POTATO CULTURE IN LAKE COUNTY, OHIOSOIL REQUIRED—CHOICE OF SEED—CULTIVATION—CARE
The design of this article is not to present the subject in a scientific manner, but to consider it, as the producer should, in the light of observation and personal experience.
The general reader, at least, is aware that the potato, at the time of the appearance of the potato disease, was the almost sole dependence of the common people of Ireland for food. What this vegetable was, and still is there, it is sure to be in all countries in the temperate zone, when population becomes crowded. We have also seen that in the northern States of this country the potato is the third of the three staple articles of food. As such, it has come to be regarded as nearly indispensable. This fact is sufficient to render a thorough knowledge of the best varieties for use, the soil adapted to their growth in the highest perfection, their cultivation and after care, matters of the highest importance to the farmers of the United States.
The statements which follow in the elucidation of these topics are based upon actual personal observation and experience in the potato-growing locality of almost national reputation—Lake county, Ohio. The county is the smallest in the State, only embracing eight townships, and of these only five, which reach the lake, contain potato lands. These lands are the ridges running parallel with Lake Erie, which, according to geological indications, have each, at different periods, defined its boundaries.
With some degree of care the calculation has been made, that in these five townships only one-eighth of the cultivated ground is potato ground; and while it is true that never, in any one season, is all this potato ground planted with the potato, yet it is the concurrent judgment of men of close observation that one-half million bushels of potatoes are annually grown and transported from this locality to the south, southeast, and east, to market.
The average price one year, with another, never, even in common times, falls below a half dollar per bushel, and hence it will be seen that this is the best, the money-making crop of the locality.
The potato, to be of the highest quality, must have a soil exactly adapted to its growth. It may be said to be, in this regard, like the onion, “notional.” In no argillaceous [clay -ASC] soil can the potato be grown to perfection, as regards quality. It requires, to attain this, a dry, warm, sandy soil of moderate fertility. Quality depends upon a soil which will produce tubers mainly of a medium size. In such case the yield must not be over one hundred to one hundred and fifty bushels per acre. To obtain a greater yield the ground must be richer, so that while the number may be increased, the tubers will also be larger; and just in proportion as the above number of bushels per acre is increased, the quality is deteriorated, and the liability of the crop to rot is augmented. As to size, for quality, the Peach Blow, for instance, should not have an average diameter of more than two and one-half inches. Indeed, I would never have one larger, if it could be avoided. This potato when grown in a strong productive. soil will assert its natural tendencies to be large, coarse-fleshed and ill-flavored; but when restrained by right culture it is among the best of the potato family.
The rule for soil and culture applied to the Peach Blow, applies to all the other varieties of general cultivation. The producer should aim to obtain a medium growth only of all varieties, and then, with sandy soil, he will have the highest quality of potatoes. The potato lands of Lake county are yellow sand.
It not unfrequently happens that the soil is too poor even for potatoes. In such case manuring in the hill should be avoided if possible, as it is rarely ever attended with satisfactory results. If the season is not very favorable, the manure will go through with the second heating process, burning up its substance, and leaving a dry, unrotted residue in the hill, and if there be any potatoes they will scarcely exceed the size of a quail’s egg. If, however, the manure properly decays, the growing potatoes from its proximity to them may receive too great a stimulant, and therefore be predisposed to rot. As a general rule, it is better not to manure those in the hill. Manure the ground broadcast, and, if possible, one season before potato-planting, occupying the ground with some other crop.
The preparation of the ground for the planting of the early varieties commences as soon as the frost is fully out of the ground. Sand becomes dry as soon as the water is allowed to percolate without obstruction through the soil.
Two or three days from a very wet condition is sufficient to render such ground fit for the plough.
