Adventures in Gardening: Manure Is Your Friend

by David Soper

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We know manure was being used by the Algokian tribe in North Carolina before 1585. For good reason. Manure can do things for your garden that are nearly impossible to duplicate with alternative materials.

You may know the numbers on fertilizer packaging stand for the percent of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Those are the big three in terms of plant needs.

What isn't so widely known is that chemicals (not present in manures) can react with soil and water to change the phosphorus to a form no longer (or at least not readily) available to our plants.

Not to get too technical, but the portion of water falling on the soil's surface that actually gets to the root zone will determine the "water infiltration rate."

In actual field tests, plots of land that had been manured were able to receive appropriate amounts of water five times as rapidly as similar, unmanured plots. In part, this is because it keeps the soil more friable and inhibits the surfaces from sealing.

In addition, it turns out that manure is a parent material for the creation of humic acid derivatives. Humic acid or humus will, among other things, improve the soil, hold nutrients in a form usable by the plants, improve moisture conditions, will improve trace element nutrition, promote growth and assists in the release of plant nutrients.

Wow, that's pretty impressive. I've talked to leading garden experts around the country. Universally, they think adding some manure to your beds is one of, if not the most important single thing you can do for your garden.

We all are, I suppose, a little fastidious about manure. Think about this. Cattle in India (sacred to much of the population) excrete 700 million tons of manure a year. More than half of that is recycled to be used as fertilizer for crops. The balance is used to provide heat for cooking. Some scholar has calculated that without manure, Indian homemakers would use 27 million tons of kerosene, 35 million tons of coal or 68 million tons of wood. It is so valuable that small children follow the cows around all day collecting dung (and my kid's didn't like emptying the garbage.)

Fresh manure is a little ripe, too laden with weed seeds and possibly injurious to tender plants by burning. The solution is to find aged or composted manures free of those vices.

This is a very good time for you to spread the manure. If you don't believe me, do a test plot with manure and one without. You'll see the difference.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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