The Practical Husbandman and Planter p. 204-216 (1734)

Of the great Effects of PEAT-ASHES in Husbandry and Gardening.

In a Letter

From Newbury in Berkshire; where the Uses of them are the best known of any Place in England.,

THE following Letter, drawn up from the Memorandums of a Gentleman whose Situation on the River Kennet near Newbury has furnished him with great Opportunities of observing all that is necessary to be known on that Head, having been lately transmitted to us; is (for the publick Benefit of Husbandry) published with all convenient Speed, that Mankind may no longer be at a Loss to the Knowlege of a Manure so universally reasonable, and so useful for Corn and Grass Lands, as Peat-Ashes are, and which may, in all Probability, be had in other Places as well as there, if the same Measures were taken.

Newbury Jan. 26, 1733-4.


I Received yours of the 21st Instant; and in Answer to it (with the Assistance of a Gentleman, whose Situation gives him, with several Memorandums very useful on this Occasion) have sent you the following Account of the Manner of discovering, digging, drying, and Uses of, Peat and Peat-Ashes, which have (within these twenty Years last past) been of so great Advantage to the Husbandry of this Country.

I shall not detain you with any long Account of that supposed Original of Peat, with which the Virtues of those Parts entertain one another: As whether it is a Part of those Layers or Strata of Soil, which was placed there originally, and at the first Formation of Things; or whether it is a Composition of Timber Trees, or other lower Vegetables, which were over-thrown by the General (or subsequent) Deluge, such as is recorded to have happened at the Time when one of the Roman Emperors governed Britain; because that would lead me too far out of the Method by which I propose to govern myself in this Letter. Tho' the latter Opinion, viz. that of the overwhelming and Destruction of Trees and other Vegetables, carries with it great Marks of a Probability; because that in the digging of Peat, the Workmen very often cut thro' the Bodies of whole Trees, which lye prostrate, and are covered over with the upper Crust or Surface of the Earth; and these Trees, putrified and rotten as they generally are, produce the best Ashes. Many there are, who being desirous of getting Peat-Ashes, may, in all Probability, by Mistake suppose, that any Kind of Peat will do: But that is a palpable Error; Experience teaching, that the Ashes, which are made out of the Peat which is dug out of morassy, barren, dry, jejune Heaths, are chiefly, if not altogether, the Roots of Heath, and the Water proceeding therefrom, of little or no Service to Plants or Grass; and it is now very well known, that the Peat which is dug out of the levellest and best Meadow Land (where heretofore Forests of Trees have been supposed to grow) is the properest for the Production of the best Peat, and Peat-Ashes.

The best Peat (to make Ashes useful on Meadow and Corn Lands) is that which is of a soft, soapy, slippery Nature, abounding both with Salt and Sulphur: But if one may be allowed to form a Judgement of Peat-Ashes, from the Effects they have on hot burning Land, they abound more in the former, than in the latter.

The Peat which produces the best Ashes for Husbandry, lies generally from one Foot, to two or three Foot deep, under a Covering of Turf, and whitish Malm, the Peat itself following next, Stratum super Stratum, two or three Foot deeper, and sometimes five or six; and the deeper the Strata of Peat are, the better is the Peat.

After the Top Spit or Spits are taken carefully off, and the Turfs laid on each Side the Ridge or Ridges, we dig our Peat out of, in order to lay it down again in the Trench, after the Peat is taken away, and the Ground leveled, in order to find out whether it be good Peat or no, we thrust a Stick or Stake quite through the Bed of Peat; and if, upon drawing it up again, we find the Stick or Stake all oily, or, as it were, soaped or tallowed over with Slime, they we judge the Peat is good; but if the Stick or Stake brings up with it only a dryish black Peat, then we conclude that it is naught.

Peat is dug with a narrow Spade of about four Inches wide, and the Iron or cutting Part of three Foot long, which will cut out Turfs of the same Length and Width, if the Bed of Peat lies so deep; and on the right Side of this cutting Spade, there is a Return of Iron, kept always very sharp, that cut the Peat Cake; which is in the Nature of a Cake of common hard Soap, four Inches wide, three deep, and, as before, two or three Foot long, or more: The Use of this Side Part of the Iron is designed to sever the Peat Cake off from the main Body, or Bed of Peat; by which Means, and by the Repetition of the Digger, they continue Working, till the whole Bed is dig out.

The best Time for digging of Peat is early in the Spring; for by digging it so early the Peat Cakes will have the longer Time to dry; but our Workmen keep generally working on all the Summer, and spread their Cakes pretty close to one another all over the Surface of the adjacent Ground where they dig their Peat; which dry either quicker or slower, according to the Dryness or Wetness of the Weather.

The Work must be performed all in Water (which generally abounds in Peaty Ground) because the Peat sticks to the Spade like Birdlime; and this Water may always be kept up within a few Inches of the Surface of the Peat Bed, yet not higher: But if by any great Conflux of Water it should be higher, then proper Drains ought to be made to carry the superfluous Water off; and this (with the unbareing of a deep Turf of Earth from the Top) encreases the Charges considerably.

Peat Cutters are generally allowed 16d. a Load, every Load containing forty Bushels; and they are obliged to fill in the Top Earth, and level it again, and either to sow it with Hay-Seeds, or lay down the Turf they first took up, in the Bargain; or sometimes they plant the Place where they dig Peat, with Ossiers, which turns to great Account.

