Plain or Fancy Gardener


WHERE there is one Englishman there is a garden. Where there are two Englishmen there will be a club. But this does not mean any falling off in the number of gardens. There will be three. The club will have one, too.

This gardening habit, which may easily become a passion, is the fruit of early training. When we were children we did what might very properly be called nursery gardening. We always wore very correct sailor suits — Father had been in the Navy — and when we went to church it was in spotless Number One rig.

When the white flannel singlets were worn out they were cut into squares and turned back to us. We put them in soup plates, damped them with water, and grew mustard and cress on them. Cress was not as satisfactory as mustard. It took four days longer to germinate — a long time when every motion of the seed from jollification to the final bursting is exposed to eager eyes. Afterwards we ate the mustard and cress in sandwiches for tea.

At school when I got my first smattering of chemistry I learned that plants like carbon dioxide. It is what makes chlorophyll, or greenness. It is also at the bottom of the diurnal flower migrations in hospitals. By day, plants give off oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. By night they do the reverse. Hence it would be positively dangerous to sleep in the same room as a sedum, and probationers must scurry round every evening to remove the flowers to the heat of the corridor, although a single night nurse gives off more CO2 than her own weight in flowers.

The idea of carbon dioxide inspired me. I thought that if only I could supply it in unlimited quantity I could beat the family gardener to a prize tomato crop. I devised a plan for its manufacture from sulphuric acid and marble chips. It was to be led to the plants under a bell glass through a glass tube. The installation looked promising. Unfortunately I forgot about it, and when I came back two weeks later the plants were dead.

But the habitual gardener is not restrained by failure. Once I bought a packet of nasturtium seed — capucine, the French call them, from the fancied likeness of the bloom to the capuche, the hood worn by Capuchin nuns — to plant outside a dugout in front of the Railway Triangle at Arras. Everyone said that it was tempting the fates. It was. We moved to the Ypres salient about a week later.

That was only one crop I did not stay long enough to reap. I have sowed gardens in Upper Burma jungles only to be sent to Mandalay to take over someone else’s garden. There the rosy pink walls of the old Burmese fort were reflected in the still green waters of the moat, covered in lotus and water hyacinth.

The hyacinth was a pest. It had been imported into India, so the story went, by some governor’s wife who admired its purple bloom and the queer green bladders with which it keeps itself afloat. Like many weeds it propagates itself from the most insignificant scraps. To-day it is an ineradicable nuisance blocking waterways and irrigation ditches.

In temperate climates the hyacinth is a water-garden gem.

Not long ago I was talking to one of the biggest aspidistra men in England. By choice he was a botanist and a famous collector. By profession he was known primarily as one of the best growers of rare plants. After that came his aspidistras and his system of always being ready with a large slock of next year’s fashion in window-box and house plants. In fact, he largely set the fashion.

One of his best coups in this direction was starting the craze for water hyacinth on London balconies. That particular plan involved preparation fully two years ahead, and, in addition to the plants, he had to have on hand some thousands of assorted galvanized tanks. By the time his competitors realized the situation and began the struggle to make up a stock of hyacinth he was preparing a rage for desert gardens, with cactuses, each in a little glass box.

His aspidistra trade practically ran itself. He used to buy the plants in Holland at about fourpence a leaf. He shipped them to England for sale to movie houses and restaurants.

Aspidistras are what nursery men call resistant, which means that they will stand almost anything. Their other name is the ‘lager-beer plant,’because, as a favorite in barrooms, they can subsist on the stale lees of beer. But, like old soldiers, they fade in the end.

‘Talking of foliage plants,’ he said in reference to aspidistras, ‘I remember as a lad we used to set millions — anyhow, tens of thousands — of coleus and telantheras and such stuff for ribbon and carpet beds. There was good money in them. You could n’t kill them and you did n’t have to worry about bloom. But that’s all done now,’ he sighed. ‘Mr. Robinson killed the trade with his book.’

Forty years ago William Robinson’s English Flower Garden appeared, with its slashing attack on the cast-iron fashions of the day. The atrocities of ribbon and carpet bedding, the horrors of topiary and the harsh lines of geometrical design, were then the signs of horticultural elegance.

Not very long before that, it had been laid down in books that the gardener should, as a first requisite, be skilled in geometry, for the most fashionable effects were obtained in intricate patterns picked out with colored sands.

