Student Merges Love of Horticulture, Colonial History in Organic Garden

Posted: May 3, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: April 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

By Devon Madison

Amanda Wall tends to her crops on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell

With or without snow, winter in Williamsburg can bear fruit. At least it did for Honors College junior and biology major Amanda Wall.

An intern in the Mason Organic Vegetable Garden on the Fairfax Campus, Wall often visits the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg because it is fertile ground for her many interests.

“I’m really interested in that time period for some reason,” says Wall. “And I really like plants a lot.”

While she and her family were exploring Williamsburg garden exhibits over winter break, her father had a novel idea: Why not fuse her love of horticulture and colonial history by starting a garden using farming methods of yore? Thus, the seed for her 18th-century farming project was sown and has since grown.

Wall, who is also president of the Mason Organic Gardening Association, already had all the basic resources to implement her project because of her ties to the Office of Sustainability’s organic garden. All she needed was a little colonial know-how. So she contacted Colonial Williamsburg’s head gardener, who gave her the information necessary to start planting settler-style.

Since Mason’s organic garden is already pesticide-free, the methods that Wall is using aren’t too different. The primary difference is that Wall is watering her crops with limewater instead of regular water. Limewater is a saturated calcium hydroxide solution that colonists used to irrigate their crops and control pests.

Students Shelby Steinberg and Cody Swift work with Wall in Mason's organic garden. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Another distinguishing feature of 18th-century gardening that Wall will employ is the cloche bell jar, a dome-shaped glass placed over plants to protect them from cold and frost. Wall is using a modern variation of the cloche bell jar — recycled plastic milk jugs.

While these farming practices indulge Wall’s interest in history, she ultimately values them because they are completely organic.

“I just think organic farming is important because it’s getting back to what it used to be like,” she says. “This way, you are getting more of the plant instead of more of the chemical.”

The 18th-century garden has taken up residence in the herb section of the university’s organic vegetable garden. Chives, acorn squash, basil and Sweet William are the plants receiving the colonial treatment. While different crops are being planted in the regular organic garden, by harvest time, Wall should still have a pretty good idea of whether or not her methods were successful. If so, she’ll think about implementing them in the rest of the garden.

Interestingly enough, the mission of Colonial Williamsburg is “that the future may learn from the past.” Thanks to Wall’s hard work, it seems that very idea is unfolding on Mason’s campus.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu