An ode to horse manure and other by-products called waste
From Gene Logsdon (1980)
With Addendum July 2008
Garden Farm Skills
The folk belief that a plaster of fresh cow dung (why is it you must write dung, but can’t write what everyone says? They’re both four-letter words meaning exactly the same thing) would help a cut was laughed into fantasyland, then damned into oblivion as suicidal. Putting dirt on a cut would lead to lockjaw and death, said the righteous.
But now that science is beginning to catch up with itself, researchers are slow to laugh at anything. Cow manure does indeed contain healing elements—certain essential protein substances, trace minerals, and vitamin B12—manufactured in the cow’s stomach. Science has merely put the elements to technological form.
Did you know where vitamin B12 was discovered? In chicken litter. Of course, the chickens knew it was there all the time, but because hens are so stupid and men are so smart, they’ve never been credited.
Commercial poultrymen, because of the demands of the market economy, had been increasing the sizes of their flocks (and still are) in order to make a profit. They had, in the best view of “modern” husbandry, made great efforts to keep the houses into which chickens were jammed sterile and clean, to keep “germs” out. But the more they cleaned and disinfected, the more prone to some diseases and cannibalism the chickens became.
Then one day, some lazy farmer didn’t clean out the old bedding in the chicken coop. God bless lazy people. He didn’t clean it out the next year either—just continued to spread fresh straw on top. Behold, cannibalism, for which he had been spending money on various foolish preventives, disappeared from the flock. He hadn’t changed feeding formulas. The only difference was all that litter, and the hens, he noticed, kept scratching in it and finding something there to eat.
And so it came to pass that chickens told men about B12, and poultrymen all over the world began to let chicken litter compost itself in the coop. The only requirement was that the litter had to remain dry. Bacteria then began working away in it and out of defecation came health.
Of course, the huge commercial poultry houses today often keep chickens in individual cages and supply the necessary vitamins and protein in the feed. The economics of moving manure are such that for really big operations, litter-raising chickens won’t pay. Whether or not you agree with their methods, you have to admit that they have kept chicken meat within reach of every family’s budget.
The purpose of bringing this little story up is to put in proper perspective what we have been calling wastes, rubbish, garbage, offal, and manure.
Either we must adopt a new attitude toward waste, or, as ecologists and city planners are warning, we will bury ourselves in it. Wastes must be seen as a natural part of the life cycle and food chain; decay is a necessary prelude to life. And if man has, in his infinite wisdom, invented brilliant materials like plastic that will not decay in a suitable length of time, then he must reuse them or go buy an empty planet someplace for a dumping ground.
Every owner of a Two Acre Eden can do something about the garbage problem. He does not buy throwaway bottles, or nondegradable plastics if he can help it. Leaves, paper, grass clippings, and rags can all be composted—all are valuable as compost. I’ve even used old rugs as mulch with good results. Works perfectly. My wise, old English gardener neighbor (he’s 90 and still does all his own work on his one-acre paradise) buries all his tin cans along his garden. He just keeps a trench going, about 18 inches deep, and fills and covers as needed. It takes years to get across his property, by which time the tin he first buried is all rotted away. It’s a very simple operation, really. Adds minerals to the soil, too.
Ecologists call such practices “self containment.” Each home recycles, and thereby consumes, its own wastes. No garbage problem, no pollution of streams. Nobody mentions it often, but a septic tank is a perfect example of self-containment. Septic tanks are a marvelous invention fallen into disrepute because half the time they aren’t made right or because thoughtless people flush into them too many laundry detergents and other chemicals that slow down or destroy the bacterial action that makes a septic tank work. It is much easier to put sewers in all over the country at $2,000 per house, and flush all that crap out to the sewage disposal plant. Then, during heavy rains, the cities throw open the storm sewers and the swill goes rushing untreated into our rivers. This is progress?
In relation to the garden, specifically, I implement self-containment in a limited but practical manner in the following way. It starts with a small flock of hens.
For most people, keeping chickens poses an immediate problem. Ridiculous zoning laws prohibit many forms of livestock even on large lots. You can keep a blundering dog the size of a small elephant on a lot no bigger than a postage stamp, but you can’t keep two hens on a half-acre. A lawyer friend of mine says this kind of zoning is probably unconstitutional. It ought to be. Any place large enough to keep a cat will serve for two hens without fuss or muss. And two hens can supply you with a dozen eggs a week.
Past this hurdle, here’s how self-containment can work. You begin by raising corn for the chickens to eat. The cornstalks are ranked around the coop in winter as insulation. In spring, they are ground up and used as bedding. Grass clippings from the lawn also become bedding. You can throw away the garbage disposal. The chickens eat all the table scraps and benefit from them, not to mention that you cut down on the amount of extra chicken feed you might have to buy. In the winter, we feed ours old lettuce that our groceryman would otherwise have to throw away. The chickens clean up most of the garden produce we don’t eat. In the meantime, the chicks grow up and become broilers and fryers—meat that is high-quality, fresh, tasty. Unlike those who eat supermarket meat, we don’t have to worry whether or not our chickens were really taken off that medicated feed formula ten days before they were butchered, as they were supposed to be. We know. Then pretty soon, the hens we don’t butcher are producing eggs—the only way we’ve been able to get good eggs. Not only are fresh eggs better eating, but they make a vast difference in pastries and other food.
The chickens are also producing manure, mixing it into the litter, composting it into excellent fertilizer for the garden to make more food for more chickens for more eggs, and so on. You don’t even have to make a compost pile. It’s all very easy, improves the quality of your life, the richness of your soil, and adds nothing to pollution.
