The Horticulturist. 18(202): 130-132, 151-154 (April, 1863)

"THE only question of interest to the public, in our recent discussion with 'Fox Meadow," says our friend Bright, "on the subject of Leaf-Mould, Muck, and Charcoal in Vine Borders, is this, Is there danger in the use of such materials ?" "Fox Meadow dodges the issue," Now we can assure our friend Bright that there is not a single component used in our material organism, ponderable or imponderable, known by the name of "dodge."

Is there danger in the use of Leaf-Mould, Muck, and Charcoal? What an important question this becomes, Mr. Editor, when that little noun "danger" steps in. A question more vast and important than this, never affected man's material existence! And we are only sorry, sir, that the answering of such a question has not fallen into abler hands—the man of collegiate education, the man conversant with the crucible. In answering this question, we shall base our remarks on our own personal experience; for we have invariably found it to be a much better plan than to pin ourselves on the sleeves of others living and writing in different parts of the world. We shall not occupy space in this journal to show the ridiculousness of Mr. Bright trying to prove our advocacy of the use of large quantities of Leaf-Mould or Muck in Vine Borders, for your readers, if they will not willingly have "coal dust" thrown in their eyes, will read, again and again, if needs be, what we have said.

If there is danger in Leaf-Mould, if there is danger in Muck, if there is danger in Charcoal and the general use of these materials, then it becomes a solemn question, not merely for the cultivator of "exotic grapes," but for the agriculturist; and not the agriculturist alone, but a question of vital interest to the whole family of the human race! Let us look abroad over the face of the earth, and see what means the Creator of the Universe has instituted to supply man with the necessary food of life, and we shall find that the forest trees drop their foliage to the ground, and it becomes a mass of vegetable mould, oftentimes from twelve to eighteen inches in thickness, and as old age creeps over them, their branches, and lastly their mammoth bunks, drop bit by bit in rotten sticks to mother earth; yet no man ever saw a forest of "mushrooms" spring up out of this leaf-mould and rotten sticks! But what do we see? We see the farmer in this country, from the far East to the Rio Grande, in search of this very leaf-mould; he cuts down the forest, and then plows between its stumps, or drags them by force from the ground to plow and sow; but who ever heard of a farmer reaping a crop of "toad-stools ?" But what have we heard, and what have we seen? We have seen the farmer exhaust the soil of this leaf-mould; plow and sub-soil till he has extracted every particle of it from the ground, and then travel West, or somewhere else, to practice the same nefarious system! The question to-day, Mr. Editor, for the horti- and agri-cultural world, is not of the "injurious" effects of leaf-mould, but how is man to reproduce it in the earth from whence, through ignorance or avariciousness, it has been taken out by his crops?

This same practice of robbing the soil of its vegetable mould is not confined to this country alone; we read of it all over the world to a greater or less extent. In Lower Germany, west of the Vistula, in Spain and France, this vegetable mould is nearly exhausted, and, like much of the land in these Eastern States, nothing is done to prevent ultimate sterility; and it appears to our mind clear that no efforts of man will be able to return this vegetable mould without allowing Nature to accomplish it by another growth of forest trees. Watch the farmers selling their old, exhausted lands, and gladly fleeing to rich forest or black leaf-mould prairies, and ask, "Is leaf-mould injurious?" Go ask Liebig, Voelcker, those champions of "special mineral manures," to return to their own sterile silicious sand, from the Vistula to the German Ocean, the primitive condition of that soil!

We also invite the devotees to "special fertilizers" here in this country to try their much vaunted mineral, and all forms of "elements of the food of plants," on the barren lands robbed of their leaf-mould, and see if they can be returned to their original condition! Liebig, because he discovered a very small portion of minerals in the constituents of plants, (merely enough to give strength and firmness to the organism,) ignored the importance of vegetable mould, the prepared food of Nature for all the higher orders of the vegetable world, and seems to think that "inorganics" is the one thing needful, and seems to recognize nothing else as necessary, when it is a well-known fact, that it is owing to the carbonic acid given out by the vegetable mould, and mixing with the water supply, that the water is enabled to dissolve the minerals and convey them to the spongioles of the plant. Now what is the gist of the experiments of Liebig intended for practically? It is simply this, to add such constituents to a barren soil as it is in need of; to supply a plant with nourishment from an early stage of growth to full developed luxuriance, enabling it, in ratio to its strength and size of foliage, to extract a large amount of carbon, ammonia, etc., from the atmosphere, and thus obtain a large size, so that, when ultimately it goes to the manure heap, or is plowed into the land, it shall increase the vegetable mould.