Every grower’s observation has established the fact that, for quality, the late varieties excel the early ones. The English Stamp (locally it is more commonly known as the Rust potato, taking the name of the man who introduced it) is claimed to be, by its friends, the earliest of all the early varieties, is of excellent quality, and is not very liable to rot. The Early June is very early, and it is grown only on account of its earliness. In quality it is very inferior. The Cherry Blow is early, grows large and yields well, but its quality is quite indifferent. The White Neshannock, better known as the White Mexican, is a very fine potato for quality, but yields very poorly. The Early Kidney and the Cowhorn are perhaps as early as any grown in this locality, but in quantity they make, a poor return to the husbandman for his labor. In quality they are very good. The old time-honored Neshannock (or Mercer) is among the latest of the early varieties. No testimony is needed in regard to its quality. For the first few months after maturity it is very excellent, but as the time for planting approaches, its quality is deteriorated somewhat. It is grown yet to some extent as a late potato, but its liability to rot discourages its cultivation.
The late varieties now cultivated are reduced to a less number than the early. The Carter is one of excellent quality, but its liability to rot has been a good reason for discontinuing its cultivation almost entirely. Probably the old style of long Pinkeye, in the matter of quality, is not excelled by any potato ever grown; but under circumstances favorable for its healthy growth its size is very small and its product unremunerative. It is rarely cultivated now. The numerous other varieties cultivated in past years are now discarded, and we have really but one late marketable potato, and that is the Peach Blow, originated in New Jersey. It was introduced in Lake county in 1859—Mr. R. Marshall being the principal grower that year.
This potato has so many striking peculiarities and so many excellent traits that an extended notice of it is warrantable. If planted in a rich argillaceous soil it grows large, is hollow in the centre, is coarse in flesh, is very inferior in quality, and, under these circumstances, has a tendency to rot somewhat. Under favorable circumstances there is no potato known to this locality that is so secure as this against this disease. A more satisfactory crop of the Peach Blow can be grown on poor soil than of any other variety known. It will grow successfully on the same ground, year after year, which no other variety will do. Planted ever so early, it remains green through the hot, dry weather of the summer, and never forms tubers and matures them until the fall rains come, and then there is no potato which does this so quickly. There is no other potato which may be dug before maturity, when the skin may be slipped off by pressure with the hand, that will have so much of that dryness and mealiness when prepared for eating, characteristic of the mature vegetable. Neither is there one which retains its character and excellence from maturity to maturity again to the same degree It is, in fine, with all of its qualities, considered the most perfect potato.
It is the custom, generally, with growers to cut their seed potatoes. Economy, unquestionably, first suggested the idea, and made the practice general. An acre of ground will require of medium-sized potatoes planted whole, full twelve bushels. As the seed is cut by many, from five to six bushels will plant an acre: When the growers plant, as is customary, from five to thirty acres, and when potatoes are worth from seventy-five cents to one dollar per bushel, the saving of from four to six bushels per acre appeals strongly to their parsimony, and hence, singular enough, the community generally have come to the conclusion that cutting the seed is most judicious and most profitable. This conclusion is not based on accurate tests, and, therefore, no class of men were ever more mistaken in regard to the correctness of a practice pertaining exclusively to their own avocation than are these potato-growers, Ordinarily but two eyes are left in a piece, and two pieces make a hill, Sometimes the pieces are cut so small as to leave the most of the potato for eating. Cut seed never will produce as good nor as many bushels of potatoes to any given quantity of ground as whole seed. To prove this, let any grower commence his field, for example, with a row of whole seed, and then plant every alternate row with cut seed, so that the soil and the cultivation shall be the same; make such a record, either by stakes set to each row properly inscribed or otherwise, as will prevent any mistake as to which rows were planted with the cut, and which with the uncut seed; and when the growing season is over, dig each, and measure by itself, and he will find that the uncut seed will produce the largest number of bushels on the same ground.
But suppose another experiment be tried. Let any grower select large potatoes for seed and plant them whole. From this product do as before, and thus continue to do year after year, and he will find that the potatoes will increase in size, and that, just in proportion as they grow or increase in size above a fair medium, he will find his potatoes deteriorated in quality.
