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poor man’s fertilizer

We got about a foot of snow last night. The calendar may say that spring is here, but in Montana, spring usually means June. We had the worst snowfall of the year on June 20 a few years ago (if you watched Frontier House on PBS, it was the year they were filming in Montana). Even after ten years living here, I haven’t quite learned to plant later rather than sooner, and the nurseries have often reaped the benefit of me having to buy a second batch of bedding plants.

I remembered that there was something in one of the Little House books about plowing under snow and it being called “poor man’s fertilizer.” Was it a spring snow? Fall snow? I couldn’t remember (sad, but true). I found one reference in Farmer Boy (Chapter 22, “Fall of the Year”):

That night Father said they’d seen the last of Indian summer. “It will snow tonight,” he said. Sure enough, when Almanzo woke the next morning the light had a snowy look, and from the window he saw the ground and barn roof white with snow.

Father was pleased. The soft snow was six inches deep, but the ground was not yet frozen.

“Poor man’s fertilizer,” Father called such a snow, and he set Royal to plowing it into all the fields. It carried something from the air into the ground, that would make the crops grow.

Most of the references to “poor man’s fertilizer” that I’ve been able to find refer to spring snow being plowed into the soil, not fall snow. But it turns out that both are beneficial. Snow contains Nitrogen and a bit of Phosphorus (even more so since the 1800s due to acid rain), plus traces of other elements. If you’ve ever bought commercial fertilizer, you know that there’s going to be a N-P-K ratio posted on the container or bag somewhere. N= Nitrogen, P= Phosphorus, K= Potassium. Simply put: Nitrogen is for greening, Phosphorus is for root growth, and Potassium is for flowering.

Plowing snow under in the fall also helps improve the tilth of the soil. Good soil is composed of particles surrounded by air. That’s also what snow is when it’s lying on the ground. So plowing snow under before the ground freezes adds both moisture and air to the soil, and it brings the nutrients found in the snow crystals themselves. Add a few freeze/thaw cycles before hard winter sets in, and you’re moving the moisture and nutrients deeper into the ground, plus they go to work to break up clods of soil into finer pieces.

The following is from a spring 1877 Journal of Chemistry:

Fertilizing Effects of Snow. Snow is often called the “poor man’s manure,” and if it is true that it has any manurial value, the farmer’s prospects for the next season are certainly flattering. The body of snow upon the ground in all the Northern and Middle States is very great, and millions of acres of land are covered with it, as with a blanket of the whitest wool. It is probable that seldom, perhaps never, has so wide an area of our country been covered as during this month of January 1877. The question whether snow is capable of affording to lands any of the elements of fertility is one often asked, and in reply it may be said that it probably is. The atmosphere holds ammonia and some other nitrogenous products, which are undoubtedly brought to the soil by snowflakes, as well as by rain drops. Experiments both here and abroad would seem to prove the truth of this conclusion. Rains are not only valuable for the moisture which they supply, but for what they bring to us from the atmosphere. During a thunder storm nitric acid is produced in considerable quantities, and, dissolved in the rain drops to a high degree of attenuation, its effect upon soils are highly salutary.


poor man’s fertilizer (FB 24)