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First year gardening..... need soil..... composted cow manure?

So last year I took a lot of neighbor's leaves and put them in my raised beds hoping they would somehow compost by the spring (yes I know they couldn't of heated up but I thought what the hey).  I have worked out in the garden the past few days and the leaves have barely composted and I need soil to fill the beds - good, rich nutritious soil. I am sort of limited on soil I can get - I did get topsoil and peat to mix with the leaves in the fall and did that already. I don't have a truck or a way of getting soil. Delivered compost is quite expensive and over here money is tight.

I am debating getting composted cow manure because they sell it in bags at the hardware store I can get to fit in my small compact car. On one side I need soil and I only need it the first year to get it started and will hopefully have homemade compost in years to come. On the other side I have some problems with it coming from animals and possibly supporting the whole industrial food-factory farming complex but then again I have read about the run off of manure into the ocean and rivers and I wonder possibly if this products prevents that since they compost it rather than letting it run off. But then again are the cows fed grains or grass so will there be bad bacteria in the poo and are the cows fed the diet they are meant to have by nature? on and on and on all these questions in my head..........

I am trying to find alternatives but I am stuck at the moment. I am going to check in on stealing some soil from the field behind my house if it isn't too clay-ey. I just want some good nutritious to fill my beds but I am stuck because in just a week or two I start planting!

Has anyone used composted cow manure?

If you want to use manure, but don't want to support factory farms, try to find stables or local farmers that are humane.  Many are very willing to give it away if you are willing to collect and truck it yourself.  You can collect as much or as little as you like.  A few large bags of manure should be able to fit into a compact.  Try to find horse or cow manure as this does not need to be composted prior to putting into beds.

You should dig in about half of what you have know with some free grounds from Starbucks.  It will breakdown over the next few months.  The grounds will offset the nitrogen that will be tied up by this process.  The rest of the organic material and some more grounds can be layed on top of the surface as a mulch.  You would be suprised at how well this works.  Decaying matter will encourage the development of a soil community.  It will slowly release the nutrients in the OM to your plants.  You can add a few bags of compost to allow a small boost to the soil structure and fertility.

Intercropping legumes, radishes, carrots, grasses and other soil conditioners may also help.  They will help break up the soil if planted about a month or two ahead of the other crops.  You can just cut off their tops and put a good layer of mulch to smoother them about half way through the season when they start getting large enough to push out other plants.  As they breakdown they will continue to condition your soil.

Since you do have some OM, look into no-till methds like layering or lasagna gardening.  They emphasize starting with raw materials that are allowed to slowly breakdown in the garden instead of composted off site and added later.

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Another option, if you are short on time, but can get a lot of supplies, is building hot composting.  I had to do this because I started a bit late, too.  Make sure that you have enough to build at least a 3x3 sq ft pile.  (Leave the peat moss out, though. It is too acidic and best applied directly in the ground with the right amount of dolomite lime to balance the ph.)  Makes sure to have enough greens (coffee grounds, manure).  30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen is recommended.  A 20:1 ratio will make it breakdown faster, but you may lose some nitrogen and carbon to volization in the process. This should not be that big of a deal.  Here is a carbon/nitrogen ratio calculator to help you out http://www.klickitatcounty.org/SolidWaste/fileshtml/organics/compostCalc.htm
Make sure it the pile is consistently damp (but not soaking wet) and turned every 2-3 days.  Turning it often is very important.  This will reintroduce oxygen and keep the breakdown process at full speed.  When you turn it, make sure to have the outside of the pile put in and visa-versa.  I usually break it completely apart each time I turn it.  Putting the top on bottom, bottom on top, middle on the sides, well you get the picture.  This should give you mostly finished compost in 2-4 weeks. 

Once you have this, dig it into your garden with coffee grounds or another nitrogen source to continue the breakdown process.  You can plant immediately once it is dug in. 

