January 1989

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Gardening for Profit

A Guide to the Successful Cultivation
of the Market and Family Garden


Peter Henderson

first published in 1866, reprinted from 1874 edition
Index to selections from Gardening for Profit


I hope it is no egotism to state that in both the Floral and Vegetable departments of Horticulture, in which I have been engaged for the past eighteen years, I have been entirely successful. Now, we know, that success only is the test of good generalship, and it follows that, having been successful, I have thus earned my title to merit. From this standpoint, I claim the right to attempt the instruction of the student of horticulture in the tactics of that field.

We have very few works, either agricultural or horticultural, by American authors, whose writers are practical men, and fewer still of these who are men that have "risen from the ranks." The majority of such authors being ex-editors, lawyers, merchants, etc., men of means and education, who, engaging in the business as a pastime, in a year or two generously conclude to give the public the benefit of their experience—an experience, perhaps, that has been confined to a city lot, when the teachings were of the garden, or of a few acres in the suburbs, when the teachings were of the farm.

The practical farmer or gardener readily detects the ring of this spurious metal, and excusably looks upon all such instructors with contempt. To this cause, perhaps more than any other, may be attributed the widespread prejudice against book-farming and book-gardening, by which thousands shut themselves off from information, the possession of which might save years of useless toil and privation.

I have some pride, under present circumstances, in saying, that I have had a working experience in all departments of gardening, from my earliest boyhood, and even to-day am far more at home in its manual operations than its literature, and have only been induced to write the following pages at the repeated solicitations of friends and correspondents, to whose inquiries relative to commercial gardening, my time will no longer allow me to reply individually. The work has been hurriedly written, at intervals snatched from the time which legitimately belonged to my business, and therefore its text is likely to be very imperfect. I have endeavored, however, to be as concise and clear as possible, avoiding all abstruse or theoretical questions, which too often serve only to confuse and dishearten the man who seeks only for the instruction that shall enable him to practice.

Although the directions given are mainly for the market garden, or for operations on a large scale, yet the amateur or private gardener will find no difficulty in modifying them to suit the smallest requirements. The commercial gardener, from the keen competition, ever going on in the vicinity of large cities, is in his operations, taxed to his utmost ingenuity to get at the most expeditious and economical methods to produce the finest crops—methods, that we believe to be superior to those in general use in private gardens, and which may, with profit, be followed.

Our estimates of labor, I trust, will not be overlooked; for, I know, it is no uncommon thing for gentlemen to expect their gardeners to do impossibilities in this way. The private garden cannot be properly cropped and cared for with less labor than can our market gardens, and these, we know, require nearly the labor of one man to an acre, and that too, with every labor-saving arrangement in practice. When the care of green-houses, or graperies, is in addition to this, extra labor must be given accordingly, or something must suffer.

The greatest difficulty that has presented itself too me in giving the directions for operations, has been the dates; in a country having such an area and diversity of temperature as ours, directions could not well be given for the extremes, so as the best thing to be done under the circumstances, I have taken the latitude of New York as a basis, and my readers must modify my instructions to suit their locality. The number of varieties of each vegetable described here, is very small in comparison with those that are known, or the seeds of which are offered for sale. I have given only such, as I have found most serviceable. Those who wish for a more extended list are referred to the excellent work of Fearing Burr, Jr., on Garden Vegetables.

Jersey City Heights, N. J.
December 1st, 1866

Preface to Second Edition

It is now seven years since I wrote "Gardening for Profit," and, although it has met with a reception that has been exceedingly flattering, I have ever since felt that it was too hurriedly done, and far from complete. The suggestions and queries made to me by some of the many thousands of its readers, have been the means of developing many new ideas and plans for better cultivation, which I have the pleasure to embody in this edition. A new edition of a work of this kind becomes necessary every few years, to enable it to keep pace with the improvement in varieties, as well as in modes of culture. In the present edition, the part of the work treating of varieties has been carefully revised, and we believe the kinds described to be, as a whole, the best in their respective classes this day in use, either for private or commercial purposes. It is gratifying to know, by letters from every section of the country, that the publication of this work has been the means of helping to success thousands of inexperienced cultivators of the soil, of both classes—those "Gardening for Pleasure," as well as those "Gardening for Profit." It is true that some that have been induced to engage in the business by reading my book have failed. Such must ever be the case—less or more—in every business; but I have good reason to believe that the percentage of failures in gardening is less than that of almost any other business.

Peter Henderson
Jersey City Heights, N. J.
January 1874

Chapter I

The Men Fitted for the Business of Gardening

Although we shall here show the business of gardening to be a profitable one, let no man deceive himself by supposing that these profits are attainable without steady personal application.

