Better Soil: The Scoop on Poop

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

IMG_9214In 2006, I found a source for organic cow manure.  So, I packed up my seven- and nine-year-old sons, four plastic Rubbermaid tubs and three shovels. We piled into my friend’s rickety, blue pickup with its rusty, bungeed bumpers. And we rattled off to Ashtabula County.

Contented cows didn’t bother us in the rolling meadow as we drove a John Deere green-and-yellow gator from aged cow patty to aged cow patty. You need the old stuff, not the smelly, runny fresh patties to build better soil.

As raw manure composts it’s “hot” and will burn your delicate plants.  And, it likely carries pathogens. We found our nearly odorless, composted manure flagged by vibrant swirls of clover.

My first surprise was the bed of earthworms piled in the poop. An unexpected, and valuable, bonus. After all, worms aerate the soil and their castings are rich in nutrients, making these critters some of the best additions to the garden. And, that’s why we were scooping poop … to create the best garden soil, ever.

My sons were outdoorsy and accustomed to mom’s “adventures” so they never hesitated engaging in the treasure hunt.  While we motored the bins around the fields, the boys ran about and enjoyed the sunshine. Some people pick fruit for pies, we picked cow pies.

Years later, I found myself on a similar quest. This time without sons, shoveling alpaca beans – that’s what they’re called — to enrich my soil. I’d heard they were superior because they can be used raw and won’t burn plants. An overachiever, I wanted only the best for my soil.

This year, I discarded hearsay in favor of facts. So, I posed my questions to the experts. Barbara M., a master gardener with The Ohio State University extension service told me:

“Animal manures are highly variable depending on the source, even among the same animals since their diet, bedding material, etc. is varied. In general, they are low in nutrients, although chicken manure has higher nitrogen content than other animal manures. Alpaca manure is less common – however, it has been mentioned as a good source primarily due to ease of handling and dispersing for compost or even as a raw manure. It is not recommended to use raw manure on any salad plant or vegetables, since pathogens may be present.”

I was surprised by the words “low in nutrients.” I’d always thought the reverse. I didn’t know that this organic matter doesn’t significantly feed the plants, but is valuable for improving soil structure. Good soil allows plants to breath, holds nutrients and offers adequate drainage. It provides food for earthworms and symbiotic microbes that cling to roots and help plants use nutrients.

Barbara M., says “You are definitely getting nutrients, just at low levels and highly variable. If you use composted manure, you are also getting excellent soil structure. Alpaca manure is more dense than cow manure, but if composted with other materials, it provides similar benefits, but with a slightly higher ratio of phosphate to nitrogen and potassium.”

This year, my teens are busy and my friend owns a new farm far away.

So, what will I do now? Stop obsessing. My master gardener adviser says the animal doesn’t matter. Though you should stay away from cat and dog excrement.

“It depends on what is readily available and what you want for soil amendments. There are no right or wrong answers which is why you will see different points of view. You will want to use composted [not raw] manure, though, in your herb garden for safety from pathogens.”

What poop do you scoop into your garden?

One thought on “Better Soil: The Scoop on Poop

  1. I was using aged horse manure to amend my compacted clay soil but after watching Susan Betz’s presentation at our 2015 Annual Meeting in Williamsburg I’m trying just mulched leaves this year. I’m excited to find lots of worms!


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