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.
The most profitable parts of kitchen-gardens generally are, or at all events should be, the borders near the walls - more especially those with a southern or western aspect. All alike can be put to a good use for fruit, flower, and vegetable culture; but for the present I intend to confine myself to the two latter principally, leaving the question as to what might be advantageously grown on the walls to some future date, or, better still, to some more experienced gardener. That these borders are made the most of by many practical gardeners must be admitted; at the same time, I believe I am justified in making the assertion that their value is not fairly estimated by the majority; and, judging from appearances, the designers of innumerable gardens far from realise their value. If this were otherwise, why do designers make them so narrow, and thereby stultify the efforts of those who would turn wide borders to good account 1 I could point to numbers of places where the borders are but little wider than the space that ought really to be given up entirely to the fruit-trees. Invariably running parallel to these borders are the principal walks in the gardens; and these, as a matter of course, lead up to the gateways, thereby rendering it almost out of the question that any improvement may be effected.
But few have the courage to give these narrow borders up to their legitimate occupants - viz., the roots of the fruit-trees; many, in fact, would not be allowed to do so by their employers, even if so inclined. They are therefore dug and cropped, and not always sufficiently manured - the consequence being, the impoverishment of the soil, and the destruction of many of the best roots by digging, thereby causing the roots to go down to the subsoil, as only those escape which have struck down into the oftentimes cold soil.
According to my ideas every border should at least be 20 feet wide, and be cropped only to within 5 feet of the walls. This would allow ample space for the roots of the fruit-trees, and also admit of that portion of the border devoted to vegetable culture occasionally being double-dug - which operation would greatly benefit both the vegetables and the trees, as the digging would be a mild form of root-pruning the latter. The main path would of course be in front of the border, but a light ungravelled path would of necessity be made as near the walls as the trees would admit. These paths, composed of the same soil as the borders, if not trampled too solidly, or much wheeled upon, do not appear to injuriously affect the trees; but where it can be managed, I should advise the use of large square paving-tiles, if for cleanliness' sake alone. They could either be laid down closely, to admit of being wheeled upon, or they may be short distances apart, in the way of "stepping-stones".
When I propose the giving up of 5 feet of the border to the trees, I do not overlook the value of the vegetable crops obtained at the foot of the walls, where so much may be done in the way of forwarding or retarding certain crops. To favour the trees, and indeed the vegetables also, I recommend the placing of a ridge of good soil, about 18 inches wide, and at least 9 inches deep, close to the walls, and above the level of the borders. These can be cropped and worked with little or no injury to the trees, and materially hasten vegetables to maturity. This not quite original idea may appear rather fanciful to some, but I have proved it to be a really good one, and consider it worthy of general adoption. In this paper I will, as briefly as possible, detail my practice with regard to cropping these ridges. Having already written upon "Early Vegetables," although principally with regard to frame-culture, repetitions in the course of my remarks may unavoidably occur. It is a generally recognised fact that a few small dishes of any choice vegetables sent in for the dining-table at a time when very scarce - that is to say, either very early or very late in the season - are more appreciated than large quantities supplied at a time when "everybody has them." Employers appreciate a dish of Early Peas, Potatoes, Cauliflowers, Beans, etc. -; and a dish of either often "comes in handy," at a time when there is but little variety of vegetables presentable.
If this were not the case, there would be no stimulus to this extra exertion on the part of gardeners, as the results of much labour are often, to all appearances, very meagre indeed.
Potatoes are one of the most important crops, and to these I give up about one quarter of the ridge at the foot of the south wall, and one half of that along the west wall, securing the earliest tubers from the former, and the heaviest crop from the latter. The soil used is light and open, nothing being better than old hotbed soil with a good addition of leaf-mould, or that obtained from a heap of balls of old pot-plants. In such a mixture the Potatoes mature earlier, and are of better quality than when grown in ordinary garden-soil. The time of planting ought, to a certain extent, to be regulated according to the weather and locality; but a certain amount of risk must be run. We usually plant about the first week in March, and find no better varieties for the work than either Mona's Pride or Veitch's Ashleaf. The tubers are previously sprouted, the strong central shoot only being retained, and are placed 9 inches apart in a drill at least 8 inches deep, and drawn along the centre of the ridge. To preserve the shoots, they are moulded over with the hand, afterwards levelling with a rake, and sowing Radishes thinly over part of the length, repeating the sowings of the latter at intervals of about a fortnight.
