Monday, November 23, 2015

George Washington, American Pioneer in Composting


A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert
everything he touches into manure,
as the first transmutation towards gold.


For 45 years George Washington was the master of Mount Vernon, and he viewed his occupation as farmer very seriously. Beginning as a tobacco planter like his father and older brother before him, Washington devoted himself to producing bounteous crops of the weed for export to England. He realized early on, however, that this plant was ruinous to the fertility of his soil. Therefore, he soon stopped growing tobacco and took up the cultivation of wheat as his primary money maker, complemented by corn and a variety of lesser crops aimed at sustaining his family and slaves. The quest to improve his yields led Washington to explore a wide range of agricultural experiments, including composting as a means of restoring soil nutrients.

In 1794 Washington sadly noted in his diary that, "Unless some practice prevails, my fields will be growing worse every year, until the crops will not defray the expense of the culture of them." Unfortunately for his successors who attempted to farm Mount Vernon after the death of the great man in 1799, this gloomy prediction was all too true. For Mount Vernon's soils were simply too poor to be a good producer no matter what innovative measures were employed. Thin topsoil overlying a dense, impermeable clay foundation was the main culprit, exacerbated by severe erosion caused by the poor practices of the day.

Washington never gave up the challenge to improve his soils, however, and he undertook numerous experiments to find the best form of fertilizer. He subscribed to John Spurrier's The Practical Farmer, which advocated the wise use of agricultural by-products and adding organic matter to improve the soil. Washington revealed an experiment in composting in his diary on April 14, 1760, when he "Mixed my compost in box" with different types in the various apartments. He planted the same number of seeds in each compartment and systematically recorded the results. After many trials, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads, and plaster of paris to his fields with some success.

As evidence of George Washington's devotion to composting, he erected a highly unusual building specifically designed to compost "manure" and to facilitate its "curing" into usable fertilizer. Mount Vernon archaeologists have excavated the site of this building, called the "dung repository" or the "stercorary", to gain more insight into Washington's farming activities and to provide the information necessary to reconstruct this interesting structure.
Washington's typically detailed directions for constructing the repository provide several important clues to building details. In a letter to his farm manager in May 1787 he lectured:

When you go about the repository for the compost ... if the bottom should not be of good clay, put the clay there and ram it well before you pave it, to prevent the liquid manure from sinking, and thereby being lost.

*This was co-written with Dennis Pogue, http://www.cityfarmer.org/washington.html

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