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More Confessions of an Organic Gardener, or, Toujours Manure

This article initially appeared in the June 1999 issue of the Maine Llama Association Newsletter. The article has been edited to reflect our experiences since 1999.

Introduction

This article is a follow-up to last fall’s Confessions.

I continue to be impressed by the power of the pellets. Last year I had trouble tilling my new gardens (converted from worn out pasture) to a depth of more than a few inches … this year tilling was a breeze. Last year it was difficult to find an earthworm. This year I have a bumper crop. While fertility has increased substantially, I believe I will still need to use my llama tea (1/3 llama pellets, 2/3 water) in these new beds to achieve the desired level of fertility.

I also use the tea when I transplant my seedlings into both my new and my established gardens. It gives them a healthy head start.

A New Form of Manure

BL (before llamas) we lived ½ the way up a hill which was covered with scrub oak. The prevailing winds created a vortex around our front yard and each fall all the leaves from the top of the hill down to our yard congregated in our yard … our neighbors were most appreciative. To cope with these leaves I acquired a leaf mulcher, the type which looks like a large lawn mower and sucks in the leaves, grinds them and spits them out into a collection bag. We affectionately named this machine The Leaf Suckah. For the record it is a 5 HP TroyBilt.

When we moved to Maine and established our llama farm, the Leaf Suckah was used briefly the first spring and then unceremoniously stored in one of our barns … we just did not have enough leaves to bother with it.

This spring, while cleaning up the winter pastures, I briefly thought of how nice it would be to have a Dung Master but quickly concluded that I would rather spend the money on developing new pastures. I then thought of our Leaf Suckah … could it be restored to its former exalted status? After digging it out, cleaning off the layers of dust, changing the oil and adding gas I pulled the starter cord … nothing! Concluding that the problem was electrical, I removed the spark plug and cleaned it with my trusty Swiss army knife and it started on the first pull of the cord. I quickly took it out into one of our pastures to see if it would inhale and digest the llama pellets. My experience was mixed … it did inhale some pellets … but left more. Rather than give up I experimented and found that with a small rake and the proper height adjustments I could quickly glean the pellets from the ground. The process ground the pellets into a moderately fine powder.

My first concern about the powdered manure was whether or not it would be too hot to apply directly to my gardens, i.e., is the pellet form nature’s timed release fertilizer? And the powdered form too much of a good thing?

To determine the relative characteristics of the powdered form of manure I placed it on a raised bed which had been planted in spinach, another raised bed that had been planted in peas and a third bed in which I was going to sow lettuce and mesclun greens seeds. In each instance there was a control bed against which I could measure the results. All beds had been fertilized with llama pellets at the end of the prior planting season and most of these pellets had not decomposed. I also spread some of the powdered manure on some scraggly grass in my apple orchard.

I suspected that if there were any difference it would first appear in the spinach.

After one week there was no measurable difference between the fertilized and the control beds. The spinach in the fertilized bed looked a bit off color in comparison to the unfertilized bed. I concluded that the light brown color of the manure powder was creating an optical but not real effect.

At the end of two weeks there was still no discernable difference and I was about to write this article detailing my findings including advantages and disadvantages of this process (these are covered later in this article). Fortunately I was distracted from writing this article by the arrival of a new granddaughter. At the end of three weeks the difference was most significant. The spinach in the fertilized bed was materially larger than in the control bed and the difference increases with each passing day. A similar, but not as dramatic, difference has developed in the beds of peas. I ended the experiment yesterday and used some llama tea in the control beds to see if I can get these beds to catch up to the fertilized beds. Conclusion: pulverized pellets pack punch!

The lettuce and mesclun greens are hale and hearty. The grass I fertilized is showing some greening up … but is clear that the llama manure is not over abundant in nitrogen.

Advantages:

Disadvantages:

Other Observations

I had initially thought the process would work only with very dry pellets. In my most recent sweep of the pastures I included very fresh pellets in my foray. The additional moisture was evident in the final product, but the consistency of the product remained the same. There was a minor amount of clumping of matter at the entry to the collection bag but it was easy to scrape off with a stick, at which point it disintegrated into the same powdery consistency as the rest of the pulverized manure.

There is a fair amount of manure dust produce by the process and I quickly learned to be upwind of the collection bag.
The pulverized manure is denser than ground leaves. Thus the suction power of the mulcher is reduced faster as the collection bag fills than with leaves. If you try the process, I recommend experimenting until you find the right rhythm for you.

Conclusion

I do not recommend that any reader run out and buy a leaf mulcher to help clean his or her pastures. If you happen to have one on hand or find one at a yard sale, I recommend giving the process a try.

Editor's Note, April 2010: As our herd grew, so did the mounds of manure. The Leaf Suckah was replaced with a John Deere zero-turning radius mower. See the article Barnanalnia and Related Matters

I now have three methods of utilizing the fertility found in llama pellets. Llama tea is ideal for a quick start and for getting you through the early days of starting a new garden area. I always have some brewing and I use it liberally. Llama pellets are an ideal way to fertilize your gardens during mid-season and to fertilize any area where long-term fertilization is appropriate, e.g., resting pastures, orchards. Pulverized manure is an excellent way to start off your cool weather crops in the spring. There will be not undigested pellets to get in the way of your seeds. The nutrient value of the manure will be made available to your seedlings sooner.

As a final note, if you do try the process I suspect that your significant other would appreciate your taking a shower when you are finished. Toujour manure is not toujour l’amour.