Horticulture and Practical Gardening, 22: 186 (Feb 29, 1872)
J. Wright, Gardener to Hon. A. L. Melville.
The Potato-planting season is at hand. It is, perhaps, not easy to say anything that is not generally known respecting this the most useful of all root crops. Change of seed is no doubt good, but change of soil is better. At first sight it would appear that one change involves the other; so in one sense it does, but there is a difference. If seed is procured from a brown hazel loamy soil, and planted in a garden of rich black vegetable mould, a benefit is derived by the mere change of seed; but if seed is saved from that black vegetable soil and planted again in the same garden, but in a plot containing a large admixture of fresh field soil, the benefit is still greater, and change of soil is, therefore, better than change of seed. As an instance, I may state that the soil I have to operate on is the dark vegetable mould of a very old garden. For the past six years seed of the same kind has been grown and again planted in the same garden, and each year the crops have been better than in the past. This is a direct result of change of soil. The soil introduced was roadside trimmings and paring6, or failing this, a load or two of the garden soil was exchanged for field soil. The practice is mutually beneficial, and as manure is saved, is economical also. It is surprising how soon the staple of an old garden may be improved by steadily carrying out a simple system of exchange of soil. Nothing more fully proves the truth of the old maxim that "exchange is no robbery" than a practice of this kind. The vegetable soil of the garden improves the field, and the field soil the garden. Every year, also, I have had seed grown in the field and planted in the garden, but in no one instance has the produce been so good as from seed grown in the garden and planted in the garden with a good admixture of fresh soil. Fresh soil in an old garden is infinitely better than manure for Potatoes, and, with a limited quantity of manure, for all other crops too. The practice cannot be carried out in all places, but it can in many. Likewise, it cannot be carried out to influence the entire crop of Potatoes. In this event change of seed must be resorted to. There is room for a few words on this subject.
It is a popular notion that seed should be procured from a light sandy soil. That impression is held so strongly and authoritatively that in some districts it amounts to an absolute rule. Now, in general, I do not believe in rules relative to soil, management, and general culture, and at the risk of appearing singular I put aside the notion or rule above stated, lay down another diametrically opposite—that Potatoes for seed should be drawn from a stiff soil, and assert that it is as safe and sound as the old light-soil theory. An inflexible adherence to either theory, however, is not wise. The soil to which the Potatoes have come should be considered as well as the soil whence they come, to rightly determine a change.
On the matter of change of seed I claim a lengthened experience, which added to some years of observation and practice leads me to the conclusion that as a whole, and speaking generally, seed grown in a strong soil will afford a better yield than those grown in light sandy soil.
My father was regarded in his little sphere as a "great Potato man." Potatoes were a vital question with him, having to bring up a family of eight on from 10s. to 15s. per week. He had Potatoes in isolated plots, in all sorts of soils. Such a position made a man look out and endeavour to turn an honest penny by any possible means. His experience of fifty years taught him that the plan that paid him the best was to obtain seed from strong soils. I will add to that fifty years twenty more of my own individual observation and practice, and I arrive at the same conclusion. I have tried to prove it and disprove it fairly, over and over again; the last time was in the past year. I planted a rood of medium soil, fine Potato land, using one kind of Potatoes, with equal portions of seed from light sandy land, strong warp land, and fen land. The warp seed gave the best yield, fen next; that from the sandy land coming out a bad third. If I had a thousand acres of such land to plant I would, if possible, draw all my seed from warp land, and none from soil of a light sandy nature. My experience is, that the poorer and more sandy the soil, the more and the smaller the eyes in the tubers; the stronger and heavier the soil, the fewer and finer are the eyes formed. Now, a fine stout stem will produce a fine root of Potatoes. A cluster of wiry-looking stems produces a multitude of small trashy tubers. Two or three eyes, whether on a cut Potato or a whole one, will give a better yield than half a dozen smaller shoots springing from the same set. If, then, a whole Potato is planted, it is wise to take out a number of eyes before putting it in the ground. A rough and expeditious mode is to cut off, by a slice, the cluster of eyes at the end of the tuber; a slower but better plan is to pick out all but two or three of the most prominent. Cut Potatoes are as good as whole ones if not less than two good eyes are secured to each set; but the sets are better if the whole tubers are not disbudded for the reason above stated.
It is unwise to put freshly cut Potatoes in sacks or in large heaps and leave them there for a length of time, as they will often heat. This kills the eyes and is the cause of many blanks one meets with, and which cause some surprise. If allowed to dry, and the wound to heal over before being packed away for a reasonable time, no harm will result. Dusting newly cut seed with lime hastens the wound healing and is good practice. It is a bad plan to allow seed Potatoes to lie thickly and produce long weak sprouts which must be rubbed off. Allowing them to be produced weakens the Potato and tends to cause disease. This neglectful plan, by impairing the vital force of the tubers year by year, has done more to foster disease than almost anything else. Bleed the lambs and calves a few times in their infancy, and continue the practice for a few years, and what sort of flocks and herds would be the result?
As regards planting, in light and dry soils plant early and deep; in cold, wet, and heavy soils, late and shallow. By planting Ashleafs, for instance, in light soil in this dry district, 5 or 6 inches deep in February, I obtain quite double the crop as compared with late and shallow planting. The roots take a good hold of the soil, and are out of reach of the sun's rays, which otherwise burn them up extensively. On the other hand, in wet strong soils the second week of April is quite early enough for planting the same kinds. In such soils planting on the surface, and digging trenches between the rows to cover the sets, cannot be too strongly recommended. I have seen fine crops on this plan on ground worthless for Potatoes if planted in any other way. For free workable soils the ridge-and-trench plan has no advantages, at least I have seen none, over the ordinary level system of planting.