The Cottage Gardener 7: 113-115 (Nov 20, 1851)
CHARCOAL, ITS USES FOR PLANT CULTURE.
R. Fish

It is no easy matter now-a-days, to be the originator of a new principle. Discoveries and improvements in cultivation are generally the mere working-out of facts previously known, but not sufficiently generalised. The ascertaining of a fast is not so much the thing, as the being the first to make that fact bear upon practical utility. The comparatively uncultured genius, who delighted himself with the wooden clock, the result of many an anxious whittling, was no less a genius, though clocks far superior existed, which he had never seen, and knew not of. Hobbies most men like to ride, but it is rather disheartening for them, when closely surveying a territory which they imagined they alone had discovered, to find the marks and foot-prints of others who preceded them. The man whose aim is to be practically useful, has no such misgivings. More than half-a-century ago, Arthur Young made many trials with charcoal-dust as a manuring agent, but with no very clear definite results. For a similar period, the dust and the soil through which the volatile parts of the wood passed during the process of charring, had been used successfully for improving the soil in many districts. Earlier still, in great charcoal districts on the continent, the farmers found that though the site of the heaps was barren for a lesser or greater number of years, according as that soil was open and porous, or stiff and tenacious, partly owing to the roasting heat it had experienced, but chiefly to the superabundance of potash with which the ground was saturated, yet afterwards, for a series of seasons, it was more than ordinarily fertile. For the using of charcoal as an agent for propagating purposes, within these ten years, we are chiefly indebted to Mr. Lucas, of Munich; for its adaptation to cultivation in every circumstance, from the Banana to the Cabbage, we are principally indebted to Mr. James Barnes, of Bicton. Whether that last-named eminent cultivator had known what is stated above as to charcoal-heap sites, is a matter of no importance. He did observe the luxuriant vegetation around the outsides of where the charcoal had been burned. Thousands must have noticed the same fact. The inference of obtaining similar results in cultivation seems almost intuitive, but who of the thousands made it? How very simple our greatest discoveries and improvements look after they are known. But for the experiments at Munich, and the shrewd calculating inductive philosophy of a Barnes, our gardens and potting-benches might, for years to come, have been destitute alike of the nodules of charcoal and the rough made-for-the-moment compost, which has so much changed the mode of culture, and rendered the superintendant and possessor of plants more independent of temporary undue attention from the water pail.

Upon the reasons why charcoal exercises such beneficial influences, I am not learned enough to enter. Philosophers are not even agreed. But a result is no less a result, though there may be disagreement as to the mode in which a seen cause produces a seen effect. That charcoal is antiseptic, we know—that it decomposes very slowly in any circumstances, and in any times, but more quickly when in a state of powder, moisture applied, and in contact with the roots of plants, than when in larger pieces and kept dry, is true—that it absorbs carbonic acid and other gases from the atmosphere, and when in a rough state especially, neither changing much the character of the gases, nor being changed itself, but parting with them, though in general circumstances more slowly than it absorbed them, is likely—that it absorbs moisture very freely when fresh, and rather freely at all times, and parts with it more slowly than it receives it, is certain—that it is one of the lightest substances of a porous nature we know, and when placed in a pot among soil, almost incapable of becoming so wet as to be hurtful, or, unless under great carelessness, so dry as to be injurious, is equally certain. Leaving, therefore, the chemical question to the chemists, and dealing only with the mechanical, we find that, used with prudence and moderation, (for it is possible to have too much of a good thing) when finely divided, owing to its antiseptic and slowly decomposing, and thus slowly yielding of carbon, properties, either by itself or mixed with sand, or sandy soil, it is most useful in propagating, and that owing to its lightness and porosity, and absorbing of moisture, but not in excess, it is a most valuable mechanical agent in potting, rendering stiff soils sufficiently open to allow water and air freely to percolate, and rendering a very light soil more retentive of moisture than it would naturally be. Also, for the mere purpose of drainage, we find that rough pieces in the bottom of the pots are just as effectual as broken pots and pebbles, while in large specimens, the lightness, when moving often has to be resorted to, is no mean consideration, as even when saturated with moisture, there is no comparison in weight between it and pebbles and crocks. For a number of years, my use of charcoal, in a fine and rough state, has been commensurate with the limited supply I could obtain by charring all manner of rubbish or prunings. A condemned tree, or oven a limb, was carefully kept until the season of winter, for affording charcoal in lumps, for though by no means the best period for charring, it is the best the us, so far as time and opportunity are concerned. As in the use of it, however clear the way, I sometimes got cast in an ugly pitfall. I will shortly state, as so many guide-posts, the circumstances in which I found its application the most satisfactory.

