Posts Tagged ‘composting manure’

When my kids whine that something is not fair I am quick to point out to the little darlings that life is not fair…get used to it!

Well life was not fair in the pumpkin patch this year either…


Can you guess what one big exuberant pumpkin on the right got that the other puny anemic pumpkin on the left did not?



Huge and healthy…



Not quite so much…

Those of you that guessed compost give yourselves a pat on the back…yep I ran out on the last pumpkin plant.

Same seed packet, same tender loving care under the grow lights, same fish fertilizer, same plastic cap to protect from early spring cold snaps…the only difference between these two plants is that the big one got a shovel full of compost at planting and the smaller one did not.



They both are being faithfully visited by pollinators…



Yet the little guy has only 5 pumpkins while the big guy is up to almost 30!

So lesson for me is to make more compost…

Lesson for the little pumpkin plant…


Life is not fair…get used to it!

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seedlings waiting for warm weather

seedlings waiting for warm weather

 To get a jump on gardening we need to be ready, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate.  We start seedlings with the anticipation that the weather will comply, and be dry and warm enough for our tender babies.  But that usually isn’t the case in early spring. 

A great low-tech way to start seeds and keep the seedlings warm during the first tender growth is to use a hot bed.  Common in Europe for market gardens, the idea was readlily adapted to big city market gardens in the US as well, since there was never a shortage of hot horse manure from livery stables in every city.  After the Civil War, Peter Henderson was a very successful market gardener, stretching his growing season using the hot bed method for growing lettuce in the off season, and forcing other popular vegetables for sale in the big city.

On any farmstead there is always manure to be had, and this is one way to squeak one more use out of this precious commodity before it heads to the compost pile.   

hens and hotbed

hens and hotbed

 We have two small 20′ x 20′ greenhouses that we built for brooding chicks when we sold eggs.  To make these user friendly, we planned a personnel area for the humans. It is a great place to store feed and extra bedding and also a warm, toasty area for starting plants and keeping them warm until the weather breaks. 

Hubby built a 2′ x 3′ bottomless box out scraps for my small hotbed.  I fill this with manure and bedding about two weeks before I want to start seeds.  I want the compost to reach its peak temperature, and then when it starts to decline and reaches 80°F, I can place my flats of seeds on top of the compost.  That temperature is a good range for most seeds, if you’re starting tomatoes and peppers, 85°F would be better.  I keep the hot bed loosely covered with a piece of plastic, to keep the humidity up.  Once the seedlings emerge, the cover comes off during the day, unless it is very cold.  At night the cover goes back on in case of a frost.

60 degrees

60 degrees

 I am hardening these brassica and salad green seedlings off now, so 60°F is a great temperature.  I am not covering this at night.  These plants are almost ready to plant out. 

cover on cool nights

cover on cool nights

I also use electric heat mats to start seedlings, but this method is free, using no electricity.  I have two boxes, and to have a succession going, I need to have another box heating up and ready while this one is cooling down.  When the compost gets too cool to start seeds, you can lift off the box, remove the pile and refill with fresh manure and bedding.

If the box does not heat up, you need more manure, or if you are confident you have quite a bit of fresh manure, add water.  Monitor the temperature, if it doesn’t rise in a few days after adding water, you do need more manure. 

With a few scraps and  a wheelbarrow of manure, you can have an effective non-electric way to start seeds and wait out Old Man Winter!

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//i34.tinypic.com/2ziy6va.jpg" target="_blank">View Raw Image</a>I heart manure.  I happen to believe that agriculture needs animals to survive.  Nature operates that way, so I think our farms and gardens should too.  One of the single most limiting factors in a vegetable garden or cropping system is having enough fertilizer.  I don’t mean the 16-16-16 at the co-op, there is plenty of that if you can afford it.  I mean the black gold that comes from gathering animal manures along with carbon materials and letting nature take its course.  Our compost piles on our farm are made up of gathered animal manure, and different bedding materials, such as straw or sawdust.  And I don’t think you need large livestock either.  Any animal will do, for doo.  Several laying hens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and worms are the first to come to mind for a small farm, or urban gardener.  The key ingredient is gathering carbon to tie down those nutrients that your animals are so lovingly giving you each day.  Another important thing to consider is gathering this material now and throughout the winter and early spring.  The soil is dormant now, applying manure or compost can be a potential waste.  Applying fertilizer when plants are actively growing is the optimum time, for the plants, and the soil. 

Where do you find carbon for tying down the nutrients in your manure?  Look around and ask.  A horse stable near us, hauls their stable cleanings, made up of horse manure and sawdust, to us for free.  They see it as a liability.  We see it as free carbon – delivered!  We use it for as bedding for the cows, in addition to straw.  We also buy straw, from a small farmer like us.  I have no problem importing fertility from another farm as long that farmer is willing to part with it, and if I know the farmer hasn’t sprayed a potentially harmful herbicide on his crop.  If I were to grow the grain crop to get that straw, I would have to work up more pasture land, which I don’t want to do.  Any crop that bares the soil, is depleting it.  Grass does not.  So to be ahead of the game, bring in, or grow your own carbon.  You will be at least tripling your output of manure.  Straight manure is too strong anyway for gardens. 

Another way to get more bang for your buck is to feed top quality natural minerals and salt to your stock.  High quality kelp meal and Redmond salt come to mind.  Anything you can run through an animal’s digestive system comes out better than what goes in.  Our house compost goes to our hens, coffee grounds, eggshells, peelings, and whatever.  I don’t have to maintain a compost pile that the dogs want to get into, and the hens get a treat.  Same with plant residues in the garden.  Our Thanksgiving turkey flock has eaten all the spent brassicas from the garden, and the sheep are in the greenhouse now eating tomato and pepper plants.  This helps with the disease factor too.  And it makes less cleanup for me.

One year as an experiment I hauled the cleanings from my milk cow stall to the garden and sheet composted  it.  In 3 1/2 months of barn cleaning, I covered about 1/3 of an acre with those daily wheelbarrow loads.  What did I learn?  I could cover that much ground in a few months with the output of one cow and small calf.  But, I gave the voles excellent cover, and the soil stayed cooler with all that cover.  The soil texture was great when it came time to work the soil, but I probably wasted quite a bit of fertility by putting it on the soil during the winter.  Even though we have a fair amount of manure, I don’t want to waste it.  Now I make large compost piles with the manure from the milk cow.  Our compost piles are outside, but they are about 5′ high and sloped.  They shed rain, and can really compost.  We patiently wait one year before applying.  They are on soil, and completely filled with worms until they are finished composting.

Our beef herd is a little different, when the grazing season is over we keep the cattle in the barns with a small sacrifice area.  Using a deep bedding pack ala Salatin, we can keep most of the manure from getting rained on.  Sometimes the bedding pack is 4′ deep by spring.  We apply clean bedding everyday, and it begins to compost a little, providing a comfortable warm bed for the cows.  How much bedding does it take?  A lot.  Joel Salatin’s rule of thumb is “If you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement.”  (That little sentence applies to every type of animal.)   Especially ammonia, if you smell that, you should just picture money evaporating into thin air.  That is the nitrogen in the manure dissipating.  Add more bedding.  In a dry climate, you won’t need as much, in a damp climate, you will need more. 

We only have a few hens now, and to make the most of their chicken manure, I place their roost against a wall, and bed the spot under it daily with straw.  It is amazing how much material I can gather from just 11 hens, and a few bales of straw.  It really adds up. 

These are just a few of the ways to gather manure from your animals, if you have them.  I know it can be a pain to clean out stalls, but just think of how good your garden and pasture can grow.  Think of manure as an investment in your future.

 If you don’t have livestock, there are many farmers willing to foolishly let go of one of their better assets.  A quick tour of blogs turned up a couple photos of husbands out spreading manure on the neighbors place!  That is not sustainable for the farm producing the compost, but you can’t blame the neighbor for taking it.  So be frugal and keep your manure at home, and if your neighbor offers his, jump at the chance!

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