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Ten Acres Enough
Chapter XI.—A Cloud of Weeds—Great Sales of Plants


June came without my being obliged to hire anything but occasional help on the farm. But when the month was fairly set in, I found every inch of my ploughed land in a fair way of being smothered by the weeds. I was amazed at the countless numbers which sprang up, as well as at the rapidity with which they grew. There was almost every variety of these pests. It seemed as if the whole township had concentrated its wealth of weeds upon my premises. In the quick, warm soil of New Jersey, they appear to have found a most congenial home, as they abound on every farm that I have seen. Cultivators appear to have abandoned all hope of eradicating them. Knowing that the last year's crop had gone to seed, I confess to looking for something of the kind, but I was wholly unprepared for the thick haze which everywhere covered the ground.

I can bear any quantity of snakes, but for weeds I have a sort of religious aversion. I tried one week to overcome them with the cultivator, but I made discouraging headway. I then bought a regular horse-weeder, which cut them down rapidly and effectually. But meantime others were growing up in the rows, and corners, and by-places, where nothing but the hoe could reach them, and robbing the crops of their support. It would never do to cultivate weeds—they must be got rid of at any cost, or my crops would be worthless. Several neighboring farmers, who had doubtless counted on this state of things, came along about the time they supposed my hands would be full, looked over the fence at my courageous onslaught, laughed, and called out, "It's no use—you can't kill the weeds!" Such was the sympathy they afforded. If my house had been on fire, every one of them would have promptly hurried to the rescue; but to assist a man in killing his weeds was what no one dreamed of doing. He didn't kill his own.

In this dilemma I was forced to hire a young man to help me, contracting to give him twelve dollars a month and board him. He turned out sober and industrious. We went to work courageously on the weeds. I will admit that my man Dick was quite as certain as my neighbors that we could never get permanently ahead of them, and that thus lacking faith he took hold of the cultivator and weeder, while I attacked the enemy in the rows and by-places. I kept him constantly at it, and worked steadily myself. A week's labor left a most encouraging mark upon the ground. The hot sun wilted and dried up the weeds as we cut them off. Two weeks enabled us to get over the whole lot, making it look clean and nice. I congratulated myself on our success, and inquired of Dick if he didn't think we had got ahead of the enemy now. This was on a Saturday evening. Dick looked up at the sky, which was then black and showery, with a warm south wind blowing, and a broad laugh came over his features as he replied, "This will do till next time." The fellow was evidently unwilling to encourage or to disappoint me.

That night a powerful rain fell, with a warm, sultry wind, being what farmers call "growing weather." I found it to be even so, good for weeds at least. Monday morning came with a hot, clear sun, and, under the combined stimulating power of sun, rain, and temperature, I found that in two nights a new generation had started into line, quite as numerous as that we had just overcome. As I walked over the ground in company with Dick, I was confounded at the sight. But I noticed that he expressed no astonishment whatever—it was just what he knew was to come—and so he declared it would be if we made the ground as clean as a parlor every week.

He said he never knew the weeds to be got out of Jersey ground, and protested that it couldn't be done. He admitted that they were nuisances, but so were mosquitoes. But as neither, in his opinion, did any great harm, so he thought it not worth while to spend much time or money in endeavoring to get rid of them. In either case he considered the attempt a vain one, and this was the whole extent of his philosophy. He had in fact been educated to believe in weeds. I was mortified at his indifference, for I had labored to infuse into his mind the same hatred of the tribe with which my wife and Kate had been so happily inoculated. But Dick was proof against inoculation—his system repudiated it.

But it set me to thinking. As to denning what a weed was, I did not undertake that, beyond pronouncing it to be a plant growing out of its proper place. Neither did I undertake to settle the question as to the endless variety there seemed to be of these pests, nor by what unaccountable agency they had become so thoroughly diffused over the earth. I could not fail to admit, however, that it seemed, in the providence of God, that whenever man ceased to till the ground and cover it with cultivated crops, at his almighty command there sprang up a profuse vegetation with which to clothe its nakedness. While man might be idle, it was impossible for nature to be so—the earth could not lie barren of everything. But it seemed to me impossible that these ten acres of mine could contain an absolutely indefinite number of seeds of these unwelcome plants. There must be some limitation of the number. At what figure did it stop? Was it one million, or a hundred millions? Neither Dick Dor myself could answer this question.