First, as respects propagation. I lately stated that the person who was near a roadside, might contrive from that roadside to get soil that would grow the greater part of plants grown in windows and small greenhouses. The washing of that road-drift would furnish fine, pure, gritty sand for propagating purposes, almost equal to that sold about London, and elsewhere, as pure silver sand; the sand thus procured near home being good, in proportion to the quantity of stones on the road worn down by the traffic. For the propagating of almost countless numbers of soft-wooded plants every spring, I have found nothing equal to a third of light loam, a third of sandy road-drift, and a third of small charcoal, from which the finer dust was excluded by a fine sieve,—the charcoal averaging from half the size of a common pea, to less than that of the head of a pin. Over this is frequently thrown the slightest dusting of fine sand, just to prevent the air too freely entering. In such circumstances, the cuttings not only strike freely, but continue in health a long period, and maintain a stubby character and abundance of roots, -when it does not suit your convenience quickly either to pot or plant them singly. When much more sand was used, the compost for these kinds of plants was apt to become too dense, and any extra moisture was very apt to cause the cuttings to mould and damp at the surface. When more charcoal was used, the cuttings generally struck root sooner; but it kept long in the striking pots, they assumed a rather unhealthy appearance, whilst the fibres, instead of being robust, became weak, slender, and attenuated, with the ends apparently decaying. In trying this mode, therefore, it is safer to have less of the charcoal than more, and, secondly, care must be taken that ashes form no part of the charcoal. Beginners, instead of taking the dust from a heap of their own burning, had better take some pieces,—it matters not how small if well burned through—and break them for use, as they then will be certain they have no blackened ashes. which would, in most cases, contain too much potash to be safe. I was going to write every case, but that would not be correct, as some things will grow in a considerable portion of ashes.

Secondly, in propagating such soft-wooded plants in autumn, to stand the winter in the cutting-pots, less charcoal must be mixed with the compost,—about a fifth will be very serviceable; but more attention must be paid to drainage, and for this purpose, rough charcoal may well form a considerable item. During the winter, if you have no means of dispelling the damp in dull, foggy weather by fire, or if the case should be opposite, your plants in the cutting-pots should stand in the dry air of a parlour or sitting-room; in either case, scattering such small, but not dusty charcoal, on the surface of the pot, and among the bases of the tender stems, will be a security from danger. In either ease, pots otherwise similar, and treated alike, those that were charcoaled, wore safe-those that were not, were more or less injured. Without the charcoaling, more care and attention was required to keep them equally healthy.

Thirdly. In striking hard-wooded plants from cuttings, I have not found much difference when using pure sand alone, and sand with about a third of fine charcoal. I have found the importance in either case of having a layer above plenty of drainage, consisting of compost, similar to that in which the plant delights most, but more light. As a whole, and taking the average of a great many cases, the pots with the charcoal struck soonest, but unless there was an inch or more of compost beneath the mere striking medium, they required to be potted sooner. This seems to be the reason why there are so many failures with striking plants in charcoal only. After giving the matter a fair trial, I now seldom resort to it, because what was gained in time, was too frequently lost from future carelessness and procrastination. In almost every case tried by me, the rooting process was expedited in the charcoal, and the smaller it was, the quicker were moots formed, but in almost every instance, the plants became unhealthy, if not quickly potted. I pretend not to assign a reason. I do not say that others have experienced the same as I have done. I do not say that all plants are alike. There are plants, that in the consuming of garbage seem quite as much at home as animals, whose province it seems to be to clear the earth of animal impurity. Let philosophers say what they will, facts would incline me to suppose, that small dusty charcoal undergoes decomposition when used for such purposes. There is something about it that stimulates cuttings to root quickly, but for the generality of the plants we cultivate, the allowing favourite cuttings to remain long in such a medium, would appear to me as wise as allowing a young infant to suck nothing but a piece of pork or salmon, though old women, and sages too, will contrive at times, clandestinely, to put a piece of such things in their sweet mouths, to be conveyed thence to their tender stomachs, and that they contend, too, for their good. The continued application of the pork and the charcoal, would, in most instances, produce similar unfortunate results.

