By Linda Holliday
Although the language is sometimes cumbersome, I still enjoy old books for learning homesteading skills. A favorite is the “1881 Household Cyclopedia of General Information.” This weekend I took time while it was raining to learn more about composting.
Forty years ago, my mother sent us kids out every night to bury the day’s kitchen scraps – potato peelings, cherry pits, carrot tops, pea pods and whatnot in the garden. And, from all the wild game we ate, we always had inedible animal skins, bones and innards to get rid of. From our farmer neighbor, we had all the Holstein manure we could fork.
It grossed me out as a kid to put all that stuff in the garden, especially animal guts, but Mom knew what she was doing. Our garden imitated nature – and it really was the most bountiful around.
The 1881 Cyclopedia confirms Mom’s techniques. Best of all, the book was written decades before chemicals became available. By comparison, a 1940 high school geography book, “The Earth and Its People,” celebrates the introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for making land productive.
According to the 1940 text, “By practicing more intensive cultivation, by using greater quantities of fertilizers and by taking advantage of scientific discoveries, the production per acre of the leading food crops of the United States can be increased greatly.”
I’d rather read the 1881 cyclopedia. I guess my mother would, too. Mom started gardening in the 1950s, but instead of dangerous chemicals, she relied on old-time supplements – compost and cow manure.
Although the 813-page book was published in 1881, it contains examples of farming procedures in use well before the Civil War. Compiled of 10,000 submissions by everyday folks and farmers, the cyclopedia explains the fundamentals of plant structure and why good soil was vital for a prosperous harvest, and likely meant having enough food for winter.
Only a lazy farmer was not persistently improving his soil. To abuse the earth meant having lousy crops and vegetables. The best natural soils are made up of decomposed materials, not of one stratum or layer, but of many divided minutely by air and water and blended together.
“In improving soils by artificial additions,” the book states, “the farmer cannot do better than imitate the processes of nature.”
The old book applies the term “manure” indiscriminately to all substances known from experience either to enrich the soil or contribute in another way to render it more favorable to vegetation. “In an agricultural point of view, the subject of manures is of the first magnitude.”
The book also points out that healing unhealthy soil is similar to healing a body.
“To correct what is hurtful to vegetation in the different soils, and to restore what is lost by exhausting crops, are operations in agriculture which may be compared to the curing of diseases in the animal body.”
The book contains about 80 topics ranging from agriculture to wine-making. Below are portions of the section on composting and manure, which “may be regarded as scientifically sustained, as well as confirmed by practical experience”:
1. Fresh human urine yields nitrogen in greater abundance to vegetation than any other material of easy acquisition. The urine of animals is valuable for the same purpose, but not equally so. Still, none should left to waste on the barn floor.
2. The mixed excrements of man and animals yield (if carefully preserved from further decomposition), not only nitrogen, but other invaluable saline and earthy matters that have been already extracted in food from the soil.
NOTE: A Mother Earth News article by Elizabeth Allyn in 1972 details how to use composted human excrement. “We rake the privy’s contents down the slope, cover the peaks with the rest, and sprinkle it all again with ashes and earth,” Allyn writes. “About once a year we load the plateau of compost on the spreader and take it out to the fields or haul it by cart to the garden where it’s used as top dressing. It’s only work … the material smells like sweet earth.”
3. Animal substances such as urine, flesh, and blood decompose rapidly and are fit to operate immediately and powerfully on vegetation.
4. Dry animal substances (horn, hair, or woolen rags) decompose slowly and (weight for weight) contain a greater quantity of organized as well as unorganized materials. Their influence may be manifested for several seasons.
5. Finely crushed bones, acting like horns in so far as their animal matter is concerned, may ameliorate the soil by their earthy matter for a long period (even if the jelly they contain has been injuriously removed by the size maker), permanently improving the soil condition and adding to the natural capabilities of the land.
Using livestock manures
“Dung is the mother of good crops,” the book states, adding that the best plan for cheaply and easily gathering a large quantity to improve clay soil is to feed grass to livestock during summer.
Livestock manure varies in sustenance according to animals’ diets. Do not let early season weeds go to waste as they emerge in fencerows or alongside buildings. Cut the nutritious weeds before they go to seed and feed them to your animals.
“In a word, the dung of animals fed upon green clover, may justly be reckoned the richest of all dung,” the book states. “It may, from the circumstances of the season, be rapidly prepared, and may be applied to the ground at a very early period, much earlier than any other sort of dung can be used with advantage.”
Feeding livestock in the barn or farmyard is eminently calculated to increase the abundance and quality of manure on every farm. Where farm labor was available in the mid-1800s, feeding horses in summer on green clover and ryegrass was a common practice in grain districts to gather manure.
“The utility of the practice does not need the support of argument, for it is not only economical to the farmer, but saves much fatigue to the poor animal; besides, the quantity of dung thereby gathered is considerable.”
Keep your water clean
Management and position of the manure pile is also important to obtain the best quality compost in shortest amount of time and prevent contamination of water sources.
“When driven out of the fold-yard, the dung should be laid up in a regular heap or pile not exceeding six quarters, or four feet and a half in height; and care should be taken not to put either horse or cart upon it, which is easily avoided by backing the cart to the pile, and laying the dung compactly together with a grape or fork.”
In other words, don’t crush the manure heap. Cover the outside edges of the manure pile with soil to retain moisture and prevent the wind and sun from diminishing nutrients. Some dirt scattered on the top also aids decomposition.
“Dung, when managed in this manner, generally ferments very rapidly; but if it is discovered to be in a backward state, a complete turn over about the 1st of May when the weather becomes warm will quicken the process.” The better the manure is “shaken asunder,” the sooner it will become usable compost.
Locate the pile in a secluded area not exposed to wind or where water stands after rain. The pile should be downhill from and at least 100 feet from water sources to keep from polluting a freshwater well or spring.
The manure pile can be started in the garden or field to save time later. It is also handy to have the pile near the homestead.
“There it is always under the farmer’s eye, and a greater quantity can be moved in a shorter time than when the situation is more distant. Besides, in wet weather (and this is generally the time chosen for such an operation), the roads are not only cut up by driving to a distance, but the field on which the heap is made may be poached and injured considerably.”
To learn more
This 1972 Mother Earth News article explains how to build an outhouse and compost the excrement.
To learn more old-time homesteading skills, a free online version of the 1881 Household Cyclopedia is available here. The book contains 262 drawings by Dr. Henry Hartshorne. Or, for more pictures, see our blog.
The most comprehensive modern instruction on gardening and composting that we have viewed is Marjory Wildcraft’s “Grow Your Own Groceries” video series. Among the dozens of other topics, Marjory goes beyond explaining how to use rabbit droppings – she shows how to raise and butcher rabbits, completing the cycle.