Now if Liebig, by the use of his "inorganics" or "mineral constituents," can succeed in raising large crops, and the application of these special manures be repeatedly applied to lands almost destitute of vegetable mould, no person, we think, can be so blind as not to see the ultimate barrenness of such land, and the total destitution of all its carbonaceous matter.

Now let us examine for a moment the result of our own experiments with what are termed "special manures." The farmers of this country find that, by their constant application, their lands become less productive, what they term "worn out." Corn has been grown by the aid of "specials" till the ground will grow corn no more, and still many of them, at the present time, are as blind as bath to the real cause; and when one "special" fails they try another; and when this fails, they cry out, "It is worthless;" and some of the more intelligent will say, "It is not adapted to our land," when the true secret to the whole lies in the fact, that, owing to the almost utter destitution of leaf-mould, or vegetable mould, in the soil, there is not a sufficiency of carbonic acid produced to combine with water to dissolve the mineral constituents contained in these special fertilizers. This is not all, by any means; for many of these "specials," (warranted to contain the "body and soul" of fruits and trees, including all the various cerealia, alliaceous, brassicaceous, leguminous, acetariaceous, and oleraceous plants,) compounded as they are, when either in the soil, or applied as top dressing, and subjected to the influence of the atmosphere, become a crystallized mass of rubbish, almost insoluble in either earth or water. This process of crystallization is probably effected b the refrigerative power of the soil, or atmospheric heat causing evaporation; and whenever such "special fertilizers" as these are applied to soils, let the carbonic acid from vegetable mould be ever so great, it has no more effect upon it in dissolving or disintegrating the particles, than it would have upon a piece of an old glass bottle. Go on, farmers, as usual; grow large crops of hay and corn, and carry then to the markets; there deposit your rich loads of led-mould, and bring back to your farms some "special," the mercantile value of which will be one-third the value of that carted away. This is farming to the very essence of perfection; and if persisted in for many years, with a rapidly increasing population, the consequences will be ominous.

The great question of the agriculturist in many parts of Europe, is, how to produce large quantities of vegetable growth in order to supply their lands with a greater depth of vegetable mould? In this country, the great question seems to be, "how to produce large crops for market without returning one ounce of the carbonaceous matter produced back to the hungry, dying soil ?" With the evidence of all these facts staring us unmercifully in the face, we are asked, "Is there danger in the use of leaf-mould ?" We emphatically say, No.

But without its use there is danger, and not only danger, but ruin, and total annihilation. What, pray, shall we grow vines and grapes with? the same as the farmers grow their crops with, "special fertilizers?" Why not affirm at once that vines need no carbonaceous matter; that you have discovered glands in the organization of the vine adapted identically for the absorption of "tartaric acid," phosphates, lime, soda, and potash! We may just as well affirm that a son of the "Emerald Isle," brought up from childhood there, to the ripe old age of "three score years and ten," fed principally all his life on potatoes, would be destitute of hard bone, sinew, flesh, and fat, and that his chemical constituents would be all starch!

Our friend Bright calls our attention to "Brown's American Muck Book," (we wish he would call our attention to a little more of his own experience,) to show us what Muck is composed of, as if we did not know that it contained "Dead leaves, rotten trunks, and the branches and seeds of trees," and for this reason we recommend its use, and use it ourselves. "The acidity of Muck," he says, "is often so great, that stones taken from boggy land have every trace of matter that acid can attack, dissolved; in a piece of granite, for instance, the mica and feldspar, have disappeared, and there will only be left a silicious skeleton of a stone!" This shows us the wonderful provision in Nature to attain certain ends, the proper formation of soil suitable to the growth of plants. These immense swamps, composed nearly wholly of vegetable matter, are in themselves wholly unfit for the general growth of plants, through the lack of mineral agency, and a wise provision by acids for the decomposition of all such minerals as form the constituents of soil. But to suppose that these acids, which are deleterious, exist in muck after becoming subjected to the action of the atmosphere by freezing, is purely absurd. These acids are thrown off as soon as the muck is once thoroughly frozen, thawed, and become partially dry. A chemical action at once takes place, the acids are transformed, and the carbonaceous matter becomes the recipient, attractor, and absorber of carbonic acid and ammonia; this carbonic acid, when ingrediated with poor soils, enters water and dissolves mineral substances, and the ammonia this muck contains, becomes absorbed by the common earth. This muck also darkens the ground, therefore attracts heat, and increases its power of absorbing atmospheric gases. Being also decomposed with the partial exclusion of the air, much of its real carbon remains to serve the purpose of charcoal, and "sulphuret of iron" compounds are not generated (quite immaterial if it was, if the muck be subjected to the action of atmospheric or an alkaline influence in the form of potash, etc.)

