Content in a Garden


MY Garden of Content lies high on Onteora Mountain. It is a half-round space of rough red soil, sloping to the east, and inclining upward and inclosing the log studio.

When I began to dig and plant, I little knew the joy which would grow out of the soil, and descend from the skies, and gather from far-off places and times to gladden my soul; but to-day, as I walk therein, or sit in the spicy shadow of its pair of fir trees, and think what it has done for me, I feel that untroubled happiness begins and ends within it; that it is truly the Land of Content.

It was just a rocky patch of pasture land lying between us and the woods, when it came into my mind to plant it as a garden, and how could I guess that the ground of it had been longing to blossom ; but when I saw how it received and fostered and urged into growth the things I planted, I understood that the earth mother had coveted the power of making herself beautiful.

Before the garden was made, there were two young balsam-fir trees growing almost under the house eaves, — young things pulled from the roadside in one of our drives. It was easy to see that they approved of the garden, for summer by summer they threw up yard-long blue-green spires, until now, as I stand on the upper piazza, I can hold a cup and gather their drops of balsam.

How fine they are ! Just at the college graduate age, and full to overflow of the joy of living. Two other live species my garden contained at the very outset: an apple tree, and varied clumps of the wild pink mountain azalea. Now, in late May and early June, when the garden is in fullest flower, this dear apple tree, just grown to full maturity, stands at the garden edge and showers shell-like leaves over it all, and the pink azaleas, from their places here and there among the purple iris, lift each a glowing torch of color to the spring.

The moment I began to plant, I found I must build some kind of a discouraging barrier between my precious half acre and grazing horses and straying dogs. Not a fence ; for a fence would be incongruous in the face of the near woods and far mountains, and the heavenly slope which begins at the garden, and, flowing off for fenceless miles, at last reaches the Kaaterskill Clove, and is lapped into the blue distance of the Hudson Valley. So it happens, that because we do not mean to cut ourselves off from careless nature by careful civilization, the garden ground is rimmed with a lengthened stone heap which does not separate it too positively from the rocky slope of which it was originally a part. In truth, it is not a wall, but a rolling up and circling around of boulders left in the track of a former glacier.

When one looks at the landscape, it is not hard to imagine a great ice sea streaming through the deep mountain hollows, and creeping, creeping, creeping over the slopes toward its final dissolution, grinding all the great rocks into fragments of broken uniformity ! After the glacier came the forests of beautiful evergreen giants, but that race also has followed the glaciers into eternal vacancy. The æons of time are all within the compass of a thought. Glacial days, when the world was shaped with an ice axe ; forest days, which sheltered unimaginable prehistoric beasts ; later days of primitive man ; and after them all the days of to-day, when my garden smiles and smells. My own little day, so full of love and joy and sorrow and contentment !

When I inclosed my garden, I meant that the wall should be broad enough to grow weeds and grasses and blossoming stone-crop on its top. I planted wild clematis along its outside border, and inside, the sweet striped - honeysuckle. Twice in the summer the irregular wall is a mound of blossom and sweetness, for I have so planted my garden that the flowers come in procession, — each month or period with its own special glory. To make this summer procession a perfect one, I have taken care that while one kind of flower is passing, it shall occupy all the garden with an unbroken sheet of bloom. Thousands of flowers of one variety, lifting their faces to the sun in the morning, or standing on dressparade through the afternoon, make an impression upon the eye and the imagination which is impossible to mixed masses, however beautiful their separate parts.

In a large and new garden it is not quite a simple matter to secure this breadth of effect, but with time and care, and parsimonious hoarding of every wandering rootlet, it is easily possible. When I acquire a new variety by purchase or gift, and there is not enough to plant broadcast, I put it in the nursery. This is an indiscriminate flower bed absolutely sacred to my own care, where I plant parted roots, and seeds and cuttings of anything of which I am avaricious; and, having planted, encourage them with kindness and tendance, until each has made a family after its kind. When any one variety has multiplied largely, I consider its color and time of flower, and decide what it will harmonize with or what it shall follow ; and so, upon a settled plan of flower decoration, I plant it everywhere. When it comes into bloom, perhaps it has the whole stage to itself, and the garden becomes a one-flower garden; or perhaps it has a companion tribe of kindred tint; or perhaps it can be opposed to some sympathetic color. In this case I do not plant them together, but in neighboring masses, as I have planted the yellow lilies and purple iris, or the white lilies and rose-colored peony ; and in this way I follow the laws of beauty and reap the fullest benefit.

