I don't know about you, but I sometimes wonder how did people get along without all the modern conveniences? Well, your can learn a lot from reading old gardening books. Below is taken from early 20 century gardener and writer F. F. Rockwell's "Gardening Indoors and Under Glass." Notice that much of what he describes is called organic today.



There are many brands of mixed fertilizers prepared specially for use in the greenhouse or on plants in pots. There is a temptation to use these on account of their convenient compact form, and because they are more agreeable to handle. As a general rule, however, much better results will be obtained by relying on rotted manure.


If you want to use fertilizers at all–and for certain purposes they will be very valuable–I would advise restricting the list to the following pure materials which are not mixed, and which are always uniform; nitrate of soda, cottonseed meal, pure fine ground bone, and wood ashes. (Several of the other chemicals are good, but not so commonly used.)


Ground bone is the most valuable of these. It should be what is known as "fine ground," or bone dust. It induces a strong but firm growth, and can be used safely in the potting soil, supplementing the manure as a source of plant food. From two to three quarts to a bushel of soil is the right amount to use. It should be thoroughly mixed through the soil. It may also be frequently used to advantage as a top dressing on plants that have exhausted the food in their pots, or while developing buds or blooming. Work two or three spoonfuls into the top of the soil. 


Nitrate of soda is the next in importance. It is very strong and must be carefully used, the safest way being to use it as a liquid manure, one or two teaspoonsful dissolved in three gallons of water. If first dissolved in a pint of hot water, and then added to the other, it will be more quickly done. Use a pint or so of this solution in watering. The
results will often be wonderful.



Cottonseed meal may be safely mixed with the soil, like ground bone, but requires some time in which to rot, before the plant can make use of it. 


Wood ashes are also safe, and good to add to the potting soil. They help to make a firm, hard growth, as a result of the potash they furnish. Where plants seem to be making a too rapid, watery growth, wood ashes may be applied to the surface and worked in. 


With a soil prepared as directed in the first part of this chapter, there will be very little need for using any other of the fertilizers, until plants have been shifted into their last pots and have filled them with roots. When this stage is reached the use of liquid manures as described later will frequently be beneficial. If, however, a plant for any reason seems backward, or slower in growth than it should be, an application or two of nitrate of soda will often produce results almost marvelous. Be sure, however, that your troubles are not due to some mistake in temperature, ventilation or watering, before you ascribe them to improper or exhausted soil.


Now, having had the patience to find out something about the conditions under which plants ought to succeed, let us proceed to the more interesting work of actually making them grow.


Grow'em big!


2 Responses to “What did people do for fertilizer 100 years ago?”

  1. Dave Says:

    Good stuff Damon as always. I have never used ash though what about greensand.  Its a slow release potassium, organic, super easy to use,  and relativey inexpensive.  I have never used ash, but I would be concerned about it lowering the pH.  Now that I think about it, maybe it would be a nice product for the acid loving plants like blueberries, etc.
    I understand you are citing from Rockwells book and I agree compost is the best, but it was just a thought.
    Thanks again

  2. Damon Says:

    Yeah, greensand is a part of my organic fertilizer mix. I don't use ash either for the same reasons.

    Check out the Homemade organic fertilizer recipie:


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