Agriculturist 5(2):47-48 (1846)
R. L. Allen
Buffalo, Oct. 30, 1845.
THE advancement of agriculture within the few last years in this country, the high price of farming lands, and the value of products, and cheapness of labor within convenient distances of our larger markets, all justify the commencement of an intelligent system of draining, on such lands as require it. This system has for many years been introduced and largely practised in England and in Scotland, and it has resulted in the most signal success. The plan first adopted, was, to excavate the land in parallel lines, at intervals of 16 to 25 feet, to the depth of 2 to 2 1/2 feet, forming a slightly inclined plane on the bottom, which was from 3 to 6 inches wide, and gradually enlarging as it approached the surface. The narrowest drains were arched with inverted turf and clay, at a height sufficient to allow of the requisite space at the bottom for the escape of whatever water might filter through the soil. Others were formed with continuous arched tiles laid on the bottom, forming an uninterrupted conductor. Larger ditches were filled with rubble stone, and in some instances brush, to a sufficient depth, and then covered with soil. In all cases the smaller ones communicated by their outlets with a large open drain, which carried the water beyond reach. These drains, with their required coverings, are always below the reach of the plow, thus leaving the whole surface of the land open and unobstructed to cultivation.
Two recent improvements have been introduced which materially diminish the expense, while they enhance the benefits of the system. They consist in sinking the drain to 4 feet; and using baked clay or tile pipes 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and 12 to 18 inches in length, connected by allowing the descending end to enter the next below it as a socket. The trifling opening thus afforded at each joint, with small holes perforating the top of the tiles, is found to be sufficient to admit all the water which falls into the drain; while the increased depth at which the drainage takes place, draws the water from a much greater distance. With the depth indicated, it has been found that the drains, instead of being required once in 16 to 25 feet, may be placed at intervals of 40 to 50, and accomplish the object with equal success, and in less time. The expense of the former plan was from $20 to $30 per acre, while the last is only from $12 to $18.
The advantages of under draining are numerous and important. I will briefly state some of them. They take away all the surplus water which exists in heavy or tenacious soils, which, in wet seasons, are a serious impediment to the successful growth and perfection of vegetation; thus always ensuring a full crop, when frequently not one-fourth of a crop is matured on similar undrained soils. They allow of early cultivation in spring, and late in autumn, by furnishing a dry, warm soil, which before would not admit of cultivation except in the warm part of the season; thus enabling the farmer to grow a greater variety of products where only a few were adapted to the soil before, and to these it gave several weeks' additional growth. It saves all the trouble and waste of surface drains, and open furrows, which require that much of the land be left almost in an unproductive state, to serve as conductors of the surplus surface water. The rains falling on the convex surfaces of the lands, run off rapidly into the furrows, and not only prevent the benefit to the soil which would result from its absorption, but they carry with them much of the fine soil, which is thus allowed to waste.
This last is an item of incalculable importance to the farmer. Rains are charged with some of the most important elements of nutrition to plants, and especially contain considerable proportions of carbonic acid and ammonia. If these be permitted to percolate through the soil, the roots of the plants, or, in their absence, the elements of the soil itself, absorb and form permanent combinations with them, by which they are held till the demands of vegetation unlock them for their own use. Air in highly charged with the elements of nutrition, and it is necessary that this should penetrate through every portion of the soil where the fibres of the roots exist Soils which are saturated with water, do not admit of any air, unless the small proportion combined with the water; and from all such, this vital adjunct of vegetation is excluded. By draining off all the surplus moisture for a distance of 3 feet below the surface, innumerable minute fissures are everywhere opened, through which the water passes, and these are immediately filled by atmospheric air, which thus traverses the soil in every direction, imparting to the rootlets of the plants their contained aliment, or storing up their useful properties with the soil for future use, and facilitating those necessary changes, modifications, and recombinations in the elements of the soil, which are essential to vegetable production. The porosity of the land thus secured, facilitates the admission and escape of heat, which last condition is of the utmost consequence in promoting the deposition of dews.
The dense mass of saturated soil is impervious to air, and remains cold and clammy. By draining it below the soil, the warm rains penetrate the entire mass, and there diffuse their genial temperature to the roots. Immediately pressing after these, the warm air rushes in, and supplies its portion of augmented heat to the land. Porous soils thus readily imbibe beat, and they as readily part with it; with every portion of their open surfaces radiating it, when the air in contact with them is below their own temperature. This condition is precisely what is adapted to secure the deposit of the dews, so refreshing, and during a season of drought, so absolutely vital to the progress of vegetation. Dew can only be found on surfaces which are below the temperature of the surrounding air, and rapid radiation of the heat imbibed during the warmth of a summer's day, is necessary to secure it in sufficient profusion for the demands of luxuriant vegetation, in the absence of frequent showers.
An insensible deposit of moisture, precisely analogous to dew, is constantly going forward in deep, rich, porous soils. Wherever the air penetrates them at a higher temperature than the soils themselves possess, it not only imparts to them a portion of its excess of heat, but with it also, so much of its combined moisture as its thus lessened capacity for retaining latent heat compels it to part with. To the reflecting mind, imbued with even the first principles of science, these considerations will be justly deemed as of the highest consequence to the rapid and luxuriant growth, and full development of vegetable life.
Another essential benefit, derivable from undrained lands, consists in the advantageous use which can be made of the subsoil plow. If there be no escape for the moisture, which may have settled below the surface, the subsoil plow has been found to be injurious rather than beneficial. By loosening the earth it admits a larger deposit of water, which requires a longer time for evaporation and insensible drainage to discharge. When the water escapes freely, however, the use of the subsoil plow is attended with the most beneficial results. The broken earths thus pulverized to a much greater depth, and incorporated with the descending particles of vegetable sustenance, affords an enlarged range for the roots of plants, and in proportion to its extent, furnishes them with additional means of growth. The farmer thus has a means of augmenting his soil and its capacity for production, wholly independent of increasing his superficial acres; for with most crops it matters not in the quantity of their production, whether he owns and cultivates 100 acres of soil, one foot deep, or 200 acres of soil, half a foot in depth. With the latter, however, he has to provide twice the capital in the first purchase, is at twice the cost in fencing, planting, and tillage, and pays twice the taxes as with the former. In a season of drought, the undrained and subsoiled fields have the further advantage of security and steady development, from the roots penetrating far below the scorching effects of the sun, and having the benefit of the ascending moisture from below, from their remotest depth to the surface, which frequently secure to them a large yield, while all around is parched and withered.
A more enlarged and general, or what may justly be termed, a patriotic or philanthropic view of this system, will readily detect considerations of great moment, in the general healthfulness of climate which would result from the drainage of large masses of land, which are now saturated, or in many instances covered with stagnant waters. and which are suffered to pollute, the atmosphere by their pestilent exhalations.
It is to be hoped that some of our enterprising and wealthy agriculturists will embark in this system, with what light is now shed upon it by European experience, and give to the American public the full benefit of their experiments. And should these be successful, American ingenuity should be stimulated to the perfecting of such machinery as would materially reduce the cost of excavating, and the manufacture of pipes in the most approved, economical and durable manner. For this object, or even for the purpose of introducing the system, I would suggest that our State Agricultural Society, the American Institute, or other patriotic associations, at once offer suitable rewards for the best machines for making ditches, and for the most successful examples of underdraining.
P. S. I understand several of our enterprising citizens have made a beginning in underdraining, and I trust for the good of their brethren in the same honorable craft, they will give to the public the results of their experiments.