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- Success With Small Fruits - 10/57 -


Should the reader be content with mediocrity, there is scarcely anything to be said where the conditions are so favorable. But suppose one is not content with mediocrity. Then this highly favored soil is but the vantage-ground from which skill enters on a course of thorough preparation and high culture. A man may plow, harrow, and set with strawberries the land that was planted the previous year in corn, and probably secure a remunerative return, with little more trouble or cost than was expended on the corn. Or, he may select half the area that was in corn, plow it deeply in October, and if he detects traces of the white grub, cross-plow it again just as the ground is beginning to freeze. Early in the spring he can cover the surface with some fertilizer--there is nothing better than a rotted compost of muck and barn-yard manure--at the proportion of forty or fifty tons to the acre. Plow and cross-plow again, and in each instance let the first team be followed by a subsoil or lifting plow, which stirs and loosens the substratum without bringing it to the surface. The half of the field prepared in such a thorough manner will probably yield three times the amount of fruit that could be gathered from the whole area under ordinary treatment; and if the right varieties are grown, and a good market is within reach, the money received will be in a higher ratio.

The principle of generous and thorough preparation may be carried still further in the garden, and its soil, already rich and mellow, may be covered to the depth of several inches with well-rotted compost or any form of barn-yard manure that is not too coarse and full of heat, and this may be incorporated with the earth by trenching to the depth of two feet. Of this be certain, the strawberry roots will go as deeply as the soil is prepared and enriched for them, and the result in abundant and enormous fruit will be commensurate. English gardeners advise trenching even to the depth of three feet, where the ground permits it.

Few soils can be found so deep and rich by nature that they cannot be improved by art; and the question for each to decide is, how far the returns will compensate for extra preparation. Very often land for strawberries receives but little more preparation than for wheat, and such methods must pay or they would not be continued. Many who follow these methods declare that they are the most profitable in the long run. I doubt it.

If our market is one in which strawberries are sold simply as such, without much regard to flavor or size, there is not the same inducement to produce fine fruit. But even when quantity is the chief object, deeply prepared and enriched land retains that essential moisture of which we have spoken, and enables the plant not only to form, but also to develop and mature, a great deal of fruit. In the majority of markets, however, each year, size and beauty count for more, and these qualities can be secured, even from a favorable soil, only after thorough preparation and enriching. I find that every writer of experience on this subject, both American and European, insists vigorously on the value of such careful pulverization and deepening of the soil.

Having thus considered the most favorable land in the best condition possible, under ordinary cultivation, I shall now treat of that less suitable, until we finally reach a soil too sterile and hopelessly bad to repay cultivation.

I will speak first of this same deep, moist loam, in its unsubdued condition; that is, in stiff sod, trees, or brush-wood. Of course, the latter must be removed, and, as a rule, the crops on new land--which has been undisturbed by the plow for a number of years and, perhaps, never robbed of its original fertility--will amply repay for the extra labor of clearing. Especially will this be the case if the brush and rubbish are burned evenly over the surface. The finest of wild strawberries are found where trees have been felled and the brush burned; and the successful fruit grower is the one who makes the best use of such hints from nature.

The field would look better and the cultivation be easier if all the stumps could be removed before planting, but this might involve too great preliminary expense, and I always counsel against debt except in the direst necessity. A little brush burned on each stump will effectually check new growth, and, in two or three years, these unsightly objects will be so rotten that they can be pried out, and easily turned into ashes, one of the best of fertilizers. In the meantime, the native strength of the land will cause a growth which will compensate for the partial lack of deep and thorough cultivation which the stumps and roots prevent. Those who have travelled West and South have seen fine crops of corn growing among the half-burned stumps, and strawberries will do as well.

But where trees or brush have grown very thickly, the roots and stumps must be eradicated. The thick growth on the sandy land of Florida is grubbed out at the cost of about $30 per acre, and I know of a gentleman who pays at the rate of $25 per acre in the vicinity of Norfolk, Va. I doubt whether it can be done for less elsewhere.

In some regions they employ a stump extractor, a rude but strong machine, worked by blocks and pulleys, with oxen as motor power. From the "Farmer's Advocate" of London, Ont., I learn that an expert with one of these machines, aided by five men and two yoke of oxen, was in the habit of clearing fifty acres annually.

I have cleaned hedge-rows and stony spots on my place in the following thorough manner: A man commences with pick and shovel on one side of the land and turns it steadily and completely over by hand to the depth of fourteen to eighteen inches, throwing on the surface behind him all the roots, stumps and stones, and stopping occasionally to blast when the rocks are too large to be pried out. This, of course, is expensive, and cannot be largely indulged in; but, when accomplished, the work is done for all time, and I have obtained at once by this method some splendid soil, in which the plow sinks to the beam. A drought must be severe, indeed, that can injure such land.

