Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
The rectangle pint baskets used for raspberries. The round baskets are a mystery to me as to when and how they were used.

Strawberries, Raspberries & Hot Bed Yards

How We Did It When I Was A Boy

by Paul E. Hauser of Lincoln University, PA

Reading Ida Livingston’s past articles, first on growing strawberries and then in the next issue on gardening, brought back many memories of how we did it in the 1950s when I was a boy.

Growing up on a vegetable farm in Central New Jersey, strawberries were the first cash crop of the season on our farm. Yet as Ida said, the season really started when a new field was put out the previous spring, usually in April. But unlike Ida, our new plants were not put in by hand but rather by the old Allis Chalmers “B” pulling the New Idea Transplanter. Two young’uns, one seemingly always me, were on the planter alternately putting plants in.

But first the rows needed to be laid out. To do this we used an old, formerly horse-drawn, sled that created rows equal distance apart. I imagine that this tool was more important when plants were put in by hand, but old habits are hard to break, especially when the boss was in his 60s. Once again the Chalmers did the pulling.

It’s hard for me to remember how many acres may have been in a field but as a boy everything seemed to be big. In fact, it probably wasn’t acres, it just seemed a lot to pick.

A field of berries was never picked for more than one year. With no chemical sprays out there, weeds were more of a problem than one could handle. So they were plowed down after picking season in time for a fall planting, usually cabbage or spinach.

The picking season started just as school was finishing in early June and ran about three weeks. Now our berry season starts in late May. Since cardboard or plastic were unheard of on the farm, picking was always done in wood quarts. By late morning, done or not, berries had to be out of the field so they could be crated and sold. Wooden carriers that held eight quarts were used to carry berries out of the field. If I can remember right, there had to be at least 50 carriers used daily. Most mornings I believe I picked 25 to 35 quarts, although I remember reaching 80 quarts once. We were paid 25 cents per quart for picking, which was more than the 3 to 10 cents per quart my parents were paid for picking when they were young.

Cultivating and hoeing were mainstays of the summer work for the new planting of berries. But what stands out in my memories occurred over our school’s Christmas Vacation. Strawberries need to be mulched just after a good hard frost which seemed to coincide with our vacation. Straw was not available, grain not being widely grown in our area, and hay would have seeds that would germinate in the berry field. So my grandfather developed an alternative. During the Depression he had purchased a pine forest, for I think $10 per acre. So during our Christmas Vacation we would go into the pine forest and harvest the pine needles. They were forked up, piled into bushel baskets and then taken back to spread on the berries, by hand, as mulch. I like to say that I very well may have been the last one who harvested pine needles for mulch.

As soon as the strawberry season ended, raspberries started. These were always the summer bearing Red Latham variety. I still grow, 60 years later, the same Latham variety. There were never as many raspberries as strawberries although my father would tell stories that when he was a boy they would have four to five acres of them.

Two things stand out distinctively in my memories from those berries. An old Oliver one-horse walking plow, pulled by the Chalmers, was used to throw dirt over the berry stalks to bury weeds. I was the one who did the walking.

The other remembrance being the shape of the pints which we picked into. Today all pints seem to be square but that was not the case when I was a boy. Our wooden pints were always rectangle. I do also have some pints that were round but there’s no one left to tell me when and why they were used.

Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
Crates used for packing strawberries and raspberries. Two layers in the crate with a protective board in between.

These pints were rectangle because they fit into the common wooden crates we had used for strawberries. 16 quarts or 24 pints filled the crate tightly whereas a square pint wouldn’t fit a crate tightly, which could result in spillage when shipped.

Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
The sash we used in the yard. As you see one pane of glass is missing. In winter, sash were taken into the shop, repaired and painted for the upcoming year.

Now I’d like to go to the next issue when Ida discusses Gardening 101. I’d like to share my memories starting with vegetable seedlings. Prior to the time plastic became so dominant in our farming and gardening culture. This was in the 1950s when I was a young boy again. At that time in lieu of greenhouses there were what we referred to as hot bed yards. These hot beds consisted of a glass sash measuring 3’ x 6’ and were supported in frames that were 12-15” on the high side and 3” lower on the low side. They were placed with the lower end facing South. Usually this yard could be surrounded by trees or brush to give some wind protection. They were called “hot beds” because frequently the beds were dug out in late Winter and a deep layer of horse manure was put in and then recovered with dirt. As that horse manure heated up it provided heat for the young seedlings.

Yet not all the frames in the yard were “hot.” As spring moved on some seedlings were put into what we called cold frames. In these the heat may not be as critical to the young seedlings as the season had started to warm.

Seeds were never started in these frames. Seeds were usually given to a local farmer who may have had a glass greenhouse. If not a glass greenhouse perhaps an outbuilding with plenty of windows and a good pot belly stove and the experience to germinate seeds. As soon as a few leaves were present on these plants, they were given back to the farmer and into the hot bed yard they went.

Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
The row maker used in the hot beds. You can see how the rows were kept straight by the add-on at each end. Pins punched holes for the young seedlings however I’ve removed several as I’ve adapted it to planting onions in the field.

Before the seedlings could be set in though, rows needed to be laid out. To do this we used a home made tool, measuring approximately 1” x 4” with holes drilled in and spikes set in. This tool provided equal spacing for both rows and plants and the spikes left a hole for the seedlings to be placed in.

It was a constant job during early spring to monitor the temperature under the glass in the yard. You couldn’t just leave the glass closed as the sun could easily bake and kill everything; as it happened to me on one of my first attempts to raise plants this way. So a small piece of wood was used to place under the glass in the center of the frame that raised the glass just enough to let some of the heat escape. Some on the bottom, some on the top. Other days, you may have raised the glass to let heat escape and the clouds and cold air would come in. You needed to be available to quickly close things up. For months in the spring one didn’t dare go away with the weather being so fickle.

Late afternoons was when the work really began. For most of the spring season, every night the frames had to be covered. The local material that was available to do this was salt hay. Salt hay, cut in the local marshes, was noted for having a better insulating factor than normal hay or straw. Small grain crops were sparsely grown in that area so straw was not an option. The salt hay had to be forked on to cover the sash manually every night. Then every morning a wooden rake was used to remove the salt hay. This whole process obviously was quite time consuming. As time moved on, salt hay became scarcer, less folks willing to cut the marshes and a replacement needed to be found. It was about that time that plastic hop houses came into focus and the hot bed yard became obsolete.

Strawberries Raspberries and Hot Bed Yards
This is a picture of an Uncle’s “hot bed yard.” Note how the sash were alternately slid slightly open to allow some heat to escape. Salt hay lay in the aisles that needed to be put on every evening and removed in the morning.

How many frames would be located in a yard? Depending on the size of the farm it could be hundreds at any one time One can just imagine how much work was involved and how welcome the plastic hop house was received. Yet for the individual who doesn’t have a greenhouse, nor the money to invest in one, yet wants to start their own seedlings, this is a very doable way. When I started out on my way into gardening and then farming this is how I started.