’t working. Recycling organic wastes to maintain soil fertility is essential if we want a sustainable food-production system. Picloram, clopyralid, aminocyclopyrachlor and all similar chemicals should be banned, period.

To express your view on the use of these persistent pesticides, we suggest you send your comments to Richard Keigwin, director of the EPA’s Special Review and Reregistration Division, at keigwin.richard@epa.gov.

Coping with Coop Poop

As I compose blog posts in my head while I tend to my chickens, one of the recurrent themes is that the art of chicken maintenance is all about handling the poop–specifically, and here it goes, the coop poop.


When dealing with the dreaded coop poop, nothing beats the hand rake at keeping the stuff at a reasonable distance.

We have a variety of coops (more on this in a later post), so our coop poop approach varies.  Today’s topic will deal with our oldest and first coop design and the absolute, most important tool for the job.

Our first coop was designed and built by Adam, my brother-in-law.  He saw it as a building challenge.  We discussed what we wanted out of a coop: movable through the garden rows,  nesting boxes that opened to the outside, a retractable ramp to close the hens in, and a screen skirt with a removable door for their scratching pleasure.  The idea was to move the chicken tractor/coop up and down the rows, with the hens scratching underneath and going up to roost at night.

Things don’t always go as planned.

The A-frame design is a good design: sturdy, stays put in wind and accessible–especially with a large side door.  We kept that basic design for our second large coop last summer.  Yay A-frame design.

We did not, though, anticipate the demands of the coop poop.  Here’s how: when constructing a door or access way, it is easier to clean if the opening extends down past the floor level.  That is, the easiest cleaning comes from a smooth scrape out.  We did not anticipate this.

While seemingly providing good access, the lower lip becomes an obstacle to a clean sweep.

While seemingly providing good access, the lower lip becomes an obstacle to a clean sweep.

We thought that a good nesting box, located at both ends of the A-frame, needed borders, much like a raised bed.  So, our doors have a lip around the bottom–good for holding in straw or bedding, bad if you then want to scrape out that straw or bedding with minimal effort.  (see picture to the right, with the removable door removed)

Enter the hand-rake.  Extending about a foot from my hand, my trusty hand rake offers me two options for coop poop removal: the three-pronged rake for grabbing the straw, and the hard edge for scraping the extra sticky droppings and, when the straw is extracted, shoveling the dust and dropping up and over the wall’s lower lip.

So, if you create a coop which has a level that is not open to the outside at the floor, then a hand-rake should be on your shopping list.

Happy chickening.

Composting with Chickens – BackYard Chickens Community

I just read a wonderful article about using chickens to “turn” a compost pile until it is mulch.  This aligns with our goal of having working chickens that add and benefit the garden.

Chickens begin to root and scratch around a pile of fresh compostable materials.

The same compost pile, now after 4 months of chicken work,resulting in actual compost.

I am linking a few of the photos (particularly the before and after shots), so to get the full article and more pictures, follow here: Composting with Chickens – BackYard Chickens Community.

Composting also allows us to cycle through the Franken-hay that we inadvertently bought.  In a pinch, we purchased some hay from the local co-op.  After working with the hay, Rebecca broke out in a pretty severe rash on any skin that was exposed to the hay particles floating in the air.  When asked at the co-op, they indicated that it was “normal” hay, probably just treated with a little  2,4-D.  

We are now buying straw and hay from a local farmer committed to organic practices.  The hay is not as green, but we are finding that the greener the hay, the more toxic the hay.

A final note, Penelope the duck has started laying again.  She has been fallow for about a month, with an occasional “rubber” egg–an egg whose shell isn’t completely firm.  We tried providing oyster shells to help, but it (coincidentally?) seems to correlate with removing all of the co-op hay and introducing the organically-grown hay.  After two days with the better hay, the shell has firmed up.

The franken-hay is being moved well away.

The Dangers of Treated Seed

Who would have thought mice would be a vector for seed with a poisoned seed coat, a.k.a., treated seed?  When my father first ordered his garden seed for last year, he swore he got untreated seed, had checked the box on the order form for untreated seed, and so he had.  Unfortunately, the seed that arrived was treated.

Treated seed…treat with caution.

According to the FDA‘s website, these are some of the labeling requirements for treated seed:

Section 201.31a (d) of the FSA regulations requires seed treated with a chemical not assigned to Toxicity Category I by EPA to be labeled with, “Do not use for food,” “Do not use for feed,” “Do not use for oil purposes,” or “Do not use for food, feed, or oil purposes,” if the amount remaining with the seed is harmful to humans or other vertebrate animals. The most commonly used labeling for seed with these types of seed treatments is “Treated with (name of substance)” and “Do not use for food, feed, or oil purposes.”

The type of seed treatment we have is dangerous to birds, and therefore would be dangerous to our chickens. I looked online for other views on treated seed and birds, and I found this from Michigan, as well:

The neighbor next to me planted 40 acres 12 days ago, and filled in some wet spots a few days ago. I walked down my lane two days ago and found two crows 30 yards apart in the fencerow. They are both dangling from limbs several feet off the ground. Wings wide open, drool hanging out of their beaks. Very close to death. I am sure they ate too much treated corn seed. Not a pretty site. They are a few feet from my neighbors newly planted corn field. (Michigan Sportsman Forums)

The forum also included a section about how this man’s field was sprayed with Round-up, obviously not healthy to birds, but the treated seed caused death of crows. The treated seed at our garden was stored in a shed that was infiltrated by mice, who infiltrated treated packets, and we began to find dead mice on the floor, in boxes, and in corners.  Unfortunately, we also found mice droppings and the remnants of coated, treated, seed shells under our packages of oyster shells in our shed.  We tried to put out oyster shells, but we found blue flecks in them, and upon closer inspection, we found that the treated seed had been spread by the mice to our mineral salts for the birds, as well. Even stored treated seeds have the potential to adversely affect your birds if mice carry them around.

Here is the warning for Syngenta, a treatment to prevent fungal infections in plants:

DO NOT use treated seed for animal or human consumption. DO NOT allow treated seed to contaminate grain or other seed intended for animal or human consumption.
DO NOT feed treated seed, or otherwise expose, to wild or domestic birds.

When treated seed is stored it should be kept apart from other grain and the bags or other containers should be clearly marked to indicate the contents have been treated. Bags which have held treated seed should not be used for any other purpose.


DO NOT feed treated seeds to animals, including poultry.

This product is toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. DO NOT contaminate streams, rivers or waterways with the product or used containers.

This segment was taken from the Syngenta website. Apparently we are not the only people noticing the toxicity of these seeds. We ended up dumping all of our products that the mice had gotten into anyway–who would want to feed mouse poop to their chickens–but we never expected the treated seed to be spread by the mice to multiple locations.  We thought we had the seed stored safely away from our garden.

I, personally, never handle treated seed, nor do I allow my daughter to handle it. I get too nervous about the toxicity of these chemicals on treated seed.  If the seed is so toxic, then why use it or touch it, but I just wanted to offer a cautionary tale that even storage of these seeds can result in spread by vectors we might not foresee.

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