The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How much manure and straw does a garden need?

"I am curious how much manure you use each year?  Gallons, pounds, buckets.  How many acres or square feet?  One of my friends said he used about 300 bales of hay for each acre he farmed.  Seems high to me?  That said, I guess we are all grass farmers :)." --- John

The tricky part about your question is that I apply manure based on quality of the soil.  In poor soil that I'm just bringing into cultivation, I may lay down as much as two inches of manure over the entire area.  In this case, I'm applying manure both to provide nutrients (especially nitrogen) and to increase the organic matter levels of the soil, improving the poor ground.  Plus, the high levels of manure jump-start the soil life and get everything humming fast.

Cucumber flower

On the other hand, much of our garden is now getting to the stage where the soil simply needs to be topped up with nutrients before each planting.  There, I often apply one to two five-gallon buckets of manure per garden bed (about 20 square feet), which would work out to about 11,000 to 22,000 gallons of manure per acre of ground (assuming no unplanted aisles).  That's about 55 to 110 cubic yards of manure per planted acre, or a layer approximately 0.4 to 0.8 inches deep spread across the planting area.  At this application level, you're only maintaining soil nutrients and organic matter, not improving your ground, so you'll want to add cover crops into your rotation to ensure you're still making your earth richer.

Red currant

Anyway, to get back to the point and to actually answer your question, I estimate that we use about 200 to 250 buckets of manure per year for our vegetables and strawberries.  We also add a few buckets to our bigger perennials, but most of our bushes, vines, and trees get their fertility from the deep bedding in the chicken coops and (starting this fall) from our composting toilet.

Last year, we went through 107 bales of straw, which felt a bit extravagant but which allowed me to use straw as bedding in the coops when I ran out of leaves and also gave me straw to mulch a few of the perennials.  Since our vegetable garden is only about a quarter of an acre, your friend's statistics sounds about right (although I assume he meant straw, not hay).

Poppy flower bud

In case you're curious, our manure costs us nothing but sweat equity and gas for hauling, while our straw costs us a bit over $5 per bale from a local farmer.  You can see my rundown on the other costs of our garden here.

Gardening or farming organically definitely does use a lot of inputs!  Of course, we could turn the whole thing into a closed loop pretty easily if we just had another 24 hours in every day and another ten arable acres to grow grains for straw and cows for manure.  In the meantime, we'll keep bringing in manure and straw to keep our little two-acre growing area feeding us a large proportion of our own food.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Hi Anna and Mark,

Thank you both very much for your detailed and helpful answer :).

In one of Fukuoka's books he says that he applied quite a bit of chicken manure each year to his 1/3 acre grain field. The one that gave record yields year after year.

This was disputed by at least one person who felt this was not what he said in the original document.

Based on you analysis, I suspect the key to heavy natural fertility is a lot of animal input. Which was why I asked the question.

Lots of manure or animals and lots of cut grass seem to be what it takes.

It is amazing to me how wet my experimental pots stay with a small heap of grass/weeds on the top of the soil.

I wish I lived near enough to talk you out of one of your chickens :).

warm regards to you both and thanks again.


Comment by John Mon Jun 9 11:48:20 2014
Was the pic of the red currants taken on your farm? If so, I'm jealous. I've tried to find some here in NC but keep hearing their sale is banned in this state for some reason. I brought a bush back from my great grandparents' farm in PA when I was a kid but it didn't survive. Are they difficult to grow? My gooseberry (no idea how I found it in a garden center here) grows great but after 8 or 9 years, I've finally found one berry on it this season. I know they're both ribes so I was curious if the currants are delicate as well.
Comment by Ed Tue Jun 10 21:41:58 2014

Ed --- Sorry to take so long to answer you --- it's been a crazy busy week. Those are red currants, which have just started producing this year. I have to admit that I'm not that impressed by the taste of their fruit --- I vastly prefer the gooseberries we've had longer. I think that currants are often used in cooked recipes, which I'm not generally as fond of, so these bushes may get transplanted to the chicken pasture this fall.

Both gooseberries and currants are northern plants, so they're easy to grow if your climate is right but hard if you live in the south. Follow that link to learn a lot more about growing (and about why black currants are banned in certain areas.

Good luck with your plant!

Comment by anna Sat Jun 14 11:13:20 2014
My husband sent me this article, as I'm the gardener. I live in S.W. Florida. We live in sand. I use sand for the chickens. I have attached hardware cloth to a pitchfork. I use it like a kitty liter scoop. Having a load or 2 delivered for your chickens would be cheaper then straw. I moved from CA where I had horses. I grew my garden in horse manure. It grew great. Here in Fl. we live in the sand. I was filling trash cans with horse manure to add to my garden. I went to a stable and they have a dumpster delivered to them to dispose of their manure. I have it dumped free at my house. 30 yards at a time. It is mixed with shavings. Now I have enough to just use manure. I have never used straw in my garden. Maybe you could save a few hundred a year.
Comment by Bonnie Mon Jun 16 22:09:34 2014

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