Yet I came resolutely to the conclusion that there must be a limitation, and that if we could induce all the seeds contained in the soil to vegetate, and then destroy the plants before they matured a new crop, we should ever afterwards be excused from such constant labor as we had gone through, and as was likely to be our experience in the future. I submitted this proposition to Dick—that if we killed all the weeds as they grew, the time would come when there would be no weeds to kill. It struck me as being so simple that even Dick, with all his doggedness, could neither fail to comprehend nor acknowledge it. He did manage to comprehend it, but as to acknowledging its force, one might have have argued with him for a month. He utterly denied the premises—he had no faith in our Jersey weeds ever being killed, no matter how much luck we had thus far had with them, and I would see that he was right.

But having originated the dogma, I fully believed in it, and felt bound to maintain it; so Dick and I went resolutely to work a second time, as soon as the new crop was well out of the ground. The labor was certainly not as great as on the first crop, but it was hot work. I carried a file in my pocket, and kept my hoe as sharp as I have always kept my carving knife, and taught Dick to put his horse-weeder in prime order every evening when we had quit work. The perspiration ran in a stream from me in the hot sun, and a few blisters rose on my hands, but my appetite was rampant, and never have my slumbers been so undisturbed and peaceful.

About the third week in June we got through the second cleaning, and then rested. From that time to the end of the first week in July there had been no rain, with a powerfully hot sun. During this interval the weeds grew again, and entirely new generations, some few of the first varieties, but the remainder being new sorts. Thus there were wet-weather weeds and dry-weather weeds; and as I afterwards found, there was a regular succession of varieties from spring to winter, and even into December—cold-weather weeds as well as hot-weather weeds. Against each new army as it showed itself an onslaught was to be made. I was persuaded in my mind that the same army which we killed this year could not show itself the next, and that therefore there ought to be that number less. But Dick could not see this.

I observed, moreover, that each variety had its particular period when it vegetated, so that it might have time to get ahead and keep out of the way of its successor. It was evident that the seeds of any one kind did not all vegetate the same season. Herein was a wonderful provision of Providence to insure the perpetuity of all; for if all the rag-weed, for instance, had vegetated the first season of my experience, they would assuredly have been killed. But multitudes remained dormant in the earth, as if thus stored up for the purpose of repairing, another year, the casualties which their forerunners had encountered during the present one. Thus no one weed can be extirpated in a single season; neither do we have the whole catalogue to attack at the same time.

My warfare against the enemy continued unabated. As the time came for each new variety to show itself, so we took it in hand with hoe and weeder. Dick and his horse made such admirable progress, that I cannot refrain from recommending this most efficient tool to the notice of every cultivator. With one man and a horse it will do the work of six men, cutting off the weeds just below the ground and leaving them to wilt on the surface. It costs but six dollars, and can he had in all the cities. It would have cost me a hundred dollars to do the same amount of work with the hoe, which this implement did within four weeks.

Thus aided, our labors extended clear into November. In the intervals between the different growths of weeds, we looked after the other crops. But when the winter closed in upon us, the whole ground was so thoroughly cleaned of them as to be the admiration of the jeerers and croakers who, early in the season, had pitied my enthusiasm or ridiculed my anticipations. Even Dick was somewhat subdued and doubtful. I do not think a single weed escaped our notice, and went to seed that season.

I saw this year a beautiful illustration of the idea that there are specific manures for certain plants. I can hardly doubt that each has its specific favorite, and that if cultivators could discover what that favorite is, our crops might be indefinitely increased. On a piece of ground which had been sowed with turnips, on which guano had previously been sprinkled during a gentle rain, there sprang up the most marvellous growth of purslane that ever met one's eyes. The whole ground was covered with the rankest growth of this weed that could be imagined. Every turnip was smothered out. It seemed as if the dormant purslane-seed had been instantly called into life by the touch of the guano. It was singular, too, that we had noticed no purslane growing on that particular spot previous to the application of this rapidly-acting fertilizer.

I confess the sight of a dense carpet of purslane instead of a crop of turnips, almost staggered me as to the correctness of my theory that the number of seeds in the ground, yet to vegetate, must some­where have a limit. Here were evidently millions of a kind which, up to this time, had not even shown themselves. After allowing the purslane to grow two weeks, Dick cut it off with his horse-weeder, raked it up, and carried it to the pigs, who consumed it with avidity. We then recultivated the ground and sowed again with turnips; but the yield was very poor. Either the purslane had appropriated the whole energy of the guano, or the sowing was too late in the season.

But this little incident will illustrate the value of observation to a farmer. Book-farming is a good thing in its place, but observation is equally instructive. The former is not sufficient, of itself, to make good tillers of the soil. It will not answer in place of attentive observation. It forms, indeed, but the poorest kind of a substitute for that habit which every farmer should cultivate, of going all over his premises daily during the growing season, and noticing the peculiarities of particular plants; the habits of destructive animals or insects; the depredations as well as the services of birds; the when, the how, and the apparent wherefore of the germination of seeds; the growth of the stem, the vine, or the stalk that proceeds from them, and the formation, growth, and ripening of the fruit which they bear. Let no farmer, fruit-grower, or gardener, neglect observation for an exclusive reliance on book-farming.

