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Farming innovations and use of Natural resources

George Washington constantly looked for ways to improve his farming practices. He paid careful attention to new methods and ideas, particularly those coming from England. By the last quarter of the 18th century, Washington had become a proponent of the “new husbandry” an agricultural reform movement designed to modernize farming methods. By using many of the principles and practices of “new husbandry,” he re-made his farming operation at Mount Vernon.

Soil Enhancers

What is a farm without good soil? Maintaining the quality and productivity of soil was essential to a farmer. Washington felt that the conservation of his soil was the most important aspect of his farming at Mount Vernon. He experimented with a number of practices that he felt would ensure the productivity of his soil. Although, two hundred years ago, George Washington and other farmers of his day knew nothing about soil chemistry or the biochemistry of plant nutrition, they did recognize that soil could become “exhausted” or depleted of nutrients essential to the productivity of their fields. Thus, Washington experimented with a number of different soil “enhancements”, carefully observing and recording the results of his experiments. He wrote regularly, while away, to his farm managers to ensure that his careful plans were being carried out according to his very specific instructions. These soil enhancers included:

  • Manure: The organic content of animal manure improves the soil, and its nutrients make it a natural fertilizer. George Washington built one of the first dung repositories in America, where manure fermented until it was ready to be used on the fields. Animals were also pastured in fields to provide a natural fertilizer.
  • Creek Mud: Washington used dark mud from creeks, which is high in organic content and would have worked in much the same way as manure.
  • Fish Heads: These provided nutrients and organic materials as they decomposed in the soil.
  • Marl: Marl was chalky clay. Chalk is a calcium carbonate – or lime. Today, lime is applied to soil to lower acidity and create a more favorable growing medium for many crops.
  • Plaster of Paris: This is made mostly of calcium sulfate, which is also known as gypsum. Gypsum is still used today as a soil amendment that loosens heavy, clay like soils. Gypsum also adds calcium and sulfur to the soil, which are important for plant growth.
  • Green Manure: Buckwheat, clover, and peas were plowed under by George Washington to replenish the soil. Washington called them “green manures” and today we know that they help add nitrogen to the soil.
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Although unaware of chemical reactions, through experimentation and observation, Washington improved the quality of his soil; and many of the enhancements he used were effective because of the nitrogen added to the soil.

Crop Rotation

Another important method George Washington devised to conserve his soil and improve long-term productivity was a seven-year crop rotation schedule. George Washington and other farmers of his time believed that by rotating crops, their fields would not become “exhausted” or the soil depleted of nourishment. Washington was not the first farmer to use crop rotation, but he was one of the first to develop and use an extended plan of more than three years. His seven-year rotation of several crops emphasized the soil as much as crop production.