How To Add Manure To Your Vegetable Garden: which type, how much, and when?

Aged farm animal manure is one of the most valuable ingredients you can bring to your garden. It is arguably the most important addition to your soil, which is why it lovingly goes by the term ‘black gold’.

Manure is so important for the health of your garden that every gardener should feel comfortable adding manure to their garden. It contains essential minerals, introduces beneficial microorganisms, and improves the soil structure. These benefits have huge implications for the general health and well-being of your garden.

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard about the importance of adding compost to your garden. Knowing it’s important isn’t everything though, you must know why and how to add manure to your vegetable garden. In this article, I’ll teach you which type of manure is best, how much you need, and when to add it.

What type of manure is best for growing vegetables – horse or cow?

Both horse and cow manure are valuable additions to your soil health and are practically equal on a nutritional level. What type of manure is best for growing vegetables depends on what is available locally to you. If you only have horse or only have cow manure, don’t sweat it. Both will work wonders in your garden.

If you have the choice between the two, here are some factors to consider when deciding what manure to use. Horse manure has slightly more nitrogen than cow manure, perfect for growing big leafy veggies.  Cow manure, on the other hand, has slightly more potassium and phosphorus. This is perfect for growing fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and squash.

In the end, what type of manure is best for growing vegetables depends mostly on what’s available. Especially if you can get your hands on fresh manure to age yourself. If you have options, choose the right manure for what you’re growing.

Where do I get manure?

Where to get manure depends on where you live. If you’re in the countryside, look to your neighbors with farm animals. They’ll likely be thrilled to get some help cleaning out the stables in exchange for manure. If you don’t have a lot of space, you can buy manure already aged and ready to use.

I find that using compost I’ve made myself has a bigger impact on the garden because it’s more alive. Bagged manure purchased from garden centers is an excellent choice if you don’t have the space, knowledge, or access to raw materials. However, it goes through a sterilizing process and you’re just getting organic matter and missing out on the beneficial microbes.

When you make you age your own manure from local farms, you’re not just supplying the soil with organic matter. You’re also introducing a huge diversity of soil life. Soil microbes arguably make a bigger difference for the health of your garden than just organic material. So aging your own manure is worth the effort.

Throughout my different living situations, however, I’ve often had to buy manure. It’s smelly, impractical, and spacially impossible to age manure in a city apartment. Luckily, garden centers, hardware stores, and even some supermarkets will carry aged farm animal manure. 

Alternatively, talk to the vendors at farmers’ markets if you’re looking to buy composted manure straight from the source. Buying aged manure online is also possible, but heavy products like manure makes shipping expensive. Not worth the hassle when there are so many options around.

Why should it be aged manure?

You might be wondering why the manure should be used aged instead of fresh. This is primarily because the nutrients are not available to the plants and the fresh manure will burn them.

Fresh manure has excess levels of nitrogen and ammonia. If plants are planted straight into fresh manure, they’ll die from a sort of burn. If you’ve ever seen what happens to plants when dogs pee on them directly, you have a sense of what’s happening. 

Nitrogen is the main plant fertilizer, but it is not always available to the plants. In order for the plants to take advantage, the nitrogen must be released from the organic matter through bacteria. In the case of fresh manure, there is a lot of nitrogen, but instead of feeding them this form of nitrogen will burn the plant tissue.

Additionally, using fresh manure will tie up a lot of nutrients already in the soil in the decomposition process. Adding materials to your soil that need additional composting is always a bit counterproductive.

In order to finish breaking down the material, nutrients already in the soil will be tied up. Next season, when everything is properly decomposed, the nutrients will be available again and the garden bed ready to plant. So, if you’re anxious to get fresh manure right into the soil, keep this in mind and don’t plant until next season.

Fresh manure can be dug into the soil and allowed to rest for a season while it decomposes. If you can forfeit the growing space for a few months, will save a few laborious steps.  

When should I add the manure?

Technically, you can add aged manure whenever you want. For most convenience, you should add the manure at the beginning or end of your growing season.

It’s easiest to mix in the manure when you’re preparing garden beds right before planting. Alternatively, you can add the manure at the end of the season when you’ve pulled everything out of the ground. Apply aged manure when there are no plants in the ground so you can use tools without fear of uprooting plants.

In my garden, I apply manure at the beginning of the growing season in the early Spring. For beds that held heavy feeders, I give a second dose of manure in the fall. Before the beds get re-planted with cold-season crops.

For my perennial garden beds, I do things a little differently. Since you can’t easily work the composted manure into the soil, I used a layering strategy. In the early Spring, the perennial beds get a 1- to 2-inch layer of manure. You can use a small, hand-held garden fork to carefully aerate the soil a bit as you spread the manure.

Don’t add manure to your perennials in the fall, like you would with your annual garden beds. Since manure acts as a fertilizer, it can encourage plant growth during a time it should go dormant.

As you’re adding a top-dressing of manure, use the opportunity to also replenish your mulch. Through the season, mulch and manure will degrade and will eventually build the top layer of soil. Year after year, you’ll naturally build up quality soil that will enable your perennials to thrive.

How much manure should I apply?

How much manure you should apply depends on the current state of your soil and what type of plants you want to grow. It also depends on whether you’re also planning on adding garden compost to supplement micronutrients.

The benefit of using aged manure instead of fresh is that it’s hard to overdo it. A good rule of thumb is to apply between 1 to 2 inches of manure once or twice a year. This might seem a bit general, but specific application amounts depends on your soil and what you’re growing.

For example, poor soils will require more manure while fruiting vegetables which require lots of nutrients will also demand more manure. Healthy soils growing fruiting vegetables will need less manure to get the same result.

When I started my garden, the soil was only ok. So for the first couple of years, I applied 2 inches of manure in the spring and 1 inch in the fall. Now, I can get away with applying an inch in the spring and ½ inch (or nothing at all) in the fall, depending on what I plan to grow.

How do I dig manure into the soil?

Digging manure into the soil is the same process as you would with any other compost. You’ll want to spread the manure around the surface of your garden beds and then turn it into the soil.

To dig manure into the soil you can use a broadfork, rototiller, or a garden hoe. We have a detailed guide about how to mix compost into the soil, so check it out if you still have questions.

My favorite method is to use a broadfork because it preserves soil ecology and it can be quite fun. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of a broadfork before – we have an article that will explain what is a broadfork and how to use it.

How soon after applying manure can I plant my crop?

For planning purposes, you are probably wondering how soon after applying manure can you plant out your crop? Well, as long as the manure is aged, you can plant your crop right after applying manure.

When preparing your garden beds it’s most efficient to do everything as quickly as possible. This way you can group tasks, avoid re-doing work, and prevent the soil from being exposed.

When manure and amendments have been worked in, the garden bed is ready to plant. Planted beds can then be covered with mulch.

In my garden, getting beds amended, planted, and covered ends up happening the same day or within a couple of days. There’s a lot to do in the garden during this period and timing is crucial. Adding manure at the same time as I’m adding all other soil amendments is crucial for saving time and avoiding disturbing the soil. This way I only disturb the soil once and save precious time.

Summary

Aged farm animal manure is amazing in the garden. It provides nutrients to your growing plants, improves soil health, increases water retention, and introduces beneficial bacteria. Manure serves as both a fertilizer and soil amendment, supporting the general health of your garden’s ecosystem. Using manure correctly, however, is important to avoid rookie mistakes, such as burning your plants. Use the information in this guide to apply manure in your garden correctly. After a couple of seasons, it will become a routine task that comes naturally to you.

further reading:

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