Manure connoisseurs



They knew their dung

In this post continuing our ongoing discussion of manure and compost, Michele quotes Roy McGuiness as saying, “While it’s all right to add manure directly to garden soil in fall (farmers do it all the time), I’ve found that cow, horse, and bird manure are best if composted first.”

That’s what I’ve always thought, but then I read this article in the LA Times, where Jeff Spurrier has these words about cow manure: “What you’re buying is a bag of dust,” says Alan Gill, a staff member at Sunset Nursery in Silver Lake. “The only thing retained are the uric acids and the salts, and it’s going to salinate your soil to the point where it can inhibit plant growth.” Horse manure, although more nutritional (and obtained free from local stables), is not much better. It has a high straw content and often is full of weed seeds.

And here I was congratulating myself on the lovely aged horse manure I get from an equestrian friend. There are two issues here: one (Michele’s) has to do with the danger of e. coli, while the LA Times article is simply questioning the efficacy of manure in helping to renew tired turf (it does not mention vegetables). I’m with Michele and her commenters; I am not worried about e coli. But the salty dust part gives me pause—a bit.

At the risk of pushing the envelope of fair use, I must also quote this lovely passage from the LA paper about the ancient Romans: They targeted and categorized everything: night soil, offal and droppings from cesspits, privies, stables, corrals, aviaries, coops, butchers, tanneries and barnyards. They collected hair from the barbers and hoof shavings from the blacksmith, mixing up a heady concoction of organic putrefaction. Their dung palette was indeed rich: human, donkey, horse, sheep, goat, cattle, pigs and domesticated and wild fowl.

I really have no donkey, horse, sheep, goat cow pig, chicken, or dog in this fight; I can take manure or leave it, but I do find it fascinating, and in the end, I think what was good for the Romans probably still holds. After all, they had a good run!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Love the photo and the headline!

    The Silver Lake nursery-man who calls manure nothing but uric acid and salts is referring to bagged manure from feedlots. I never trust bagged manure–it always seems too processed to be meaningful.

    Horse manure is fantastic, although you have to assume that various pharmaceuticals will be in it. I recently looked at a British vegetable growing guide that says that antibiotics leach out quickly. Who knows how scientific that is?

    It’s hard to escape the dangers of modern life, even in the garden.

  2. Years ago we visited the 1627 English Village at Plimouth Plantation, they were “mucking” the garden – you know, spreading the soiled bedding from the animal pens. That’s when I began mulching my veggie garden with soiled hay from cattle pastures. The hay broke down in a season and I’ve always felt that the drying cow paddies leached some nutrients into the plants – I never considered that I may be adding salt to the soil . . . food for thought, so to speak.

  3. I spent some of my childhood on a dairy farm in Vermont 60 odd years ago, and it is hard for me to think that manuring fields and gardens (I have chickens and chicken manure these days) is really a health problem without any efficacy for the soil. I remember my Beijing collegues who did ‘manure work’, moving all kinds of manure, human and otherwise, during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese have centuries of using these manures, and baring droughts and flood, have always managed to feed themselves on a small amount of arable land. I think the issue always has to be how the manure is handled. Another small point. Straw usually does not have weed seeds. Straw is the stalks of grain that have been harvested – hence no seeds of any kind. Hay, even ‘spoiled’ hay is a very different thing.

  4. I’ve been using horse manure that we dig from a neighbor’s pile outside her stable for four years. It’s mixed with the bedding, which I assume is straw. There are occasional rogue weeds where I use it in the vegetable patch. We usually let it sit for a month or two more on our lot. Our veggies have been fantastic, since we started using it to amend our sandy soil.

  5. As with most gardening issues, when it comes to manure, the answer is: It depends.

    You can’t speak of manure as if it is just one thing. The composition of manure depends on the animal it comes from. It depends on how it’s treated on the farm. (The horse manure I used to depend on was mixed with a lot of sawdust. It was best used for mulching paths and perennial beds but a disaster if incorporated into vegetable beds.)

    And in the case of processed and bagged products, it depends on the composting process used. Some are certainly dust. Others are far richer.

    The salt issue also depends on where you garden. In my area — where precipitation usually far exceeds evapotranspiration (the amount of water moved out of the soil by plants) — salts are not a big problem. They are usually quickly leached from the soil by rain. (The edges of heavily salted walkways can take a big hit.) If I lived in an arid place, salts would probably be something I paid more attention to.

  6. As with everything, it pays to know where your manure is coming from. I located a riding stables on the way to the in-laws where the horses dine primarily on the feed they are given in the stables. The manure is piled behind the stables with lots of nice turds sans bedding to choose from. The arrangement I now have is that I am free to fill my buckets any time, just call ahead. The owner is very gracious that way (most of the pile goes to a local produce farmer). The manure heats up my compost pile very nicely.

  7. I just last week responded to a Craigslist ad for free organic horse manure within a half hour drive of where I live in the city of Minneapolis. First I called and asked about the “organic” designation. I asked what they meant by “organic”. The person said that the manure was mixed with bedding which was either pine chips or some kind of deciduous wood chips. She admitted that the feeds used for the horses weren’t necessarily strictly organic, nor were the trees that were chipped for the bedding.
    I still went out and picked up a dozen or so bags of it, making almost no dent in the lengthy pile of bags next to the horse barn. Who can resist bagged horse manure?
    I will use the manure for the native plants that comprise most of my yard and also for the few garden vegetables I grow each year.
    Part of my purpose in filling my urban yard with native plants is to attract and nurture as many native insects as possible for natural bird food.
    My concern is in possibly harming any microbes in the soil or insects with any residual antibiotics that were in the feed, thus in the manure.
    My plan is to just use the bags that I got on this one trip for this season, hoping to not overload my yard. I neglected to ask the person I spoke with about the antibiotic content of the feed they use. So it may not have any.
    I do think there is some bit of textural advantage to using manure in a garden and also (unless there are antibiotics overwhelming them) a nice boost of micro-organisms for the soil ecology. Thanks for the forum.

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