It might not be the most pleasant of topics. But sometimes, as a gardener, you need to talk about poo. Using manure in your garden can be a good way to maintain fertility over time. Reuse and recycling are important concepts in any garden. And using manure is, like composting, one of the ultimate ways to complete the cycles of nature and retain or build a rich and fertile soil.
But using manure in your garden is not just a case of embracing the natural order of things and letting creatures poop where they will. Of course, the manure of wild creatures will play a part in building and maintaining soil fertility. But the manure of livestock (either from your own livestock or from a farm nearby) and even from certain pets, must be used much more carefully.
In this article, we’ll talk about why using manure in your garden is a good idea. We’ll also talk about the different types of manure, and how each one can be used.
Why Using Manure in Your Garden is a Good Idea
Manure is a type of brown organic matter. Like a typical homemade compost, it will:
Increase the nutrient content of the soil as it breaks down. (Providing essential plant nutrients – especially nitrogen. But also phosphorus, potassium and other micro-nutrients needed for plant growth.)
Condition the soil and improve soil structure (loosening compacted soil and improving its drainage, or capacity to store water).
Improve the soil’s carbon content (sequestering more carbon and thereby helping in the fight against climate change).
Common Manure Types
A range of different manures can be used in your garden. For example, you can potentially use manure from::
Chickens (or other poultry)
Herbivorous pets such as rabbits, hamsters, gerbils etc..
Plant-eating zoo/ exotic animals.
Note: human, dog and cat manure require specialist composting, and should never be applied directly to food producing areas unless you have expert knowledge in this arena.
Most manure types should be composted well before you use them in your garden. We’ll cover this in more depth below.
The Characteristics of Different Types
It is important to understand that different manures have different nutrient compositions and characteristics.
Manure from chickens and other poultry, for example, tends to be particularly high in nitrogen.
Cattle and horse manures are also relatively high in nutrients, though not quite so high in nitrogen as chicken manure. Horse manure in particular can tend to contain a lot of weed seeds.
Sheep and goat manures takes a little less time to compost, but should also really be composted well before use. These manures tend to be a little more balanced – containing more phosphorus and potassium than many other types in addition to the nitrogen. They also tend to have a less pungent odour than the above.
With pig manure, it is especially important to compost well, as it may contain a number of pathogens that can be transmitted to humans.
Rabbit manure (along with similar manures) is particularly beneficial for the garden. It is particularly high in nutrients and is one manure that can sometimes be added without composting it first.
One important caveat to consider is that you need to know where the manure has come from before you use it on your garden. Don’t use any manures that come from farms where antibiotics, worming chemicals etc have been used, as these could be harmful for you, or have a detrimental effect on the garden ecosystem.
Why You Usually Need To Compost Manure For Your Garden
It is important to understand that fresh manure should not usually be used in your garden beds directly. There are two main reasons for this.
The first reason is that fresh manure can bring pathogenic risks. There is the danger that fresh manure can harbour bacteria etc. that could pose a risk to human health.
The second reason is that fresh manure is usually too high in nitrogen to use directly around plants. Leafy plants need plenty of nitrogen to grow, and all plants need nitrogen to some degree. But too much nitrogen can cause more harm than good. Plants can be scorched, or even killed by excessive nitrogen levels.
So when using manures in your garden, you usually need to compost them well before they are used. If you are sourcing manure from an outside source, it is best to choose manure that is already well-rotted. (Unless you are buying manure – chicken manure for example – in pelleted form.)
How To Compost Manure For Your Garden
If you keep livestock, or source fresh manure from a farm, then you yourself will usually need to compost it before you use it. The usual rules for good composting apply. Make sure that you add plenty of carbon rich material to the nitrogen rich manure to keep your composting system functioning as it should.
Sometimes, animal bedding mixed with manure serves as the carbon rich material in composting. You can also add other carbon rich materials – dried leaves, or straw, for example.
Composting manure successfully involves either plenty of heat or plenty of time. In a hot composting system, manures can be composted and safely used in a far shorter length of time. The higher temperatures in such systems mean that the material breaks down more quickly, and pathogens should be killed at these higher temperatures too. This significantly reduces the risk of contamination.
In cold composting heaps or bins, much more time will be needed before the materials break down and the manure is safe to use. Depending on conditions, it can be broken down and composted more quickly. But it is best to compost for a year before using the material in your garden.
Cover the composting material over the winter months to avoid nutrient depletion.
Using Composted Manure in Your Garden
Composted manure can be used in much the same way that you would use other composted material in your garden.
Traditionally, gardeners dig well-rotted manure into garden beds in autumn or in spring. But in a no dig garden, we want to disturb the soil as little as possible. Leaving soil as undisturbed as possible means the soil web with all its various organisms can function as it should.
In a no dig garden, it is best to top dress garden beds with a well-rotted manure early in the spring. You should aim to add a layer of around 5-8cm in depth.
You can also use a well composted manure to make a liquid plant fertilizer. Simply add some composted manure to a bucket of water and use it to give leafy plants a boost.
Do you use manure in your garden? How and when do you apply it? Which manures would you recommend? And what impacts do they have on the different plants that you grow? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.