Community Garden Contest, Historical Fertilizer Tips

This is an article sent in for the Community garden contest that is from the 1800’s. It has been left in its original wording. I know most of the garden history tips came from “the Practical Gardener” Thomas Eden from Kentucky sent in these garden history pieces. There are five packets of seeds headed you way. Thank you for participating! Happy gardening, DeniseGeorgian and Victorian gardeners used all manner of manures to improve the fertility of their garden soil. Here are just a few:

Well rotted fish – dug in very, very well.

Horse dung – probably one of the most widely used manures as it was the most widely available. Horse dung from London’s streets and gardens, for example, provided the market gardens surrounding London with over 60 tons of manure per acre per year. Horse manure was at its best once it had fermented a little – most gardeners advised against using it fresh.

Cattle dung – often particularly recommended for very dry and sandy soils.

Compost – almost all working Victorian gardens had at least one large compost heap. Often scraps of vegetation or cast aside vegetables were not composted as such, but merely cut up and dug straight into the soil. Green crops, pond weeds, hedge parings and fresh cut lawn clippings needed no composting at all according to advice – they could be added direct to the flower or vegetable plot.

 Seaweed – particularly recommended for vegetable gardens.

Bird dung – this was highly popular, and several families made their fortune by importing massive quantities of guano from South America. Otherwise gardeners made do with pigeon dung (often available in quantities, and recommended for strawberries in particular).

Sheep and deer dung – not often used in urban gardens as it was hard to procure, it was used widely in rural areas. It needed to be dug in quickly while still fresh so as to retain all its moisture and nutrients.

Soot – another widely available commodity in pre-electrical Britain. Most people depended on coal fires for cooking, and the soot could be sprinkled over the surface of the garden. Soot was not only considered a very powerful fertilizer, gardeners also believed it acted as a deterrent to wire-worms and maggots.

Crushed bone and horn – shavings of bone or horn were believed to provide an excellent manure but were difficult to procure in useful quantities.

Blood – always popular as a gardening fertilizer. Gardeners could collect blood in vast quantities at slaughter houses and butchers, and also at confectionary manufacturers where cattle blood was used to separate out the impurities in brown sugar. Of course, slaughter houses were not the only places blood could be obtained. Useful contacts could be made in the wards and theatres of hospitals, and buckets of blood for the flower bed obtained via the back door. This practice went on so late as the early 1980s, when one of the editors of this site recalls watching a theatre sister handing buckets of blood out the back door to the hospital housekeeper, who kept the hibiscus in the front garden of the hospital in spectacular bloom with patients’ blood dug in during the dark hours.

Salt – a debate raged over whether or not salt was good or bad for the garden. Patently, as there was a debate over it, some gardeners did use salt as a fertilizer, but increasingly by the early nineteenth century opinion was turning against the use of salt in soil.

Urine – whether animal or human, it needed to be used quickly before it ‘putrefied’. Gardeners believed it should be diluted with water. Today, of course, we use it neat on our compost heaps.

Wood ash and charcoal dust – often obtained in considerable quantities from lime or brick kilns.

Sawdust, tanner’s bark and wood shavings.

Lime – used as quick lime, or mild lime Lime was used more in sandy soils than clay based soils.

Coal was also often used.

A recipe for a cheap and useful fertilizer was as follows:Raise a platform of earth, on any spare piece of land, eight feet wide, one foot high, and any length according to the amount required. On the first stratum of earth lay a thin stratums of lime, fresh from the kiln. Dissolve this into the earth with brine from the rose of a watering can and immediately add another layer of earth. Lime and brine as before, carrying it to any convenient height. In a week, it should be carefully turned over, broken and mixed, so that the entire mass may be thoroughly incorporated. This compost has been used in Ireland, and it has doubled the crops of potatoes and cabbages and is said to be far superior to stable dung.

Charles McIntosh, the Practical Gardener, 1828.

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