My Mother's Gardeners

OF gardens ‘so much has been said and on the whole so well said,’ that I might perhaps restrain my pen from turning up that overworked soil. But yet the gardens of which I write have not been like the gardens of the published page. They have not. brought forth generously either prose of lusty vegetable or poetry of spicy blossom. Although the gardens have been many, they might almost be described, so alike have they been, as if they were one, an itinerant garden that has accompanied us from one little hill village to another; for I write of the stony, arid, sterile garden-plot of a country parish.

Now, however forbidding the garden that has stretched rearward of each new domicile, my mother has always fallen upon it with a valiance of hope that neither years nor disappointment can destroy. She always thinks that things are going to grow in her gardens, and things do grow in them, too; but they are not always the things my mother has led me to expect. For her, I hope she will find the garden of her dreams in Paradise; for me, this earth will do, even this small, hill-circled scrap of it; for I am no gardener in my heart, only an observer of gardens. I own to an unregenerate enjoyment in watching my mother’s vegetables misbehave, just as, surreptitiously, I can’t help loving the whimsical goats of my father’s rustic flock.

As I glance back over the unwritten journal of my childhood, I find the words Choir, Vestry, Garden, always printed in capital letters. The Gardener was a figure as momentous in my infant horizon as was the Senior Warden. In respect to gardens my mother has never had any confidence in the assistance of her own family. There have been occasions when some son or daughter, temporarily in favor, has been allowed to hoe softly, under supervision; but as to her husband, banishment is the sole decree. In fact, my father, genuine old English, imported direct from Trollope, does not show to best advantage in a garden. In general I have observed that our country clericals are likely to be at quarrel with the soil, that arid independent old soil which will grow things in its own way, in utter despite of parsons. My father’s original sin was due to the usual pastoral reluctance to let the tares and the wheat grow together unto the harvest, and it was when he mistook our infant carrots for Heaven-knows-what seed of the Enemy that the decree of banishment against him as a marauder occurred. Rather than initiate one of her own home-circle into her garden mysteries, my mother has chosen the unlikeliest outsider, and solicited advice from the most unprecedented sources, or by any methods of cajolery; she has been no stickler in regard to any man’s creed or practice when it has been a question of so vital a matter as cucumbers.

My retrospect shows our gardeners stretching back to the bounds of my memory, a lean, gnarled, hoary procession. One of the earliest of them is Father Time himself, with hoe instead of scythe, and with white locks rippling down his back. Father Time’s frank admission when engaged might have daunted some, but did not daunt my mother, for he confided to her at once that he could hoe but could not walk. He proved useful when carefully hauled from spot to spot, but our garden was cultivated that season in circles, of which the hoe was the radius and Father Time the centre.

Another of our ancient hoe-bearers was a veteran. I do not know whether he had lost his eye on the battlefield or elsewhere, but certainly he had not exchanged it for wisdom. That is why he is the favorite of my mother’s recollections. She likes her gardeners a little imbecile. They are more manageable that way. The burden of their intelligence is the more usual trouble. A simple faith united to an instant obedience is the desideratum in gardeners; usually a gardener is as obstinate as he is conservative, and this is not at all to my mother’s mind. She loves to glean garden-lore from every source, but better still she loves to invent garden-lore of her own. She likes to be allowed to set out on an entirely new tack with some poor erring cabbage, and it is all she can do to hold on to her ministerial temper when she finds that her gardener has ruined the work of regeneration by some old-fashioned disciplinary notions of his own. Our ancient warrior, however, had no notions of his own, disciplinary or other, and that is why he possesses a shrine apart in our memories. He was as meek in my mother’s hands as his own hoe, and he never did anything she did not wish him to do except when he died!

