Creating a Life of Plenty

A Master Class in Gardening: Part 2, Building the Soil Organically


Building the soil

The principles of sustainability have been forgotten over the decades since the industrial revolution and particularly since the advent of modern industrial farming.  The simple concepts seem so foreign and new age to us today because we have lost touch with the land; but these concepts are ages old as illustrated by George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  One concept that farmers had to concern themselves with was the care of the soil.

Like many Virginia farmers, Washington had to figure out how to replenish the soil after he had grown crops; in particular after growing tobacco.  Washington and many of his contemporaries originally grew tobacco on their plantations.  However, this turned out to be a terrible choice for both the land and to their bottom lines.  Tobacco took multiple years of sowing tobacco seeds to get a proper crop, once established, it was also extraordinarily bad for the soil, feeding heavily and stripping the soil of all hummus and nutrients. Finally, if they did produce a viable crop, they had to contend with the completely biased and nefarious European tobacco market.

Because of laws established by the British Parliament (where the colonies had no representation) tobacco had to be sold by selected agents in Europe who took enormous fees.  In addition, because it was an imported luxury crop, it was taxed heavily.  Finally, because it was grown in the colonies (and looked at as a lower quality product), it was sold at a lower cost.  Often after the sale (that was often accompanied by a shopping list), the colonial farmers owed money to the agents and merchants in Europe rather than making a profit.

Eventually many of the mid-Atlantic and more northern plantations switched to growing grains and corn.  This was a bit gentler to the soil long term as well as being less regulated and could be sold within the colonies and exported for higher profits.

In order to repair the damage done by the tobacco crops and create a long term sustainable environment to grow other crops, the soil needed to be repaired.  Washington employed adding ingredients to impoverished soil as well as a system of crop rotation to ensure long term soil viability.

To amend the decimated soil, Washington added green manures by growing things like buckwheat and clover that would be tilled back into the soil.  In addition, he added animal manure from the plantations various livestock.  Manure would be taken from barns, stalls, etc. and added to a “dung repository” located on the property.  Even the human manure was recycled from the various “necessaries” located around the property.  This manure was collected and composted over time, then added back into the garden and farm soils.  Other augmentations included nutrient rich creek mud, fish heads and tails from the plantation’s healthy fishery (Herring ran heavy in the Potomac during Washington’s time), Marl (Chalky clay) and Plaster of Paris which is primarily made of calcium sulfate or gypsum to lighten the soil without changing the PH balance while adding sulfur and calcium for healthy plant growth.

While amending the soil helped repair damage, to keep the soil healthy, Washington employed a 7 year crop rotation plan on many of his fields; alternating between heavy feeders such as wheat, corn and potatoes to more restorative crops such as clover and buckwheat that not only returned to the soil as green manure during fallow years but also served as field fodder for livestock (who then also returned nutrients to the soil through their droppings).

We can take many of these principles and apply them to our gardens today.  First, make sure you are amending the soil either with your own compost (kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, lawn clippings, weeds, etc.) as well as periodically bringing in restorative mulches, composts and well-rotted manures from local farms or through services.

In addition, crop rotation is essential in a small garden to ensure that specific plant borne diseases don’t have the ability to take hold by planting the same crops in the same place each growing season.  Even moving them over a row or a half row can make a big difference in the performance of your garden.  A good rule of thumb when it comes to rotating in and out crops in a small garden is Heavy Feeders (Brassica, Squash, Tomatoes) are followed by light feeders such as corn, carrots and herbs, then following the third season by restorative crops such as legumes (beans, peas, etc.).  Leave the roots of the beans and peas in the soil after these crops have completed their season to ensure the nitrogen affixed to their roots are available for other plants.  It is also a good idea (if you can) to sow a cover crop such as oil seed radish, clover or rye to overwinter in the beds, keep soil from eroding and provide green manure for the spring.  If you cannot do this, then cover your beds with grass clippings or straw for the winter then cover with manure in the spring without tilling.

There are so many more lessons from my visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, I cannot wait to share them with you!


Happy Gardening!


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