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Potato Growing 150 Years Ago

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Potato growing instructions from the Household Cyclopedia, 1881. The past may often teach us much.


Potatoes, as an article of human food, are, next to wheat, of the greatest importance in the eye of a political economist. From no other crop that can be cultivated will the public derive so much food as from this valuable esculent; and it admits of demonstration that an acre of potatoes will feed double the number of people that can be fed from an acre of wheat. Very good varieties are the Gleason, Calico, and Early Goodrich.

To prepare the Ground.

To reduce the ground till it is completely free from rootweeds, may be considered as a desiderutum in potato husbandry; though in many seasons these operations cannot be perfectly executed, without losing the proper time for planting, which never ought to be beyond the first of May, if circumstances do not absolutely interdict it. Three ploughings, with frequent harrowings and rollings, are necessary in most cases before the land is in suitable condition. When this is accomplished form the drills as if they were for turnips; cart the manure, which ought not to be sparingly applied, plant the seed above the manure, reverse the drills for covering it and the seed, then harrow the drills in length, which completes the preparation and seed process.

Quantity of Seed.

It is not advantageous to cut the seed into small slips, for the strength of the stem at the outset depends in direct proportion upon the vigor and power of the seedplant. The seed plant, therefore, ought to be large, rarely smaller than the fourth-part of the potato; and if the seed is of small size, one-half of the potato may be profitably used. At all events, rather err in giving over large seed than in making it too small because, by the first error, no great loss can ever be sustained; whereas, by the other, feeble and late crop may be the consequence. When the seed is properly cut, it requires from ten to twelve hundredweight of potatoes to plant an acre of ground, where the rows are twenty seven inches apart; but this quantity depends greatly upon the size of the potatoes used; if they are large, a greater weight may be required, but the extra quantity will be abundantly repaid by the superiority of crop which large seed usually produces.

Advantageous Method of raising them.

The earth should be dug twelve inches deep, if the soil will allow it; after this, a hole should be opened about six inches deep, and horse-dung or long litter should be put therein, about three inches thick; this hole should not be more than twelve inches in diameter. Upon this dung or litter a potato should be planted whole, upon which a little more dung should be shaken, and then the earth should be put thereon. In like manner the whole plot of ground must be planted, taking care that the potatoes be at least sixteen inches apart. When the young shoots make their appearance they should have fresh mould drawn around them with a hoe; and if the tender shoots are covered, it will prevent the frost from injuring them; they should again be earthed when the shoots make a second appearance, but not covered, as in all probability the season will be less severe.

A plentiful supply of mould should be given them, and the person who performs this business should never tread upon the plant, or the hillock that is raised round it, as the lighter the earth is the more room the potato will have to expand.

A gentleman obtained from a single root, thus planted, very nearly forty pounds weight of large potatoes, and from almost every other root upon the same plot of ground from fifteen to twenty pounds weight; and, except the soil be stony or gravelly, ten pounds or half a peck of potatoes may generally be obtained from each root by pursuing the foregoing method.

But note - cuttings or small sets will not do for this purpose. Mode of Taking up and Storing the Crop.

Potatoes are generally dug up with a three-prong grape or fork, but at other times, when the weather is dry, the plough is used, which is the most expeditious implement. After gathering the interval, the furrow taken by the plough is broken and separated, in which way the crop may be more completely gathered than when taken up by the grape. The potatoes are then stored up for winter and spring use; and as it is of importance to keep them as long through summer as possible, every endeavor ought to be made to preserve them from frost, and from sprouting in the spring months. The former is accomplished by covering them well with straw when lodged in a house, and by a thick coat of earth when deposited in a pit, and the latter, by picking them carefully at different times, when they begin to sprout, drying them sufficiently by exposure to the sun, or by a gentle toast of a kiln.

Method of Cultivating Potatoes in Ireland.

The drill system, in the cultivation of potatoes in Ireland, is particularly recommended by Lord Farnham, in a letter to Sir John Sinclair. The small farmers and laborers plant them in lazy-beds, eight feet wide. This mode is practised on account of the want of necessary implements for practicing the drill system, together with a want of horses for the same purpose.

They are cut into sets, three from a large potato; and each set to contain at least one eye. The sets are planted at the distance of seven inches asunder, six and a quarter cwt. are considered sufficient seed for an English acre. Lord Farnham recommends rotten dung in preference to any fresh dung. If not to be procured, horse-dung, hot from the dunghill. In any soil he would recommend the dung below the seed.

