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Esculent Roots Potatoes








In no other form can so large an amount and value of human food be
obtained from an acre of ground as in that of edible roots or tubers;
and of these the Potato is by far the most acceptable, and in most
general use. Our ancestors, it is settled, were destitute and ignorant
of the Potato prior to the discovery of America, though Europe would now
find it difficult to subsist her teeming millions without it. In
travelling pretty widely over that continent, I cannot remember that I
found, any considerable district in which the Potato was not cultivated,
though Ireland, western England, and northern Switzerland, with a small
portion of northern Italy, are impressed on my mind as the most addicted
to the growth of this esculent. Other roots are eaten occasionally, by
way of variety, or as giving a relish to ordinary food; but the Potato
alone forms part of the every day diet alike of prince and peasant. It
is an almost indispensable ingredient of the feasts of Dives, while it
is the cheapest and commonest resort for satiating or moderating the
hunger of Lazarus. I recollect hearing my parents, fifty years ago,
relate how, in their childhood and youth, the poor of New-England, when
the grain-crop of that region was cut short, as it often was, were
obliged to subsist through the following Winter mainly on Potatoes and
Milk; and I then accorded to those unfortunates of the preceding
generation a sympathy which I should now considerably abate, provided
the Potatoes were of good quality. Roasted Potatoes, seasoned with salt
and butter and washed down with bounteous draughts of fresh buttermilk,
used in those days to be the regular supper served up in farmers' homes
after a churning of cream into butter; and I have since eaten costly
suppers that were not half so good.

The Potato, say some accredited accounts, was first brought to Europe
from Virginia, by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586 or 1587; but I do not
believe the story. Authentic tradition affirms that the Potato was
utterly unknown in New-England, or at all events east of the
Connecticut, when the Scotch-Irish who first settled Londonderry, N. H.,
came over from old Londonderry, Ireland, bringing the Potato with
them. They spent the Winter of 1719 in different parts of Massachusetts
and Maine--quite a number of them at Haverhill, Mass., where they gave
away a few Potatoes for seed, on leaving for their own chosen location
in the Spring; and they afterward learned that the English colonists,
who received them, tried hard to find or make the seed-balls edible the
next Fall but were obliged to give it up as a bad job; leaving the
tubers untouched and unsuspected in the ground.

I doubt that the Potato was found growing by Europeans in any part of
this country, unless it be in that we have acquired from Mexico. It is
essentially a child of the mountains, and I presume it grew wild nowhere
else than on the sides of the great chain which traversed Spanish
America, at a height of from 5,000 to 8,000 feet above the surface of
the ocean. Here it found a climate cooled by the elevation and moistened
by melting snows from above and by frequent showers, yet one which
seldom allowed the ground to be frozen to any considerable depth, while
the pure and bracing atmosphere was congenial to its nature and
requirements. In this country, the Potato is hardiest and thriftiest
among the White Mountains of New-Hampshire, the Green Mountains of
Vermont, on the Catskills and kindred elevations in our own State, and
in similar regions of Pennsylvania and the States further South and
West.

My own place is at least 15 miles from, and 500 feet above, Long Island
Sound; yet I cannot make the Potato, by the most generous treatment, so
prolific as it was in New-Hampshire in my boyhood, where I dug a bushel
from 14 hills, grown on rough, hard ground, but which, having just been
cleared of a thick growth of bushes and briars, was probably better
adapted to this crop than though it had been covered an inch deep with
barn-yard manure.

He who has a tolerably dry, warm sandy soil, covered two or three
inches deep with decayed or decaying leaves and brush, may count with
confidence on raising from it a good crop of Potatoes, provided his seed
be sound and healthy. On the other hand, all authorities agree that
animal manures, unless very thoroughly rotted and intimately mixed with
the soil, are injurious to the quality of Potatoes grown thereon,
stimulating any tendency to disease, if they do not originally produce
such disease. I believe that Swamp Muck, dug in Summer or Autumn,
deposited on a dry bank or glade, and cured of its acidity by an
admixture of Wood-Ashes, of Lime, or of Salt (better still, of Lime and
Salt chemically compounded by dissolving the Salt in the least possible
quantity of Water, and slaking the lime with that Water), forms an
excellent fertilizer for Potatoes, if administered with a liberal hand.
A bushel of either of these alkalies to a cord of muck is too little;
the dose should be doubled if possible; but, if the quantity be small,
mix it more carefully, and give it all the time you can wherein to
operate upon the muck before applying the mixture to your fields.

Where the muck is not easily to be had, yet the soil is thin and poor, I
would place considerable reliance on deep plowing and subsoiling in the
Fall, and cross-plowing just before planting in the Spring. Give a good
dressing of Plaster, not less than 200 lbs. to the acre, directly after
the Fall plowing; if you have Ashes, scatter them liberally in the drill
or hill as you plant; and, if you have them not, supply their place
with Superphosphate or Bone-dust. I think many farmers will be agreeably
surprised by the additional yield which will accrue from this treatment
of their soil.

