Sunday, May 27, 2012

Using animal manure in the garden

Animal manure is the foundation of all fertilizer—worldwide; it is either applied directly to fields and gardens or it is processed to make bagged manure, or other forms of commercial fertilizer. Animal manure is excellent fertilizer, and an excellent source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients; but it has its drawbacks, its deficiencies, and its costs too.

Steer manure: is by far the most abundant animal manure and the most complete; it contains generous amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, it also contains many of the trace minerals that also aid plant growth. Steer manure contains about 3-4% nitrogen by volume, when fresh. The older it is, the less nitrogen it contains. Part of the nitrogen in steer manure is in the form of ammonia, which is a gas, and dissipates into the air quite rapidly, so should be tilled in immediately.

But how do you use the stuff, and how do you apply it? One reason commercial fertilizer is so popular is it is in a concentrated form, comes in a nice clean bag, and is easy to apply; steer manure? Not so much. Steer manure is available from dairies, cattle farms and stockyards—and in bags at your local nursery. Some of these might deliver to you, but it’s likely you will have to go get your own, a major inconvenience—it might also be free, a major advantage.

As a rule of thumb, if you decide to apply steer manure to your garden, you would apply about 3-4 inches of manure on the ground, then till it in as deep as you can. This may seem like a lot of manure, and it is, but if you think about the distribution, you’re not getting a huge amount of nitrogen out of it, but probably enough. Also, only about half of the nitrogen will be released the first year, the rest, the following year. By comparison, a few pounds of 34-0-0 commercial fertilizer would equate to all this steer manure—and it is all available right now; but you get no organic matter from it.

Steer manure also contains quite a lot of weed seed that will sprout, so this is a negative of using barnyard manure. Some commercially bagged steer manure is “cleaned” and is free of weeds, but this bagged manure ends up being quite expensive; so that is your tradeoff.

Horse manure: has about 1% nitrogen, by comparison; but has more “undigested” feed in it, and if sawdust is also included, much of the nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down this material. Horses don’t digest feed as well as cows do, so much of the hay is just pushed right on through and ends up in the manure. If horse manure is used, it is generally necessary to supplement with a commercial nitrogen fertilizer…for some crops.

Horse manure also contains a fair amount of weed seed—so expect it. And horse manure is almost always free. Those with horses are delighted to get rid of the stuff—but you’ll probably have to go get it yourself. I always make friends with a couple of neighbors who stable horses, and ask if I can take their manure; I’ve never been refused yet.

Turkey manure: has a nitrogen content of about 9%, triple that of steer manure, so it is “hot” stuff, and you must be careful in applying it or you will “burn” your young, tender plants. The Moroni, Utah turkey growers sell a “turkey mulch” that mixes turkey manure with sawdust or other wood products. This makes an excellent manure/mulch for the garden—but it’s expensive, and must be trucked in. Because some of the nitrogen is tied up in breaking down the sawdust, it makes a great fertilizer and mulch for the garden.

However, turkey mulch (also true for chicken manure) has very little phosphate, potash, or the trace minerals; so what you’re getting is nitrogen and excellent mulch. But turkey and chicken manure has very little weed seed in it, so this is a plus.

Chicken manure: All that is true about turkey manure is true with chicken manure also.

Pig manure: pig manure has about double the nitrogen of steer manure, but because it contains different bacteria than other animal manure, it becomes a very slow release nitrogen and generally takes two to three years before you get all the nitrogen from it, so it is a poor fertilizer for nitrogen; it also contains less organic matter than does steer or horse manure.

Overview: fertilizer does not need to be expensive, but it can be. Commercial fertilizer is not cheap, but very convenient, and easy to apply. Turkey manure is an excellent fertilizer and compost but is also expensive. If you’re resourceful you can get all the steer manure and/or horse manure you want for free—but labor will be required.

If you choose to buy all the expensive gardening materials, you might well have $14.00 tomatoes, but if you’re resourceful you can produce the best tasting and largest tomatoes around—at a fraction of what you will pay in the store.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Organic vs Inorganic

This piece is an attempt to make sense of the organic vs inorganic approaches to gardening. In one sense it’s an opinion piece because, it is my opinion. But I grew up on a farm, and have been a gardener for many years. There are many theories and practices being applied to gardening these days. Nearly everyone employs some practices from a variety of these approaches to gardening. Organic gardening, like many terms today, is a bit deceitful, because it assumes that only it (organic gardening) employs the principles they espouse. In fact, all gardening, and agriculture in general, employs elements of organic and inorganic agriculture.

Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.
I believe organic gardening has been oversold and under-delivered. I also believe commercial agriculture has been unfairly demonized. Many false claims and accusations have been made with regard to this debate. I won’t go into all of them, but will touch on a few.

