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Cow Manure Top Dressing: An Organic Solution For Your Garden

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What does ‘Top Dressing’ Your Garden Mean?

Top Dressing means to place compost or fertilizer of some kind around the top of the soil surrounding a plant. A benefit of this is long-term “feeding” as the material will seep into the soil slowly with rain and water over a lengthy period of time.

I love rotted cow manure as a top dressing. Yep – good old-fashioned cow poop is one of my secrets to success. By using compost or cow manure serves two functions: 1) fertilizer and 2) mulch. Both are extremely beneficial to your organic garden.

Rotted Material like Cow Manure is Great for Breaking Up Clay Soil in a Garden

Due to the heavy clay soil in the Illinois area where I gardened for years, I discovered top dressing is a particularly effective way to amend the soil and fertilize organically. Cow manure has low values of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It is ideal as a top dressing and a compost IF IT IS ROTTED. If it is not composted and is still fresh, you might burn your plants. NEVER put fresh manure on a plant unless you want to kill the plant.

To “top dress”, simply utilize rotted or composted manure as you would mulch; leave an inch or so of breathing space around most plants being careful not to smother plants during installation. Mother Nature will do her thing and the cow manure material will start to rot and gently mix in with the existing soil. Worms, micro-creatures, rain, and plant roots will help the material mix in well.

Composted manure and soil

Does Composted Manure Smell Bad or Stink of Cow?

Surprisingly, composted cow manure does not really smell bad. If it is still a little fresh, you will get some whiff of cow, but otherwise it mostly smells of earth. This is particularly true if it has rotted appropriately. You can compost manure yourself. It is important that you DO NOT USE dog, cat, pig, or human manure which can contain pathogens. These pathogens can get in the food you are growing and be toxic to humans.

The good news is you do not have to use ONLY cow manure. There are many other acceptable types of manure for agricultural purposes if rotted correctly. Local farms might have manure from horses, sheep, goats, llamas, and chickens. Of course you can buy bagged manure online if you like and have great success. Chicken manure is often sold as organic fertilizer.

YOU GOT THIS – try top dressing this season and give you garden a big boost!

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  1. I love it!

    I've got a few questions for you, but I'll start with one for now.

    I'm a hobby-gardener, and I've been going organic for three years now. But, I've noticed that my compost isn't heating up enough, and so when ever I use the composted soil I've made, I keep sprouting tomato plants. I guess the tomato seeds are heartier than most, because they don't seem to burn up in the composting process. I've added nitrogen — as in steer manure — to get my compost piles to heat up, and I can turn around about a cubic yard of soil every couple months, but I can't get rid of the tomato seeds. Any tips?

  2. Marcelo – I think you need to address your compost piles heating process. You need about 3 parts vegetative waste to 1 part manure and then the bacteria at work need just enough, and not too much, moisture and air. This is the magic number for hot compost – if you put too much manure in it does not increase the heat – it “burns” differently though. Also, too much moisture, water displaces the air, and it can slow the bacteria down just as too little can. Volume also aids the bacteria in getting to work.

    Also, it could be the size of your pile – it's generally recommended to have a cubic yard sized pile to get real heat and keep it in.

    Try adjusting this and see if it helps. Outside of that, I have no suggestions regarding the tomato seeds myself. You could go to a garden forum like – it has lots of people with problems and solutions.

    Mr. Brown Thumb – you're too funny! and thank you!!!


  3. Thanks for the suggestion. I have access to beautiful composted horse manure, which I dig in, but it does look beautiful as a top dressing.

  4. Good stuff Shawna- my husband bought some chicken manure for our garden this year to give it a try – so I'll try top dressing with that and see how it goes!

  5. Thanks for the tip, I think I've been getting the manure part wrong.

    My piles are big enough; moist enough, and have enough air — but not enough BS.

    I've been layering my manure in layers like a lasagna, but I don't think it's anywhere near the 1/4 ratio.

    I'll give that a try, thanks for the tip.

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