The Real Poop on Manure

November 21, 2013 | By | Comments (12)

Bossie here holds the key to your garden’s success. And it isn’t milk. Photo: dullhunk

The soil of a great garden is like one of Grumpy’s posts. It’s loaded with manure. But slinging this stuff isn’t as simple as it sounds (although it sure is fun). Use the wrong kind or misapply it and your plants could shrivel instead of thrive. So take a nice, warm seat as Grumpy gives you the poop on using nature’s black gold.

First A Little Housekeeping
But before we step in up to our knees, we need to get something straight. There is only one correct way to pronounce “manure” and it is not “min-YER.” Anyone who says, “min-YER” has min-YER between the ears. The correct pronunciation is “muh-noo-er.” Let’s not speak of this again.

What Does Manure Do?
It stinks — at least it does when it’s fresh and you didn’t grow up in a hut made out of it (thinking Paris Hilton here). But it also contains three essential plant nutrients — nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) — not in high amounts, but enough to do the job back in the day before components of inorganic fertilizers were mined or made from natural gas. By quickly returning livestock manure to the soil, farmers maintained the soil’s fertility. Of course, this wasn’t the ideal situation, as fresh manure can contain weed seeds, plant pathogens, and parasites. It can also burn plants.

Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton — not raised in a manure hut.

Enlightened gardeners like you know that manure’s best use is not as a fertilizer, but rather as a soil conditioner. It is all organic matter (sweet!), which is the best stuff you can mix into clay soil to loosen it or sandy soil to hold it together. Its presence adds billions of beneficial microbes to soil, suppressing bad microbes and making nutrients available to roots. Plus, it increases the numbers of hard-working earthworms that stir and loosen soil.

Serve Up the Right Stuff
Unlike human beings, livestock manure is not created equal. So let’s grab our shovels and dig deep into the details of the three most widely available flavors — uhh, types.

Horse manure is often the most readily available, but is relatively low in nutrients. Cow manure is the next most available and probably the best all-around, as it contains a balanced level of N, P, and K in moderate amounts. Chicken manure boasts more than twice the nutrients of the other two and is considered “hot,” since its elevated level of quick-release nitrogen can burn plants if you use too much. A friend once spread chicken manure on his lawn that was so fresh it still had feathers. His grass turned white. Then it clucking died.

Compost That ****
So don’t use fresh manure! Use manure that has been composted for a year or so. The easiest way to do this is to mix it with straw or hay, pile it up somewhere out of the way, and leave it. Unlike fresh manure, composted manure doesn’t smell or attract bugs. The composting process also generates heat that kills most weed seeds and pathogens.

Attack of the Killer Compost
One thing that composting won’t do is remove persistent pesticides that may have been applied to pastures where livestock were grazing. Joe Lamp’l, one of the good guys in this business and host of the PBS show, Growing A Greener World, discovered this the hard way this past summer.

Joe Lamp'l

Garden expert Joe Lamp’l learned the hard way that it pays to know what’s in the poop. Herbicide isn’t good.

He amended the soil in his new raised bed vegetable garden with copious amounts of horse manure he’d composted for a year. But instead of flourishing, his tomato, eggplant, pepper, and bean plants appeared stunted with distorted foliage. When Joe asked the farmer who’d supplied the hay for his horses if he’d sprayed anything on his grass, the farmer said yes — picloram. Picloram is a herbicide used to control broadleaf weeds. It’s very persistent — it takes years to break down. In fact, even after passing through the digestive tract of a horse and being composted for a year, it was still killing broadleaf plants. The lesson here — before adding livestock manure to your garden, make sure it comes from pastures that haven’t been sprayed.

Bagged Manure — Costs More, Less Risky
Don’t have horses, cattle, or chickens nearby? Not to worry — composted manure is readily available in many forms at your garden center. Sometimes it’s in bags, like Black Kow.


Behind every good gardener is a lotta Black Kow. Photo: Black Kow

Buying composted manure in bags costs more. But at least you know it doesn’t contain weeds and herbicides. Sometimes, composted manure even comes in teabags you can use to make manure tea. (I’m not kidding.)

Manure tea

My friend in California, rancher Annie Haven, produces two manure-based soil conditioners from organically-raised, grass-fed livestock called Authentic Haven Brand Natural Brew. You steep the little bags in water, just like tea bags, brew a few gallons of manure tea, and then water your plants with the magic elixir.

Have a cup! It’s jolly good! Grumpy takes his with a little milk.


  1. MrApple

    A bag of Black Kow isn’t that expensive for the backyard grower. I purchased a 50lb. bag for $5.17 + tax at Home depot just yesterday. Great stuff. Plants love it. And it doesn’t stink like poop, not one bit.

    June 21, 2015 at 9:11 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    Another manure miracle! Thanks, Dea!

    December 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm
  3. Dea

    God, I LOVE this blog! When you finish laughing you realize that there was some really valuable info injected there! I think the fates are telling me to use Haven’s, because I have just heard about it three times today, never having heard of it at all before. And muh-noo-er tea has been part of the garden regimen here since forever. Some day I’ll share the full story of how the hubs tilled 10,000 lbs of semi-fresh cow manure (no longer smelly, but not totally composted) from my cousin’s dairy farm into our little backyard garden. Now THAT created some interesting weeds; but the tomatoes loved it. We fed the neighborhood.

    November 29, 2013 at 5:20 pm
  4. suburbanfarmer1

    You just blew my image of a “Manly-man.”

    November 22, 2013 at 9:47 pm
  5. Steve Bender


    The reason I didn’t mention rabbits is that I’m very, very frightened of them. Still can’t get the killer rabbit scene from “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” out of my mind.

    November 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm
  6. Horse Manure black gold goes green |

    […] The Real Poop on Manure […]

    November 21, 2013 at 10:21 pm
  7. Joe Lamp’l

    Great post Grumpy. Thanks for spreading the word in a way that only you could. Fist bump.

    November 21, 2013 at 10:01 pm
  8. Chris McLaughlin

    Rather bummed out that Grumpy didn’t mention my favorite poop source — rabbits. I promise you that it’s superior to any other poop (that sounded different in my head). Anyway…it’s the bomb. High in N, yes…but high in everything else, too. Pretty darn balanced. Also, it doesn’t burn your plants if it IS added directly into the garden bed. That is a cool trick right there.

    Of course, if you’re amending veggies, you may want to compost it first if you’re concerned about pathogens. In any case, it’s been the best thing evah for my garden beds and compost piles.

    November 21, 2013 at 7:17 pm
  9. Carolyn from Cowlick Cottage Farm

    This is really important information to share! Not all *** is equal. One must be discriminating.

    November 21, 2013 at 7:07 pm
  10. Steve Asbell

    I started getting some $*@* from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and it’s all made of elephant and giraffe manure! I always have to have the most exotic stuff.

    November 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm
  11. Steve Bender

    I was surprised that the herbicide could pass unaltered through a horse and still be active after being composted for a year. Live and learn!

    November 21, 2013 at 2:18 pm
  12. Dee Nash

    Thanks for writing on this timely topic Steve. I’m shaking my head yet again over persistent herbicides. I saw the episode where Joe told of his problem. I love Annie’s tea when I don’t make my own with my chicken’s manure.~~Dee

    November 21, 2013 at 11:46 am

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s