Aspects of Wishetwurra Farm Soil Building, as presented to the MV Garden Club.

This post is an annotated version of a section of a talk on Vegetable Gardening, given to the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club.

At the edge of Mill Hill, and near to Ridge Hill, the Wishetwurra Farm garden is located at an upper edge of what was once Old Man West’s cow pasture. It faces roughly east-southeast, and is at the head of a small valley that slopes down to Looks Pond and the Tiasquam River. Existing topsoil is meager at best. The dirt here is mostly gray and white clays. Kaolins, I’ve been told. It’s a glacial jumble, for sure. While building my house, I hand-dug the basement trench for my water line. In the course of forty feet of trench there were patches of sand as fine and as loose as confectioner’s sugar, and other patches of hard, gray, pebble-laden clay that would yield only to a pick wielded by a younger, stronger, me.

This hard, poorly-drained material has required much labor, and much hauling, to transform it into the soil it is today. Lime has been applied to bring the pH up to a level approaching neutral. The lime also helps the teensy particles of clay clump up, thereby improving structure and drainage. I have added truckloads of sand, and mixed that in. Whether the sand has helped I am not certain. Ashes from my woodstove get applied from time to time. But the primary key to improving the soil has been the continuous addition of as much organic material as I can haul. Compost, manure, leaves, and seaweed, added, and added again, are the the primary source of this material. Another excellent source of humus is from growing cover crops Which we grow whenever and wherever possible.


This oddly shaped bed, which is called “The Bermuda Triangle”, has been planted to oats and buckwheat. I like buckwheat, but bees like it even more. Plant a bit of buckwheat here and there, let it bloom, and the bees will find the flowers. After they’re found the buckwheat flowers, they’ll look around for more, and fertilize your crops for you.

I have tried many composting methods, from bins made of pallets, to rings of wire fence, to layered constructions that were six feet wide, five feet high, and fifty feet long, to “sheet composting”—where you spread out leaves and till them in to the top level of the soil. These days I have two compost “centers”.

One center is a bin made of used concrete blocks. This is where most day-to-day garden weedings, thinnings, and “waste” material goes. From time to time I’ll add a layer of manure, or sprinkle on some wood ash. About once a year, the bin gets dug out, and the compost gets wheelbarrowed to where it’s needed.


Used cement block make the walls of the main compost bin.

The second compost center is a commercially made, two compartment “compostumbler”. I found this rig at a yard sale for a hundred dollars, and it was money well spent. They’re expensive to buy new, but nothing I’ve seen yet works as well as this one.


Compostumbler. All the household food waste goes into this machine. A big plus is that the food waste is kept enclosed, above ground, where critters can’t get to it. When one side fills up, we switch to the other side. When side II fills, side I is emptied, and the compost used in the garden. We usually toss in some horse manure to get decomposition underway. We also keep a population of redworms in the bin. Notice the bucket under the bin? A certain amount of liquid drips out, which we catch in the container. Diluted, it makes a wonderful fertilizer.

We have millions of helpers in the garden. The worms.


A grandson holds a handful of worms. We have redworms, “regular” earthworms, and big old nightcrawlers, all of whom work constantly to stir and aerate and fertilize the soil. If you’re an Islander, and want some worms, get in touch with me. You may have some.

Over the years I have done a lot of double-digging and trenching, in an effort to get organic material more deeply into the earth, and to improve drainage. Most of the garden has now gotten this treatment.


Deep trenching a bed. Soil is dug out, and then layers of manure and compost, alternating with layers of dug-out soil, are shoveled back in. Hard labor, but the improvement in plant health, and in yields, is significant.

The next photo is of my very favorite part of the horse.

The part that comes from the “rear office”.


Road apple, horse pucky, horse chips, horse apple, meadow muffin—whatever you call it, manure is a wonderful soil amendment. .

Here on the Vineyard, we are fortunate to have a lot of horses around. Many horse owners are very, very happy to have you come take as much manure as you can haul. If you don’t have a truck, or are at an age where you’re not as strong as you used to be, there are people who will bring you a whole dumptruck load of poop for relatively small money.


The fine, gentle beasts that produced this truckload live about a quarter of a mile away from Wishetwurra Farm.

Manure is spread thickly on the garden beds.


We like to put down a thick, that’s six to twelve inches thick, layer of manure in the late summer or fall, and to then plant beans, oats, peas, whatever we’ve got, right on top of the manure. We then water the seeds into the manure with a sharp jet of water from the hose.  Paul Jackson taught me this, one afternoon when he was taking his entries and his ribbons out of the Ag Hall, after the Fair. Paul is one of the best gardeners on Martha’s Vineyard. He can grow an onion as big as a baby’s head. I know, because he gave me one. 

Here’s the same bed, a month or six weeks later.


The white flowers in the foreground are buckwheat.

We used to use winter rye for a cover crop. The problem with rye, for us, is that it survives over the winter, and then, when the weather warms, shoots up a couple of feet. Tilling in two feet of rye is a big, big, ridiculous chore. Planting cover crops that are killed by cold does not endow you with such springtime troubles.


Here is an oats-planted bed in late winter or early spring. The oats die back, and make a mulch that covers the bare earth. At planting time, all you have to do is rake away the dried-up stems and plant your crops. If you’re too lazy to rake, you can just pull back the mulch where you put your seeds or plants. Easy is good.

We have been experimenting with adding charcoal, or “bio-char” to the garden. We accumulate a lot of brush each year, which we burn in the early spring. At one time we let the fire go down to ashes, which we then spread, but we have too many ashes already. Now we make charcoal, and add that to the soil.


The start of a spring burn.

You get charcoal by removing air from the embers. Put the coals into metal cans, and cover, or simply douse the embers with water.



Spread the charcoal on the garden, and till in.



We wrote much more extensively about bio-char in another tompostpile post.

Please see:

Whenever winds or storms bring seaweed ashore, we go gather up as much of it as we have time for.


Seaweed is a great mulch, and can often be re-used a time or two, as it’s slow to decompose. When it finally does go to earth, it takes with it just about every micronutrient you might want.




Eelgrass mulch on fall garlic beds. No weed can grow through the three or four inches of material, but the garlic comes right up through.

The end result of all this work?


Having to call in the heavy equipment to hill the potatoes.



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