The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.Charles Dudley Warner (18291900)
My Summer in a Garden
I hold that no man has a right (whatever his sex, of course) to have a garden to his own selfish uses. He ought not to please himself, but every man to please his neighbor. I tried to have a garden that would give general moral satisfaction. It seemed to me that nobody could object to potatoes (a most useful vegetable); and I began to plant them freely. But there was a chorus of protest against them. “You don’t want to take up your ground with potatoes,” the neighbors said; “you can buy potatoes” (the very thing I wanted to avoid doing is buying things). “What you want is the perishable things that you cannot get fresh in the market.” “But what kind of perishable things?” A horticulturist of eminence wanted me to sow lines of strawberries and raspberries right over where I had put my potatoes in drills. I had about five hundred strawberry plants in another part of my garden; but this fruit-fanatic wanted me to turn my whole patch into vines and runners. I suppose I could raise strawberries enough for all my neighbors; and perhaps I ought to do it. I had a little space prepared for melons—muskmelons—which I showed to an experienced friend. “You are not going to waste your ground on muskmelons?” he asked. “They rarely ripen in this climate thoroughly before frost.” He had tried for years without luck. I resolved not to go into such a foolish experiment. But the next day another neighbor happened in. “Ah! I see you are going to have melons. My family would rather give up anything else in the garden than muskmelons—of the nutmeg variety. They are the most graceful things we have on the table.” So there it was. There was no compromise; it was melons or no melons, and somebody offended in any case. I half resolved to plant them a little late, so that they would, and they wouldn’t. But I had the same difficulty about string-beans (which I detest), and squash (which I tolerate), and parsnips, and the whole round of green things.
I have pretty much come to the conclusion that you have got to put your foot down in gardening. If I had actually taken counsel of my friends, I should not have had a thing growing in the garden to-day but weeds. And besides, while you are waiting, Nature does not wait. Her mind is made up. She knows just what she will raise; and she has an infinite variety of early and late. The most humiliating thing to me about a garden is the lesson it teaches of the inferiority of man. Nature is prompt, decided, inexhaustible. She thrusts up her plants with a vigor and freedom that I admire; and the more worthless the plant, the more rapid and splendid its growth. She is at it early and late, and all night; never tiring, nor showing the least sign of exhaustion.
“Eternal gardening is the price of liberty” is a motto that I should put over the gateway of my garden, if I had a gate. And yet it is not wholly true; for there is no liberty in gardening. The man who undertakes a garden is relentlessly pursued. He felicitates himself that, when he gets it once planted, he will have a season of rest and of enjoyment in the sprouting and growing of his seeds. It is a keen anticipation. He has planted a seed that will keep him awake nights, drive rest from his bones, and sleep from his pillow. Hardly is the garden planted, when he must begin to hoe it. The weeds have sprung up all over it in a night. They shine and wave in redundant life. The docks have almost gone to seed; and their roots go deeper than conscience. Talk about the London docks!—the roots of these are like the sources of the Aryan race. And the weeds are not all. I awake in the morning (and a thriving garden will wake a person up two hours before he ought to be out of bed) and think of the tomato-plants—the leaves like fine lace-work, owing to black bugs that skip around and can’t be caught. Somebody ought to get up before the dew is off (why don’t the dew stay on till after a reasonable breakfast?) and sprinkle soot on the leaves. I wonder if it is I. Soot is so much blacker than the bugs that they are disgusted and go away. You can’t get up too early if you have a garden. You must be early due yourself, if you get ahead of the bugs. I think that, on the whole, it would be best to sit up all night and sleep daytimes. Things appear to go on in the night in the garden uncommonly. It would be less trouble to stay up than it is to get up so early.
I have been setting out some new raspberries, two sorts—a silver and a gold color. How fine they will look on the table next year in a cut-glass dish, the cream being in a ditto pitcher! I set them four and five feet apart. I set my strawberries pretty well apart also. The reason is to give room for the cows to run through when they break into the garden—as they do sometimes. A cow needs a broader track than a locomotive; and she generally makes one. I am sometimes astonished to see how big a space in a flower-bed her foot will cover. The raspberries are called Doolittle and Golden Cap. I don’t like the name of the first variety, and, if they do much, shall change it to Silver Top. You can never tell what a thing named Doolittle will do. The one in the Senate changed color and got sour. They ripen badly—either mildew or rot on the bush. They are apt to Johnsonize—rot on the stem. I shall watch the Doolittles.
Orthodoxy is at a low ebb. Only two clergymen accepted my offer to come and help hoe my potatoes for the privilege of using my vegetable total-depravity figure about the snake-grass, or quack-grass, as some call it; and those two did not bring hoes. There seems to be a lack of disposition to hoe among our educated clergy. I am bound to say that these two, however, sat and watched my vigorous combats with the weeds, and talked most beautifully about the application of the snake-grass figure. As, for instance, when a fault or sin showed on the surface of a man, whether, if you dug down, you would find that it ran back and into the original organic bunch of original sin within the man. The only other clergyman who came was from out of town—a half-Universalist, who said he wouldn’t give twenty cents for my figure. He said that the snake-grass was not in my garden originally, that it sneaked in under the sod, and that it could be entirely rooted out with industry and patience. I asked the Universalist-inclined man to take my hoe and try it; but he said he hadn’t time, and went away.
