The Home Acre by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter VIII. The Kitchen-Garden
The garden should be open to the sky, and as far as possible unshaded by adjacent trees from the morning and afternoon sun. It is even more essential that the trees be not so near that their voracious roots can make their way to the rich loam of the garden.
Now for the soil. We should naturally suppose that that of Eden was a deep sandy loam, with not too porous a subsoil. As we have already seen again and again, such a soil appears to be the laboratory in which we can assist Nature to develop her best products. But Nature has a profound respect for skill, and when she recognizes it, "lends a hand" in securing excellent crops from almost drifting sand or stubborn clay. She has even assisted the Hollander in wresting from the ocean one of the gardens of the world.
We must again dwell on the principles already emphasized, that soils must be treated according to their nature. If too damp, they must be drained; if of the fortunate quality of a sandy loam resting on a clay subsoil, they can be abundantly deepened and enriched from the start, if of a heavy clay, inclined to be cold and wet in spring, and to bake and crack in summer, skill should aim to lighten it and remove its inertia; finally, as we have shown, a light, porous soil should be treated like a spendthrift. All soils, except the last-named, are much the better for being enriched and deeply plowed or forked in October or November. This exposes the mould to the sweetening and mechanical action of frost, and the fertilizers incorporated with it are gradually transformed into just that condition of plant food which the rootlets take up with the greatest ease and rapidity. A light soil, on the contrary, should not be worked in autumn, but be left intact after the crops are taken from it.
In one respect a light soil and a stiff, heavy one should be treated in the same way, but for different reasons. In the first instance, fertilizers should be applied in moderation to the surface, and rains and the cultivation of the growing crops depended upon to carry the richness downward to the roots. The porous nature of the earth must ever be borne in mind; fertilizers pass through it and disappear, and therefore are applied to the surface, to delay this process and enable the roots to obtain as much nutriment as possible during the passage. Equal and even greater advantages are secured by a top-dressing of barnyard manures and composts to the heaviest of clay. The surface of such soils, left to Nature, becomes in hot, dry weather like pottery, baking and cracking, shielding from dew and shower, and preventing all circulation of air about the roots. A top-dressing prevents all this, keeps the surface open and mellow, and supplies not only fertility, but the mechanical conditions that are essential.
If we are now ready to begin, let us begin right. I have not much sympathy with finical, fussy gardening. One of the chief fascinations of gardening is the endless field it affords for skilful sleight of hand, short-cuts, unconventional methods, and experiments. The true gardener soon ceases to be a man of rules, and becomes one of strategy, of expedients. He is prompt to act at the right moment. Like the artist, he is ever seeking and acting upon hints from Nature. The man of rules says the first of July is the time to set out winter cabbage; and out the plants go, though the sky be brazen, and the mercury in the nineties. The gardener has his plants ready, and for a few days watches the sky. At last he perceives that rain is coming; then he sets out his plants, and Nature's watering starts them, unwilted, on their new growth.
At the same time I protest against careless, slovenly gardening-- ground imperfectly prepared, crooked rows, seed half covered, or covered so deeply that the germs are discouraged long before they reach light. One of the best aids to success is a small compost- heap composed equally of manure from the horse-stable, the cow- stable, and of leaves. This should be allowed to stand so long, and be cut down and turned so often, that it becomes like a fine black powder, and is much the better for being kept under shelter from sun and rain.
All who hope to have a permanent garden will naturally think first of asparagus--one of the vegetables that have bee a longest in cultivation, and one which is justly among the most valued. It was cultivated hundreds of years before the Christian era, and is to- day growing in popular esteem among civilized peoples.
In the matter of preparation I shall take issue with many of the authorities. I have read and known of instances wherein extraordinary expense and pains have been bestowed upon the asparagus-bed. The soil has been dug out to the depth of two or more feet, the bottom paved, and the homely, hardy roots, accustomed to roughing it the world over, set out and tended with a care which, if given to a potato, would make it open its eyes. There are few more hardy or widely distributed species of vegetables than asparagus. It is "a native of the sea-coasts of various countries of Europe and Asia." According to Loudon, it is abundant on the sandy steppes in the interior of Russia. In Southern Russia and Poland the horses and cows feed upon it. It grows freely in the fens of Lincolnshire, and is indigenous to Cornwall. On the borders of the Euphrates the shoots are so extraordinarily large and vigorous that Thompson thinks it would be to the advantage of gardeners to import roots from that region. These facts may indicate that too much stress may have been laid on its character as a marine plant. Yet it is true that it grows naturally on the coast of Holland, in the sandy valleys and on the downs, while off Lizard Point it flourishes naturally on an island where, in gales, the sea breaks over the roots. In this country also it has escaped cultivation, and is establishing itself along our coasts, The truth is that it is a plant endowed with a remarkable power of adaptation to all soils and climates, and does not need the extravagant petting often given it. On different portions of my place chance seeds have fallen, and annually produce almost as fine heads as are cut from the garden. Nature therefore teaches what experience verifies--that asparagus is one of the most easily grown and inexpensive vegetables of the garden. From two small beds we have raised during the past eight years twice as much as we could use, and at the cost of very little trouble either in planting or cultivation.
