View Full Version : the time before synthetics...

09-04-2003, 10:00 PM
This subject keeps rolling through my head...

So ok it's 2003 and lawn fertilizer, pesticides, etc etc are used in large quantities all over the world.

Suppose its 1850....

What did they use to fertilize?
There was no Scotts or Lesco.
Did the rich folk have beautiful lawns? Probably.
How did they maintain them and fertilize and kill weeds.
They couldnt head over to Home Depot and pick up a bag of scotts turf builder plus, right?
Organic was the only choice.

Obviously there were no ZTR's or string trimmers. How did they cut thier lawns? maybe they didnt care about having 'the perfect lawn'

Any thoughts on this?

09-04-2003, 10:30 PM
Excellent observation - plants have been growing just fine for millions of years with no help from people and their poison chemicals. And people have been growing all kinds of plants with organic techniques for thousands of years.

Actually, though, as far as lawns go, the whole trip of having lawns doesn't really go back all that far. But I'm sure there have always been people with nice lawns of some type - even hundreds of years ago.

There is a peculiar arrogance about modern humans. We tend to think that everything has always been like it is now. As I get older I find it more and more interesting to realize that it was only a few generations ago that electricity was invented. Only a few generations ago that cars and planes and trains were invented. When we are kids in school studying history it all seems like it was millions of years ago (and its all boring). People have been here for a long long time and we used to learn from nature.

We seem to have some great reverence for "science" but none for nature. We take it for granted that everything about our modern civilization is just great.

Yes organic techniques have been practiced for thousands of years. One of the coolest books I have recently acquired is a classic of organic literature - Farmers of Forty Centuries - by F.H. King. Published in 1911, subtitled Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. It has been reprinted but is now out of print - check out Amazon.com or Bookfinder.com and you can get a copy pretty cheap. An amazing and indepth study of primitive agriculture. Modern agriculture has yet to compare with the yields these people got with their intensive methods.

As for lawns and the lawn care industry, there is a very cool book published by the Smithsonian called The Lawn - A History of An American Obsession by Virgina Scott Jenkins. This book should be of great interest to anyone in the lawn care industry, especially anyone who is organically oriented or anyone who wonders "how things got this way". Here's a link to it at Amazon -

I'm kind of a book freak so I'll post more info on some other books soon......

09-04-2003, 11:33 PM
Thanks yardmonkey,I like reading in the winter time.
Woodycrest,Good question.Although I don't have the answer on how it was done or what techniques were used I am sure the early railroad barons and such did not have weed infested lawns that looked like a cow patch.Hopefully someone can enlighten us with some history.

09-05-2003, 12:22 AM

I'm guessing.

09-05-2003, 12:56 AM
Rereading the original post, I guess I'm being pretty general and just pointing out with the Farmers of Forty Centuries book that people have used organic techniques for a long time - but that has nothing to do with lawn care.

The Smithsonian book does have a lot of history. How did people mow their lawns? With scythes or with goats. Sometimes weeds were pulled - the rich hired people for that. Later, after the invention of the push reel mower, the lawn became a part of the suburbs. In the early decades of the 1900's, lots of people put manure on their lawns as fertilizer.

But lawns as we know them are a pretty recent thing. Even the turfgrasses are recently developed or imported. It may be that the kinds of lawns many of us maintain have not existed in the past - but that doesn't mean that there are not organic methods to acheive the results that people want to see today.

There is another super-cool book that I strongly recommend to everyone - Redesigning the American Lawn - A Search for Environmental Harmony - by Borman, Balmori, Geballe. This one is published by the Yale University Press. It was originally published in 1991 and the Second Edition was published in 2001. I mention it here because it also has a nice little section on the history of the lawn. (which starts by pointing out that the lawn is not a universal part of human experience - it is a development of western civilization).