There is a great difference in men in the performance of this work. I have one who, within a reasonable time, would trench a farm. Indeed, in his power to obey the primal command to "subdue the earth," my man, Abraham, is a hero--although, I imagine, he scarcely knows what the word means and would as soon think of himself as a hippopotamus. His fortunes would often seem as dark as himself to those who "take thought for the morrow;" and that is saying much, for Abraham is "colored" as far as man can be.

I doubt whether his foresight often reaches further than bedtime, and to that hour he comes with an honest right to rest. He is a family man, and has six or seven children, under eight years of age, whom he shelters in a wretched little house that appears tired of standing up. But to and from this abode Abraham passes daily, with a face as serene as a May morning. In that weary old hovel I am satisfied that he and his swarming little brood have found what no architect can build--a home. Thither he carries his diurnal dollar, when he can get it, and on it they all manage to live and grow fat. He loses time occasionally, it is true, through illness, but no such trifling misfortune can induce him, seemingly, to take a long, anxious look into the future. Only once--it was last winter--have I seen him dismayed by the frowning fates. The doctor thought his wife would die, and they had nothing to eat in the house. When Abraham appeared before me at that time, "his countenance was fallen," as the quaint, strong language of Scripture expresses it. He made no complaints, however, and indulged in no Byronic allusions to destiny. Indeed, he said very little, but merely drooped and cowered, as if the wolf at the door and the shadow of death within it were rather more than he could face at one and the same time. It soon became evident, however, that his wife would "pull through," as he said, and then the wolf didn't trouble him a mite. He installed himself as cook, nurse, and house man-of-all- work, finding also abundant leisure to smoke his pipe with infinite content. One morning he was seen baking buckwheat cakes for the children; each one in turn received an allowance on a tin plate, and squatted here and there on the floor to devour it; and, from the master of ceremonies down, there was not an indication that all was not just as it should be. A few days later I met him coming back to his work with his pipe in the corner of his mouth, and the old confident twinkle in his eye as he said, "Mornin', Bossie." Now, Abraham carries his peculiar characteristics into grubbing. If I should set him at a hundred-acre field full of stumps and stones, and tell him to clear it to the depth of two feet, he would begin without any apparent misgiving, and with no more thought for the magnitude of his task than he has for the tangled and stubborn mysteries of life in general, or the dubious question of "what shall be on the morrow" in his own experience. He would see only the little strip that he proposed to clear up that day, and would go to work in a way all his own.

Although not talkative to other people, he is very social with himself, and, in the early days of our acquaintance, I was constantly misled into the belief that somebody was with him, and that he was a man of words rather than work. As soon, however, as I reached a point from which I could see him, there he would be, alone, bending to his task with the steady persistence that makes his labor so effective; but, at the same time, until he saw me he would continue discussing with equal vigor whatever subject might be uppermost in his mind. I suppose he scarcely ever takes out a stone or root without apostrophizing, adjuring, and berating it in tones and vernacular so queer that one might imagine he hoped to remove the refractory object by magic rather than by muscle. When the sun is setting, however, and Abraham has complacently advised himself, "Better quit, for de day's done gone, and de ole woman is arter me, afeared I've kivered myself up a-grubbin'," one thing is always evident--a great many stones and roots are "unkivered," and Abraham has earned anew his right to the title of champion grubber.

But, as most men handle the pick and shovel, the fruit grower must be chary in his attempts to subdue the earth with those old-time implements. It is too much like making war with the ancient Roman short sword in an age of rifled guns. I agree with that practical horticulturist, Peter Henderson, that there are no implements equal to the plow and subsoiler, and, in our broad and half-occupied country, we should be rather shy of land where these cannot be used.

The cultivator whose deep moist loam is covered by sod only, instead of rocks, brush, and trees, may feel like congratulating himself on the easy task before him; and, indeed, where the sod is light, strawberries, and especially the larger small fruits, are often planted on it at once with fair success. I do not recommend the practice; for, unless the subsequent culture is very thorough and frequent, the grass roots will continue to grow and may become so intertwined with those of the strawberry that they cannot be separated. Corn is probably the best hoed crop to precede the strawberry. Potatoes too closely resemble this fruit in their demand for potash, and exhaust the soil of one of the most needed elements. A dressing of wood ashes, however, will make good the loss. Buckwheat is one of the most effective means of subduing and cleaning land, and two crops can be plowed under in a single summer. Last spring I had some very stiff marsh sod turned over and sown with buckwheat, which, in our hurry, was not plowed under until considerable of the seed ripened and fell. A second crop from this came up at once, and was plowed under when coming into blossom, as the first should have been. The straw, in its succulent state, decayed in a few days, and by autumn my


Success With Small Fruits - 10/57

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