MANNA FROM THE SKY
An old French saying my mother taught me, as I protested against bad weather in spring that kept me from outdoor play, went something like this, "April snow is as good as sheep manure." This holds more than a grain of truth, since spring rains and snows do bring down nitrogen in oxide form from the atmosphere. According to figures collected at various stations throughout the world, the amount brought down may vary from 2 to 8 pounds per acre.
Since fertilizing was a big problem for Old World farmers, they learned to leave their fields rough-plowed (with large clods) in fall, to allow winter rain and snow to enter and penetrate the soil quickly, so this manna from the sky would not be lost.
In home gardens today, rough plowing just for this purpose would not be worth while, since less than an ounce of usable nitrogen per thousand square feet would thus be captured. Most of us throw away more than that much nitrogen in the dust that clings to the empty bag of low-cost, easy-to-use fertilizer.
Nor would a present-day farmer find it profitable to rough plow for this purpose alone. The capture of 2 to 8 pounds of nitrogen per acre would not make much of a dent in the 150 pounds or more per acre he would have to replace after harvesting a 100-bushel corn crop. This does not mean that rough-plowing in fall is obsolete, but today we continue this operation because of other benefits which justify it.
Before modern chemistry came to the rescue, farmers and gardeners had two ways to replace nitrogen consumed by crops. One was to use manures and other animal wastes in amounts as large as could be afforded. I recall, as a boy, walking many blocks to find livery stables and grocery delivery barns where manure was being thrown away and could be had for the hauling. Our own mare, a prodigious "oat burner," could not produce this precious stuff fast enough to maintain our one-acre vegetable garden and home orchard. In the race for this largess I had to compete with half a dozen neighborhood boys. Only our next-door neighbor, the local banker, who kept both a team and a milch cow, was exempt from this competition.
Manure is still valued in many places in the world, as witness the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers and French peasants who accumulate it as a miser amasses gold. In America, the automobile, the growth of
city and surrounding suburban areas and other factors have conspired to make barnyard manure almost unknown to millions of gardeners.