New is not always better by Andrew Trott

In the mid 1800’s a London chemist, Henry Bollman Condy, patented a new purple crystalline substance that he had developed, intending it to be used as an antiseptic. This new substance, scientifically known as potassium permanganate, later became more commonly known as Condys Crystals.

When I started gardening 50 years ago there were hardly any chemical fertilisers or sprays available for home gardeners. Gardeners used organic methods to help combat pests and diseases and they paid great attention to the health of their soil. The old saying was “healthy soil, healthy produce”. At that time most gardeners had a small jar of Condy’s Crystals in their garden shed to use as a garden spray. Some people even used Jeyes Fluid to make a garden spray, but I stuck to Condy’s Crystals, which was widely used to ward off pests and diseases in fruit trees, vegetables and roses. It only took one teaspoon of Condy’s Crystals mixed with 5 litres of water to make up the spray, so a jar of the raw Condy’s Crystals lasted a long time. The actual crystals are a purple colour and when diluted with water the mixture is purple, so one had to be careful to try not to get any spray on the house or fences, or to hose it off straight away if you did. At that time Condy’s Crystals was considered to be the “Arnold Schwartzneger” of all sprays. It was used as an all-round spray to control, amongst other things, rust on celery, black spot on fruit trees and roses, leaf curl, powdery mildew, brown rot and bladder plum. As well as spraying the foliage, Condy’s Crystals was sprayed on the ground around the trunks of roses and fruit trees to combat any pathogens that lay dormant in the soil over winter before inhabiting the host rose shrub or fruit tree in spring.

As chemical fertilisers and sprays were slowly introduced, most people, myself included, thought that they probably provided much more efficient properties than we had been used to, so we took to them with a gusto. After a few years it started dawning on some gardeners that these new chemical sprays and fertilisers may not be so healthy for plants and soil after all, or for the natural life in the soil. There seemed to be fewer worms in the soil and the plants did not seem to be as strong as they once were, being unable to fight off diseases on their own without even more chemicals being applied. It was then that I decided to revert back to the more natural ways of gardening, feeding the soil with natural products such as compost, animal manure, blood & bone, sheep pellets and lime and restricting spraying to natural products such as Condy’s Crystals, copper oxychloride, spraying oil and pyrethrum. Each winter I grow a cover crop of blue lupins, which when dug into the soil in spring adds extra nitrogen and humus to the soil, providing an ideal environment for soil life and healthy vegetables. The soil recovered within a couple of years and now it is teeming with healthy worms and microbes. The vegetable garden now produces strong and healthy plants that are able to fight off most pests and diseases on their own, with maybe a little help now and again from natural sprays.