If, on the other hand, one must buy flowers for planting, — which to a real gardener seems an unnatural proceeding, and to one of long experience an unnecessary one, — it is as easy to buy by the thousand as by the dozen, and a certain sentiment will attach itself to a thousand tulip bulbs, which you know were grown on the mud flats of Holland, tended by slow and heavy men in blue blouses ; and after they were grown and harvested, ferried along low-lying canals to some sea city, there to be gathered into innumerable thousands, and shipped to America. As you scatter the thousand over your garden ground, each into its own little pit in its own little place, you can see in your mind the flattened fields of their nativity, covered with millions of blossoming tulips, and the grassedged canals along which slow boats are creeping, and here and there a group of red-tiled roofs, pointed and ruffled, and accented with small dormers. All this you see because you bought your tulip bulbs by the thousand instead of by the dozen ; and yet you will not love them as you would inevitably do, if you, your very self, were responsible for their growth and increase.

In my procession of flowers there are one or two wild things which precede the rest. Before even the daffodil has made ready to blow its golden trumpet, all along the borders the bloodroot is spreading its transcendent silver stars, and the green-striped sheaths of the star-of-Bethlehem are opening. After this salutation come the poets’ narcissus and the daffodil; and after them, suddenly the garden is a garden of tulips, and by that time June has arrived, and it is the time of the iris, its variations of purple and lavender, and the bluish pinks and pinkish blues which tend toward those colors, are mingled in a crowd of stately blossoms which stream in radiating rows to the garden’s outermost verge. Then a border of golden lilies encircles them, and outside of these a mound of scented honeysuckle hides for the time its purple-lined leaves under trumpeted flowers, and the growing sprays go wavering up in air in search of invisible fibre by which to climb. At this time I am apt to think that the very limit of garden beauty has been reached ; that, in the summer procession I have planned, nothing can be so beautiful; and yet, all the while a detachment is on its way with its own special glories of color and costume. The tightly packed apple-shaped buds of pink peonies are beginning to show streaks of color, and when the latest of the fleur-de-lis has blossomed, and the purple banners which it had flaunted are dried and shriveled in the sun, the spaces between the radiating rows are filled with the deeply lobed leaves of peony, and the globes of buds are opening into scented flowers, each one like a separate bouquet too heavy for its stem. The great pink globes roll from side to side, like heavyheaded babies, and the garden becomes a mass of rose color set in green. Behind them rise tall spikes of ascension lilies, opening in clusters of six and seven to the stalk, their silver-white urn-blossoms against the outer wall of green-white clematis flowers. In front of them a curd of spicy cinnamon pinks is blowing, and dancing groups of hummingbirds hang over them, making no hesitation about resting upon the flower stalks.

I carry and leave my piazza chair under the balsam-fir trees, where half a layer of the low-growing branches have been cut away to make its place, and give myself bits of the summer day wrapped in fragrance and beauty. And what morsels of happiness they are! There is a heavenly landscape beyond the pinks and peony flowers and highpiled white lilies: a procession of mountains, changing from green-black to violet-blue as the sun smites the slopes and ridges, and fails to reach the hollows and deep-down chasms. What a blessed lot to be witness of such beauty ! I am lost in wonder at the perfection of it possible to one small half acre and its outlook.

And the fragrance! From the border of pinks, holding up millions of tufted umbrellas to the sun, streams a spicy odor which seems to cover the garden like a cloud. It projects itself along the path to the northern and eastern woods, and meets me, as I return by them, with something like a special greeting. As it spreads and sifts itself between the trunks of great beeches, — losing itself among the branches of young balsam-fir trees, — I can fancy their dipping little spiky green fingers into its intangible substance, and saying to each other and themselves, “ Ho ! ho ! here is a new smell! it is stronger than ours, but it smells like a brother ! ”

The fragrance overflows and pervades them all. The shoots which have sprung from scattered beechnuts of two or three seasons ago, and stand trembling with haste to push their satin - folded leaves into space, are wrapped around with scented air which is not of the forest. And I, standing in the wood path, delighted through all my senses with the taste and smell of it, feel like greeting and advising it with speech ; as if I were saying, “ Go south into the pastures, my beloved ! Float under the sun and over the grass. The woods have their own sweetness, and will not miss you! ”

