The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
February 13, 2013It is now time, in the middle colonies, to sow the seeds for spring crops such as lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and leek that will be set into the garden in late March and early April. In Williamsburg we start our seeds on a hotbed that we have prepared over the past week. Hotbed gardening is an ancient art that employs the heat of composting manure for starting seeds and raising plants out of season. Horse manure is the preferred material and its quality will determine the success of the project.
The noted gardener John Abercrombie recorded in 1778, “The sort of horse-dung to be understood for the purpose of Hot-beds, is the dung and wet litter together, daily cleaned out of stables where horses always stand, and are littered down with plenty of straw every night, which being rendered wet by the urine and dung of those animals, composes the principal material for a dung Hot-bed.”The difficulty for the modern hotbed gardener, including the gardeners at Colonial Williamsburg, is that horses are almost always bedded in sawdust rather than straw today. Sawdust, in a quantity that can be conveniently collected, will not generate the heat needed for the hotbed and actually retards the heat of the manure. Without the benefit of urine soaked straw, we use pure, fresh horse manure gathered from the pastures. This will provide an adequate heat for starting seedlings but will not maintain its heat for as long as a manure and straw mix will.
The dung is first thrown into a pile to heat and once it has reached a temperature of 160° it is loaded into the hotbed pit, which should be two feet deep and of a length and breadth suitable to the needs of the gardener. As the hotbed is loaded the dung must be leveled out and packed down firmly with the end of a rake. The frame is then covered with the glasses and left for a day or two to season the manure. You are then ready to cap the dung and sow your seeds which will be explained in next week’s correspondence.
For complete instructions concerning hotbed gardening you are invited to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press)