This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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.
It may possibly appear to some a work of supererogation to write a systematic series of articles on kitclien-gardening at this advanced period in the history of horticulture. And while confessing that, if the choice of a subject rested entirely with the writer, vegetable culture would not be his theme on the present occasion - more especially as it is one which to some extent he has attempted to discuss some years ago in the ' Scottish Gardener,' and with which effort some of his readers may be already acquainted - he would much prefer a sort of roving commission for his pen, than to be tied down to what many may, no doubt, look upon as a sober set of subjects - Cabbages, Onions, and Cauliflowers. This is not said, however, under the slightest impression that the kitchen-garden is an unimportant department; far from it. And if any who have carefully watched the course of gardening literature for the last quarter of a century, and perhaps particularly of the present time, were called upon to say which of the various branches of gardening has attracted the least share of the attention of those who devote their spare moments to gardening literature, the vegetable department could scarcely fail to be fixed upon.
All the outs and ins connected with the cultivation of flowering and exotic plants, the propagation and arrangement of bedding plants, and of all sorts of florists' flowers; the cultivation of Pines, Grapes, and Peaches, and other tender and hardy fruits - have been discussed and written about until they are freely talked of as threadbare subjects. Amongst these various subjects some have found hobbies to canter on till they are out of wind, and have been compared to Tarn o' Shanter's mare, having "fient a tail to shake at all." There are Rose men, Orchid men, Camellia men, flower-garden men, orchard-house men, and ground-vinery men, and men of all sorts; but where shall we look for an Onion, or a Cabbage, or Cauliflower man?
There is no fault to be found with all this devotedness and enthusiasm in all or any of these branches. Enthusiasm has done much, nearly all, for practical gardening. Enthusiasts are the men for discovery and dash, as well as unflagging perseverance. They are the Dr Livingstones of horticulture, and could ill be spared by the growing hosts who follow in their footsteps; and perhaps the gardening press would miss them most of all. In fact, if we are to have a press at all, these are indispensable men, and so are their subjects. This, however, is no reason why the vegetable department should be slighted, or treated with the cold shoulder. It cannot be that the kitchen-garden can fairly be considered either the least important or the easiest to manage or learn. It takes in a far wider range of Society than any-other department. Neither the prince nor the peasant can neglect it with impunity. Most gardeners find the kitchen their most ticklish latitude, one from which demands ever come with the most relentless steadiness, which cannot be shirked on any pretence.
And he who can satisfy these demands every day in the year, has reason to congratulate himself on being up to the mark, in a department through which as much trouble is as likely to arise as any other with which he has to do.
Perhaps there has been less real progress in kitchen-gardening within the last twenty-five years than in fruit or plant culture. Certain it is that what are now termed the "old-school men" were not behind the generation which is following them in substantial kitchen-gardening, while it would be difficult to say so much of them in some other departments. I do not know whether my experience corresponds with that of other gardeners who have passed a good many young gardeners - so to speak - through their hands, but I find the majority quite as deficient in this department as in any other, or even more so. There are plenty of worthy young men who, were they called upon to grow a few genera of plants in pots, or to get up a few thousand bedding plants, would do so with credit to themselves. But call upon them to serve the kitchen, or subdivide a few acres of a kitchen-garden into allotment for the proper proportion of the different vegetables, and crop these with a proper selection, and in a manner and at a time which would secure a proper supply for the season, and they would find themselves set fast.
There cannot be a greater mistake on the part of young men who, as soon as their two or three years of apprenticeship is over, indulge a ceaseless hankering to get into houses where forcing and plant-growing are carried on, before they have made themselves conversant with the details of a well-managed kitchen-garden.
If these remarks are applicable to professional aspirants, they are in another sense far more applicable to many an amateur who is nowadays leaving the crowded city chambers to live in retirement, and in the enjoyment of a garden in the country. While a vast deal is being written for their instruction in fruit-culture and flower-culture, that department which affects their comfort more constantly is not so carefully brought before them. For these especially we hope to prove useful and instructive in the series of articles we have undertaken to write - a task which we are a little encouraged to go on with from the fact that in the leading journal the comparative skill of gardeners in vegetable culture north and south of the Tweed is being discussed somewhat warmly. Without the slightest wish to enter on the discussion referred to, it may be said in passing that a good deal of what is being advanced must be the result of a one-sided knowledge: it never answers in such matters to measure our neighbour's corn with our own bushel.
There is no intention of extending these papers by attempting to say all that can be said on any given subject: what shall be aimed at is to say what is likely to be of service to the greatest number and variety of readers; and especially to those owners of small gardens who, in great measure, superintend their garden operations, will we aim at being useful.
In commencing to write a series of articles on any department of gardening, perhaps the most difficult thing to decide is what form or arrangement the matter to be written should be put. This is felt and confessed on the present occasion, and it is hoped that the arrangement decided upon will meet with approval. At first it was designed to say something of laying out, or forming vegetable gardens of various sizes and characters, and to treat of the best way of improving unsuitable soils, such as heavy clay and light and shallow sandy soils. But the conclusion come to is, to take up the catalogue of vegetables in general cultivation, and treat of them alphabetically. And following this order, we come first to a very important vegetable, namely.