July 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 XII

Seeds and Seed Raising

If there is one thing of paramount importance in vegetable gardening, it is purity of seed; and for this reason every seed that it is practicable for us to raise for our own use, we grow, no matter what the cost may be. On one occasion, our indispensable Wakefield Cabbage seed failed, from some peculiarity in the season, and there was no alternative but to buy seed from the seed stores; every store in New York was tried, but not a seed proved to be of the Wakefield, as we know it. One old gentleman, who always provided for such emergencies, had a two-year old reserve supply. I offered him $50 per pound, but could not procure an ounce from him. He too well understood the state of the case, and planted his whole ground with this variety, and as he got in ahead of all by nearly ten days, made a little fortune by the operation. That was about ten years ago; but I have never known a Jersey gardener to be out of this variety of seed since, and not know where to get it. On another occasion one pound of seed, purchased as Silesia Lettuce, and planted in my forcing frames, proved to be the curled India Lettuce, useless, except for out hottest summer weather, and perfectly worthless for forcing. This was the most serious loss from bad seeds I ever encountered, amounting to at least $1000. Last year, quite a number of my neighbors lost heavily in purchasing seed of the erect variety of Thyme, instead of the spreading variety; the crop being all but worthless in consequence. No wonder then that the market gardeners are so skeptical about using seeds except of their own raising, or from those of their immediate neighbors, in whose knowledge and honesty they have entire confidence.

There is but little new to say of the manner of raising seeds; the importance of selecting the purest specimens of each variety, and of keeping plants that are of the same families, as far distant apart as the limits of the ground will admit, is now well understood. It is not practicable, however, to raise all the seeds wanted in our vegetable gardens, in our climate, and consequently we have to rely on importation for seeds of Broccoli, Cauliflower, some varieties of Cabbage, Radishes, Peas, etc. But the great majority of seeds used are raised here, our climate being particularly well adapted for maturing them. In the raising of market vegetables, near large cities, the usual practice is, for each grower to grow only a few varieties, and these of the sorts most profitable to his location or soil. for example, we of New Jersey, in the immediate vicinity of New York, grow Beets, Cabbages, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Lettuce, Radishes and Turnips as a first crop; followed by Celery, Thyme, Sage, Broccoli, and late Cabbage, as a second crop. Of these varieties we save all the seeds that it is practicable for us to raise; while the more Southern counties of the State, where crops mature ten or twelve days earlier, but the distance greater from market, the bulkier and cheaper articles are not grown, and only the more portable and (when early) valuable kinds are raised, of which Tomatoes, Melons, Peas, Kidney Beans, Early Turnips, and Beets, are the staple articles. There, also, the growers know well the necessity of sowing only such seeds as are grown by themselves, or from sources that they know to be reliable.

Seed growing, as practised by market gardeners, is on much too small a scale to make it profitable; in fact, there is hardly a seed we raise, but costs us much more than what we could purchase it for from the seedsmen. Seedsmen are supplied by regular seed growers, who make a special business of it; they are located principally in the Eastern States, and devote many thousands of acres of the finest lands to the purpose. They are a highly responsible class of men, who thoroughly understand the business, and are now successfully competing with the English and French growers, from whom, only a few years ago, nearly all our seeds were imported. Just so soon as our seedsmen are able to get their entire supply from reliable men here, there will be no necessity for the market gardeners continuing to be their own seed growers; they would also greatly conduce to the increase of their business by taking the trouble to ascertain the varieties most suitable for market purposes. Above all, no seed should ever be sold without its germinating qualities being thoroughly tested. Neither should any gardener risk his crop without testing the seed, unless he has implicit confidence in the source from whence it has been purchased.

It will be understood, that of all annual plants, such as Beans, Corn, Cucumbers, Egg Plants, Lettuce, Melons, Peas, Radishes, Tomatoes, etc., the seed is saved the season of planting, and should be always taken from those first maturing, if earliness is an object. The seeds of biennial vegetables such as Beets, Carrots, Celery, Cabbages,. Onions, Leeks, Parsley, Parsnips, etc., are raised by selecting the best specimens from those preserved over winter, planting them out in good soil on the opening of spring, at distances such as are recommended for their growing.

