Gardening Articles: Care :: Soil, Water, & Fertilizer

In Praise of Manure

by Robin Chotzinoff

My sister Jenny went horse crazy at the age of six and has never outgrown the syndrome. For Christmas in 1970, my two stepbrothers presented her with a beautifully wrapped box, inside which was the aforementioned manure, intended as a mean-spirited commentary on Jenny's equestrian habit. She burst into tears. My stepbrothers were scolded. After a few decades, the incident became a fable with a moral that went something like this: Don't make fun of people's passions. It's not nice.

I won't argue with that lesson, but my attitude toward the perfumed horse manure itself has changed dramatically. I now consider a bag of manure to be a fine gift. There were only two things wrong with the one my sister got.

1. It was only big enough to fertilize one tomato plant.

2. What kind of marketing moron would add perfume to a substance that already has one of the better smells in creation?

Once you develop a hankering for manure, you quickly go beyond the prepackaged bag. You become a scavenger, a pitchforker, a shameless requester. The stuff you beg for -- and are usually given willingly -- becomes the backbone of your garden.

My awakening began on a spring night twenty years ago. I was double-digging a backyard in a rental house located next to a gas station. As the moon rose, a truck arrived next door and began fueling up. Its driver was a cowboy hauling a flatbed load of horse manure, precariously secured under ropes and tarps.

"What's that, a garden?" he asked. "Yeah." "Well, how 'bout I dump this on it?"

Spread out, it covered my small plot a foot deep. The next morning, the neighbors came over to complain about the smell. ("What are you raising here, a cavalry?") They also mentioned that no vegetable could survive in that much poop. It was a refrain I was to hear often in the ensuing years -- lots of dire warnings about "salts". Well, ha. The tomatoes and zucchini I grew that summer were so prolific they ended up starring in a bizarre end-of-season softball game, and since then, I have known instinctively that even if manure does not work for every gardener, it will always work for me.

I moved to an inner-city farmhouse, and again, I lucked out. My elderly neighbor raised rabbits and had already installed an elaborate ramp system in which rabbit pellets rolled from the cages down into drywall buckets, which I would collect and distribute anywhere the mood struck me. As you may know, rabbit manure is magnificent stuff that breaks down instantly and hardly smells at all. What did I deduce about its chemical components? Nothing, except that it works.

If you ask it to. It turns out that compost can be made without manure at all, and that some gardeners consider this a relief. How can this be? Don't they realize that llamas maintain a pecking order that is, in fact, a pooping order, in which higher-up members of the herd poop higher on the pile? In other words, that their manure is organized neatly into one massive pile? Thoughtful of the llamas, isn't it?

And think -- just think -- of chicken poop, reputed to get so hot it can burn the paint off a pickup truck! And marvel -- just marvel -- at urban zoos that raise money by selling bags of "zoo doo" that can include offerings from elephants! Who wouldn't want a bag of that? I would. And my birthday is in August, and let me be clear -- I am totally over the family manure shame.

But enough fantasizing. The reality is what it's always been: horse poop. My home in the mountains is only 300 yards from two Arabian horses. Under a five-month snow cover and 300 days of scorching high-altitude sun, the poop of those Arabians distills into a fine black powder that fluffs like down. Each year, I treat myself to a pickup-load for Mother's Day. Another neighbor who owns ducks -- and hence, duck poop -- has seen me unloading the Arabian treasure. She says I should be wary of horse manure. I should "use it sparingly." It is "chemically dubious." It can "burn the seedlings."

I smile politely at this and do what I have always done. All pleasures should be so reliable.

Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

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