Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Properly Grow a Healthy Garden Using Compost and Manure

Q. Even if it's a poorer source of nitrogen than oil-based products (urea, ammonium nitrate, and ammonium sulfate), won't compost (particularly composted manure) get the job done? That's a completely free and renewable resource. My garden beds this year are heavily composted with manure and the plants are all absolutely gorgeous.

Next year I want to use the Mittleider Method, as it looks very efficient. Will I be shooting myself in the foot if I use "farm-raised nitrogen"?

A. If you believe the day is coming when we won't be able to get mineral nutrients, you should definitely learn how to prepare and use the organic materials that you WILL have available to you. You may not want to count on manure though, because if everyone relies on cows and horses to provide their fertilizer, 90% will be disappointed. There just isn't enough to go around.

For those of you who feel strongly about continuing to use manure and compost, make certain that you learn how to compost properly, by maintaining temperatures of at least 140 degrees fahrenheit throughout the process, and always do it that way. This provides sufficient heat to kill all pathogens.

I recommend you read my article on The Zoo-Doo Man in these FAQs. That will help you understand what's required, as well as my perspective on the issues involved.

Once you solve the issue of proper composting you will want to understand, and know how to deal with, the issues of deficiencies and salinity.

Because there is no practical way of knowing how much of the 13 nutrients your compost has in it, you will very likely be faced with deficiencies of some of them. These will show up in your plants, and if you recognize and treat them quickly you can save the crop. Sometimes a garden crop is lost when an ounce or two of zinc, iron, boron, or manganese, etc. would completely solve the problem.

I highly recommend you get the Mittleider Garden Doctor books, available at, and begin to use them. They will save their cost many times over!

Another issue that needs to be addressed when using manure and compost is that of too much at the beginning and not enough later on. Most people apply 2"-4" of compost and work it into their garden before planting. Doing that to the entire garden is wasteful of compost, and most of the nutrients go to feed the weeds in the aisles. So to start with, apply compost and manure only to your bed area.

And how much should you apply? Three inches of manure applied to the 45 square feet of a 30'-long soil-bed would weigh 200-300#, and would contain 2-3# of each of the major nutrients, plus lesser amounts of the secondary and micro-nutrients. We only apply about 2 OUNCES of each of the major elements to a soil-bed before planting, so the 3" application of compost puts 15 to 20 times more mineral salts into the soil than is needed right then.

This much salt in your soil may stop or even reverse the process of osmosis that takes moisture and nutrients into your plants, which will harm or kill your small seedlings. Inexperienced and careless organic gardeners are frequently discouraged, and sometimes give up, when they experience the immutable effects of this often-misunderstood natural law.

Therefore, apply only about 1/2" of compost to your planting area before planting, and after your plants are up add another 1/2" to the surface of the planting area and work it into the soil. Continue this process every two weeks - until 3 weeks before harvesting for single crop varieties, and until 6-8 weeks before the first frost for everbearing crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

I know how to prepare and use manure and compost, and have done it very successfully. I choose to use natural mineral nutrients because 1) it is so much easier and cost effective, 2) we eliminate problems such as pests, weed seeds, and diseases, and 3) we eliminate 13 unknowns by accurately providing our plants with everything that they need.

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