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The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene

March 26, 2014

From the Garden: Of ditches and daffodils

Asparagus trench with shells

Asparagus trench with shells

Campernelle Narcissus

Campernelle Narcissus

We are making an experiment with a new asparagus bed on the advice of Mr. Joseph Prentis, a Williamsburg attorney who keeps a fine garden on the edge of town.  Being a person of methodical disposition he has left us his Monthly Kalendar compiled between the years of 1775 and 1779 and in which we may find these instructions: “Set out asparagus as follows.  Dig a trench as wide as you intend your Beds to be, and two feet deep, lay a layer of Oyster Shells, six Inches, then lay on six Inches of Horse Dung, and as much Mould, continue so to do, till the Bed is done.”

This method appears to be unique to the Tidewater of Virginia as I can find no English precedent for the practice and travelers from other precincts appear to be ignorant of the procedure.  Though it is practiced on many neighboring plantations not everyone agrees on its efficacy.  Another Williamsburg attorney by the name of John Randolph, the loyalist, recorded before departing to England where his true sympathies lie: “A great apparatus was formerly made use of but now seems on all hands to be disregarded.  Nothing more is necessary that to make your beds perfectly rich and light.”

We have decided to make a test of the two methods and are planting one bed in accordance with Mr. Prentis’ advice and one on the recommendations of Mr. Randolph.  I shall report on their progress.

We are now happily in the embrace of daffodils.  The little Jonquilla simplex, which often appears in unexpected corners of the garden, releases a delightful fragrance from its tiny blooms when warmed by the sun.  The Van Sion, that most ancient of the Narcissus tribe, hangs it shaggy head of green and gold under the weight of its egg shaped blossoms. Campernelles, the thoroughbreds of the spring garden, multiply in glorious masses of fragrant yellow.  Though all these forms were well known, even in the time of King James I, namesake for neighboring Jamestown, they are poorly represented in Virginia gardens.  It is our intent to make a show of them in the garden to encourage others in their cultivation for there are few ornamentals that reward the gardener so splendidly with so little effort.

 

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  1. What is Mould? I get the rest. Is it like compost. Also is there somewhere we can read the Monthly Kalendar? Thanks

    • Dear Joan,

      Mould simply refers to the earth or soil but is understood amongst gardeners to denote a particularly rich or friable soil. It is interesting that if you follow Mr. Prentis’s advice to the letter, ie, 6″ shells, 6″ dung, 6″soil and then “continue so to do till the bed is done” would put the layer of dung as the final layer on the surface of the bed which really would not work. I think it is another of the many examples I find of gentlemen garden writers who are observing and writing about garden tasks but not actually performing the tasks themselves.

      Josheph Prentis’s Montly Kalender & Garden Book is small book of planting records and advice and is available at our website for a very reasonable price.

      Yr. humble servant, &c.
      Wesley Greene


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