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Ten Acres Enough
Chapter XVII.—My Second Year—Trenching the Garden—Strawberry Profits


"Winter having passed away, the time for labor and the singing of birds again returned. Long before the land in Pennsylvania was fit to plough, the admirable soil of New Jersey had been turned over, and planted with early peas. One of its most valuable peculiarities is that of being at all times fit for ploughing, except when actually frozen hard. Even after heavy rains, when denser soils require a fortnight's drying before getting into condition for the plough this is ready in a day or two. Its sandy character, instead of being a disadvantage, is one of its highest recommendations. It is thus two to three weeks earlier in yielding up its ripened products for market. Peas are the first things planted in the open fields. The traveller coming from the north, when passing by rail to Philadelphia through this genial region, has been frequently surprised at seeing the young pea-vines peeping up above a thin covering of snow, their long rows of delicate green stretching across extensive fields, and presenting a singular contrast with the fleecy covering around them. Naturally hardy, they survive the cold, and as the snow rapidly disappears they immediately renew their growth.

Having been much surprised by the profit yielded last year from the garden, I was determined to give it a better chance than ever, and to try the effect of thorough farming on a limited scale. I accordingly set Dick to covering it fully three inches deep with well-rotted stable-manure, of which I had purchased in the city my usual quantity, $200 worth, though hoping that I could so contrive it hereafter as not to be obliged to make so heavy a cash outlay for this material. I then procured him a spade fifteen inches long in the blade, and set him to trenching every inch of it not occupied by standard fruits. These had luckily been arranged in rows in borders by themselves, thus leaving large, open beds, in which the operation of trenching could be thoroughly practised. I estimated the open ground to be very nearly half an acre. I began by digging a trench from one end of the open space to the other, three feet wide and two deep, removing the earth to the further side of the open space. Then the bottom of the trench was dug up with the fifteen-inch spade, and then covered lightly with manure.

The adjoining ground was then thrown in, mixing the top soil as we went along, and also abundance of manure, until the trench was filled. As the earth thus used was all taken from the adjoining strip of three feet wide, of course, when the trench was full, another of corresponding size appeared beside it. With this the operation was repeated until all the garden had been thoroughly gone over. The earth which had been removed from the first trench, went into the last one. But I was careful not to place the top soil in a body at the bottom, but scattered it well through the whole of the filling. If rich, the roots of every plant would find some portion of it, let them travel where they might. On the whole job we bestowed a great amount of care, but it was such a job as would not require repeating for years, and would be permanently beneficial. I thus deposited $50 worth of manure, as a fund of nourishment on which my vegetables could for a long time draw with certainty of profit.

Now, a surface soil of a few inches only, will not answer for a good garden. The roots of succulent vegetables must extend into a deeper bed of fertility; and a greater depth of pulverization is required to absorb surplus rains, and to give off the accumulated moisture in dry weather. A shallow soil will become deluged by a single shower, because the hard subsoil will not allow it to pass downward; and again, in the heat and drought of midsummer, a thin stratum is made dry and parched in a week, while one of greater depth becomes scarcely affected. I might cite numerous instances, besides my own, where trenched gardens remained in the finest state of luxuriance during the most severe droughts, when others under ordinary management were nearly burnt up with the heat, growth having quite ceased, and leaves curled and withering for want of moisture.

The mode of trenching must vary with circumstances. In small, circumscribed pieces of ground, necessity requires it to be done by hand, as has been just described. In large spaces the subsoil plough may be used, but not to equal benefit. There are many reasons why the soils of gardens should be made better than for ordinary farm-crops. Most of the products of gardens are of a succulent nature, or will otherwise bear high feeding, such as garden roots in general, plants whose leaves furnish food, as salad, cabbages, etc., or those which produce large and succulent fruits, as cucumbers, melons, squashes, etc. As nearly all garden crops are the immediate food of man, while many farm-crops are only the coarser food of animals, greater care and skill may properly be applied in bringing the former forward to a high degree of perfection. The great amount of family supplies which may be obtained from a half-acre garden, provided the best soil is prepared for their growth, renders it a matter of equal importance and economy to give the soil the very best preparation.

It rarely happens that there is much selection to be made in soils as we find them in nature, for gardening purposes, unless particular attention is given to the subject in choosing a site for a new dwelling. Generally, we have to take the land as we find it. Unless, therefore, we happen to find it just right, we should endeavor to improve it in the best manner. The principal means for making a perfect garden soil, are draining, trenching, and manuring.

