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Article updated: 2/4/2014 11:15 AM

Early presidents understood benefits of sustainable gardening

Unwilling to follow others in their move west as soil turned fallow, George Washington employed techniques at Mount Vernon that today would be called sustainable. Vegetables were of special importance to George Washington; pictured at right is the kitchen garden at his Mount Vernon estate.

Unwilling to follow others in their move west as soil turned fallow, George Washington employed techniques at Mount Vernon that today would be called sustainable. Vegetables were of special importance to George Washington; pictured at right is the kitchen garden at his Mount Vernon estate.

 

PHOTOS Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Verno

Vegetables were of special importance to George Washington; pictured is the kitchen garden at his Mount Vernon estate.

Vegetables were of special importance to George Washington; pictured is the kitchen garden at his Mount Vernon estate.

 

Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Thomas Jefferson used composting techniques at Monticello, pictured, by piling plant debris in the corners of his fields, where it would rot to be later spread across the fields the following year. He also rotated crops and allowed fields to rest every seventh year, which helped keep the soil fertile.

Thomas Jefferson used composting techniques at Monticello, pictured, by piling plant debris in the corners of his fields, where it would rot to be later spread across the fields the following year. He also rotated crops and allowed fields to rest every seventh year, which helped keep the soil fertile.

 

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello/Photogra

The recreated “stercorary” used by George Washington at Mount Vernon reaches 8 feet into the ground and holds manure and plant waste, capturing the nutrients so they can be returned to the soil — what we would call composting today.

The recreated "stercorary" used by George Washington at Mount Vernon reaches 8 feet into the ground and holds manure and plant waste, capturing the nutrients so they can be returned to the soil -- what we would call composting today.

 

Courtesy of Greg McKeen

George Washington

George Washington

 
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

 
James Madison

James Madison

 
John Adams

John Adams

 
“Founding Gardeners” explores the gardening habits of the early presidents. In Virginia at Montpelier, James Madison’s lifelong home, the south yard, above, was home to the vegetable garden strategically placed near the mansion so that food could easily be brought into the kitchen.

"Founding Gardeners" explores the gardening habits of the early presidents. In Virginia at Montpelier, James Madison's lifelong home, the south yard, above, was home to the vegetable garden strategically placed near the mansion so that food could easily be brought into the kitchen.

 

Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation/Kenton Rowe

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By Jean Murphy

Four of this country's early presidents -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison -- would probably be members of environmental groups if they lived today.

All were dedicated gardeners, committed to caring for the soil by returning nutrients to it so that it would continue to bear fruit and by rotating crops to prevent depletion of the earth.

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Each one also employed numerous resource-saving methods in their daily lives, similar to those used by environmentalists today, according to Kay McKeen, founder and president of SCARCE, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit group dedicated to recycling and preservation of the environment.

At 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 4, McKeen will make a presentation in honor of President's Day at the Carol Stream Public Library, 616 Hiawatha Drive, Carol Stream, based on her own expertise and experiences and on the book "Founding Gardeners" by Andrea Wulf (Random House, 2011). McKeen will tell how the country's Founding Fathers used what was available at the time and will make it relevant to sustainable practices for gardening, farming and living today.

Washington at Mount Vernon and Jefferson at Monticello were both fantastic farmers and record-keepers, McKeen said. That is why Wulf was able to produce such a comprehensive book about their environmentally friendly methods and attitudes.

Washington, for instance, was an early composter -- although they didn't call it "composting" at the time. He understood that nutrients needed to be returned to the soil regularly for it to continue to sustain his household, McKeen said. So he directed his staff to construct a huge "stercorary" or "dung repository" in order to allow animal manure, spent flowers, corn stalks, leaves and all manner of organic material to rot and naturally be turned into fertilizer for his fields. His stercorary had stone walls and a gravel base and was 31 feet long, 12 feet wide and 8 feet deep. In fact, according to McKeen, those restoring Mount Vernon originally thought that it was some kind of swimming pool. As originally constructed, it was covered by a wooden roof, supported by four posts, so that the huge compost bin would not fill with water.

"Washington knew that after 12 years of constant tilling, soil was no longer good. That is why so many early farmers kept moving further and further west in search of fresh soil. He, however, didn't want to leave Mount Vernon, so he knew that he had to find a way to fertilize and revitalize its earth," McKeen explained.

Well-educated men of the day knew that if waste came from plants or animals, it was their responsibility to put it back into the earth. So, most composted, with varying success, McKeen added. Similarly, if a waste item was made from metal, like a horseshoe or dented pot, it was returned to the blacksmith to be melted down and made into something else. Once the metal was mined, it was used over and over again and not wasted.

"These forward-thinkers understood the true nature of conservation," McKeen said.

Jefferson composted by piling plant debris in the corners of his fields where it would rot and then his workers would be able to easily spread the resulting "muck" or compost over the fields the following year. He also rotated the crops in his fields, letting each field "rest" one year out of every seven.

All of the early presidents, even those who weren't plantation owners, also understood the importance of saving excess rain water in cisterns and rain barrels because they didn't know when it would rain again, she added. For this same reason, they were very familiar with which plants didn't require a lot of water and which grew quickly.

Washington, for instance, advocated that everyone plant "kenaf" in their garden. It was a reedy plant that grew incredibly fast and was in high demand for making ropes and tatting for furniture and mattresses. It was also used to make fabric that was then infused with animal fat in order to make oil cloth which was used as a moisture barrier.

The country's founders also understood the importance of trees and often spoke in their journals of the "old growth forests" with something akin to reverence.

They were also very practical when constructing their homes, putting very few windows on the northwest side of the home in order to minimize heat loss from the winds and they generally built their kitchens on the southeast side of the house and, if possible, halfway under the house, in order for it to stay cool, but still have the benefit of light late in the day.

Jefferson made careful use of "free light," as he called it, by endowing his home with many windows so that he wouldn't have to waste resources on candles and oil. He also didn't want to often burn such light sources because he didn't want smoke to harm his books and his expensive European wallpaper.

"Somewhere along the way, we got off track as a country. We got away from the soil and thought that technology would do everything for us. Now we are finding out that that is not true," McKeen said.

Everything humans do has the potential to upset nature's delicate balance and SCARCE is working on many different fronts throughout DuPage County to negate some of those negative effects through everything from Christmas lights and electronics recycling to recycling extravaganza events where needed items are accepted for a variety of nonprofit organizations, to educational programming and even a new oyster shell recovery program working to get oyster shells used by local restaurants and food stores back to the Chesapeake Bay. They are also actively advocating for the removal of lead from garden hoses because they don't want the soil and the vegetables grown in it to be tainted.

"Each individual needs to think about their own actions in terms of how they fit into the big picture without sabotaging it," McKeen said.

• McKeen's program Tuesday is free; register by calling the library at (630) 653-0755 is necessary. For more information about SCARCE and its many initiatives, log on to www.scarceecoed.org or call (630) 545-9710.

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