Livestock Bedding As Garden Soil

Everything I read about gardening, even in the more esoteric books I enjoy, warns about planting anything entirely in animal bedding. There are strict criteria about making sure such material is no longer “hot” and even then, it must be well-mixed into generous ratios of soil. But every year we noticed seeds sprout, grow, and mature in the piles of bedding and manure from our cow barn. Mostly squash and melon seeds — quite naturally those seeds were available after feeding cattle the leftover squash and melon from our gardens.

It got me thinking.

I’ve spent years of organic, hopefully regenerative gardening, only to watch my beautiful squash plants succumb to the bad influences of powdery mildew, cucumber beetles, vine borers, and squash beetles. I had no place left to plant them where these dangers weren’t already lurking in the soil. Even with large planting areas, there are only so many places to rotate crops, especially when it’s recommended to avoid planting anything in the Cucurbitaceae family in the same area for three years.

So in early June (quite late, due to heavy rainfall), I put only a few of the seeds I’d saved into a garden bed by the house. Here they are, small and beginning to suffer the ravages of squash beetles.

Most of these leaves are a handwidth or handwidth and a half across.

That same week, I thought of our large pile of bedding and manure from the chicken coop. (A new pile to us. The old piles are in the woods.) Some of the bedding had been there six months or more but some was relatively fresh. The pile was over three feet tall and about 12 to 14 feet in diameter. I had so many seeds saved from heirloom squash varieties that I thought it was worth planting some right in the bedding. I leveled the pile out a bit, made five or six hills, and put a few seeds in each hill. All winter squash — Boston Marrow squashGete Okosomin Squash, Cypriot Squash, maybe another variety I’ve forgotten.

Uninspiring pile of bedding and manure from chicken coop. Doesn’t look very promising does it?

I was pretty convinced this was a doomed experiment. The seeds had no access to actual soil, which was many feet below. The matter itself was loose and I was sure the seeds would wash away in the next rain. And the pile was hot! It felt ten degrees over my body temp at least. Plus it’s way out back, far from the house where watering and weeding are somewhat likely to happen.

The seeds emerged with wild enthusiasm, far quicker than the garden bed seeds. Within two weeks the chicken bedding plants were four times larger than the garden bed plants. They remain four times larger.

And there’s a significant difference in plant health.  The squash stems in my regular garden beds are brittle and weakened.

The squash stems in the livestock bedding are thick, supple, and healthy.

It’s hard to tell from a distance, but this is a huge mountain of eager squash plants with many emerging fruits.  Strangely, the chickens have left them alone and the only creatures interested in the flowers are pollinators.

Leaves are easily three and four of my handwidths across.

I’m not suggesting anyone plant anything they intend to eat raw in livestock bedding. But foods meant to be cooked are a different matter. I’d be interested to hear about plantings you’ve attempted in livestock bedding.

Late August update

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A few weeks later and we have dozens of giant winter squash. This picture doesn’t offer much perspective as the plants die back to reveal their fruits, but the squash are between 3 and 5. 5 feet long already. Oh, and volunteer potato plants also popped up in this fertile mess. I still have to get in there to dig them up. Amazing!


About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of four books and served as 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year. She's the editor of Braided Way: Faces & Voices of Spiritual Practice. She works as a book editor, teaches writing workshops, and maxes out her library card each week.
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6 Responses to Livestock Bedding As Garden Soil

  1. Debra H Frantz says:

    Very interesting! I’ve given up on any vine crops for now. They all failed miserably last year. Now if I only had my Dad’s farm nearby . . . .

  2. katechiconi says:

    One year (in the UK, when I was in my early teens), my father decided to take a very practical approach to land clearance. We had a very sloping bit of land, covered in weeds, impossible to cultivate by machine. It was behind the stables where our two horses were kept. For a month, Pa made us wheel loads of mucked-out stable litter (wheat straw, wood shavings and horse poo) up to this sloping plot and lay it out thickly in rows, backfilled in between with fresh woodshavings to make paths between the rows. The long rows were at least 18 inches high. When it was all filled up, we left it for 3 months, and then went up and down the rows, planting chitted potatoes. I have never seen or tasted potatoes like it, before or since. When they were done, the weeds were gone too, the ground under the rows was soft and fertile, and we were able to plant other things. At the end of the cycle, we put down another load of manure and round we went again. I don’t think we ever had to weed…

    • What a fantastic idea.

      We live in such a strange time, when there are fewer and fewer smallholders so wise concepts like these are forgotten. Most farms, at least in the U.S. don’t have a mix of livestock and crops, where it’s quite natural to use these sustainable practices. Instead they tend to do one or the other on a large scale, meaning purchased synthetic fertilizer for crops and awful “manure lagoons” for livestock.

      • katechiconi says:

        I’m always surprised at the way manure is discarded in favour of ‘tidier’ alternatives. Yes, it smells, and it’s mucky, but it’s black gold, and it’s worth knowing the different nitrogen levels of the different manures so you can mix it correctly with potassium and carbon sources for best effect. Cow low, sheep low, horse medium, pig high and chicken highest. I have a big plastic bin full of manure ‘soup’, a combination of sheep and chicken manure, water, comfrey and worm tea, allowed to brew for a few months. Greatly diluted, it’s a favourite for all the vegies.

  3. I used to make manure tea back when we had rabbits. Totally forgot about that! (I have a quiet hankering for a rabbit or two again…)

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