The Uses of Sludge

9781108072243fc3dI have a gormless tendency to believe most things I read (except of course in matters political, where the reverse is true). Therefore, when the various library catalogues I consulted informed me that John Kennedy, the author of A Treatise upon Planting, Gardening, and the Management of the Hot-House, was born in 1759, died in 1842, and was a member of the family of nurserymen who ran the famous Vineyard Nursery at Hammersmith, I believed them.

Then I began to read the book. It was first published in 1776, and refers frequently to the years of experience that have led to the detailed guidance given in its pages – but in 1776 the alleged author would have been seventeen … I Googled, I rummaged, and eventually I consulted the invaluable resources of the Royal Horticultural Society, whose library team came up with the information that this John Kennedy had died in 1790 (his birth date seems to be unknown). They also supplied a link to a 1912 article in the Gardeners’ Chronicle about his book, but this too has no biographical information apart from what could be gleaned internally.

The book is not only long on experience, but is written by a professional for fellow professionals – perhaps for newly appointed head gardeners to great estates, or possibly even for their masters, to enable them to check on the proceedings and skills of their own employees. And Kennedy’s purpose (unlike those of writers such as the Loudons or Beeton) is not only or even mostly to describe the latest horticultural trends and fashions, but to plan for the maximising of the economic output of the landowner’s land, by turning wastes into forests or into fields where turnips can be grown to feed the cattle on the estate.

The book is dedicated to Sir Thomas Gascoigne (1745–1810) of Parlington Hall in west Yorkshire, whose gardener Kennedy proclaims himself on the title page to be. (The sad decline of the Gascoigne family fortunes and of the estate itself is recorded in a very interesting website, which reproduces the 1964 auction catalogue listing ‘An Outstanding Agricultural, Woodland and Sporting Estate known as The Parlington Estate’ of approximately 2,270 acres.) The 1777 second edition, which we have reissued in one volume, was originally published as two, and the entirety of Volume 1 is taken up with the establishment and maintenance of woods and forests.

As Kennedy declares in the preface to the second edition, ‘his intention in the following sheets is … in the most explicit manner, to lay before the Public facts that have been successfully reduced to practice by himself’. He provides minute descriptions of preparing nursery beds for chestnuts, acorns and other tree seeds, and of making appropriate holes in unpromising rocky and marshy soils, with careful explanation of the reasons why each stage in the arboricultural process must be just so: for example, ‘the evening before the seed-beds are to be thinned, they should be well watered, to make those that are to be drawn come up easily’ – thus the thinnings, with their roots undamaged, could be replanted elsewhere.

Having dealt with the planting and care of forests on rocky, hilly, waste and heath land,  the management of neglected woods, and his own experience of raising trees from seed from America, Kennedy describes the planting and laying of hedges, and their subsequent maintenance. He delightfully suggests that in order to ‘render the face of the country sweet’, red and white roses should be planted in all hedges; spindle berries and hollies could also be included for autumn and winter colour.

The final part of Volume 1 consists of a long chapter on the culture of vines, and here ‘the management of the hot-house’ promised in the title comes to the fore. Vines are treated in three groups: those that can be grown outside (‘for the benefit of those who reside in countries where they will ripen without help’); those that will grow on ‘fire-walls without glass or covering’; and those that will grow on ‘fire-walls with glass or some other covering, in glass-houses or stoves [hot-houses] built on purpose for them, called vineries, and in stoves that are used for pines [i.e. pineapples]’.

Volume 2 is largely concerned with the management of fruit-trees: the appropriate soils and pruning regimes for apricots, peaches and nectarines, pears, plums, cherries, apples, figs, walnuts, chestnuts and mulberries. A long chapter is devoted to the cultivation of the ‘ananas, or pineapple’, which requires a hot-house or glass-house, a complicated propagation process, and a great deal of potting on, from halfpenny to penny and then to three-halfpenny and twopenny pots. (Frustratingly, there is no clue as to the sizes which these prices indicate.) Variations in temperature and humidity may be disastrous, but the real plague of pineapples is the ‘white insects’ (mealybugs rather than whitefly?) that may infest them: ‘Besides the damage done to the fruit, they greatly retard the growth of the plants and make them very unsightly.’

Kennedy’s remedy is an elaborate cleaning and fumigation of the hot-house with brimstone; any crevices in the plaster should be filled, and the walls and glass cleaned with vinegar. The growing medium, or ‘tan’ should be sieved, and the smallest riddlings, where the vermin lurk, should be thrown away. Finally, the plants themselves should be treated with a mixture of brimstone, ‘Scotch snuff [!?]’, and dried walnut leaves ground to powder. Dust the stems and leaves, and mix some of the powder into the growing medium. ‘This mixture will in no ways hurt the leaves, not retard the growth of the plants … by following the whole of the directions the most infected hot-house will be as clean as if there never had been any vermin in it.’

Kennedy turns finally to veg, starting with the sublime – mushrooms and asparagus – and moving to the prosaic: cabbages, carrots and turnips, for feeding cattle as much as humans. Mushroom and asparagus beds are described in loving detail: if only I had the space! Having dug out my trench to a depth of 2.5 feet (and disposed of the soil elsewhere in the garden, ho ho), I need merely to obtain sludge from a slow-running river, or failing that from an old pond that has not been cleaned for a very long time, mix it with peat-mould, loam, rotten dung and sharp sand, and I will have the ideal growing medium for asparagus. Five or six years (and a great deal of work) later, I can begin harvesting. ‘But if anyone should fail, let him not despond at the first trial, there being a possibility of erring, though no great probability, for I have not omitted the least article in the preparation of the materials, … but information from books written with the greatest candour may be difficult, until a little practice renders it easy.’ How very true!


This entry was posted in Gardening, History, Life Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Uses of Sludge

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday to Us!!! | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Memoirs of Dr Richard Gilpin, of Scaleby Castle in Cumberland | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s