Chicken keeping continues to grow in popularity year after year—for a variety of reasons. Most of you probably raise chickens for the delicious fresh eggs or possibly for the meat, but a flock of backyard chickens can provide you with lots more benefits than that—especially if you’re a gardener. Instead of using chemical-laden commercial fertilizers and plant food, you can put your chicken manure, eggshells and even chicken feathers to use in the garden to amend and improve your soil naturally and provide your garden the nutrients it needs to help plants grow and flourish.
Scraps from your kitchen that would otherwise end up in the trash bin or compost pile can also help your garden soil. The better your soil and the more suited for planting, the greener leaves and more lush blooms you will get. That leads to a more productive plant and more vegetables and fruit for your family to eat. So making sure your garden soil includes the proper nutrients is critical to having a successful garden. Of course, all these items can simply be added to your compost pile, but because they each possess some really great nutrients for specific situations, you can spot apply them to your garden where they are most needed.
Here are my eight favorite natural (as well as inexpensive and easy) ways to get my garden ready for spring planting.
1. Banana Peels
Banana peels are extremely high in potassium and also contain sulfur, magnesium and phosphorus, making them a wonderful all-around fertilizer. Chop up some peels and put them around the base of your vegetable plants to help with root development, increase the blooms on your flowering plants and boost your fruit yield. Chickens generally don’t eat banana peels anyway, so instead of putting them in your chicken treat pail, next time use them in the garden.
2. Chicken Feathers
Chicken feathers are extremely rich in nitrogen. During the fall molting season when all your chickens drop their feathers like crazy so they can grow in new ones for winter, collect the feathers from around the coop and run and spread them over your garden plots.
The feathers will slowly break down over the winter and by spring add some nice nitrogen to the soil, which is necessary for green leaves and provides food for your plants. Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli, lettuce and Swiss chard especially appreciate high nitrogen levels in the soil.
3. Chicken Manure
Animal manure makes some of the best fertilizer for your garden, and chicken manure is one of the best types of manure. It’s extremely high in nitrogen, though, and therefore “hot.” It will burn plants if you apply the fresh chicken manure directly to them, so allow it to age for three to six months before applying it to seedlings or growing plants.
Spreading manure over your garden in late fall gives it time to age and the nitrogen to dissipate before the spring planting season. This aging period also gives any pathogens in the manure time to be killed by sunlight or extreme temperatures, reducing the chance of salmonella or E. coli contamination.
Chicken manure is not only high in nitrogen, it’s higher in calcium than the manure from other animals such as cows, horses or sheep, so your calcium-loving plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and peppers—will benefit from being “fed” chicken manure. Amazingly, one chicken will produce about 11⁄2 to 2 pounds of manure a week.
4. Coffee Grounds
Don’t throw out those coffee grounds! They contain nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, making them an excellent general fertilizer for your plants when you sprinkle them around the base of your seedlings or work them into the soil prior to planting. Coffee grounds also help aerate and increase the drainage of your garden soil.
Earthworms love coffee grounds, too, so sprinkling them in your garden will make the worms happy. Chickens shouldn’t eat coffee grounds, however, so if you let your chickens wander around your garden, bury the grounds.
Save those eggshells, too. If you normally feed crushed eggshells to your chickens for the supplemental calcium that hens need to make their own strong eggshells, set some aside to use in your garden.
Adding some crushed eggshells to the hole when you plant tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables that require high calcium levels helps prevent blossom end rot by providing them the added calcium they crave. Sprinkling some eggshells around the stems of your plants will also work to deter slugs and improve soil drainage.
6. Epsom Salt
Epsom salt is extremely high in magnesium, which helps seed germination and helps boost the absorption of other nutrients. Mixing some Epsom salts into your garden soil when you dig the holes to plant your seeds will help them sprout and should improve your germination rate.
Diluting the Epsom salt with water and spraying the mix onto plant leaves results in greener leaves, bushier plants and more flowers. Epson salt also improves the soil for crops such as tomatoes and peppers, which like the magnesium.
7. Seafood Shells
Tossing your discarded shrimp, lobster and other seafood shells into the garden adds nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus to the soil. Shells also add beneficial chitin and other trace elements. Adding shells will make acidic soil slightly more alkaline, which is more conducive to growing vegetables.
The shells will break down better if they are chopped or crushed first, and it’s best to bury them deep into the soil so you don’t attract scavengers such as raccoons, rats or other wild animals.
8. Wood Ash
If you have a wood stove or fire pit, saving the cooled ashes and scattering them on your garden will help neutralize acidic soil much like agricultural lime does. Depending on the type of wood you are burning, wood ash also can contain high levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus, which are all beneficial to a garden. Again, the calcium-loving plants such as beans, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, spinach and tomatoes will appreciate a bit of wood ash sprinkled around and then worked into the soil with a rake. One thing to note though: Wood ash can burn young, tender plants, so it’s best to apply the ash to the garden before you start to plant your seedlings and rake it in well.
Using these few natural soil amendments helps nourish and fertilize your garden, which will lead to stronger, healthier plants and a more bountiful harvest.
So next time you’re on your way to the chicken coop, trash bin or compost pile, think about whether what you’re tossing out might help feed your garden directly. You’ll not only save money you would have spent on commercial fertilizers and plant food, you’ll help the environment by avoiding chemicals and not filling up a landfill needlessly. Your plants will thank you.
The information in this article is partially excerpted from the book Gardening with Chickens (2016) by Lisa Steele.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.