Many people tell me they’d like to use mulch on their garden but can’t get enough. My advice: Subscribe to the New York Times. In even one year it should provide you enough mulch for a couple of acres. Seriously, newspapers do make good mulch. Spread a whole section—four or six pages thick—at a time and throw a clod or two on top so it won’t blow away. I cover unsightly kinds of mulch like papers with leaves or grass clippings. I don’t want my garden to look like a junk pile, even if that’s what it really is. If you use newspapers for mulch, it’s a good idea to add some nitrogen fertilizer to the ground where the newspapers are rotting.
If you use your fireplace a lot, or have wood-burning stoves and furnaces, save the ashes and scatter them on your garden. Wood ashes contain lime and potash.
If you live out in the country, manure may be easier to get than you think. Most livestock farmers will be glad to give you some, if you do the hauling. In estate areas, where horses are popular, manure is a big problem, and you can generally find huge heaps of it rotting away behind the barns. Horse owners in such straits will welcome you and your pickup with open gates.
When I didn’t have a truck, I traded garden produce with a friend for the use of his. The best find I’ve made is a horse farm where peat moss has been used as bedding, and a small mountain of peat moss and manure is composting away to beautiful richness.
On the other hand, if you happen to have a small farm near suburban areas, and have extra manure, you can sell it if you do the hauling. This may seem to contradict the preceding paragraph, but that is because human beings are so contradictory. The last time I bought a pickup load of manure the hauler told me he was able to sell all he had time to haul in the evenings.
To get all the leaves we wanted, we found that it took only five persistent telephone calls to our local village street department to get a truckload delivered. Once the workers realized that our place was not as far to drive to as the nearest dump, they were only too glad to bring leaves. But the young fellow who drives the truck has grave doubts about our mental condition. “You just want me to dump them right here?” he always repeats in disbelief. “Yep.” “All of them? Just dump them?” It is very difficult The whole world cusses leaves in the fall. And we have all those trees around which to rake. And still we ask for more. He does not, will never, comprehend.
Grass clippings are my favorite mulch, even though (but also because) they rot down to nothing in a hurry. After I started mulching everything, I quickly realized that I needed a never-ending supply, which even my big lawn was incapable of giving me. So I began to approach people in the neighborhood who owned huge stretches of grass.
People are not used to having someone stop and ask them for their grass clippings. They don’t believe you. They think you must be up to something nefarious, like maybe casing their home for a night burglary. There are several ways to overcome this problem. The best one is to use some other excuse for stopping by. If there are rumors of a new highway coming through your neighborhood, even if it is probably going to be ten miles away, you have the perfect entrée. It goes something like this:
“Hi.” Me, waving. His mower is going full blast, and he doesn’t really want to stop.
Silence, him. But he slacks off on the throttle and stops.
“Say, I live just down the road aways and…”
I understand that someplace in this area there’s A NEW ROAD COMING THROUGH.”
He gets that all right and turns off the mower. There is a gleam in his eye that is just a mite dangerous.
“You say you’re working on the new road?” he growls suspiciously.
“No, no.” I know now which tack to take. “No, I’m just trying to figure out how to keep the damn thing out.”
He relaxes, begins to polish his glasses. He is with a friend. Everybody in the whole world wants new highways to go someplace besides through or past their front door. Together we curse the government, the state, the highway department, the politicians, automobiles, population explosion, and every conniving local businessman who is working to get the highway close, but not too close, to his business. This easily takes a half hour, and with a little imagination, can chew up a whole afternoon of mulch-gardening. But finally the two of us are comrades who have fought the wars together. I turn to leave with a “Well, I just wondered if you knew any more about it than I did.” When I get almost to my car, I let it occur to me, as if I had never thought of it before, to ask what he intended to do with all those grass clippings.
“Oh, I don’t know. Dump ‘em back over the hill, I guess.”
“Say, I could use them. I grow a big garden and like to mulch around the plants.”
“Be my guest,” he says expansively. No one who opposes the highway could be all bad, even if he does queer things like collect grass clippings.
“Soon as you get them raked up, I’ll be down,” I say quickly. It is very important that you get started on the right track—having him and not you rake up the clippings. I zip off before he can reach the opposite conclusion.
I found a subdivision where the people are very, very particular about everything. The tradition, long established, is to fill plastic sacks with grass clippings and leave them for the garbage man to take. The garbage man comes on Monday morning, but I come on Saturday night, by prearrangement, and get at least a cart trunk full. I could get a semi load, if I had one. Our car, as a result of these Saturday runs, smells like a silo all summer long.
Gathering grass clippings makes good neighbors eventually. It pleases them that they can please me and get rid of garbage at the same time. Even the garbage man is glad. And some of those clippings, from lawns fertilized so abundantly and at great cost, return the nutrients to my garden—shall I use a pun?—scot-free.
Addendum July 2008:
The above was written (Two Acre Eden) when we were living outside of Philadelphia and just beginning to envisage a life as a garden farmer far away in Ohio. Every pay check went first to our “garden farm fund” and if there was any left over, we might buy something with it. In the meantime we pretended that our two acres was a real farm and each square foot of it a field. That’s how I developed unwittingly the vision of the Japanese garden— seeing the world in very small things. I had no idea that what I was writing then would become so pertinent today. Even a blind sow finds an acorn once in awhile. ~Gene Logsdon
See also Gene’s The Adventure’s of Uno the Chick
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming