In gardening parlance, manure is pure gold. It has all the necessary ingredients for successful plant growth: nitrogen (helps plants produce the proteins necessary to build green stems, sturdy roots, and lots of leaves), phosphorus (facilitates energy movement within the plants), and potassium (regulates photosynthesis, helps move nutrients within the plants, and helps make plant proteins). In addition to the big three (NPK), manure also contains humus, a mixture of plant and animal remains that form a bulky and fibrous material that is not only nutritious for your garden, but also makes the soil a better growing medium by fluffing up heavy clays, providing food for the critters that live in the soil, and retaining moisture during times of water shortage.
And yet, while some farms can’t give the stuff away, others of us have the devil’s own time trying to acquire it.
For example, I live in a very small rural town here in the mountains. If I walk down the street a few hundred feet from my house, there’s a family with a bunch of horses. I called one day to see if I could relieve them of some of their no doubt copious piles of manure. Sure…that’ll be $300 a load. Oh, and the “load” is mostly “topsoil” with a little manure throw in. I decided to look for other options.
There’s the bison farm about half an hour away, with all the free bison doo that you can cart away. Likewise, there’s the goat farm down towards Thurman – nannyberries galore, yours for the taking. Sounds great! But how do you cart away a load of manure when all you have is a Prius? Another acquaintance of mine, who raises sheep and chickens, has offered me a load of dung…sometime. I think I’ll follow up on this lead while I’m on vacation next month, maybe offering an exchange of labor for this largesse.
As I made the rounds trying to find a good source of poo for my nutrient-starved garden, I was struck by the variety of manures available within a short distance of my home: horse, bison, sheep, chicken, alpaca, goat. About the only types we don’t have nearby is cow and pig. I started to wonder, then, just how much of a difference there is between each type. I’d heard that goat droppings are a “cool” manure that can be put on the garden right away without danger of “burning” the plants, unlike horse or cow manure, which is “hot” and must age for at least six months before use. So I decided to do a little homework to see which type was best. Here are my findings.
Pig and poultry poop are very high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can burn your plants. If you use pig or poultry poop, you need to let it age for several months before use. Bird droppings are often quite prized by gardeners (as are bat droppings, which are also very high in nitrogen). One of the greatest inventions for utilization of poultry poop is the mobile chicken coop. This nifty device makes garden creation a snap: you set up your chickens in a location where you want a future garden. The birds spend the summer scratching up the dirt, fertilizing it, eating the bugs in it and basically turning it into a pre-fab garden plot. Next spring you relocate the birds and turn their old run into ready-to-use garden beds.
Horses and cattle (and bison) spend a lot of time grazing, and what goes in must come out. As a result their dung is very high in the fiber department, which means you will have lots of good humus if you use horse or cow manure. On the other hand, you are also likely to get a lot of weed seeds. Horse and cow manure both need to age before you can use them. The general rule is to let it rest and decompose at least six months before use. During this time you can decrease the weed seed problem if you cover your manure pile with plastic and let it really cook for those six months. My pumpkins liked the horse manure I planted them in last year, but the books say that horse and cow manure are both rather low in those essential nutrients N, P and K. You can do better, but if this is all you have available, it’ll work just fine.
Goats and sheep are prolific poopers and their dung comes in tidy little pellets (so does alpaca poop). Because of this, it breaks down quickly and easily, which means you can make use of it sooner than you can horse and cow manure. In general they have more K than horse and cow manure, but N and P are about the same. Unless… I read that if your goat droppings come from goats that are kept indoors (like milking goats often are), then you will likely get additional nitrogen in your manure load because you’ll get the goats’ urine mixed in with the hay and droppings that are mucked out of the stalls. Can you put goat or sheep dung directly in your garden without aging? Yes and no. You really should age/compost any manure first, but because the droppings of goats and sheep are small, they break down more quickly. You can put them directly in your garden, but be sure to keep them off roots and away from stems.
After doing my research, I’ve concluded that any manure I acquire will be a welcome addition to my gardens. And if some of it doesn’t have, say, quite enough K, then I can supplement with something else, like greensand. The bottom line is that you cannot keep taking nutrients out of your garden without somehow replacing them. Manures are probably the easiest source of nutrients around. So roll up your sleeves and make friends with your local farmer. Swapping some labor in exchange for a load of poo seems like a pretty fair deal to me.