Content in a Garden


IT is a fatal thing for happiness if the garden is too small for constant and free bestowal of flowers ; therefore, one must plant liberally and widely ; for as neighborhood knowledge of the garden increases, it imposes upon the owner and planter all the duties of wealth. He or she must give with liberal hand, and find in giving, the joy which belongs to kindness, or sympathy, or pure neighborly sharing of life’s alleviations. A well-used garden is a successful flower mission, making of its owner a true philanthropist ; and surely that is as near being a contented soul as can be found in the world of souls. There are some flowers whose manifest destiny it is to be given away. Those which reproduce themselves quickly, like roses, honeysuckle, sweet peas, pansies, or nasturtiums, seem to grow for the giving ; but when it comes to breaking the one supreme effort of a plant, like a stalk of ascension lilies, — with the concentrated sweetness of its whole summer put into its cluster of flowers, — I confess I feel like taking the bulb into conference. I want it to consider that to stand in a room preoccupied by pain or bereavement or disappointment is to go out of its own land upon a foreign mission, and I would like to be sure that my lily is capable of the true mission spirit.

One of the dearest privileges of a garden is the power of bestowal, and the lord of the garden can use it royally, without fear or danger of his own pleasure being thereby stinted. The true gardener knows the unfailing nature of his income, and that it yields all the more for being constantly dispersed ; therefore he can give and continue to give without touching the limit set by thrift in every careful mind. Looking in the face of one of his own tall white lilies, and realizing the splendor of this miracle of creation; when he bestows it, the sense of its rarity and preciousness lifts him into the scale of world benefactors. Emerson says : “ Flowers and fruits are always fit presents. Flowers because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.” To give these “ proud assertions ” — to give them freely, as an expression of human kindness, or human sympathy, or human love — is a privilege which a man, poor in all else but his garden, can share with the richest; with the princes of the earth, or even with the beneficence of the great giver, — whom we call Providence.

Again, the ministry of the garden to the lord and owner of it, as well as to those upon whom he bestows its treasures, is something which can hardly be reckoned. For as truly as it is the crowning luxury of the rich, it is also the solace of the poor, and brings its healing to all temperaments and circumstances. There are certain self-conscious, or sensitive souls, so unsteadily poised upon happiness, that a breath of criticism will tip the balance and drop them into melancholy. An adverse thought, a word of censure, and the poor insecure being collapses, and sinks into deeps of unhappiness. To such a temperament no human love can minister savingly or make it secure upon its pedestal; it must fall back upon nature ; upon the universally benevolent; upon the forces which are no respecters of persons, but which give according to impartial unconscious law, and not by selection. It is good to realize that one need be neither rich, nor young, nor beautiful, who appeals to nature in a garden. If he is halt or maimed or deaf, it takes no note of these deficiencies, but will make the subject of them forget in its spontaneous kindness all the rudenesses he has found in the world ; and when the world is forgotten, truly the land of content is near.

The dear land of content ! Many of us never reach it, and fewer still have learned to live in it. The world preaches continually that it is only to be found at the end of a long road of ambition and accumulation ; that content means success, and success means content ; but certainly something of content can be found in untrammeled doing ; in getting above the barriers which block the ordinary course of energy, and becoming a law unto one’s self. This, which is the cheerful privilege of the rich, becomes also the privilege of the happy man whose life is in his garden. There he evades the rule of the powerful. He may move his paths hither and yon, and he breaks no law and invades no man’s inherited or purchased privileges. He can make and unmake, according to his instinct of improvement, with a free hand and no accountability. Within these limits he possesses the independence, the actual omnipotence, which only the largest success in the world may give. His roses and lilies will answer joyfully to his wishes. If he says, “ Stand there in the sun,” there they will stand. If he chooses to transplant them, they do not resist or murmur, but go cheerfully to the place where he would have them, rendering him his due of spreading leaves and odorous blossoms. If he says, “ Stand here in the shadow,” they will do their best to make sunshine in a shady place. In short, if power to carry out what one wisely wishes makes for content, it is surely to be found in a man’s own cultivated acre.