Now, let none be startled at the outset with the fear of cost, in thus preparing the soil. The entire expense of preparing half an acre would not, in general, amount to more than the amount saved in a single year in the purchase of food for family supplies, by the fine and abundant vegetables afforded. If the owner cannot possibly prepare his half or quarter acre of land properly, then let him occupy the ground with something else than garden crops, and take only a single square rod (if he cannot attend to more), and give this the most perfect preparation. A square rod of rich, luxuriant vegetables, will be found more valuable than eighty rods, or half an acre of scant, dwarfed, and stringy growth, which no one will wish to eat; while the extra cost and labor spent on the eighty rods in seeds, digging, and hoeing, would have been more than sufficient to prepare the smaller plot in the most complete manner. Let the determination be made, therefore, at the commencement, to take no more land than can be properly prepared, and in the most thorough manner. The ten peach-trees in the garden were thoroughly manured by digging in around them all the coal ashes made during the winter, first sifting them well. No stable manure was added, as it promotes too rank and watery a growth in the peach, while ashes of any kind are what this fruit most delights in. Then the butts were examined for worms, but the last year's application of tar had kept off the fly, and the old ravages of the enemy were found to be nearly healed over by the growth of new bark. A fresh coating of tar was applied, and thus every thing was made safe.

As the season advanced, my wife and daughter took charge of the garden, as usual, and with high hopes of greater success than ever. They had had one year's experience, while now the ground was in far better condition. Moreover, they seemed to have forgotten all about the weeds, as in calculating their prospective profits they did not mention them even once, so was careful not to do so, though I had my own suspicions on the subject. When the planting had been done, and things went on growing finely as the season advanced, they were suddenly reminded of their ancient enemy. The trenching and manuring had done as much for the weeds as for the vegetables. Why should they not? In her innocency, Kate thought the weeds should all have been buried in the trenches, as if their seeds had been deposited exclusively on the surface. But they grew more rampantly than ever during the entire season, and to my mind they seemed to be in greater quantity. But the fact worked no discouragement to either wife or daughter. They waged against them the same resolute warfare, early, late, and in the noonday sun, until Kate, in spite of a capacious sunbonnet, became a nut-brown maid. Not a weed was permitted to nourish to maturity.

The careful culture of the garden this year gave them even a better reward than it had done the year before. The failures of the last season were all avoided. Several kinds of seeds were soaked before being planted, which prevented failure and secured a quicker growth. In addition to this, they raised a greater variety of vegetables expressly for the store; and with some, such as radishes and beets, they were particularly lucky, and realized high prices for all they had to dispose of. Then the high manuring and extra care bestowed upon the asparagus were apparent in the quick and vigorous shooting up of thick and tender roots, far more than we could consume, and so superior to any others that were taken to the store, that they sold rapidly at city prices. Thus they began to make sales earlier in the season, while their crops were far more abundant. The trenching and manuring was evidently a paying investment. In addition to all this, the season proved to be a good one for fruit. The garden trees bore abundantly. My ten peach-trees had by this time been rejuvenated, and were loaded with fruit. When as large as hickory nuts, I began the operation of removing all the smallest, and of thinning out unsparingly wherever they were excessively crowded. After going over five trees, I brought a bucketful of the expurgated peaches to my wife for exhibition. She seemed panic-stricken at the sight —protested that we should have no peaches that season, if I went on at that rate—besought me to remember my peculiar weakness for pies—and pleaded so eloquently that the other trees should not be stripped, as to induce me, much against my judgment, to suspend my ravages. Thus five had been thinned and five left untouched.

At the moment, I regretted her interference, but as compliance with her wishes always brought to me its own gratification, if not in one way, then in some other, so it did in this instance. In the first place, the peaches on the five denuded trees grew prodigiously larger and finer than those on the other five. I gathered them carefully and sent them to the city, where they brought me $41 clear of expenses, while the fruit from the other trees, sent to market with similar care, netted only $17, and those used in the family from the same trees, estimated at the same rates, were worth $9, making, on those five, a difference of $15 in favor of thinning. Thus, the ten produced $58; but if all had been thinned, the product would have been $82.

This unexpected result satisfied my wife ever afterwards that it was quality, and not mere quantity that the market wanted. Her own garden sales would have convinced her of this, had she observed them closely; but having overlooked results there, it required an illustration too striking to be gainsayed, and this the peach-trees furnished. All these figures appear in Kate's account-book. I had provided her with one expressly for the garden operations, a nice gold pen, and every other possible convenience for making entries at the moment any transaction occurred. I had also taught her the simplest form for keeping her accounts, and caused her to keep a pass-book with the store, in which every consignment should be entered, so that her book and the storekeeper's should be a check on errors that might be found in either. She thus became extremely expert at her accounts, and as she took especial interest in the matter, could tell from memory, at the week's end, how many dollars' worth of produce she had sold. I found the amount running up quite hopefully as the season advanced, and when it had closed, she announced the total to be $63 without the peaches, or $121 by including them. But she had paid some money for seeds; as an offset to which, no cash had been expended in digging, as Dick and myself had done it all.

