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.
"Cast down, torn up, cut asunder, they are not destroyed. In the silence, in the darkness, exposed to freezing cold, benumbed with chilling water, they work bravely on to recover their misfortune, resolved to live, and not to die. But the warfare with our cruel culture is unequal. Once a-year, sometimes much oftener, we attack them with our spades. Hardly have they had time to gather up their energies and heal their wounds, than they are made to bleed afresh. And so the unequal contest continues, until at last the energies of the roots become paralysed, and their signals of distress are hoisted high on to the top of the tree." Such, according to some who have assumed no little importance as horticultural teachers, are the lamentable and destructive effects of cropping our fruit-tree borders with vegetables. It is not very clear whether we are responsible for compelling the roots to work "in the silence" and "in the darkness," or whether this also is a weak feature of our practice, but it is a condition of their existence which the writer evidently regards with deep commiseration.
Putting this question aside, however, for the present, as altogether unintelligible and too dark for our apprehension, the above picture is bad enough; and unless it has been dictated by experience of a peculiarly barbarous description, we would be somewhat inclined to think that the author has been "a-pilin' the agony" rather too high. When we first perused his remarks, we were irresistibly disposed to exclaim with the Vermonter who, when the Yankee orator turned round after delivering a highly sensational harangue, observed "Yew dew talk." Charitably supposing that the savages who annually attack their trees with their spades, and who tear and cut asunder, are chiefly confined to the neighbourhood of Bedlam and other mad centres, or, what would be better, that they are a creation of the brain, we will proceed to discuss the subject in the language of the craft, looking, as we go along, at both sides of the question as they have been presented by different writers during the last twelve months.
And in order that we may do so in a true spirit of humility, allow me, in the first place, to draw the attention of your readers to the following estimates of their intelligence on the great question of "roots," as entertained by the author of the above sensational paragraph,- which, in fact, necessitated the assumption that "root-culture is the weak feature of our practice;" and he proceeds: "In fact, it is not too much to say that as a science it is all but ignored. The ideas of the best cultivators are, upon this head, of the most elementary description. With many they reach no farther than that the roots belong to the earth, and that they must be covered over. Others go a step beyond this, and add that they must be kept near the surface, and be furnished with suitable food and drink." So much for the pre-Adamite notions of the "best cultivators." What the ideas of the others must be, I leave your readers to guess. This we have learned at least, that they do not delight in the silence and the darkness. But only upon certain wise men in the East has dawned the knowledge that is destined to revolutionise fruit-tree culture, and there it shines with refulgent brightness.
What a Utopia for fruit-trees! where not only is all the light of reason brought to bear upon their welfare, but where their misfortunes are even regarded with feelings of the deepest sympathy and concern. Now, Mr Editor, to those who, like your correspondent, have to vegetate in an ungenial climate, and who are nevertheless expected to hurry in all sorts of early vegetables with the first blink of the summer's sun, and mayhap to put in a regular appearance at Belgrave or Gros-vener Square from the beginning of May, the giving up of their early borders, with no prospect of an equivalent, requires serious consideration. I have no doubt that the non-cropping system would succeed as far as the fruit-trees are concerned; but would the extra crops of fruit be equal to the sacrifice we are called upon to make 1 Or, on the other hand, if it can be proved that healthy trees can be grown and fair crops of fruit obtained, and the value of the space increased two-fold or more, by taking early and late crops of vegetables off the borders, would we be warranted in discontinuing the practice 1 That's the question: and herein, as Thomas Carlyle would say, lieth the true kernel of the matter.
Once prove the fact that the cropping system is injurious, and then a little eloquence might perhaps be beneficially expended by those who are brimful of that commodity; but mere sanguine enthusiasm, unsupported by practical testimony, is utterly worthless, and only calculated to mislead. If it was only a question of Pears, Plums, and Peaches, it would be different; but gardening generally has to be studied pretty much in the aggregate. There are few establishments where early Pease, Potatoes, Cauliflowers, etc, are not prized as much as Peaches or Pears are in autumn; and so the gardener has to work on the compromising system, and eke out, as it were, at both ends.
That the condition of the fruit-trees in many gardens is bad enough, I admit, but it would be pure assumption to attribute failure generally to cropping the borders. In nine cases out of ten it is a question of labour. Sterility and failure of crops are much oftener due to over-luxuriance, caused through want of the necessary attention to root-pruning, than to damage done by the spade, which, when borders are dug regularly, is not appreciable. Wall-trees in our comparatively sunless climate are always more disposed to expend their energies in the growth of wood than in fruit; and as they are annually denuded of their season's growth, they will, unless checked at the root also, continue to produce only a thicket of spray, or, when the roots get down into a bad subsoil, perish of canker or some other disease. These are by far the most common faults of root-culture, and they are faults which the non-cropping system would not remove; but it would be wrong to attribute their existence in every case to ignorance.