Back to Basics


Sequestering has brought my focus back to life’s basics.  Deprived of my usual distractions, suddenly I am keenly aware of and grateful for just the mere facts of comfortable shelter, enough food, and the good company of a compatible partner.   At the same time, this self-imposed isolation has also returned my attention to the fundamentals of gardening.  Shocked by vistas of empty grocery shelves, I, like so many other Americans, am concentrating on kitchen gardening this spring.  My plan is to keep the garden producing a succession of crops from mid spring through mid-fall.  To be so productive, the garden’s soil will require a lot of nutrition.  I’m going to supply this in the most basic way.  Today I drove to a nearby dairy farm and picked up a load of last year’s manure.

My wife and I actually own a share in that farm’s micro herd.  The farmer, whose profession is journalism but whose passion is her five cows, wanted to sell their milk raw, but found that she couldn’t legally do so in Massachusetts.  What she could do, though, was to take on partners in the ownership of her girls, and then, depending on how many shares you bought, you were entitled to a corresponding share of the milk they produced.   Our share entitles us to a gallon a week, half of which my wife turns into yoghurt.  She, my wife, has been eager for years to avail ourselves of another kind of the cows’ produce to which we are also entitled: their manure.

I have resisted.  I spent much of my boyhood summers working at dairy farms, and I don’t have fond memories of mucking out.  Horse manure actually smells good to me.  Chicken manure is at least dry.  Elephant manure isn’t bad, or at least it didn’t seem so when I was a student at the New York Botanical Garden and we used to take a truck and shovels across the street to the Bronx Zoo.  But cow manure stinks, and when it is fresh it has the consistency of the world’s least appetizing pudding.  It’s not as bad as pig manure, mind you, but nevertheless I had no desire to reacquaint myself.

What changed?  Deprived of all other outlets, a trip to the manure pile started to seem like an outing.  Besides, the garden center, my usual source of less odiferous, packaged organic fertilizers, is closed.  Then my wife, last weekend, came home with not only milk but a sample of some granular black substance she insisted was our farmer friend’s well aged and composted manure.

What I got today is a good deal fresher, but at least it doesn’t stink.  Anyway, I’ll manage to fill another day of my sequestration tomorrow with a shovel and a garden cart, moving my manure share from the back of my truck to top-dress the garden.


Previous articleEco-Friendly, Low-Maintenance Gardening with Roy Diblik
Next articlePorch Postulating on 45 Years in One Garden
Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Hi Tom, It’s nice to end this beautiful day with a Garden Rant post from you. I have never mucked a cow barn but I have done some slipping and sliding in cow pastures as a kid. Yuck! I also like the smell of horse manure. Long ago, we actually had a bunch of elephants in the neighborhood for the weekend. All I can say is Big!

    Happy gardening, may we have a perfect summer for bountiful crops of whatever we plant!

    • Thank you for the kind words! I suspect most gardeners have some memories of encounters with manure, though your experience has been more eclectic than most. And I’ll join you in hoping for a summer of bountiful crops.

  2. I remember visiting friends and families with farms. How I disliked so many smells, chickens and pigs were the worst, I think.

    What I wouldn’t give to meet a farmer and get milk and manure as you do. Gardeners think of it differently.

  3. Tom, I will add that donkey manure is a decent substitute for horse manure, with the added benefit that donkeys tend to use the same area over and over….periodic small mounds here and there rather than sprinkled over the pasture, shovel-ready, as it were.

  4. I grew up on a farm and loved every minute of it. Louise is right, farmers and gardeners think of it differently to be able to get fresh fertilizer such as this.

    • I loved hanging around a dairy farm near where my family spent summers when I was a kid. The farmer’s kids teased me about being a city slicker (which I guess I was) but they accepted me as a friend and I loved pitching in on the chores such as bringing in the cows for milking and helping with the haying. Fond memories.

  5. My mom grew up on a farm in Romania and shares the same sentiments! Those smells don’t bother her one bit anymore. And interesting how a trip to the manure pile can be an outing these days! Maybe someday I can make some farmhand memories as well, I’d love to share in the experience. Thanks for sharing, good luck with your gardening!

Comments are closed.