Manure Worth It’s Weight

If you could purchase only one product at your garden supply store to make your plants grow, what would it be? (Hint: If you have a cow or a horse, you won’t need to go to the store.)
I have a friend whose Italian grandfather came to the San Fernando Valley in the 1940s. He lived to be 97 and grew all of his own fruits and vegetables. There was but a single substance that he added to his soil annually: steer manure.
Once a year, during the 1960s, my friend would get a call from his grandfather. “Fill up the van with some of that manure and come right over here.” A trip to Green Arrow Nursery would follow. The precious cargo would be loaded up, delivered and forked into the soil or spread over the top.
Year after year, beautiful crops would issue forth from the manure- managed garden.
The word “manure” is an abbreviation of “maneuver,” which is a combination of the French words for hand and work. Manure, literally, is any substance worked – originally by hand – into the earth. At one time, people spoke of manuring with peat moss, with gypsum or any other soil amendment.
Green manure refers to a cover crop such as clover, which, grown in an area prior to vegetable planting, is cultivated into the soil to enrich it.
Frequently I am asked about the effectiveness of manure in growing plants. The reason people are curious about it, I think, is because of its low price – between 50 cents and $1 per cubic foot. In a culture of conspicuous consumption whose motto is, “You get what you pay for,” people are suspicious of products with low prices.
Don’t let it fool you. Manure is worth its weight in, well, manure. There is nothing else like it. Accept no substitutes.
The odor it gives off is ammonia, a nitrogenous compound, some of which is incorporated into the “bodies” of beneficial bacteria. When these bacteria die, the nitrogen they consumed in ammonia form is released back into the soil where it can be utilized by plants. Nitrogen is the element that plants need to manufacture chlorophyll and remain green.
Not too long ago, manure was the most popular fertilizer in the United States. When the distance between city and farm was small, manure was just about the only fertilizer in the United States, due to the enormous number of horses and cows that were everywhere. As recently as 1954, “The Wise Garden Encyclopedia” advised that “manure in some form is usually necessary in gardening.” Manure is recommended because, while it fertilizes, it also softens the soil. Manure contains bacteria, enzymes, vitamins, and hormones that improve the health of soil microorganisms and of plants themselves.
Manure is a low-analysis fertilizer. Steer manure contains less than 1 percent nitrogen, far milder than a typical artificially manufactured fertilizer – the kind most people use on their lawns – which may contain 15 percent to 40 percent nitrogen. For every ounce of artificial fertilizer you
put on your lawn, you would need to apply at least 15 ounces of manure. The advantage of manure – as long as it’s somewhat aged – is that liberal applications will not burn plants as artificial fertilizers often do.
Generally speaking, the smaller the animal, the more concentrated the nitrogen found in the manure. Sheep and swine manures contain twice as much nitrogen as that of horses, cows or steers, but less than that of rabbits or birds. Guano (bird droppings) is the most potent manure, with nitrogen content running from 2 percent to 12 percent. Some gardeners swear by bat guano as as all-purpose fertilizer.
Many people who garden simply have eliminated manure from their repertoire of fertilizers. Either the labor required to spread dozens of bags of manure is too much or the image is wrong or the stuff just doesn’t smell right. At this point in time, I suppose, we’re just too far removed from the land to have maintained our olfactory appreciation of what growing crops is all about. You know – putrefying substances are fructifying, and death is a part of life.
Today, waste created by humans, in the form of sewage sludge and grass clippings, has taken the place of farm animal manure in the American garden. The city of Los Angeles has developed a product called “Top-Gro,” available at garden centers, which is a mixture of municipal sewage residue and homeowners’ yard waste.
If you want to make great compost, all you need is a horse and a newspaper subscription. A compost pile should contain equal amounts of nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials. In this context, horse manure (nitrogen) and newsprint (carbon) work ideally together. Shred the newspaper for more rapid decomposition.

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