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These are the magic ingredients of any garden! Without them a garden will quickly lose it's ability to produce healthy crops - if any. Knowing which of these amendments to add, and how much, is not all that difficult. if you have not done so, please read our section on soil building, paying close attention to the section "A Different Way To Look At Soil?". Trusting your senses in the garden goes a long way.

Compost and manure can both be purchased from your local garden shop. However, making your own compost is not hard and does not need to be messy. If you have a pickup, many dairy farmers or equestrian centers would be glad to give you manure (don't forget sheep and goat farms - smaller organic farms are best if they are willing to give away their manure). Each of these manure types are discussed below. Try to stick with natural (organic) fertilizers. After all, isn't this one of the reasons we grow our own vegetables, for fresh produce without pesticides and chemicals.

Home Composting:

Compost is one of the most valuable resources for beautifying your landscape, and it is virtually free. Vegetable scraps, egg shells, leaves, grass clippings, and the branches you trim are some of the things you can use to make compost. Finished compost is dark and has a pleasant smell. It is produced when organic matter, such as garden, lawn, and kitchen waste, is broken down by bacteria and fungi.

Making your own compost is probably the simplest way to make high quality compost and save money. It's really not as complicated as you may think: There are many commercial composting bins and containers on the market that make it a clean, hassle-free process.

Compost can be made in either a pile or bin, depending on the amount of material for composting and the needs and size of your garden.

A compost pile should be a minumum of one cubic yard, sufficient to ensure a hot temperature. The pile may be enclosed using bricks or timber. Leave an access area or work space at the front of the pile for turning the compost and cover it with a lid or piece of carpet to retain heat and provide protection from rain.

A compost bin is often better for smaller gardens. Plastic bins, metal tumblers and plastic tumblers can be purchased from nurseries.

Alternatively, make one yourself using a 45 gallon drum or pieces of untreated timber.

Bins should be open at the top and bottom. The top needs a tight-fitting lid. The other end is placed in contact with the soil to allow earthworms to enter. These little gardeners speed the decaying process by loosening the compost and allowing air to enter and circulate. Avoid placing the bin or pile too close to houses. Consider placing it directly on level soil in a garden bed.

Two bins or piles allow material to accumulate in one while composting in the other. The pile should be protected from hot sun and heavy rain to prevent excess drying or moisture, which prevent effective composting.

Compost works best if you add a balanced mixture of rapidly decomposing "green" material (see below). and "brown" material, which decomposes slowly (see below). These can be added in any order.

Once you have a mixture of materials, cover with a layer of soil, add some water and a lid to keep the heat in and speed the rotting process.

Composting matter should feel damp, but if waterlogged it will smell, attract flies and be inefficient. Control the moisture level by adding absorbent materials such as sawdust, newspaper, straw or dry manure.

Turning the pile with a fork will speed decomposition. The more frequently the material is turned, the faster it will decompose. Care should be taken to make sure that all material is turned into the inner, hottest part of the pile where weed seeds and pathogens are destroyed. If the pile is turned regularly, the compost should be ready for use in a month or two. Your compost can sometimes be smelly when you turn it, so set up your compost away from your neighbours! The pile may be left unturned, but the process could take an extra six to twelve months.

Compost is ready to use when it has a crumbly appearance, an earthy smell and identifying what things were is difficult!

Key Elements of Composting:

Water - Keep the compost just damp. Too much water will ruin your compost.

Balance - Add a mix of green and brown materials to make a well balanced compost.

Air - Turn the pile over every few weeks or every 5 to 6 days if using a bin.

Size - A compost pile will mature quickest if it is at least one cubic yard.

Microorganisms - These help break down the compost material. They come from the soil or old compost you add and from the earth on which the compost pile is built.

The Best Mix in Compost:
All compostable materials are either carbon or nitrogen-based. Building a healthy compost pile is simple: maintain a working balance between these two.