This unvoiced thought speaks to the air, as I come out of the shadow and lean over the wall of my garden. The pinks are standing in the sun and never heed my thought. They are like little censers, set by nature to distribute her hidden manufactures, her distillations and cunning extracts, and each tuft of fringed blossom obediently urges its delicate spiral into the general cloud which hangs in the upper air. I seem to see it as I stand by the wall looking at the millions of blossoms ; I can taste it and smell it. What ails my eyes that I do not really see it ? It is there ; it has form ; I know it is cloud - shaped, and blows hither and thither, because I can follow its boundaries. Why should I not see it ? And then I fall into speculation as to what I should see if my eyes were privileged to all of nature’s miracles.

I think the color of this one would be palest pink, with bluish tints and shadows and flecks of deeper color ; where the underside would reflect the blue - green of the leaf mat from which the blossoms spring, — the wonderful blue-green which is like the shadow of a wave. And this, to my fancy, makes the cloud like an opal, a floating, intangible, gigantic opal, which is made of the breath of flowers, and floats, and breaks, and wanders hither and thither, — a body and no body, a spirit of a cloud.

It is, in truth, the spiritual part of the garden, this changing mass which hovers snow-white over the lily beds, and rosepink over the peonies, and purple and lavender where lilacs and fleur-de-lis are in bloom, and golden-yellow where the ranks of lemon lily stand against the garden wall.

I have great and overwhelming joy in them all, even though my outward, practical, bodily eyes refuse to see them as they should. Surely we might look at them through the closed limit of our present powers, as one looks at nature through a window ! I am glad I can follow and recognize them in unbroken masses. I am certain I should not enjoy in the same degree a crowd of sweetsmelling vari-colored bits of cloud hovering over my garden, — a hand’s breadth of faintly fragrant purple, and a shred of spicy pink, and a blot of pungent, ethereal blue crowding one another ; but my mind can see with joy a bank of golden cloud lying above the yellow lilies in a giant curve like a cloudy comet, compassing the entire sweep and boundary of the garden, while lying within it like an amethyst wave rests the purple breath of the fleur-de-lis.

Flowers in masses give fragrance in masses, and if we would have our enjoyment whole, instead of broken into bits, we must plant and sow with unstinted liberality. This, as I have said, is not difficult, indeed it is delightful! We can plant largely, even in limited ground, if we have learned to understand the idiosyncrasies of different families, and the gregariousness of all. There are few solitary flowers, as few in proportion as there are hermits among men. They enjoy living together, and even among wild things we find them founding vegetable cities whenever circumstances are favorable ; much as men cluster around seaports, or at good landing-places on navigable rivers.

I have learned a lesson of the comradeship of plants from a little settlement of them growing on a near roadside bank on the way to the village. Here, in a few square feet of earth, a dozen species find a common home, and share it with the grass, and each in turn rises up and smiles at the world with its particular blossom.

While in flower it seems to own the whole bit of ground in fee simple. We say in passing, “ Look at that patch of buttercups,” or “ daisies,” or “ redweed,” or “ purple aster ; ” not realizing that it is in reality a patch of a dozen, touching toes under the sod, and living together in entire and blessed harmony.

What an advantage, in decorative gardening, to learn that, for the most part, plants will joyfully share their holdings !

I have set myself to learn which of the selected darlings of my garden love each other well enough to live together in the same few feet of earth, so that every inch of ground may blossom in a continuous wave of beauty.

I find the neighborliest of them among the bulbs, and I am especially interested in bulbs. The small, compact round which I hold in my hand in the spring includes such a variety of possibilities. If it has been turned up in the border by the spading-fork, it may be an ascension lily, or a Canadian lily, or a scarlet wood lily; and the little bulb knows where it belongs, though I do not. I cannot tell what sort of blossom it carries folded within its layers, and what it will become when its growth impulse is awakened. If I put it back into the ground, I may be blindly planting it out of accord with its surroundings ; for at this stage of its being it looks a bulb, and nothing more. I do not know its nature by its shape or size or color; it keeps its individuality for summer days.

