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The scoop on adding poop to a Fairbanks garden

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Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2010 2:05 pm | Updated: 1:08 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - The Husband does not care for gardening or the products thereof. If he consumes a bag of potato chips, he claims he has eaten the recommended required daily servings of vegetables. Which was why I was nearly overcome with my birthday present a few years ago: a truckload of poop that he spread all over my garden beds.

I nearly swooned at the romance of the fact that he drove around until he found a house with horses, knocked on a stranger’s door to see if they had any manure to spare, and then messed up his clothes and hands loading and unloading it. True love.

He knew how much I valued horse droppings because I was always talking and writing about how it enriches the nutrition of the soil and improves its condition, all for free. I had managed to score fresh manure a few times, so he’d lived with the initial smell and less than attractive appearance of piles of poop aging in the backyard. In fact, he’s endured my various manure related activities so long that I once heard him giving a mini-lecture to a neighbor, about how fresh horse manure can burn plants due to the nitrogen compounds and ammonia and that there are weed seeds that will erupt in the garden if not subjected to the heat generated in a compost pile. That would be like me being able to give a treatise on golf, in which I have less than zero interest.

Anyway, my affection for poop of the horse variety is why I was so alarmed when I read an article by Northwest gardening guru Ann Lovejoy. She is militantly opposed to using horse manure and here is why: “Horses that are given weed-free grain are also usually given wormers.

… Worms are good for the garden, adding worm killers to compost is not a plan. Even if feed grain is weed-free, it may contain clopyralid, a persistent herbicide used to control thistles. … The residue acts like an herbicide on certain families, notably the nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, petunias), the composites (many herbs and flowers) and legumes (peas and beans) … continually adding horse manure to a garden plot can result in the buildup of toxic levels of magnesium…” Well, she got my attention. I wrote to the soil scientist she quoted, looking for verification of this information, to no avail. I went to the Organic Gardening site, to see if they were still as enthusiastic about horse manure as they had been when they published the All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.

Apparently, so, because this is what they said, “Mixing well-rotted farm animal manures (especially cow, horse and chicken manure) into the soil provides an abundant supply of nitrogen to your plants. Nitrogen is the key nutrient plants use for growing leaves. If you can add an inch or so of compost to your garden each year, you probably don’t need any additional fertilizers.”

In fact, the recipe they give for an extra fast cooking compost pile is this: 1/3 horse manure and 2/3 leaves or grass.

I decided to consult experts closer to home. Jeff Lowenfels, the Anchorage Daily News gardening writer is the co-author of that Bible about soil health called Teaming with Microbes. He replied succinctly to an email that I sent him outlining Ann Lovejoy’s horse manure objections and asking if he agreed: “Yup, but I don’t like manures for another reason: E. coli.”

I don’t take the possibility of E. coli poisoning lightly. Unless you are living in a media free world, you can’t have missed the horror stories of folks falling ill, dying or ending up like 22-year-old Susan Smith.

According to a profile in the New York Times, she thought she had a case of flu or food poisoning.

“Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed. … {She} was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner.” (If you want the entire sixpage article on Ms. Smith’s nightmare, email and I will send it on.) While there are strains of E. coli that are not harmful, there are some that, according to Christine Bruhn, Ph.D., director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California “attach themselves to the intestines and release toxins--and as few as 10 cells of these bacteria can lead to severe kidney damage and even death.”

This is a good caution, but E. coli comes from contact with feces and you should be thoroughly washing all the produce you eat, whether from the grocers or your own garden.

And you don’t need a fancy food wash product. I repeat a quote from Cooperative Extension agent Roxie Dinstel that I used in another article: “Water works well with a little agitation, to make sure the dirt gets jarred off. But a vinegar solution would be great. Vinegar is a great sanitizer. In fact, some medical equipment has recommendations to sanitize with vinegar, particularly those that they don’t want a chlorine residue on. But too strong a solution will wilt greens, so the 1:3 solution would work well.”

By now I was thoroughly confused about the scoop on poop. Ann Lovejoy says no.

Organic Gardening says yes. Jeff Lowenfels says no. So, as I usually do when I am flummoxed, gardening wise, I went to Michele He’bert of our local Cooperative Extension Office. Next week, Michele’s take on horse poop.

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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