PIECES OF THE PAST: Tiller of the Soil

Tacy Callies Pieces of the Past


By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

I recently came across this poem in a 1930s book titled “Citrus Growing in Florida” by the Florida Department of Agriculture in a chapter on cover crops:

“Would’st have abundant crops reward thy toil
And fill thy barns, O tiller of the soil?
Then ever keep in mind this maxim true,
Feed well the land and ’twill in turn feed you.”
— Author Unknown

I will admit I do not have a green thumb! But I admire people who do and who continue to try and raise a crop despite the many frustrations Mother Nature sends their way. Therefore, I found this simple wisdom somewhat refreshing, although to the average grower it’s probably a “ho-hum” moment! Regardless, I’d like to pass along what was written almost 100 years ago:

“The growing of a cover crop in the citrus grove each year, especially if it is a legume, is one of the most practical ways of increasing the efficiency of the fertilizer that is applied from year to year. Cover crops increase the humus of the soil, and in this way increase the water holding capacity of the soil, which is often an important factor in the growth of a young grove. Then, too, during the rainy season the cover crop pumps a lot of surplus water out of the soil.”

This makes sense even to me! The authors (John M. Scott, E.F. DeBusk, R.W. Ruprecht, Frank Stirling, L.M. Rhodes and H.G. Clayton) went on to note that “Our hammock soil is an excellent example of land well supplied with humus … When a liberal amount of humus is added from year to year, the soil is kept supplied with the bacterial life which is so very essential to plant growth.

“A sandy soil on which clean culture is practiced does not respond to fertilizer as well as a soil of the same type to which a cover crop has been added each year. This is explained by the fact that commercial fertilizer does not ordinarily add bacteria to the soil. Soil without abundant bacterial life never responds to fertilizer or cultivation to the same extent as does the soil that is well supplied with bacteria.

“Bacterial life in a soil is not only dependent upon the humus content of the soil, but also upon the moisture content … However, as the humus content of the soil is increased, the water holding capacity of the soil is also increased. These are two very important factors in the production of a crop. In many cases, moisture is a limiting factor in the production of a maximum crop. Lack of moisture in the spring may cause a heavy dropping off of the bloom before it sets, while lack of moisture later in the year may cause dropping of the immature fruit.

“In addition to the humus that the cover crop may add to the soil, it also adds plant food. The legume crops, of course, add more plant food then do non-legumes. A number of growers say that the amount of ammonia in the fertilizer may be reduced one or two percent when a good legume cover crop is returned to the soil each year.

“Sunshine and cultivation tend to destroy or burn out the humus from the soil faster than any other factor. By keeping the ground shaded with a cover crop during the summer, the humus content of the soil will be conserved.”

If you’re wondering what cover crops to plant, the authors offered this advice: “The legumes that have generally given the most satisfactory results are velvet beans, cowpeas, beggarweed and crotalaria. In addition to the legumes, one has the choice of a number of non-legumes, such as crab grass, Natal grass, sand burs, Mexican clover and other grasses and weeds that might grow.”

So, “O tiller of the soil,” feed well the land!

Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.

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