April 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

Chapter VI

Soils, Drainage, and Preparation

In the course of an experience of nearly twenty years as a market gardener, in the neighborhood of New York, I have had, in the prosecution of the business, the opportunity of reclaiming large tracts of very different varieties of soil. Some of these, almost the first season, yielded a handsome profit, while with others, the labor of years, and the expenditure of large sums in extra manuring and draining, have never been able to bring these uncongenial soils up to the proper standard of productiveness.

On many occasions I have referred to the great importance of selecting a proper quality of soil for all gardening and farming operations, and the fact cannot be too often nor too forcibly impressed that success hinges more directly upon this than on anything else. Thousands are every year ruined by a bad selection of soil. I have scores come to me in the course of every season for advice in this matter of soils, but in most instances the advice is asked too late; the majority of the applicants having been unfortunate enough to buy or rent land that they had been led to believe was excellent, but only "run down." In my opinion this widespread notion of "exhausted lands" is, to a great extent, a fallacy, and that most of the lands said to be so exhausted never were good, and no power on earth short of spreading a good soil over them a foot thick, would ever make them good.

The practical test of the importance of a good soil for market garden operations is clearly shown in a score of cases in my vicinity.

Wherever a man of ordinary industry and intelligence has been fortunate enough to locate on land that is naturally good his success has been certain, while others that have not been able to procure such land have had to struggle far harder for less returns; in some few instances entire failure has been the case, for the reason that the soil started on was unfitted for the purpose.

The variety of soil that we value above all others, is an alluvial saline deposit, rarely found more than a mile inland from the tide mark. It is of dark heavy loam, containing, throughout, a large mixture of decomposing oyster and other shells; it averages from 10 to 30 inches deep, overlaying a subsoil of yellow sandy loam. The next best variety is somewhat lighter soil, both in color and specific gravity, from 8 to 15 inches deep, having a similar subsoil to the above. Then we have a still lighter soil, in both senses of the term, in which the sand predominates over the loam, and laying on a subsoil of pure sand; this variety of soil is well adapted for Melons, Cucumbers, Sweet Potatoes, Radishes and Tomatoes, but is almost useless for growing crops of Onions, Cabbages, or Celery. We have still another kind of soil, which I place last, as being of the least value for the purpose of growing vegetables; this variety, singularly enough, is found on the highest points only, its color is somewhat lighter than the variety first mentioned; it is what is termed a clayey loam, averaging ten inches in depth, under which is a thick stratum of stiff bluish clay. With a subsoil of this nature, it is almost useless to attempt to grow early vegetables for market purposes.

I have just such a soil, as the last mentioned, thoroughly drained three feet deep, the drains only 18 feet apart, and yet, in another garden, that I work, having the two first named soils and only one mile distant, manured and cultivated the same in all respects, fruits and vegetables are ready from 5 to 10 days earlier. But for the succession, or second crops, such as Celery, etc., this stiff cold soil is just what is wanted; earliness with these is not the object, and its "coldness" is congenial to the roots of the late crop. But if selection can be made for general purposes, choose a rather dark-colored loam soil, neither "sandy" nor "clayey," as deep as can be found, but not less than 12 inches. If it overlay a sandy loam of yellowish color, through which water will pass freely, you have struck the right spot, and abundant crops can be raised under proper management. When selecting land, do not be deceived by any one who tells you, that if not naturally good, the soil may be made so by cultivation and manure. These will help, certainly, but only as education improves the shallow mind. Luxuriant crops can no more be expected from a thin and poor soil— no matter how much it is cultivated—than fertile ideas from a shallow brain, educate it as you will.


Every operator in the soil concedes the importance of drainage, yet it is really astonishing to observe how men will work wet lands year after year, wasting annually, by loss of crops, twice the amount required to thoroughly drain.

