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By Sallie Lee
Question: It may sound silly, but my family has decided to give our vegetable garden a "gift," and is debating whether a truckload of manure would be appropriate. What manures are best for vegetable gardens in particular, which ones should we stay away from, and how long before results of manure application are apparent? Someone even mentioned turkey manure, which is very timely this month!
Answer: How thoughtful of you to be giving back to the garden that provided sustenance to your family through its reproductive efforts. Because that's what it's all about: plants perpetuating their species via development of the female ovary, which becomes the squash, cucumber, or watermelon on our tables.
So a nice helping of manure could top your garden's "wish list," and fall-into- winter is a good time to apply it.
However, in order to feel good about using manure in either ornamental or edible gardens, consider a few suggestions regarding its use.
Although farmers, including my dad, applied fresh manure every March....ah the smell of spring in the air... nowadays many gardeners use it as a soil conditioner rather than a fertilizer. Or put another way, adding fresh manure in the fall means it'll have time to work into the soil and compost prior to spring planting. Once the garden has been planted, the use of fresh manure is not advised, although composted manure can be used to side dress during the growing season.
What's the difference between "fresh" and "composted" manure? About six months and 140 Fahrenheit! Fresh manure is more likely to be high in nitrogen and ammonia, which can burn plant roots and possibly inhibit seed germination. And if manure is from a plant-eating animal which most will be, there are probably weed seeds in the mix, just waiting for the chance to germinate.
Manures produced by vegetarians, animals that eat vegetation, i.e. horses, cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, llamas, elephants, rhinos OK, maybe not so much the last three are recommended. If the animal is a meat eater; dog, cat, lion, tiger, those materials can contain dangerous parasites that aren't present in veggie manures, so don't use them.
Also, animal manures, while good sources of organic matter and nutrients, are not created equal. It will help if the gift you give your garden is one that either balances its nutrient levels, or compensates for a deficiency in your garden soil. As example, the NPK analysis of horse manure is approximately 0.7-0.3-0.6, while rabbit manure percentages are higher; 2.4-1.4-0.6. However, it would take a lot of rabbits processing food to produce enough manure for a sizable garden, so consider quantities produced when shopping for a "donor."
How long before your garden expresses its appreciation for the gift, or when does the "magic" appear? Well that depends on several factors, such as soil and weather characteristics. As example, decomposition will occur faster under warm, moist conditions, which makes nutrients available to plants quicker. However, if using fresh, uncomposted manure, adding it in the fall gives it time to go through the composting process and be ready by spring. Basically, you and your garden should realize benefits within 12 months.
Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research-based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A M University and Auburn University. Email questions to Sallie at or call 205 879-6964 x11. Learn more about what is going on in Jefferson County by visiting the ACES website, . Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @acesedu
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