With all the interest in growing our own food, have you been asked yet if you have your new chickens? The answer might be an easy, "Yes, and I love them!" But do you have an answer for: "What do you do with the coop cleanings and the chicken poop that keeps on coming?"

For most gardeners, it's another easy answer: Put it in the compost!

What about the have-nots, those with no chickens or no compost pile?

Greedy gardeners would say even this is a no-brainer: If you don't have compost cooking in the backyard, get it started or give the sweepings to a gardener and composter who doesn't have chickens.

Unless you've been lucky enough to have access to a ready supply of poultry droppings, you may not realize what a treasure is in store for your compost pile.

Adding chicken manure to compost is about the most efficient way to handle it and one of the fastest ways to heat up a pile.

Blended with dried materials such as coop bedding — wood shavings, leaves, sawdust — or shredded paper along with green garden clippings and kitchen scraps, the nitrogen (protein) boosts microbial populations in the pile while the dry brown carbons (carbohydrates) feed them. Bacteria, fungi, and other tiny creatures heat up the pile with their activities and garden-ready compost is the result.

<b>A few words of caution</b>

Fresh from the coop, poultry manure should never be applied directly to the garden. Its high nitrogen content will burn plants and pathogens may harm root crops or leafy greens. But after manure is thoroughly broken down by microorganisms, it's transformed completely.

Finished compost looks, feels and smells like crumbly soil and is safe for use in food gardens.

Poultry manure has a much higher nitrogen content than nearly all other manures and must be handled with caution. If too much is added to the compost, ammonia forms as the nitrogen content breaks down and the pile becomes smelly — bad enough to upset your neighbors.

In the worst-case scenario, the pile heats so rapidly and to such a high temperature that it can catch on fire and ignite whatever combustible material is nearby, including your house or garage. It has happened, rarely but with catastrophic results.

Monitoring the pile, adding about equal amounts of dry brown materials and manure in combination with kitchen scraps, turning it every few days, and keeping it as moist as a wrung-out sponge will avoid any problems and give you finished compost in a couple of months.

<b>What do you have?</b>

If you have three hens, it's estimated that you'll be dealing with about a cubic foot of actual manure every couple of months. How often you sweep out the coop and enclosed pen determines how much dry material you'll be working with.

Rather than letting it accumulate, plan to add small amounts to your compost pile regularly. One or two 5-gallon buckets of moistened sweepings keep a cubic-yard pile hot and active, whereas a larger amount will upset its balance. Add smaller amounts at a time to smaller piles.

Use your finished compost as mulch in vegetable beds, work it into the soil between existing rows, or stockpile it for later use when you can turn it into empty beds. Either way, once it's watered in, microbial and enzyme action releases nutrients for plant roots to take up.

Backyard chicken farmers who have only a few ornamental plants or a small garden can use extra compost as mulch around plants to add nutrition and suppress weeds. Alternatively, they can offer it to fellow gardeners.

<b>Still time for veggies</b>

Although it's nearly time to plant cool-weather crops for fall harvest, there's still time for succession plantings this summer.

Before the end of July, plant seeds or transplants of bush or pole beans, sweet corn, green onions, cucumbers and summer squash.

Mix finished compost into the planting bed before you sow, water regularly, and side dress with more compost after seedlings develop their first set of leaves.

Within the next few weeks, you'll want to be ready to sow a host of cool-season vegetables from lettuce and leafy greens to peas, carrots and more.

(Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.)