The experiments which established the above facts in relation to cut and uncut seed established another fact—that small but matured uncut potatoes should always be used. These planted in observance of conditions above stated, and the grower, with a fair season and fair cultivation, will always produce potatoes which, in all respects, will be of the highest attainable perfection.
Unquestionably a greater yield of good potatoes may be obtained from an acre of ground by drilling the seed than by planting it in hills, as is usually done; but the labor with the hoe is greatly augmented thereby. The ground, after being well ploughed, should be deeply furrowed both ways if planted in hills. If the seed is put down deep, the hills are easier made, and the dry weather does not so readily affect the plant. The practice of crowding the rows to within three feet of each other is a bad one. The potato should not be dug up, almost literally speaking, in hoeing it. A large, flat-top hill is necessary to catch the rain, and afford plenty of room in loose dirt for the potatoes to grow in. The covering of the dropped seed may be done very rapidly and very well with the small plough.
The first act of cultivation should be with a light drag, just as the potatoes are ready to come out of the ground. This disturbs the weeds which are already growing, and kills them. The after cultivation should be with the cultivator and hoe, keeping the ground level until the tops are grown up as high as they will grow and stand up, when the plough should be put in to assist to form the hills, and thus end the cultivation.
The potato disease is still a mystery. There are a hundred theories, more or less, in regard to the cause of it; but not one of them can establish a real
claim to reliability. But this does not matter, He who will plant whole,
sound, and small potatoes, in a sandy soil, with a fertility as above stated, that
will produce per acre a hundred bushels of Neshannocks, or not to exceed one
hundred and fifty bushels of Peachblows, will never be troubled with potato disease.
["The potato disease" was a mystery back in 1865, but we now know it as "late blight", a disease caused by the fungus, Phytopthera infestans. -ASC]
Digging and storing is full half of the labor of growing and securing a crop of potatoes. The digging is a long, tedious, laborious task. The ploughing, planting and cultivation is the easiest half of producing and caring for the crop.
Potato-diggers have been invented; but none have found their way into this potato region, which will do the work well only under the most favorable circumstances. A small plough to turn a furrow away from each side of the row, and a good hoe, and a man with a strong, active, muscular system to work it, is the most reliable arrangement as a digger yet found.
The care of the potatoes should begin with the digging. They should be picked up as fast as they are dug, not allowing them to lie on the ground several hours in the sun, as is customary. Light is very detrimental to potatoes, and strong sunlight pouring down on them will soon make its effect seriously apparent. The finest potatoes ever grown may be spoiled in a few days by exposure to the light; they may be spoiled substantially in taking them to market by the exposure incident to the present inconsiderate method of transportation. Hence the marketman who makes a sign of his potatoes in baskets about his shop-door, prepares a worthless article for his customers. Light changes the complexion of potatoes, as the observation of almost every- body will bear witness, from its normal one to green, and renders them strong to the taste and unrelishable. As soon after digging as convenient the potatoes should be stored in a dark place, and, if it be in a cellar bin, during the entire time that they lie there for the family use, or awaiting the market, they should be covered with a thin coating of sand to make the absence of light as perfect as possible.The denizens of our cities know nothing of the excellence of the potato. As has been shown above, the character of the seed, the soil, size, and care during storage, are absolutely essential to excellence of quality. It will be seen, therefore, that the real difference in the value of different lots of potatoes is as great as in any other article of food—as much as it is between different lots of wheat, or as it is between different specimens of any other kind of vegetables. This comparative difference in the value of potatoes is recognized now by only a few people—those grown in certain localities command a higher price than others, and soon there will be an acknowledged difference in the quality and price even in the potatoes of the same locality; and when the necessary conditions are observed in the growth of the potato in all the potato-growing localities, and the facilities of transportation are so improved that they may be taken to market without impairing their quality, our city folks will relish and estimate the potato as an article of food as never before.