Now if you are really interested in organic lawn care, this is one book you need to get. It makes the case for organic lawn care, explaining the problems with chemical fertilziers and pesticides, etc. Describes the difference between the "Industrial Lawn" and the "Freedom Lawn" and points out that there is plenty of room in between the extremes.
Here is an Amazon link for more info:
(note that you can get used books cheap at amazon)

09-05-2003, 01:49 AM
.....The Lawn - A History of An American Obsession by Virgina Scott Jenkins. This book should be of great interest to anyone in the lawn care industry, especially anyone who is organically oriented or anyone who wonders "how things got this way". You can read excerpts of this book on Amazon.

First sentence of book: "The domestic front lawn is a typically American landscape feature." For a simple history of how lawns came about here, see <a href="http://www.lawnsite.com/showthread.php?s=&threadid=29935">Why grass? Why mow it?</a>. And I traveled in Europe in the late 1950s; they had lawns there too, back then, anyhow.

Golf started out in the 15th century in Scotland. Do you think they tried it in 2 ft high grasses? Many turf based sports started out in the defensive turf areas outside the fort or castle walls when there was a lull in combatative times.

On page 10, "Lawns were new to most Americans in the nineteenth century." But on page 11, "By the 1640s, a regular market in grass seed existed in New England's..." Are we trying to contradict ourselves?

Sounds like this author has an agenda, and is writing her history to match that agenda. Such is not real history. Yes this may be a good book for someone with negative feelings toward current lawn care practices, but don't look at it as history.

And the book is obviously written to support someone's negative opinions. Usually this type of person shoots themselves in the foot somewhere down the road. This author does it in her first sentence. Hope this forum will be more than a place for tree huggers to slap themselves on the back. There are plenty of other forums on the 'net for that. It's Ok if you started organics because of negative feelings, but let's try to chill the negatives on both sides, and let everyone learn something positive.

Dave is great for pushing this idea, and I will question him and others a lot. Hope my questions don't seem negative - I don't think they would to anyone licensed and experienced in lawn care. Learning comes from questions, not from nodding or shouting agreement.

09-05-2003, 07:17 AM
Intensive turf management practices can be traced back to monks operating a vineyard in France in the middle 1600's. Thet invented the first insecticide, based upon tobacco juice and arsenic.
Most of the early forms of particularly colonial bentgrass and some varieties of creeping bentgrass where introduced into the US around 1750 or so.
Actually, having turfgrass maintained nicely infront of your house, castle, domicile, etc, was considered a sign of wealth and civility.
Initially, turf was grazed by animals, then hand shears, then somewhere in the mid 1800's, the first push reel mower was released. Interestingly enough, the mercury based fungicides came from this era, as did the lead arsenates. There was no way to monitor build up of these materials in soil and it was falsely presumed that if you can't see it, there is no problem.
Additionally, mesophillic processes where first used in processing the manure mixes that occurred from the agrarian society. Composting has been around for awhile.

09-05-2003, 11:04 AM
...Yikes! I should probably just ignore that...no, you really should apologize....

OK OK, I'm sorry for my extremely negative post. I will try to have positive feelings from now on, not only for the "treehuggers" and their wacky ideas but also for the millions of tons of toxic chemicals dumped on American lawns. And I will try to refrain from recommending crazy books full of lies published by fly-by-night vanity publishers such as the Smithsonian Institute and Yale University. Please don't read the books I mentioned - no one could learn anything positive from such garbage.

09-05-2003, 11:45 AM
I wonder if any of the famous palace gardens of Europe had any counterparts in Asia?

A1 Grass
09-05-2003, 01:38 PM
Originally posted by yardmonkey
...Yikes! I should probably just ignore that...no, you really should apologize....

I will try to refrain from recommending crazy books full of lies published by fly-by-night vanity publishers such as the Smithsonian Institute and Yale University. Please don't read the books I mentioned - no one could learn anything positive from such garbage.

Shame on you! (heh heh heh)

Oh yeah, I just ordered the book! Thanks for the link.

Enjoy Life Ronnie
09-05-2003, 02:48 PM
My grandmother would never let a sprig of grass grow in her yard. Some yards 50 years ago were for flowers and white picket fences only. Oh... and a porch swing. And fireflies. I miss the good old days even realizing that they were mostly in my mind. LOL

09-09-2003, 08:15 AM

THanks for the historical information, its interesting that turf management goes back to the 1600s.
Was the bent grass you mentioned used on lawns? It seems bent grass is used almost exclusivley on golf greens nowadays, yet it is considered a weed on a regular lawn.