Those who have no swamp muck, and feel that they can afford the outlay,
may, by plowing or subsoiling early in the Fall, seeding heavily with
rye, and turning this under when the time comes for planting in the
Spring, improve both crop and soil materially. But even to these I would
say: Apply the Gypsum in the Fall, and the Ashes or Lime and Salt
mixture in the Spring; and now, with good seed and good luck, you will
be reasonably sure of a bounteous harvest. If a farmer, having a poor
worn-out field of sandy loam, wants to do his very best by it, let him
plow, subsoil, sow rye and plaster in the Fall, as above indicated, turn
this under, and sow buckwheat late in the next Spring; plow this under
in turn when it has attained its growth, and sow to clover; turn this
down the following Spring, and Plant to late potatoes, and he will not
merely obtain a large crop, but have his land in admirable condition for
whatever way follow.

I am quite well aware that such an outlay of labor and seed, with an
entire loss of crop for one season, will seem to many too costly. I do
not advise it except under peculiar circumstances; and yet I am
confident that there are many fields that would be doubled in value by
such treatment, which would richly repay all its cost. That most
farmers could not afford thus to treat their entire farms at once, is
very true; yet it does not follow that they might not deal with field
after field thus thoroughly, living on the products of 40 or 50 acres,
while they devoted five or six annually to the work of thorough
renovation.

A quarter of a century ago, we were threatened with a complete
extinction of the Potato, as an article of food: the stalks, when
approaching or just attaining maturity, were suddenly smitten with fatal
disease--usually, after a warm rain followed by scalding sunshine--the
growing tubers were speedily affected; they rotted in the ground, and
they rotted nearly as badly if dug; and whole townships could hardly
show a bushel of sound Potatoes.

A desolating famine in Ireland, which swept away or drove into exile
nearly two millions of her people, was the most striking and memorable
result of this wide-spread disaster. For several succeeding seasons, the
Potato was similarly, though not so extensively, affected; and the fears
widely expressed that the day of its usefulness was over, seemed to have
ample justification. Speaking generally, the Potato has never since been
so hardy or prolific as it was half a century ago; it has gradually
recovered, however, from its low estate, and, though the malady still
lingers, and from time to time renews its ravages in different
localities, the farmer now plants judiciously and on fit ground, with a
reasonable hope that his labor will be duly rewarded.

It seems to be generally agreed that clayey soils are not adapted to its
growth; that, if the quantity of the crop be not stinted, its quality is
pretty sure to be inferior; and I can personally testify that the
planting of Potatoes on wet soil--that is, on swampy or spongy land
which has not been thoroughly drained and sweetened--is a hopeless,
thriftless labor--that the crop will seldom be worth the seed.

As to the ten or a dozen different insects to which the Potato-rot has
been attributed, I regard them all as consequences, not causes;
attracted to prey on the plant by its sickly, weakly condition, and not
really responsible for that condition. If any care for my reasons, let
him refer to what I have said of the Wheat-plant and its insect
enemies.[1]

There has been much discussion as to the kind of seed to be planted; and
I think the result has been a pretty general conviction that it is
better to cut the tuber into pieces having two or three eyes each, than
to plant it whole, since the whole Potato sends up a superfluity of
stalks, with a like effect on the crop to that of putting six or eight
kernels of corn in each hill.

Small Potatoes are immature, unripe, and of course should never be
planted, since their progeny will be feeble and sickly. Select for seed
none but thoroughly ripe Potatoes, and the larger the better.

My own judgment favors planting in drills rather than hills, with ample
space for working between them; not less than 30 inches: the seed being
dropped about 6 inches apart in the drill. The soil must be deep and
mellow, for the Potato suffers from drouth much sooner than Indian Corn
or almost any other crop usually grown among us. I believe in covering
the seed from 2 to 2-1/2 inches; and I hold to flat or level culture for
this as for everything else. Planting on a ridge made by turning two
furrows together may be advisable where the land is wet; but then wet
land never can be made fit for cultivation, except by underdraining. And
I insist upon setting the rows or drills well apart, because I hold that
the soil should often be loosened and stirred to a good depth with the
subsoil plow; and that this process should be persevered in till the
plant is in blossom. Hardly any plant will pay better for persistent
cultivation than the Potato.

As to varieties, I will only say that planting the tubers for seed is an
unnatural process, which tends and must tend to degeneracy. The new
varieties now most prized will certainly run out in the course of twenty
or thirty years at furthest, and must be replaced from time to time by
still newer, grown from the seed. This creation of new species is, and
must be, a slow, expensive process; since not one in a hundred of these
varieties possess any value. I don't quite believe in selling--I mean in
buying--Potatoes at $1 per pound; but he who originates a really
valuable new Potato deserves a recompense for his industry, patience,
and good fortune; and I shall be glad to learn that he receives it.





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Previous: Grain-growing East And West



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