Out of print since 1856, The American Gardener is perhaps the first classic work of American gardening literature. In it, William Cobbett, Victorian England’s greatest and most gifted journalist, draws upon his experiences during a two-year exile on a Long Island, New York, farm to lay out the rudiments of gardening for American farmers and, ultimately, to tailor principles developed in wet, drippy, weed-prone ...
Out of print since 1856, The American Gardener is perhaps the first classic work of American gardening literature. In it, William Cobbett, Victorian England’s greatest and most gifted journalist, draws upon his experiences during a two-year exile on a Long Island, New York, farm to lay out the rudiments of gardening for American farmers and, ultimately, to tailor principles developed in wet, drippy, weed-prone British gardens to their fine, sun-drenched counterparts in America. Full of practical knowledge memorably imparted with Cobbett’s gift for the indelible phrase, The American Gardener offers advice still useful today on all aspects of gardening, with special attention to those plants successful in the New World, including the artichoke (“indeed, a thistle upon a gigantic scale”) and the increasingly ubiquitous potato. Rediscovered 180 years after its composition, The American Gardener is evidence of a great mind and pen at work in the earliest days of American gardens.
This Modern Library edition is published with a new Introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editorialist and the author of The Rural Life, Making Hay, and The Last Fine Time.
William Cobbett, born in Surrey in 1762, was the most prolific muck-raking journalist of his age and the publisher of The Political Register, the main newspaper of the working class in early-nineteenth-century England. He died in 1835.
Michael Pollan is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Botany of Desire (available from Random House Trade Paperbacks) and Second Nature, named one of the best gardening books of the twentieth century by the American Horticultural Society. He is a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.
On the Situation, Soil, Fencing, and Laying-out of Gardens.
12. Those who have gardens already formed and planted, have, of course, not the situation to choose. But, I am to suppose, that new gardens will, in a country like this, be continually to be formed; and, therefore, it is an essential part of my duty to point out what situations are best, as well with respect to the aspect as to the other circumstances.
13. The ground should be as nearly on a level as possible; because, if the slope be considerable, the heavy rains do great injury, by washing away the soil. However, it is not always in our power to choose a level spot; but, if there be a slope in the ground, it ought, if possible, to be towards the South. For, though such a direction adds to the heat in summer, this is more than counterbalanced by the earliness which it causes in the spring. By all means avoid an inclination towards the North, or West, and towards any of the points between North and West. After all, it may not be in our power to have a level spot, nor even a spot nearly level; and then we must do our best with what we have.
14. I am speaking here solely of a Kitchen-garden. Of ornamental Gardening I shall speak a little in the Chapter on Flowers. From a Kitchen-garden all large trees ought to be kept at a distance of thirty or forty yards. For, the shade of them is injurious, and their roots a great deal more injurious, to every plant growing within the influence of those roots. It is a common but very erroneous notion, in England, that the trees, which grow in the hedges that divide the fields, do injury by their shade only. I had a field of transplanted Ruta Baga, in the hedge on the North West side of which there were five large spreading oak-trees, at some distance from each other. Opposite each of these trees, which could not shade the Ruta Baga much, there was a piece of the Ruta Baga, in nearly a semi-circular form, in which the plants never grew to any size, though those in all the rest of the field were so fine as to draw people from a great distance to look at them. One gentleman, who came out of Sussex, and who had been a farmer all his life-time, was struck with the sight of these semi-circles; and, looking over the hedge, into a field of wheat, which had a ditch between it and the hedge, and seeing that the wheat, though shaded by the trees, was very little affected by them, he discovered, that it was the roots and not the branches that produced the mischief. The ditch, which had been for ages in the same place, had prevented the roots of the trees from going into the field where the wheat was growing. The ground where the Ruta Baga was growing had been well ploughed and manured; and the plants had not been in the ground more than three months; yet, such was the power of the roots of the trees, and so quickly did it operate, that it almost wholly destroyed the Ruta Baga that stood within its reach. Grass, which matts the ground all over with its roots, and does not demand much food from any depth, does not suffer much from the roots of trees; but, every other plant does. A Kitchen- garden should, therefore, have no large trees near it. In the spring and fall tall trees do great harm even by their shade, which robs the garden of the early and the parting rays of the sun. It is, therefore, on all accounts, desirable to keep all such trees at a distance.
15. If it be practicable, without sacrificing too much in other respects, to make a garden near to running water, and especially to water that may be turned into the garden, the advantage ought to be profited of; but as to watering with a watering pot, it is seldom of much use, and it cannot be practised upon a large scale. It is better to trust to judicious tillage and to the dews and rains. The moisture which these do not supply cannot be furnished, to any extent, by the watering-pot. A man will raise more moisture, with a hoe or spade, in a day, than he can pour on the earth out of a watering-pot in a month. SOIL.
16. The plants, which grow in a garden, prefer, like most other plants, the best soil that is to be found. The best is, loam of several feet deep, with a bed of lime-stone, sand-stone, or sand, below. But, we must take what we find, or, rather, what we happen to have. If we have a choice, we ought to take that which comes nearest to perfection, and, if we possibly can, we ought to reject clay, and gravel, not only as a top soil, but as a bottom soil, however great their distance from the surface.