But there are things besides beauty or the power of beneficence, or the friendship of plants, or their cheerful obedience, which make for content in a garden. To one who lives with them and has perfect commerce with nature, the characters of the things which live in the garden, or come or go in it by chance, are a source of delight. And these characteristics are not only or entirely vegetable, but often very human. I am tempted to ascribe far more individual action to flowers than is generally conceded. We know, for instance, that voluntary growth belongs to all plant life. People say, “ You cannot make such or such a plant grow here ! ” or, “ I have planted this or that here or there many times, but have never succeeded in making it live ! ” And that means that the creature absolutely refused to accept conditions ignorantly offered ; conditions which a true gardener, or plant-lover, would have avoided by instinct, and not put the kindly thing to the pain of refusal. There might have been an individual or family prejudice which had not been consulted, and if it were a family prejudice the gardener should have been aware of it. It is certain that whole species will refuse to be colonized, although, in the spot of their choice, — which, by the way, may differ very little, so far as our coarser senses are aware, from that which they refuse, — they will put an energy into their development which makes one envious for humanity ; yet in that other which has been selected for them they prefer to die rather than live, choosing suicide before uncongenial surroundings.

Plant preferences are things we may recognize without understanding, since the causes are closely hidden. They are shrouded in the stem and folded in the bud, but they guide the plant unerringly to the thing it needs. The places in which they will grow, or not grow, cannot be named unless the plants are taken into council.

In the course of many years lived on Long Island, where the lives and habits of different natural growths are in the open, and their large and small prejudices patent to all men, I have found it curious to note how plant or kind will choose its particular locality, ignoring all the wide stretch of uncultivated acres within their sight. On the hill-ridge east of, and really in the village of Jamaica, I have been acquainted for many years with a patch of pink azalea which blossoms rosily against the clustering catbriers on the return of every spring ; and yet I may search up and down for miles of just such formation and exposure and not find another vestige of azalea root, or stem, or flower. Also, all through this space there is not a trace of trailing arbutus, although arbutus is a Long Island flower. It has apparently set Hempstead as its western limit, but it wanders east of that through woods and sheltered ground for miles.

In May you easily know, as you cross on the ferryboats to the city, in what part of the island the crowds of well-gowned and well-bred-looking women have been staying, by the bundles of flowers they wear or bring. If in the neighborhood of Hempstead, they have not only hunted the fox but arbutus as well. If at Cold Spring Harbor, they will wear beautiful waxlike buds of laurel; if at Wave Crest or Rockaway, the flat, pinkish-blue crowfoot violet. We say such and such a thing grows in such and such a place, which means—that unconscious as we think it — it has considered and selected a place to live and grow in, which it prefers above all others. It is no haphazard selection, but founded upon something which is beyond us. Perhaps tradition and sentiment have to do with it, as well as warmth or shadow or exposure.

In one of the Long Island ponds known in Jamaica as the one-mile mill pond ” grew a gigantic white water lily, the peer of which I have not found elsewhere, and which, as far as I know, grew in no other water spot on the island. There are hundreds of north-side ponds where lilies grow, but they are of another kind ; unacknowledged kindred which these particular ones royally ignored. The moderately sized flexible-stemmed variety grows in still and shallow water nearly everywhere. This one grew upon a stem the size of a woman’s finger, and held its head as proudly as a queen. The buds were from three to four inches in length, and the flowers often eight inches across. As the pond was the southern boundary of our homestead, the long tangle of woods between was traversed as often as once a week in the lily season to bring home these wonders of blossoms; and a shallow tub of them made a small lily pond on the north piazza of “ Nestledown.” In those days the Bryant homestead at Roslyn was the living habitation of the living poet, and the drive across the Island, nearly from shore to shore, was an ideal summer afternoon performance. Always when the lilies blossomed we carried a basket of them to Mr. Bryant, knowing right well that they would please a man who had given pleasure to the world. His love for flowers was a very lively sentiment, and few things grew on Long Island of which he was not aware. He inquired after these particular lilies like friends, and his acquaintance with and recognition of them was a source of added appreciation. To know that they commended themselves to one of the finer and higher intelligences of the world gave a crown to their beauty. There is now only a bed of white sand where they grew in the black ooze of the mill pond, all the water of it running in a narrow channel into the Brooklyn waterworks ; but the lilies which were planted in the minds of the children of the family in those days are living yet in the remembrance of the mature men and women they have become.