In my effort to show, from the hardy nature of the asparagus plant, that extravagant preparation is unnecessary, let no one conclude that I am opposed to a good, thorough preparation that accords with common-sense. It is not for one year's crop that you are preparing, but for a vegetable that should be productive on the same ground thirty or forty years. What I said of strawberries applies here. A fair yield of fruit may be expected from plants set out on ordinary corn-ground, but more than double the crop would be secured from ground generously prepared.
When I first came to Cornwall, about twelve years ago, I determined to have an asparagus bed as soon as possible. I selected a plot eighty feet long by thirty wide, of sandy loam, sloping to the southwest. It had been used as a garden before, but was greatly impoverished. I gave it a good top-dressing of barnyard manure in the autumn, and plowed it deeply; another top- dressing of fine yard manure and a deep forking in the early spring. Then, raking the surface smooth, I set a line along its length on one side. A man took a spade, sunk its length in the soil, and pushed it forward strongly. This action made an almost perpendicular wedge-shaped aperture just back of the spade. The asparagus plant, with its roots spread out fan-shape, was sunk in this opening to a depth that left the crown of the plant between three and four inches below the surface. Then the spade was drawn out, and the soil left to fall over the crown of the plant. Rapidly repeating this simple process, the whole plot was soon set out. The entire bed was then raked smooth. The rows were three feet apart, and plants one foot apart in the row. A similar plot could scarcely have been planted with potatoes more quickly or at less expense, and a good crop of potatoes could not have been raised on that poor land with less preparation. A few years later I made another and smaller bed in the same way. The results have been entirely satisfactory. I secured my object, and had plenty of asparagus at slight cost, and have also sold and given away large quantities. A bit of experience is often worth much more than theory.
At the same time it is proper that some suggestions should follow this brief record. The asparagus bed should be in well-drained soil; for while the plant will grow on wet land, it will start late, and our aim is to have it early.
Again, with asparagus as with nearly everything else, the deeper and richer the soil, the larger and more luxuriant the crop. Listen to Thompson, the great English gardener: "If the ground has been drained, trenched, or made good to the depth of three feet, as directed for the kitchen-garden generally [!], that depth will suffice for the growth of asparagus." We should think so; yet I am fast reaching the conclusion that under most circumstances it would in the end repay us to secure that depth of rich soil throughout our gardens, not only for asparagus, but for everything else. Few of the hasty, slipshod gardeners of America have any idea of the results secured by extending root pasturage to the depth of three feet instead of six or seven inches; soil thus prepared would defy flood and drought, and everything planted therein would attain almost perfection, asparagus included. But who has not seen little gardens by the roadside in which all the esculents seemed growing together much as they would be blended in the pot thereafter? Yet from such patches, half snatched from barrenness, many a hearty, wholesome dinner results. Let us have a garden at once, then improve it indefinitely.
I will give in brief just what is essential to secure a good and lasting asparagus bed. We can if we choose grow our own plants, and thus be sure of good ones. The seed can be sown in late October or early spring on light, rich soil in rows eighteen inches apart. An ounce of seed will sow fifty feet of drill. If the soil is light, cover the seed one inch deep; if heavy, half an inch; pack the ground lightly, and cover the drill with a good dusting of that fine compost we spoke of, or any fine manure. This gives the young plants a good send-off. By the use of the hoe and hand-weeding keep them scrupulously clean during the growing season, and when the tops are killed by frost mow them off. I should advise sowing two or three seeds to the inch, and then when the plants are three inches high, thinning them out so that they stand four inches apart. You thus insure almost the certainty of good strong plants by autumn; for plants raised as directed are ready to be set out after one season's growth, and by most gardeners are preferred.
In most instances good plants can be bought for a small sum from nurserymen, who usually offer for sale those that are two years old. Strong one-year-olds are just as good, but under ordinary culture are rarely large enough until two years of age. I would not set out three-year-old plants, for they are apt to be stunted and enfeebled. You can easily calculate how many plants you require by remembering that the rows are to be three feet apart, and the plants one foot apart in the row.
