Forever Dung: At Mount Vernon, a Restored Barn and Pit Turn Stable Waste Into Black Gold for the Garden
The Washington Post, 29 November 2001«back | home
Livestock caretakers Cliff Harris and J. T. Hindle shovel dung into Mt. Vernon's "dung barn," where it's stored for future composting use. Photo by Stephanie K. Kuykendal, The Washington Post
Before the age of chemical fertilizers, gardeners had to make doo.
Well, the farm animals obliged first; then the gardener would take the manure and bedding straw, combine it with yard waste and kitchen scraps, and let the whole lot ferment into an earthy soil mix teeming with nutrients, microbes and earthworms.
For young plants, a delivery of this stuff was like manna from heaven.
Today's policymakers would call this a win-win situation: Property owners found a way to dispose of manure and other wastes to improve their depleted soil in the bargain. The only thing needed was a place to keep the muck while it transformed itself into compost.
George Washington -- Father of His Country, First President, Commander of the Army -- can now lay claim to a new title: Dungmeister. He brought the art of composting to new heights -- or rather, to new depths -- in the form of a manure repository on the south side of his house at Mount Vernon.
Newly re-created since last fall, the structure features a handsome shake-shingle roof protecting a pit in which the farm's stable waste is unloaded. Brick walls and a cobblestone floor prevent the manure from leaching into the surrounding soil. The roof, whose design, construction and materials would put many a McMansion to shame, keeps the dung dry.
The pit measures 11 feet wide, 30 feet long and 4 feet deep. The pitched roof above, framed in oak, is supported by rough locust posts. And the shingles, larger than any mass-produced roof shakes today, are custom-made from Washington's preferred roofing material, cypress wood.
Removable rails around the structure allow wagons to arrive from the nearby stable and laborers to shovel fresh manure and bedding into the pit, where it will rot for several weeks.
One recent day, Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's assistant director for preservation, looked down into the hole and imagined estate workers in Washington's time turning the decomposing mix while adding more green manure. "It's like a big mixing bowl put in the ground," said Pogue.
The original pit was traced by archaeologists, who spent three years examining the site. They found evidence of the post holes, "which we used in combination with documentary evidence and a drawing that was made at the same time by a friend of Washington," said Pogue. "We have combined all that to come up with a design for the building."
The original structure was built in 1787 using part of an existing garden wall. The replica, on the same spot, is deeper because the ground above it has built up over the years. It was designed by Pogue and two architectural historians -- Orlando Rideout and Willie Graham -- along with carpenters John O'Rourke and Gus Kiorpes. Kiorpes built the structure.
The dung pit's proximity to the house surprises some visitors, Pogue said, but we must remember that today the mansion is a manicured museum; in Washington's day, it was a working estate. The shed was sensibly sited, he noted, "right next to the stable."
Still, the whole structure is unusual, even for the period, and its sunken design might be linked to an effort to shield the house from its sights and smells. "We don't know of any building like this before this one," said Pogue. "It seems pretty unusual."
The roof, with its eaves of broad locust wood, prevents the pit from filling up with rainwater. Although compost mixture needs moisture for efficient rotting, the desired microbial action is impeded if the pile becomes saturated.
Since its dedication this summer, the shed has received token amounts of manure for demonstration purposes. The estate's gardeners run their own compost-making operation, in piles in a remote and private corner of the estate.
As in Washington's day, composting is once more a mark of a savvy gardener -- a vital ingredient for renewing and sustaining the soil. The Internet is full of advice on the practice, and though compost bins take many forms today, none comes close to Washington's stylish building.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company