Manure is a useful, bulky, and nutritious soil improver and a valuable source of organic matter. It can improve the structure of all types of soil, boosting its water and nutrient holding capacity.


Manure is not the same as fertiliser. Although it does contain a certain amount of nutrients, the levels are lower than those of fertiliser and are present in variable amounts.

What is manure?

Manure for garden use is animal poo mixed with their bedding, which is material such as straw or wood shavings. Combined, these have been composted or left to rot down for at least six months, preferably a year if woody shavings have been used for bedding. The phrase 'well-rotted manure' is often used to emphasise this, as fresh manure isn’t suitable to use because it would scorch plant roots and the bedding material wouldn’t have broken down.

'Green manure' is the term used to describe plants that are grown specifically for the purpose of digging in and improving the soil. They have the same role as animal manures – they help improve the structure and nutrient holding capacity of soil, but they do so without the use of animals. Many vegan or ethically conscious gardeners use green manures instead of animal manures.

Different types of manure

Horse manure

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Adding horse manure to a raised bed
Adding horse manure to a raised bed

Horse manure is a good, easy-to-use manure with a sweet fragrance and no sticky residue, and is widely available from local stables but is rarely available from garden centres and other retailers. Be aware of several potential disadvantages: locally sourced horse manure is likely to contain weed seeds, both from hay that they’ve eaten and from wind-blown seed when stacked outside. It may also have been contaminated with weedkiller, which lasts for a long time and could cause plant growth deficiencies when used. If possible, ask the stables if the manure may have been contaminated by weed killer, which can persist and damage plants.

Cow and pig manure

Adding bagged 'farmyard' manure to a planting hole
Adding bagged 'farmyard' manure to a planting hole

Occasionally cow or pig manure can be sourced from local farmers who keep their stock under cover for part or all the year. Both are useful in the garden, with pig manure being quite 'sticky', which is good for improving sandy soils. When buying these manures, it's worth considering where the animals have been kept, and in what conditions, as 'factory farmed' animals are kept inside throughout their lives and are routinely given medication or antibiotics to prevent disease. While not necessarily detrimental to plants, you may have ethical reasons for shopping around.

Cow manure is often sold as 'farmed manure' from garden centres and other retailers. It may not consist entirely of cow manure, and could be a mixture of cow and other manures, usually from unknown sources. However this manure will be composted at high temperatures and will be free from weed seeds.

Alternatively, a local farmer may deliver a trailer load of manure for an agreed fee. Some Young Farmers Clubs (YFC) do occasional 'dung runs' – look out for adverts in your local paper.

Chicken manure

Adding pelleted chicken manure to compost
Adding pelleted chicken manure to compost

The droppings or manure from chickens or poultry raised at home (or by a friend or neighbour) isn’t ideal to use directly on plants, especially when fresh, as it's very strong and likely to scorch plant roots. However, poultry manure is excellent to mix with garden waste in a compost bin, as it's high in nitrogen it's ideal for boosting both the speed of composting and the quality of the compost. Add a thin (5cm) layer of fresh poultry manure to every 30cm or so of waste, and then leave it to compost for at least six months.

Dried chicken or poultry manure in pelleted or granular form is a type of fertiliser that is widely available to buy, rather than a bulky manure. Again, you might want to shop around if you want to avoid manure from intensively farmed chickens.

Pet manure

Droppings and bedding from plant-eating (herbivorous) pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs is fine to compost and use on the garden. Do not use cat or dog poo, as this may contain harmful parasites, along with pesticides from flea and worming treatments.

Other types of manure

Manure from herbivorous animals such as sheep, llamas, and alpacas, is all suitable to use on the garden or to add to the compost heap.

Green manures

Sowing green manure on prepared ground
Sowing green manure on prepared ground

Green manure plants are sown directly into the ground, then dug back into the soil when young to break down and improve its structure and nutrient content. These plants are also sometimes called 'cover crops' when sown in summer or autumn to cover bare soil over the winter, protecting the ground from winter rains and preventing nutrients being leached out. While growing, green manures provide a habitat for certain species of wildlife, including ground beetles. Popular green manure plants include mustard, ryegrass, buckwheat, phacelia, and winter tares.

How to use manure

Either spread manure on the surface of bare soil or dig it into the ground.

Fresh manure (less than six months old) is too strong to put directly onto growing plants but can be spread or dug into soil that is being prepared for growing later on. Fresh manure is excellent to add to garden waste in compost heaps or bins, to speed up the composting process and improve compost quality.

When's the best time of year to spread manure?

Autumn is the best time to spread manure on the surface of bare soil on vegetable beds or around plants in borders. This gives worms and other soil organisms time to gradually take the manure into the soil before it's needed again in spring. Another benefit is that by applying manure in autumn, the soil also gets protection from heavy winter rains, which can lead to the leaching of nutrients.

Spring is also a good time to spread manure on soil around established plants. If preparing ground for sowing seed of vegetables or flowers, you'll need to dig it in, as it's too bulky for seed sowing.

How to spread manure

Spread manure in a layer 5-8 cm thick, on the surface of bare soil. Break up large lumps as you work. Ensure manure doesn’t contact plant stems as this may cause rot.

A long-handled fork is the best tool for spreading manure. If large quantities of bulky manure need to be moved and spread, buying a manure fork and a shovel will make the job easier. For small quantities or if using bagged, composted manure, a standard garden digging fork will suffice.

Which plants don’t like manure?

Wildflowers, which do best in nutrient-poor soils
Wildflowers, which do best in nutrient-poor soils

Manures are too rich for plants that are drought tolerant and which need a free-draining soil, or for those that do best on a poorer soil that is low in nutrients. Root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips shouldn’t be grown on freshly manured soil as the roots are likely to fork. Soil that has been manured at least a year previously is fine.

Hygiene precautions

Manure may contain bacteria harmful to human health so following basic hygiene precautions is strongly advised.

  • Wear gloves, sturdy outdoor footwear, and old clothes or a boiler suit, that can be left outdoors after use
  • Wear a face mask if material is dry to avoid inhaling particles
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke, whilst handling manure
  • Wash hands thoroughly after handling manure, even if you have been wearing gloves

Advice on buying manure

  • A variety of composted manures or manure pellets is available to buy from garden centres or online. Being relatively bulky and heavy increases the cost of buying online, so consider how much you need and buy enough for a few months in one delivery
  • Composted and bagged 'farmyard' is widely available from garden retailers. There's no way of knowing exactly what type of manure is used but it's likely to be cow or a mixture of cow and horse
  • Local farms or stables often supply manure , which has either been rotted or which you will need to take home and rot or compost yourself. This is often cheaper than buying from a garden centre and you can be sure of the provenance of the manure as well

Where to buy manure