Duration Of Germination In Seeds.—There are very few seeds that will not germinate as freely the second year as the first, if properly kept in a cool place, and not exposed to either a too drying or too damp an atmosphere. With the exception of Parsnips, Onions, and Leeks, I would just as confidently sow seed two years old, as when fresh gathered; but there is a limit to the vitality of seeds, varying much in the different species.

Among those, only safe for two years are: Beans and Peas, of all kinds; Peppers, Carrot, Egg Plant, Okra, Salsify, Thyme, Sage, and Rhubarb.

Those safe for three years: Asparagus, Endive, Lettuce, Parsley, Spinach, and Radish.

Those safe for four years: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Celery, and Turnip.

Those possessing the greatest vitality are: Beet, Cucumber, Melon, Pumpkin, Squash, and Tomato; the time ranging from five to ten years.

We often find this knowledge very valuable; for example, in procuring the stock of a seed said to be good, of a variety that does not seed the season it is marketable, such as Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, or Celery, we procure enough to last at least two seasons; the first season only a little is sown, to test the merit of the variety, (for we are never incautious enough to risk a full crop with one experiment); if it proves valuable, we have enough in reserve to sow for a full crop, knowing that it is sure to germinate. This was particularly the case with our New Dwarf Celery; on the recommendation of a friend I imported ten pounds of the seed, but doubtful of how it would suit our market, only as much was sown as would furnish a few hundred plants. These showed so much superiority, in all respects, to the tall varieties that we had been growing, that the following season I put in half my crop with the dwarf seed. The thing was entirely new in our market, and so much superior, that it sold for prices that would seem incredible. My ten lb. bag was not half exhausted, and the next season I planted my whole crop, fourteen acres, containing nearly half a million roots, and made one of the best hits I ever made in gardening. But by this time my neighbors began to take an unusual interest in my Celery crop, and I could monopolize the variety no longer.

A frequent source of complaint is the fact of seeds failing to germinate during long continued dry weather, and it is very important that the gardener should always apply common-sense to his work, and not simply follow routine, for what will suit for one condition of soil or atmosphere, would be unnecessary or even wrong for another. I will give a case to illustrate. About the fifth of May of 1871, I sowed a large patch of open ground with Celery seed, and another with Cabbage seed. The soil was in fine order, and the beds after sowing, were raked; the Celery with a fine steel rake, the Cabbage with a large wooden rake, which covered the seed of each to the regular depth. The weather was dry, with indications of its continuing so, and after sowing I had both the Cabbage and Celery beds rolled heavily, leaving, however, a strip of each unrolled, so that I could. clearly show to some of my young men what the result of this omission would be if dry weather continued. Had a heavy rain fallen within a day or two after sowing, it would have compacted the soil and produced the effect of rolling it. But we had no rain for three or four weeks, and a burning-hot atmosphere, passing through the shallow, loose covering of the seeds, shriveled and dried them up so that it was impossible they could ever germinate. This little experiment resulted exactly as any one having experience in seed-sowing knew it must; our crop of Celery and Cabbage plants were as fine as need be on the rolled bed, while not one seed in a thousand of Celery, and not one in a hundred of the Cabbage started in the strips when the soil was left loose.

In the sowing of Cauliflower, Cabbage, or Lettuce in September, the same precaution had better be used. But in small beds, such as are usually taken for these, if a roller is not at hand, after raking the beds, the soil should be firmly patted with the back of the spade; this not only produces quicker and more certain germination, but it leaves the surface of the bed smooth, so that the plants come up straighter than if the beds were left rough. We consider the practice of soaking seeds worse than useless.

The Use of the Feet in Sowing and Planting, by Peter Henderson
Index to selections from Peter Henderson's Gardening for Profit
Peter Henderson's Gardening Calendar
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