To Haul or Not to Haul

Hauling manure hardly seems to make sense these days, considering that lugging 500 pounds of horse manure gives plants about the same amount of food as a 50 pound bag of 10-10-10. And the latter for only about ten bucks!

Human manure piles, China, 1900

Human manure piles, China, 1900

But whereas 10-10-10 supplies only food (and only three of the sixteen needed nutrients at that), manure has other benefits: it aerates the soil; it helps soil capture and cling to water; and it renders nutrients already in the soil more available to plants. Nutrients from synthetic fertilizers are used up or washed out of the soil by the end of a season, yet benefits from each application of manure last for years. Even ingredients of a concentrated organic fertilizer have little benefit as far as soil aeration and water retention are concerned.

Manure is a traditional way of feeding plants, to the extent that applying synthetic (chemical) fertilizers once was referred to as a form of “manuring,” and certain plants grown specifically to improve the soil are called “green manures.”

When we talk of manure, though, we really mean animal excrement plus bedding. The bedding itself –- usually hay, straw, or wood shavings -– is itself responsible for some of the benefits of manure. The amount of nourishment manure supplies to a plant the first season depends on the ratio of bedding to excrement. More bedding means less nourishment to plants the first season, but greater residual effect for subsequent seasons. Unfortunately, bedding also can be a source of weed seeds.

Mostly manure pile

Long ago my compost piles were mostly manure

“Hot manures” are so called because they readily heat up when stacked in a pile. The heat comes from the burst of microbial activity stimulated by these manures’ relatively high concentrations of nitrogen and low concentrations of water. Horse and poultry manures are “hot;” cow and pig manures are “cold.”

How to Handle It, Generally

Okay, so you have manure in hand, or rather in pitchfork (a five-tined pitchfork is my preference for manure handling). What next?

Most gardeners dig it into the soil immediately. If the manure is well rotted -– meaning bits of hay, etc. no longer are recognizable –- planting can proceed as soon as the soil is smoothed.

If the manure is relatively raw, wait at least 2 weeks for things to settle down, microbially speaking, before planting. Especially if this raw manure has a high proportion of bedding, a much longer wait is needed before planting. Microbial decomposition of that extra carbon-rich bedding requires nitrogen which, if in sufficient amounts are not in the associated manure, must come from soil reserves. Microbes are more adept at getting at that nitrogen than are plants, so plants are starved — at least until the extra carbon is digested (and the carbon/nitrogen ratio in the ground is about 20/1). One advantage to digging manure into the garden in autumn is that it avoids any delay in planting in spring.
Spreading manure on a farm
In lieu of digging, just lay manure on top of the ground as mulch. This is fine if the manure is rotted, but nitrogen volatilizes from fresh manure exposed to sun and wind. The nitrogen loss is wasteful, but may be worth the sacrifice considering the benefits of the mulch. And the nitrogen starvation mentioned previously doesn’t occur because decomposition is very slow, at the interface of the mulch and the soil.

And More Specifically

Spreading compost

Spreading compost

I have access to more horse manure than I could ever possibly want, and the way I usually handle the manure is to compost it before putting it on or in the soil. In a compost pile, manure is mixed with other ingredients (garden residues, vegetable scraps, leaves, soil, etc.), so the result is a better-balanced fertilizer. Also, the heat of composting kills most weed seeds present in either the excrement or the bedding.

The amount of manure to add to soil depends on whether the manure is rotted or fresh, and what kind of animal provided the manure. You can add too much manure to soil: I once had a chicken farming neighbor who killed his asparagus bed by blanketing it under 6 inches of chicken manure (very hot stuff!). Twenty-five to 50 pounds per hundred square feet is about the right amount.

(Manure is the only bulky, beneficial source of organic nitrogen. Some other sources are kitchen scraps, young plants, cultivated and wild — as in “weeds” —  and especially, legumes.)

  The word “manure” comes from the old French word manoevrer, meaning “to cultivate by hand” (in turn from the Latin words for “hand” and “work”). All this manure handling is a lot of physical work, but isn’t exercise another benefit of gardening?

Plant Sale in Progress (mostly fruits, many uncommon, and uncommonly delicious ones)

A reminder: my plant sale, online with live pickup, is in progress for another few days. To view the plant list, to order, to pay, and — VERY IMPORTANT — to schedule a pickup time (May 29-31 and June 2), go to


Manure Unnecessary

Manure or not, it’s compost time. I like to make enough compost through summer so that it can get cooking before autumn’s cold weather sets in. Come spring, I give the pile one turn and by the midsummer the black gold is ready to slather onto vegetable beds or beneath choice trees and shrubs.

