Chapter XXVII. Strawberry Visions and "Pertaters"
 

I had decided that I would not set out any more raspberries until I had learned the comparative value of those already on the place. After I had seen my varieties in bearing and marketed the crop, I should be better able to make a wise selection, "Why not plant only the best and most profitable?" I reasoned. At Mr. Jones's suggestion I had put up notices at public resorts, and inserted a brief advertisement in a local paper, stating that I had plants for sale. As a result, I sold, at a low price, it is true, the greater part of the young plants that had been trenched in, and the ready money they brought was very acceptable.

From the first, my mind had often turned toward strawberries as one of our chief crops. They promised well for several reasons, the main one being that they would afford a light and useful form of labor for all the children. Even Bobsey could pick the fruit almost as well as any of us, for he had no long back to ache in getting down to it. The crop, also, could be gathered and sold before the raspberry season began, and this was an important fact. We should also have another and earlier source of income. I had read a great deal about the cultivation of the strawberry, and I had visited a Maizeville neighbor who grew them on a large scale, and had obtained his views. To make my knowledge more complete I wrote to my Washington-Market friend, Mr. Bogart, and his prompt letter in reply was encouraging.

"Don't go into too many kinds," he advised, "and don't set too much ground. A few crates of fine berries will pay you better than bushels of small, soft, worthless trash. Steer clear of high-priced novelties and fancy sorts, and begin with only those known to pay well in your region. Try Wilson's (they're good to sell if not to eat) and Duchess for early, and Sharpless and Champion for late. Set the last two kinds out side by side, for the Champions won't bear alone. A customer of mine runs on these four sorts. He gives them high culture, and gets big crops and big berries, which pay big. When you want crates, I can furnish them, and take my pay out of the sales of your fruit. Don't spend much money for plants. Buy a few of each kind, and set 'em in moist ground and let 'em run. By winter you'll have enough plants to cover your farm."

I found that I could buy these standard varieties in the vicinity; and having made the lower part of the garden very rich, I procured, one cloudy day, two hundred plants of each kind and set them in rows, six feet apart, so that by a little watchfulness I could keep them separate. I obtained my whole stock for five dollars; therefore, counting our time and everything, the cost of entering on strawberry culture was slight. A rainy night followed, and every plant started vigorously.

In spite of occasional frosts and cold rains, the days grew longer and warmer. The cherry, peach, plum, and pear buds were almost ready to burst into bloom, but Mr. Jones shook his head over the orchard.

"This ain't apple year," he said. "Well, no matter. If you can make it go this season, you will be sure of better luck next year."

He had come over to aid me in choosing a two-acre plot of ground for corn and potatoes. This we marked out from the upper and eastern slope of a large meadow. The grass was running out and growing weedy.

"It's time it was turned over," my neighbor remarked; "and by fall it'll be in good condition for fruit."

I proposed to extend my fruit area gradually, with good reason, fearing that much hired help would leave small profits.

That very afternoon Mr. Jones, with his sharp steel plow, began to turn over clean, deep, even furrows; for we had selected the plot in view of the fact that it was not stony, as was the case with other portions of our little farm.

When at last the ground was plowed, he said: "I wouldn't harrow the part meant for corn till you are ready to plant it, say about the tenth of next month. We'd better get the pertater ground ready and the rows furrowed out right off. Early plantin' is the best. How much will ye give to 'em?"

"Half the plot," I said.

"Why, Mr. Durham, that's a big plantin' for pertaters."

"Well, I've a plan, and would like your opinion. If I put Early Rose potatoes right in, when can I harvest them?"

"Say the last of July or early August, accordin' to the season."

"If we keep the ground clean and well worked the sod will then be decayed, won't it?"

"Yes, nigh enough. Ye want to grow turnips or fodder corn, I s'pose?"

"No, I want to set out strawberries. I've read more about this fruit than any other, and, if the books are right, I can set strong plants on enriched ground early in August and get a good crop next June. Won't this pay better than planting next spring and waiting over two years from this time for a crop?"

"Of course it will, if you're right. I ain't up on strawberries."

"Well," I continued, "it looks reasonable. I shall have my young plants growing right here in my own garden. Merton and I can take them up in the cool of the evening and in wet weather, and they won't know they've been moved. I propose to get these early potatoes out of the ground as soon as possible, even if I have to sell part of them before they are fully ripe; then have the ground plowed deep and marked out for strawberries, put all the fertilizers I can scrape together in the rows and set the plants as fast as possible. I've read again and again that many growers regard this method as one of the best."

"Well, you're comin' on for a beginner. I'm kind o' shy of book- plans, though. But try it. I'll come over, as I used to when old man Jamison was here, and sit on the fence and make remarks."

Planting an acre of potatoes was no light task for us, even after the ground was plowed and harrowed, and the furrows for the rows were marked out. I also had to make a half-day's journey to the city of Newtown to buy more seed, since the children's appetites had greatly reduced the stock in the root-cellar. For a few days we worked like beavers. Even Winnie helped Merton to drop the seed; and in the evening we had regular potato-cutting "bees," Junior coming over to aid us, and my wife and Mousie helping also. Songs and stories enlivened these evening hours of labor. Indeed, my wife and Mousie performed, during the day, a large part of this task, and they soon learned to cut the tubers skilfully. I have since known this work to be done so carelessly that some pieces were cut without a single eye upon them. Of course, in such cases there is nothing to grow.

One Saturday night, the last of April, we exulted over the fact that our acre was planted and the seed well covered.

Many of the trees about the house, meantime, had clothed themselves with fragrant promises of fruit. All, especially Mousie, had been observant of the beautiful changes, and, busy as we had been, she, Winnie and Bobsey had been given time to keep our table well supplied with wildflowers. Now that they had come in abundance, they seemed as essential as our daily food. To a limited extent I permitted blooming sprays to be taken from the fruit-trees, thinking, with Mousie, that "cherry blossoms are almost as nice as cherries." Thus Nature graced our frugal board, and suggested that, as she accompanied her useful work with beauty and fragrance, so we also could lift our toilsome lives above the coarse and sordid phase too common in country homes.