So much for the garden this year. On my nine acres of ploughed land there was plenty of work to be done. Our old enemy, the weeds, did not seem to have diminished in number, notwithstanding our slaughter the previous year. They came up as thick and vigorous as ever, and required quite as much labor to master them, as the hoe was oftener required among the rows of raspberries and strawberries. My dogged fellow, Dick, took this matter with perfect unconcern—said he knew it would be so, and that I would find the weeds could not be killed—but he might as well work among them as at anything else. I ceased to argue with him on the subject, and as I had full faith in coming out right in the end, was content to silently bide my time.

This year I planted an acre with tomatoes, having raised abundance of fine plants in a hotbed, as well as egg-plants for the garden. I set them out in rows, three and one-half feet apart each way, and manured them well, twice as heavily as many of my neighbors did. This gave me 3,760 plants to the acre. The product was almost incredible, and amounted to 501 bushels, or about five quarts a hill, a far better yield than I had had the first year. From some hills as many as ten quarts each were gathered. I managed to get twenty baskets into New York market among the very first of the season, where they netted me $60. The next twenty netted $25, the next twenty only $15, as numerous competitors came in, and the next thirty cleared no more. After that the usual glut came on, and down went the price to twenty and even fifteen cents. But at twenty and twenty-five I continued to forward to Philadelphia, where they paid better than to let them rot on the ground. From 200 baskets at these low prices I netted $35. Then, in the height of the season, all picking was suspended, except for the pigs, who thus had any quantity they could consume. But the glut gradually subsided as tomatoes perished on the vines, and the price again rose in market to twenty-five cents, then to fifty, then to a dollar, and upwards. But my single acre afforded me but few at the close of the season. I did not manage to realize $40 from the fag-end of the year, making a total net yield of $190.

Others near me, older hands at the business, did much better, but I thought this well enough. I would prefer raising tomatoes at 37 cents a bushel to potatoes at 75. The amount realized from an acre far exceeds that of potatoes. A smart man will gather from sixty to seventy bushels a day. The expense of cultivating, using plenty of manure, is about $60 per acre, and the gross yield may be safely calculated $250, leaving about $200 sure surplus If it were not for the sudden and tremendous fall in prices to which tomatoes are subject soon after they come into market, growers might become rich in a few years.

The other acre was occupied with corn, roots, and cabbage, for winter feeding, with potatoes for family use. Turnips were sowed wherever room could be found for them, and no spot about the farm was permitted to remain idle. A hill of corn, a cabbage, a pumpkin-vine, or whatever else was suited to it, was planted. But of potatoes we did sell enough to amount to $24. On the acre occupied with blackberries, early cabbages were planted to the number of 4,000. Many of these, of course, were small and not marketable, though well manured and carefully attended. But all such were very acceptable in the barnyard and pig-pen. Of sound cabbages I sold 3,120, at an average of two and one-quarter cents, amounting to $70.20. I cannot tell how it was, but other persons close to me raised larger and better heads, and of course realized better prices. But I had no reason to complain.

The strawberries came first into market. I had labored to allow no runners to grow and take root except such as were necessary to fill up the line of each row. Most of the others had been clipped off as fast as they showed themselves. Thus the whole strength of the plant was concentrated into the fruit.

In other words, I set out to raise fruit, not plants; and my rows were, therefore, composed of single stools, standing about four to six inches apart in the row. The ground between the rows was consequently clear for the passage of the horse-weeder, which kept it nice and clean throughout the season, while there was no sort of difficulty in getting between the stools with either the hand, or a small hoe, to keep out grass and weeds. The stools were consequently strong and healthy, and stood up higher from the ground than plants which grow in matted beds, thus measurably keeping clear of the sand and grit which heavy rains throw up on berries that lie very near the ground. The truth is, the ground for a foot all round each stool ought to have had a covering of cut straw, leaves, or something else for the fruit to rest upon, thus to keep them clean, as well as to preserve them from drought. But I did not so well understand the question at that time as I do now.

