The Magic Of Manure & How To Use It

An Old Timer's TrickYears ago my grandparents would have a truck from the farm come into town and dump a load of fresh cow manure over their garden. They would do this each year after everything was harvested and had died back. A few days later my grandfather would then take a small plow and walk up and down each side of the garden to work it into the soil.

The smell was wow-ee (no kidding) but to a child, it was pretty entertaining having a cow patty minefield in the backyard (there was no such thing as Nintendo way back then).

At the time it was something my grandparents “just did” and I didn’t question why. Fast forward years later and now I understand and appreciate their wise old ways.

Manure is an old-timers trick that can help bring out the best from your garden. It provides rich, nutrient content and also helps build carbon compounds (organic materials) that build soil structure. That translates into big, beautiful and bountiful vegetables.

I’m sure this isn’t anything new to many of you, but do you know how to apply it to the soil and when you should do so? Or which types are ok to use and which aren’t? Or that you can make an all-purpose fertilizer from it? Here’s a quick tipsheet that answers those questions and more.

What kind is best to use? Cows, horses, goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits all provide good, rich product that the soil will appreciate. Avoid using any from cats, dogs, pigs and humans since they may contain parasites or diseases that can transfer to humans.

Can it be fresh or should it be aged first? A fresh batch will be too strong to use on tender plants and will likely burn their leaves and stems. If it’s well-rotted, you can use it immediately.

How to apply: When using a fresh batch, layer it over the soil in the Fall after everything has died back. Spread evenly about 2″ to 3″ thick. You can then till it into the soil if you wish but leaving it as-is over the winter is fine too. Till in the Spring before planting. For a well-rotted batch, apply to soil about a week before planting…till into the soil so it can really get in there and work its magic.

High-Nitrogen Compost Pile Recipe: Layer fresh horse manure with old, partially rotted alfalfa hay. Leave it alone until it turns a dark brown (will take a few months), no tossing necessary. Can be used to feed and mulch everything including shrubs, trees, roses, vegetable plots, flowerbeds, etc. Source: Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening: Month by Month.

Making Tea: We’ve talked before about compost tea making a nutrient-rich treat for plants, you can do the same with manure. A quick recipe is to fill a 5-gallon bucket with a shovelful of well-rotted manure then top with water (fill the pail). Leave it to sit overnight for several hours. Use as an all-purpose fertilizer every 2 or 3 weeks. Note: Careful to apply this brew to the soil only and not let it come in contact with leaves or stems since it will be too strong for them.


  • Make sure to wash all produce well before consuming and avoid using fresh manure after the garden has been planted (since disease carrying pathogens may contaminate them). Using well-rotted or aged instead reduces this risk.
  • There is a pitfall to applying fresh manure (aside from the smell), it may contain viable seeds from weeds and plant life that you don’t wish to be present in your yard.

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    • Vicki Curry

    My grandmother always had the most beautiful roses and won many fair with them and her other flowers. Her ‘secret’ she said was the use of manure…(rotted & dried) each fall worked into the soils before she put them to rest for the winter with straw. She would save her coffee grinds, egg shells and potato peels, carrots, then put in old coffee cans, freeze or store out in barn up in rafters…then use them around her plants, flower beds come spring. I call this the new ”compost”….my papaw would take old leaves and grass clippings around to back of barn, pile them up….in fall. Come spring, he would dig there for the fattest, roundest of worms to go fishing.
    I believe in the ‘old’ ways..and think everyone was much healthier back then. We had cleaner water, creeks were not contaminated, nor was our livestock filled so with pro-biotics, forced chemical grains…etc….Could go on and on about how things were so different but worked from the days as a child, along with stories I’ve been told. Wish for those days back. Always will, but gone forever. So sad.

      • Linda

      Nice reply…good ideas!!

    • Savannah

    I’ve heard that horse manure is actually not a good idea for fertilizer because they don’t do a good job of digesting their food and you often getting unwanted alfalfa growing just from spreading their manure in your garden.

      • David

      I compost my horse manure for a year before using it. Made the mistake last winter of applying manure too early to my raised beds and spent the summer pulling up bermuda grass seedlings every few days. I now compost in an open pile and allow the chickens to work it through. I just pile it back up every week or so.

      • Val

      We raised and sold vegetables for a living. Horse manure shoveled over the garden in the fall, plowed in, in the spring, then rototilled, gave us the best tasting vegetables in the land. Every year the same process. Built up great soil. Weeds were the normal ones for any garden and no more than were to be expected anywhere.

      • mary

      Alfalfa saved the Dust Bowl.Turn it under.Everything that grows from the ground can be put back into the ground………..

    • Michelle

    For Savannah above, I have horses and do use the manure, but only after it is composted thoroughly. If it doesn’t heat up, it does have more weed seeds if the horse eats seed heads in their hay or whole oats. I have actually had oats growing in the cold parts of my compost pile. To get it to heat up, combine it with leaves in the fall and grass clippings and keep moist but not wet.

    • David

    To kill weeds seeds in the manure and make it safe for use quickly, I like to layer horse manure and wet hay in a pile around a vertical 2 1/2-inch PVC pipe. When the pile is constructed, the PVC pipe is removed. The vertical shaft remains in place and it creates a “chimney” for air circulation, exhausting hot gasses from the center and pulling fresh air in from the sides. The pile heats up fiercely within 24 hours and resembles a volcano in the winter; it produces non-stop steam from it’s chimney for over a week.

    When it has all but stopped steaming, I rotate the pile “inside out”, repeating the construction with the PVC pipe. It heats less the second time around, then is ready for use. It is a bit laborious, but can quickly turn a bunch of fresh horse manure into immediately useable compost in about 3 weeks. Air circulation is the key to quick composting and high heat.

    • Blanca Polanco

    I like to buy black cow manure from Ace Hardware or Walmart…I have notice something. Every time I put the cow manure my fruit tree have flowers immediately and give fruits. That is a big reason I always use it.

    • I

    If spread on fresh in the fall when it’s getting cooler how long does it take for the smell to disappear? I live in town and want to keep my neighbors happy. In the past I have always had the garden rototilled after spreading which buried the smell fast. This year the weather is not cooperating so I might have to leave it on the surface over winter. I also have a bin full of partially composted grass clippings that I plan to spread on top of the smelly stuff. Hoping that the cooler weather helps. Can also put the sprinkler on for a few hours if it will help. Any advise helps!

    • Thomas keddie

    Can I put sheep manure which I have made into mulch to my leeks into the leeks as I plant

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