This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V24", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
It seems a little strange that there should be any difference of opinion upon the subject of muck, as a fertilizer. Muck may be defined as vegetable matter, preserved in water; generally in water that is nearly or quite stagnant. Muck in time may become peat, without losing its vegetable character; and very respectable mineralogists insist it may be converted into coal; in which case it has lost most of its vegetable characteristics, and acquired accessions from other minerals, particularly sulphur. While its character of muck, and even peat remains, it is capable of being decomposed, or if you will, rotted, by additions of quick-lime, and also by sulphuric or nitiric acid, and thus be fitted for pulverization and mixing in the soil for plant food. Freezing and thawing will also disintegrate muck. This last is not practicable in this region where the ground never freezes.
Men in the laboratories have succeeded in perfecting a few grains of wheat or other grains in a soil, out of which all vegetable matter which could be driven off by red heat, had been driven, when watered by water impregnated with nitrate of potash, and phosphoric acid ; thence they have jumped to the conclusion, that plant food consists of nitrogenous and phosphoratic matter alone. They were scientists, and their conclusions were the end of the law on that subject. Let us see. The soil they experimented with before burning contained vegetable matter. This became charcoal, in part, and so was left in the soil, or its mineral properties were changed in form ; the potash and phosphorous became soluble ; the lime, magnesia and soda became caustic, and much of it soluble, and thus also plant food. Of this no note was taken.
Again, they kept back the fact that the plants reared by them in their experiments were starved and dwarfed, and only gave a yield of less than one-tenth what they would if grown upon a soil rich in vegetable matter. Humus is a vegetable product, and exists only where there has been a decomposition of vegetable matter. No vigorous growth of plants can be had, particularly in farm and garden products, where the soil contains no humus.
They have entirely left out of their calculations the whole efficatiousness of the principle of life How much is due to this principle, where it shall greek means for its own existence, how it may substitute one ingredient of food for another, and all its vast phenomena is ignored by them. What life is, what its functions, they cannot explain, because they never can know.
Are opinions thus arrived at to overthrow the experience of the practical agriculturist for ages? These last have learned that their heaviest crops grow on land, other things being equal, in which there is the greatest amount of finely pulverized vegetable matter. Hence, too, the best farmers delight in spreading upon field and garden, the manure from the stables, the henroosts, and barnyard ; hence, we find these men to increase their pile, bedding their cattle on dried muck, and scattering it under the roost. Hence they pulverize it with mixing caustic lime, and grind it to powder, as far as possible. Leaf-mould has ever been a favorite prescription for the florist, when extra choice flowers are required. But leaf-mould differs very little from muck, in its constituent parts; both are composed of the leaves and small stems of plants.
All vegetation placed in the soil, within the reach of the influence of the sun's heat, rains and dews, will be converted to humus, and thus fitted for plant food. And then through the medium of humus the plants receive the minerals required for the formation of wood, leaves and fruit. They receive them almost entirely through this source. Because the experimenters with soil deprived of vegetable matter, as far as heat could do, had none or very little humus to assist them, their plants are dwarfed, and almost unproductive; and instead of proving that plant food consisted of nitrogenous matter, potash and phosphorus, they rather proved where these are supplied with vegetable matter, like decaying grass, weeds, and leaves of trees, yielding an abundance of humus, they would have far better results; and that it was better to apply vegetable matters to the land, even if the. poor, despised muck of the wet lands of Massachusetts, the sweepings of the streets of the cities, and the mud in the bottom of the ditches and drains were hauled out at a great expense, than to have none in it.
Against the assertion of such experimenters, as declare muck "worthless," there stands the experiments of all the gardeners, of all the States, who have applied muck in some of its "forms and modifications " to all varieties of soils, and always obtained favorable results from its use. With the gardeners, the farmers, who spread the manures from their stables and yards on their grain fields, who turn under their clover turf and harvest great crops of wheat, bear evidence. The tobacco growers of Virginia exhausted their soil because they did not apply to it vegetable matters, even where they did also use guano and other prepared fertilizers; while those of the Connecticut Valley, of the Chemung Valley in New York, and of Dane and Rock counties in Wisconsin, have not only kept their tobacco lands in heart, but have greatly increased the richness and productiveness of their soil and crops, by a liberal use of vegetable matters. The cotton planters of the South also give a negative testimony of the value of vegetable matter. These have for years burned all the weeds, grass, and old cotton and cornstalks which grow on their land, and have resorted to the manures of laboratories to rear a crop.
The result with them has been the same as with the Virginia tobacco growers - worn out fields, and no remunerative crops. The prepared fertilizers, with a scant supply of humus, has only "burnt" the stunted plants.
The examples of the English, Dutch, German and French gardeners and farmers, could be cited to the same point, in opposition to the laboratories, of the useful properties of muck and other vegetable matters, when used as plant food, but I must desist for the present.