I wonder how the quality and appearance of the turf at a castle in the 1800s would compare to todays manicured lawns?

Another thing i find interesting is the the use of reel mowers is mostly on golf courses in North America, but in the UK it seems reel mowers use is more widespread. I have done numerous seaches alot of the sites abuot reel mowers are in the UK and they seem to be advertised for the general public. Any idea why they are not used more here? They do require a little more precise maintenance and adjustment than a rotary mower, but i think the actual time spent on adjustments and maintenance is about the same. Although reel sharpening costs alot more than rotary blades.

dan deutekom
09-09-2003, 06:30 PM
Ever hit pinecones, sticks or other misc. stuff that lands on american lawns with a reel mower. They are nothing but an expesive pain.

09-10-2003, 07:10 AM
Turf back then was a compendium of things. I am aware that croquet and cricket were responsible for important advances in turf. Then, as golf gained in popularity, it to had an impact upon species/varital improvements.
I really can't answer to well how a castle grounds would compare to today's lawns.
My estimation would be probably better.
The reason reel mowers are used in the UK more than here is that rotaries are considered more dangerous/commercial equipment. The turf areas maintained by reel mowers are typically smaller than here in the US. Once a single reel system is set up, the reel should hardly ever require grinding. The bedknife is what requires attention more frequently.
With regards to hitting debris with a reel mower, yep sure have. Even hit a ground hog once.
To return to the organic aspect, a properly set up reel mower is the least stressful on turf. I have seen plently of ground powered reel mowers but not a rotary

09-10-2003, 07:45 AM
A groundhog???....a live one?? That must have been a mess.

THanks for mentioning about the less stress on the turf, that was actually the point of my post, but i got a little off topic...

dan deutekom
09-10-2003, 07:35 PM
That's because a reel mower actually cuts..not chop

Mike Bradbury
09-14-2003, 12:23 AM
came into being during/after WWII. Ammonium nitrate was an ingredient in explosives and was produced in vast quantites. We know it now as the nitrogen source in fertilizer. It would often be stored in large piles around the grounds of the manufacturing facility. People noticed extreme plant growth around the piles. When the war ended there was much excess A.N around and nothing to do with it. To say nothing of the production facility and all the workers now out of a job. So, noting the plant growth, they gave it away to farmers and other growers to experiment with. Boom, the chemical fertilizer industry was born................
And that is how Timothy McVey wrecked his havoc........:angry:

Green in Idaho
09-14-2003, 09:49 PM
And most commercial pesticides came into use because of WWI & II due to the extensive research of nerve gas, and other chemical and biological agents.

Aint war great... for advancing civilization? :confused:

09-15-2003, 07:23 AM
With regards to the last two posts, what are your sources for this information?
Nitrate based fertillizers have been around shortly following Alfred Nobels discovery of collodial materials leading to dynamite. Ammoniun nitrate is not used in the processing of refined, high yield explosives. Slurries, dry/wet shots, low impact - low frequency low explosives for extremely minor displacements is what ammonium nitrates are used for. In it's unrefined, white cyrstallyn state, ammonium nitrate is extremely sensitive.
With regards to the second post, insects are not used at all in empirical tests of NBC material. The respitory system, central nervous system, physical skeleton, all are different. Yes, some NBC material would be effective upon a limited number of pests, yet no where enough for an ancilliary benefit to fund research - base use. One of the largest problems on the battlefield following an NBC event is pest control as most beneficals (birds/rats/some reptiles) are completely removed leaving various orders of insects to hamper decontamination efforts.

Green in Idaho
09-15-2003, 09:27 AM
Are you doubting the information or just want resources to learn more?