To be continued.

The Cottage Gardener 7: 148-149 (Dec 4, 1851)
CHARCOAL, ITS USES FOR PLANT CULTURE, &c.
R. Fish

No greater error exists amongst amateurs than the prevalent idea, that gardeners in largish places never need sigh after the unattainable, nor experience the freezing damp of failure; the means and accommodation at their disposal being seemingly so unbounded, and the purse in which, of course, they insert their fingers at pleasure, being next to unfathomable in its depths and dimensions. On the contrary, however, it will be found, to a great extent, that even in large places, the most striking results are frequently obtained by the simplest means. The very extent of the materials required, and the necessity for abundance and display at all times, and not for a few months only now and thon, renders, in nineteen cases out of twenty, a pleasing result, all the more pleasing in proportion as the £. s. d. part of the affair enters not as a dark shade on the otherwise bright picture, and this often imposes on the gardener, if he means to work for any certain object, the necessity of resorting to make-shifts and conveniences, which, if duly chronicled, would stagger the first buddings of envy in many a grumbling cosey amateur. Hence, though THE COTTAGE GARDENER, more than any other work, is distinguished for its attention to first principles, and the detailing of the simplest modes of action, particularly for the lovers of gardening with limited means, I have long felt that these simple details would be of advantage to no parties so much as to practical gardeners themselves. For instance, in our desire to descend into the minutiae of matters, we speak of potting a plant in so much loam, so much peat, so many broken crocks, and so much of pieces of freestone; and we do it all for the purpose of letting others follow the identical practice that succeeded best with ourselves, and yet, ten to one but the very minuteness of the details, if they conjure not up the ideas of empiricism, are too likely to be associated with the bewilderable and the unattainable. "Well," sings out an amateur, "I had made up my mind to grow that plant, but now, how am I to get that freestone in this clayey, chalky district, without the expense and the trouble of sending some hundred miles for a bushel of chips?" And here again grumbles out a young gardener, "peat, and I have not got a bit left, and none within thirty miles of me, and that like anything but the beautiful stuff that they get about London, from Wandsworth Common; though even about that nearer hand, waster, generally so kind, did so grumble. Ah, deary me!" And if a Scotchman, in go the ends of the fingers of the left hand among the hair, at a place on the left temple between the ear and the back of the head, in order that by arousing into action some slumbering bump there, a responsive echo should be given to the question, "What shall I do?"

The power of generalizing, so as to be able to substitute one thing, easy of access, for another with difficulty obtained, is a great step in the right direction. Plants, such as Heaths, with fine hairy fibres, cannot be grown without peat, or heath soil; almost everything else is either too open, or too close, and half-decayed vegetable matter is generally too astringent. With the exception of these, most of the plants in this department may be cultivated well in rough, sandy, fibry loam; in such loam, with a portion of decayed vegetable earth, such as rotten leaves; or, in such loam again, with a portion of fibry peat. The best substitutes for peat, in such circumstances, that I have found, are decayed tree leaves, two years old, not rotten into mould, but allowed to cake into lumps, and these lumps well dried and aerated before being used, when they break are in a filmy, lumpy state, and as sweet as a nut;—the other is dried cow-dung, gathered from the pastures in a cake like slate, and kept under cover for from one to two years. It must not be used so freely as peat, though when so obtained, its nourishing properties are at the minimum. A little practice will render it apparent, that for most of the purposes referred to, leaving out of view its antiseptic qualities, peat is chiefly used for its mechanical properties in keeping a soil open and porous. Broken bricks, broken potsherds, broken sandstone, broken and whole pebbles, when each and all are destitute of any peculiar chemical property, act chiefly in a mechanical manner; though, to be sure, practice frequently tells us that some plants prefer to entwine their roots about one of these, at times, in preference to any of the others. We have seen that charcoal is antiseptic, even more than peat, and that its very lightness eminently fits it as a mechanical agent in potting. It is, generally, easily obtainable in the neighbourhoods of all towns; but though it may suit an amateur to buy a bushel or two, like guano, it is too expensive to be used liberally in a large place. Almost every gardener, and the possessor of a small garden, where there is yearly a considerable amount of pruning and cutting, may make enough to suit himself, and then a person can use it much more liberally. I find that for all common plants grown in pots, such as Cinerarias, Calceolarias, Geraniums, Salvias, and a great proportion of those mixed groups, for which peat and loam are mentioned in the books, a man has no need to cry to Hercules for help, if he can command a sweet fibry loam, some sand, and a few pieces of charcoal. I have tried two plants, as much alike as possible, of many things, such as Clerodendrons, Begonias, Fuchsias, Geraniums, &c., one potted in the most approved compost, the other in fibry, sandy loam, kept open with nodules of charcoal, and being treated in every respect alike; if any difference, the charcoal gentleman had the advantage, especially when a little very rotten but sweet dung, free from worms and worms' eggs, was used, either along with the compost, or more liberally as top-dressing. Still for all that, peat-earth, even for common purposes, is not to be sneezed at, but neither should we despair if we cannot lay hands upon it. A few other circumstances, connected with the use of charcoal, may here be noted.

