Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener 29: 416-417 (November 11, 1875)

William Taylor

I am not unacquainted (see page 355) with the use of burnt clay, charcoal, charred rubbish, &c., having very early in my gardening career seen the benefits arising from their free use.

This will be understood when I say that I received my first horticultural lessons at Shrubland, where Donald Beaten kept a man continually burning clay for the use of the garden., and where he left on his retirement a legacy of some thousands of tons of it for the use of his successors. Although I had not the advantage of actually working under the directions of the good old man I was well acquainted with him, and commenced my employment in the gardens a few weeks altar he left.

Now, to show that I have not forgotten my early lessons, I may say that if I do not use much burnt clay for reasons which I will presently explain, I use what is preferable in many ways—wood charcoal in large quantities.

For planting fruit trees, and also for growing plants of all sorts in pots, it is almost the only thing used for keeping the soil sweet and open. I have not used a ton of sand in six years. Hard burnt clay would also keep the soil sweet and open—I mean clay which was not smother-burnt, for very stiff clay, cannot be burnt in that way. But charcoal does more than this. The plants have actually the power of dissolving and feeding on it, it therefore enriches the soil; most other things need for keeping it open impoverish it.

Rubbish of all sorts smother-burnt is invaluable for garden purposes, and advantage should always be taken when burning rubbish of any kind, after getting a good body of fire, to cover it up with soil and leave it to smoulder away without a great quantity of air reaching the fire. All this I have known and practised for a long time, and I thought I knew all about it as well as a good deal about drainage; but since I have been here I have found out that I do not know all about it yet.

Not all clays can be burned profitably. I had one experiment on rather a large scale. A quantity of drainage was wanted for fruit borders; stones and bricks were not forthcoming in sufficient quantities, and I determined to burn clay for the purpose. I had it burned and it made excellent drainage, and also provided me with many tons of small stuff for mixing with the heavy soil. Well, I dare not tell the cost of the experiment. I had an old practised hand to do the job who had done a good deal of the same sort of burning on railways. Both wood and small coals were used for fuel, as we could not keep the fire slight with wood alone; and I will let out this much of the secret, that on reckoning up cost, I found it would have been quite as cheap to have used the black diamonds themselves for the drainage and saved the trouble of carting the clay about. Let not this, however, prevent others from burning clay, for it can be burned both easily and profitably if it is not of too tenacious a nature. If I am obliged to burn any more here I shall take a lesson from the brickmakers and have my material cut and dried, and then piled up so that air can circulate between it, for certainly it cannot easily get into it. My surface soil which has been worked and aerated for generations would of course burn; but its quantity already is much too limited, and to burn it would be taking a lesson from the very learned man who a few months ago was advising people to burn all their manure before spreading it on the ground! I wonder if he ever tried the experiment of living on calcined beef.

Mr. Luckhurst would like to know what has been done and what is intended to be done to ameliorate the crudity of my soil. I will endeavour to explain. The garden is well drained all over, and it has a very sharp slope, so that there is no difficulty in getting rid of the water. Well, then, all borders for wall trees are dug out their full width—12 to 15 feet, down to the hard bottom, which is not far to seek. This is made to slope sharply to the front, where there is a drain we lowered a few inches into the clay and connected with the main drains. The hard bottom of the border is then entirely covered with stones, clinkers, bricks, &c., at least 5 inches in depth; for Peaches it is 10 or 12 inches. Turf is placed on the drainage to protect it, and then soil to the depth of about 2 feet. This raises the border on the side near the wall a foot or 18 inches above the surrounding ground.

Of course the trees are not planted in the stiff clay to which I have alluded. The soil used is such as would grow Peaches in any favourable climate. So my fruit trees are not uncared for: they have the best of drainage and the best of soil my skill can devise. It is not the soil with which the trees have actual contact that is in fault and that could make a climate good or bad. It is the soil and subsoil of the neighbourhood which helps to keep the temperature low and the atmosphere humid. Draining my Peach borders is but like a drop in the ocean; it will not prevent the Polypodium luxuriating on the branches of the neighbouring Oaks, nor the moss growing on the tops of the hedgerows. The fogs will still rise in the neighbouring valley, and the midsummer frosts defy our garden walls.

My trees are altogether isolated from the natural soil, but they are not isolated from the atmosphere for which the natural soil and subsoil in the neighbourhood are partially responsible. Where Peaches are so isolated, as with glass, they do remarkably well. This year I have been also wonderfully successful out of doors, but I do not yet know whether the credit belongs to myself or to the season. I have learned a great deal since I have been here, and I have materially altered my practice. Time alone will show whether I am more permanently successful than my predecessors. I trust I have said enough to show that Oldlands is not the worst place in the world to grow Peaches.—WM. TAYLOR.