Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Antique Soil Conditioner

I found myself sitting on the crossroads last night trying to figure out how to renew my subscription of my domain name and getting royally frustrated with the whole process.  I questioned whether continuing with the blog was relevant as its been a long time since I last posted and a lot has changed.  I now live on the other side of the world on the island of Lana'i in Hawaii, still gardening and still struggling with time to add extra in my life.  However, my daughters comments about keeping this going spurred me to overcome the technological frustrations and getting guidance from a person I presume was in India, is alive again.  

Below is one of the last pieces I wrote and planned to post while in Nevis.  The tides of change had been a major distraction, but after reading again I wanted to publish this as it was a fascinating subject.  Enjoy:-)

Lets be honest, doing any kind of gardening on clay soils just sucks.  It can be slopping wet for prolonged periods sticking to tools and boots while trying to work the ground and then baked dry like concrete in times of drought.  Its a miracle that anything will grow in clay, but somehow plants still manage.

When dealing with clay in the garden , the best approach is to mix in plenty of amendments like compost to break up the particles and produce a crumbly soil.  It will allow water to drain through the surface but also hold moisture for longer during drier conditions.  The other important factor to breaking up the clumps of clay is that you increase pore space allowing the roots to spread out and receive oxygen.

So what happens when you don't have ready access to compost?  To answer to this question I met an archaeologist working on Nevis who revealed how early settlers to these islands approached soil amending  and the answer was very unusual.  

Compost is a rare commodity on the islands.  Most waste plant material was either burnt as fuel instead of composted and the ashes used as a source of potash that was added to the soil. Very little organic material was dug into the ground. However, everywhere you go you'll notice broken shards of ceramic pottery mixed into the soil.  At first I thought it was a way that settlers would dispose of broken household items, but in reality this stuff was imported by the ship load!

As I learnt from the archaeologists, ships heading to the new world would often load bags of broken ceramics into the cargo holds as ballast to give the boats better stability.  These bags could be worked between the ribs of the ship hull and then have other cargo packed on top.  These bags of broken ceramics were obtained for free from the potteries disposing of broken shards.  Captains of these sailing ships knew that out in the new world this commodity could be sold as a soil conditioner, which in turn provided the captain and /or crew with a little extra income on the side.  These broken shards were then mixed into the clay soil as a way to open it up and improve drainage, much like putting broken pottery (crocks) at the base of pots.  Once these ships that had reached the Caribbean or along the east coast of America, they emptied this ballast of broken ceramics and replaced it with sugar, rum and cotton before heading back to the ports of Europe.

To this day, broken shards can be found everywhere from beach to mountain slopes on Nevis.  They range from Porcelain dating between 1660 - 1800, hand painted Pearlware from 1780 to 1920 and mix of different Stoneware and earthenware.  Though mostly from England, some shards have been identified as exports from China, Holland, Germany and Scotland.

These broken shards are seeing a new life in some parts of the Caribbean as entrepreneurial jewelers have taken these unearthed pieces of history and are transforming them in jewelry.  While not being the valuable pirates treasure that everyone wants to find, each unique piece represents a hidden story of days past and makes a nice conversation piece to go home with.

One mans trash really is another mans treasure!


  1. I was given a pendant just like the ones you picture, I wonder if this is its history? Terribly interesting!

    1. My daughter loved to pick up shards of pottery and make her own jewelry. Every time we went collecting it was like a treasure hunt!

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  9. Aloha :-)
    *waves over to you from West Maui*
    Do you think that ships to Hawaii also carried bags of broken ceramics, and did the people of Hawaii use them in this way as well, for soil aeration?

    I ask because when I hike near the near the entrances of some of the valleys here, I sometimes find old pottery sherds scattered around with a wide variety of different designs. I used to think someone was having a picnic or luau in the 1800s and one of their dishes broke, but after reading this blogpost I'm wondering if maybe they had planted something and used the sherds for soil aeration...

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  12. Finally a convincing explanation about the shards of china in the garden. I live in Hobart, Tasmania in an 1840s vintage cottage, and frequently find bits of china in the surrounding clay soil. Thank you for the information!

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