In private gardens now one occasionally comes across some good old man who deplores to-day’s informality and sighs for the days of stars, crescents, and pie-crimped circles. The art is not completely dead. One may see the miracle take place annually in the Public Garden in Boston, or in Copley Square, where, in an oblong bed slanted to the oncoming traffic, when tulips are done and the bulbs lifted, the great masterpiece of summer bedding is prepared. A Stars and Stripes is laid out in foliage plants, as nearly correct to color as possible. That the red is bronze, the white variegated cream, and the blue chocolate is immaterial. The intention is all too obvious, for it is complete to the last star and stripe. Coleus and telanthera, even the crotonleaved beet, are conscripted to the service of the flag.


As one horror is laid, inventive genius can always be depended on to find another. If the old atrocities were the result of an attempt to overcome the limitations imposed by the growth of plants themselves, the new try to overcome the limitations imposed by materials.

What can one say, for instance, of the recommendation to be found in an article in one of the recent gardening dictionaries? The problem is to build a terraced wall overgrown with flowers and ferns. The author suggests one of glass brick, wired for lighting at the bottom to give a soft glow. As he says, the effect would be stunning.

Glass brick, incidentally, is the material which has been chosen for lining the new Hudson tunnel. Apart from æsthetic values, it would be something of a feat to establish plants on a wall of glass brick. A less suitable substance could hardly be found.

The glass-brick school is the legitimate offspring of the iron-dog-and-deer school. Dogs and deer have gone, but other things have taken their places. In every case the basic idea is to have a garden without the trouble of gardening.

Nowadays when Aunt Jane goes off for a somnolent postprandial Sunday afternoon cruise down the turnpike, as likely as not she will come home with a choice something under her arm: a little painted dog or duck, which, securely pinned to the lawn, will never scratch among the globe arborvitæ of the foundation planting; even a little painted wooden flower, which will bloom until the paint peels off; or, if she is ambitious, a gazing globe, or a fancy bit of lavender-tinted art concrete — an amphora, a sarcophagus, or wordy sundial; or it may be a glass demijohn fondly regarded as an antique, but in reality a sulphuric-acid carboy from the nearest chemical works.

Then arises the problem of where to put it. It is something to fill that empty space, where it will give ‘accent ’ or ‘ focus ’ — all in the best jargon of the garden club. Or else it is no problem at all — the whatnot is just put.

Such crimes are the unpremeditated backslidings of a moment. Glass brick is deliberate. Luckily the plumbers’ yards are closed on Sundays.

The Flower Shows held each spring in the East help to foster this vogue of architectural gardening. Since the exhibits are displayed in halls, space is necessarily limited. The results are little bits of this and little bits of that, and planting up to the hilt. Imitatively, the exhibits are translated to the open, to the detriment of the open. Little bits of hedges enclose airless little corners. Little bits of woodsy planting have little dishpan pools, and little white picket fences enclose other miniature Cape Codderies.

This garden littleness is admittedly appealing. The baby mugho pine, the nurseryman’s delight (since it is next to impossible to keep a stock of it), has something about it as helpless and irresistible as a puppy. People want to pick it up and take it home. My children, taken to a well-stocked nursery, were told that they might each take home anything they wished. It was a safe bet. Past the specimen Picea pungens Kosteriana, listed at $250 each, they made a beeline for the tiny fluffy babies of Pinus moniana Mugo.

As spectacles, the Spring Flower Shows, coming in a bad season of the year, are very impressive. But to call them ’flower shows’ is something of a misnomer. ‘Florists’ shows’ would be more correct, for any florist, given the incentive, can — and sometimes does — do as well.

Logically one goes to a flower show to see what is new and good. Actually one is offered a view of summer perennials necessarily forced under glass and ill-grown compared with what can be done at the right time of year. The specialist societies, more serious in intent, do not make the mistake of having their shows out of season.

But then, no one ever goes to the specialist shows, except for a few — a very few — enthusiasts who go to see the flowers. These few seem not to miss the other attractions. Gone are the aquariums and the scenes of wild life (with real sand imported all the way from Plum Island), the quaint straw skeps which lack only bees, and the Hammond organ playing Bach and ‘The Isle of Capri.’

But the enthusiasts do not seem to mind. They gather in knots talking the macaronic Latin which is the mysterious jargon of the trade. In general there is a sonorous formality about Latin names which is not always the case with the English — at least not the modern ones. The old English names have a flavor of their own. Some are utilitarian, like madwort and feverfew and shadblow, which comes into bloom when the shad are running in New England rivers. Others are descriptive, like Wandering Jew. Some are merely mysterious, like Good King Henry, which is a vegetable, one of the many inferior substitutes for asparagus.