Having been long known as extensively engaged in the business, I am applied to by scores every season, asking how they can make their lands available for garden purposes. The majority of these are city merchants, who for investment, or in anticipation of a rural retreat in the autumn of their days, have purchased a country place, and in the mean time they wish to make it pay; they have read or heard that market gardening is profitable, and they think it an easy matter to hire a gardener to work the place, while they attend their own mercantile duties as before. They are usually gentlemen of horticultural tendencies, read all the magazines and books on the subject, and from the knowledge thus obtained, plume themselves with the conceit that they are able to guide the machine.

Many hundreds from our large cities delude themselves in this way every season, in different departments of horticulture; perhaps more in the culture of fruits than of vegetables. I have no doubt that thousands of acres are annually planted, that in three years afterwards are abandoned, and the golden dreams of these sanguine gentlemen forever dissipated. Although the workers of the soil will not, as a class, compare in intelligence with the mercantile men of the cities, it is a mistake to supose that this want of education or intelligence is much of a drawback, when it comes to cultivating strawberries or cabbages. True, the untutored mind does not so readily comprehend theoretical or scientific knowledge, but for that very reason it becomes more thoroughly practical, and I must say that, as far as my experience has gone, (without being thought for a moment to derogate against the utility of a true scientific knowledge in all matters pertaining to the soil), that any common laborer, with ordinary sagacity, and twelve months' practical working in a garden, would have a far better chance of success, other things being equal, than another without the practice, even if he had all the writings, from Liebig's down, at his fingers' ends. Not that a life long practice is absolutely necessary to success, for I can see, from where I write, the homes at least of half a dozen men, all now well to do in the world, not one of whom had any knowledge of gardening, either practical or theoretical, when they started the business, but they were all active working men, "actual settlers," and depended alone on their own heads and hands for success, and not on the doubtful judgment and industry of a hired gardener, who had no further interest in the work than his monthly salary.

"D. H.," writes me thus: "I am a book-keeper with a salary from which I can save but little; but by rigid economy during a series of years, I have scraped together $2000. My health is only ordinary. With that capital can I succeed as a market gardener by hiring an experienced gardener?" This inquiry is a type of hundreds I now receive annually, and to which may be given this general reply. From the nature of the question no very definite answer can be given, though I would say that the chances are two to one against success. It is a well-known fact that the chances of success in mercantile business are even far less than this. "D.H." may be a capital book-keeper, yet it is doubtful if he has the necessary endurance to stand the wear on the constitution that market gardening involves. If he concludes to start at gardening, he is more likely than not to select a soil entirely unsuited to the purpose. In most sections of the country there are fewer soils suitable for the cultivation of vegetables than there are those that are unsuitable. Again, he is an educated man, and this very fact would be rather against him than otherwise; as it would naturally incline him to refined society and associations, which I am sorry to say the beginner in market gardening can not possibly afford to indulge in. The hiring of an "experienced gardener" would take all the cream off of the profits; experienced market gardeners are exceedingly scarce; our laborers in the market gardens are generally an ignorant class, with very little ambition, and not one in a hundred of them is fit to manage. Though employing forty hands myself, I have often been sadly at a loss to select from them a suitable man as foreman, though many of them had been with me for years. When one shows the necessary ability, his services are much sought after, and he readily commands $500 or $600 a year and board. Clerks, book-keepers, and city-bred men generally, are not the ones likely to be successful as workers of the soil; few of them have any conception of the labor required to be done to insure success.

I started business in Jersey City at the age of 23, with a capital of $500, which it had taken me three years to make as a working gardener. For the first five years I was in business, I can safely say that we worked, on an average, sixteen hours a day, winter and summer, with rarely a day for recreation. Now the majority of clerks, book-keepers, or salesmen do not work much more than half that time, and few of them could endure this lengthened strain in a summer's sun, and without this endurance success is out of the question; for all beginners to-day must do as I did until they get their heads above water, or else, such is the competition, they must go to the wall in the business; I therefore caution all such who are not in robust health, to avoid either farming or gardening, if their necessities require them to make a living thereby. That the work of the gardener is conducive to health when that has not been impaired, there is no question; but the long hours of labor and the exposure necessary to success must tell against a feeble constitution.

The business of market gardening, though pleasant, healthful, and profitable, is a laborious one, from which any one, not accustomed to manual labor, would quickly shrink. The labor is not what may be termed heavy, but the hours are long; not less than an average of 12 hours a day, winter and summer. No one should begin it after passing the meridian of life; neither is it fitted for men of weak or feeble physical organization, for it is emphatically a business in which one has to rough it; in summer planting, when it is of the utmost importance to get the plants in when raining, we repeatedly work for hours in drenching rains, and woe be to the "boss," or foreman, who would superintend the operation under the protection of an umbrella; he must take his chances with the rank and file, or his prestige, as a commander, is gone.

About Peter Henderson
Index to selections from Peter Henderson's Gardening for Profit
Peter Henderson's Gardening Calendar
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