Jefferson and Soil Improvement, Part 1

We are happy to report that the first official beds of the TJ Demo Garden have been built! A small crew of three managed to lay out and construct nearly five beds in about 3.5 hours. It is exciting to see the design by Landscape Architecture students Chelsea Dewitt and Erica Thatcher take shape. More on the overall design soon…

It is a little hard to see here but there are four new parallel beds, which will soon hold our field crops: flax and indigo. Photo by Sonia Brenner.

We also began to turn compost into the beds. We are currently using some very nice looking leaf mould from our friends here at UVa.
Lily and Jim taking a little break. We have begun to add well-rotted leaf mould to the bed on the right. See the big pile of leaf mould in the previous image. Photo by Sonia Brenner.

Back in January, when we began to discuss improving our soil at the TJ Demo Garden, we couldn’t help but wonder how Jefferson himself managed the soil fertility in his gardens and fields. It should come as no surprise that he knew a thing or two about the subject. In 1793, TJ advised his daughter, Martha Randolph, “[w]e will try this winter to cover our garden with a heavy coating of manure. When earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance, and of the best quality. I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants; and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.”

Manure was the soil amendment of choice, and Jefferson incorporated it by the wagon-load to both his vegetable garden at Monticello and his field crops grown on satellite farms like Shadwell and Tufton. In typical Jeffersonian fashion, he calculated that 150 cattle would provide enough manure to cover 60 acres per year.

Also in 1793, a year that he seemed to be putting a lot of thought into his farms, TJ made a few interesting notes in his Garden Book. He recorded the application of tobacco suckers as a “greendressing” to three squares of the vegetable garden and to the asparagus beds. For the asparagus, he also noted the addition of a “thick coat of well rotted dog.” Now, did he really mean well rotted dog? Or perhaps he meant to write dung, or hog, as in hog manure… Here is a copy of the October entry:

Garden Book, 1766-1824, page 28, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.

While we certainly won’t be considering any well rotted dog for the TJ Demo Garden, we do plan to incorporate some well rotted manure, probably in the fall. We will also follow two more of Jefferson’s methods for soil improvement: cover crops and crop rotation. To be continued in Part 2… 

Sources consulted:
Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book. Edited by Edwin Morris Betts. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1999.

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