First, organic purists now declare that in order to be an “organic gardener,” you cannot use pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizer, or human waste.

Second, consider the fact that without commercial fertilizer, worldwide food production would be cut nearly in half; the ensuing result would be mass starvation. So can commercial fertilizer be all that evil?

Third, if you also eliminate chemical pesticides and herbicides, worldwide food production would fall by another fifty percent, relegating most of the world’s population to perpetual starvation. There is a reason commercial fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides exist, and mankind is the beneficiary.

Fourth, commercial fertilizer is not “synthetic” nor is composed of “poisons” and “harmful” stuff.
This is not to say that as a home gardener you must use commercial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides—it isn’t necessary. But if you don’t use commercial fertilizer you must be very smart and active about replenishing your soil with manure, compost, green manure or some form of crop rotation.

Pesticides: If you don’t use some pesticides, you must accept the fact that peaches, pears, cherries, and apples will all be worm filled. Dormant oil, and other oils are effective pesticides, and they are not poison or harmful to humans or the environment. Pesticides are designed with just enough poison to kill a tiny bug. Check the percentages of active ingredients on the label, they are miniscule; meaning if the pesticide is only potent enough to kill a bug weighing less than a milligram, you could likely drink the entire bottle and it would have no effect on a human being.

But in the home garden, little if any pesticides are necessary, except on some fruit. No cool weather crops need pesticides (broccoli, onions, beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, etc). And melons and all cucurbits can be managed without pesticides. However, the corn borer or earworm must be dealt with or much of your corn will be ruined by worms. A little oil on the silk is effective against the earworm, or a mild pesticide is effective, and harmless to humans. It is the silk that needs the pesticide, and that pesticide never gets to the kernels we eat.
Home gardening can be successful without the use of herbicides, however; but you will have to put in a little extra time and labor in order to keep your garden from being taken over by weeds.

Fertilizer: It is important to understand that nitrogen is nitrogen, and it really does not matter where you get it. If “religiously” you refuse to use commercial fertilizer, then you must get it from some other source or accept small, spindly plant growth with reduced production. Where it rains a lot, nitrogen is not an issue because the rain pulls nitrogen out of the air and provides adequate amounts of nitrogen, in places like Washington and Oregon. But we don’t get enough rain here to even consider that option.

The next best source of nitrogen is manure, cow, horse, chicken or turkey; or any other animal manure. But most home gardeners do not have enough animals to provide enough nitrogen for their own gardens, so it must be obtained elsewhere. Throughout most of Asia, human waste is the primary source of crop fertilizer. Organic purists in the U.S. would be horrified to use human waste, but in most of the world, it is the primary source of nitrogen. Most of the rice grown in Asia is fertilized with human waste.

Commercial fertilizer is often called “synthetic” fertilizer, but that is a false characterization. There is nothing synthetic about commercial fertilizer. Is not nitrogen and phosphorus organic? Nitrogen is everywhere. Potash is mined; it’s a naturally occurring mineral. Phosphate is mined; it is a naturally occurring element—not to mention steer manure is loaded with both. “Chemically, these nutrients are identical to nutrients derived from an organic source.” (from

Commercial fertilizer is also demonized by environmentalists because, they say, it leaches into the ground water and into rivers and lakes and poisons or contaminates them. This is blatantly untrue. It is true that all fertilizer, commercial, natural, organic, or otherwise, leach into ground water; but so what? What is the difference of nitrogen leaching into the streams and lakes, and rain dropping tons of nitrogen into rivers and lakes? Nitrogen is not a poison, and neither is phosphorous or potash, they are everywhere in the earth and they end up in the water whether man has anything to do with it or not.

Environmentalists are now attempting to demonize carbon…of all things. Carbon is essential to life; it is not a poison, or a pollutant. Increase the amount of carbon in the air and all plants will have more growth, and food crops will have greater production—why is that bad? And for that matter, raise the overall temperature of the earth, and food production goes up, disease goes down, and people are healthier and happier. And some people are freaking out because the earth’s temperature might be rising? We should hope it is.

Not too much goes to waste in today’s world, almond hulls are made into feed for animals, cottonseed is processed for feed for dairy cattle; and…the contents of sewer sludge is used in a variety of ways, including making commercial fertilizer—all organic stuff.

Plowing and tilling: Plants need air to grow, above ground, and below ground. The notion that plowing or tilling the soil is destructive or “kills the soil” is nonsense. If soil is never turned or plowed or tilled, it becomes so compact the roots get no air, bacteria do poorly, the soil becomes sluggish or dead (sterile), and plants don’t grow or produce well. The notion that soil should not be disturbed, that farming damages the soil and the environment is a false environmental notion driven by another false notion that we would all be better if man was not here at all.