The Lure Of Manure

THE REAL DIRT

April 10, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I'm going grocery shopping for my garden. It may take severa trips; I'm running low on staples. The potting shed is bare of basics like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium -- the agricultural equivalent of bread, milk and toilet paper.

My soil is hungry, and I must feed it.

This is no easy task. Certainly it is more arduous than a trip to the grocery store. When I shop for myself, I take coupons and checkbook. When I shop for the garden, I take pitchfork and pickup.

When the garden's tummy starts growling, I don't go to the farmer's market. I go straight to the farm.

There, piled high behind the barn, is a gardener's bonanza.

Horse manure. Tons of it. Black gold steeped against the stable, a steaming heap of fertilizer, free to good home. Mine. I leap from the pickup, pitchfork flailing. In 20 minutes the truck is full of dung. Two horses wander over, sniff the contents and snort derisively, as if personally offended. I scratch their ears and tell them to keep up the good work. Then I drive home, tires bulging under the wet, weighty load, and shovel the stuff into the garden.

The manure hits the ground in rich dark lumps, some of which burst on contact, unleashing hundreds of fat red earthworms that disappear beneath the soil in seconds. I pause to stretch and watch this squiggling knot of life unfold. The manure is a godsend; the worms, a blessed bonus.

Then I return to the farm for more manure.

My idea of a fun weekend is standing ankle-deep in barn muck and slinging it into my truck. It's great exercise, a boon for the back yard . . . and it helps clear my sinuses.

I've been courting farm animals for 20 years: horses, cows, sheep and goats. They've all contributed to my fertile loam. My garden is an outhouse for livestock, as well as for the byproducts of more exotic creatures such as bats and circus elephants. Guano revives the roses, and tomatoes love pachyderm poo.

Yuck, you say? Then stay out of my way. I'm heading home with my third load today.

Stable manure is a cheap source of garden fertilizer, providing you own a $10,000 truck in which to haul it. Many farmers insist on giving it away, placing "free" advertisements in community newspapers. Some even offer to help load your truck.

Alas, most gardeners lean toward cleaner options: bags of dehydrated manure sold in retail stores, or chemical fertilizers that won't stain their hands.

Pound for pound, chemicals pack a bigger wallop than manure. Sixty-six pounds of synthetic fertilizer supply as many nutrients as 1 ton of farm dung.

Certainly, neighbors would rather you use chemicals in the garden. But the garden protests. Unlike bags of 10-10-10, manure is a strong source of trace elements and beneficial microorganisms that enrich soil. It is also a good source of fiber (manure is the "oat bran" of the garden), and helps to improve the soil's tilth and its water-retention ability, which is crucial during droughts.

The downside? Fresh manure contains weeds that can plague a gardener for years. But weed seeds are burned off if the manure is composted properly beforehand.

(Weed seeds are not a problem with dehydrated, bagged manure. It has been pasteurized, dried and ground into bits. Great stuff, if you can afford it.)

I'll stick with the farm brand, thank you.

Warning! All dung is not alike. Some (chicken and horse) is "hotter" than others (cow and pig). Hot manures rot rapidly, making them more readily available to the garden. I've burned my hand digging into smoking piles of horse droppings. Once, while transporting it home, I was stopped by a state trooper who noticed the billows of steam and thought my truck was on fire.

Never spread fresh barnyard manure on a garden; let it ferment )) for two months or more, tucked away in a distant corner and

covered with a tarpaulin, lest the neighbors yelp. This also allows any livestock medications to leach out of the pile prior to planting.

Each spring, I reserve a small mound of droppings to make manure "tea," a midsummer treat for my favorite plants. The recipe is simple: Fill a burlap bag with manure and immerse it in a pail of water for a week, agitating the bag periodically. Remove bag and pour the brew around the base of the plants.

Trust me, they'll thank you for it.

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