But times change. When a famous American rose grower imported a tiny rose, son of Rosa Rouletti, from Holland, he found that it already bore the name of‘Peon.’ That, he thought, had an unpleasant significance, connected with slavery and lashings. Instead of calling it ‘Pawn,’ he set to work to find a substitute. The choice was ‘Mickey Mouse.’ Walter Disney, appealed to, granted the use of the name, but he wanted $2500 down and 5 per cent of sales. That, of course, was that. ‘Tom Thumb’ was the eventual choice. By much the same process a rose named after a Dutch lady with a long and rather complicated name was thought to represent a sales problem. It was rechristened ‘Permanent Wave.’

Hume once surmounted the ornithologist’s rule that birds may not be called after oneself by calling a new discovery Mrs. Humensis. Although botanists are not bound by any such foolishness, they usually prefer to pay a graceful compliment to a friend in the same line of business.


Luckily one does not have to know a lot of names to be a gardener. One needs only to be an incurable optimist. Otherwise, who would attempt even such a simple-seeming operation as growing a lawn?

It is not certain that there were grass lawns in King Henry VIII’s day. There were open spaces, — pleasaunces and such, — but whether they were of closely mown turf is another matter. The best surfaces probably were not grass. The green on which Drake bowled is supposed to have been camomile, which makes a good ‘lawn’ under bad conditions. Gerard recommends this in his Herbal, and there is one at Buckingham Palace on which outdoor investitures are held. It stays green in the hottest weather and its scent is very pleasant.

A lawn needs care and cultivation like any other crop. It seldom gets them unless the turf is there for some ulterior purpose, like golf.

Grass is gross, and wants good feeding. Fertilize it — or why not just say ‘manure’ it? Manure it well and wisely — which means, use as much as you can get.

It was Mill who said that money was like manure — most useful when spread. There are communities which were built up on it, like the Kentish cherry orchards. When London was fast abuilding, Thames barges went laden from Rochester and Chatham with the dreadful yellow brick made along the Medway. They came back with manure from London stables which they got for nothing but the carrying, to lay the foundation of a great orchard industry.

Wise men will go to almost any length to build up the soil. Old Scottish custom used to demand that a braxy sheep off the hill be buried under every fruit tree set. Rags and shoddy from mills were excellent soil conditioners before women’s fashions spoiled things with steel and then rubber. During the war there was a Devonshire farmer who was hard put to it to find manure. When he read that the Ministry of Food had for sale fifty tons of fish unfit for human consumption, he could hardly wait to get it on his land. When it came it was in cans. He put it on the land — still in cans; there was little else he could do. Until a very few years ago ploughing on that farm was done to the accompaniment of all too familiar ‘piffs’ as the share ripped open the bloated cans.

The habitual gardener is also an inveterate collector. I was once considering the lilies of the field. The Black Sea lay very still and purple in the sun. There was a strip of white sand which ran up to the meadow where the lilies grew. They were reputed to be the genuine Biblical article — the tiny gorgeous Iris Pontos. I tried digging some with my knife, then gave up, for it is not the part of an officer on active service to carry bundles of rhizomes in his kit.

Later I had more luck when I collected the seeds of rhododendrons growing on the upper slopes of the Chin Hills in the corner between Manipur and Burma. The trees grew in every hollow, their tops cut off sharply flat by the raging mountain winds. On the higher slopes they were gnarled shrubs only a foot or two high. Lower they grew into forest trees of seventy feet and more. From above they seemed a dense thicket of bloom. The seeds were ripe, black, and shiny, in their brown banana-shaped pods. I took some in a tobacco tin to Kew, where nobody was greatly impressed. Only a new discovery could have shaken that professional calm. Moreover, Kingdon Ward was just home — bringing seeds of rhododendrons with blooms as big as footballs and pearl-pink in color, and of a new gooseberry, huge, golden, globular.

My seeds, said Kew, might bloom. But it would take time — fifty years, perhaps. All the same, I planted them. Perhaps I may see them flower. It will be a rather poor magenta — and only I will know where their beauty really lies.

Later still I collected bulbs of the lovely Nilgiri lily — very showy, with immense scented trumpets of startling whiteness. They bloom annually now in a West of Scotland garden — not in the open, perhaps, but in a country not too unlike their own home.

But there is no need to be exotic to satisfy a leaning to collect. One could do less well than to go out with a spade to dig blueberries from the nearest hillside. There are few shrubs which give better massed effects or which have greater all-year-round beauty. Some day they will lead a triumphant return of the native, but for the moment we waste our time trying to do a little more than either soil or climate will permit. We want cypripediums on dry uplands and alpines on flat lush lowlands, palm trees in New England and Christmas roses on the equator.

With garden club synonymous with women’s club, the gender of gardening has become feminine. Some day, perhaps, the art will be brought from the celestial heights back to the level of the soil, where, after all, is the starting point of every garden.