Before you plant a single thing this spring, keep this in mind – building healthy soil is the key to establishing a successful garden. All of the nutrients that plants need come from the soil. Over time, those nutrients become depleted and need to be replenished. Remember, most of the nutrients that livestock consume wind up in their feces. Consequently, manure plays an important role in the life cycle of plants.

Gardeners have been using manure to improve the quality of their soil for hundreds of years. It provides organic matter and vital nutrients that the plants in your garden need to reach their full potential.

There are many different types of manure and each one is different. Horse, cow and chicken manure are the most popular organic fertilizers. They’re inexpensive and easy to find. Horse manure works well, but wouldn’t be my first choice. Horses only digest about 25 percent of what they eat. This leaves horse dung full of undigested weed seeds. You’ll find yourself battling well-fertilized weeds all season. Chicken manure has to be used very carefully. The high nitrogen content can do more harm than good. It needs to decompose. Let it sit for at least six months before using. Rachel and I use cow manure on all of our food crops. It’s a good all-purpose, well-balanced fertilizer. Since cows have four stomachs, their food is well-digested, weed seeds and all. 

Exotic manures are dense with nutrients and make great garden fertilizer. The Kansas City Zoo sells composted animal manure from herbivores (plant eaters) such as elephants and giraffes for $25 per truck load. This is an exceptional price for a wonderful product.  Droppings from meat-eating animals are not used to avoid any potential diseases. Zoo compost is perfectly safe to handle and use in any part of your garden, including around your vegetables.  

You may have heard about worm castings, but what are they? Worm castings are everything that has passed through the digestive system of an earthworm. They’re the best improvement you can make to your garden soil. They contain water soluble nutrients and organic materials. The castings also contain microbes and bacteria that help boost the fertility of your garden. Worm castings are dry and odorless so you can also use them indoors. All of this goodness comes at a price, as much as $20 per pound, but a pound goes a long way. If you have just a few containers or a very small garden, it’s well worth the price.       

Most people cringe at the thought of using human waste as fertilizer. Biosolids are a type of sewage sludge that have been treated to remove disease pathogens and toxic chemicals. Rachel and I use Milorganite on our roses throughout the year with excellent results. 

If you have access to livestock and can collect your own manure, mix it with compost before using it. The nutrients in fresh manure are highly concentrated and can burn or dehydrate your plants.

Dog and cat manure should never be composted. It can carry parasites and viruses that infect humans. Set it out with the household trash.    

Remember, the best garden starts with the best soil. The best soil starts with well-composted manure.

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at