This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
"Many of them of good size, but very coarse," was the critical judgment lately passed upon a large collection of some fifty kinds of Potatoes that were staged at one of the meetings of the Royal Horticultural Society at South Kensington. This critique was just, but not sufficiently severe; for if it had proceeded to denounce in strong terms the far too prevalent practice of growing, and especially of staging for exhibition, the huge, ungainly, sunken-eyed, and altogether "coarse" samples of our noble tuber that some people seem to think the ne 'plus ultra of Potato culture, then would a service have been rendered to horticultural taste, and possibly our eyes might soon be rid of the sight of those ugly monstrosities yclept "exhibition" Potatoes. I do protest against the Potato being put on a level with Mangold-wurzel as a show-root, making size the criterion by which to judge of its merits. Nay, even in judging Mangolds some respect is paid to shape and outline; but a Mangold, be it big or little, is but a Mangold still; whilst there are Potatoes and Potatoes, the difference being just this, that whilst some are fit to go upon the table of an epicure, others are only fit diet for the pigs. The difference may be but trifling, but it is enough that it exists.
If I were philosophically inclined, I might profitably moralise over the strange taste for mere size that seems to prevail among horticulturists. We have nearly gone mad in the pursuit of it in some things, and now find we have committed a huge blunder.
Big plants have had their day, and are now rather pooh-poohed; big Cucumbers, also, are now looked upon as so much cattle-food by judges of taste; big Melons or other fruit must pass through the sharp ordeal of the flavour test; and so it is all through the piece. And now we have but to get rid of the strange anomaly of big Potatoes from our exhibition tables, and then we may well hope for the display in the future of such cultural results as shall both please the eye and delight the taste; and that such a reformation is near I have good reason to believe. Business pursuits took me a short time since to the classic regions of Oxford; and whilst there, how could I resist the temptation, so strong to me as a "potatoologist" (?), to drop in upon that celebrated cultivator Mr Robert Fenn of "Woodstock, and get a look at what he was doing in the way of raising new varieties, as well as note the results of his mode of cultivation]
Mr Fenn is a strong advocate for what is known as the "ridge-and-trench system" of culture; and which system, however, simply means that the ground, having been well prepared and manured during the previous winter, the line is laid down at intervals of 3 feet apart, the sets are then placed in a row alongside of the line, and about 15 inches distant from each other in the rows, and then the soil is thrown up over the sets with the spade, burying them to the depth of about 6 inches. Of course no earthing-up is needed, and the trenches in between are at any time available for the planting out of winter crops. I had tried this mode of planting myself, on a dry soil, during the past summer, with but indifferent results - that is to say, I obtained no greater produce out of a line so planted than I did from a line planted on the old method, and therefore I did not esteem the mode of cultivation a desirable one to follow. Naturally I felt desirous to note how Mr Fenn's ridge-planted Potatoes turned out; so, when the inevitable refreshment had been partaken of, we turned out to the garden, he grasping his digging-fork with as much zest and fervour as a soldier would his beloved rifle, and I, note-book in hand, to mark in permanent characters the results.
But first I must state, to my great joy, I found Potatoes were grown both upon the ridge and the flat system in the old rectory garden at Woodstock; and after a fair comparison of the produce, we concluded that nothing was gained by ridging, as the crop in each case was about equal in a given length of row. The advantages of the ridge system appear to be two - first, a saving of seed; second, greater convenience for putting out winter crops. The disadvantages are - first, more manual labour required in planting; second, a smaller crop from off a given space of ground. One thing, however, must not be forgotten. Mr Fenn grows solely for comparison, and not for his own consumption, a few of the coarse, rank-growing varieties, of which we have far too many. His study and endeavour has long been to obtain sorts that produce but a medium green growth, and of such is the bulk of his crop; so that the necessity does not really exist for wide spaces between the rows, as the expansion of root-fibres is pretty much regulated by haulm-growths. Hitherto, also, the grafting process had found in Mr Fenn a stanch believer - not necessarily, however, in its capacity to produce great or beneficial results, but rather in its capacity to produce changes; and as I have not previously scrupled to express my doubts as to results of any kind being obtained, the first thing to be done was to lift some roots of grafted samples, starting with Milky White, to show its natural character.
We next lifted a root of the same variety grafted into a Fluke, and found the produce to be more rounded in form; there was a decided deviation both in shape and colour, the foliage also distinctly altered. Then followed Milky White grafted into Yorkshire Hero. Here the foliage presented a combination of both these kinds, but the tuber was decidedly indifferent.
Onwards, a handsome second early round of good quality was next raised, and was followed by the same variety grafted into Yorkshire Hero; that developed a later growth of foliage that was still green, and the tuber rather rougher and of coarser appearance, and showing no improvement. Yorkshire Hero grafted into Onwards exhibited no change whatever.
Here we held a conference to discuss and compare notes; and this was the result of our conclusions: He to retain his belief in grafting, but that it produced in the Potato no beneficial results; I to forego my hitherto utter incredulity, and to recognise the principle of Potato-grafting, but with the belief that for the production of improvement in sorts thereby it was worthless.