Chapter XX. Raspberry Lessons
 

It must be remembered that I had spent all my leisure during the winter in reading and studying the problem of our country life. Therefore I knew that March was the best month for pruning trees, and I had gained a fairly correct idea how to do this work. Until within the last two or three years of his life, old Mr. Jamison had attended to this task quite thoroughly; and thus little was left for me beyond sawing away the boughs that had recently died, and cutting out the useless sprouts on the larger limbs. Before leaving the city I had provided myself with such tools as I was sure I should need; and finding a ladder under a shed, I attacked the trees vigorously. The wind had almost died out, and I knew I must make the most of all still days in this gusty month. After playing around for a time, Winnie and Bobsey concluded that gathering and piling up my prunings would be as good fun as anything else; and so I had helpers again.

By the middle of the afternoon Mr. Jones appeared, and I was glad to see him, for there were some kinds of work about which I wanted his advice. At one end of the garden were several rows of blackcap raspberry bushes, which had grown into an awful snarl. The old canes that had borne fruit the previous season were still standing, ragged and unsightly; the new stalks that would bear the coming season sprawled in every direction; and I had found that many tips of the branches had grown fast in the ground. I took my neighbor to see this briery wilderness, and asked his advice.

"Have you got a pair of pruning-nippers?" he asked.

Before going to the house to get them, I blew a shrill whistle to summon Merton, for I wished him also to hear all that Mr. Jones might say. I carried a little metallic whistle one blast on which was for Merton, two for Winnie, and three for Bobsey. When they heard this call they were to come as fast as their feet could carry them.

Taking the nippers, Mr. Jones snipped off from one-third to one-half the length of the branches from one of the bushes and cut out the old dead cane.

"I raise these berries myself for home use," he said; "and I can tell you they go nice with milk for a July supper. You see, after taking off so much from these long branches the canes stand straight up, and will be self-supporting, no matter how many berries they bear; but here and there's a bush that has grown slant-wise, or is broken off. Now, if I was you, I'd take a crow-bar 'n' make a hole 'longside these weakly and slantin' fellers, put in a stake, and tie 'em up strong. Then, soon as the frost yields, if you'll get out the grass and weeds that's started among 'em, you'll have a dozen bushel or more of marketable berries from this 'ere wilderness, as you call it. Give Merton a pair of old gloves, and he can do most of the job. Every tip that's fast in the ground is a new plant. If you want to set out another patch, I'll show you how later on."

"I think I know pretty nearly how to do that."

"Yes, yes, I know. Books are a help, I s'pose, but after you've seen one plant set out right, you'll know more than if you'd 'a' read a month."

"Well, now that you're here, Mr. Jones, I'm going to make the most of you. How about those other raspberries off to the southeast of the house?"

"Those are red ones. Let's take a look at 'em."

Having reached the patch, we found almost as bad a tangle as in the blackcap patch, except that the canes were more upright in their growth and less full of spines or briers.

"It's plain enough," continued Mr. Jones, "that old man Jamison was too poorly to take much care of things last year. You see, these red raspberries grow different from those black ones yonder. Those increase by the tips of the branches takin' root; these by suckers. All these young shoots comin' up between the rows are suckers, and they ought to be dug out. As I said before, you can set them out somewhere else if you want to. Dig 'em up, you know; make a trench in some out-of-the-way place, and bury the roots till you want 'em. Like enough the neighbors will buy some if they know you have 'em to spare. Only be sure to cut these long canes back to within six inches of the ground."

"Yes," I said, "that's all just as I have read in the books."

"So much the better for the books, then. I haven't lived in this fruit-growin' region all my life without gettin' some ideas as to what's what. I give my mind to farmin'; but Jamison and I were great cronies, and I used to be over here every day or two, and so it's natural to keep comin'."

"That's my good luck."

"Well, p'raps it'll turn out so. Now Merton's just the right age to help you in all this work. Jamison, you see, grew these raspberries in a continuous bushy row; that is, say, three good strong canes every eighteen inches apart in the row, and the rows five feet apart, so he could run a horse-cultivator between. Are you catchin' on, Merton?"

"Yes, sir," said the boy, with much interest.

"Well, all these suckers and extra plants that are swampin' the ground are just as bad as weeds. Dig 'em all out, only don't disturb the roots of the bearin' canes you leave in the rows much."

"How about trimming these?" I asked.

"Well, that depends. If you want early fruit, you'll let 'em stand as they be; if you want big berries, you'll cut 'em back one-third. Let me see. Here's five rows of Highland Hardy; miserable poor- tastin' kind; but they come so early that they often pay the best. Let them stand with their whole length of cane, and if you can scatter a good top-dressin' of fine manure scraped up from the barnyard, you'll make the berries larger. Those other rows of Cuthbert, Reliance, and Turner, cut back the canes one-third, and you'll get a great deal more fruit than if you left more wood on 'em. Cuttin' back'll make the berries big; and so they'll bring as much, p'raps, as if they were early."

"Well, Merton, this all accords with what I've read, only Mr. Jones makes it much clearer. I think we know how to go to work now, and surely there's plenty to do."

"Yes, indeed," resumed Mr. Jones; "and you'll soon find the work crowdin' you. Now come to the big raspberry patch back of the barn, the patch where the canes are all laid down, as I told you. These are Hudson River Antwerps. Most people have gone out of 'em, but Jamison held on, and he was makin' money on 'em. So may you. They are what we call tender, you see, and in November they must be bent down close to the ground and covered with earth, or else every cane would be dead from frost by spring. About the first week in April, if the weather's mild, you must uncover 'em, and tie 'em to stakes durin' the month."

"Now, Mr. Jones, one other good turn and we won't bother you any more to-day. All the front of the house is covered by two big grape- vines that have not been trimmed, and there are a great many other vines on the place. I've read and read on the subject, but I declare I'm afraid to touch them."

"Now, you're beyond my depth. I've got a lot of vines home, and I trim 'em in my rough way, but I know I ain't scientific, and we have pretty poor, scraggly bunches. They taste just as good, though, and I don't raise any to sell. There's a clever man down near the landin' who has a big vineyard, and he's trimmed it as your vines ought to have been long ago. I'd advise you to go and see him, and he can show you all the latest wrinkles in prunin'. Now, I'll tell you what I come for, in the first place. You'll remember that I said there'd be a vandoo to-morrow. I've been over and looked at the stock offered. There's a lot of chickens, as I told you; a likely- looking cow with a calf at her side; a fairish and quiet old horse that ought to go cheap, but he'd answer well the first year. Do you think you'll get more'n one horse to start with?"

"No; you said I could hire such heavy plowing as was needed at a moderate sum, and I think we can get along with one horse for a time. My plan is to go slow, and, I hope, sure."

"That's the best way, only it ain't common. I'll be around in the mornin' for you and such of the children as you'll take."

"On one condition, Mr. Jones. You must let me pay you for your time and trouble. Unless you'll do this in giving me my start, I'll have to paddle my own canoe, even if I sink it."

"Oh, I've no grudge against an honest penny turned in any way that comes handy. You and I can keep square as we go along. You can give me what you think is right, and if I ain't satisfied, I'll say so."

I soon learned that my neighbor had no foolish sensitiveness. I could pay him what I thought the value of his services, and he pocketed the money without a word. Of course, I could not pay him what his advice was really worth, for his hard common-sense stood me in good stead in many ways.