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1860a Ag/Mould


Matthew, P. How to grow red clover on clay land. Farmer’s Magazine, Ser. 3 Vol 17 (1860, Jan-Jun), pp.406-7

(Letter dated March 26, article in May issue)
In this article, Matthew makes some pertinent points regarding good farming practice for growing red clover. In the final paragraph, he also makes some salient comments about the different geologies of Scotland and England, and in particular attributes the generally more calcareous soils of England to their being derived from more recent rock formations, which “seem to have been extracted by shell-fish, and fish of thick bony scales, from the seas of ancient time, which appear to have had much lime in solution”. This recognition that the chemical composition of seas changed over geological time is also reflected in Paragraph 2 of his famous End-Appendix in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

Assuming that Matthew found out about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species from Huxley’s review reproduced in the Gardeners’ Chronicle on 3rd March , then this was written just after that, but there is no mention of it here. The principle of the exhaustion of vegetable mould by removing red clover for hay is mentioned, but not the term “vegetable mould”.

At one point, Matthew refers to “the columns of the Mark Lane Express”, suggesting that this piece was either originally intended for that journal, or indeed was published there and then subsequently repeated in the Farmer’s Magazine (repeating articles verbatim in different journals was widely practiced at the time).

The article was also reproduced under the title “Cure for Clover-Sickness” in the Bury and Norwich Post, Tuesday 10 April 1860, p.4 col.5. The first four paragraphs are paraphrased as follows, before reproducing verbatim paragraphs 5 onwards: “Mr Patrick Matthew, of Errol, in a letter to the Mark Lane Express, after noticing a paper in a recent number of the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, attributing the failure of red clover grown at short intervals to the poisonous effect of the old roots remaining in the soil, and the various other theories advanced to explain this well-known fact, says:— “Instead of theorizing about the cause of the red clover sickness on land, …”

The quote “I think there be six Richmonds in the field” comes from Shakespeare (Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4), meaning too many versions of the same thing.


Sir,— A new reason was lately brought forward in the Scottish Quarterly Journal of Agriculture why clover (we suppose red clover here is meant) does not grow, or does not grow well, when sown a second time, unless a number of years intervene; that this is in consequence of the large quantity of old roots in the soil having a poisonous effect upon the recurring plant; that these old roots require to be rotted, and their components formed into new combinations, or evaporated, before a healthy recurrence of clover can be got; while cereals and other annuals, having much smaller roots, and these exhausted in maturing the seed, thence sooner disappearing or being absorbed, a recurrence can be much more frequent.

In science it has been a maxim that it is unphilosophic to bring in more than one cause for one effect. Here

“I think there be six Richmonds in the field.”

It is an acknowledged fact that certain kinds of plants extract certain kinds of nutriment from the soil (we need not state here whether of what is termed organic or inorganic matter), and that a previous crop of the same kind of plant, extracting a portion of some necessary nutriment, or nearly the whole in particular kinds of plants, renders a recurring crop of the same less luxuriant or even impracticable. Although the seeds germinate, the plant dwindles away in the braird, or, when larger grown, plotts out, as it is termed, from some disease induced by a want of some of the constituents necessary to healthy existence. It is also allowed that time, and exposure of the bare soil to the atmosphere, repairs what is lost, or increases the soluble quantity of the soil-supply necessary to the plant. Hence the great advantage of bare fallow, and of stirring the soil between plants with the hoe, which, although evaporating a considerable portion of the more volatile organic components of the soil, seems to render soluble the inorganic, and particularly to attract nitre from the atmosphere. Cannot all the apparently whimsical freaks of our red-clover history be rationally accounted for upon this one principle of exhaustion?

It is also a fact acknowledged by those who have made some inquiry in physiology, that almost every organism has its enemies or destroyers — in the case of plants generally minute parasites, many kinds of them only microscopic. These noxious organisms having greatly accumulated in the previous clover crop (living in clover), may manage to keep hold of existence by remaining in the seed or germ, or egg state, in the soil, or find a supply of food in the other crops barely sufficient to support existence, and only for a few years, till an early occurrence of another clover-sowing supply them with tender young plants, which they make their prey.

Another reason has been brought forward for the red clover sickness in land, though far from being proven — that plants generally throw out certain matter which they have absorbed, but which they cannot digest, or find injurious, and that this, remaining in the soil, is more or less poisonous to the same kind of plant recurring — in the case of some of the more delicate, such as red clover, soon recurring — altogether destructive.

Instead of theorising about the cause of the red clover sickness of land, which still remains doubtful, and may continue so, I think it more fitting the columns of the Mark Lane Express to describe how, in my own case, I succeeded in curing this sickness, and that thoroughly. I will be the more particular about this, although I state nothing new to the experienced farmer, as heavy crops of red clover is the most important part of high farming, as being the best paying crop of all when fat stock are so dear, and grain so cheap, and besides, not only as an enricher and cleaner of the land for the following crops, but also as the great parent of manure, especially when used in soiling cattle along with plenty of old straw. If properly attended to, and having the grass always fresh and green, stock in small sheds will feed fully as well as in the pasture field ; while in plastic soils the keep for stock will be double. Red clover and annual ryegrass are much more productive when allowed to rise to their full flowering height, than when cut earlier or depastured. Annual ryegrass, a stronger plant than the perennial, may be known from perennial by the want of buds or eyes on the crown of the root.