On a bad eminence of contrast my memory declares another figure. I do not remember whether it was an invincible audacity, or an utter despair of securing likelier assistance, that led us that year to employ our own sexton. It is an axiom known to every ministerial household that it is unwise ever to put any member of your own flock to domestic use. A brawny Romanist, if such can be obtained, for laundry purposes, a Holy Roller for the furnace, and a Seventh-Day Baptist for the garden— these are samples of our principle of selection. I do not know just why those of our own fold are undesirable, — it is wiser perhaps that the silly sheep should not see the antic gamboling of the sober shepherd behind his own locked door, or guess what internal levities spice the discreet external conduct of his family. I do not know how it was that we fell so utterly from the grace of common sense as to employ our own sexton that summer. Apart from sectarian issues, a sexton is the most mettlesome man that grows, and not at all to be subdued to the ignoble uses of a hoe. This sexton was an agony to my father in the sanctuary, and an anguish to my mother in the garden. He went about with a chip in his mouth, and he always held it in one corner of his lips and chewed it aggressively and bitterly, and with the other corner he talked, just as bitterly. Within his own house he must have exchanged the chip for a pipe, for although I never saw him smoke, the fragrant tobacco fumes of him were spread through the house after every back-door colloquy. He talked more willingly than he worked, and that summer was a lean and sorrowful season, when the garden languished and my mother was browbeaten, unable, all because he was the Sexton, to bring the man to order with the sharp nip of her words across his naughty pate.

We were more cautious next time and availed ourselves of one no less meek than a certain village ancient prominently known to be an Anarchist and a Methodist. The combination is unusual, I admit, but you may look for almost anything in a gardener. As an infant, I used to scan his person for a glimpse of the red shirt, and his lips for a spark of the incendiary eloquence, but no symptom of either ever showed. He was old and underfed and taciturn, and he gardened exactly as he wished to, without paying the tribute even of a comment to my mother’s suggestions. He had such original methods of his own that, for very amazement, she gave up her own initiative for the pleasure of watching his. Once when he was seen solemnly planting stones in one earthy mound after another, he did break his icy reserve to answer her irrepressible inquiry; he believed that potatoes grew better that way, since the roots did not have to pierce the earth for themselves but could wriggle through the friendly interstices of the stones. That summer was one of cheerful surprises. This singular spirit had, I believe, a genuine sympathy for the poor toiling vegetables; I remember that he spent one afternoon in tying up his tomatoes in copies of a certain sectarian sheet he brought with him for the purpose. A sportive wind arose in the night, to die before the Sabbath morning, on which we beheld not only our rectory lawn, but the utterly Episcopal precincts of the church, bestrewn with Glad Tidings of Zion. He was a lonely soul and dwelt apart, chiefly in a wheelbarrow. The vehicle was one of his idiosyncrasies. He never appeared without it. Up and down our leafy streets would he trundle it; but yet I never saw anything in the wheelbarrow except the gardener. He appeared to push it ever before him for the sole purpose of having something to sit on when he wished, from the philosophic heights of his theological and sociological principles, to ruminate upon the evil behavior of ‘cabbages and kings.’

As I look back over a long succession of gardeners, I see it, punctuated as it may be here and there by some salient personality, for the most part stretching a weary line of the aged and infirm of mind and body, and I wonder by what survival of the unfittest society devotes to gardening purposes only those already devoted to decrepitude. As a matter of fact, the more one becomes acquainted with the vagaries of growing things, the more one is convinced that it requires nimble wits and supple muscles to subjugate the army of iniquitous vegetables the humblest garden can produce. The more you know of the deception and ingratitude to be experienced in the vegetable world, the sadder you become. In addition to sharpened brain and taut sinews, the worker in gardens needs a heart packed with optimism. This last my mother possesses, and though garden after garden may have gone back on her, nothing can prevent her running with overtures of salvation to meet the next little grubby potato-patch life offers her. With hope indomitable my parents survey each new glebe, while I, the incredulous, secretly meditate upon the kinship in conduct of all parochial gardens, expecting only that the sheep and the potatoes will find some new way of going astray; and may Heaven forgive me that I should be diverted by their versatility of naughtiness! For example, you can never tell what you may expect from a tomato, for your tomato is a vegetable of temperament. Poetically sensitive to atmospheric environment, it fades to earth under the mildest sun, wilts at a frost imperceptible to its more prosaic neighbors. Capricious ever, it will sometimes, in mock of its own cherished nervous system, exhibit a sturdiness out of pure perversity. One chill June morning we found our young tomato plants flat to earth, a black and hopeless ruin. We bought new ones and set them out in their stead, whereupon the old plants popped up and sprouted to wantonness, — nothing but the elemental energy of jealousy. The tomato is like to be as barren of production as the human sentimentalist, either bringing forth a green bower of leafage, or drooping to earth with the weight of crimson globes that, lifted, show a corroding hole of black rot.