If you wandering were to get enough nitrogen, start hitting up all the Starbucks in your area.  After collecting for a week or so, you will have more than enough for your compost pile and beds.  2-5 pm is the best time to collect.  Provided no one has beat you to it.  Coffee grounds can be a substitution for other amendments in a pinch.  The nitrogen breaks down slowly and won't burn our plants.  Its fine enough to loosen soil.  However, it does not enough nurients to support plants.  So, you need to add other organic matter as well.

Forgot to add, for both of these methods to finely shred you organic material with a lawn mower, weed eater - be careful if chopping up branches or twigs - or even a good pair of pruners.  This will help excelerate the decompostiion process.

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dl-bailey,
Thanks for the all the information you really seem like the informed gardener. I was expecting someone to be sort of arrogant with my post since this is a vegan/vegetarian community on here and they can take things wrong.

I have been watching craigslist because that's the only place I know to find manure and there have been several posts about it but they are all pretty far away - at least 30+ miles and I was hoping someone closer would post something because a lot of people around here keep horses like the communities west and north of me - lots of horses and some cows.

I have forgotten about Starbucks completely because last year I would go there looking for grounds and I was always disappointed but I will take your advice on the times and I might ask someone to. The only problem is now since the weather is nice I don't go to the gym everyday getting me out of the house and getting me to go check in on the possible grounds maybe I can go once and ask about time and if they can hold them for me or something. And I might check with a local coffee shop about it too.

Would tea like yerba mate, green tea, black, herbal, etc have a lot of nitrogen although I can't obtain enough now over time I will have some accumulated especially mate to have enough to amend into the soil next year?

I know about intercropping/rotation gardening and I plan on doing that like where I will grow peas (nitrogen fixers) then I will plant greens (nitrogen lovers). As well as cover crops and all. That no-till gardening has come up too many times for me to avoid it, I must research it!

Hopefully I will read the gardening books I have and learn from experience with all this and hopefully be able to harvest something at the very least greens from my garden this year and hopefully very soon as I am hating supporting conventional veggies shipped from hundreds of miles away where its not so cold!

Thanks for the info and inspiration!

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With nitrogen fixing, the particular bacteria does need to be present.  You may have to  purchase a general inoculant.  Some farm stores or specialized nurseries may have it if you really look.  Google cover crop inoculent and there are tons of organic sites that carry it for less than $10 a bag.  Many nitrogen fixing cover crops are already inoculated.  So, check to see.  Once you inoculate once and maintain the soil, you won't have to do it again.

As for nitrogen in teas, I assume that they do have it.  If something has protein, then it has nitrogen.  Nitrogen is the main component in amino acids. Here is a link with the NPK of several different OM http://www.thechileman.org/guide_fertilizer.php

I have a few chickens and don't mind using their manure.  They are well taken care of, it is free and would go to a landfill otherwise.  If you know people that have rabbits, doves or chickens as pets, see if they will allow you to have their bedding and droppings  This is the best manure.  They are all high in nitrogen.  It has to be composted or well aged (at least a good 6 months) before it can be put in the garden.

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Another thing, if you are running low on 'browns' for you compost pile.  A bale of straw is cheap at a farm store.  (Make sure it is straw  Hay is more expensive and has weed seeds.)  I bought one last week for a little less than $9.  It was 3x2x4, but still fit in the trunk of a mid-size car.  I've also done it in a compact.  Just remember bungee cords as you will need to tie down your trunk - bale is too big to let it close all the way.  These bales are compacted  What in it is actual much more than it appears.  One bale can provide a 4-6" layer of mulch for even a large backyard garden.  You may just need one for mulch and another to construct the bulk of a compost pile. 

I've heard of people going directly to recycling areas to collect leaves and grass clippings  Never done this.  Can't say if this work for you.  A landscaping service may give you yard clippings.  If they do, ask what they spray and when.  Some herbicides can be detrimental to the compost pile and garden.  Some pesticides and fertilizers can also be very bad for the health of the gardener, too.

