Our animals can provide more than just companionship and food
Story and Photos by Stephanie Fenton
Like most of my articles, this one has been circulating in my head for quite some time. I have hesitated to put words on paper due to the rather delicate nature of the subject matter, something one would not discuss in polite conversation. Even now I am reluctant to do so at the risk of embarrassing those Southern ladies of sensitive disposition, but it is a subject that could be most useful to gardeners like myself: Poop.
Animal waste, when well composted, makes a healthy complement to garden soil. For some like me, poop is readily accessible in the form of pony manure. It never ceases to amaze me that five Connemara ponies can generate so much of the stuff. I wanted to believe that an Irish pony would produce “luck of the Irish” poop that is richer in nitrogen than any other and capable of producing Jurassic-sized vegetables when applied to the soil straight from the ponies’ bottoms. Oh how wrong I was. My first try at amending the soil with pony manure resulted in the seeds I planted germinating and quickly dying, as though set ablaze with a blowtorch. Was my Irish pony poop unlucky, I wondered? Of course not. It was just too “hot.” My luck improved when I mixed the fresh manure in the garden and let it decompose for several months before planting. Not only did my garden receive a boost in nitrogen, but it also added volume to my very sandy soil.
Over time, I expanded my knowledge of excrement and determined that pony poop was lower on the list of animal waste nitrogen-content than I thought. What I really needed to supersize my vegetables was chicken sh#t. While cow manure has more nitrogen than horse manure, chicken droppings rank among the highest. I don’t have my own chickens, but I was able to get plenty from a neighbor. This particular neighbor also had goats and a donkey so I was really getting a great mixture of nutrients from her compost pile. My research had uncovered that the more grass an animal has in its diet, the lower the nitrogen content. But as you know, goats will eat almost anything, including woody plants, which boost the nitrogen in their poop. Between her compost pile and mine I had a virtual gold mine of dung.
The first year I mixed this combination in my garden, the plants – squash, cucumbers, and peppers – grew to gargantuan size, but didn’t produce many vegetables. Clearly something was amiss. It had been four years since I had the soil tested. Could it be that four consecutive years of planting had depleted the soil of something more than nitrogen? Had my hours in the master gardener classroom taught me nothing? I wasn’t willing to go through another season without a bumper crop of something, so I took a healthy scoop of my perfect garden soil in for testing.
And, sure enough, there were deficiencies in several areas that required amending with commercial fertilizers. The appropriate additions made a world of difference.
So readers … your lesson for the day: Make use of all the animal manures and organic material available, compost it well, and get your soil tested yearly.
Post Script: The chemistry of soil and plant nutrient uptake is too complex for my small mind. For additional information, contact your county extension agent.