It was from those wonderful blossoms that I learned to know and value the individuality of flowers. Of course every one knows that one rose will differ from another in size and color, and one lily from another in fidelity to the type, but I painted the portraits of some of these Egyptian queens before I learned that one flower differed from another in expression. Studying them hour after hour with a painter’s eye, copying the features in shape and shadow, from the golden central crown to the pink-tinted curve of the outer leaf, I learned that they differed as one human face differs from another. When I placed myself and my canvas before the crowding mass of bloom each morning, no matter how the individuals had shifted their places overnight, those which I had painted the day before were unmistakable. No individual face in a crowd could detach itself more perfectly from the mass than did these lily-faced creatures. I am glad I have the portraits of some of them still, and that the children who knew them then yet recognize them, and that their children are learning to know them, as members of one of the lost tribes of Long Island, whose place of sepulchre is unknown.

But there are flowers with even more individual expression than water lilies. Individual roses may be pensive or perky, dignified or hoidenish ; and as for pansies, every one you pick shall have a different character. Some are perverse, like bashful babies, and will not look you in the face. Some are confiding ; and some are even bold. Go and study them if you are an unbeliever, and you shall find that many things which we call human traits belong in almost equal proportion to plants and animals.

The friendships of plants are as positive and unmistakable as their preferences. They may like only their own kind, or they may prefer the companionship of certain kinds of trees, or they may even prefer to live in the neighborhood of man. The white clover and the dandelion are as much domestic plants as the cat and the dog are domestic animals. They choose always to live in the vicinity of human beings, while it must be confessed that many of the vegetable tribes shrink from voluntary association with us. We can make friends with most of them, and they will reward us constantly and royally if we give them the guest chamber and observe the fine conditions of hospitality ; but if we forget to make their beds or arrange their baths, they have too much self-respect to remain. We may ignore all observances with the clover and the grass, for they will blossom almost under the tread of our careless feet.

The whole tribe of ferns have tree affinities, choosing each its own variety of tree friends. There is a beautiful family of semi-evergreen fern which will grow a crown and spread a radius of two-foot length of leaf, on even a rock foundation, as long as it is under balsamic shadows. Whether the exposure is north or south, or east or west, it makes no difference, so long as it can stand and sleep, and grow under its beloved evergreens. In fact, on the north side of Onteora Mountain where juniper, “ The sharpe sweete Juniper,” King James of Scotland calls it, adds its almost solid shelter to that of the hemlock, it will send out long delicate semitransparent leaves in sheaves which are almost tropical in their luxuriance. Occasionally you may find a root of this variety in the sugar camps where the lady-fern grows, but, as a rule, it will disappear when the woods are open to the sunlight, scorning all but its own chosen companionship.

But the lady-fern will not grow at all in the fir woods; it prefers the sugarmaple camps on the southern and eastern slopes, and will send forth stately leaves of finest substance there, and unroll its disks with a glad alacrity. If the woodcutters come in winter and cut away the maples, the lady-fern will not die or migrate as the maidenhair fern makes haste to do ; it simply dwindles and deteriorates until it becomes almost another species, a sister race dwarfed and hardened instead of encouraged and blessed by the blessed sunshine. Finally the grass comes creeping closer and closer about it, until it shows only as patches of vivid green where spreading baby fronds struggle through tangling grass roots. The ferns are truly a loyal race. Strong in their attachments and friendships, yet more varied in their tastes than most of the vegetable tribes, — since we find their species as widely divided in choice of habitat as swamp, brookside, roadside, banks, bare rocks, and maple and hemlock forests can part them. We might say that these instances show preferences only, and not friendships ; but the ferns certainly make choice between tree species, and adhere to their choice.

Nothing is more flattering than to find one’s self a favorite in the garden, to half fancy that the flowers do not mind being plucked and carried inside the house because it is you who plucked them, and not another ; and we do often find that a familiar acquaintance with garden things gives a sort of mysterious freedom of meddling with their lives and habits. It is not hard to believe that there are individual likings between man and plant; that plants will respond more promptly and grow more gladly for one person than for another ; and this belief (or shall we call it a fancy ?) tends to great content in our intercourse with them.

It is not only our own personal associations with the garden which give happiness, but there are memories of friends and people which grow to belong with certain things that flourish year by year in one’s own little acre, and these suggestions are not the least of garden joys.

When my plate-shaped yellow marigold blooms cover their allotted garden space, spanning the days from July to late October, I look at them and remember walking in an English garden with its appreciative owner. It was Miss Muloch, who gathered the seeds and gave them to me with the same hands which had written John Halifax and many another worthy piece of literature, and when I returned, as an offset, a small sod of pinks from my Long Island garden, she wrote that “ a little American worm ” had come over with it.