And there is the same difficulty with the lesser bulbs. Tulip and daffodil and narcissus are twin sisters or triplets, and one of them astray may be anybody’s child : therefore it often happens that where I look for narcissus blooms I find daffodil, and that where I expect a cluster of daffodil leaves a single broad tulip leaf will appear, guarding a central bud.

One of the wood walks of our Long Island homestead borders a long swale of black mucky ground, which, in the days before the Brooklyn waterworks were, was a sluggish brook and a ferny swamp. It came to me to utilize this place by transplanting into it the army of poets’ narcissus which regularly every spring budded on the lawn in millions, and later shriveled in millions, if the spring rains were not copious enough to satisfy their thirsty souls. And this plan answered beautifully. The narcissus sent up its spears of buds dutifully, and when they came to the bursting point, the swampy ground was, and is, every recurring spring, covered with a blanket of creamy white blossoms. But something else has happened. The first spring after they were planted, and buds began to show like sharp green bayonets along the rows, here and there I found a plant with longer leaves and fatter buds. Presently these outstripped the others, and opened into double daffodils ; and spring after spring they have increased, making clusters of themselves in the rows, until now we go down to pick daffodils early in May, and narcissus some two weeks later, — from mixed masses of yellow and white blossoms. It seems then that, where bulbs are concerned, we sometimes reap where we have not sown.

It is a pity that daffodils ever took it into their heads to grow double. Some one of them at some time in flower history must have had a double tulip for a neighbor, and seeing it turn out its bunch of magnificence to the sun, said in its heart, “ I can do that,” and straightway begun in a hurry to grow inner leaves, and has continued, until the golden trumpet is crowded out of existence. They are not perfect leaves, by any means : half of them are stained with the green of the calyx, and half are of an intense yellow which is almost orange, not at all the true daffodil color. I miss and regret the beautiful ruffled-edged trumpet; but taken as it is, the double daffodil represents as perfect a determination to grow and be as I find in any flower, save the orange day lily.

The single daffodil is not so persistent as the double, and, in fact, I am tempted to believe that it is naturally an ambitious flower, and changes its style from pure determination to do all it can in the way of what one of my farmer friends calls blowth. If it could know, down in the depths of its single heart, how fascinating its trumpeted flower can be, it would surely keep itself single. The very poise of its head is the perfection of grace, and to watch an early cluster of them, as they stand, swaying upon their stems, is to fancy they are like a group of nymphs, each one more graceful than the other.

The daffodil and narcissus, which are really blood relations, are the most prolific of flowers. If I plant a single bulb, it will not be long in gathering a family, and in the course of two or three years the spot in which it grows will have become as populous as the tents of the patriarchs. Its clustering habit makes it a convenient bulb for transplantation. I need never search for separate ones in the flower beds. When I come upon them, there are hundreds packed so closely together that I peel them off like the scales of a pine cone ; and each separate one I plant will make itself into another clump, if I give it time. It is not so with tulips ; their little rootlets will run off and start a bulb at a greater distance.

In the fall or spring I fill my marigold and nasturtium beds with tulip bulbs, which, being early risers by nature, get up and blossom in the spring days in great beauty, while the dormant speck of life in the marigold and nasturtium seed is just beginning to be conscious of an awakening thrill. I can fancy that through July and August and September days, when the summer flowers are rioting above them, the buried bulbs are quite as contentedly busy underground, living a hidden domestic life, and adding children to themselves by the dozens. Perhaps — who knows ? — they feel a sort of placid burgher contempt for the untimely activity of the seed plants, that adds a stronger flavor of contentment to their own quiet days.

When I see them in May preparing for this peaceful underlife, I feel like blessing them with Herrick’s song, To the Daffodil, and saying to them after him :

“ Stay, stay,
Until the hastening day has run
But to the even-song,
And having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.”

I am quite sure that the apartment-house fashion I have adopted of planting bulbs and seeds in layers is agreeable to both ; since they make no sign of disapproval, but go on, each doing its best in its own flower season to cover the ground with blossoms. It is a convenient fashion for the gardener, since spaces bare of either foliage or bloom suggest insufficient love or inefficient labor, and either of these would be out of harmony with the cheerful power and grateful joy which reign in every well-kept garden.

Candace Wheeler.