The secret ingredient

    Have you ever wondered if your garden really wants to be vegan?

    Most of us impose this diet on our soil, even the most dedicated of composters. And our gardens appreciate all the apple cores, coffee grounds, and raked leaves that we can give them, but just like us, sometimes they crave something more substantial.

    Until pretty recently the most common soil fertilizer was animal manure. The papers at Wyck include a typical garden account from the 1820s describing thirty loads of horse manure getting carted from Germantown Avenue and dumped on the garden. Today finding decent manure is a little bit more challenging, and requires different transportation.

    Saul Agricultural School in Roxborough is my favorite local source for manure. Pull up in front of the school on Henry Avenue and load up your containers with a nice sludgy mess of mixed animal manure—horse, cow, pig, and/or chicken depending on where you scoop from. It’s like being in a candy store, practically.

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    The Monastery Stables in Fairmount Park is the other source I know of, but that manure is only horse and has a lot of sawdust and hay mixed in. On my last trip there I was inexplicably required to sign a release form before I started scooping. I know I’m naïve, but I still haven’t figured that one out.

    Mixing in a few bucketfuls of manure to a compost pile helps the organic matter break down much more quickly, getting the compost to a finished state sooner. The final product will have higher levels of plant nutrients that will be released over a longer period.

    The best time to get your manure, if you’re up for it, is soon. Fresh manure is “hot” with so much available nitrogen that it can burn plants if it’s applied directly. It’s safer to let it rest for a month or two in a compost pile before putting it directly on the garden.

    There’s another reason for stocking up on your manure for the year sooner rather than later. Even on a cold day the smell takes some getting used to. On a warm day it will make you lightheaded, and it’s annoying to drive home with flies buzzing around your head.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that it may not be the most friendly gesture to dump a pile of this stuff in a yard once the season for outdoor happy hour and backyard wiffle ball has returned. It’s better to bring the hors d’oeuvres than the ordure to the party, guffaw guffaw.

    I’m sorry readers, but I couldn’t end a post like this one without a stupid poop joke.

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