When the potatoes are vegetated ten inches above the surface, the scuffler must be introduced, and cast the mold from the potato. If any weeds are found in the drills they must be hand-hoed; in three days afterwards they must be moulded up by the double-breasted plough, as high as the neck of the potato. This mode must be practiced twice, or in some cases three times, particularly if the land is foul. I do not (says Lord Farnham) consider any mode so good as the drill system. General Observations.

To prepare for the drill system either oat or wheat stubble, it should be ploughed in October or the beginning of November; to be ploughed deep and laid up for winter dry. In March let it be harrowed, and give it three clean earths. Be very particular to eradicate the couch grass. The drills to be three feet asunder; drill deep the first time that there is room in the bottom of the furrow to contain the dung. The best time to begin planting the potatoes is about the latter end of April by this system. It is as good a preparation for wheat as the best fallows. Three feet and a half for drills are preferable to four feet. Mr. Curwen prefers four feet and a half. He says the produce is immense. Potatoes ought to be cut at least from two to three weeks before being planted; and if planted very early whole potatoes are preferable to cut ones, and dung under and over. Some agriculturists lately pay much attention to raising seedling potatoes, with the hope of renewing the vigor of the plant. To produce early Potatoes in great Quantity.

Early potatoes may be produced in great quantity by resetting the plants, after taking off the ripe and large ones. A gentleman at Dumfries has replanted them six different times in one season, without any additional manure; and, instead of falling off in quantity, he gets a larger crop of ripe ones at every raising than the former ones. His plants have still on them three distinct crops, and he supposes they may still continue to vegetate and germinate until they are stopped by the frost. By this means he has a new crop every eight days, and has had so for a length of time.

To grow Potatoes constantly on the same piece of Ground.

Let the cuttings be made from the finest potatoes instead of the smallest and worst, usually employed for the purpose; and it will be found, contrary to what is supposed by farmers, that they will not degenerate. The same will happen with respect to the seeds of the watery squash, early peas, and several other kinds of vegetables.

To preserve Potatoes from Frost.

This is best done by filling completely the place where they are deposited, whether it be a house or a pit, and allowing the place to remain shut during the winter. But this cannot be done easily with a potato-house, as it cannot be completely packed or filled like a pit. Besides, some potatoes are generally wanted daily, and thus air is admitted and a greater vacuity constantly making, both very likely to be the means of proving injurious or destructive to what potatoes may be in the house when a severe frost sets in. There is no such thing in nature as a vacuum; therefore, if a place is not filled with some substance or other, it will be filled with air. For this reason, pits are better for preserving potatoes from frost than a house, because a pit can be more effectually filled: and, by opening a pit when potatoes are wanted, and removing the whole into some part of a house, and still keeping over them a covering of straw or turf, the potatoes are kept close. A potato-house, however, is very useful, and what every farmer ought to have, as in this house he may still keep a small quantity of his crop for daily use by emptying it occasionally, and keeping them always well covered with straw, as has been already mentioned. The potato-house ought to be well plastered with clay, and perfectly dry before using it.

Potato-pits should be made upon ground that has a southern exposure, a deep soil, and declining to a considerable distance from the pit. In a deep soil the pits can be made sufficiently deep before reaching and cold bottom, and the declivity carries away water. When the pits have been fully finished and covered, a sod should be cut out all the way round the potatoes, and the cut contined a little way as the descent points out. A pit of about ten feet deep, six wide and ten long, will hold from four to six cart loads of potatoes. The covering should consist of strew, fern, rushes, etc. next the potato, then the whole of the earth dug out should be thrown upon the heap; and, last of all, a covering of earth, if done in the best way. This covering will be about two feet thick.

Another Method.

The best and easiest way of preserving potatoes is for the farmer to drive all his potatoes home, and to lay them upon dry ground without breaking the surface, and as near the stables as possible, putting them in heaps of about three or four carts, then covering them with straw, and above that with turf, where it can be commanded, or with a neat thatching of straw. Then let a quantity of stable dung, of the roughest kind and the newest, be laid upon each heap, to remain during the winter, but which must be removed in the spring. As the weather appears severe, the quantity of dung may be increased at pleasure. If this practice were adopted few or no potatoes would be penetrated by the frost, as none would be in hazard except one pit, or part of it, when it was removing or placed in the potato-house during the winter season.

To remove Frost from Potatoes.

The weather which soonest injures and destroys potatoes, is when the atmosphere is depressed with cold to such a degree that it congeals water; then potatoes, unless covered, will be frosted; and the cover proper to preserve them ought to be proportioned to the intenseness of the weather.

