This beautifully prepared garden spot--or rather the plant food in it--
is to be transformed into good things for your table, through the ever
wonderful agency of plant growth. The thread of life inhering in the
tiniest seed, in the smallest plant, is
the magic wand that may transmute the soil's dull metal into the gold of flower and fruit. All the thought, care and expense described in the preceding chapters are but to get ready for the two things from which your garden is to spring, in ways so deeply hidden that centuries of the closest observation have failed to reveal their inner workings. Those two are seeds and plants. (The sticklers for technical exactness will here take exception, calling our attention to tubers, bulbs, corns and numerous other taverns where plant life puts up over night, between growth and growth, but for our present purpose we need not mind them.) The plants which you put out in your garden will have been started under glass from seed, so that, indirectly, everything depends on the seed. Good seeds, and true, you must have if your garden is to attain that highest success which should be our aim. Seeds vary greatly--very much more so than the beginner has any conception of. There are three essentials; if seeds fail in any one of them, they will be rendered next to useless. First, they must be true; selected from good types of stock and true to name; then they must have been good, strong, plump seeds, full of life and gathered from healthy plants; and finally, they must be fresh. [Footnote: See table later this chapter] It is therefore of vital importance that you procure the best seeds that can be had, regardless of cost. Poor seeds are dear at any price; you cannot afford to accept them as a gift. It is, of course, impossible to give a rule by which to buy good seed, but the following suggestions will put you on the safe track. First, purchase only of some reliable mail-order house; do not be tempted, either by convenience or cheapness, to buy the gaily lithographed packets displayed in grocery and hardware stores at planting time--as a rule they are not reliable; and what you want for your good money is good seed, not cheap ink. Second, buy of seedsmen who make a point of growing and testing their own seed. Third, to begin with, buy from several houses and weed out to the one which proves, by actual results, to be the most reliable. Another good plan is to purchase seed of any particular variety from the firm that makes a leading specialty of it; in many cases these specialties have been introduced by these firms and they grow their own supplies of these seeds; they will also be surer of being true to name and type. Good plants are, in proportion to the amounts used, just as important as good seed--and of course you cannot afford losing weeks of garden usefulness by growing entirely from seed sown out-doors. Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, egg-plant, and for really efficient gardening, also onions, corn, melons, celery, lima beans, cucumbers, and squash, will all begin their joyous journey toward the gardener's table several weeks before they get into the garden at all. They will all be started under glass and have attained a good, thrifty, growing size before they are placed in the soil we have been so carefully preparing for them. It is next to impossible to describe a "good" vegetable plant, but he who gardens will come soon to distinguish between the healthy, short-jointed, deep-colored plant which is ready to take hold and grow, and the soft, flabby (or too succulent) drawn-up growth of plants which have been too much pampered, or dwarfed, weazened specimens which have been abused and starved; he will learn that a dozen of the former will yield more than fifty of the latter. Plants may be bought of the florist or market gardener. If so, they should be personally selected, some time ahead, and gotten some few days before needed for setting out, so that you may be sure to have them properly "hardened off," and in the right degree of moisture, for transplanting, as will be described later. By far the more satisfactory way, however, is to grow them yourself. You can then be sure of having the best of plants in exactly the quantities and varieties you want. They will also be on hand when conditions are just right for setting them out. For the ordinary garden, all the plants needed may be started successfully in hotbeds and cold-frames. The person who has had no experience with these has usually an exaggerated idea of their cost and of the skill required to manage them. The skill is not as much a matter of expert knowledge as of careful regular care, daily. Only a few minutes a day, for a few sash, but every day. The cost need be but little, especially if one is a bit handy with tools. The sash which serves for the cover, and is removable, is the important part of the structure. Sash may be had, ready glazed and painted, at from $2.50 to $3.50 each, and with care they will last ten or even twenty years, so you can see at once that not a very big increase in the yield of your garden will be required to pay interest on the investment. Or you can buy the sash unglazed, at a proportionately lower price, and put the glass in yourself, if you prefer to spend a little more time and less money. However, if you are not familiar with the work, and want only a few sash, I would advise purchasing the finished article. In size they are three feet by six. Frames upon which to put the sash covering may also be bought complete, but here there is a chance to save money by constructing your own frames--the materials required, being 2x4 in. lumber for posts, and inch-boards; or better, if you can easily procure them, plank 2 x 12 in. So far as these materials go the hotbed and coldframe are alike. The difference is that while the coldframe depends for its warmth upon catching and holding the heat of the sun's rays, the hotbed is artificially heated by fermenting manure, or in rare instances, by hot water or steam pipes. In constructing the hotbed there are two methods used; either by placing the frames on top of the manure heap or by putting the manure within the frames. The first method has the advantage of permitting the hotbed to be made upon frozen ground, when required in the spring. The latter, which is the better, must be built before the ground freezes, but is more economical of manure. The manure in either case should be that of grain-fed horses, and if a small amount of straw bedding, or leaves--not more, however, than one-third of the latter--be mixed among it, so much the better. Get this manure several days ahead of the time wanted for use and prepare by stacking in a compact, tramped-down heap. Turn it over after three or four days, and re-stack, being careful to put the former top and sides of the pile now on the inside. Having now ready the heating apparatus and the superstructure of our miniature greenhouse, the building of it is a very simple matter. If the ground is frozen, spread the manure in a low, flat heap--nine or ten feet side, a foot and a half deep, and as long as the number of sash to be used demands--a cord of manure thus furnishing a bed for about three sash, not counting for the ends of the string or row. This heap should be well trodden down and upon it should be placed or built the box or frame upon which the sash are to rest. In using this method it will be more convenient to have the frame made up beforehand and ready to place upon the manure, as shown in one of the illustrations. This should be at least twelve inches high at the front and some half a foot higher at the back. Fill in with at least four inches--better six --of good garden soil containing plenty of humus, that it may allow water to soak through readily. The other method is to construct the frames on the ground before severe freezing, and in this case the front should be at least twenty-four inches high, part of which--not more than half--may be below the ground level. The 2 x 12 in. planks, when used, are handled as follows: stakes are driven in to support the back plank some two or three inches above the ground,--which should, of course, be level. The front plank is sunk two or three inches into the ground and held upright by stakes on the outside, nailed on. Remove enough dirt from inside the frame to bank up the planks about halfway on the outside. When this banking has frozen to a depth of two or three inches, cover with rough manure or litter to keep frost from striking through. The manure for heating should be prepared as above and put in to the depth of a foot, trodden down, first removing four to six inches of soil to be put back on top of the manure,--a cord of the latter, in this case, serving seven sashes. The vegetable to be grown, and the season and climate, will determine the depth of manure required--it will be from one to two feet,--the latter depth seldom being necessary. It must not be overlooked that this manure, when spent for heating purposes, is still as good as ever to enrich the garden, so that the expense of putting it in and removing it from the frames is all that you can fairly charge up against your experiment with hotbeds, if you are interested to know whether they really pay. The exposure for the hotbeds should be where the sun will strike most directly and where they will be sheltered from the north. Put up a fence of rough boards, five or six feet high, or place the frames south of some building. The coldframe is constructed practically as in the hotbed, except that if manure is used at all it is for the purpose of enriching the soil where lettuce, radishes, cucumbers or other crops are to be grown to maturity in it. If one can put up even a very small frame greenhouse, it will be a splendid investment both for profit and for pleasure. The cost is lower than is generally imagined, where one is content with a home-made structure. Look into it.
Next: PREPARING THE SOIL
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