In the case of some land belonging to the writer, in the Carse of Gowrie, where it is not found profitable to continue the clover-grass beyond one year, facts do not accord well with the new theory of old-root poison, and rather go to confirm the first doctrine of a defect in some food necessary to the health of the plant. At the time I began to cultivate this land — about 53 years ago — it had been brought, by a succession of six years’ rotation and shallow ploughing, to be clover-sick, seldom giving a second cutting, except in scattered small patches, and sometimes very de- fective in the first. To correct this I broke up the fallow portions (during the first rotation) in the spring, with four horses in the plough, at a depth of from ten to twelve inches; and, in addition to the manure made in the place, some town manure, containing ashes, &c., to which the land had not been accustomed, was applied ; at the same time giving it a fair liming, and changing the rotation to a seven-year shift, with two white crops immediately preceding the clover. The result was an immediate cure of the clover-sickness, and the clover crops have been for the last forty-five years unsurpassed in the country — never a failure of two heavy cuttings, excepting one season — a cold, very wet summer. During this time a little extraneous manure was sometimes given, and the whole clover crop was always consumed on the farm, most of it in soiling, which is by far the most economical in a plastic soil. Last season, so dry in this quarter, and the grass in consequence defective, except on good heavy soil, on this ground the annual ryegrass rose nearly to three feet, and, leaning over, allowed the red clover to rise above it, which last, also leaning over, allowed the allsike to rise through both — the whole composing a piece of resistance seldom equalled, and which below the feet felt like a thick mattress. Where some part of it was cut for hay, it had scarcely room to get won, partaking of the nature of three crops. Of course, this would not have been profitable in a wet season, as the ryegrass which at first leaned over would have fallen close to the ground, and rotted, while the clovers were rising, and would have required to be cut earlier. Here we may mention that good land in high condition produces a much closer crop, whether of red-clover grass, corn, or timber trees, than inferior soil. Many parts of the Carse of Gowrie (a silt formation, similar to that at the mouth of other rivers, and from which the sea has retreated many centuries) have become clover-sick chiefly where the soil is poorest, and where the former clover plants in the last rotation were rather minute, or even altogether wanting; while in the richer, deeper soils of our carse clay, under the same length of rotation, and where the roots last rotation were large, the ensuing clover crop is generally good.

It is amusing to listen to some of the old-school farmers, who after they and their fathers for more than half a century back have made hay of at least half their clover grass crop, and driven it away to a town at some distance, with- out bringing back any manure in return, complain that their land will not bear clover. They had killed the goose of the golden egg — had driven away from their land the peculiar principle of red clover, and are astonished that it is gone. This fact, along with the foregoing account of my own practice, I think is conclusive against the doctrine of the Scottish agricultural paper; and that enriching the land by town manure and lime, deep ploughing, consuming all the clover produce on the farm, and taking care that the crop among which the clover is sown be not too heavy is the effectual remedy for the clover sickness.

In the fine calcareous loams of Poland, east of the Yistula, I have found beautiful fields of our common red clover, which had continued in sole and full occupation of the ground, giving luxuriant cuttings for ten and even more years in succession, the same as lucerne does in the best soils in the south of England, having a rubble limestone bottom. With regard to the interval of time required between the sowings of red clover in Scotland, my experience leads me to conclude that the longer time between, the better is the succeeding crop, other circumstances being equal. In my earliest remembrance, upwards of sixty years ago, in a part of this country where clover was nearly new to the soil, and the soil good clay, the finest clover was obtained under a six-year rotation shift. This would infer that it is merely an exhaustion of the soil which constitutes the clover sickness.

In closing, I may remark that lime or calcareous earth is a requisite in the soil for the luxuriant growth of clover. We have found this a sine qua non in Germany. The soil of the greater part of Scotland is defective in calcareous earth, much more so than most of the soil in England, This might be expected from the rock basis in Scotland being generally very old formations, most of them defective in lime — belonging to periods when there appears to have been less calcareous matter on the surface of the earth, at least in the solid form. The greater part of the calcareous rocks of more recent formations, and which abound in England, seem to have been extracted by shell-fish, and fish of thick bony scales, from the seas of ancient time, which appear to have had much lime in solution. There is another reason why lime is more required as a manure in Scotland than in England. It tends to prevent the formation of peat, and acts to reduce this obstinate encroaching subject to a manure when formed, to which formation Scotland, from the colder and moister climate, is more disposed than England, while at the same time it hastens the maturity of the crops, so important in the backward climate of Scotland.

Gourdie Hill, Errol, March 26, 1860.

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