CONSERVING THE SOIL
The Revolution rudely interrupted Washington’s farming experiments, and for eight long years he was so actively engaged in the grim business of checkmating Howe and Clinton and Cornwallis that he could give little time or thought to agriculture. For more than six years, in fact, he did not once set foot upon his beloved fields and heard of his crops, his servants and his live stock only from family visitors to his camps or through the pages of his manager’s letters.
Peace at last brought him release. He had left Mount Vernon a simple country gentleman; he came back to it one of the most famous men in the world. He wasted no time in contemplating his laurels, but at once threw himself with renewed enthusiasm into his old occupation. His observation of northern agriculture and conversations with other farmers had broadened his views and he was more than ever progressive. He was now thoroughly convinced of the great desirability of grass and stock for conserving the soil and he was also wide awake to the need of better tools and methods and wished to make his estate beautiful as well as useful.
Much of his energy in 1784-85 was devoted to rebuilding his house and improving his grounds, and to his trip to his Ohio lands—all of which are described elsewhere. No diary exists for 1784 except that of the trip to the Ohio, but from the diary of 1785 we learn that he found time to experiment with plaster of Paris and powdered stone as fertilizers, to sow clover, orchard grass, guinea grass and peas and to borrow a scow with which to raise rich mud from the bed of the Potomac.
The growing poverty of his soil, in fact, was a subject to which he gave much attention. He made use of manure when possible, but the supply of this was limited and commercial fertilizers were unknown. As already indicated, he was beginning the use of clover and other grasses, but he was anxious to build up the soil more rapidly and the Potomac muck seemed to him a possible answer to the problem. There was, as he said, “an inexhaustible fund” of it, but the task of getting it on the land was a heavy one. Having heard of a horse-power dredge called the Hippopotamus that was in use on the Delaware River, he made inquiries concerning it but feared that it would not serve his purpose, as he would have to go from one hundred to eight hundred or a thousand yards from high water-mark for the mud—too far out for a horse to be available. Mechanical difficulties and the cost of getting up the mud proved too great for him—as they have proved too great even down to the present—but he never gave up the idea and from time to time tried experiments with small plots of ground that had been covered with the mud. His enthusiasm on the subject was so great that Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, who visited him in this period, says that the standing toast at Mount Vernon was “Success to the mud!”