I’ll concede that some gardeners know far more about organic fertilizers than I ever will. I can see them sitting around the patio table discussing the comparative merits of bat guano or kelp, or maybe bone meal or worm castings. They likely know when to add rock phosphate or copper sulfate to their soil, and they probably have bags of peat moss stacked in the potting shed.
I am not one of them. My knowledge of organic fertilizer can be summed up in one word: manure.
I was raised in the middle of the country, where the farm supply stores didn’t carry a whole lot of bat guano or seaweed extract. Our farm did, however, include a cattle feedlot holding maybe 75 head. Just big enough for my dad and me to keep them well fed twice a day, and bedded down with straw when melting snow and spring rains turned the corrals into a sloppy mess.
Every spring, before we started plowing, my dad would scrape the accumulated manure out of the feedlot with a tractor and a front-loader and pile it into an old manure spreader. Then I’d hop on the tractor and pull the spreader to a nearby field, where I spread the free fertilizer over as many acres as the manure supply allowed. As I recall, the fields of corn and beans were always a little greener, and grew a little faster, where the manure supply was thickest.
Fast forward a few years, when my wife and I bought a tract home in a newly constructed suburb on the outskirts of Denver. Our new home, indeed, every home in the entire neighborhood, was constructed on deep sand, with nary a trace of topsoil. This, I thought, posed a potential problem when it was time to get a new lawn started.
My new neighbors, unacquainted with the principles of soil science, simply spread grass seed over the sand, applied dry fertilizer and water, and hoped for the best. I, on the other hand, drew on my vast experience with manure to devise the perfect plan.
At the time, I had a half-ton Chevy pickup truck, and I knew of a small cattle feedlot just a half-dozen miles away. One Saturday I drove to the feedlot and found the owner. Would he allow me to mine some of the hard, dried manure in his feedlot for use to fertilize my prospective lawn? Sure, he agreed, take all you want. Just don’t leave the gate open when you leave.
So for the next couple of weekends, armed with nothing more than a shovel, I set about the task of digging and chipping dried, hard-as-concrete cow manure from the feedlot and shoveling it into my pickup. Some came up readily. Some came up in chunks bigger than my mailbox. I made a couple of trips a day, backing my pickup into the yard, where my wife and I then spread the dry manure over the sand as evenly as possible. When the biggest chunks refused to break up, I simply dug holes in the sand and buried them.
By then, our yard looked like a bomb had exploded in a feedlot, with chunks of dried cow manure everywhere. I was clueless about how much nitrogen or potassium or phosphate I’d applied, but I figured the more manure, the better. We raked it in, spread seed, mulched the whole works with bales of straw we’d purchased from a local farmer, and laid out the soaker hoses.
When the water began dissolving the petrified manure, our yard soon acquired a certain aroma associated more with a farm than a suburban neighborhood. Our next-door neighbors, city folks from back East, politely asked how long the odor would remain. I assured them it was temporary. Or so I hoped.
Within a couple of weeks, a lush green lawn began to emerge from the sand. To be honest, some spots were considerably more lush than others, but at least we had grass covering most of our yard. The neighbors’ lawns, on the other hand, struggled to survive as hot summer temperatures arrived.
Some folks turn their noses up at the smell of manure. But any organic gardener can tell you that’s the smell of success.
Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri, where he continues to enjoy a lush, green lawn that is the envy of his neighborhood.