How to use manure in the garden

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I’m a huge fan of using manure in the garden. It’s an excellent source of nutrients for soil and helps with soil fertility and structure. It’s also usually free and easy to source, so it seems like using it is a no-brainer.

However, there are a few important steps and things to consider before layering on the manure in your garden.

Aging Your Manure

‘Use aged manure’ is a sentence you’ll read or hear from any gardener who uses it, but what exactly does that mean?

Well, fresh manure straight from the horse’s mouth , well, I mean bottom, isn’t going to benefit your plants. Firstly, it’s strong and fresh and can easily burn tender seedlings. Secondly, fresh manure will be full of weed seeds (especially from horses, cows not so much) that will readily germinate the moment they get some sun and water on them and lastly, pathogens and diseases can be present in the manure and potentially contaminate your plants.

Ageing your manure, really just letting it rot and break down, for at least a year will turn this smelly, potentially pathogen ridden poop into a dark, nutrient-packed mix with not much smell at all.

If you don’t have a year to wait, why not try…

Composting Manure

Composting your manure will break it down faster than just letting it sit and rot away. If your compost gets hot enough it will also kill the weed seeds in the manure. You can just add it to your already made compost heap, the worms will LOVE IT, or you can make a compost pile just for manure. It’s the addition of carbon and a little fresh green nitrogen that will turn it from a pile of poop into a hot, productive and fast compost heap.

You can make a quick and easy ‘manure compost pile’ by alternating layers of manure plus a little fresh greens like freshly mowed grass, with layers of brown materials like leaves, wood shavings, shredded paper, or straw to a rough ratio of about 1 part green to 2 parts brown.

Build your pile about a meter high on top of uncovered ground, in an area where you’ll have room to turn the pile over. Dampen your pile with a hose (not dripping wet) and then cover with a burlap sack, tarpaulin or just another layer of hay/straw.Turn the pile over every couple of weeks to allow oxygen in. I usually shovel it from one area to the next which in turn, turns it upside down.

Once your pile has broken down and turned into a dark crumbly humus, usually in a few months time, it is ready to use.

Manure for next year’s garden

If you have a spot of land that’s not yet a garden but you’d like it to be, manure can be helpful in prepping your bed without you needing to do any hard work and you can use fresher manure.

Once you’ve marked out where you’d like the garden bed to be (don’t worry about weeding it!), spread out the manure thickly along with a helping of carbon (leaves, straw, hay…) and cover with thick black plastic sheeting for at least 6 months. A good time to do this would be Autumn so that you have a ready to plant in bed come Spring. The worms will break down the manure for you. If you’re using horse manure this won’t always get rid of the weed seeds so once you’re ready to plant in your bed, cover it with a thick layer of compost and mulch to stop the seeds germinating.

What animal manure to use?

Technically any manure from any animal can be used in the garden but some are more tricky than others.

Herbivore manure from horses, cows, rabbits, donkeys or goats can contain pathogens but not as many as the manure from animals that eat meat too. If you were wanting to use manure from animals that eat meat too such as pigs, it’s vital that the composted manure gets hot enough to kill the pathogens in there as they can be very dangerous to us. I myself stick to herbivore only poop.*

*Chickens are a bit of an exception as they eat such a varied diet which can include meat. I still use chicken manure in my garden but I compost it twice, not only just to avoid pathogens but also because chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and too strong for most plants. I let my chicken manure sit in a burlap sack and age, and every 6 months or so I’ll tip the bag into the compost for it to break down again.

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This blog post was kindly provided by Elien who lives in Wellington. 
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Greg Lowe