I haven’t gotten around to getting some manure for awhile so I just went ahead this morning and started building a new pile without manure. It’s true: You do not need manure to make compost. Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.
Compost bins
My piles are a little more deliberate than mere heaps of organic materials. For one thing, everything goes into square bins each about 4′ on a side and built up, along with the materials within, Lincoln-log style from notched 1 x 6 manufactured wood decking. Another nice feature of this system is that the compost is easy to pitchfork out of the pile as sidewalls are removed with the lowering compost.

My main compost ingredient is hay that I scythe from an adjoining field. As this material is layered and watered into the bin it also gets sprinkled regularly with some soil and limestone. Soil adds some bulk to the finished material. The limestone adds alkalinity to offset the naturally increasing acidity of many soils here in the Northeast. Into the pile also goes any and all garden and kitchen refuse whenever available.
Hay for composting
What manure adds to a compost pile is bedding, usually straw or wood shavings, and what comes out of the rear end of the animal. The latter is useful for providing nitrogen to balance out the high carbon content of older plant material in the compost, such as my hay.

But manure isn’t the only possible source of nitrogen. Young, green, lush plants are also high in nitrogen, as are kitchen trimmings, hair, and feathers. Soybean meal, or some other seed meal, is another convenient source.

Compost piles fed mostly kitchen trimmings or young plants benefit from high carbon materials. Otherwise, these piles become too aromatic, not positively.

As I wrote above, “Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.” Nitrogen speeds up decomposition of high carbon compost piles, enough to shoot temperatures in the innards of the pile to 150° or higher. All that heat isn’t absolutely necessary but does kill off most pests, including weed seeds, quicker than slow cooking compost piles.Smelling compost

Plus, it’s fun nurturing my compost pets, the microorganisms that enjoy life within a compost pile.

Novel Use for Microwave

I bought my first (and only) microwave oven a few years ago ($25 on craigslist) and have cooked up many batches of soil in it. You thought I was going to use it to cook food? Nah.

Usually, I don’t cook my potting soils, which I make by mixing equal parts sifted compost, garden soil, peat moss, and perlite, with a little soybean meal for some extra nitrogen. I avoid disease problems, such as damping off of seedlings, with careful watering and good light and air circulation rather than by sterilizing my potting soils.

Peat, perlite, soil, and compost

Peat, perlite, soil, and compost

Recently, however, too many weeds have been sprouting in my potting soil. Because my compost generally gets hot enough to snuff out weed seeds and because peat and perlite are naturally weed-free, these ingredients aren’t causing the problem. Garden soil in the mix is the major source of weeds.

So I cook up batches of garden soil, using the hi setting of the microwave oven for 20 minutes. My goal is to get the temperature up to about 180 degrees F., which does NOT sterilize the soil, but does pasteurize it. Overheating soil leads to release of ammonia and manganese, either of which can be toxic to plants. Sterilizing it also would leave a clean slate on which any microorganism, good or bad, could have a field day. Pasteurizing the soil, rather than sterilizing it, leaves some good guys around to fend off nefarious invaders.

After the soil cools, I add it to the other ingredients, mix everything up thoroughly, and shake and rub it through ½ inch hardware cloth mounted in a frame of two-by-fours. This mix provides a good home for the roots of all my plants, everything from my lettuce seedlings to large potted fig trees.

Blueberry Webinar

Blueberries, as usual, are bearing heavily this year, with over 60 quarts already  in the freezer and almost half that amount in our bellies. After years of growing this native fruit, it has never failed me, despite some seasons of too little rain, some of too much rain, late frost, or other traumas suffered by fruit crops generally.

All of which leads up to my invitation to you to come (virtually) to my upcoming Blueberry Workshop webinar. This webinar will cover everything from choosing plants to planting to the two important keys to success with blueberries, pests, harvest, and preservation. And, of course, there will be opportunity for questions. For more and updated information, keep and eye on, the “workshops” page of my website.
Bunch of blueberries


Hay, Grass Clippings, Manure, Leaves — Watch Out!

Organic materials — that is, things that are or were once living — are the core of “organic” agriculture, and right from the get go, many years ago, I set out pitchfork in hand to gather these materials. Into large garbage pails toted around in my van I loaded manure from nearby stables. Neighbors let me haul away their bags of autumn leaves.