There is a row of fragrant, hardy, double violets, which send out blossoms every spring under the windows of our Long Island homestead, the pioneer plants of which were carefully dug from his own garden bed, and wrapped in paper, and given into my hands, by William Cullen Bryant; and every spring the thought of him “ smells sweet and blossoms in the dust ” where they grow.

The widespread lemon lilies, which burn so yellow over every inch of my garden in June, are sprung from a single five-fingered root brought from one of the old manor houses on the Hudson forty years ago. Its progeny has peopled the grounds of the family homestead on Long Island, spreading from thence into innumerable farm gardens, and now, after distinguishing my own garden with its beauty, is silently making its way into the rocky garden spaces of all Onteora.

The radiant fleur-de-lis, which radiates from the garden centre, came through friendly hands in a little box of selected roots from a garden in Cambridge. Some one had told the original possessor of my kindred passion for the iris ; and the impulse of satisfaction at finding a fellow appreciator of what was at that time an almost unappreciated flower culminated in the gift. This varied, orchidlike collection was preceded and welcomed by the ordinary deep purple and blue fleur-de-lis, the roots of which I had picked from the old post road of Long Island, where they had been thrown from an overstocked lawn or garden border.

It seems to me an ungrateful, almost a wanton act, to throw surplus flower roots out to a lingering death in the road track. There are so many waste corners within the limits of a country home where they might be allowed to live and bloom, and give thankful and abundant account of themselves! If there could be foundling asylums in every neighborhood for rejected or surplus garden growths. — little flowery places which might be made garden schools for children, — happiness and goodness would grow in them as well as flowers.

It is strange how precious growths will come of themselves to a true garden lover ! Every one has experienced these mysterious acquisitions. Things come from no one knows where, and make themselves at home, and grow into important members of the garden family, self-introduced at the first, but apparently sure of their welcome. It was so that my Colorado columbine appeared in my garden world. One morning in early June I found its budded stalk standing in the strip of gravel, under the drip of the house eaves. I had no columbine ; I had planted none. Indeed, it is out of my policy to plant seeds, unless they speedily make roots and take care of themselves; and although the columbine will do this, it is at best an evanescent flower, and a little too giddy for my requirements. But here it was ! and I treated it as a lady should treat an unexpected visitor: I waited for developments. After a morning or two they came. A very hearty, healthy, dragon-fly-looking blossom, in white and violet-blue with a three-inch spread of wings; altogether aristocratic looking, — like a lady of fashion in her newest Easter bonnet, — and totally unconscious of and indifferent to the hard gravelly furrow under her feet. She was admirable, but where did she come from ? I had never seen a columbine of the same freedom and largeness of growth, or the same freshness and purity of color.

A few days after this I started on a journey to Denver. At certain Springs in Colorado the train suddenly emptied itself of people who rushed out into the blue freshness of Colorado air to look at the great spring lake and the circle of faintly drawn snow-tipped ghostly mountains of its environment. “ Good mountains, dead and gone to heaven,” I quoted, as I stepped from the car, and there stood a boy in front of me offering a great bunch of violet-blue and white columbine. They seemed so a part of the blue air and the blue spring lake water that I hardly recognized them at first; but when I did, and questioned the boy, lo and behold they were wild flowers, growing in the mountain pastures — the chosen and representative Colorado state flower. My mind went back to the single stately stalk in my far-off Onteora garden, and at once I grasped the meaning of its stateliness of mien. It was a representative flower ; the chosen blossom of the golden state, and by some miracle of aerial transportation it had anticipated and flattered me with an acquaintance. Now, every June when it appears and unfolds its wings they will unfold to my sight a vision of the snow mountains and violet-blue distances of Colorado.

I wish I knew how it was that the poppy tribe decided upon coming to me, for it is certain I never planted them ; and yet only last summer they appeared in battalions, flaunting their silken banners over every foot of the garden. Of course I saw them as they grew, and said to myself, “ Here is a poppy,” and a few feet away, “ There is a poppy,” and in a week or two the indescribably graceful arch of stem, holding a folded bud, was everywhere to be seen ; and then how they blossomed ! It was a veil, a flame-colored silken veil, spread over the midsummer scarcity of bloom. But where did they come from ? If my garden were an old one, instinct with seed, like the acres of the Long Island homestead, I should understand that the tiny infinitesimal thing might have been sleeping in the ground for ages, still holding within its atom of matter the principle of life, like Egyptian wheat in mummy cases. But my garden was a wild pasture just a few years since, with no garden history, no buried forbears, no traditions, — and from where and from whence came the poppies ?

Candace Wheeler.