Potatoes, when slightly frosted, so as to have acquired a slight sweet taste only, are often found quite wet. When they are in this state, in order to recover them, and bring them to a proper taste, the whole quantity infected should be turned over, and a quantity of millseeds thrown among them as they are turned over; this both extracts and absorbs the injured moisture from the body of the potatoes infected. But there is still a more powerful remedy than simply mixing them with millseeds, and that is a small quantity of slaked lime, perfectly dry, mixed among the seeds to be used, which has a very wonderful effect in recovering potatoes that have been considerably injured by frost.

When frosted potatoes are to be used, either at the table, or given to horses, black cattle or swine, plunging them in cold water, about half a day before using them, is of great advantage; and if put into running water so much the better, as it has been proved to be more powerful in extracting the frost, on account of its alterative quality and superior purity.

Another Method.

Another way of removing frost from potatoes, when they are to be prepared for the table, is to strip them of their skins, and, if large, to cut them into two or more pieces; then to plunge them into cold water for a considerable time, with a handful of salt in the water; and, when put on to be boiled, put as much salt into the water as possible, not to make them too salt when boiled.

This is a powerful way of making the potato throw off the bad taste and spoiled quality lodged in its substance. When prepared for horses, black cattle, and swine: Salt put among the potatoes and boiled together, will destroy any injurious quality which frost has lodged or brought on. Chaff or oats bruised in a mill, boiled with the frosted potatoes, when designed for horses or cattle, tend to destroy the bad effects of the frost.

Uses to which Frosted Potatoes may be beneficialy applied.

When potatoes have acquired a disagreeable taste by means of frost, they will make good and wholesome bread by boiling them, as has been mentioned, with salt, mashing or bruising them small, then kneading them together with oatmeal. Not less than two-thirds should consist of meal, which will destroy the sweet taste, and the dry and generous quality of the meal will effectually correct and destroy anything noxious in the injured roots.

Horses, swine, dogs, etc., may all be fed with potatoes, though frosted, by boiling them and mixing then with oats coarsely ground, or with oat-meal, always adding a good quantity of salt in the mixture. Poultry also may be fed with potatoes very much frosted, if mixed with oat-meal in about equal proportions, without salt, as this species of animal cannot admit of it.

Further uses of Frosted Potatoes.

Potatoes frosted, when three times distilled, produce a spirit from hydrometer proof to ten per cent. over proof; therefore a principal purpose and use to which they may be turned, is the making of alcohol, more particularly as that article is useful for many purposes where strength is its principal recommendation. The ordinary strength that spirits are run preparatory to converting them into alcohol, is from forty to fifty per cent. over proof, which, redistilled from calcined carbonate of potash, will produce alcohol at 825, water being 1000.

When potatoes are frosted to such a degree as to be useless for food from their sweet taste, they are very useful to weavers in dressing their yarn, and particularly cotton.

They are prepared for this purpose by boiling them well, then mash or beat them small; then put them into a vessel, adding a little warm drippings of ale or porter barrels, allowing them to stand two or three months to ferment.

Shoemakers may use it also; only as their paste requires more solidity and greater strength, flour is generally mixed along with the fermented potatoes in about equal proportions.

Bookbinders also may use this paste, alum being mixed to assist the strength of the composition. And it may be beneficially used by paper stainers and upholsterers, when made up with a mixture of flour and alum. When potatoes are so penetrated with frost that they have become quite soft, they are useless forman or beast, but make excellent manure for light, sharp soils, and for this purpose are worth about one-fifth or sixth of their original value. In places where it is a great object to get straw turned into dung, the value of the frosted potato is still greater, as it assists the farmer in that operation. To make Starch from Frosted Potatoes.

Potatoes much frosted will make very good starch, though it is a shade darker in color. All coarse clothes requiring to be stiffened, where whiteness is no object, may be done with starch made from potatoes greatly penetrated with frost. The best method of making potatoes into starch is to grate them down into water, then to take out all the refuse with the hand, and next to strain the whole of the water in which the potatoes have been grated through a thin cloth, rather coarse, or fine sieve, and afterwards frequently putting on and pouring off water until it comes clear from the starch, which is always allowed to settle or fall to the bottom of the vessel in which the operation is performed. An experiment was tried with a few potatoes that were put out to frost. They were grated down and made into starch powder. The produce of the fresh potato weighed 876 grains, while that of the frosted was only 412, being less than half the quantity.

The refuse of the potato, when taken from the sieve, possesses the property of cleansing woollen cloths without hurting their colors, and the water decanted from the starch powder is excellent for cleansing silks without the smallest injury to their color. In making hair-powder it has long been used, and is therefore well known.