How to Make Manure Tea Fertilizer

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How to build a manure "teapot" contraption, including instructions and illustration.

It’s here — gardening time again — and most likely you’re spending a good part of every day out there in the vegetable patch, urging on the hardier crops and getting the others tucked into the ground.

How well those crops do, of course, depends on the state of the ground you tuck them into. Some important first steps toward a good harvest were taken way back last fall when (I hope) you mulched the soil heavily, or planted it to a green manure crop, or treated it to several good loads of animal droppings. And, naturally, you’ll have added compost, kitchen scraps, and other organic fertilizer to the plot’s surface and subsurface to ensure even greater fertility.

All the same, you may find that some parts of your garden need extra help as the summer goes on. Many plants (notably the vine crops and cereal grains) are deep, heavy feeders that make severe demands on even highly fertile soils. During their period of greatest productivity, they may require additional nutrition in the form of readily assimilated organic fertilizers.

Liquids — which rapidly penetrate to the vicinity of the roots and are taken up almost immediately — are the easiest foods for plants to absorb. A number of concentrated liquid organic fertilizers are available commercially and can be used to supply the vital nutrients in the form best utilized by your crops.

If you prefer, though, you can offer your garden an excellent liquid fertilizer without purchasing any such products. The plant food I’m referring to is called “manure tea” fertilizer . . . and to make it you need only a supply of animal droppings and a device which you can put together at no cost by means of careful scrounging.

How to Make Manure Tea Fertilizer

Our own “manure teapot” project started with the acquisition of a 50-gallon oil drum which a friend had once used to hold grain for his horses. The top had been cut out neatly and the inside well scrubbed to remove any trace of oil residue. The total cost of the barrel was the gasoline we used to haul it home . . . and, since we were going home anyway, that didn’t really count.

The spigot was also free . . . although we did pay $1.00 to have it brazed permanently to the barrel. (A metal reinforcement was later added to the inside, but the blacksmith did that job for nothing.) Concrete blocks, chicken wire, fine wire screening, and wood for the cover were all salvaged from various repairs around the homestead. Manure — in excess of what the teapot needed for a summer’s feeding — was available just for the cost of hauling.

The manure teapot can be put together in a weekend without much effort (the drawing is self-explanatory). Ours was completed in a day and was producing rich, dark liquid fertilizer by the following afternoon.

Operation of the device is equally simple. Fill the barrel about one-fourth full of straw (preferably well rotted, to add its own bit of nourishment to the brew). This layer serves to filter the liquid and keep the manure from clogging the drain. Upon its top, place a circular piece of chicken wire weighted with a brick or stone to prevent the straw from floating.

Next, shovel either fresh or dry manure into the drum until it’s half full. (You may have to fill the container to the three-quarters level if the droppings are quite dry, or the fertilizer won’t be of sufficient strength.) Then add warm water almost to the container’s top (fluid from a pond or lake is recommended because its multitude of life will further enrich the “tea”). Open the barrel’s spigot, allow the darkening liquid to run into a bucket, dump it back into the drum . . . and repeat until the “teapot’s” contents have circulated at least three times through the manure and straw. Finally, close the container with its wooden top and let it sit in the sun for a few days.

During the waiting period, the manure and straw will decompose rapidly and the liquid will take on a dark-brown color. Suspended in the water will be millions of tiny particles of food for your growing plants. The longer the brew stands, the richer the fertilizer will be. After even two or three days in the warm spring sun, the “tea” you draw off to feed the crops may have to be diluted in order not to burn the roots. (Pond water is recommended for this purpose also.) We’ve found it best to fertilize twice a week, with fluid of a light-brown color.

After all the brew has been drained from the “pot” and used on the garden, the barrel should be thoroughly cleaned and recharged. It’s not necessary to scrub out the inside, but try to remove all the old straw and manure and add them to the compost pile. The few inches of liquid that remain in the very bottom will be highly concentrated. We save this and add it to the container after refilling the drum with pond water.

Although the “tea” you brew in this contraption isn’t the kind that delights the human connoisseur, it’s nevertheless relished by hungry, deep-feeding plants . . . and instead of marveling at your brew with meaningless adjectives, the crops will silently reward you with delicious food.