This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V24", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Did any one ever stop to consider how much a five or ten cent package of seed went through before the purchaser finally committed the contents of the said package to the ground? Perhaps the writer may have thought of it. Editors have to consider everything. Still, we have to confess to a wonderful amount of ignorance until a few hours spent recently at the celebrated Blooms-dale seed farm gave us some more light on the subject than we had enjoyed before. The present owners, Leo, Oliver and Burnett Landreth, three brothers, are the third generation from the founder of this celebrated firm, and they continue to throw into the business the enterprising energy that the father and grandfather possessed. The home grounds comprise six hundred acres, while in many parts of the United States and Canada hundreds of acres are engaged as local seed farms for such seeds as may be best suited to the several locations. Much of the preliminary work is, however, done on the home grounds. Millions of cabbage plants, for instance, were growing at the time of our visit. These will be distributed to various parts of the country, or in some instances to different parts of the home grounds, so that there shall be no possibility of the intermixture of varieties by wind or insects.
As in many cases varieties are numbered by the score, this is a very important point in seed raising. But even this is not regarded as sufficient to wholly protect the variety against chance intermixture. The variety itself, having been in the first place obtained through selection, has some tendency to fight against heredity, and to vary its form ; so for the firm's own seed-sowing, individual plants are selected as truly typical as possible, and preserved for reproductive purposes. When these are replanted, they are placed in the middle of a patch. Here, for instance, may be fifty acres of Drumhead cabbage. Precautions are taken so that not perhaps one head in a thousand would be aught but a pure Drumhead. But that one is sent to market with the others, and no harm comes to anybody from that variation. But one in a thousand, saved for seed purposes, would give material for a very different story. So it becomes necessary to guard against even that one chance. Now by planting the selected typical plants in the middle of the fifty, the bees cannot get to them till they have already been over some twenty-five acres, and the chance of the plant receiving aught but its own pollen is very small.
Few, perhaps, would take the trouble and go to the expense of so much precaution to have absolutely pure seeds ; but those seeds men who have a high reputation to sustain, cannot afford to risk the slightest chance of losing it. But quite independent of these precautions comes the test of the trial ground. A sample of every variety sold is sown, and samples of the same variety as sold by other seedsmen wher ever they can be obtained. All of the same variety are then grown side by side, and gone over day by day, every peculiarity being entered in a trial diary. In this way they can tell, posi tively, whether any mixture of their own has occurred in spite of all precaution - whether it is the same as others sold under that name - whether other people's stock is true or pure, and, should it be necessary to buy in stock through some unexpectedly large demand, they know whose stock is the best to draw from. By having all the varieties under culture in this trial way, they also see which variety is the best adapted to the several uses required of them, and they learn which variety is the best to grow. By this plan there is no necessity to grow a large stock of a poor kind. Knowing absolutely which is the best, it is as easy to grow a large stock of that as of an inferior kind.
How important all these laborious processes are to per fection in seed raising was frequently illustrated as we passed through the trial grounds. Here, for instance, are rows of the Tom Thumb Lettuce, many samples from different sources. There was no doubt but they were all genuine Tom Thumb, but while one sample had close, dense heads, though the burning month of June had gone over them, the row next to this from another sample had all run to seed! Thus the valuable lesson is learned as to which locality will produce a lettuce which will resist heat, and there the seed crop will be sown. In the matter of tests, also much that is actually new is learned. Here again is a lot of the famous American Wonder Pea. But alongside is one certainly four days earlier. Four days is not much to an amateur, but when one has perhaps ten or a hundred acres, if he can get his heavy crop into market four days earlier than his neighbor, he has a "soft thing." But all this trouble has only brought us to the preservation of the variety, not merely true to name, but up to a high standard of quality. The enormous cost of getting everything ready is appalling. Here is a stable for seventy horses, or perhaps mules, in which one man is wholly occupied in feeding them.
There is the blacksmith and wheelwright's shop in which every wagon, cart, plough, and implement used on the place is made, and in which models of new implements are made and tested before offering them to purchasers. Around are a score or more of huge barns, each costing from five to ten thousand dollars, fitted up with numerous, permanent and temporary floors for drying the various seeds before and after thrashing. Each of these dry out about ten different crops a year, and has to be carefully swept and cleaned out every time, lest perchance a stray seed of one variety may get in with another, and mix the breed. Around are some thirty tenement houses in which laborers, with their families, live and board those who are single and have no homes of their own. At our visit some one hundred and fifty bands were employed on the seed farm in this way. These plant and weed, and reap and thrash, and yet the work is but half begun. It has to be barrelled or bagged, as the case may be, the barrels stored away in huge granaries, and the bags hung up in dry barns, where the air may circulate freely about them. The great work of distribution now begins. The deft fingers of women then take their turn. In the seed store and on the farm some two hundred are employed.
The bags are here made, filled, closed, and so labeled and stamped that they cannot be opened without destroying the Landretn brand, and thus it becomes impossible for the firm to be fraudulently made responsible for inferior seed. Most of the work is done by the piece, and it is amazing to see the proficiency of the workers. The writer had just returned from a visit to the famous silk factory at Allentown, where he was amazed at the dexterity with which the women caught, tied and manipulated the gossamer films which were as absolutely nothing between his coarse fingers. But it is an even chance whether the seed paper maker, the package filler, or the package closer, would not beat in manual dexterity the handler I of the silky threads. The filler holds a haudful of flat bags over a bowl of seed in the left and in the right is the seed measure. The left finder and thumb squeezes the bag open a little and a puff of the breath finishes the opening; while in the meantime the right hand is filling the measure and bringing up the seed. The breath ha? barely opened the bag before the seed rolls in. Twenty bags were filled in a quarter of a minute by the watch! Another pastes and folds over the mouth of the bag, and she keeps up with the rapid work of the filler.
When the girls first get at it they manage to make about fifty cents a day; but those who become experts make from $1.50 to $1 75 at the work. 17,000,-000 of these bags, each chronio-lithographed with the exact variety, so that even he who runs may read, had just been delivered in the rough, to be put together by the nimble fingers just described. But this even is not all. These vast acres of seeds cannot be raised without manure The great city of Philadelphia does not furnish enough from its stables on favorable terms - all that can be had at reasonable rates is secured ; for the rest South America gives up its bones, which are imported by the ship load, and con verted into super-phosphate on the grounds. And all this worry, toil and trouble is to end in this little five cent package of seeds which a baby can hold in its fingers, and which we burst open and the contents scatter in a few moments of garden work almost without a second thought! Well was it said to the writer by one of these younger Landreths: "If the pecuniary returns were the only question involved, you might not find us at the head of a concern like this Money can be made faster and with far less of the laborious than in a task like ours.
But we take a pride in this great work of our father and grandfather, and in keeping up the high character connected with their great names. The great national work which they inaugurated shall not go backwards in our hands if any endeavor we can give it shall be all that is required." To the writer of this, one of the greatest pleasures of this two hours' walk was to hear no slurs on the efforts or character of any other house competing with them for the honors of eminence in the seed trade. Referring to Vick, Mr. Landreth remarked : " I never met him, but the whole seed trade of the United States should never forget the lasting debt they owe him. His intelligent efforts did more to create a demand for seeds of flowers and vegetables than anything that had been done for many years before. He not only sowed for his own harvest, but others were enabled to reap more largely of their own harvests through the influence of the good he did." We have not room for more extended remarks on things we saw and thought of on this brief call, but trust this slight sketch of the history of the small seed packet may at least have an interest with the reader.