Fertilizing Eastwick

“This is what they call organic. Horse shit. I like it like that. It’s gotta be dark, it’s broke down, it won’t smell as bad, it makes the ground soft. That’s the best shit you can get. This stuff here grow a pretty garden.” Mr. Stewart
























It was early Saturday morning when Mr. Stewart, a 70 year-old retired butcher from North Carolina, picked me up in his old pick-up truck. Duct tape held the dashboard together, the space behind the front seat held Stewart’s snacks (oranges, bananas, grapes, peanuts, and a 2 liter of Pepsi). No chips- chips have too much salt. Our mission was to travel to some horse stables in the city (‘Can’t no one just come down here, you gotta know someone’), fill up the truck bed with manure, and deliver it to the Eastwick Community Garden. To protect the privacy of the horse handlers, Mr. Stewart asked that I not take pictures of the stables themselves. Photos of the journey were allowed.

When we arrived at the stables, we were confronted by a 6 foot tall, 10 foot wide, and 6 foot deep pile of steaming dark brown horse manure. The smell was subtle, the heat was intense. A few young men working the stables greeted Mr. Stewart endearingly with ‘What’s up old man?’. After a few minutes the guys came over with a proposition. They’ve got more horses at another stable, and those horses also deficate. ‘It’s already bagged up, you just gotta come get it’. Stewart knows better. The fresh manure they were trying to dump ‘weighed a ton’, and still had to dry and ferment. Mr. Stewart prefers the ‘old shit’, and there is ample supply. We alternated forking and shoveling manure into the back of his pickup, fully filling up the truckbed, which took the two of us about 30 minutes.

The maximum speed during our 9-mile journey from the stables to the Eastwick Community Garden was 20 miles per hour. With every bump in the road the bottom of the truck scraped the street as the hefty load of manure weighed us down.The trip from the stables to the garden took 45 minutes. When we got to Eastwick, Mr. Stewart went to get his tractor.

I took pictures of scenery.

The tractor wasn’t working right (something about a belt not staying aligned) so Mr. Stewart retreated to his shed for some tools and then shimmied underneath his 1980 John Deere to ‘fix the damn machine’.

In figuring out how to get the tractor moving again, Mr. Stewart used bolts, pliers, a knife, a thick piece of string, and a lifetime of problem solving.

There was no question that the tractor would be fixed. Trying to be useful, I asked how I could help. ‘Just wait, I’ve almost got it’.

After an hour talking with some other gardeners, I asked again. ‘Go shovel some shit’. Mr. Stewart’s dismissal of my request to help with tractor proved to be wise, as after following his instruction I almost broke his truck and my head.

When Stewart fixed the tractor I had just about filled the trailer with manure. It took me 45 minutes, the last 30 of which I was drenched in sweat.

The full truck bed filled up a little more than 2 full trailers, which covered a plot about 20 x 30 feet. Mr. Stewart doesn’t deliver manure to all the plots in the 9-acre garden, but there’s a substantial number of folks who rely on him. Each year he starts his trips to the stables in September and ends at the beginning of May. He tries to go on most nice days.

Mr. Stewart drove the tractor into the plot, and then we forked the ‘hot shit’ on top of the soil. Covering the garden took about 45 minutes. He let’s it sit for a few days to further dry, and then works it under with a tiller. All told, the trip to the horse stables to the garden, including shoveling and spreading all the manure, took about 5 hours for the two of us, and involved just consistent and intense physical labor. Mr. Stewart, at 70-years old, often makes this journey twice a day.

The journey from the horse stables to community garden to pick up and deposit manure does more than just fertilize the soil, it fertilizes community. It starts with the horses. Keeping horses in Philadelphia is a long-standing neighborhood tradition, where elders and youth work together to ride the animals and keep them clean, healthy, and happy. The horses bring folks together, as does their waste. It so happens that horse manure (especially when mixed with sawdust, woodchips, and leaves) tilled in garden soil produces an underground ecosystem rich in nutrients and soil organisms (like ‘nighcrawlers’ says Stewart). Any experienced gardener will tell you that healthy vegetables start with healthy soil. When Mr. Stewart was a kid growing up on a farm in North Carolina they didn’t have horses, they had mules (‘horses eat too much’), but the practice of fertilizing was the same.¬†For thousands of years the farmer has relied on the symbiotic relationship between animal husbandry and rural agriculture. In Philadelphia, because of the folks at the horse stables and folks like Mr. Stewart, this heirloom knowledge is preserved and practiced to grow healthy food and a healthy community. It just takes a ‘big ol pile of shit’. There’s a reason the gardeners of Eastwick call it gold.

Big thanks to Mr. Stewart for bring me along for the ride, sharing your knowledge, and remaining patient as I struggled to shovel. Your expertise, wisdom, energy, and care for your community are truly inspiring.

Apr 19, 2015 | Category: Eastwick Community Garden, General News | Comments: none