C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
What I Know about Gardening
By Charles Dudley Warner (18291900)
The principal value of a private garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues,—hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning. I shall keep this central truth in mind in these articles. I mean to have a moral garden, if it is not a productive one,—one that shall teach, O my brothers! O my sisters! the great lessons of life.
The first pleasant thing about a garden in this latitude is, that you never know when to set it going. If you want anything to come to maturity early, you must start it in a hothouse. If you put it out early, the chances are all in favor of getting it nipped with frost; for the thermometer will be 90° one day, and go below 30° the night of the day following. And, if you do not set out plants or sow seeds early, you fret continually; knowing that your vegetables will be late, and that, while Jones has early peas, you will be watching your slow forming pods. This keeps you in a state of mind. When you have planted early, you are doubtful whether to desire to see it above ground, or not. If a hot day comes, you long to see the young plants; but, when a cold north-wind brings frost, you tremble lest the seeds have burst their bands. Your spring is passed in anxious doubts and fears, which are usually realized; and so a great moral discipline is worked out for you.
Now, there is my corn, two or three inches high this eighteenth of May, and apparently having no fear of a frost. I was hoeing it this morning for the first time—it is not well usually to hoe corn until about the 18th of May—when Polly came out to look at the Lima beans. She seemed to think that the poles had come up beautifully. I thought they did look well grown, and stand straight. They were inexpensive too. The cheapness came about from my cutting them on another man’s land, and he did not know it. I have not examined this transaction in the moral light of gardening; but I know people in this country take great liberties at the polls. Polly noticed that the beans had not themselves come up in any proper sense, but that the dirt had got off from them, leaving them uncovered. She thought it would be well to sprinkle a slight layer of dirt over them; and I, indulgently, consented. It occurred to me, when she had gone, that beans always come up that way,—wrong end first; and that what they wanted was light, and not dirt.
Observation—Woman always did, from the first, make a muss in a garden.
I inherited with my garden a large patch of raspberries. Splendid berry the raspberry, when the strawberry has gone. This patch has grown into such a defiant attitude that you could not get within several feet of it. Its stalks were enormous in size, and cast out long, prickly arms in all directions; but the bushes were pretty much dead. I have walked into them a good deal with a pruning-knife; but it is very much like fighting original sin. The variety is one that I can recommend. I think it is called Brinckley’s Orange. It is exceedingly prolific, and has enormous stalks. The fruit is also said to be good; but that does not matter so much, as the plant does not often bear in this region. The stalks seem to be biennial institutions; and as they get about their growth one year, and bear the next year, and then die, and the winters here nearly always kill them, unless you take them into the house (which is inconvenient if you have a family of small children), it is very difficult to induce the plant to flower and fruit. This is the greatest objection to this sort of raspberry. I think of keeping these for discipline, and setting out some others, more hardy sorts, for fruit.
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 garden 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,—musk-melons,—which I showed to an experienced friend. “You are not going to waste your ground on musk-melons?” 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 musk-melons,—of the nutmeg variety. They are the most grateful 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 green 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 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 never can 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.