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What I Know Of Farming

Plowing Deep Or Shallow

Rules absolutely without exception are rare; and they who imagine that I
insist on plowing all lands deeply are wrong for I hold that much land
should never be plowed at all. In fact, I have seen in my life nearly as
large an area that ought not as I have that ought to be plowed, by which
I mean that half the land I have seen may serve mankind better if
devoted to timber than if subjected to tillage. I personally know
farmers who would thrive far better if they tilled but half the area
they do, bestowing on this all the labor and fertilizers they spread
over the whole, even though they threw the residue into common and left
it there. I judge that a majority of our farmers could increase the
recompense of their toil by cultivating fewer acres than they now do.

Nor do I deny that there are soils which it is not advisable to plow
deeply. Prof. Mapes told me he had seen a tract in West Jersey whereof
the soil was but eight inches deep, resting on a stratum of copperas
(sulphate of iron,) which, being upturned by the plow and mingled with
the soil, poisoned the crops planted thereon. And I saw, last Summer,
on the intervale of New River, in the western part of Old Virginia, many
acres of Corn which were thrifty and luxuriant in spite of shallow
plowing and intense drouth, because the rich, black loam which had there
been deposited by semi-annual inundations, until its depth ranged from
two to twenty feet, was so inviting and permeable that the corn-roots
ran below the bottom of the furrow about as readily as above that
line. I do not doubt that there are many millions of acres of such land
that would produce tolerably, and sometimes bounteously, though simply
scratched over by a brush harrow and never plowed at all. In the infancy
of our race, when there were few mouths to fill and when farming
implements were very rude and ineffective, cultivation was all but
confined to these facile strips and patches, so that the utility, the
need, of deep tillage was not apparent. And yet, we know the crops often
failed utterly in those days, plunging whole nations into the miseries
of famine.

The primitive plow was a forked stick or tree-top, whereof one prong
formed the coulter, the other and longer the beam; and he who first
sharpened the coulter-prong with a stone hatchet was the Whitney or
McCormick of his day. The plow in common use to-day in Spain or Turkey
is an improvement on this, for it has an iron point; still, it is a
miserable tool. When, at five years old, I first rode the horse which
drew my father's plow in furrowing for or cultivating his corn, it had
an iron coulter and an iron share; but it was mainly composed of wood.
In the hard, rocky soil of New-Hampshire, as full of bowlders and
pebbles as a Christmas pudding is of plums, plowing with such an
implement was a sorry business at best. My father hitched eight oxen and
a horse to his plow when he broke up pebbly green-sward, and found an
acre of it a very long day's work. I hardly need add that subsoiling was
out of the question, and that six inches was the average depth of his

I judge that the best Steel Plows now in use do twice the execution that
his did with a like expenditure of power--that we can, with equal power,
plow twelve inches as easily and rapidly as he plowed six. Ought we to
do it? Will it pay?

I first farmed for myself in 1845 on a plat of eight acres, in what was
then the open country skirting the East River nearly abreast the lower
point of Blackwell's Island, near Fiftieth-st., on a little indentation
of the shore known as Turtle Bay. None of the Avenues east of Third was
then opened above Thirtieth-st.; and the neighborhood, though now
perforated by streets and covered with houses, was as rural and secluded
as heart could wish. One fine Spring morning, a neighbor called and
offered to plow for $5 my acre of tillage not cut up by rows of box and
other shrubs; and I told him to go ahead. I came home next evening, just
as he was finishing the job, which I contemplated most ruefully. His
plow was a pocket edition; his team a single horse; his furrows at most
five inches deep. I paid him, but told him plainly that I would have
preferred to give the money for nothing. He insisted that he had plowed
for me as he plowed for others all around me. "I will tell you," I
rejoined, "exactly how this will work. Throughout the Spring and early
Summer, we shall have frequent rains and moderate heat: thus far, my
crops will do well. But then will come hot weeks, with little or no
rain; and they will dry up this shallow soil and every thing planted

The result signally justified my prediction. We had frequent rains and
cloudy, mild weather, till the 1st of July, when the clouds vanished,
the sun came out intensely hot, and we had scarcely a sprinkle till the
1st of September, by which time my Corn and Potatoes had about given up
the ghost. Like the seed which fell on stony ground in the Parable of
the Sower, that which I had planted had withered away "because there was
no root;" and my prospect for a harvest was utterly blighted, where,
with twelve inches of loose, fertile, well pulverized earth at their
roots, my crops would have been at least respectable. When I became once
more a farmer in a small way on my present place, I had not forgotten
the lesson, and I tried to have plowed deeply and thoroughly so much
land as I had plowed at all. My first Summer here (1853) was a very dry
one, and crops failed in consequence around me and all over the country;
yet mine were at least fair; and I was largely indebted for them to
relatively deep plowing. I have since suffered from frost (on my low
land), from the rotting of seed in the ground, from the ravages of
insects, etc.; but never by drouth; and I am entirely confident that
Deep Plowing has done me excellent service. My only trouble has been to
get it done; for there are apt to be reasons?--(haste, lateness in the
season, etc.)--for plowing shallowly for "just this time," with full
intent to do henceforth better.

* * * * *

I close this paper with a statement made to me by an intelligent British
farmer living at Maidstone, south of England. He said:

"A few years ago there came into my hands a field of twelve acres, which
had been an orchard; but the trees were hopelessly in their dotage. They
must be cut down; then their roots must be grubbed out; so I resolved to
make a clean job of it, and give the field a thorough trenching.
Choosing a time in Autumn or early Winter when labor was abundant and
cheap, I had it turned over three spits (27 inches) deep; the lowest
being merely reversed; the next reversed and placed at the top; the
surface being reversed and placed below the second. The soil was strong
and deep, as that of an orchard should be; I planted the field to Garden
Peas, and my first picking was very abundant. About the time that peas
usually begin to wither and die, the roots of mine struck the rich soil
which had been the first stratum, but was now the second, and at once
the stalks evinced a new life--threw out new blossoms, which were
followed by pods; and so kept on blossoming and forming peas for weeks,
until this first crop far more than paid the cost of trenching and

Thus far my English friend. Who will this year try a patch of Peas on a
plat made rich and mellow for a depth of at least two feet, and
frequently moistened in Summer by some rude kind of irrigation?

The fierceness of our Summer suns, when not counteracted by frequent
showers, shortens deplorably the productiveness of many Vegetables and
Berries. Our Strawberries bear well, but too briefly; our Peas wither up
and cease to blossom after they have been two or three weeks plump
enough to pick. Our Raspberries, Blackberries, etc., fruit well, but are
out of bearing too soon after they begin to yield their treasures. I am
confident that this need not be. With a deep, rich soil, kept moistened
by a periodical flow of water, there need not and should not be any such
haste to give over blooming and bearing. The fruit is Nature's
attestation of the geniality of the season, the richness and abundance
of the elements inhering in the soil or supplied to it by the water.
Double the supply of these, and sterility should be postponed to a far
later day than that in which it is now inaugurated.

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Previous: The Possibilities Of Irrigation

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