Ask the Experts: Gardening with Manure

If you ask any farmer or gardener on Martha’s Vineyard, they’ll tell you that manure is one of our most precious resources. The seven most readily available kinds of manure here – cow, horse, sheep, goat, pig, chicken, rabbit – are discussed as if they’re the seven wonders of the Island.

“I really like chicken shit,” says Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark. “It feels so potent.” Simon Athearn of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown agrees: “Because the urine is in the poop, chicken manure is packed with nitrogen. It is powerful stuff.” Krishana Collins, who grows (and sells) some of the Island’s more incredible flowers in her West Tisbury gardens, prefers rabbit poop, she says, “because it is neat and relatively odorless. Pig manure is really stinky.” But all three primarily use horse manure, because they have relationships with horse owners who need to get rid of the manure from their horse stalls on a daily or weekly basis.

Using horse manure but favoring chicken poop is a common theme among farmers and gardeners. Lynn Weber, who has been gardening for fifty-nine years and is the head gardener for Island Cohousing’s spectacular vegetable and flower gardens in West Tisbury, says, “It has more bounce to the ounce.” In other words, weight-wise, chicken poop (generally speaking) has more nitrogen. But no matter what kind of manure farmers and gardeners use, they all seem to agree that manure is essential in creating nutrient-rich soil for vegetables, flowers, and plants.

“Organic matter in the soil is so priceless that not even science can put a dollar value on it,” writes Gene Logsdon, author of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2010). As he explains, manure is the most economical and efficient way to inoculate our soil with starch, cellulose, lignin, fat, proteins, carbohydrates, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and trace elements such as copper, iron, zinc, manganese, and boron. All of these things make plants more robust and disease- resistant, and our food more nutrient-rich. He observes, “The laugh of the day now is that maybe manure will become more pricey than food.” He explains that commercial fertilizers, which became popular in the last half of the twentieth century because of their ease of application (“buy and apply”), are becoming prohibitively expensive for farmers. Many Island farmers use North Country Organics Pro-Gro fertilizer, but apply it conservatively, as it retails for around $28 for a fifty-pound bag. Manure, however, is free (save the gas for transport from farm or barn to garden or field) or roughly $6 or $7 for about fifty pounds of packaged composted (sometimes called aged) cow manure. The same amount of packaged chicken poop (Chickity Doo Doo is a popular commercial brand) runs about $20 to $30. All are available in different sizes at many Island garden shops and nurseries.

Using local manure of any variety rather than prepackaged products is ideal, it is fresher and therefore filled with more nutrients; it’s also environmentally friendly with regard to transportation and packaging. And here on Martha’s Vineyard, fresh manure is more than likely organic, so it’s even more desirable. But perhaps most importantly, you are turning local waste back into local food. That said, not everyone has access to fresh manure nor does everyone have a truck or car they want to fill with it.

Most of the garden stores on the Island sell composted manure. The top picks among smaller gardeners and farmers are Vermont Compost’s “slings” (three cubic feet or roughly 150 pounds) of composted organic cow manure sold at SBS in Vineyard Haven, and Coast of Maine’s organic cow manure, which is sold at many garden centers on-Island. A few gardeners prefer packaged dehydrated manure, which has fewer weed seeds – but also less nitrogen.

How you age or compost fresh manure depends on your garden’s size and your gardening philosophy. Gene Logsdon believes a “manure pack” of chicken, goat, horse, or cow manure is the ideal. A manure pack is essentially six months’ worth of manure and bedding layered and packed together. Most of the value of manure is in its nitrogen, which begins to wane as it ages. The bedding contains the manure and also traps the animal’s urine, which is nitrogen-rich, so you get more nitrogen power per square foot.

Some of the farmers and gardeners here incorporate the manure – packs or fresh piles – into their food-scrap compost piles, while others keep their manure separate and use it in tandem with compost. Farms with larger fields and crops, such as Morning Glory Farm and Beetlebung Farm, have one huge pile where everything goes. But home gardeners such as Lynn Weber and Liz Packer, who owns SBS, keep their manure separate. Lynn goes so far as to store her manure atop a tarp with another tarp over it, which helps prevent the manure from leaching its valuable nutrients into the soil where it’s being stored (this makes sense if you’re working on a smaller scale).