I even convinced city workers to dump a truckload of harvested lake weeds onto the side lawn of my small rented house. (That was in Madison, Wisconsin, where fertilizer runoff from lawns was spurring growth of lake weeds which, besides making swimming hazardous, were, upon their death, causing oxygen depletion of the lakes.)

Me mulching, even as a beginning gardener

Me mulching, even as a beginning gardener

Mowings of roadside hay, which I stuffed into the back of the van, were another source of organic matter, used for mulch and for compost. That was before the days of lead-free gasoline, so lead contamination was some concern. Then again, high levels of organic matter in the soil mitigate lead hazards in soils.

More dramatically of concern were bags of grass clippings I once dragged across the yard from my neighbor’s freshly mowed lawn. Hours after I had spread the clippings around my potato’s lush, green vines, their stems twisted and contorted as if screaming in pain — the effect of weedkiller used on the lawn. Perhaps my neighbor was striving for a uniform greensward; perhaps he had inadvertently used a lawn fertilizer laced with weed killer. “Weed and feed” sounds so cheerful and labor-saving. Lawn weedkillers are toxic to broadleaf plants, which means anything but a grass.

The particular weedkiller was probably 2,4-D, also know as Agent Orange (less cheerful-sounding), which is a synthetic category of plant hormone called auxins. At the right concentration and at the right time, whether natural or synthetic, auxins do good things, such as bending plants towards light, initiating root growth in cuttings and in growing plants, and promoting upward growth Otherwise, they can wreak havoc.

I phoned the university extension specialist and was advised to remove the mulch and to adsorb any escaped 2,4-D by mixing activated charcoal into the soil. I did so and subsequent growth was normal.

Home-Grown vs. Imported Hay

I now have the luxury of scything much of the organic material I need from my own one acre field. Early season mowings are succulent and nitrogen-rich, just like grass clippings. Later mowings are hay, dry and carbon-rich. During the growing season, depending on what and when I mow, I can harvest either end of the spectrum, or anything in between.

Wood chips are another good source of organic material, one free of chemicals

Wood chips are another good source of organic material, one free of chemicals

I no longer rely on roadside mowings as organic material for my plantings. They are nowadays too finely chopped for easy and fast scooping up with a pitchfork. Even if that were not the case, I would have second thoughts about bringing such hay on-site. Again, weedkillers are the threat, more insidious these days because of use of more persistent ones. So-called pyridine carboxylic acid weedkillers might hang around in the soil or on sprayed vegetation for anywhere from less than 30 days to several years, even in the manure from animals that have eaten sprayed vegetation!

Caution, Testing, & Time to Avoid Problems

I do still occasionally supplement home-harvested organic materials with imported ones. One source is horse manure from a local stable.

A few weeks ago I was pitching forkful after forkful of manure into the bed of my pickup truck when I glanced over at the far side of the pile and noticed some discarded hay, much of it still pressed together in partial bales. “How convenient,” I thought, for mulching, compost, or bedding for my chickens and ducks.

On my drive home I started thinking about that hay riding behind me. Could it be laced with weedkiller?

For the most straightforward answer, I could just ask the stable owner. A stable hand told me that the hay had been shipped from a few hours away. Rather than cross examine my manure donor, I looked closely at the hay to see if any clover, alfalfa, or other broadleaf plants were mixed in. No. Of course, lack of broadleaf plants does not prove that weedkiller was used.

Well-formed leaves indicate that the hay is free of chemical residues

Well-formed leaves indicate that the hay is free of chemical residues

My final recourse was to do a bioassay of the hay, essentially, to plant seeds in it and observe their growth. Two 4-inch flowerpots, one with chopped up, homegrown hay and the other with the chopped up, imported hay, served as growth media, into which went 3 bean seeds each. Long story short: Growth seemed normal in the imported hay although germination was slower, probably because its texture lent itself to more readily drying out.

To put my mind thoroughly at ease about the hay, I’m going to let the pile sit for a few months, where rain, sun, and, eventually warmth, can do their job in splitting apart the insidious weedkiller molecules. The hay is not for my compost, in the dark innards of which weedkillers, if present, would be particularly persistent.

Autumn Leaves, Good Stuff

Just like the old days, I do still import organic materials in the form of bagged autumn leaves — except a lot more these days. They are both weed- and weedkiller-free.

New Video from Last Summer: Grape Training & Pruning

If you’d like to join me on a brief journey back into summer, see for a new video, I made last summer, about how to prune that quintessential summer vegetable, tomatoes, just like the Godfather.