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The facts on animal waste in the garden

Jeff Lowenfels

Well, we made it through the winter solstice. This means soon enough we will tire of snow and start to long for the outdoor garden season (though this year that point may have come earlier than usual). It is also the last column of the year, providing me one more chance to answer the few emails that just didn't fit into any other columns this year.

I suppose this is as good a time as any to answer the "scatological" questions I've received. If you have an aversion to such discussions, have a Happy New Year and read no further.

First, a few questions about using rabbit and chicken manure. Are they any good from an NPK standpoint and do they really have to be composted first or can they be tossed on the garden?

Fresh manures can be "hot," that is contain too much nitrogen. Chicken manure is 1.1 percent N, .80 percent P and .50 percent K while rabbit manure is 2.4 percent N, 1.4 percent P and .60 percent K. The amount of nitrogen is high for an organic fertilizer and they should be composted first so they won't burn plants. Composting will also get rid of any seeds that may have survived digestion.

The problem with putting fertilizer down in the winter is that the goods that are released by moisture are often lost during rains and melts. It is best to use these when they can be mixed into soil. If you need to handle them in the winter, try using them EM or in worm bins.

Next, is there any benefit to putting moose poop down on the garden as fertilizer?

The best analysis of moose droppings I could find was done by the Co-operative Extension Service. It found that moose droppings are 74 percent moisture (could fool me!) and have an NPK of 2.5 percent N, 1.8 percent P and 1.2 percent K, along 1.2 percent zinc, 1.6 percent calcium and 0.7 percent magnesium.

It is clear that moose droppings contain many of the essential elements needed for plant growth. In addition, it is full of organic material that helps keep the soil herd alive and maintain good soil structure. So actually, moose poop isn't a bad organic fertilizer, though nutrients are not immediately available and take a while to decay. You wouldn't want to use it to grow giant cabbages as it may take until the middle of summer before any of its goodies are available to the plants.

Of course, you should have a decent soil test done every few years. Too few of us do. (For me, that ends this spring and you will be hearing about it!) These measurements are essential in telling you what your soil lacks insofar as plant needs. Now that you know what is in moose droppings, you can use them to adjust your soil as needed. In the meantime, they probably won't hurt anything and always make a great addition to the compost pile.

One note, however. The full answer as to the worth of moose droppings totally depends on when your moose produces them. The analysis noted was done on May and June moose poop. These pellets lose about half their strength in terms of NPK value when produced during the winter months. They are at their height when moose diet is full of green, leafy stuff. Summer is the time to collect them if you are so inclined

And, the other poop question of the year: Does it make sense to put kitty litter and dog manure in the compost pile? This may sound gross, but it is an important question as we are pet crazy in Alaska.

The simple answer is there are great health problems associated with improperly composted dog and cat manure. Most of our home compost piles only heat up in the centers. We turn them, but there are portions of the pile that often do not get hot enough to kill the worm larvae and other organisms that can cause some really nasty health problems. It is just not worth it.

If you do insist on composting dog poop, consult a few of the websites that cover different methods of composting pet wastes first. In addition, consider using worms, to do the job. Oddly enough, however, worms will only consume household wastes or the poop, not both. This means it is one or the other.

There. I've done it. The slate is clear. The New Year is upon us. May it be a great, pesticide-free, organic gardening year for us all!

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.


Jeff Lowenfels
Gardening