Straw bale gardening is another option.  Put some compost and nitrogen fertilizer in the bales  Wet it down.  Wait a few weeks and plant right in the bale.  There are several sites and books on this subject.

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Just thought I'd tell you I hit up 6 Starbucks today and got 5 bags of coffee grounds all of them except one are around 20 pounds, the other is maybe 5 pounds because all the rest from that place was saved for another gardener but they are going to save the grounds from the whole day tomorrow there for me and I might call other places to reserve all of their grounds for a few days. I must say I have breathed a sigh of relief after finding more like remembering about the whole coffee grounds thing and I am trying to save banana peels and I might burn them to use for the garden since they have potassium.

I am still researching no till gardening but I did just read to have organic matter which I have the leaves then green or in my case coffee then more brown. I think I will borrow some soil from the field if its any good and layer it on top of the coffee. I'll have lawn clipping soon to add to the lasagna. I just can't wait to have a garden, tomorrow is a work day for the garden let's see what I can get done!

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how do u know soooooo much about gardening? books? the internet? what gives gardening master?

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My Dad tried to garden in my formative years.  He gave up when I was 11. So, I took it over for the family.  Went to college and had a professor obsessed with permaculture, no-till, biointensive, sustainable and pretty much all the organic methods.  Everyone of her classes someway found its way back to these topics.  Worked in the university garden there, too.  Then I went to grad school and worked for a short time in their market and demonstration gardens.  I have read quite a bit on my own.  Done experimenting in my garden for the last 8 years.  If your obessed with something, you tend to learn quite a bit really fast LOL. 

This year, I really want to put biointensive and no-till into effect.  Produce is expensive.  I need to get the most for the least cost.  Hopefully,  my chickens will stay away this year.  I had a massive crop of tomatoes and peppers.  Maybe, 5-6 did I get a chance to eat. 

By no means am I an expert.  Perhaps a little more knowledgable.  Thats it.

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I hope to know as much as you one day... you are definitely my go to person for gardening questions once i have a backyard... one day

Hey you live in Cali... Where?

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Do you at least have a patio for plants?  Most of the info for building a soil community can be applied to container gardening. 

As for where I live, lets just say its a city in northern San Joaquin Valley that gets bad press from time to time ;) 

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Ya I have a patio... I tried to grow some veggies, it didn't work out that well LOL... this time around, i'm sticking to herbs and flowers :) all the planters i have aren't deep enough, i think that's why my veggies didn't grow that well

my bf used to live over in that area... in reedley... i love it over there, so peaceful, lots of open land and farms... orange county is too hectic for me sometimes

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Composted, or dehydrated cow manure, is a good soil additive ... but, not a substitute for soil itself. You can actually purchase soil in 30 - 40 pound bags at most home centers (Lowe's, Home Depot, etc). But, clearly the best long term plan for your garden is to create and maintain a compost pile or bin. A great summary of how to get started can be seen at http://compost-twin.com/ingredients.asp. Don't be overwhelmed by the potential complexity; composting is fairly easy, and even if you make a mistake, it's easy to fix it.

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The 'soil' in those bags are
Ya I have a patio... I tried to grow some veggies, it didn't work out that well LOL... this time around, i'm sticking to herbs and flowers :) all the planters i have aren't deep enough, i think that's why my veggies didn't grow that well

my bf used to live over in that area... in reedley... i love it over there, so peaceful, lots of open land and farms... orange county is too hectic for me sometimes

I live few hours north of Reedly.  Wish you were closer.  I have some 10 and 25 gallon pots you could use.  Used them for tomatoes and peppers a few years in a row. 

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Composted, or dehydrated cow manure, is a good soil additive ... but, not a substitute for soil itself. You can actually purchase soil in 30 - 40 pound bags at most home centers (Lowe's, Home Depot, etc). But, clearly the best long term plan for your garden is to create and maintain a compost pile or bin. A great summary of how to get started can be seen at http://compost-twin.com/ingredients.asp. Don't be overwhelmed by the potential complexity; composting is fairly easy, and even if you make a mistake, it's easy to fix it.

