Monday Kick-off: A manure memo I missed

Manure pile. Photo: Knitting Iris, CC some rights reserved

I started learning about gardening when I was a kid. My Dad always had a vegetable garden, and some of my earliest memories are of wandering in a jungle of towering tomato plants, being told not to pick until the tomato was really, really red.

I started gardening, myself, in my early 20s, at my first out-of-town apartment. That’s when I got my first lessons in what’s become a long, long word-of-mouth transfer of gardening lore, practices, facts, and fantasy.

I’m probably not alone here, right? Luckily for me, I talk every week with Amy Ivy, horticulturist (and executive director) with the cooperative extension in Clinton and Essex counties. Over the years of our on-air conversations, the balance has shifted from mostly lore and old habits to a much more intentional, information-based approach. (And to answer the occasional complaint that I ask too often about MY garden: the idea is I’m a stand-in for questions and problems that are widely shared by amateur home gardeners.  But, I admit, I’ve made the most of the opportunity.)

This week, Amy and I talk about feeding your soil — as she reminds us, it all starts with the soil! — and I learned that one of the dates on my yearly gardening calendar is ‘WAY off.  Like, by months. For years, we have made a springtime trip to the manure pile at our local horse barn, brought back a truckload or so from the oldest section of the manure pile, and turned it into our soil. Then comes raking, planting and so on, including, in not too long a time, eating peas, lettuce and all the other good things of a summer kitchen garden.

But Amy raised a big red flag on that. Page 12 of these new guidelines  says it is a bad idea to apply that aged manure in the spring and then eat from the garden in the summer. Unless you actually compost the manure, turning it and getting it to 130 degrees a couple times, it can contain pathogens you don’t want on your lettuce and carrots. The guidelines say you’ve got to wait 120 days. That would put my first edible harvest into September!

Commercial growers know this, but I didn’t. No one comes to inspect my garden except my neighbors and the deer.

You may know about the 120 days already, too, and you may have been doing this manure treatment right all along, which is to apply it in the fall and let nature do its work on the pathogens before you plant the next spring. But if you’re like me, and shifted to a springtime trip for manure because you just run out of gardening juice in the fall, it’s time to rethink. I have…and on the plus side, it’s one less chore for this spring!

Martha Foley conversation with Amy Ivy

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  1. good post and timely. People need to be reminded that just because something is natural or organic doesn't mean that it is without risk.

  2. Martha, here's another way you can get some expert consultation on your own garden and provide info for the masses: get your soil tested and have Amy interpret the results on air!

    I've always preferred adding manure in the fall. It covers bare ground, and I feel that it breaks down better with the freeze/thaw cycles of winter.

    That said, when I sent Amy Ivy the results of my soil testing from last fall she advised me to hold off on adding manure for a while. It turns out that there can be too much of a good thing, and manures can cause nutrient imbalance.