Putting Manure to Work in Local Gardens

In days past, when one needed fertilizer for a garden or flower beds, they visited the farmer down the road and loaded up! Now, more than likely, it means a trip to a big box store for bags of composted manure trucked in from miles – or states - away. But when you think about the amount of packaging, time and gas required to truck in this resource, it makes sense to try and find more local alternatives. 

When exploring your options, ask around to see if other gardeners you know have a source of composted manure they’re willing to share. Snohomish Conservation District also maintains a list which can be requested by calling our office. The ‘Manure Share List’ includes people looking for manure, and those with too much that are willing to share. Some farmers will load, others are self-load. Bring a friend with a pickup and share a load! Some farms charge a small fee for their manure or to load it, or may have piles only accessible via 4-wheel drive.


You’ve Got It – Now What?

Properly composted manure, allowed to go through 120 to 180 days of hot composting, is best, but you can also get fresh manure and compost it yourself. When using fresh manure, allow it to age (i.e. compost) for six months to avoid any potential problems. Keeping your pile moist, and turning it periodically, will speed up the process. Do not use fresh manure on vegetables, especially root crops, due to the potential of transmitting pathogens. Many people spread the manure in their gardens in the fall and rototill it in spring before planting. Incorporate it to a depth of 6 to 8 inches so you can get the full benefit of the compost. 

Proper use of manure in the garden can help not only supply nutrients, it can also help soil aeration and drainage, which ultimately results in healthier plants. Most manure application is based on nitrogen content and how much is actually available to the plants in the first growing season. However, too much manure can lead to nutrient runoff, excessive vegetative growth and in some cases, salt damage. Salts in fresh manure can be high, especially in poultry manure. Poultry manure is also high in nitrogen and tends to be ‘hot’, which can burn plants. To avoid both salt damage and burning your plants, either compost the manure first or wait 3 to 4 weeks after application to plant the area. Some manure is high in phosphorous as well, so you may want to get a soil test to make sure your phosphorus levels aren’t getting too high.

The Variations of Compost

There are many variations of compost – depending on livestock type, bedding used, etc. - but it’s important to know your sources. Ask the farmer if their animals have been recently de-wormed, or if the hay they feed is treated with an herbicide.  Some crops are more susceptible to residuals such as potatoes, peas, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes. Make sure the manure you haul in is from herbivores (sheep, llamas, goats, cattle, and horses) rather than pigs. (Never use cat, dog, or pig manure in vegetable gardens or compost piles. Parasites that may be in these types of manure are more likely to survive and infect people than those in other types of manure). 

Your composted manure may have bedding mixed in which is fine, it will help improve soil tilth as well. If the compost has not been thoroughly broken down and has a high amount of bedding, it can actually draw nitrogen out of the soil in the composting process, robbing plants of much-needed nitrogen. Horse manure alone has the perfect carbon-nitrogen ratio for composting, although most horse manure is too high in bedding to readily compost. When manure is correctly composted, the finished product is mostly free of odor, flies and some weed seeds, and can be easier to load and haul since it likely has less moisture than fresh manure. The articles in the resource section offer more in-depth information on the use of manure and compost in gardens. 


Share the Love

Did you know that Snohomish Conservation District has a ‘Manure Share’ List? Call 425-335-5634 and ask for one of our farm planners who can email the list to you and offer suggestions on home use of manure. If you have excess manure to share or want to be on the list receive manure, please let us know and we will update our manure share list. 

Real Life Examples

Ready to learn more, take a moment to read about how Cally Ingram Slager and Cadri Curry are helping their gardens thrive with local compost at snocd.org/local-compost-stories.

Additional Resources


By Lois Ruskell, Public Relations Coordinator | From Volume 29: Issue 1 of The Nexus