Wood's Frame Radish is still one of the best for this work, the French Breakfast and the early short-topped Turnip-rooted varieties being also very suitable and good. The Potatoes are not moulded up, but require to be protected from frost, the most critical time being when the growth is pushing through the surface, as it is then very succulent and tender. Inverted flower-pots, with a clod of earth over the drainage-hole, will ward off a severe frost; and when these are too small, branches of evergreens or other contrivances are quickly and easily put over them. In this manner we secure a fairly heavy crop of good Potatoes and Radishes in time to closely follow those obtained with the help of a rough frame and mats.
Next in importance are Cauliflowers, and of these a number of very serviceable heads can be had with the help of the south and west walls; and where but few or none are grown under hand-lights or in pits, these sites ought especially to be utilised to the extent of about one-fourth of the available space. In addition to those autumn-sown plants wintered in frames, I find it a good plan to prick out a number rather closely (about 4 inches apart) at the foot of the walls, early in October. Medium-sized plants are preferred, and if these should be inclined to grow freely, they are checked by being raised with a trowel and pressed back again. Small plants this season have already withstood 10° of frost; and though last winter the stock was killed by frost, in most seasons such sturdy little plants will live in the open, and be far more suitable for early planting than are those wintered in frames - at least as these are generally treated. Early in March they are thinned out, and all gaps made good, finally disposing them about 15 inches apart, and in a single line. Should these exposed plants be killed during the winter, some of those preserved in frames are substituted, which are protected with inverted flower-pots, though only when absolutely necessary.
Some of the best Walcheren Cauliflower I have seen, were grown at the foot of a south wall - in this instance in the ordinary border. Those grown on ridges, as I advise, will not often be large, but this is more than compensated for by their extra earliness. Any well-enriched soil will do for the Cauliflowers.
Although Peas are scarcely so profitable as the two preceding kinds, they will yet, with a little trouble, give a few small early dishes. For this work, Laxton's Minimum must eventually become very popular, as it is remarkably dwarf, very prolific, and of extra-good quality. Unique (Laxton), an older dwarf variety, has not met with much favour, but I find it a really profitable sort, and annually save seed for sowing the next season. Other good dwarf early varieties are Carter's Extra-early Premium Gem, and M'Lean's Blue Peter. After various experiments, I have come to the conclusion that the plan of sowing in boxes, and placing in cold frames in preference to heat, or of sowing in the open ground, is by far the best. They make sturdy growth, and readily transplant into the open border, or the ridge, as in our case; no perceptible check being given, even when the roots are shaken quite clear of the soil. We use about four ordinary bedding Pelargonium boxes, and although we sow thinly, invariably secure enough plants to make a line about 16 yards long. They are planted in a manner similar to box-edging, a deep drill being cut with a spade (6 inches from the wall), the plants laid in rather thinly, and the roots lightly covered.
Stakes are at once given according to the height of the variety, and beyond that they are no further trouble. If sown early in January, they may be put out on the first favourable opportunity in March, and will give a picking a fortnight before those that may be sown or planted farther from the walls.
Lettuces are well worthy of a place at the base of a warm wall. They may be treated much the same as the Cauliflowers, as in reality they are quite hardy in the southern counties. Our greatest difficulty is to keep off rabbits, birds, and slugs. Two lines may be grown on the ridge, the back one, about 6 inches from the wall, to be a Cos variety put out 10 inches apart; and about 9 inches in front of this a line of a hardy Cabbage variety, these being 9 inches apart. A row of the latter may also be worked in in the front of the Peas.