In homely contrast consider the bean. The bean is the kindliest vegetable there is. From the seed up, it is wellintentioned, for the bean may be eaten through and through by worms, and yet, planted, will sprout and spring, and bring forth fruit out of the very stones.

The beet is another simple-minded, dependable member of the congregation, and even more generous in contribution to the minister’s support than is the bean, for the beet yields top and bottom, root and branch. In summer the beet-top furnishes the first succulent taste of green, and afterwards the round red root of him is a defense against the lean and hungry winter months.

But for the most part vegetables are an ill-behaving lot. The cabbage inflates itself with an appearance of pompous righteousness, the longer to deceive our hopes and the more largely to conceal its heart of rot. The radish sends up generous leaves as if it meant to fulfill all the mendacious promises of the seed-catalogue, and when uprooted exhibits the pink tenuity of an angleworm. The cucumber is at first, for all our ministrations, hesitant and coy of leaf within its box, and then suddenly bursts into a riot of leafiness whereby it does its best to conceal from our inquiring eye its swelling green cylinders. Corn, deceptive like the radish, is prone to put forth a hopeful fountain of springing green, only to ear out prematurely, and reward us with kernels blackened and corroded.

In the parochial garden the pea is one to tease us always with its mighthe and might-have-been. If peas are to grow beyond ‘ the kid’s lip, the stag’s antler,’ they require the moral support of brush, and brush is something a minister’s family, aided only by a decrepit gardener, cannot always supply. Unsupported by brush, our fair peas lie along the ground, an ever-present disappointment.

Two vegetables have always haunted my mother’s aspirations, in vain. I hope they grow in heaven, for it is in the nature of things that celery and asparagus should be denied to a nomadic earthly clergy, requiring, as the one does, richness of soil, and as the other, permanence. Illusory asparagus, it takes three years to grow him! Of course if some disinterested predecessor had planted him, we might in our turn eat him. But our too itinerant clergy do not give overmuch thought to their successors. Barren parochial gardens hint just a shade of jealousy about letting Apollos water.

But it is not the vegetables alone that strain my mother’s sturdy optimism. All gardens are subject to invasion by marauding animals, differing in size and soul and species, all the way from the microscopic tomato-lice, past woodchuck and rabbit and playful puppy, up to the cow, ruminating our young corn-shoots beneath the white summer moon, on to my father himself, planting aberrant feet where his holden ministerial eyes behold no springing seedlings in the blackness of the soil. But our worst enemies are hens, and as it happens at present, dissenting hens, sallying forth from the barnyard fastnesses of the Baptist parsonage upon our helpless Anglican garden, plucking our young peas up out of the soil, and then later and more brazenly prying them out of the very pod! Forthwith they fall upon our lettuce-beds, scratching away with fanatic fervor, as if for all the world they meant to uproot Infant Baptism from out the land. All this is too much for my mother. On the vantage-ground of the back doorsill she stands and hurls coal out of the kitchen scuttle at the sectarian fowls,

— coal and anathema, low-voiced and virulent. Hers is no mere vulgar manymouthed abuse. There is nothing of so delicate pungency as the vituperation of a minister’s wife, really challenged to try the subtleties of English and yet offend no convention of seemliness. Add to the fact of the challenge another fact, that she is of Irish blood, and that her gallery gods are just inside the door, and it is a pity her audience should be merely the hens and I.

Thus do I ever hover at hand, softly applausive of my mother’s defense of her garden, secretly appreciative of the devious ways of vegetables, witnessing — to forgive — the wanderings of my father’s flock. For if all the flock were abstemious and orthodox instead of being, as some are, frankly given over to alcoholism and agnosticism and what not; and if the gardens grew, as gardens should grow, into honest, God-fearing cabbages and potatoes; if the righteous corn parted green lips from kernels firm and white as a dentist’s placard, how then should the parish gardens that dot our hill-strewn countryside bring forth that fruit of laughter which consoles the dwellers in these our tiny strongholds of lonely effort?