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Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2010 4:49 am | Updated: 1:17 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — I thought the chickweed column was going to win this season’s prize for triggering the most e-mails, but that was before I started writing about horse manure.

One reader, who did not want his name used, said he has been using horse manure in his cold frame since reading “The New Seed-Starters Handbook,” by Nancy Bubel. For those who don’t know, a cold frame is a box, usually made of wood and either glass, 6-mil plastic or Plexiglas. Sometimes the frame has a bottom, but frequently it does not so that the box can be placed over a section of the garden. The lid is usually on hinges, allowing it to be propped open when temperatures get lethally hot — which they can even when the temperatures outside the box are quite cool. You can buy gorgeous cold frames of polished wood, with hinges that will automatically open when the inside temperatures get too hot. However, I have seen perfectly adequate ones, meaning they protect seedlings in the spring and the last tender greens of the fall, made of scavenged window frames.

Anyway, Nancy Bubel heartily endorses the use of horse manure, and gives these directions for making a manure heated cold frame: “Dig a rectangular hole three to four inches larger all around than the dimensions of your cold frame and 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep. … A week to ten days before planting, pack horse or chicken manure into the hole up to six inches from soil level. … Hose this layer down to start decomposition. … Spread six inches of fine soil on top of the manure. ... The manure will reach its peak of heat within three to six days. Wait to plant, though, until the soil temperature falls to 85 degrees, or you will cook your seedlings. Ventilate the bed … to keep the temperature below 90 degrees.”

Unlike the horse manure you use in your garden bed, which will come into direct contact with the roots of your plants and so must be composted first, the manure used to heat cold frames is fresh — and heats the box as it decomposes.

Of the other readers who emailed about their experiences with horse manure (all of them positive), Cindy Hardy won my admiration for straight forwardly identifying herself as an unapologetic “life-long manure lover.”

“Some of my earliest memories are of digging with my grandfather in his manure pile as we gathered the composted manure for his vegetable garden. … As a pre-horse-owning gardener, I was always happy when a horse-owning friend had a pile of manure around that I could dig into and add to my garden projects. I knew that the older the manure was, the better, so I looked for the stuff that looked and smelled like good dark dirt. Now that I have horses of my own, I keep a compost thermometer and monitor the piles as they heat up and cool down before I give my manure to eager gardening friends. I find that in the warm days of summer, a fresh pile will heat up to 120 degrees then cool down to ambient temperature within two weeks. At that point, it is black and laced with a gray humus-y fungus, and smells like forest floor. I grow tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, flowers — all the things your source suggested shouldn’t grow in manure. Thanks to Michele He’bert {of Cooperative Extension} and the Master Gardener class, I have learned to supplement my manure with a bit of dolomite lime and fish fertilizer, but the basis of the dirt in my raised beds is horse manure. I also use parasitic wasps to keep flies out of my manure and zeolite to reduce ammonia odor.”

“However, not all horse manure is created equal. For one, I compost mine, building up a new pile every week or two. When eager friends offer to clean my corral for me because I’m out of the composted stuff, I give them strict instructions to compost it before they use it. For a good website on composting horse manure, look at Horses for Clean Water (www.horsesforcleanwater.com). They have great instructions on managing and composting horse manure.”

Cindy goes on to say that her horses “eat locally grown brome hay, with a vitamin and mineral supplement and a few soaked beet pellets, so the dangers of chemicals from pelleted hay or grain aren’t a factor. I do de-worm my horses every couple of months, but this year I’m testing their manure periodically and cutting back on the de-worming to prevent parasite resistance, so the de-wormer is a minor factor in my horses’ manure. Some horse owners, however, do give a daily dewormer. It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

“Finally, e-coli. This disease is also of concern to horse owners, since horses can sicken from it as well. … Again, composting and heating the pile should help with this potential problem.”

“This year, so many friends came for manure that I couldn’t keep enough in my composting pile to pot all my greenhouse plants (I mix it with last year’s potting soil), so I’m still transplanting tomatoes. They recover quickly and produce into the fall in the greenhouse. It feels good to have a completely local ‘green’ cycle — from local hay to horse to garden to human.”

Thanks to everyone who emailed. It was heartening to learn that I am not the only one in town in love with horse manure!

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@orcasonline.com.

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