Improving the soil with manures

The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest pre-occupation of man. man being the chosen alloy, he must be reconnected—via shit, at all cost

Patti Smith, “25th Floor” from the album “Easter”, 1978

And so it is here on our smallholding. A huge amount of our time seems to be being spent collecting, storing, turning and finally distributing manure and other waste products around the garden. Where we’ve had two good years of adding manure and mulches to the soil, we are starting to see noticeable improvements in the soil quality, worm count and bacterial activity, all of which is translated into better vegetables.

Manures and other ingredients for soil improvement

Our biggest issue is storing the raw ingredients needed to either add to the soil directly, or to mix to create good quality compost. It takes a lot of space, and a lot of effort keeping it all turned and covered, as well as the collection of the manures in the first place. So, to help me out, I’ve devised a cunning plan to help me see where stuff can be used, and at what times of year. So, in no particular order, our soil improving ingredients are;

  • Sawdust – we produce a lot of this in cutting firewood and general woodworking. It’s usually too fine to use as animal bedding as it can cause respiratory problems. It is however very absorbent, so we store it in old feed sacks and use it to dry out some of the wetter animal manures we get.
  • Wood shavings – I produce a lot of this from my woodworking operations. It is an ideal bedding material for our poultry, being absorbent, light and high in carbon. I’ll explain in the bit on chicken manure how we use this.
  • Humanure barrel maturing
    Humanure barrel maturing

    Humanure – probably the most controversial manure we use. We store ours in plastic bins with meshed, loose fitting lids, for three months. After those three months it no longer smells, and has already started to decompose. We tip it into a wire cage, cover with plastic to keep the rain off, and leave for a year. After one year, we remove it from the cage, turn it and leave for a further year to fully decompose (the stuff at the top will be fresher and less decomposed than that at the bottom, hence the extra time composting). After that we can either use it as a top-dressing for trees in the orchard, or use as an ingredient for hot composting.

  • Chicken and duck manures – Here’s where we get canny. Ducks produce a huge amount of poop. Honestly, I had no idea. It’s wet, sloppy, and sit in big old splats on the coop floor. We started out cleaning this whole mess out every couple of days, but quickly ran out of wood shavings and ha to come up with a plan B. So, now we use a deep litter method for both the chickens and the ducks. That in itself doesn’t work without me going in and turning the mess every day. So I started scattering grain in the coop, to see if I could attract the chickens in there to scratch it all up for me, and it worked! now all the hens go in to use the nesting boxes, and while they are in there they have a good scratch around for any tasties, in the process turning all the duck muck, wood shavings etc, so it all stays dry and well mixed. I haven’t had to add any more wood shavings for about four weeks now, and it still looks and smells fine. I go and rake it over about once a week just in case the hens missed anywhere, but rarely need to do much. This will all get cleaned out in the spring, when it will be ready to add directly to the soil in the vegetable garden, or used as a final top dressing prior to planting out seedlings. It is very high in nitrogen, but should be well rotted down and so will be suitable for hungry plants like squashes. No storage needed, as it gets used as soon as it’s available in the spring.
  • Pigs - they look cute, but they make a lot of poo.
    Pigs – they look cute, but they make a lot of poo.

    Pig manure – we get this in the spring, or thereabouts, when farmers are cleaning out the pens from the winter hole-up. It is very rich, usually full of straw bedding, and pretty wet too. This we store in a heap, adding sawdust or old straw a little bit at a time to help it dry out. It does its own hot compost, but needs turned about once every month or so to keep it oxygenated. We keep it covered over both to stop it drying out in the baking summer, and to stop it getting too wet in the spring deluges. Even so, I usually still need to adjust the moisture when turning, just to keep the composting ticking along. At the rate the current pile is doing, I reckon this should be ready to use in the Autumn as a top dressing before putting the vegetable beds to sleep for the winter.

  • Sheep manure – This has been the most problematic to get my head round using. We get it in early spring, as soon as the sheep are released from their winter pens and taken out to pasture. It is usually very wet, full of straw, and full of pee making it very high in nitrogen, just like the pig muck. It can be applied directly to the soil as a mulch, which we did one year but found that it just dried out into a solid plate off straw and poo, making it very difficult to dig and break up. Even in the compost heap it took a long time to break down properly so it could even be turned. Clearly, and alternative approach is needed. What we will try this year is adding it directly around trees, shrubs and other perennials like raspberries, where we can use it’s unique properties to good affect. If we use it around the trees in the orchard, the chickens and ducks should do a good job of breaking it up while it’s still relatively fresh. It will be full of all sorts of bugs for them to eat! The spring rains will wash the nitrogen into the soil, leaving the straw sitting on the top as a mulch. Even failing that, if it dries into plates around the trees it will still do a good job of keeping weeds down, and retaining moisture around the trees during the growing season. This system has the advantage that we don’t need to store it. We can use it straight away, whatever time of year it arrives. Bonus!
  • Horse manure – this stuff is like gold. Relatively dry, it has a perfect balance of nitrogen to carbon, and it is possible to add it directly to the soil. There has to be a catch, right? Well, there is. As a lot of what a horse eats passes straight through, this will inevitably include a lot of weeds, which you don’t want directly on your garden. So, you need to either hot compost it, or store it for a long time to let the weed content sort itself out before using it. We will need to create a big heap from the bedding and protect it much the same as for our humanure; plastic sheeting and adjust the moisture occasionally. This mostly gets created over winter when the horses are stalled, and can be collected in quantities in the spring. Another option is to make a tea from dropping left in the road. My grandfather used to do this; there was always a hessian sack and a shovel in the back of the car, and he couldn’t drive past a pile of horse much in the road without leaping out and shovelling it up into the sack. He would then put it into a barrel of water, leave it to brew for a few days, then use the resulting ‘tea’ as a foliar spray during summer. Tomatoes in particular seem to enjoy this. So, horse bedding stored in a massive heap, fresh dropping, stick em in a barrel and make tea.
  • Straw – not really a compost in itself, but more of an ingredient. It is also very useful for a final layer of mulch, but you need to get rid of the leftover wheat grains, unless you want wheat growing all over your garden. Yes, we did find this out the hard way! We do this by simply scattering it about in the covered area of the chicken run. the birds do the rest, pecking up the grains, and breaking down the straw into smaller lengths. We just then scoop it up when we need it, and put some more down. We buy straw in the autumn, but we have managed to find peoople with piles of old straw in their barns, which they want to get rid of. We go and collect it, and store it in a big heap. While it’s in the heap we help kick-start the composting process by peeing on it once in a while.
  • Pee – while we’re on that subject, it’s an excellent soil improver. High in nitrogen, it needs to be watered down about 10:1 with water to make it suitable for direct application. We water our tomatoes once in a while with it. In between watering the tomatoes with it, I have a routine of watering the trees directly ourselves. No storage required.
  • Household compost – this is the most easy to keep. We just have two bins, turn the compost from one into the other. Everything goes into here; food scraps, garden waste, scrap paper, tea bags etc. The chickens and ducks do the rest, scratching through for tasties. They do eat quite a bit of it, but they’re crapping all over the place anyway, so I figure they’re giving back as much as they’re taking out. Once in a while I go and turn the whole heap, to expose all those tasty bugs for the birds. I have to do this before I let them out in the morning, because chickens have no sense of personal space when you’re digging. Eventually we will use this as a general purpose potting compost, just needing to add a bit of sand and topsoil to the mix
  • Leaves – lost of leaves. These make a great mulch for the soil, but their problem is that they stop the soil from warming up in the spring. Two test beds, one having straw and one having leaves as a mulch, showed that the leaf-mulched bed took a lot longer to warm up than the straw mulched bed, as much as three to four weeks longer. This has a huge impact on direct sowing, or even transplanting seedling. Next year we will probly still use them if we have to, but rake them back after the last of the winter frosts, to help the soil warm through. We’ll maybe then store them in a wire cage to rot further. This should end up with a lovely rich leaf mold, that can be used directly on the soil, or in potting compost.It is slightly acidic usually, so may help plants that need that sort of thing. We need to make sure not to get any walnut leaves in, as the contain a natural herbicide call juglone. Any spare leaves we rake back under the trees they came from.

Using the soil improvers

Most of them just get added directly to the top of the soil. There they act as both a mulch, helping to retain water, and allowing nutrients to be washed gently down into the soil. Worms and other bug life will do the rest, drawing the materials down into the soil. The only times we dig in are when planting new trees or shrubs, potatoes and squashes. Liquid fertilisers can just be sprayed on the leaves after the sun has gone down, or first thing in the morning before the sun properly gets up.

And there we have it. Lots of good quality stuff to add to the soil to enrich it, improve both drainage and moisture retention, with minimal fuss and not too much stuff needing stored, and relatively low maintenance, thanks to the hard work of our chickens and ducks. They also get some highly nourishing and tasty bugs, worms and slugs in the process, helping to keep feed bills down and egg quality up. Everyone’s a winner! We haven’t done another soil survey but I hope to be able to do a repeat next year to see how our soil is doing. I hope it’s worth all the effort!

  2 comments for “Improving the soil with manures

  1. July 12, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    What about using the horse manure mountain for growing rhubarb and/or pumpkins in while it’s decomposing?

    • Joe
      July 12, 2016 at 5:21 pm

      That’s a great idea Tracey. We’ve actually been thinking about something like that. We got so many pumpkins and squashes growing in the compost heap, we thought of not bothering planting any in the veg beds, just letting them grow in the compost, but we could also use the horse manure for that too.

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