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Bones of Contention
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

June 17, 2007

I was blithely surfing through cyberspace the other day when I tumbled headlong into an unsettling discussion triggered by a gardener posting the question: Is there a risk of contracting mad cow disease through handling bone meal?

Normally I wouldn’t pay attention to a question of this calibre, but I’ve been handling bone meal quite liberally of late and, yes, preliminary indications of mental imbalance are not entirely out of the question.

Plus the cyberchat ensuing on the topic had a compelling logic to it. Untold thousands of cows have been recently slaughtered in Britain, their bones undoubtedly being rendered down and retailed to innocent gardeners at more per pound than sirloin steak. And what substantive proof do any of us have that our bone meal did not in fact originate in a mad British cow?

I really dislike this sort of speculation because it makes one think about things and that’s seldom a good idea. Bone meal is such a gratifyingly granular substance, warm as white sand on a tropical beach, as benignly organic as camomile tea. But perhaps it’s only the “meal” bit that soothes our sensibilities, reminding us of sleepy Sunday dinners with the family. If they called it “ground bones,” for example, would we be as complacent? Or would we shrink back in revulsion from intimations of mortality, of skeletons and grave robbers and other Dickensian scoundrels whispering in the dark corners of foul bone yards.

I for one am not interested in meditating on the pulverized skeletons of mad cows when I’m sprinkling a cup of bone meal under the tulip bulbs. I’d rather consider its great calcium content, of how it almost glows with phosphorous, so essential for good root formation and vigorous new growth.

We used to use blood meal in the garden too, until I made the mistake of thinking about it. Whose blood exactly are we talking about? I asked myself. How spilled and how caught? All I wanted was a little organic nitrogen, thank you very much; instead I found myself assailed by vile images of screaming beasts being driven into a blood-spattered abattoir.

After such a vision no amount of rationalizing could restore blood meal’s former allure. I tried to convince myself how preferable it is that the blood at least be put to good use, not flushed down a polluting gutter, but this didn’t help. Horribly, every bloody plant began resembling love-lies-bleeding.

Same thing happened when I let myself think about peat moss. Gardening as we do on sieve-like sand, I’d come to love peat moss, its miraculous moisture retentiveness, the marvellous compactedness of its big white plastic bales. I began, harmlessly enough, thinking of my Celtic forebears gathered around a warm peat fire in a picturesque thatched cottage, singing Gaelic tunes while gnawing on potatoes. But, once started, thinking’s hard to stop and pretty soon I’d hopped from Riverdance to thinking about the poor helpless bogs from which moss is being ripped, and at what rate it’s being ripped, to stuff all those plastic bales down at the Home Depot. Our enthusiasm for peat moss plummeted faster than the loonie.

No, I strongly advise against too much thinking on these matters. We’ve never used feather meal, for example, but if we did, I wouldn’t dwell at all upon whose feathers are involved or how they were extracted or what became of the featherless birds.

We do use kelp meal for adding potassium and trace elements, and there’s a mighty temptation while using it to picture hearty maritimers striding windswept beaches to gather gleaming kelp amid the cries of gulls and thunder of surf. But I resist this temptation, as I do temptations of the flesh or the devil, because one thought would lead to another, and who knows what illicit goings-on might be found clinging like crabs to kelp?

Mad cows, hollowed-out peat bogs, naked chickens -- I tell you no good will come from dwelling on any of them. And on the bone meal bit, just take my word for it: you can handle it for years, fondle it if you want to, as I do, without any mental side effects at all.


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