WE do not intend to dispute the authority of "Dr. Thomas Anderson, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Glasgow!" of the possibility of the protoxide of iron being formed by the decomposition of vegetable matter "without access of air;" neither did we claim any superiority for muck on any such ground; but we do still claim, as before stated, that vegetable matter in swamps is decomposed with the "partial" exclusion of air, and consequently a greater portion of its carbon remains in the exact condition to answer the purpose of charcoal. Now it is well known, that when oxide of iron exists, it is usually in the form of the peroxide, and that it sometimes exists in the form of protoxide, which is poisonous to plants, and renders soil unfertile. This latter (protoxide) is sometimes detected in common soils; but will Dr. Anderson, or any other Dr., affirm that, if such soil be thoroughly plowed and worked in such a manner as to freely admit air and water, that this compound will not take up more oxygen, and so render this protoxide a peroxide, and thus make it available for plants? Dr. Anderson would preach no such silly nonsense! Suppose sulphuret of iron compounds are found in green muck just dug from swamps, did Dr. Anderson or that "other Dr." ever discover their presence there after a winter's frost had acted upon it? or when such alkalies as potash, soda ash, or white ash, or strong wood ashes were used in its preparation? Never! Then if this " protoxide," or its possible production, "suphuret of iron," only exists where no air is found, of what consequence is its poison to plants which only grow where air is? Is not Mr. Bright endeavoring to frighten the readers of this Journal out of the use of the best natural vegetable fertilizer found on this great Continent by a mere "Will o' the Wisp" argument? Dr. Anderson would tell Mr. Bright that swamp muck, aerated, and properly incorporated with such alkalies as previously named, is not second to the best of cow manure, and in the place of its being a sour, poisonous destroyer of plants, is superior to any "special fertilizer" ever concocted by "Bright" or any body else.

But what of Charcoal? What says "Prof. Lindley, of the London Gardener's Chronicle, the most distinguished vegetable physiologist of the age?" With all due respect to Dr. Lindley as a vegetable physiologist, yet, if he was put to form grape vine borders, and required to produce a crop of grapes, he would turn out in the end just as our poor penitent friend Bright has, a miserable failure!

The readers of this Journal would naturally suppose, by Mr. Bright's quoting the authority of Dr. Lindley on charcoal, that the Professor had direct reference to vine border making; but, instead of this, we find he is talking about "Iron clads" in the dock-yard at Cherbourg! M. Lapparul, Inspector General of Timber, with a view to the preservation of ships from decay, has adopted a process consisting simply in directing a powerful jet of gas on the wood, so as to penetrate every crevice; the charring being sometimes facilitated by the addition of a very thin coat of tar. So much for charcoal in vine borders, and its evil tendency based on the opinion of Prof. Lindley! Dr. Lindley, however, is of opinion that charring ship timber will not prevent "dry rot," and this is the gist of the whole subject. Dry rot is, of course, a species of fungous growth, and we are of opinion, with Prof. Lindley, that charring will not prevent this growth of Fungi when already in dry timber or charred matter, or charcoal when immediately under the action of atmospheric influences. But we deny in toto that such Fungi growth will ever be produced on a piece of charcoal under ground in a vine border! Nor in swamp muck, nor in decomposed leaf-mould!*

*Perhaps one of the greatest of earthly blessings to a farmer working a poor piece of soil, would be to find it literally covered some morning in the early spring with "toad-stools;" and if he was a man of ordinary ingenuity, he would embrace the precious opportunity of "plowing under" such a splendid green crop of the cryptogamia. The richest pasture lands of England are white over with Agaricus campestris and Morchell esculenta; and when Tuber cibareum is dug from the roots of Oaks and Beeches, no person ever found their roots rotten by the action of Fungi growth!