The Value of an Acre of Land, where Peat used to be dug for firing only, was usually heretofore no more than 8l. or 9l. But since the Benefit of the Ashes in Husbandry has been discovered, the Price of an Acre of Ground, where Turf is to be digged, is risen to 100l. which is much more than the Fee Simple of the Land, even tho' it be set at 40s. an Acre Rent, and 30 Years Purchase, tho' the Land is to revert to the Owner as soon as ever the Peat is dug and conveyed off; and the Ground, especially if it lie near a River, and above the Level or Surface of it, is as good and better for Hay, than it was before the digging of the Peat before-mentioned: For as the Workmen go on, they dig up the upper Turf as thick as they can (as I have before observed to you) laying it on either Side; and after they have taken out the Peat, then they throw in the loose Mold, and lay the Turf down again; but if it be a coarse Turf, abounding with Water-Weeds of several Kinds, Rushes, or the like, then they dig in the Weeds (and after throwing in the loose Mold again) sow the Ground with Hay Seed, Trefoil, &c.

The chief Uses of Peat-Ashes, at the first Discovery of the Virtues in Husbandry, were on Meadow Ground, and after that they were used chiefly on Pease Lands; but since that the Uses of them have been extended to Beans, Cabbages, Cauliflowers, Asparagus, Artichoaks, and all other Garden Ware, in which they have done Wonders; and at this Time the Farmers buy them for all Sots of Uses, such as St. Foine, Clover, Lucern, &c. tho' they are less used on Barley and Wheat Crops, than on any; and, as yet, more sparingly on Corn, than on Meadow Lands, and on Wheat and Barley, than on Pease, Beans, and other Crops of the leguminous Kinds.

At the first using of Peat-Ashes on Meadow Land, our Farmers laid them on almost as thick as they used to do Dung; (no less than thirty or forty Bushels, or more, on an Acre) but this was found to be very detrimental, even on Meadow Land itself (which requires more manure than Corn Lands do.) But by that unreasonable Application, the Turf (especially in hot Summers) was quite burnt up, which obliged them, by Degrees, to lessen their Quantity, reducing it first to twenty, afterwards to fourteen or fifteen Bushels to an Acre; and now they find by Experience, that eight or ten Bushels is a sufficient Quantity, when sowed out of Seedlip by Hand, as Corn is, either as soon as the Corn is sowed, or some little Time before or after.

The Soil on which Peat-Ashes has been all along used by our Farmers, is chiefly that which is cold and wet; because Peat-Ashes appearing to them to be hot (being unskilled in their Peoperties and Effects) they thought that they would do no where else but on those Kinds of Soil; But from later Trials on hot gravelly Land (as is already noted in the Beginning of this Letter) Peat-Ashes are found to do well there also; so that they appear to be something of the Nature of Lime, which does indifferently well on all Sorts of Land; though best on that which is hot and burning, as those Ashes (from their alkalous Quality) undoubtedly do. Therefore if you would use Peat-Ashes on cold Ground, it seems highly reasonable, to lay them on your Land immediately after they are burnt, whether the Corn be sowed or no; and as soon as ever they are laid on, to give the Ground a shallow Fallowing, in order to cover the Ashes a little, and to prevent the volatile and sulphureous Parts of it from flying off, or evaporating into Air.

But if designed to be sowed in the Spring, the best Way is, to plow and rough-harrow the Ground well before Christmas, and after that to sow the Ashes as usual, after the Autumn Crops; because by that Time the Spring and Summer succeeds (be they never so dry or hot) and had the Ashes that Fire in them which they are naturally supposed to have, the Fury of them would be abated before the Heats come.

The Effects of Peat-Ashes are supposed to last two Years very well; and, if they are carefully burnt, it will remain a very useful Manure for a third. But then they must be burnt in a House, or in a Kiln, where the Spirits of the Peat do not evaporate, as they'll do in the open Air: For the Virtue of those which are burnt in Holes scooped out of the Earth in open Fields (besides that a good deal of Dirt-Ashes are scraped up along with them) not only evaporates into the Atmosphere, but the first descending Rains wash the nitrous Particles (being ponderous) into the Ground below, and leave the Ashes little better than a Caput Mortuum. Wherever it happens than that Gentlemen or Farmers, would have these Peat-Ashes in Perfection, and can't burn enough in their Family-Fires, there Kilns out to be erected; and the Fume or Smoke being penn'd close up, much less of the volatile sulphureous Particles of the Ashes will fly off, then if exposed in their Burning to the open Air. And the same Reasons hold good also in the keeping or preserving them (after they are burnt) in some Pent-house or Covering; because one Bushel, thus burnt and preserved, will be as well worth 9d. as the others which are burnt abroad, are worth 6d.

As to the Produce of Peat, one Load, or 40 Bushels of good Peat, will yield six or eight Bushels of Ashes; and the worse, or slower, the Peat burns, the more Ashes it affords, and the better they are.

It is not improbable, but very good Soap may one Day or other be made of Peat-Ashes, when the Fury of them is mitigated by some lenitive and milder Mixtures, or used in a smaller Quantity, as is now the Method in Husbandry: For having been used in Washing, they scour the Linen extremely well; but being a little too full of Salts, they strip off the Skin from the Washer-Womens Hands to an insupportable Degree.

Thus (my good Friend) have I ventured to give you the best Account I can, at present, of the Great Uses of Peat-Ashes, when used in Husbandry: And if this be of any Service to your Purpose, you are welcome to communicate them for the Publick Good, which seems to me to be the full Intent of all your Papers; which if they take well in the World, (as I hope they will) you may expect some other experimental Hints on this Subject, as Opportunity shall offer. At present I can only add, that Peat may undoubtedly be found, in other Places, under the like Circumstances, as our Meadows are; tho' at present they are chiefly to be had in the Meadows from Woolverhampton to this Place, and so on to Hungerford, all in Berkshire. Which is all that I think proper to add at present: being (whenever you command me farther)

Yours, &c.

To Mr. S Switzer Seedsman
In Westminster-Hall.