The fruit ripened beautifully, and grew to prodigious size, larger than most we had ever seen. The several pickings of the first week yielded 600 quart boxes of the choicest fruit, which I dispatched by railroad to an agent in New York, with whom I had previously made arrangements to receive them. The greatest care was used in preparing them for market. When taken from the vines they were put directly into the small boxes, and these carried to the house, where, under a large shed adjoining the kitchen, my wife and daughters had made preparations to receive them. Here they were spread out on a large pine table, and all the larger berries separated from the smaller ones, each kind being put into boxes which were kept separate from the other. The show made by fruit thus assorted was truly magnificent, and to the pleasure my wife experienced in handling and arranging it, she was constantly testifying. Thus 600 quarts of the finest fruit we had ever beheld, were sent the first week to New York. It was, of course, nearly ten days ahead of the season in that region—there could be no New York grown berries in market. At the week's end the agent remitted me $300 clear of freight and commission! They had netted me half a dollar a quart. I confess to having been greatly astonished and delighted—it was certainly twice as much as we had expected. When I showed the agent's letter to my wife, she was quite amazed. Kate, who had heard a good deal of complaint about high prices, while we lived in the city after reading the letter, laid it down, observing—

"I think it will not do to complain of high prices now!"

"No," replied my wife, "the tables are turned. Half a dollar a quart! How much I pity those poor people."

And as she said this, I handed her a quart bowl of the luscious fruit, which I had been sugaring heavily while she was studying out the figures in the agent's letter, and I feel persuaded no lover of strawberries ever consumed them with a more smacking relish.

The agent spoke in his letter of the admirable manner in which our berries were forwarded—all alike, all uniformly prime large fruit—not merely big ones on top of the box as decoys, and as the prelude to finding none but little runts at bottom. This established for us a reputation; our boxes could be guaranteed to contain prime fruit all through. Hence the agent could sell any quantity we could send. Indeed, it was impossible to send him too much. Thus we continued to pick over our vines from three to four times weekly. As the ripening of the fruit went on, the sight was truly marvellous to look at. "When the season was at its height, the ground seemed almost red with berries. Then the famous doctrine of squatter sovereignty was effectually carried out on my premises, for there were twenty girls and boys upon their knees or hams, engaged in picking berries at two cents a quart. Industrious little toilers they were, many of them earning from one to two dollars daily. Some pickers were women grown, some widows, some even aged women. It was a harvest to them also.

The small boxes were packed in chests each holding from twenty-four to sixty, just nicely filling the chest, so that there should be no rattling or shaking about, or spilling over of the fruit. The lid, when shut down and fastened, held all snug. These chests were taken to the railroad station close by, the same afternoon the berries were picked, and reached New York the same night. The agents knowing they were coming, had them all sold before they arrived, and immediately delivering them to the purchasers, they in turn delivered them to their customers, and thus in less than twenty-four hours from the time of leaving my ground, they were in the hands of the consumers. This whole business of conveying fruit to distant markets by steamboat and rail, is thoroughly systematized. It is an immense item in the general freight-list of the great seaboard railroads, constantly growing, and as surely enriching both grower and carrier. For the former it insures a sale of all his products in the highest markets, and in fact brings them to his very door.

Before the building of the Camden and Amboy Railroad no such facilities existed, and consequently not a tenth of the fruit and truck now raised in New Jersey was then produced. But an outlet being thus established, production commenced. Farms were manured, their yield increased, and stations for the receipt of freight were built at every few miles along the railroad. They continue to increase in number up to this day. Lands rose in value, better fences were supplied, new houses built, and the whole system of county roads was revolutionized. As everything that could be raised now found a cash market, so every convenience for getting it there was attended to. Hence, gravel turn­pikes were built, which, stretching back into the country, enabled growers at all seasons to transport their products over smooth roads to the nearest station. These numerous feeders to the great railroad caused the income from way-traffic to increase enormously. All interests were signally benefited, and a new career of improvement for New Jersey was inaugurated. The farmers became rich on lands which for generations had kept their former owners poor. My agents were punctual in advising me by the first mail, and sometimes by telegraph, of the sale and price of each consignment, thus keeping me constantly posted up as to the condition of the market. They paid the freight on each consignment, deducted it from the proceeds, and returned the chests, though sometimes with a few small boxes missing, a loss to which growers seem to be regularly subjected, so long as they use a box which they cannot afford to give away with the fruit. I thus fed the northern cities as long as the price was maintained. But, as is the case with all market produce, prices gradually declined as other growers came in, for all hands sought to sell in the best market. As the end of the season is generally a period of very low prices, it must be counteracted by every effort to secure high ones at the beginning, in this way maintaining a remunerative average during the whole. Thus, the half dollar per quart which I obtained for the first and best, by equalization with lower prices through the remainder of the season, was unable to raise the average of the whole crop above sixteen cents net. But this abundantly satisfied me, as I sent to market 5,360 quarts, thus producing $857.60.

