Tag Archives: soil health

Using Manure in the Garden

It’s now believed that farmers have been using manure to fertilize their crops for at least 8000 years! Spreading manure on fields and gardens to increase soil fertility has long been common, especially when most folks were keeping livestock. Today, it can be more tricky. So whether you’ve got your own backyard farm or not, here are a few things you should know about using manure in the garden. 

Pros

  • It’s full of nutrients! Manure is an excellent source of primary plant nutrients nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. It also includes secondary nutrients; calcium, magnesium, and sulfur that may not be found in commercial garden fertilizers.
  • Manure adds organic matter and improves soil structure. This allows optimum root growth and increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture.
  • You can often find manure for free or use your own from your own livestock.

Cons

  • Fresh manure can contain bacteria that can contaminate crops and make you sick.
  • It often contains weed seeds.
  • It may contain pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals.
  • Fresh manure contains high levels of nitrogen, ammonia, and salts which can burn crops. 

Sourcing Good Manure

If you own livestock, using their manure is the best choice. To fertilize your garden, you can use chicken, goat, cow, horse, rabbit, and other livestock manure. Avoid cat and dog waste as their feces can contain toxins and heavy metals that will remain in your garden. 

If you don’t own animals, it may be possible to source manure from a local farm. However, you may want to ask some questions. Herbicides can stay in manure and ruin your garden, so it’s essential to ask if the animals were allowed to graze where an herbicide was sprayed. 

It’s also worth noting that not all animal manures are the same. Manure from herbivores like horses and cows has a lower nitrogen to carbon ratio than omnivore manure like that from pigs and chickens. Therefore herbivore manure won’t burn your crops even if it’s fresh. You should also note that horses don’t digest seeds, so horse manure will have more weed seeds in it. 

Composting Manure

Some of the “cons” of manure are easily taken care of by composting it. Composting your manure will kill any bacteria and allow it to mellow, so it’s not high in nitrogen, ammonia, or salts and won’t burn your crops. A good, hot compost pile can also render weed seed inviable. 

To compost manure, you’ll want to follow the same techniques we discussed in Black Gold: Making Compost. Mix your nitrogen-rich manure with good sources of carbon such as old leaves, straw, or shredded paper; alternate layers as you build your pile. Keep the pile moist and turn it over every few weeks to encourage aerobic decomposition. It’s ready when it looks like black, crumbly soil and is no longer hot or smelly. 

You can apply composted manure to the garden the same way you use your regular compost. Spread a few inches on a bed before planting, add it to homemade potting mixes, or side-dress crops. 

Aging Manure

Your other option is to age manure rather than compost it. It’s exactly like what it sounds. You pile it and leave it. This process can take longer than composting, particularly if you’re starting with manure that’s high in nitrogen, like pig manure. 

Applying Fresh Manure

If you want to apply fresh manure, you need to select “cool” manure like horse, cow, or rabbit manure. Other manures, including goat, poultry, and pig, may burn your crops. Goat and sheep manure may be okay if it’s mixed in with carbon-rich bedding like straw or hay.

One of the safest ways to use fresh manure is to follow the USDA National Organic Program Guidelines. They state that if the crop may come into contact with the soil, whether it’s touching them directly like with beets or splashing on them like with Swiss chard or cucumbers, it must be applied 120 prior to harvest. If the crop won’t be in contact with the soil like corn or dry beans, the manure must be applied 90 days prior to harvest. 

It’s a long time! This timeframe keeps crops safe from bacterial contamination such as E. coli and Salmonella. However, many home gardens don’t feel the need to follow such stringent guidelines. Just make sure you wash your veggies well if there’s a chance they’ve come into contact with the manure, especially if you don’t know where the manure came from.

Can You Use “Humanure?”

Using composted human waste to fertilize crops used to be common throughout much of the world. Composting human waste can reduce pollution and water consumption. Setting up a composting toilet is also much easier and cost-effective than installing a septic system and is a popular choice for off-grid and tiny homes. 

So is it safe? Yes, when done correctly. There are a number of fairly basic considerations to composting human waste. For example, you want to ensure your compost bins aren’t on wet ground or somewhere they could contaminate ground or surface water. You should also compost your waste for a year before use, and you should use it around fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamental plants where it won’t get on food crops. Modern Farmer has a more detailed piece on humanure you can find here.

