April 1990

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The Use of the Feet

in Sowing and Planting


Peter Henderson

For some years past I have, in writing on gardening matters, insisted upon the great importance of "firming" the soil over the seeds after sowing, especially when the soil is dry, or likely to become so. I know of no operation of more importance in either the farm or garden, and I trust that what I am about to say will be read and remembered by every one not yet aware of the vast importance of the practice. I say "vast importance," for the loss to the agricultural and horticultural community, from the habit of loosely sowing seeds or planting plants in hot and dry soils, is of a magnitude which few will believe, until they have witnessed it; and it is a loss all the more to be regretted, when we know that by "firming" the soil around the seed or plant, there is, in most cases, a certain preventive.

Particularly in the sowing of seeds, I consider the matter of such vast importance, that it cannot be too often or too strongly told; for the loss to the agricultural and horticultural community, by the neglect of the simple operation of firming the soil around the seed, must amount to many millions annually. For the mischief done is not confined only to the less important garden operations, but even Corn, Cotton, Wheat, Turnips, and other important crops of the farm often fail, in hot and dry soils by being sown without being firmed sufficiently to prevent the dry air shriveling or drying the seeds. Of course, the use of the feet is impracticable in firming seeds on the farm, but a heavy roller, applied after sowing, is an absolute necessity under certain conditions of the soil, to insure perfect germination.

We sow annually about 4 acres of Celery, Cabbage and Cauliflower plants, which produce probably five millions in number, and which we never fail to sell, mostly in our immediate neighborhood, to the market gardeners, who have, many of them, even better facilities than we have for raising these plants, if they would only do as we do, firm the seed after sowing, which is done thus: After plowing, harrowing and leveling the land smoothly, lines are drawn by the "marker," which makes a furrow about two inches deep and a foot apart. After the man who sows the seed follows another, who, with the ball of the right foot, presses down his full weight on every inch of soil in the drill where the seed has been sown; the rows are then lightly leveled longitudinally with the rake, a light roller is passed over them, and the operation is done.

By this method our crop has never once failed, and what is true of Celery and Cabbage seed is nearly true of all other seeds requiring to be sown during the late spring or Summer months.

On one occasion as an experiment, I sowed 12 rows of Sweet Corn and 12 rows of Beets, treading in, after sowing, every alternate row of each. In both cases, those trod in came up in 4 days, while those unfirmed remained 12 days before starting, and would not then have germinated had not rain fallen, for the soil was dry as dust when the seed was sown.

The result was that the seeds that had been trodden in grew freely from the start and matured their crops to a marketable condition by Fall; while the rows unfirmed did not mature, as they were not only 8 days later in germinating, but the plants were also, to some extent, enfeebled by being partially dried in the loose, dry soil.

This experiment was a most useful one, for it proved that a Corn crop, sown in the vicinity of New York as late as July 2d, could be made to produce "roasting ears" in October, when they never fail to sell freely at high rates, but the crop would not mature unless the seed germinated at once, and which would never be certain at that dry and hot season, unless by this method.

The same season, in August, I treated seeds of Turnips and Spinach in the same way. Those trod in germinated at once and made an excellent crop, while those unfirmed germinated feebly, and were eventually nearly all burned out by a continuance of dry, hot air penetrating through the loose soil to the tender rootlets.

I beg to caution the inexperienced, however, by no means to tread or roll in seed if the ground is not dry. The soil may often be in a suitable condition to sow, and yet be too damp to be trodden upon or rolled. In such cases these operations may not be necessary at all, for if rainy weather ensue, the seeds will germinate, of course; but if there is any likelihood of a continued drought, the treading or rolling may be done a week or more after the seed has been sown, if there is any reason to believe that it may suffer from the dry, hot air. Another very important advantage gained by treading in seeds is, that when we have crops of Beets, Celery, Turnips, Spinach or anything else that is sown in rows, the seeds to form the crop come up at once; while the seeds of the weeds, that are just as liable to perish by the heat as are those of the crop, are retarded. Such of the weed seeds as lie in the space between the rows when the soil is loose, will not germinate as quickly as those of the crop sown; and hence we can cultivate between the rows before the weeds germinate at all.

Of course, this rule of treading in or firming seeds after sowing, must not be blindly followed. Very early in Spring or late in Fall, when the soil is damp and there is no danger from heated dry air, there is no necessity for doing so.

Now, if firming the soil around seed, to protect it from the influence of a dry and hot atmosphere, is a necessity, it is obvious that it is even so in the case of plants whose rootlets are even more sensitive to such influence than the dormant seed.

Experienced professional horticulturists, however, are less likely to neglect this than to neglect in the case of seeds, for the damage from such neglect is easier to be seen, and hence better understood by the practical nurseryman; but with the inexperienced amateur the case in different. When he receives his package of trees or plants from the nurseryman, he handles them as if they were glass, every broken twig or root calls forth a complaint, and he proceeds to plant them, gingerly straightening out each root and sifting the soil around them, but he would no more stamp down that soil than he would stamp on the soil of his mother's grave. So the plant, in nine cases out of ten, is left loose and waggling; the dry air penetrates through the soil to its roots; the winds shake it; it shrivels up and fails to grow; and then come the anathemas on the head of the unfortunate nurseryman, who is charged with selling him dead trees or plants.

Some time ago I sent a package of a dozen Roses by mail to a lady in Savannah. Soon after, she wrote me a woeful story, saying that, though the roses had arrived seemingly all right, they had all died but one, and what was very singular, she said, the one that lived was the one that Mr. Jones had stepped on, and which she had thought sure was crushed to death, for Mr. Jones weighs 200 lbs. Now, though I do not advise any gentleman of 200 lbs. putting his brogan on the top of a tender Rose plant, as a practice conducive to its health, yet, if Mrs. Jones could have allowed her weighty lord to press the soil against the root of each of her dozen roses, I much doubt it she would now have to mourn their loss.

It has often been a wonder to many of us, who have been workers in the soil for a generation, how some of the simplest methods of culture have not been practiced until we were nearly done with life's work.

There are few of us but have had such experience; personally, I must say that I never pass through a year but I am confounded to find that some operation cannot only be quicker done, but better done than we have been in the habit of doing it.

These improvements loom up from various causes, but mainly from suggestions thrown out by our employees in charge of special departments, a system which we do all in our power to encourage.

Whether it is the higher price of labor in this country, that forces us into labor-saving expedients, or the interchange of opinions from the greater number of nationalities centering here, that gives us broader views of culture, I am not prepared to state; but that America is now selling nearly all the products of the greenhouse, garden, nursery and farm lower than is done in Europe, admits of no questions; and if my homely suggestions in this matter of firming the soil around newly planted seeds or plants, will in any degree assist us in still holding to the front, I shall be gratified.

Index to selections from Peter Henderson's Gardening for Profit
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