Democracy and Gardening


Now that the calendars and the catalogues of the seedsmen have announced the spring, I have begun looking over last year’s crop of gardening books, and wondering sadly whether this year’s must not, like most second crops from gardens, be rather small potatoes.

How good they were ! The other day I was reading over again Elizabeth and her German Garden (or was it A Solitary Summer ? It does not matter), and it almost persuaded me that the possession of a garden was the only reasonable aim of civilized woman. If you had that, with a few babies and visitors enough to quarrel with, just to keep you from stagnation, it was clear that you might snap your fingers at the world. To be sure, there was a serpent, as there always is in gardens. Mine, I notice, appears in the form of a perennial striped snake, who eats up an equally perennial nest of young song sparrows under a peavine, and who is miraculously renewed every season, in spite of the fact that he seemed to die the year before, under the stones I threw at him. Elizabeth’s took the form of a gardener. He was, of course, the real owner of her garden, and only of his kindness allowed her to walk there; and I suppose it is her misfortune that she is high-born and a German, and therefore so afflicted with that painful disease known as a Sense of Propriety that not even a garden can cure her. She says she should love to hoe, but she does not dare; for “ with what lightning rapidity would the news spread that I had been seen stalking down the garden path with a hoe over my shoulder, and a basket in my hand, and weeding written large in every feature ! Yet I should love to weed.” Poor Elizabeth !

I read this to Theodora, who was sitting by the other window, pencil in hand, trying to decide whether she should put sweet peas or stocks in the bed next to the pink and white hollyhocks.

“ I suppose there must be something disgraceful about weeding,” I mused. “ But how often, Theodora, we have weeded ! Do you remember the sweet peas and the melons we hoed, the hottest day last summer ? And the tomato worms we killed ? The green stuff squirted out of them and made us very sick, but we should not have enjoyed those tomatoes half so much if we had had a gardener to kill the worms. On the whole, I am glad I am so mildly inoculated with the virus of propriety that I can still hoe. I am glad I am not aristocratic.”

Theodora tore herself away from her seed catalogues, drawn by the irresistible attraction of a pet aversion. (If this sounds paradoxical, I cannot help it. So is truth.) “ I have no patience with Elizabeth ! ” she cried. “ She is a snob. And as you would naturally expect of a snob who has the privilege of living in a garden, she is obtuse. Do you remember how she goes through the village on chilly days, when her temper is bad, dispensing jelly and criticism in equal quantities, and she thinks the people are beasts because they prefer the jelly ? Then she says if she were poor, she ‘ would sit, quite frankly poor, with a piece of bread and a pot of geraniums and a book.’ I wonder how she thinks she would get the time. And she fairly hugs herself with conceit because she would rather lie on the grass all day than talk to Iter neighbors. Now I put it to you : is that a thing to get vain about ? It is ridiculous! It is even immoral! ”

I mildly pointed out the fact that it was not unknown for us ourselves to go up into the woods of a summer morning, and lie for hours on a certain bearberry bank, looking up at the sky, without so much as speaking to each other. But Theodora properly remarked that this was quite beside the point, since the question was not what one did, but the spirit in which one did it; and I was compelled to admit that aristocratic sensibilities were out of place in a garden.

“ Perhaps they are grafts of that Tree of Knowledge whose fruit cast Adam and Eve out of Eden,” I suggested.

“ When you think of it, is there anything quite so democratic as a vegetable ? ” went on Theodora. “ A stump speaker, a small boy, even a cat has his own awe; but where will you find a weed with any scruples about thrusting itself into the most select circles of vegetable society ? And last year, for all I could see, our roses grew as comfortably among the potatoes as anywhere else ; and the honeysuckle deserted that elegant trellis we built for it, to go and twine itself around a sunflower. It did not seem to care in the least that the ultimate destiny of its beloved object was the henyard. No, a garden, properly interpreted, is a school of republicanism.”

These curious and interesting experiments in the innate democracy of vegetables to which Theodora referred were conducted last season in our garden, under the auspices of an aged Portuguese farmer whom we hired to do our planting in our absence. It was his evident belief that the palate should not be pampered at the expense of the nobler senses even in a vegetable garden ; so, all summer long, bunches of marigolds and cinnamon pinks blossomed in among our cabbages, and a bed which we had fondly designed for late lettuce offered instead an æsthetic display of pale pink poppies. Yet the little girl who lives with us assures me that none of the flower fairies have turned-up noses. She ought to know, for she ate fern seed every night before she went to bed ; and if that won’t make a person see fairies, I should like to know what will.

“ Yes,” repeated Theodora, “ a snobbish person who lives in a garden must certainly be obtuse. It shows a lack of sensitiveness to one’s surroundings.”

And now that she spoke of it, I began to believe that it might really be true that Elizabeth and her compeers were a trifle behind the times. Since they have called the world’s attention to gardening as a popular subject for literature, — in fact, shouted it from the housetops, — there may be hopes of something even better in that line this year, after all; something more original, more significant of the present age. For instance, The Effect of the Emancipation of Women upon Gardening ought to prove an inspiring theme. Or, since long titles have come into fashion, why not have a book called The Confessions of a Free American Woman who Dared to Hoe?

There is no copyright on these titles. They are quite at the service of any serious-minded person of a literary turn who properly appreciates the charms of weeding.