 

Garden Water Management

Water may seem like one of the easiest elements of a garden to manage. Pulling out the sprinkler is undoubtedly easier than pulling weeds! Unfortunately, as many gardeners have discovered, water can cause a host of issues in the garden if you have too much or too little. Here are a few ways you can improve your garden to cope with water shortages and surpluses. 

Too Much Water

Erosion Control

Many gardeners lucky enough to call the Appalachians home have to cope with less than flat garden plots. Even with a slight slope, erosion can be a significant cause for concern.

Erosion damages garden soil by washing away organic matter and essential nutrients. It’s also damaging to local watersheds. When excess soil nutrients end up in streams, lakes, and rivers, they can cause algal blooms, which harm fish and other aquatic life. 

  1. Swales & Terraces


    For severe slopes or areas you know are prone to erosion, building contour swales or terraced beds may be worth the time and work invested.

    You can create terraced beds with a variety of materials, including boards, logs, or rocks. You want to create a wall that is parallel with the slope. Then you can flatten the soil behind it by raking it against the wall. This method is a great way to be able to grow annual crops on hillsides.

    Swales are essentially mounded beds with ditches behind them. Larger swales are typically built to follow the contour of a slope. Swales help prevent erosion and retain water. The water that collects in the ditch slowly seeps into the mound, providing moisture to plants over a longer period. You can learn more about building a swale of your own in our post, “Let’s Talk About Swales.”

  2. Cover Crops


    Another critical factor in preventing erosion is never leaving soil bare. Cover crops help prevent erosion because their roots help hold soil in place, and take up some moisture. Sow cover crops in pathways between beds, in areas not currently in production, and during the fall to keep your soil covered during the winter and spring. Learn more about which cover crops you should plant in this blog post.

Water-Logged Soils/Standing Water

Another issue common to the Southeastern US is heavy clay soils. These types of soils are prone to becoming water-logged during the spring rainy season. There are a few things so can do to combat this issue.

  1. Add Organic Matter


    Organic matter dramatically improves how your soil handles water. It soaks up water during rains and allows plants to access it slowly over time. The fastest way to add organic mater to your garden is to top dress your garden with several inches of well-aged compost.

    You can also add organic matter by using cover crops and mulch. Natural mulches like straw, leaves, grass clippings, and wood chips slowly break down adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

  2. Go No-Till


    Like adding organic matter, reducing the amount you till helps improve drainage and allows plants to access moisture over a longer time. Ditching the tiller keeps soil structure intact and reduces compaction, a major problem with clay soils.

  3. Raised Beds


    If you struggle with wet spring soils, you might consider building raised beds. You can create raised beds from scrap lumber, logs, rocks, and other cheap or free materials. They drain well and warm up quickly in the spring, helping you to get an early start. Keep in mind they also dry out faster during the hot summer months.

Too Little Water

Water Efficiently

Not all watering schedules are created equal! Watering in the cooler early morning or evening helps decrease the amount of water you lose to evaporation. You can further reduce evaporation by using drip irrigation or soaker hoses.If you often forget to turn off your watering system, consider purchasing a timer which will shut it off automatically. Alternatively you can set a kitchen timer or timer on your phone to remind you.

Mulch

Mulch helps keep soil cool and moist, reducing evaporation. You can use many cheap or free materials as mulch including cover crop residue, grass clippings, straw, leaves, and wood chips. 

Collect Rainwater

  1. Rain Barrels


    Rain barrels are an excellent asset for any backyard garden. You can add gutters to your home or garden shed and collect the water in a barrel to use for watering plants. Rain barrels don’t need to be fancy; cleaned trash barrels with holes drilled in the appropriate places will work if you don’t mind a DIY project.

  2. Swales


    As we mentioned above, you can also use contour swales to collect rainwater. The water fills the ditch behind the mound and slowly seeps into it, allowing plants to soak up the water over a longer time.

Choose Water-Wise Crops

If you have an area of your garden that is hard to water you may want to plant crops and flowers that don’t require much. These include native flowers like echinacea and food crops like flint and dent corns.

Whether you struggle with too much water or too little these strategies can help make your garden more productive. Proper water management is key to a healthy garden and a healthy local ecosystem.

10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Soil

Want healthy plants? Start by building healthy soil. Your soil health can affect your plant’s productivity, disease and pest resistance, and more. Use these ten strategies to improve your soil and build a healthier, more productive garden.