Now, whether you have raised the plants yourself, or have bought them, you are ready to put them where they will grow, and yield to the end of your life probably. Again I substantiate my position by quoting from the well-known gardener and writer, Mr. Joseph Harris: "The old directions for planting an asparagus bed were well calculated to deter any one from making the attempt. I can recollect the first I made. The labor and manure must have cost at the rate of a thousand dollars an acre, and, after all was done, no better results were obtained than we now secure at one-tenth of the expense."
If the ground selected for the bed is a well-drained sandy loam, is clean, free from sod, roots, stones, etc., I would give it a top-dressing of six inches of good barnyard manure, which by trenching or plowing I would thoroughly mix with the soil to the depth of at least two feet. If the ground is not free from stones, roots, and sod, I should put on the manure, as directed, in the autumn, and begin on one side of the prospective bed and trench it all over, mingling the fertilizer through the soil. The trencher can throw out on the surface back of him every stone, root, and weed, so that by the time he is through there is a sufficient space of ground amply prepared.
On all soils except a wet, heavy clay I prefer autumn planting. During the latter part of October or early November put in the plants as explained above, or else make a straight trench that will give room for the spreading of the roots, and leave the crowns between three and four inches below the surface. Then level the ground, and cover the row with a light mulch of stable-manure as you would strawberries. If more convenient to set out the plants in spring, do so as soon as the ground is dry enough to crumble freely when worked. In the spring rake off the mulch, and as early as possible fork the ground over lightly, taking pains not to touch or wound the crowns of the plants. The young, slender shoots will soon appear, and slender enough they will be at first. Keep them free of weeds and let them grow uncut all through the first year; mow off the tops in late October, and cover the entire bed with three or four inches of coarse barnyard manure. In spring rake off the coarsest of this mulch, from which the rains and melting snows have been carrying down richness, dig the bed over lightly once (never wounding the roots or crowns of the plants), and then sow salt over the bed till it is barely white. Let the tops grow naturally and uncut the second year, and merely keep clean. Take precisely the same action again in the autumn and the following spring. During the latter part of April and May a few of the strongest shoots may be cut for the table. This should be done with a sharp knife a little below the surface, so that the soil may heal the wound, and carefully, lest other heads just beneath the surface be clipped prematurely. Cut from the bed very sparingly, however, the third year, and let vigorous foliage form corresponding root-power. In the autumn of the third and the spring of the fourth year the treatment is precisely the same. In the fourth season, however, the shoots may be used freely to, say, about June 20, after which the plants should be permitted to grow unchecked till fall, in order to maintain and increase the root- power. Every year thereafter there should be an abundant top- dressing of manure in the fall, and a careful digging of the ground in the early spring. Light, sandy soil, clear of stones, is well adapted to asparagus, but should be treated on the principles already indicated in this work. There should be no attempt, by trenching, to render a porous subsoil more leaky. It is useless to give the bed a thorough initial enriching. Put on a generous top- dressing every autumn and leave the rains to do their work, and good crops will result.
If, on the contrary, a cold, heavy clay must be dealt with, every effort should be made to ameliorate it. Work in a large quantity of sand at first, if possible; employ manures from the horse- stable, or other light and exciting fertilizers, and there will be no failure.
In regard to the use of salt, Mr. Harris writes: "It is a popular notion that common salt is exceedingly beneficial to asparagus. I do not know that there is any positive proof of this, but, at any rate, salt will do no harm, even if applied thick enough to kill many of our common weeds. Salt is usually sown broadcast, at the rate of ten bushels to the acre."
Until recently I have grown asparagus without salt. Hereafter I shall employ it in sufficient degree to kill all weeds except the strongest. I shall sow it every spring after the bed is dug until the ground is as white as if a flurry of snow had passed over it. I think salt is a good manure for asparagus, and many other things. At any rate, we secure a great advantage in keeping our beds free of weeds.
I have written thus fully of asparagus because when a man makes a bed as directed he makes it for a lifetime. He can scarcely find another investment that will yield a larger return. We have asparagus on our table every day, from the middle of April to July 1; and the annual care of the crop is far less than that of a cabbage-patch. I do not advise severe cutting, however, after the middle of June, for this reason: it is well known that the most pestiferous perennial weed can be killed utterly if never allowed to make foliage. As foliage depends upon the root, so the root depends on foliage. The roots of asparagus may therefore be greatly enfeebled by too severe and long-continued cutting. Avarice always overreaches itself.
In some localities the asparagus beetle destroys whole plantations. Thompson, the English authority, says: "The larvae, beetles, and eggs are found from June to the end of September. Picking off the larvae and beetles, or shaking them into receptacles, appears to be the only remedy."
