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Gardening: If handled with care, manure still can offer nutrients for garden soil

Gardening: If handled with care, manure still can offer nutrients for garden soil

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Manure pile

Mary Stickley-Godinez/for the daily progress

Manure needs to age for months before being applied to garden soil because its acidity can burn the plants it is intended to nourish.

The Bible says I should not covet my neighbor’s ox or ass or wife. I don’t have any problem with that. But I have to admit I do really covet my neighbors’ manure pile.

I drive past it almost every day. I’m not sure what is going on. But they have been dumping manure there for a week or two. And, yes, I have been quietly wondering if I could get away with a midnight snatch and grab. However, tractors and dump trailers aren’t exactly conducive to subversive activities. And, I know, it just might be considered stealing. So, I haven’t hitched up the trailer.

For years, manure was the go-to for a great vegetable garden. I remember the first instructions I ever heard for planting asparagus was to dig a trench 2 feet deep and fill it at least half full with aged cow manure. The crowns were placed on top of the manure, and the trench was filled in. The lettuce and spinach beds were certainly never better than when planted in a soil rich with manure. Our vegetable garden always had a layer applied in the spring when we cleaned out the barn.

But life certainly has changed. With all the incidents of E. coli and salmonella, not to mention issues of water pollution, folks have understandably become a bit concerned about using manure in their gardens. And honestly, the manure has changed, too. But, done right, it can be a great amendment for your garden spaces.

Manure adds nutrients, especially nitrogen, and lots of organic material. Nitrogen promotes leafy growth. So, it’s great on plants that have lots of leaves, stems and green parts. But nitrogen, unbalanced with other nutrients, can cause so much growth that it prevents the plants from producing flowers and fruit. So, go lightly on berries, tomatoes, peppers and other plants that need to flower to produce what we eat.

When using manure, be sure of your source. You can purchase bags of composted material. Or you might beg, borrow, (or steal) from a neighboring farmer. You want to use poo that came from an herbivore, with cow, horse or chicken being the most common. Many weed seeds will survive the digestive tract of a cow. Therefore, it is preferable to get it from farms with well-maintained fields. However, be careful. There are certain broadleaf herbicides that remain on the grass where sprayed and survive the digestion process, thus remaining viable in the manure. It can definitely do a bad number on your garden if you use this manure. As an aside, also ask about hay or straw you want to use for mulch as it has the same effect.

Make sure the manure has plenty of time to age. Fresh from the cow, it can be “hot,” meaning it is too acidic and will burn the plants. One method is to heap it up, cover it with a plastic sheet and leave it be for several months. Then stir it up several times, several days apart each time. Now it is ready to spread a thin layer on the beds — 1 to 2 inches at the most. I prefer to get it in early fall and till it into the soil of a fallow bed. Wait a week and till it again. Then plant the area with a winter cover crop that will not be harvested for food.

In the spring, mow down the cover crop and till that into the soil for additional organic amendments — and it’s ready to plant for the new season. I rotate the fallow field each year. So, the following year, a new bed gets the same treatment. Aging it either in a pile or in the ground gives it time for any dangerous bacteria to die out. It is recommended to wait at least 120 days with above-freezing temperatures before you harvest food crops from a field that has had an application of manure.

If you pile it up, make sure you are controlling the storm water runoff. Nitrogen is very water soluble and a major cause of water pollution. Since the beauty of manure is the high levels of nitrogen that it contains, allowing rainwater to leach away the nutrients doesn’t help your garden or the natural waterways it runs in to. Store it where it will stay dry. It is also helpful to keep a buffer of vegetation between the pile, or any cultivated areas for that matter, and natural water features. And remember that if it does get wet, the water running through it also may contain bad bacteria, and so care should be taken not to eat anything that might have grown in the runoff path.

Additionally, there have been some changes in bedding materials, allowing them to absorb more waste before needing to be changed. This might make the manure extra concentrated. So, while a little bit is good, a little bit more might not be.

In a world where we are trying to reduce our waste and return to sustainable, natural methods of gardening, manure might be a tool you can use to improve your soil health and re-create a healthy home ecosystem. So, get to know your local farmers, and then maybe the manure pile will be on your side of the fence instead of the neighbor’s.

Mary Stickley-Godinez is The Daily Progress’ gardening columnist.

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