Carbon - Referred to as browns, carbon-rich matter (peels, thin branches, stems, dried leaves, bits of wood, bark dust or sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters, conifer needles, egg shells, hay, peat moss, wood ash) gives compost its light, fluffy body.

Nitrogen - Referred to as greens, nitrogen or protein-rich matter (food scraps, manures, leafy materials like lawn clippings and green leaves) provides raw materials for making enzymes.

Problems With Your Compost?
Getting the right mix of moisture and the right mix of ingredients in your compost may take a little practice, but most problems can usually be overcome.

Too Wet - Add sawdust or shredded newspaper to help absorb moisture, and turn regularly.

No Heat - Add a source of nitrogen, such as animal manure or blood and bone meal or vegetable scraps.

Dryness - Water lightly.

Fly Development - Fully enclose the compost. Make sure the compost is hot in the centre and turn regularly to ‘cook’ fly and cockroach eggs.

Too Hot - If the mixture goes grey and smokes, turn and spread it out to cool the compost down.

Strong Smell - All compost releases some smell when it is turned. Reduce smell by keeping the compost damp but not wet.

Do Not Add The Following To Your Compost:
  • Any Type Of Plastic
  • Foam
  • Metal
  • Weeds (personal recommendation)
  • Pet Droppings
  • Dead Vertebrate Animals
  • Uncooked Meats
  • Cooked Meats
  • Diary Products (Except Egg Shells)
Important Note: Many communities have restrictions on composting and/or storage of manure. Check local regulations before your start. Where large compost piles may not be allowed, you may find the above noted compost bins are accepted.


Manure is a excellent amendment to any soil. Manure is a source of many nutrients including: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and many others. However, nitrogen is often the main nutrient of concern for most crops.

Type of Garden Best Type of Manure Best Time to Apply
Flower cow, horse early spring
Vegetable chicken, cow, horse fall, spring
Root Crops chicken, cow, horse fall, spring

Dairy Cow Manure: Dairy manure is the preferred manure for most gardeners. It is not as hot as other manures and more forgiving if accidentally applied when too fresh. It is preferred over horse and steer manure but may be harder to acquire. Though cow manure has lower nutrient levels than other manures, it is this that makes it safer to use in larger quantities. It should be aged like other manures.

Horse Manure: Horse manure is about half as rich as chicken manure, but richer in nitrogen than cow manure. It is considered a "hot" manure. Horse manure often contains a lot of weed seeds, it is best to compost this manure before use, or add to the garden in the fall.

Chicken Manure: Chicken manure is the richest animal manure. Chicken manure is considered "hot", it is best to compost this manure before use. Otherwise, it will burn any plants it comes in contact with.

Sheep & Goat Manure: Sheep or goat manure is another "hot" manure. It is somewhat dry and very rich. Manure from sheep and goats fed hay and grain will be more potent than manure from animals that live on pasture. It is best to compost this manure before use or add to the garden in the fall.

Rabbit Manure: Rabbit manure is even higher in nitrogen than some poultry manures and it also contains a large amount of phosphorus--important for flower and fruit formation.

Seaweed: (many gardeners refer to Seaweed as a manure) With beach access available, this is a fairly easy manure to obtain at no cost. Seaweed is an excellent source of calcium and potash. Prior to using seaweed though, wash it thoroughly to remove the salt. Dig it directly into the soil or compost it.

Manure Tea:
Manure tea can be used for periodic feedings as a fertilizer or very diluted and used every time you water. Do not allow undiluted manure tea to come into direct contact with foliage. To make manure tea, simply place a shovel or two of manure in a large container (5 gallon bucket) filled with water, and after a week or so, strain out the manure. To make the straining process a little easier, you can tie the manure in a burlap bag before placing it in the water (like a giant tea bag).

Green Manure:
Green manure is a crop that is grown then plowed into the soil or otherwise left to decompose for the purpose of soil improvement. These crops return more nutrients to the soil than they use to grow. Examples of cover crops used for green manure include soybeans, clover, rye, and others. Green manure does not mean raw manure.