It would be a most erroneous conclusion for the reader to suppose that all this long-continued labor in keeping the ground clear of weeds was so much labor thrown away. On the contrary, even apart from ridding the soil of so many nuisances, so many robbers of the nourishment provided for useful plants, it kept the land in the most admirable condition. The good conferred upon the garden by hoeing and raking, was re-enacted here. Everything I had planted grew with surprising luxuriance. I do think it was an illustration of the value of thorough culture, made so manifest that no one could fail to observe it. It abundantly repaid me for all my watchfulness and care. Dick was forced to acknowledge that he had seen no such clean work done in that part of New Jersey.

My nurseryman came along at the end of the season, to see how I had fared, and walked deliberately over the ground with me, examining the peach-trees. He said he had never seen young trees grow more vigorously. Not one of them had died.

The raspberries had not grown so much as he expected, but the strawberry-rows were now filled with plants. As runners were thrown out, I had carefully trained them in line with the parent stools, not permitting them to sprawl right and left over a great surface, forming a mass that could not be weeded, even by hand. This he did not approve of. He said by letting them spread out right and left the crop of fruit would be much greater, but admitted that the size of the berries would be much smaller. But he contended that quantity was what the public wanted, and that they did not care so much for quality. Yet he could not explain the damaging fact that the largest sized fruit was always the most eagerly sought after, and invariably commanded the highest price. Though he did not approve of my mode of cultivation, yet he could not convince me that I had made a mistake.

From these we walked over to the blackberries. They, too, had grown finely under my thorough culture of the ground. Besides sending up good canes which promised a fair crop the next season, each root had sent up several suckers, some of them several feet away, and out of the line of the row. These I had intended to sell, and had preserved as many as possible, knowing there would be a demand for all. The interest in the new berry had rapidly extended all round among my neighbors, and I very soon discovered that my nurseryman wanted to buy. In fact, I believe he came more for that purpose than to see how I was doing. But I talked offish—spoke of having engaged two or three lots, and could hardly speak with certainty. Finally, he offered to give me a receipt for the $120 he was to receive out of the strawberries he had sold me, and pay me $100 down, for a thousand blackberry plants. Though I felt pretty sure I could do better, yet I closed with him. As he had evidently come prepared with money to clinch some sort of bargain, he produced it and paid me on the spot. He afterwards retailed nearly all of the plants for a much larger sum. But it was a good bargain for both of us. It paid me well, and was all clear profit.

I may add that these blackberry roots came into more active demand from that time until the next spring; and when spring opened, more suckers came up, as if knowing they were wanted. These, with my previous stock, amounted to a large number. A seed man in the city advertised them for sale, and took retail orders for me. His sales, with my own, absorbed every root I could spare. When they had all been disposed of, and my receipts were footed up, I found that they amounted to four hundred and sixty dollars, leaving me three hundred and forty dollars clear, after paying for my strawberry plants.

This was far better than I had anticipated. It may sound curiously now, when the plants can be had so cheaply, but it is a true picture of the market at the time of which I write. It is the great profit to be realized from the sale of new plants that stimulates their cultivation. Many men have made fortunes from the sale of a new fruit or flower, and others are repeating the operation now. In fact, it is the hope of this great gain that has given to the world so many new and valuable plants, some originated from seed, some by hybridization, some from solitary hiding-places in the woods and mountains, and some by importation from distant countries. Success in one thing stimulates to exertion for another, and thus the race of a vast and intelligent competition is maintained. But the public is the greatest gainer after all.

My profits from this source, the first year, may by some be regarded as an exceptional thing, to be realized only by the fortunate few, and not to be regularly counted on. But this is not the case. There are thousands of cultivators who are constantly in the market as purchasers. If it were not so, the vast nursery establishments which exist all over the country could not be maintained. Every fruit-grower, like myself, has been compelled to buy in the beginning of his operations; but his turn for selling has invariably come round. As a general rule, whatever outlay a beginner makes in supplying himself with the smaller fruits, is afterwards reimbursed from the dale of surplus plants he does not need. This sale occurs annually, and in time will far exceed his original outlay.

If the plants be rare in the market, and if he should have gone into the propagation at a very early day, before prices have found their lowest level, his profits will be the larger. Hence the utmost watchfulness of the market should be maintained. New plants, better breeds of animals, and in fact every improvement connected with agriculture, if judiciously adopted at the earliest moment, will generally be found to pay, even after allowing for losses on the numerous cheats which are continually turning up.


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