The soil at home improvement stores is not that great.  Most of it was scrapped off surface layers from housing developments.  No guarantee that it is better than what you already have.  Sometimes, they may mix a few quick amendments into it.  I've had very bad expereinces with the products at both Lowes and Home Depot.  Even their compost is sub-par.    The bags I bought from both places were mostly twigs and smelled like ammonia.  It is best to get local sources for amendments and soil - if you want to go that route.  You need to know were they are coming from and their quality. 

I suggest looking into straw bale gardening, lasagna gardening or amending your own soil.  If you can dig through the soil, double digging and adding a lot of OM this will give you the best results.

P.S.  Compost happpens.  Put a bunch of rotting organic material together and it will eventually breakdown.  Most sites complicate it more than it needs to be. There are several different methods used to get the same results.  Research and see what works best.   

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I should also add that clay soil is not bad soil.  Clay holds nutrients and water much better than silt or sand.  It also can be a better environment for micro organisms.  Try to work with it before adding a less nutrient dense, but better draining soil on top of it.

One note of caution do not add sand to clay.  This is the ingredients for cement and will make for a very hard soil.

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What is lasagna gardening?

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Lasagna gardening is layering materials over the ground to establish a bed.  It is a type of no-till method.  First, cardboard, newspaper or some other flat material that breaks down slowly.  Then, alternate layers of browns and greens.  A final layer of compost to plant in with some mulch on top. It is very similar to sheet mulching.  Basically you are creating a slowly breaking down compost pile to plant in. 

Patricia Lanza developed the technique and wrote a book called lasagna gardening.  I've tried it before.  The only problem is that the material takes several months to breakdown.  Also, the bottom layer has to be poress enough to allow water to soak through or you will have a big mess.  Even though it is suppose to defeat the purpose, I made slits in the cardboard to let water through.  As long as the pile is high enough, weeds should not come through.  Heavy materials need to be added on top to weigh down.  And make sure it stays moist with plenty of nitrogen containing materials to hasten the decomposition process.  Boards or chicken wire can be used to maintain the pile's shape.

Google lasagna gardening there are tons of websites about it.  There are some great videos on youtube that demonstrate the process.  Check out some videos or sites on no-till, synergistic gardening, biointensive and permaculture while you are at it.  This will give you an idea of the different methods out there.  You can see what will work for you.

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Ya I have a patio... I tried to grow some veggies, it didn't work out that well LOL... this time around, i'm sticking to herbs and flowers :) all the planters i have aren't deep enough, i think that's why my veggies didn't grow that well

I had little success with my attempt at patio gardening as well. My patio gets almost no sun at all. I'm having lots of luck with herbs though! In fact, I can't get my thyme to go away. I'd never really had thyme before, and now I haven't tried it in a way yet that I've liked it. I tried to just stop watering it, but every time I think it's finally died it sprouts back up again! lol

I'm adding some dill, basil, and mint to my pots this Spring. I gotta figure out something to do with that thyme. Apparently, it has taken a liking to my shady porch. :P

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I'm really liking this whole lasagna/no till gardening because I have lots of organic matter to mulch and layer with. It really takes the work out of composting. I now have the beds filled with last year's leaves that are partially composted then dry leaves then some mostly composted leaves then coffee grounds and then some soil from a field behind my house (lots of worms in it :-) ). I am not really following any guide just throwing some stuff in and hoping for the best. Throughout the summer I'll have grass I will keep mulching with for more nutrients and then I can always mix in some coffee grounds. At my community garden I will mulch and mix in lots of organic matter as well. Thank you dl-bailey for all the help!

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Here is an excerpt from an online book about cover crops http://www.sare.org/publications/covercrops/building_soil_fertility.shtml  It explains soil fertility in detail.  The book is for small organic farmers, but you may find some of the information useful.

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