A most industrious German, in this vicinity, cultivated about 8 acres for 3 years, barely making a living; his soil was an excellent loam, but two-thirds of it was so "spongy," that he could never get it plowed until all his neighbors had their crops planted. Driving past one day, I hailed him, asking him why he was so late in getting in his crop, when he explained that if he had begun sooner, his horses would have "bogged" so, he might never have got them out again. I suggested draining, but he replied that would never pay on a leased place; he had started on a ten years lease, which had only 7 years more to run, and that he would only be improving it for his landlord, who would allow him nothing for such improvement. After some further conversation I asked him to jump into my wagon, and in 10 minutes we alighted at a market garden, that had 6 years before been just such a swamp hole as his own, but now, (the middle of May), was luxuriant with vegetation. I explained to him what its former condition had been, and that the investing of $500, in drain tiles, would, in 12 months, put his in the same condition. He, being a shrewd man, acted on the advice, and at the termination of his lease, purchased and paid for his 8 acres $12,000, the savings of six years on his drained garden. I honestly believe, that, had he gone on without draining, he would not have made $1200 in 12 years, far less $12,000 in 6 years. My friend estimates his whole success in life to our accidental meeting and conversation that May morning, and consequently I have no stauncher friend on earth than he.

The modes of draining must be guided to a great extent by circumstances; wherever stones are abundant on land, the most economical way to dispose of them, is to use them for drainage. I have also used with great success, in a wet sandy subsoil, where digging was easily done, brush, from adjacent woods cut off, and trod firmly 2 feet deep in the bottom of drains 5 feet deep, overlaying the brush with straw or meadow hay before covering in. Drains so made, have answered well for nearly a dozen years, and in situations where no other material offers, they will at least answer a temporary purpose. But unquestionably, when at all attainable, at anything like reasonable cost, the cheapest and most thorough draining is by tile. We use here the ordinary horse-shoe tile; 3 inch size for the laterals, and from 5 to 6 inch for the mains. On stiff clayey soils, we make our lateral drains 3 feet deep, and from 15 to 18 feet apart; on soils with less compact subsoils, from 20 to 25 feet distant. We find it cheaper to use the horse-shoe than the sole tile; in lieu of the sole we cut common hemlock boards in 4 pieces; that is, cut them through the middle, and split these again making a board, thus cut, run about 50 feet; these are placed in the bottom of the drains, and prevent the sagging of the tiles in any particular spot that might be soft. We are particularly careful to place, after setting, a piece of sod, grass down, over the joinings of the tiles, to prevent the soil from getting in and stopping up the drainage.

The manner of constructing stone drains, is governed by the character of the stone on hand; if round, they are best made as rubble drains, (fig. 1); but if flat, which is much the best, they are made as represented by fig. 2. But in either case, the same care must be exercised in covering over the top, thoroughly, with sod, shavings, straw, or some similar material, in quantity sufficient to prevent the soil from washing in and filling up the cavity.

Preparation of the Ground

Assuming that the ground on which the garden is to be formed is in sod, the best time to begin operations is in September, October, or November. If draining is necessary, that should be first completed. Before the sod is plowed, it would greatly assist its rotting, if horse manure can be obtained, to spread it over the surface, to the depth of two or three inches. In plowing the sod under, care should be taken to have it laid as flat as possible; this can be best done by plowing shallow, and at this time there is no particular necessity for deep plowing.

After plowing, we find it advantageous to flatten down the furrows, by running over with the back of the harrow; this mellows the soil so that it fills up the crevices left between the furrows, and hastens the decomposition of the sod. If the plowing has been done early enough in the fall, so that the sod has had time to rot the same season, it will facilitate the operations of next spring to cross plow and thoroughly harrow; but if too late, this had better be deferred until spring. After the ground has been well broken up by this second plowing and harrowing, it should again be manured over the whole surface with rough stable manure, as much as can well be procured; there is rarely danger of getting too much, and the third plowing takes place, followed this time by the subsoiler.

I have always found it best, in breaking in new ground to crop with Potatoes, Corn, or late Cabbages the first season—it rarely indeed happens that any amount of labor or manuring can so prepare the ground, the first season, as to bring it to that high degree of tilth necessary for growing garden vegetables as they should be grown, and any attempt to do so, will result in a meagre crop, which will not pay—at least in such districts as New York, where there is always abundance of products of the first quality. It must not be expected that the crops of Potatoes, etc., will give much profit for this unusual outlay in preparation and manure, for they certainly will not, and the beginner must be content to wait for his profits until the second season; these are certain to be realized if these preparations have been properly made, hence it will be seen the necessity for capital in this business, for the returns, though highly remunerative, are not quick.

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