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More than just a load of manure

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass
ALL |

I think I’m just going to sit here on the corral fence and ramble a bit about the use of organic versus synthetic fertilizers.

Those among us with a greener hue and cry tend to espouse that if it’s organic it must be good, disregarding the fact that a nitrate is a nitrate whether it came from the hind-end of a horse or miraculously from a plastic bag filled with blue crystals.

Nitrates and nitrogen is not the same thing. Plants can use nitrates. To a plant, nitrogen is simply an unusable raw material from which nitrates are formed. Nitrates are also the number one pollutant in our water supply. I sell plants for a living. It’s an issue that concerns me.



For the sake of brevity, an attribute I possess in short supply, I’ve chosen horse manure as my representative source of organic nitrogen because we live in the Great American West and a good portion of the world still believes that here we’re all cowboys, baby. Yee haw.

Another reason I’ve chosen horse manure is because most of the difficulties in using it here in Happy Valley apply to other sources of organic nitrogen ” like corn gluten, soybean meal, blood meal, kelp, and even all of the processed liquid forms of organic nitrogen available on the market today.

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The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.



Fertilizing used to be simple. There was a time when a good fertilization program was considered a load of manure. I know some of you are thinking ” that’s a good program? Oh, horse poop. You’re right. It has its drawbacks, but it was once the most common source of nitrogen available and remains a way to supply nitrogen and a balance of other nutrients to plants.

When horses were used to get about town, all that was needed to turn plants green was a cheap by-product of transportation and readily scooped from streets and stables. There was no shortage of supply in relation to demand. Most everyone had a horse or two tethered around the home place.

It’s interesting to me, Ag-boy, that today we have to pay to haul in a manure load, when all you had to do before was step off the curb. Living then was cheap.



However, piles of free fertilizer lying randomly about in the streets weren’t such a good thing. They gave rise to the wearing of spats. Between you and me, I don’t think I look good in spats ” or you either. Spats require fuss. I stand on less fuss is more better.

And organic fertilizers require more fuss. You must plan ahead. That is because they require time to be broken down into nitrate forms useable by plants.

All organic fertilizers require biological activity that occurs above 50 degrees to be useable, and that’s the biggest drawback to using organic fertilizers in this valley. At 8,150 feet above the base level of water on this earth, half of the time in summer our temperatures hover around a barely biologically active 50 degrees.

Furthermore, overall, we have an environment that doesn’t favor the breakdown of organic fertilizers.

Our soil in this valley is mostly tightly packed clay ” decomposed rock ” which doesn’t contain a lot of biological activity. That’s because it lacks pore spaces that provide room for air to be incorporated into the soil. Plus, typically much of the time we lack the water necessary to support biological activity. You may have noticed that it takes a good long while before mulch and other dead plant material breaks down ” rots.

Additionally, if we’re not planting into the soil, then we’re planting into a potting soil known in the horticultural industry as soil-less mix, or sterile mix. Sterile mixes by definition don’t contain many organisms that aid in the breakdown of plant material, or nitrogen.

All of these conditions do not provide an environment favorable to organisms that convert nitrogen into nitrates, which, again, are what plants actually need.

Consequently, the conversion of nitrogen requires more time here than most other places, and that’s something we don’t have with our short growing season.

Furthermore, by adding nitrogen to the soil here in a form plants can’t take up and use, it remains unused and subject to running down the steep sides of the valley and into the rivers and creeks.

Things change when synthetic fertilizers are used. Synthetic, man-made nitrates can be purchased and are immediately available to plants and rapidly taken up. It’s also easier to use the right amount. Synthetic fertilizers are easily measured, not to mention neater, and they smell better, too.

Unfortunately, the nitrogen component in most of today’s nitrate fertilizers is typically made from natural gas which has other uses which are fairly well placed on our pyramid of needs ” like heating and cooling most of our homes along with firing the power plants that power them. Additionally, it requires an environmentally incorrect hole being drilled a good part of the way to China to access it. And, natural gas is kind of hard to store and move around.

Which means the Department of Energy is predicting a 2-3 percent annual shortfall in the amount of natural gas available to American consumers for the next 20 years. Doesn’t sound like much of a shortfall does it? Let me ask you. How much would you pay for a Btu of heat if you couldn’t easily buy one in January? I don’t know either, but somebody will likely be banking we’ll pay more than we are ” and that in itself can drive the price crazily upward.

So how do we avoid using the same type of logic that leads us to burn the corn we eat in our cars, or to strike compromised bargains in foreign lands for our energy needs, when all we simply want is to green our surroundings?

Spread your bets. Use both methods of fertilization. Begin today to add small doses of manure to your soils ” about an inch or less a year. The organic matter will improve the clay conditions and encourage biological activity which will speed the conversion of nitrogen into nitrates. Don’t expect miracles the first year. Work slowly to improve the soil here. This alpine environment works biologically slower than elsewhere ” work slowly because otherwise some of the potential benefits will wind up going downstream.

Continue adding small amounts of manure every year. To get that instant healthy green, supplement with synthetic nitrate fertilizers. It’s the soil building properties in the manure that really provides the greatest benefit. It is what will make it possible to increasingly rely on using organic fertilizers in the future.

-mail comments about this article to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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