How do you apply compost? The best answer comes from Liz Packer. She says, “That’s like asking how much salt you put on your food. It’s totally personal. That’s the beauty of gardening. There is no right and no wrong.” But there are guidelines. Never – particularly if you are planting leafy vegetables – use raw manure directly. Make sure that it has aged or dried out for at least four to six months. According to The Complete Book of Composting (Rodale, 1971), “Fresh manure is always acid. For the average vegetable farm crop, a too-acid condition may interfere with plant growth.” And Morning Glory’s Simon Athearn points to several studies that have found “applying fresh cow manure 90, 100, or 110 days prior to harvest may significantly increase the likelihood that E. coli bacteria from manure will contaminate vegetables.” The safest time to turn and mix fresh manure into a vegetable garden is after the crops have been harvested in the fall, or very early in the spring, so the manure has time to break down and there is no chance of harmful bacteria infecting your food. (Note: Don’t use household pet or human feces due to their high number of pathogens.) Churning manure into the soil in the fall and spring is also the best time for enriching flower and plant beds – it gives the manure time to inoculate the soil, but won’t burn the plants with too much nitrogen.

Compost tea is another economical and efficient way to boost your soil with manure’s powerful nutrients. Compost tea is essentially a brew of compost, manure (in most cases), water, and air, which you then spray onto your garden, flower beds, and even grass. Mitchell Posin of Chilmark’s Allen Farm is a huge advocate of compost tea and applies it to his gardens and the grass that his sheep eat, he says, “four to six times a year.” When asked about the safety of applying it to vegetable gardens when vegetables are up and growing, he explains that he side-dresses these beds, placing the manure alongside the plants, rather than on the plants themselves. Mitchell sells his compost tea for $4 to $6 a gallon, depending on the total quantity purchased.

How much manure to apply varies with each farmer and each field or garden. Lynn Weber cautions not to put too much manure in your tomato plant soil or, she says, “You will have giant plants with no fruit.” And she does not apply any manure to the soil where her potatoes grow, as that can lead to scab. But she does apply chicken manure – from a manure pack – liberally in the beds where she grows “any green leafy vegetables,” using a five-gallon bucket for a six-foot-by-sixteen-foot space. In Holy Shit, Logsdon cautions to not apply manure to watershed areas, or near streams or waterways, which is something to keep in mind on-Island. While Lynn’s application system is fairly exact, she gives simple advice: “Try it. If it doesn’t work, try another way. That’s the only way you’ll really learn how much manure your particular soil needs.” Beetlebung’s Chris Fischer relays one minor manure mishap: He used aged chicken manure on his asparagus this year, and it made the older plants seem “bionic. But it was too much nitrogen for the younger, less established plants.” He smiles and adds, “More to learn.”

As our farmers already know, animal waste is gold. Want healthy broccoli? Bigger blueberries? Greener kale? More vibrant flowers? Put some crap in the ground.

More compost ingredients

Here are few other key items that will fortify your compost, thereby nourishing your soil and plants:

• Animal fur, horse hair, and human hair – all have proteins, which don’t break down quickly and are excellent for feeding the healthy bacteria that help to decompose the compost (human hair specifically supports lettuce, wormwood, yellow poppies, and feverfew)

• Artichoke leaves and leafy vegetables – rich in nitrogen

• Coffee grounds – repel slugs

• Dead jellyfish – a protein that helps feed the healthy bacteria that are breaking down other items in the compost

• Eggshells – add calcium

• Feathers – another protein for healthy bacteria

• Fish skin, bones, and guts – a great soil conditioner and adds chitin (a derivative of glucose)

• Grass cuttings – add moisture

• Hay – adds nutrients and warmth

• Leaves – great for mulching in the fall

• Newspapers, tissue paper, and egg cartons that have been shredded – add carbon to the composting process

• Potash rock – water-soluble potassium

• Seashells, including clams, scallops, mussels, lobsters – add calcium and chitin (break up the shells as much as possible before adding to the compost; a five-gallon bucket and a sledgehammer work well)

• Seaweed – adds trace minerals and potash, which is essentially salt and water-soluble potassium

• Wood ash – makes the soil alkaline, which is great for root veggies (and for cleaning out your wood stove or fireplace)

• Wool socks, yarn, and sweaters (100 percent wool) – rich in nitrogen, which works as a slow-release fertilizer