Knee-deep It Ain't Hay

THE REAL DIRT

April 12, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each April I call on my friend Merrill, the tax accountant. Merrill works out of an office on his horse farm. We exchange pleasantries, then get down to business. That's when Merrill tells me how much loot I can expect to "fork over" this year.

This year, he says, I'm looking at two or three truckloads of the stuff.

Whew. I'm glad it's manure, and not money, that he's talking about.

Merrill and I struck this deal 10 years ago, having found each other through a newspaper ad. He had to dispose of a mountain of rotted horse dung. I had a garden. He had a pitchfork. I had a pickup truck.

We've been partners in grime ever since. Every spring I do my best to wipe him out. Merrill's barn has never been cleaner, and my soil has never been richer.

I try to complete this task by April 15, the best time hereabouts to transplant early-season crops such as broccoli, beets, cauliflower and carrots. Rototilling a load of aged manure into the garden beforehand helps give these vegetables a healthy start.

Is it worth the effort? Egad, I hope so. Shoveling several tons of fTC horse droppings each year is an arduous task, a pain in the back. Why don't I break down and buy 10-pound bags of dehydrated manure at a garden center? Because the cost is prohibitive for large-scale gardeners. Nor will I ever succumb to the lure of synthetic fertilizers, which are cheaper and more convenient to use than organic methods.

Those man-made pellets do add muscle to crops. Yet at the same time, the synthetics are silently slaughtering beneficial microbes, transforming the garden into a chemical junkyard and promulgating nasty side effects, such as mineral deficiencies in the soil.

In my opinion, adding 10-10-10 to a garden is like feeding it steroids. I won't do that. I would rather stand knee-deep in horse patties every year for the rest of my life. I can dream, can't I?

That's what I was thinking last weekend, while rattling down the road to Merrill's house. I can't tell you where he lives. I won't even tell you his last name. Mum's the word when a gardener finds a good source of manure.

"Are we almost there, Daddy?" asked Beth the Fifth Grader, who came along for the ride. Beth likes horses, although, unlike her father, she seems more interested in the front of the beast than its backside. She scrunches up her face when I mention manure. "Horse dooies," she calls them.

Merrill greeted us at the door. He'd been working on taxes but welcomed a break. I envy him. The world of finance befuddles me; gardening does not. I have more trouble balancing my checkbook than I do my soil's pH.

Merrill led us to a spot behind the barn where the family's three quarter horses are stabled. There, alongside the building, was a formidable pile of manure nearly 4 feet high and 15 feet long. My heart leaped. Three truckloads of horse dooies! And it was all mine! I felt like I had just won the lottery, except I didn't have to pay taxes on it.

I began shoveling immediately while Beth greeted the horses. There was Windy, 26, Dexter, 23, and Sunday, 21. Together, they've been pumping nitrogen into my garden for a decade. I saluted them with the pitchfork in my hand and nearly blinded myself.

I'll take their dooies, especially Dexter's, over those of any horse around. Six years ago, during Preakness Week, I gathered a bagful of manure from each of the contenders, plus Dexter. Then I planted tomatoes in my garden, fertilizing each plant with the contributions of a single horse.

I figured the Thoroughbreds would produce the biggest and best tomatoes. I was wrong. Dexter beat them all. His plant produced 81 tomatoes, while those of the top three Preakness finishers -- Snow Chief, Ferdinand and Broad Brush -- managed a paltry 45 tomatoes combined.

Dexter became a star. His story even appeared in Sports Illustrated. Did fame go to his head -- er, rear? Not this horse. Dexter quit waiting for a Triple Crown invitation long ago. He is good at one thing, and I know what it is, and I admire him for that.

2& His stablemates aren't bad either.

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