This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
A controversy has arisen of late years relative to the use of slaughter-house manures, carcasses of animals, etc., as a material in the composition of vine borders. The practice has been violently assailed, and we have been assured by high authorities that not only should we thus destroy the roots of our vines but that the presence of such matter would render the soil a sodden mass which they never could penetrate or thrive in. Much of the difference of opinion on the subject (as usual in controversies) has been caused by a misunderstanding. The best authorities I have seen in favor of the practice, do not recommend a direct application of such material to the roots of a growing vine, but only that it should be placed where the roots should find it when it was properly decomposed and fit for their use. To this, the others reply that the roots have no power of selection but must of necessity go ahead, and when they run foul of this stuff it will certainly kill them. A little reflection will upset this theory. We know that roots grow by sending out fibres, which at first are exceedingly fine but increase in size by the nourishment they meet with in their course.
If one of these fibres strikes a rich bed of wholesome food it will grow fast, and as it grows will send out more fibres, and finally become a large, strong root, carrying nourishment to the vine. If, on the contrary, it meets with unwholesome matter, it cannot grow and it may be killed; but the death of a hundred of these exceedingly minute extremities would not affect the vine, with thousands of them on every root. It is not true, therefore, that a root has no power of selection, for these fibres are in fact feelers which are ready to seize upon anything valuable, or to stop short if they meet with injurious matter. Now, if the carcass of an animal were put into a vine border, and a large root of a vine spread out directly upon it, there is no donbt the root would be destroyed and, perhaps, the vine killed. The same effect would be produced if the root was put into a bed of clear guano. The manure in both cases would be too strong for it; but no proof can thence be drawn that either of them is not a good manure for vines if properly used.
The case seems so simple that I have wondered that so much differ-ence of opinion could have arisen.
But as experience is the best teacher, I wish to give you an account of what I have seen to-day, bearing upon the question. My vine border was prepared nine years ago, and was composed of old sod, shoe-makers' chips, oyster shells, and all the bones and carcasses I could get hold of. This was done in the fall, and the vines planted the following spring. As all the fresh animal matter was buried at least eighteen inches deep, and the vines were small when planted, I had no fear of its not being thoroughly decomposed before they would find it. At all events I have had no reason to imagine, from their appearance or produce up to this time, that they have been troubled with indigestion or dyspepsia. The next year finding a horse which had to be killed, I had him brought to my vine border, where he was shot and fell into the grave which was previously prepared for him. This was certainly complying with Hoare's directions - that the bones, for a vine border, should be put in "as whole and fresh as possible." The spot where he was burned was on the extreme outer edge of the border, twelve feet from the front of the house, and in order to put him deep enough to avoid all danger from effluvia, I had to dig considerably deeper into the subsoil than the border was originally made.
In making this pit I found no roots and therefore felt no fear of injuring the vines, having firm faith that they would keep clear of him till he was ready for them.
I have for several days past been engaged in enlarging my border, adding six feet in width and making it considerably deeper than the portion which was first made, digging in towards the house till I came to roots. This morning I came to the remains of the horse above mentioned, and was first notified of it by coming upon a mass of rich mold in the midst of the yellow subsoil, deeper down than the other border, and filled with fibrous roots. I immediately changed my spade for a trowel, and began a careful examination. All the earth where the body had lain was like a very rich garden mold - much more mellow and friable than the yellow soil around it - and all this mold was filled with vine roots, large and small, in the healthiest possible condition, while every bone was enveloped with a perfect net-work of gauze-like fibres. I continued my examination further, perhaps, than was proper for the health of the vine, because I thought it important as evidence, and the result was such as to leave no doubt in my mind that decomposed animal matter was a valuable manure for vines, and that there need be no fear of rendering the border "a sodden mass of unctious matter" by using it freely and as fresh as possible.
[We thank Mr. Cleveland for his account of this interesting and very conclusive experiment. That good grapes and heavy crops can be obtained without dead carcasses we have had abundant proof, and that such carcasses can be safely, if judiciously, used, we have not a doubt. - Ed].