Green in Idaho
09-15-2003, 09:50 AM
One for example:

From the fine University of Minnesota

Rest of post is quoted from the above site:

At the beginning of World War II (1940), our insecticide selection was limited to several arsenicals, petroleum oils, nicotine, pyrethrum, rotenone, sulfur, hydrogen cyanide gas, and cryolite. And it was World War II that opened the Chemical Era with the introduction of a totally new concept of insect control chemicals--synthetic organic insecticides, the first of which was DDT.



Organophosphates (OPs) is the currently used generic term that includes all insecticides containing phosphorus. Other names used, but no longer in vogue, are organic phosphates, phosphorus insecticides, nerve gas relatives, and phosphoric acid esters. All organophosphates are derived from one of the phosphorus acids, and as a class are generally the most toxic of all pesticides to vertebrates. Because of the similarity of OP chemical structures to the "nerve gases", their modes of action are also similar. Their insecticidal qualities were observed in Germany during World War II in the study of the extremely toxic OP nerve gases sarin, soman, and tabun. Initially, the discovery was made in search of substitutes for nicotine, which was heavily used as an insecticide but in short supply in Germany.

09-15-2003, 09:55 AM
I really can't say when the horse and cart got lined up with explosives, fertilizers, chemical weapons, and pesticides; however, I was in the Air Force when the information about the Cambodian use of the "Yellow Rain" biological agent was downgraded from classified to unclassified. That was an interesting story as we heard it told.

Yellow rain was the name given to the dust applied in Cambodia to kill soldiers in their tracks. It was released from crop dusters flown overhead and gave the plants an appearance of a yellow dust spots that looked like dried rain drops. The dead were found almost in positions of normal daily life, but dead, apparently instantly from inhalation of the dust. When autopsies were tried, the insides of the victims were found to be liquified. Apparently back in the early USSR days, everyday citizens would die these horrible deaths. After some investigation it was discovered that the byproducts of a fungus were leaving toxic residue on wheat that overwintered in their silos. The toxin would withstand the heat of baking and remain toxic. The project to get rid of the fungus was turned over to their then director of agriculture, Nikita Khrushchev. Mr K apparently recognized the potential value of the fungus as a biological warfare agent and ordered a top secret project to develop the weapon. The weapon remained so secret that we only learned about it after it was deployed in Cambodia (as far as we knew back then). Of course Mr K went on to fame, if not fortune, as the chairman of the communist party in the USSR after Stalin's death.

I just want to acknowledge that the basis for this horrible agent is an organic fungus. We call it aflatoxin and recognize it as a problem with all feed seeds stored under the wrong conditions. Some of my organic cohorts will not use horticultural corn meal on edibles for this reason. They will use feed grade on turf and all inedibles but for fertilizing veggies, herbs, and fruit trees, they suggest grocery store quality (food grade) corn meal. Others in the farming industry have pointed out that there is no difference in how the grains for different uses are stored or sorted out for later use, but my buddies still suggest staying away from the feed grade stuff on their edibles. Like I've said, being organic is like being vegetarian: There are many different shapes and sizes.

Green in Idaho
09-15-2003, 09:57 AM
There is NO doubt that many insecticides work the same way as current warfare biologicals- by attacking the nervous system respiratory system or other vitals of the victim. Read the M

We are basicly using micro biological warfare to kill bugs.

If you can magnify the effective element in the pesticides, you can have an effective anti-human agent.

Read the MSDA (??? letters) data sheets of the pesticides like Sevin, Malathion, and others and compare the symptoms and treatments to those of modern biological agents. They look a lot alike.

Also for history of pesticides

09-15-2003, 11:39 AM
Thanks for the links. I'd like to add a few dates to the list on the second link. I wish I knew if these had prior history. I suspect that some are being rediscovered either in old texts or simply rediscovered by observation and analysis. Not all of these discoveries apply to turf management but some might apply in the future after some more research is done. I guess the point is that a lot has been discovered, or rediscovered, in the past few years.

1970s - Ordinary paper wasps are found to control pest caterpillars including sod and tree web worms, tomato horn worms, tobacco horn worms, and other caterpillars.

1970s - Ordinary mud dauber wasps are found to control black widow, brown recluse, and other spiders.