Besides these, we had the satisfaction of making generous presents to some particular friends in the city, while at home we rioted upon them daily, and laid by an extraordinary quantity in the shape of preserves for winter use, a luxury which we had never indulged in during our residence in the city. I may add that during the whole strawberry season it was observed that our city friends seemed to take an extraordinary interest in our proceedings and success. They came up to see us even more numerously than during the dog-days, and no great effort was required, no second invitation necessary, to induce them to prolong their visits. But we considered them entirely excusable, as the strawberries and cream were not only unexceptionable, but abundant. However, I must confess, that in the busiest part of the season our female visitors rolled up their sleeves, and fell to with my wife and daughters for hours at a time, aiding them in assorting and boxing the huge quantities of noble fruit as it came in from the field.

In order to send this fruit to market, I was obliged to purchase 3,000 quart boxes, and 50 chests to contain them. These cost me $200. I could not fill all the boxes at each picking, but as one set of boxes was away off in market, it was necessary for me to have duplicates on hand, in which to pick other berries as they ripened, without being compelled to wait until the first lot of boxes came back.

Sometimes it was a week or ten days before they were returned to me, according as the agent was prompt or dilatory. Thus, one supply of boxes filled with fruit was constantly going forward, while another of empty ones was on the way back. So extensive has this berry business become, that I could name parties who have as much as $500 to $1,500 invested in chests and boxes for the transportation of fruit to market. But their profits are in proportion to the extent of their investment.

While on this subject of boxes for the transportation of fruit to distant markets, a suggestion occurs to me which some ingenious man may be able to work up into profitable use. It is sometimes quite a trouble for the grower to get his chests returned at the proper time. Sometimes the agent is careless and inattentive, keeps them twice as many days as he ought to, when the owner really needs them. Sometimes an accident on the railroad delays their return for a week or ten days. In either case, the grower is subjected to great inconvenience; and if his chests fail to return at all, his ripened fruit will perish on his hands for want of boxes in which to send them off. It is to be always safe from these contingencies that he finds it necessary to keep so large a quantity on hand. Then, many of the boxes are never returned, the chests coming back only half or quarter filled. All this is very unjustly made the grower's loss.

But a remedy for this evil can and ought to be be provided. The trade needs for its use a box so cheap that it can afford to give it away. Then, being packed in rough, open crates, cheaply put together of common lath, with latticed sides, neither crates nor boxes need be returned. The grower will save the return-freight, and be in no danger of ever being short of boxes by the negligence of others. This is really a very urgent want of the trade. The agent sells by wholesale to the retailer, who takes the chest to his stand or store, where he sells the contents, one or more boxes to each customer. These sometimes have no baskets with them in which to empty the berries, and so the retailer, to insure a sale, permits the buyer to carry off the boxes, and the latter neglects to return them. In the same way they are sent to hotels and boarding-houses, where they are lost by hundreds. Again, the obligation imposed on a buyer to return the boxes to a retailer, is constantly preventing hundreds of chance purchasers of rare fruit from taking it; but if the seller could say to him that the box goes with the fruit, and need not be returned, the mere convenience of the thing would be sufficient to determine the sale of large quantities,—the purchaser would carry it home in his hand.

The maker of a cheap box like this would find the sale almost indefinite. It would be constant, and annually increasing. The same buyers would require fresh supplies every season. A mere chip box, rounded out of a single shaving, and just stiff enough to prevent the sides from collapsing, would answer every purpose. The pill-boxes which are made from shavings may serve as the model. Here is a great and growing want, which our countrymen are abundantly able to supply, and to which some of them cannot too soon direct their attention. If the cost of transmitting the boxes to the buyers be too great for so cheap a contrivance, then let the shavings be manufactured of the exact size required, and delivered in a flat state to the buyer, with the circular bottom, by him to be put together during the leisure days of winter. A single touch of glue will hold the shaving in position, and a couple of tacks will keep the bottom in its place. The whole affair being for temporary use, need be nothing more than temporary itself. A portion of the labor of manufacturing being done by the grower, will reduce the cost. If constructed as suggested, such boxes would be quite as neat as the majority now in use, while they would possess the charm of always being clean and sweet. Our country is at this moment full of machinery exactly fitted to produce them, much of it located in regions where timber and power are obtainable at the minimum cost. The suggestion should be appropriated by its owners at the earliest possible moment.


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