1. Start composting.

Compost enriches the soil and adds structure and beneficial fungi and bacteria. It’s an excellent amendment for any garden and easy to make yourself. Check out our post, Black Gold: Making Compost, for easy directions to get started in your backyard.

Those without yards can consider vermicomposting or check with community gardens or city compost facilities to bring kitchen scraps to and access aged compost.

2. Grow cover crops.

Cover crops are not just for big farms! Cover crops help improve the soil in many ways. Some are “nitrogen fixers” like clover and vetch and add nitrogen to the soil as they grow; other crops like buckwheat help quickly build up organic matter and make excellent mulch.

All cover crops are a good way to cover the soil. They shade it holding in moisture, provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, and their roots hold the soil preventing erosion.

You can read more about using cover crops in your garden here.

3. Get a soil test.

Testing your soil can help you make the best choices for your garden, saving you time and money. You’ll learn what nutrients may be missing and whether you should amend your soil’s pH. Check out Understanding Soil Tests for a more in-depth explanation.

You can purchase at-home soil tests at most garden centers or send your soil to be tested. Many universities and state and county extension services offer very affordable soil testing.

4. Understand the soil food web.

The soil food web is similar to a “food chain” but is non-linear. It’s made up of plants, animals, and all the organisms in the soil from visible insects and fungus to microscopic bacteria. A healthy soil food web is key to a healthy garden and ecosystem. Learn more by reading our post, The Soil Food Web.

5. Reduce erosion.

Not everyone is blessed with a large, perfectly flat garden site. Even if you are, wind can still wreak havoc on exposed soil. Don’t lose soil to the effects of wind and water.

If you live in a windy area, utilize windbreaks. These can be fencing, shrubs, or trees. Even young shrubs and trees can make a surprising difference.

To prevent water erosion, you should try to keep your soil covered. Use cover crops whenever possible and keep the soil around plants mulched. Permanent pathways with a cover crop like clover are ideal.

If your property is sloped, look into permaculture methods like planting on contour and building swales. These can help you stop erosion and collect water for your plants!

6. Provide habitat for beneficial insects.

When people hear beneficial insects, they often think of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. While you should strive to help these species, there are many more that also play key roles in keeping your garden healthy. These include many predatory species such as wasps, beetles, and mantises.

You can support beneficial insects in many ways. Using cover crops and mulch, as I mentioned above, helps provide habitat as does planting native species and leaving dead material in your garden (unless it has a pest or disease issue). You can also create your own habitat by building an insect hotel.  Of course, it’s also important to avoid using pesticides. Even organic pesticides can spell doom for beneficial insects as they usually affect more than one species. 

7. Use mulch.

I’ve mentioned mulch a couple of times now, but it’s incredibly helpful in the garden. It helps to block weeds, keep the soil cool and moist (or warm in the winter), and provides structure and organic matter as it breaks down.

Check our post, Mulch Ado…, to learn more about why mulch is important and how we use it at SESE.

8. Rotate your crops.

Whether you have an acre in garden or just a tiny little plot, you should rotate your crops. Rotating crops prevents pests and diseases from building up the soil where you grow a particular plant. It also helps to reduce nutrient depletion. One year you grow heavy feeders like tomatoes or corn, and the next, you grow nitrogen fixers like beans and peas or a cover crop.

Need advice? See Planning Crop Rotation by Plant Family.

9. Amend your soil.

As you’ll learn from your soil test, it is sometimes necessary to add amendments to your soil. These amendments can be used to change the soil’s pH like lime, wood ash, or peat moss. Other amendments allow you to add the macro and micronutrients that are necessary for plant growth. These include manure, compost, eggshells, greensand, and fertilizer.

Learn more about amendments and common nutrient deficiencies in plants here.

10. Reduce or eliminate tilling.

Rototilling may seem like a crucial part of gardening, but many farmers, gardeners, and scientists have discovered that it’s possible to grow a more productive and more environmentally friendly garden by ditching the tiller.

Going no-till reduces compaction and keeps the soil structure intact. It allows you to use plant and cover crop residue as mulch that will decompose as it would in a natural ecosystem. It also allows beneficial bacteria, insects, and fungi to thrive in the soil. 

Follow these tips to build healthy soil in your garden.