This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Within ten years past volumes have been written about strawberries, large numbers of new varieties have been introduced both of native and foreign origin, and multitudes of experiments have been made in order to discover the best method of cultivation. Withal, we must candidly say, that strawberry culture in general is to-day in miserably low condition in this country. See the fruit brought into our markets; the great bulk is small, sour, dirty stuff, that men who value their reputation as cultivators would be ashamed to offer. In private gardens how rare it is to see a really well managed strawberry plot Why is it ? The strawberry is one of the most delicious and healthy of all fruits, universally esteemed a delicacy - a luxury that could scarcely be dispensed with. It commands an amply remunerating price in all our markets; and our climate offers no serious obstacle to its culture in a high state of perfection. Then why is it managed so indifferently! This is a questiou that we wish cultivators to put to themselves, and to one another, and answer it if they can. We apprehend that the chief difficulty lies in attempting too much.
This, we think, is the prime error of American cultivators in every department, including both the farm and the garden. "A little ground well tilled " is not their maxim; they reverse this as nearly as possible. We do not wish to be understood as recommending people to throw away their time in frivolous attempts to bring a certain object or number of objects to a fancied state of perfection. We are well aware that in this country, where labor is costly and land cheap, there is a strong temptation to cultivate largely and poorly; but every where it pays to cultivate well. The men who have grown rich in this country by farming and gardening are not those who have had the most ground; quite the reverse. One man embarks in the culture of the strawberry for market; he plants an acre or two, or more. To prepare so much ground as it should be prepared, would involve a considerable expense; but the land is simply plowed as it would be for corn or potatoes. The plants are set, and from that time until the fruit is ready for market, an occasional scratch with a cultivator or horse-hoe is all the attention they receive. Dry weather sets in just as this fruit begins to ripen and no means have been provided to render watering possible - they must take the weather as it comes.
No measures have been taken to keep the fruit clean, either; they are allowed to draggle in the dust, so that three-fourths of the crop has to be taken to the pump and toothed before they can appear on the huckster's table. Now the cost of picking this crop of small fruit is three or four times what it would be to gather a crop of good well grown fruit, and when gathered and carried to market, they must be sold at half price. Small, dirty, or washed and bruised, what is to be done with them but sell them for what they will bring ? Thus an acre or two will not yield to the cultivator as much net profit as so many rods well managed, and the buying community are left to wonder where all the fine strawberries go that they read about.
Coming home for an illustration, a few years ago several persons about this city embarked with considerable spirit in the culture of strawberries for market. Some pains were taken to prepare the ground and get good varieties, and the first two or three years some approaches were made to reasonably good culture. The consequence was our markets were filled with excellent fruit, people paid cheerfully liberal prices, and the growers themselves reaped a rich harvest. The zeal of the new cultivators, however, waxed cool; their plantations became old; they failed to renew them in season, they were abandoned to themselves, and a small crop of miserable fruit was the consequence, yielding not enough to pay for picking and selling.
Such is precisely the course pursued by a majority of the market growers that we are acquainted with, and a large majority of private growers follow suit A crop or two of fine fruits are produced while the novelty of the thing and the zeal of the beginner lasts, and then all go to ruin. People who embark in strawberry culture must understand that a strawberry plant is different from the apple tree, which when once planted can take care of itself pretty well if in a good soil. The strawberry plant wants continual care - a multitude of little attentions. It must have deep and rich soil to begin with; strawberries should never be planted upon a soil, however good, unless it has been deepened by subsoil plowing, or trenching, at least eighteen inches, and two feet is better; for the strawberry requires a great quantity of moisture and the roots will seek it to a great distance if the ground be in a good condition to allow them. Besides deep and rich soil, ample provision should be made to water them at the time when the fruit is swelling and dry weather almost sure to prevail. A sprinkling of water is of no use - a good drenching to the very rootlets is required once a week at least.
Then, all the time, from the moment the plantation is made, the ground must be kept clean and all surplus runners likely to weaken the bearing plants removed. As the fruit begins to color, some straw, or other material, should be laid on the ground around the plants to keep the berries clean so that they may go to the table as they come from the plant, with their color and flavor unimpaired by such an outlandish process as washing. Then, with all this treatment, the beds must be renewed as often as once in three years at least, and in doing this we recommend choosing, when practicable, new ground. We have firm faith in the wisdom of rotation in these matters.
Now there is nothing new in all this, nothing but what good cultivators have known and practiced for half a century, or more for aught we know; but it is sometimes well to call attention even to such old and homely truths. We might cull from the writings of the day on this subject, any number of prescriptions and recipes, but as we have tried few of them, and as in our own practice we have not found them necessary, we must leave it to those who choose to search them out and apply them. In nine cases out of ten, people will succeed better by practicing well what they know than by following doubtful experiments; this remark we intend for the man of cultivation. Of course, we can not but regard with interest all efforts of zealous men to improve upon old methods, and to discover new and valuable fertilizers; what we mean is, that in common practice no novelty should be followed until its merits have been thoroughly canvassed, and well authenticated.