Death Valley and 20-mule-team borax

A 20-mule-team borax wagon on display in Death Valley, California.

I adjusted my goggles over my eyes and hair and started doing laps in the pool at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. The pool is fed by a natural, underground spring, and manages to stay at a cozy 85 degrees, which is pretty refreshing considering the average high temperatures in the area can reach around 120 degrees mid-summer.

But this was winter, and water, at first, isn’t what drew fortune seekers to Death Valley. It was a mineral, borax — one of the most important minerals in the garden and, as you’ll see, in many ways you may not realize.

Harmony Borax Works, as it was called, was the central feature in the opening of Death Valley. When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men who produced 3 tons of borax daily. 

You might recall seeing “20-mule team” borax products? Well, getting the finished product to market from the heart of Death Valley was a difficult task, and an efficient method had to be devised. The Harmony operation became famous through the use of large mule teams and double wagons, which hauled borax the long overland route to Mojave. The romantic image of the “20-mule team” persists to this day and has become the symbol of the borax industry in this country.

Though the Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888 after only five years of production, the value of borax remains. In fact, its value has been known since ancient times.

Explorer Marco Polo brought borax back with him from Mongolia, where it had been used for centuries in the manufacture of stain-resistant porcelain glazes. In modern times, the versatile mineral has been used in the preparation of medicated bandages, antiseptic solutions, cosmetics and enamel.

Borax has been prized as a cleansing agent (a cardboard box of ‘20-Mule Team Borax’ resides in our laundry room). Fishermen cure salmon eggs in it for bait. And did you know that it’s used in the coatings of playing cards and most glazed papers? 

As I did laps in the swimming pool, grateful that the outside temperature didn’t come close to the record 134 degrees F, I thought about the upcoming gardening season. 

Boron is a micronutrient necessary for plant growth. Without adequate boron in the soil, plants may appear healthy but will not flower or fruit. 

Strawberries, for example, are lumpy and deformed. Turnips develop hollow centers and broccoli, hollow stems. Though only tiny amounts are needed for healthy plants, a boron deficiency is the most widespread micronutrient deficiency in the world.

Perhaps now is a good time for a crash course in fertilizers, starting with N-P-K. 

Nitrogen (N)

Nitrogen is what your plants need for lush, sturdy growth and is probably the nutrient most familiar to gardeners. Nitrogen deficiencies cause chlorosis, or yellowing of the leaves. 

Organic nitrogen sources include compost, cottonseed meal, blood meal, feathers, fish meal, various manures and commercially prepared organic fertilizer blends. Too much nitrogen, though, can be bad news.

Indoor and outdoor plants, including lawns, that are overdosed with nitrogen (usually by applying chemicals products such as Miracle Gro and Weed-and-Feed) develop weak, water-filled tissues and stems that break easily during windy conditions. Aphid infestation is another symptom. Nitrogen-boosted plants attract aphids like magnets.


Phosphorus (P)

Phosphorus is critical to photosynthesis, plant maturity, healthy roots and energy transfers within plants. Watch for purple leaves, veins and stems — all indicators of a phosphorus deficiency. For years experts preached that phosphorus was the number one missing element and that you couldn’t add too much phosphorus to your soil. Not true.

In recent years, many local growers, after translating lab results from soil tests, were told to hold back from adding too much phosphorus-heavy material such as fish bone meal. As one cooperative extension agent described our excessive phosphorus situation in Kodiak, “Take a break! Cease and desist!”


Potassium (K)

Potassium helps the manufacture and movement of sugars (food) within plants, which has a direct bearing on a plant’s ability to resist diseases. It also amps up photosynthesis by increasing the amount of chlorophyll in leaves. More chlorophyll means plants can better utilize available light. And if you garden in partial and full shade say, in Monashka Bay, your plants are more apt to thrive in a potassium-rich environment.

Excellent natural sources of potash include wood ashes, greensand (a deep ocean, mineral-rich deposit) and seaweed. 

Next week I’ll cover secondary elements of calcium, magnesium and sulfur; and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, manganese, copper, molybdenum and, finally, boron. Plants may not need large supplies of these nutrients, but the roles they play are essential to growth as those of N, P and K.

In the mid-1930s, an advertising agency tapped into the endless popularity of all things Western by developing the Death Valley Days radio program for sponsorship by the company, now known as Borax Consolidated. 

The radio program paved the way for a long-running television show of the same name. Some 600 episodes of the Borax-sponsored TV show ran from 1952 to 1975. Perhaps you remember it?

Stanley Andrews hosted the Western anthology series until 1965. Future U. S. President Ronald Reagan took over for a couple of years. He was followed  by Robert Taylor and then by Dale Robertson. The show was shot at many historic Western locales, including, of course, in Death Valley, California.


Garden chores

Seeds are in at local stores. Check out previous columns for what seeds to start when. What better way to chase away the winter blues?

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