First.—When burned, it should be kept close until cooled, and receive as little water as possible, and then be stored away in a dry place, but with access to the air, that it may absorb gases at will. Secondly.—If a preference is to be given, choose charcoal from six to twelve months old. I have noticed in the case of orchids, cucumbers, and other plants, where the roots were in sight, that they would cling to old charcoal, when frequently they would hang loosely by, or seem to fight shy of the newly-burned. In the latter case, the charcoal might chiefly act as a mechanical porous agent, and an absorber and disseminator of gases; in the former case, in addition to these, nourishment might be yielded by slow decomposition, though I am anything but satisfied on this score, as though I have weighed dried pieces of charcoal before inserting them in the soil of a pot, and washed and dried and weighed them again after six months, the difference in weight was scarcely perceptible. What is the result of our more experienced friends in this matter?

Thirdly.—As in the case of cuttings, so also in the case of old plants, the quantity may be over-done. In very large plants, I can scarcely give an average, as I seldom mix it with the compost, but pack it in pieces as the potting proceeds. For general purposes, from one-eighth to one-twelfth part may be used for hard-wooded plants, such as Heaths and Azaleas, and from one-sixth to one-tenth part in mixed greenhouse and soft-wooded plants. Fourthly.—The size of the pieces must be proportionate to the size of the plant, and the size of the pot, as well as the size of the shift given. A friend fond of gardening once complained to us, that he could not get on with this rough compost mode of potting, and wished us to look at a favourite plant now getting somewhat sickly. On turning the plant out of a six-inch pot, we found, that with the exception of a little fine matter on the surface, the compost consisted almost wholly of four pieces, two of peat, one of loam, and one of charcoal. Here was the law of extremes with a vengeance. The flue sifted soil of yore was perfection, in comparison to this. The loam, to get it in nicely, had been jammed as tight as fists could make it, and already it smelled as sour as if it had nursed only acids for a century. Of charcoal there was more than enough, as instead of constituting a fourth,—a sixth, or an eighth part would have been more prudent, and then, instead of such a thumping piece, the largest should not have exceeded the size of a walnut, while most of it should have been as small, and smaller than horsebeans. The same of the other constituents. There were the materials, they only wanted tearing asunder into a number of pieces, as small as the charcoal, mingling together, with the addition of a little silver sand, to grow a plant in health and vigour, as, in fact, these materials actually did in the case of the plant referred to, though at the period in question it was fast running the down-hill of existence. So likewise of large shifts and large pots, larger pieces may be used, but with caution. The very largest bedded in the soil, should seldom exceed the size of an egg. For small plants, it should be used in a small state. When these plants are hard-wooded or slow-growing, the dust should be removed with a fine sieve. That dust, if used sparingly, about one-eighth of the compost will be useful for soft-wooded plants of temporary interest, or that, by-and-by, are to be removed into groups in boxes or beds.

My space is exhausted, or I would have said something on charring wood and rubbish, such as prunings, stalks, &c.; the latter is the most difficult, especially where there is nothing but earth for covering, to prevent the heap from burning instead of charring, in such circumstances I have found it very useful to corer the heap with a layer of leaves or short grass, before putting on the earth, and lighting it—as when making holes to draw the peat and charring downwards, the leaves or grass prevent the earth getting into the centre, and choking the combustion.