IMPORTANT: Do not use cat, dog, pig or human feces (manure) in composts or gardens it can spread disease and parasites into the garden, and eventually you or your family members. Use of human and pig manure or feces is used in commercial agriculture, but has usually been processed prior to application to kill parasites and diseases (how effectively, we are not sure and would not use it). Never use fresh manure (hot), since it contains soluble nitrogen compounds and ammonia that can burn plants and interfere with seed germination. Manure that is well composted or has aged for at least six months is best - a year or more is even better but hard to find. When added to the compost pile, manure will speed the composting process.

If you use fresh manure(less than 60 days old) in the garden, there is a small risk that pathogens which cause disease may contaminate garden vegetables. The risk is greatest for root crops, like radishes and carrots, and leafy vegetables, such as lettuce, where the edible part touches the soil. Careful washing and/or peeling will remove most of the pathogens responsible for the disease. Thorough cooking is even more effective.

To reduce the risk of disease, we suggest these precautions:

  • Apply manure at least 60 days before harvesting of any garden vegetables which will be eaten without cooking. If you apply manure within 60 days of harvest, use only very well aged aged or composted manure.
  • Never apply fresh manure after the garden is planted.
  • Thoroughly wash raw vegetables before eating.
  • Do not use cat, dog or pig manure in gardens or compost piles, because some of the parasites which can be found in these manures may survive and remain infectious for people.

Common Fertilizers

Fertilizers quickly break down to provide specific nutritional needs to plants. Organics need time to be broken down into the simple chemical substances required by plants. Thus organic manures tend to be safer to use when feeding plants as they rarely tend to "burn" then. But if you have ever applied too much inorganic fertilizer to a plant you know the damage that it can do in a short amount of time because of the concentration of nutrients in one spot at one time. Always use inorganic fertilizers with care and read all the instructions.

Fish Fertilizer: This is a good fertilizer, but is extremely smelly. However, it is a good source of nitrogen and some phosphorous.

Ammonium Sulfate: A soluble salt which is an excellent source of Nitrogen. Use with care as it may promote an excess of green growth and make your plants weak, spindly and susceptible to disease.

Ammonium Nitrate: Useful to increase soil acidity.

Nitro-chalk: A mixture of Ammonium Nitrate and Limestone. Useful in neutralizing acid soils.

Calcium Cyanamide: A source of Nitrogen and helps to de-acidify the soil. It must be used carefully as it may kill young plants.

Rock Phosphate: A naturally occurring product that is not soluble in water. Useful for soils with a high degree of organic matter, but will not break down and be useful to plants in sandy or neutral soils -- needs acidic soils to be catalyzed. A little goes a long way.

Magnesium Phosphate: Useful in promoting chlorophyll production in plant leaves necessary for healthy plant growth.

Superphosphate: Partly soluble in water and quickly available for plant use.

Potassium: An essential element deficient in sandy soils.

Calcium: Another essential element for most plants. Also known as lime, it helps to neutralize the acidity of acidic soils and allows the release of plant nutrients that would otherwise be bound in the soil and unavailable to plants. Lime should be applied carefully as it may cause a deficiency of other elements in plants if used in large quantities.

Further Reading:

University of Missouri Article on Composting
A good article on composting, bin designs and other information.

Composting Article from Ohio State University
Another good article on composting, Good images showing various bin designs and composting instruction.

Article on Manure from the University of Minnesota Extension Service
A very good article on manure and how it works in your garden. This page contains basic information about what manure does in the soil and why manure nutrient content varies so much from garden to garden.

PDF Booklet on Manure from the University of Nottingham.
Although written more for commercial farmers, this booklet provides somewhat technical, but practical advice on the optimum use of animal manures on arable land in order that pollution is minimized and the fertilizer value of livestock manures is fully maximized.

Compost Video From Fine Gardening:

Click to view composting video from Fine Gardening
A good video on composting and related information.

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