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Pat Munts: Old book reveals gardening tricks time forgot

A friend recently gave me an old gardening book titled “10,000 Garden Questions Answered by 20 Experts.” It was originally published in 1944; the copy I have was issued in 1959.

I collect garden books from the 1930s-1950s to learn about old techniques and tricks as the era of labor intensive but more organic gardening methods was replaced by “modern” chemicals and fertilizers. One legend has it that one of the reasons ammonium nitrate became so common on farms after World War II was because the war production factories that produced it as an explosive had to find somewhere to send their production.

I like perusing these old books for gardening methods that were popular and effective in their day, but that we have forgotten. They just weren’t passed down when the “easier” methods came along.

The book is a good 2 ½ inches thick. It has a few line drawings but no pages of pictures. Just page after page of questions and answers. It didn’t take me long to have a couple of dozen questions flagged as interesting.

There were several questions about alternatives to tall-growing lawn grasses. One of the alternatives suggested was white Dutch clover. Nowadays, most lawn gardeners try very hard to get rid of clover because it doesn’t fit their concept of the perfect lawn. Never mind it adds nitrogen to the soil. At my house the deer keep the clover in the lawn nicely clipped for me.

There was another question about which nut trees would grow in Spokane. Black walnut and hardy filbert were mentioned, and the writer went on to say that English walnuts don’t survive here. That’s no longer true. Nut breeders have introduced several hardy varieties of English walnut in the past 20 years. The problem isn’t getting the trees to survive; it’s beating the squirrels to the nuts.

Back in the era of the book, coal was still a common heating fuel and there were several questions about using coal clinkers as a soil amendment. Clinkers are basically carbon with all the volatile gasses burned off. I don’t know what to think about this one except that in permaculture, wood carbonized in a slow-burning fire (biochar) is considered an important soil amendment that can improve water quality, reduce soil emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce nutrient leaching.

Lastly, there was some really scary information, including several references to using lead arsenate as an insecticide and hydrocyanic gas as a fumigant in greenhouses. Do I need to explain this?

We now treat lead and arsenic as very toxic substances.

Hydrocyanic gas was one of components used in the gas chambers of World War II. The book noted that it was “a most deadly poison” that should only be used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. No kidding.