The Composter of Our Country
Everyone knows that George Washington was the father of our country, but how many people can claim to know that he was one of our nation's first dedicated composters. As archaeological excavations at Mount Vernon have revealed, Washington was a pioneer of progressive farming, who constantly experimented on how to make the soil at his estate more fertile. Archaeologists at Mount Vernon have conducted extensive investigations of what the first president called his "stercorary" or dung repository, located near the estate's stables.
Washington was extremely specific in what he wanted built, and in May 1787 wrote to his farm manager detailing the building's construction. "When you go about the repository [sic] for the compost," he wrote, "at the mouth of the drain by the stable, 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 should also be done on the new sides, which are to be walled up." He also directed that the manure pit have masonry sides and paved bottom lined with cobblestones. The building was long and narrow and open all around with a shingled roof supported by posts set on a brick foundation.
By 1794, tobacco crops at Mount Vernon had so depleted the soil of its nutrients, Washington noted in his diary, "Unless some such practice prevails, my fields will be growing worse every year, until the crops will not defray the expense of the culture of them." He thus explored many ways of composting. He tried adding manure, river and creek mud, fish heads and plaster of paris to the farm's soil. And in the repository, he had manure mixed with other organic materials and applied as fertilizer to the gardens, orchards and fields. So far, the Mount Vernon dung repository is the only structure of its type documented to exist in colonial America. In addition, preliminary research in England has yet to produce any similar structures dating to the 18th century, although open-air dung heaps and roofed sheds used in composting seem to have been relatively common there by the 19th century. Today, less than half a mile from the site of the dung repository is a new educational project devoted to portraying the way Mount Vernon was farmed in the 18th century. Known as "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer," this interactive exhibit shows how Washington experimented with crop rotation and with different crops, fertilizers and soil amendments. Washington placed a high priority on careful management of the land and its resources. He not only experimented with organic materials and animal manure but also rejected such farming practices of his day as shallow plowing, which led to erosion of the topsoil. He characterized the practice as "misguided, destructive and wasteful." Maybe there were others composting in America before George Washington. Whether he was the first to have a dedicated building for the process may never be known. It is known, however, that he was the first to pioneer sustainable farming to preserve Mount Vernon.
Copyright Rob Arner - All Rights Reserved.
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