Peter Henderson, in his valuable book, "Gardening for Profit," figures this insect and its larvas accurately, and says: "Whenever the eggs or larvae appear, cut and burn the plants as long as any traces of the insect are seen. This must be done if it destroys every vestige of vegetation." He and other authorities speak of the advantage of cooping a hen and chickens in the bed. Most emphatically would I recommend this latter course, for I have tried it with various vegetables. Active broods of little chickens here and there in the garden are the best of insecticides, and pay for themselves twice over in this service alone.
We will next speak of the onion, because it is so hardy that the earlier it is planted in spring the better. Indeed, I have often, with great advantage, sown the seed on light soils the first of September, and wintered over the young plants in the open ground. Nature evidently intended the onion for humanity in general, for she has endowed the plant with the power to flourish from the tropics to the coldest limit of the temperate zone.
While onions are grown in all sorts of careless ways, like other vegetables, it is by far the best plan to select a space for an annual and permanent bed, just as we do for asparagus. Unlike most other crops, the onion does not require change of ground, but usually does better on the same soil for an indefinite number of years. Therefore I would advise that upon the Home Acre the onion, like the asparagus bed, should be made with a view to permanence.
Not much success can be hoped for on rough, poor land. The onion, like the asparagus bed, should be made and maintained with some care. If possible, select a light, well-drained, but not dry plot. Make the soil rich, deep, mellow, to the depth of twenty inches, taking out all stones, roots, etc.; cover the land with at least six inches of good strong barnyard manure. This should be done in the autumn. Sow the ground white with salt, as in the case of asparagus, and then mingle these fertilizers thoroughly with the soil, by forking or plowing it at once, leaving the surface as rough as possible, so that the frost can penetrate deeply. Just as soon as the ground is dry enough to work in the spring, fork or plow again, breaking every lump and raking all smooth, so that the surface is as fine as the soil in a hot-bed. You cannot hope for much in heavy, lumpy ground. Sow at least three seeds to the inch in a shallow drill one inch deep, and spat the earth firmly over the seed with the back of a spade or with your hand. In subsequent culture little more is required than keeping the mere surface stirred with a hoe, and the rows clean of weeds. Onions are not benefited by deep stirring of the soil, but the surface, from the start, should be kept clean and scarified an inch or two deep between the rows during the growing season. I prefer to have my onions growing at the rate of one or two to every inch of row, for I do not like large bulbs. I think that moderate-sized onions are better for the table. Those who value largeness should thin out the plants to three or four inches apart; but even in the market there is less demand for large, coarse onions. When the tops begin to fall over from their own weight, in August or September, leave them to mature and ripen naturally. When the tops begin to dry up, pull them from the soil, let them dry thoroughly in the sun, and then spread them thinly in a dry loft till there is danger of their freezing. Even there they will keep better, if covered deeply with straw, hay, etc., than in a damp cellar. Wherever the air is damp and a little too warm, onions will speedily start to grow again, and soon become worthless. After the crop has been taken, the ground should be treated as at first--thoroughly enriched and pulverized late in autumn, and left to lie in a rough state during the winter, then prepared for planting as early as possible. I prefer March sowing of the seed to April, and April, by far, to May. In England they try to plant in February. Indeed, as I have said, I have had excellent success by sowing the seed early in September on light soils, and letting the plants grow during all the mild days of fall, winter, and early spring. By this course we have onions fit for the table and market the following May. In this latitude they need the protection of a little coarse litter from December 1 to about the middle of March. Only the very severest frost injures them. Most of us have seen onions, overlooked in the fall gathering, growing vigorously as soon as the thaws began in spring. This fact contains all the hint we need in wintering over the vegetable in the open ground. If the seed is sown late in September, the plants do not usually acquire sufficient strength in this latitude to resist the frost. It is necessary, therefore, to secure our main crop by very early spring sowings, and it may be said here that after the second thorough pulverization of the soil in spring, the ground will be in such good condition that, if well enriched and stirred late in autumn, it will only need levelling down and smoothing off before the spring sowing. Onions appear to do best on a compact soil, if rich, deep, and clean. It is the surface merely that needs to be stirred lightly and frequently.
If young green onions with thin, succulent tops are desired very early in spring, it will be an interesting experiment to sow the seed the latter part of August or early in September. Another method is to leave a row of onions in the garden where they ripened. When the autumn rains begin, they will start to grow again. The winter will not harm them, and even in April there will be a strong growth of green tops. The seed stalk should be picked off as soon as it appears in spring, or else the whole strength will speedily go to the formation of seed.