But, jubilate, I have got my garden all hoed the first time! I feel as if I had put down the rebellion. Only there are guerrillas left here and there, about the borders and in corners, unsubdued—Forrest docks, and Quantrell grass, and Beauregard pigweeds. This first hoeing is a gigantic task: it is your first trial of strength with the never-sleeping forces of Nature. Several times in its progress I was tempted to do as Adam did, who abandoned his garden on account of the weeds. (How much my mind seems to run upon Adam, as if there had been only two really moral gardens—Adam’s and mine!) The only drawback to my rejoicing over the finishing of the first hoeing is, that the garden now wants hoeing a second time. I suppose if my garden were planted in a perfect circle, and I started round it with a hoe, I should never see an opportunity to rest. The fact is, that gardening is the old fable of perpetual labor; and I, for one, can never forgive Adam Sisyphus, or whoever it was, who let in the roots of discord. I had pictured myself sitting at eve with my family, in the shade of twilight, contemplating a garden hoed. Alas! it is a dream not to be realized in this world.
My mind has been turned to the subject of fruit- and shade-trees in a garden. There are those who say that trees shade the garden too much and interfere with the growth of the vegetables. There may be something in this; but when I go down the potato rows, the rays of the sun glancing upon my shining blade, the sweat pouring from my face, I should be grateful for shade. What is a garden for? The pleasure of man. I should take much more pleasure in a shady garden. Am I to be sacrificed, broiled, roasted, for the sake of the increased vigor of a few vegetables? The thing is perfectly absurd. If I were rich, I think I would have my garden covered with an awning, so that it would be comfortable to work in it. It might roll up and be removable, as the great awning of the Roman Colosseum was—not like the Boston one, which went off in a high wind. Another very good way to do, and probably not so expensive as the awning, would be to have four persons of foreign birth carry a sort of canopy over you as you hoed. And there might be a person at each end of the row with some cool and refreshing drink. Agriculture is still in a very barbarous stage. I hope to live yet to see the day when I can do my gardening, as tragedy is done, to slow and soothing music, and attended by some of the comforts I have named. These things come so forcibly into my mind sometimes as I work, that perhaps, when a wandering breeze lifts my straw hat or a bird lights on a near currant-bush and shakes out a full-throated summer song, I almost expect to find the cooling drink and the hospitable entertainment at the end of the row. But I never do. There is nothing to be done but to turn round and hoe back to the other end.
Speaking of those yellow squash-bugs, I think I disheartened them by covering the plants so deep with soot and wood-ashes that they could not find them; and I am in doubt if I shall ever see the plants again. But I have heard of another defense against the bugs. Put a fine wire screen over each hill, which will keep out the bugs and admit the rain. I should say that these screens would not cost much more than the melons you would be likely to get from the vines if you bought them; but then, think of the moral satisfaction of watching the bugs hovering over the screen, seeing but unable to reach the tender plants within. That is worth paying for.
I left my own garden yesterday and went over to where Polly was getting the weeds out of one of her flower-beds. She was working away at the bed with a little hoe. Whether women ought to have the ballot or not (and I have a decided opinion on that point, which I should here plainly give did I not fear that it would injure my agricultural influence), I am compelled to say that this was rather helpless hoeing. It was patient, conscientious, even pathetic hoeing; but it was neither effective nor finished. When completed, the bed looked somewhat as if a hen had scratched it; there was that touching unevenness about it. I think no one could look at it and not be affected. To be sure, Polly smoothed it off with a rake and asked me if it wasn’t nice; and I said it was. It was not a favorable time for me to explain the difference between puttering hoeing and the broad, free sweep of the instrument which kills the weeds, spares the plants, and loosens the soil without leaving it in holes and hills. But, after all, as life is constituted, I think more of Polly’s honest and anxious care of her plants than of the most finished gardening in the world.
Somebody has sent me a new sort of hoe, with the wish that I should speak favorably of it, if I can consistently. I willingly do so, but with the understanding that I am to be at liberty to speak just as courteously of any other hoe which I may receive. If I understand religious morals, this is the position of the religious press with regard to bitters and wringing machines. In some cases, the responsibility of such a recommendation is shifted upon the wife of the editor or clergyman. Polly says she is entirely willing to make a certificate, accompanied with an affidavit, with regard to this hoe; but her habit of sitting about the garden walk on an inverted flower-pot while I hoe somewhat destroys the practical value of her testimony.
