Lee Valley Tools    Gardening Newsletter
   Vol. 5, Issue 3
   June 2010
   History of Fertilizer

Once upon a time, at least when I was a child and budding gardener, no one considered going down to the local garden center to pick up fertilizer in a brightly colored pail or plastic bag covered with images of gorgeous flowers or luscious vegetables. There was no garden center, and most fertilizers produced back then were for agricultural purposes, rather than for the garden.

Most gardeners used compost, manure, or blood and bone meal to provide the three major nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Blood meal provided nitrogen to promote vegetative growth, while the phosphorus in the bone meal stimulated rooting and blooming. As for potassium, the third major component required by plants for healthy growth, there was always wood ash.

Plants in a natural environment don't require feeding, having adapted to their conditions, but when plants are grown intensively, as in a garden or for agricultural purposes, soil is quickly depleted of nutrients that must be replaced. This has been known ever since plants were first cultivated, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. If you were fortunate enough in those days to live on the Nile delta or along the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, you could rely on silt deposits from flooding rivers to maintain soil productivity, but otherwise, farmers and gardeners in ancient times had to find other ways to feed their soil.

The use of green manure crops, particularly legumes, was mentioned by early Greek writers. Spreading manure or town sewage on the land was (and still is) commonly carried out. Plant ashes were also used to enrich the soil. Farmers in those times knew these things worked, but not why.

Around the 16th century, chemists began to develop an understanding of plant growth. A German chemist, Johann Glauder, put himself at great personal risk collecting saltpeter (potassium nitrate) from beneath cattle pens. He determined that it came from the animal waste, and since what came out of the cow at one end was directly related to what went in at the other, the connection was made. After treating his garden with saltpeter, Glauder observed large increases in the growth of his plants.

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