17. Oak-trees love clay, and the finest and heaviest wheat grows in land with a bottom of clay; but, if there be clay within even six feet of the surface, there will be a coldness in the land, which will, in spite of all you can do, keep your spring crops a week or ten days behind those upon land which has not a bottom of clay. Gravel is warm, and it would be very desirable, if you could exchange it for some other early in June; but, since you cannot do this, you must submit to be burnt up in summer, if you have the benefit of a gravelly bottom in the spring.
18. If the land, where you like to have a garden has rocks, great or small, they, of course, are to be carried off; but, if you have a stony soil, that is to say, little short of gravel to the very surface, and, if you can get no other spot, you must e’en hammer your tools to pieces amongst the stones; for it has been amply proved by experience, that to carry away stones of the flint or gravel kind impoverishes the land. However, we are not to frame out plans upon the supposition of meeting with obstacles of this extraordinary nature. We are not to suppose, that, in a country where men have had to choose, and have still to choose, they will have built, and yet will build, their houses on spots peculiarly steril. We must suppose the contrary, and, upon that supposition we ought to proceed.
19. Having fixed upon the spot for the garden, the next thing is to prepare the ground. This may be done by ploughing and harrowing, until the ground, at top, be perfectly clean; and, then, by double ploughings: that is to say, by going, with a strong plough that turns a large furrow and turns it cleanly, twice in the same place, and thus moving the ground to the depth of fourteen or sixteen inches, for, the advantage of deeply moving the ground is very great indeed. When this has been done in one direction; it ought to be done across, and then the ground will have been well and truly moved. The ploughing ought to be done with four oxen and the plough ought to be held by a strong and careful ploughman.
20. This is as much as I shall, probably, be able to persuade any body to do in the way of preparing the ground. But, this is not all that ought to be done; and it is proper to give directions for the best way of doing this and every thing else. The best way is, then, to trench the ground; which is performed in this manner. At one end of the piece of ground, intended for the garden, you make, with a spade, a trench, all along, two feet wide and two feet deep. You throw the earth out on the side away from the garden that is to be. You shovel out the bottom clean, and make the sides of the trench as nearly perpendicular as possible. Thus you have a clean open trench, running all along one end of your garden-ground. You then take another piece all along, two feet wide, and put the earth that this new piece contains into the trench, taking off the top of the new two feet wide, and turning that top down into the bottom of the trench, and then taking the remainder of the earth of the new two feet, and placing it on the top of the earth just turned into the bottom of the trench. Thus, when you have again shovelled out the bottom, and put it on the top of the whole that you have put into the trench, you have another clean trench two feet wide and two deep. You thus proceed, till the whole of your garden-ground be trenched; and then it will have been cleanly turned over to the depth of two feet.
21. As to the expense of this preparatory operation, a man that knows how to use a spade, will trench four rod in a day very easily in the month of October, or in the month of November if the ground be not frozen. Supposing the garden to contain an acre, and the labourer to earn a dollar a day, the cost of this operation will, of course, be forty dollars; which, perhaps, would be twenty dollars above the expense of the various ploughings and harrowings, necessary in the other way; but, the difference in the value of the two operations is beyond all calculation. There is no point of greater importance than this. Poor ground deeply moved is preferable, in many cases, to rich ground with shallow tillage; and when the ground has been deeply moved once, it feels the benefit for ever after. A garden is made to last for ages; what, then, in such a case, is the amount of twenty dollars? It is well known to all who have had experience on the subject, that of two plants of almost any kind that stand for the space of three months in top soil of the same quality, one being on ground deeply moved, and the other on ground moved no deeper than is usual, the former will exceed the latter one half in bulk. And, as to trees of all descriptions, from the pear-tree down to the currant-bush, the difference is so great, that there is room for no comparison. It is a notion with some persons, that it is of no use to move the ground deeper than the roots of the plant penetrate. But, in the first place, the roots go much deeper than we generally suppose. When we pull up a cabbage, for instance, we see no roots more than a foot long; but, if we were carefully to pursue the roots to their utmost point, even as far as our eye would assist us, we should find the roots a great deal longer, and the extremities of the roots are much too fine to be seen by the naked eye. Upon pulling up a common turnip, who would imagine, that the side, or horizontal roots, extend to several feet? Yet I have traced them to the length of four feet; and Mr. Tull proved, that they extended to six feet, though he could not see them to that extent with his naked eye. But, though the roots should not extend nearly to the bottom of the moved ground, the plants are affected by the unmoved ground being near at hand. If this were not the case, plants with very short roots might be cultivated on a brick pavement with earth laid upon it to the thickness of a foot; and yet, no plant will live and thrive in such a state, while it will do very well in ground along side the pavement, though moved only a foot deep. Plants require a communication with, and an assistance from, beneath as well as from above, in order to give them vigour and fecundity. Plants will live, and will grow to a certain extent in earthen pots, or in boxes made of wood; but, there must be holes in the bottom of both, or the plants will die.