1970s - Many common wasps are found to be relatively sociable when left alone. In fact they have been known to share living spaces rather well when they are not constantly swatted at.

1980s - Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is discovered to impart a disease to caterpillars that kills them in a few days

1990s - Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israaelenses (Bti), found in a pond in Israel, is discovered to kill mosquito and fungus gnat larvae.

1990s - Compost found to be useful as a source of microbes as well as a fertilizer and mulch.

1990s - Ground seeds, beans, nuts, and legumes are found to be a good source of protein for soil microbes.

1990s - Specific species of nematodes are found to control specific species of insect pests in the soil. These are now called Beneficial Nematodes to distinguish them from root knot nematodes and other nematode pests.

late 1990s - corn meal found to attract Trichoderma species of fungus to kill most turf disease fungi.

2000s - Seaweed and molasses appear to deter spider mites in the garden when used as a diluted foliar spray every 2 weeks.

2000s - Diluted seaweed foliar sprays seems to impart a few degrees of cold hardiness to shrubs and trees when used regularly over a season.

2000s - Diluted molasses foliar sprays found to encourage/stimulate water-saving micorrhizal fungus growth in no-till cotton when used four times per season.

2000s - Compost found to be controllable as to bacterial domination or fungal domination by controlling ingredients.

2000s - Shrubs and trees found to grow better in fungal dominated soil while grasses grow better in bacterial dominated soils.

2000s - Properly prepared compost tea found to be equal in effectiveness (as a microbe source) to compost. Home brewed compost tea typically costs 1,000 times less to cover the same acreage as compost.

2000s - Compost tea found to have plant protective effects when used as a foliar spray.

Mike Bradbury
09-15-2003, 11:55 AM
I can't find the book that I got the fert info from. Used to consider it my bible for beginners. I think I gave it to a neighbor and didn't get it back. Was a paperback, white with green letters on the cover. **** Organic Lawn Care, think it was a Rodale Press book.
Don't know anything about explosives personally so maybe it's not true, can't imagine why anyone would bother making it up though?:dizzy:

09-15-2003, 12:14 PM
The Truman administration set up a huge jobs program following WWII. The National Advisory Council for Aeronautics (NACA and now NASA) was established to employ the aeronautical engineers that were sure to go unemployed after the war. The Army Corps of Engineers was set up to employ the civil engineers who likewise would have gone without after the war. It would not surprise me at all if a jobs program was made in the explosives industry to convert to fertilizers, especially when the ingredients are the same. These industries were (and are) considered to be national treasures.

Green in Idaho
09-15-2003, 02:26 PM

This can help you out:

Although ammonia from these {factories}plants was still more expensive to use in fertilizers than some that came from by-products of other reactions, the advent of World War II increased demand and led to still cheaper and more efficient methods.
Qutoed from this site

AND this
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a shortage of naturally occurring, nitrogen-rich fertilisers, such as Chile saltpetre, which prompted the German Chemist Fritz Haber, and others, to look for ways of combining the nitrogen in the air with hydrogen to form ammonia, which is a convenient starting point in the manufacture of fertilisers.This process was also of interest to the German chemical industry as Germany was preparing for World War I and nitrogen compounds were needed for explosives.
From this site

09-19-2003, 11:01 PM
ORANIC AGRICULTURE started in other countries

as SLASH N BURN agriculture, it is very difficult for long-term
success without too high of inputs

i have done organic agriculture but can only be done effectively
under right geo and climatic conditions.

that does not happen much for lawns, so i dont think there is
much of an economic return good enough yet to be cost effective

09-19-2003, 11:56 PM
Originally posted by hustlers
that does not happen much for lawns, so i dont think there is
much of an economic return good enough yet to be cost effective

Cost effective for whom? The client or your drinking water?

UofW recently found 109 out of 110 preschoolers in Seattle had pesticides in their urine.

USGS scientists have found "weed and feed" herbicides in all salmon streams tested in a regional study of Puget Sound waterways.

This is why I'm at this site. I want to reduce how much of these products are applied. Luckily, where I live, people are much more willing to tolerate a few weeds.