It’s true that there are certain words in the English vocabulary that evoke a very predictable response.  In the case of gardeners, it’s the F- word. 

Don’t panic.  This is not going to be an R-rated column and I have no intention of using the queen mother of cuss words throughout this text.  But there is a four-letter word that starts with ‘F’ that sends gardeners into a whirling fit of ecstasy. 

That word of course is FREE.


Photo: Steve Smith

We love free stuff.  We will go to the ends of the earth to get free compost, free plants, free bricks, or free anything that we think might be able to be used in our gardens.  And we will spend hours of back breaking labor, gallons of gasoline, and even buy new tools and equipment to obtain and transport this free stuff to our gardens.  

Let me give you an example.

The gardener’s downfall – ‘free’ manure

Back in the early 70’s in my earth muffin days I lived on an Army base in Virginia.  I was very much into the organic gardening movement and after a little research discovered that they had an old tertiary treatment plant where the sewage sludge was pumped out into filter beds and allowed to dry. 

Oh boy, free natural fertilizer.  After jumping through the appropriate hoops, I was given permission to “harvest” as much sludge as I liked, so I borrowed a trailer and gleefully drove up to the beds.  The sludge had apparently been drying for several years and it was like trying to remove overcooked brownies from the bottom of a 9 x 15 pan.  The sludge would have put a well-aged cow pat to shame.  But I managed to get the trailer full.



Photo: Steve Smith


Or should I say overfull? Before I made it back home I had blown a tire and bent the axle.  I’m sure you can figure out the rest of the story.  The free poop wasn’t so free after all,  but that didn’t prevent me from committing future acts of stupidity.

Several years later when we had moved to California and I was still an avid organic gardener I found myself in need of some organic materials to amend some horrible clay soil.  There was a horse stable down the road that offered FREE MANURE. 

Or something like it. Actually, it was rice hulls that been used for bedding in the stalls and it was saturated with urine and poop.  Hot and stinky.  I was much wiser now and knew better then to borrow a trailer so I drove on down to the stable with my 1966 VW Microbus with the seats removed, rolled back the canvas sunroof, and told the tractor operator to “fill her up”. 

By the time I got home I could hardly breathe and my eyes were watering so badly I could barely see the road.  Six months later and 5 gallons of Lysol, the VW still smelled like horse puckey.  I finally had to sell the car since no one would ride in it anymore.

I’m not alone. Gardeners love that F-word. Just recently a nursery customer told me that the local reformatory was offering free poop for the hauling. She was so pleased about it I didn’t have the heart to tell her that there’s no such thing.  Even if she was smart enough not to borrow her friend’s trailer or fill up the family mini-van, she would still have to pay for at least five chiropractic adjustments and no less than 10 tubes of Ben-Gay before the whole ordeal would be over. 


Photo: Steve Smith

But it’s not just free poop…

Free wood is another cause for twitterpation amongst gardeners.  Again, back in my gardening youth when I didn’t know the difference between maples or poplars, I was offered a huge pile of free cottonwood.   Not knowing any better, I started sawing it up and bringing it home to split. 

Splitting cottonwood is like trying to split a giant sponge.  You can bury several iron wedges into a block of cottonwood with little or no effect on the log.  Furthermore, cottonwood has the uncanny ability to start growing again instead of drying out like any other self-respecting piece of wood.  You can stack a pile of cottonwood in the spring and it will turn into a hedge by fall.  And if by some act of God, it does get dry enough to burn it will miraculously produce a pile of ash that exceeds the original mass of the log. 

But it was free and I got to buy some cool tools in the process so it wasn’t a total loss.  The ashes went into the garden and what wood didn’t dry out turned into compost soon thereafter. 

Gardeners will forever be lured by the F-word.  We are a gullible lot.  So, in parting I offer you free advice.  If you get free poop from a military base put it on your vegetable garden.  The plants will stay in straight rows and always be in formation.  If on the other hand you receive poop from a reformatory, use it in the flower beds where a little unruly behavior won’t create an insurrection.


Photo: Steve Smith