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

Using (almost) fresh manure on the garden

Manurey straw

This year, our garden has subsisted on 95% homegrown manure. This was more of an access issue than a planned experiment, so I ended up behind and unable to compost the bedding before application. I needed that fertility now rather than later.

As you might expect, my results have been affected by that shortcut --- I figure we're at about 75% productivity compared to previous years when I fed the garden well-composted horse manure. But we're finally caught up, so winter bedding will be composted and hopefully next year we'll be back up to speed. And, just think, homegrown manure means 70% less hauling work, 80% fewer weed invasions, and 100% more control --- a definite long-term plus for our farm!

Germination comparison

Interestingly, there have been some areas in which the uncomposted goat bedding trumped well-composted horse manure. My plan over the summer has been to apply the goat bedding two weeks to one month before planting to ensure there wouldn't be any seedling burn from fresh urine and goat berries. Then, if I was planting something large (like sweet corn), I raked back the manurey straw when I was ready to make planting furrows. If I was planting something smaller like carrots, I raked all of the bedding to the side of the bed, to be pulled back up around seedlings once they sprouted.

The photo above shows two beds planted with carrots on the same day. The bed on the right was topdressed with the last of my stockpiled, well-rotted horse manure. The bed on the left was treated as explained in the last paragraph with goat bedding. I had almost zero germination in the horse manure bed, which has been a common problem in previous years when getting the fall garden going --- small seeds fail to sprout during dry spells, despite what seems to be sufficient irrigation. So perhaps putting horse-manure compost on the surface was the issue all along. I assume the compost sucked up water and made the beds drier on the surface since the bed next door sprouted quite well. In contrast, goat manure on top of the soil kept the ground moist until planting day, then didn't get in the way of seedling germination since I raked the straw to one side.

Mulching asparagus

For new annuals, it's pretty easy to incorporate a waiting step between bedding application and plant growth. But what about when fertilizing perennials who are already in place? I was a bit leery when topdressing fresh goat bedding around our strawberries and asparagus, but I ended up seeing fewer issues than expected. The strawberries, actually had no complaints, presumably since there was already a layer of straw beneath the goat bedding to sop up any high-nitrogen effluent that floated down toward the ground. The asparagus was a bit less pleased, with the youngest fronts showing wilting of the top four inches or so, a clear sign of nitrogen burn.

Since my test asparagus beds showed issues with the straight goat bedding, I'm now trying out plan B on my other asparagus planting. I laid down a section of newspaper (for weed control), then a healthy layer of fresh straw (to buffer the nitrogen), then Mark and I scattered chicken manure from the spring brooder lightly over top. Hopefully the nitrogen will be more asparagus-friendly by the time it reaches the asparagus root zone this time around.

Bowl of beans

The other good news on the manure front is that most of our garden soil is now so good that we're moving out of the renovation stage and into the maintenance stage, meaning that some crops don't need pre-planting doses of manure at all. We no longer feed our beans or peas, and in certain beds I also skip feeding before planting leafy greens. I'm actually starting to imagine a time when the composted manure from two goats, a flock of layers and an annual round of broilers, plus the contributions of our composting toilet will provide more fertility than our farm needs. What a change from the eroded soil that required truckloads of manure before anything would grow at all!

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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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