As to this hoe, I do not mind saying that it has changed my view of the desirableness and value of human life. It has, in fact, made life a holiday to me. It is made on the principle that man is an upright, sensible, reasonable being, and not a groveling wretch. It does away with the necessity of the hinge in the back. The handle is seven and a half feet long. There are two narrow blades, sharp on both edges, which come together at an obtuse angle in front; and as you walk along with this hoe before you, pushing and pulling with a gentle motion, the weeds fall at every thrust and withdrawal, and the slaughter is immediate and widespread. When I got this hoe, I was troubled with sleepless mornings, pains in the back, kleptomania with regard to new weeders; when I went into my garden I was always sure to see something. In this disordered state of mind and body I got this hoe. The morning after a day of using it I slept perfectly and late. I regained my respect for the Eighth Commandment. After two doses of the hoe in the garden the weeds entirely disappeared. Trying it a third morning, I was obliged to throw it over the fence in order to save from destruction the green things that ought to grow in the garden. Of course, this is figurative language. What I mean is, that the fascination of using this hoe is such that you are sorely tempted to employ it upon, your vegetables after the weeds are laid low, and must hastily withdraw it to avoid unpleasant results. I make this explanation because I intend to put nothing into these agricultural papers that will not bear the strictest scientific investigation; nothing that the youngest child cannot understand and cry for; nothing that the oldest and wisest men will not need to study with care.
I need not add that the care of a garden with this hoe becomes the merest pastime. I would not be without one for a single night. The only danger is, that you may rather make an idol of the hoe, and somewhat neglect your garden in explaining it and fooling about with it. I almost think that, with one of these in the hands of an ordinary day-laborer, you might see at night where he had been working.
Let us have peas. I have been a zealous advocate of the birds. I have rejoiced in their multiplication. I have endured their concerts at four o’clock in the morning without a murmur. Let them come, I said, and eat the worms, in order that we, later, may enjoy the foliage and the fruits of the earth. We have a cat, a magnificent animal, of the sex which votes (but not a pole-cat)—so large and powerful that if he were in the army he would be called Long Tom. He is a cat of fine disposition, the most irreproachable morals I ever saw thrown away in a cat, and a splendid hunter. He spends his nights, not in social dissipation, but in gathering in rats, mice, flying-squirrels, and also birds. When he first brought me a bird, I told him that it was wrong, and tried to convince him, while he was eating it, that he was doing wrong; for he is a reasonable cat, and understands pretty much everything except the binomial theorem and the time down the cycloidal arc. But with no effect. The killing of birds went on to my great regret and shame.
The other day I went to my garden to get a mess of peas. I had seen the day before that they were just ready to pick. How I had lined the ground, planted, hoed, bushed them! The bushes were fine—seven feet high, and of good wood. How I had delighted in the growing, the blowing, the podding! What a touching thought it was that they had all podded for me! When I went to pick them I found the pods all split open and the peas gone. The dear little birds, who are so fond of the strawberries, had eaten them all. Perhaps there were left as many as I planted; I did not count them. I made a rapid estimate of the cost of the seed, the interest of the ground, the price of labor, the value of the bushes, the anxiety of weeks of watchfulness. I looked about me on the face of nature. The wind blew from the South so soft and treacherous! A thrush sang in the woods so deceitfully! All nature seemed fair. But who was to give me back my peas? The fowls of the air have peas; but what has man?
I went into the house. I called Calvin (that is the name of our cat, given him on account of his gravity, morality, and uprightness. We never familiarly call him John). I petted Calvin. I lavished upon him an enthusiastic fondness. I told him that he had no fault; that the one action that I had called a vice was an heroic exhibition of regard for my interest. I bade him go and do likewise continually. I now saw how much better instinct is than mere unguided reason. Calvin knew. If he had put his opinion into English (instead of his native catalogue), it would have been, “You need not teach your grandmother to suck eggs.” It was only the round of nature. The worms eat a noxious something in the ground. The birds eat the worms. Calvin eats the birds. We eat—no, we do not eat Calvin. There the chain stops. When you ascend the scale of being, and come to an animal that is, like ourselves, inedible, you have arrived at a result where you can rest. Let us respect the cat: he completes an edible chain.
I have little heart to discuss methods of raising peas. It occurs to me that I can have an iron pea-bush, a sort of trellis, through which I could discharge electricity at frequent intervals and electrify the birds to death when they alight; for they stand upon my beautiful bush in order to pick out the peas. An apparatus of this kind, with an operator, would cost, however, about as much as the peas. A neighbor suggests that I might put up a scarecrow near the vines, which would keep the birds away. I am doubtful about it; the birds are too much accustomed to seeing a person in poor clothes in the garden to care much for that. Another neighbor suggests that the birds do not open the pods; that a sort of blast, apt to come after rain, splits the pods, and the birds then eat the peas. It may be so. There seems to be complete unity of action between the blast and the birds. But good neighbors, kind friends, I desire that you will not increase, by talk, a disappointment which you cannot assuage.