"Old Oaks, dating at least from the time of King John," says the Doctor, "which have never shown a trace of Fungus, except such species as affect the bark and not the wood, if accidentally burnt, produce on the charred surface an abundant crop of the very Fungi which occur in such profusion in our dock-yards on badly seasoned timber." Of course; and who is there, having any pretensions to horticulture, who is supposed to be a close observer of Nature's never-deviating laws, that is so ignorant as not to be cognizant of this fact? Is a piece of hard burnt charcoal prepared earthy matter containing the organic and inorganic food of plants? Is the living wood of the oaks in question affected by this Fungi? Not at all, but the moment death takes place, that moment inevitable law by degrees decomposes its hardened tissue, and compels it to return from whence it came, and be once more the proper food of plants! All charred matter, if left under the full influence of the air, undergoes a similar state of fungoid or chemical decomposition. It is immaterial to this "Divine law" whether the subject it acts upon be a piece of rotting stick, charred stick, iron-clads, or the adamantine rock! The Doctor admits, as all do who know any thing about the properties of charcoal, its great antiseptic power, and refers back to Caesar to show, from his writings, that stakes were charred at their ends to preserve them from rotting in the soil, and also speaks of the advantage derived by charring the ends of gate-posts. To suppose that charcoal or DECOMPOSED leaf-mould, placed in the soil, will produce a fungus growth deleterious to healthy vegetation, is too absurd to reason upon, and to endeavor to clap on the shoulders of Prof. Lindley the "authority " of such an opinion is a base calumny and a vile slander, if the Professor is not a practical gardener, he is an excellent botanist, and a sound vegetable physiologist, possessed of too much common sense to write or advocate such trashy nonsense as Mr. Bright would willingly impute to him. I trust that this calumny will never get to his eyes or ears.

If Mr. Bright should ask Dr. Lindley for his opinion of the use of charcoal in the soil, (vine borders,) he could refer him to thousands of instances of it as an effective fertilizer, and especially to those plants grown under glass. Heaths, Rhododendrons, Cucumbers, and Melons, Onions, Roses, Orchidaceous plants, Camellias, Hydrangeas, Pineapples, and a host of other plants, have been the subjects of extensive and successful experiments; and we will vouch our word for it, that Dr. Lindley would toil friend Bright that charcoal may, with decided advantage, be applied to almost every known plant in cultivation. He would tell him that carbonic acid applied to the roots of plants renders them more luxuriant and productive than other plants to whose roots no such application is made. He would tell him that charcoal "in" the soil kept moist, slowly combines with oxygen, and emits carbonic acid, and he would also tell him that decomposed leaf-mould and prepared swamp muck will do the same, and on which principally depends the solubility of mineral substances. Now is it any wonder that a man like friend Bright, who ignores (very recently) charcoal, leaf-mould, and muck, should utterly fail in the culture of the vine? We can tell him from practical knowledge of over thirty years' toil and study, that he nor any other living man will ever permanently and successfully grow crops of grapes without bounteous supplies of rich carbonaceous food; for, without it your salts and your silicates, and all the other jumbles of compounded minerals, will be no better in or on your borders than so much insoluble flint!

Here we have presented some of the "theory” of muck, leaf-mould, and charcoal, by which we do not expect to wholly reclaim friend Bright from his past errors, but hope and trust it may have some influence on his future action; and if his heart is so hard, and his stubbornness so great, that he won't swallow this cup of common sense, and will not “honestly imbibe the wormwood," he should be at least "magnanimous," and not lead others into errors that will involve them in utter ruin. As to our "owning up," we think we have done so honestly; but to place our own individuality "with us"—O good gracious! This reminds us of the fox who got his tail chopped off in a trap, and persuaded all his brothers to cut off theirs! it looked so much better to be all alike! But this "fox" don't see it

In closing this subject, we respectfully invite our poor brother, the "Pilgrim now in the pillory," to take another annual trip and see "Fox Meadow;" it will do his poor desponding heart good, we know, to look at our vines, hard forced for seven years, with thousands of Hamburgh leaves measuring over twelve inches across, and bunches of fruit in proportionate size, growing in MUCK and SAND, mulched with a foot of rotten leaves! We also extend the invitation to all those faint hearted amateurs who have been led to doubt the practical use of a good rich carbonaceous soil by the cloud of smoke thrown over their mental vision from that luminous and "Bright" propounder of poisonous fungated Leaf-mould.

[Since this controversy has been under way, we have received a number of letters from parties not yet "deeply founded in the faith," asking whether there is any danger in using muck, &c., and whether they must continue to follow the advice that we have long and persistently given them. This makes it necessary for us to say again, without reference to either side of this controversy, that there is no one thing of greater value to all who grow plants, than carbonaceous matter in some of its forms. We never advise the use of a thing unless we know it to be good; and we do not believe that, among all the readers of the HORTICULTURIST, there is a single one who, having faithfully followed our advice, has had cause to regret it. Let the doubting, therefore, and those of little faith, be reassured, and go straight on in the "carbonaceous" path that we have marked out for them, while Fox Meadow and Mr. Bright discuss the merits of leaf-mould and muck.—ED.]