This week on the plot we’ve been experiencing a rookie dilemma. Every now and then, a large pile of fresh horse manure is deposited at the gates of the allotments, for communal use in our plots. Not particularly au fait with the how’s and where’s of horse poo, we took a look around the other plots and followed our fellow allotmenteers by digging a fair quantity into our large bed, which is yet to be planted. This bed is awaiting some of our veg when they get a little bigger. We also put some fresh manure in the bottom of each of our ‘raised baths’ before planting them a couple of months ago – the crops in which (Shallots, Onions, Spring Onions, Garlic, Leeks) are growing rather rapidly !
This week however, I stumbled across an article in a local magazine, which discussed the dangers of using fresh manure directly into beds being used to grow crops – firstly the risk of ‘burning’ crops with the high nitrogen and ammonia content of the manure, and secondly (and rather more worryingly), the risk of picking up serious nasties such as E coli from the veggies grown in soil containing it.
What ensued was an hour long conversation about dung and a restless night (I kid you not !) The following day, Mr O and I took to Google to try and discover the real risk of this and what we should do. Should we rake the dung back up (requiring lots of effort and the nagging worry of leaving some nasties behind), should we cover the bed and let it overwinter (wasting a whole big bed worth of space in our allotment and lots of seedlings with no homes to go to), or should we just throw caution to the wind (risking being very poorly indeed) ?!
The answers on the myriad of websites we visited were very variable – many advised to only ever consider using horse manure that had been well rotted down in a compost heap, some suggested that it was okay to use it if you did so in the winter, leaving it for several months before planting the following spring / summer. At the other end of the spectrum, many writers exhorted the benefits of using fresh dung, with many an anecdote about years gone by, when people used to scramble to scoop up fresh horse poo in the roads, to use directly on the veggies grown in their back yards.
The only definitive advice we could find was that from the (albeit American) Department of Agriculture, who give farmers specific guidelines on this subject. These are that if using fresh manure on your plot, you must leave at least 120 days between putting it on the land to harvesting root crops, or 90 days for crops that grow on top of the soil (their words, not mine !) I believe this varies slightly depending on your exact circumstances, but what I gleaned from this is that if we ‘layeth the dung’ in April, we should survive as long as we don’t harvest until September at the earliest. The crops will of course need to be washed and cooked thoroughly once harvested. This should be fine for the crops we intend to grow in this area, so Mr O and I have breathed (half) a sigh of relief.
Of course, there’s still that nagging doubt … the idea of ‘growing our own’ was so we knew our harvest was fresh and unpolluted – not to risk E coli ! And what if we proudly give some of our veggies to friends and family ? Do we just give them to ones we don’t like ?! We’d be interested in any wise words on this subject – please add your two-penneth to the debate – to fresh dung or not to fresh dung, that is the question !