"Oh my gracious, oh my goodness, it's free?," asked Pernell Postell, a Silver Spring cab driver whose green thumb almost glittered when he heard about the deal.

All-natural fertilizer, exotic at that, was distributed gratis yesterday, the largess of Johnny the Ilama, Sinbad the camel, and the 21 elephants and 30 horses of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The organic bounty had been advertised on the radio, but Postell, a part-time grower of "collards, mustards, trunips, tomatoes, and, oh, my gracious, spring onions," hadn't heard about it.

But he would be back. "You can go get a bag of [chemical fertilizer], it'll cost you no less than $7. Now you put that together with the lime, and if you have a half acre, you see how much you could spend for that," said Postell. "So if somebody's going to give you fertilizer, you better get on to it."

And they did, about 25 carloads of gardeners who began arriving at 8 a.m. yesterday with pitchforks, shovels and wheelbarrows at the ready. They trooped gleefully into the bowels of the StarPlex Armory in Southeast Washington, where the hay-covered manure had been heaped into a fresh pile outside the elephant quarters. Emerging onto Indepence Avenue with garbage bags and trash bins brimming, some of the gardners waxed expansively on the virtures of the mighty manure and what it would do.

"I've seen it used before and it's very good," sighed Gladys Nixon, who trucked away five huge garbage bags worth with the help of a friend, Marie McKinney. The fertilizer would help Nixon's cucumbers, tomatoes, string beans, collard greens, cabbage and turnips grow to stunning lushness in her Northeast backyard. "A friend of mine used it last year. I saw her tomatoes," Nixon said, shaking her head at the rosy memory.

"We never had good fertilizer like this before," added Kathleen Hurley, who watched while her husband Carl shoveled. "Just historically, it's supposed to be the best."

Testimony like this has increased the popularity of the annual fertilizerfest, the brainchild of circus publicist Bill Power. He developed the idea about four years ago because he thought it was a waste to throw away so much unused nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium, according to Kay Kidwell, who works in Powell's office.

And such quantities: Each of the circus' 21 elephants puts away about 80 pounds of hay, vegetables, oats and sweet feed a day, Kidwell said. The 30 horses together consume about 500 pounds of sweet feed and oats each week, with about 200 pounds of carrots for dessert. Unfortunately, the 15 carnivorious tigers and 10 polar bears don't get to bestow such munificence. Only hay eaters allowed.

"When we first started, we just put together some little bags that people could take away, you know, publicity," said Kidwell. "Well, we had no idea. People were lining up with dump trucks." Now the giveaway is repeated in each of the circus' 48 to 53 tour cities, if the locals are interested.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Washingtonians are. "It's a bit hit in Washington," said spokeswoman Cindy Bandle. "People like our manure. It's wonderful manure, since there are no chemicals sprayed on it, and circus animals eat the best." CAPTION:

Picture, Bob Madel of Bowie fills trash bags with blend of elephant, Ilama and camel manure for his garden. He took home 15 large bags. By Gary A. Camaron -- The Washington Post