It should be remembered that good onions can not be produced very far to the south by sowing the small gunpowder-like seed. In our own and especially in warmer climates a great advantage is secured by employing what are known as "onion sets." These are produced by sowing the ordinary black seed very thickly on light poor land. Being much crowded, and not having much nutriment, the seed develop into little onions from the size of a pea to that of a walnut, the smaller the better, if they are solid and plump. These, pressed or sunk, about three inches apart, into rich garden soil about an inch deep, just as soon as the frost is out, make fine bulbs by the middle of June. For instance, we had in our garden plenty of onions three inches in diameter from these little sets, while the seed, sown at the same time, will not yield good bulbs before August. There is but little need of raising these sets, for it is rather difficult to keep them in good condition over the winter. Any seedsman will furnish them, and they are usually on sale at country stores. Three or four quarts, if in good condition, will supply a family abundantly, and leave many to be used dry during the autumn. Insist on plump little bulbs. If you plant them early, as you should, you will be more apt to get good sets. Many neglect the planting till the sets are half dried up, or so badly sprouted as to be wellnigh worthless. They usually come in the form of white and yellow sets, and I plant an equal number of each.
The chief insect enemies are onion maggots, the larvae of the onion fly. These bore through the outer leaf and down into the bulb, which they soon destroy. I know of no remedy but to pull up the yellow and sickly plants, and burn them and the pests together. The free use of salt in the fall, and a light top- dressing of wood-ashes at the time of planting, tend to subdue these insects; but the best course is prevention by deeply cultivating and thoroughly enriching in the fall, leaving the ground rough and uneven for the deep action of frost, and by sowing the seed very early in spring. I have found that the insect usually attacks late-sown and feeble plants. If the maggot were in my garden, I should use the little sets only.
Some special manures have been employed in attaining the greatest success with this vegetable. In England, pigeon-dung and the cleanings of the pigsty are extensively employed. In this country the sweepings of the hen-roost are generally recommended. It should be remembered that all these are strong agents, and if brought in contact with the roots of any vegetable while in a crude, undiluted state, burn like fire, especially in our climate. What can be done in safety in England will not answer under our vivid sun and in our frequent droughts. These strong fertilizers could be doubled in value as well as bulk by being composted with sods, leaves, etc., and then, after having been mixed, allowed to decay thoroughly. Then the compost can be used with great advantage as a top-dressing directly over the drills when either sets or seeds are planted. The spring rains will carry the richness from the surface to the roots, and insure a very vigorous growth. When the compost named in the early part of this paper is used, I sow it thickly in the drill, draw a pointed hoe through once more, to mingle the fertilizer with the soil, and then forthwith sow the seeds or put in the sets one inch deep; and the result is immediate and vigorous growth. Wood-ashes and bone-dust are excellent fertilizers, and should be sown on the surface on the row as soon as planted, and gradually worked in by weeding and cultivation during the growing season. Manure from the pigsty, wherein weeds, litter, sods, muck, etc., have been thrown freely during the summer, may be spread broadcast over the onion bed in the autumn, and worked in deeply, like the product of the barnyard. The onion bed can scarcely be made too rich as long as the manure is not applied in its crude, unfermented state at the time of planting. Then, if the seed is put in very early, it grows too strongly and quickly for insects to do much damage.
Varieties.--Thompson in his English work names nineteen varieties with many synonyms; Henderson offers the seed of thirteen varieties; Gregory, of seventeen kinds. There is no need of our being confused by this latitude of choice. We find it in the great majority of fruits and vegetables offered by nurserymen and seedsmen. Each of the old varieties that have survived the test of years has certain good qualities which make it valuable, especially in certain localities. Many of the novelties in vegetables, as among fruits, will soon disappear; a few will take their place among the standard sorts. In the case of the kitchen, as well as in the fruit, garden, I shall give the opinion of men who have a celebrity as wide as the continent for actual experience, and modestly add occasionally some views of my own which are the result of observation.
As a choice for the home-garden, Mr. Henderson recommends the following varieties of onions: Extra Early Red, Yellow Globe Danvers, White Portugal or Silver Skin, and Southport Yellow Globe. Mr. Joseph Harris, the well-known and practical author: Yellow Danvers, Extra Early Large Bed, and White Globe. Mr. J. J. H. Gregory: New Queen, Early Yellow Acker, Yellow Danvers, Early Red Globe Danvers, Large Red Wethersfield. They all recommend onion sets. The Queen onion is quite distinct. For the home table, where earliness, as well as quality, size and quantity is desired, I think the Queen deserves a place. It is admirably fitted for pickling. I have tried all the varieties named, with good success, and grown some of the largest kinds to six inches in diameter.