‘Mary’s Meadow’ & Other Tales of Fields & Flowers

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Letters from a Little Garden

Letter I

“All is fine that is fit.”—Old Proverb.

When, with the touching confidence of youth that your elders have made-up as well as grown-up minds on all subjects, you asked my opinion on Ribbon-gardening, the above proverb came into my head, to the relief of its natural tendency to see an inconvenient number of sides to every question. The more I reflect upon it, the more I am convinced it is a comfortably compact confession of my faith on all matters decorative, and thence on the decoration of gardens.

I take some credit to myself for having the courage of my moderation, since you obviously expect a more sweeping reply. The bedding-out system is in bad odour just now; and you ask, “Wasn’t it hideous?” and “Wasn’t it hateful?” and “Will it ever come into fashion again, to the re-extermination of the dear old-fashioned flowers which we are now slowly, and with pains, recalling from banishment?”

To discover one’s own deliberate opinion upon a subject is not always easy—prophetic opinions one must refuse to offer. But I feel no doubt whatever that the good lady who shall coddle this little garden at some distant date after me will be quite as fond of her borders as I am of mine; and I suspect that these will be about as like each other as our respective best bonnets.

The annals of Fashion must always be full of funny stories. I know two of the best amateur gardeners of the day; they are father and son. The father, living and gardening still (he sent me a specimen lily lately by parcel post, and is beholden to no one for help, either with packing or addressing, in his constant use of this new convenience), is making good way between ninety and a hundred years of age. What we call old-fashioned flowers were the pets of his youth. About the time when ribbon-bordering “came in,” he changed his residence, and, in the garden where he had cultivated countless kinds of perennials, his son reigned in his stead. The horticultural taste proved hereditary, but in the younger man it took the impress of the fashion of his day. Away went the “herbaceous stuff” on to rubbish heaps, and the borders were soon gay with geraniums, and kaleidoscopic with calceolarias. But “the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges,” and, perhaps, a real love for flowers could never, in the nature of things, have been finally satisfied by the dozen or by the score; so it came to pass that the garden is once more herbaceous, and far-famed as such. The father—a perennial gardener in more senses than one, long may he flourish! —has told me, chuckling, of many a penitential pilgrimage to the rubbish heaps, if haply fragments could be found of the herbaceous treasures which had been so rashly cast away.

Doubtless there were many restorations. Abandoned “bedding stuff” soon perishes, but uprooted clumps of “herbaceous stuff” linger long in shady corners, and will sometimes flower pathetically on the heap where they have been thrown to rot.

I once saw a fine Queen Anne country house—an old one; not a modern imitation. Chippendale had made the furniture. He had worked in the house. Whether the chairs and tables were beautiful or not is a matter of taste, but they were well made and seasoned; so, like the herbaceous stuff, they were hardy. The next generation decided that they were ugly. New chairs and tables were bought, and the Chippendale “stuff” was sent up into the maids’ bedrooms, and down to the men’s. It drifted into the farmhouses and cottages on the estate. No doubt a good deal was destroyed. The caprices of fashion are not confined to one class, and the lower classes are the more prodigal and destructive. I have seen the remains of Elizabethan bedsteads under hay-ricks, and untold “old oak” has fed the cottage fire. I once asked a village maiden why the people made firewood of carved arm-chairs, when painted pinewood, upholstered in American cloth, is, if lovelier, not so lasting. Her reply was—“They get stalled on [a] ’em.” And she added:

“Maybe a man’ll look at an old arm-chair that’s stood on t’ hearth-place as long as he can remember, and he’ll say—‘I’m fair sick o’ t’ seet ’o yon. We mun have a new ’un for t’ Feast. I’ll chop thee oop!’”

Possibly some of the Chippendale chairs also fell to the hatchet and fed the flames, but most of them bore neglect as well as hardy perennials, and when Queen Anne houses and “old Chips” came into fashion again, there was routing and rummaging from attic to cellar, in farmhouse and cottage, and the banished furniture went triumphantly back to its own place.

I first saw single dahlias in some “little gardens” in Cheshire, five or six years ago. No others had ever been cultivated there. In these quiet nooks the double dahlia was still a new-fangled flower. If the single dahlias yet hold their own, those little gardens must now find themselves in the height of the floral fashion, with the unusual luck of the conservative old woman who “wore her bonnet till the fashions came round again.”

It is such little gardens which have kept for us the Blue Primrose, the highly fragrant Summer Roses (including Rose de Meaux, and the red and copper Briar), countless beautiful varieties of Daffy-down-dillies, and all the host of sweet, various and hardy flowers which are now returning, like the Chippendale chairs, from the village to the hall.

It is still in cottage gardens chiefly that the Crown Imperial hangs its royal head. One may buy small sheaves of it in the Taunton market-place on early summer Saturdays. What a stately flower it is! and, in the paler variety, of what an exquisite yellow! I always fancy Fritillaria Imperialis flava to be dressed in silk from the Flowery Land—that robe of imperial yellow which only General Gordon and the blood royal of China are entitled to wear!

“All is fine that is fit.” And is the “bedding-out” system —Ribbon-gardening—ever fit, and therefore ever fine? My little friend, I am inclined to think that it sometimes is. For long straight borders in parks and public promenades, for some terrace garden on a large scale, viewed perhaps from windows at a considerable distance, and, in a general way, for pleasure-grounds ordered by professional skill, and not by an amateur gardener (which, mark you, being interpreted, is gardener for love!), the bedding-out style is good for general effect, and I think it is capable of prettier ingenuities than one often sees employed in its use. I think that, if I ever gardened in this expensive and mechanical style, I should make “arrangements,” a la ’Whistler, with flowers of various shades of the same colour. But harmony and gradation of colour always give me more pleasure than contrast.

Then, besides the fitness of the gardening to the garden, there is the fitness of the garden to its owner; and the owner must be considered from two points of view, his taste and his means. Indeed, I think it would be fair to add a third, his leisure.

Now, there are owners of big gardens and little gardens, who like to have a garden (what Englishman does not?), and like to see it gay and tidy, but who don’t know one flower from the rest. On the other hand, some scientists are acquainted with botany and learned in horticulture. They know every plant and its value, but they care little about tidiness. Cut flowers are feminine frivolities in their eyes, and they count nosegays as childish gauds, like daisy chains and cowslip balls. They are not curious in colours, and do not know which flowers are fragrant and which are scentless. For them every garden is a botanical garden. Then, many persons fully appreciate the beauty and the scent of flowers, and enjoy selecting and arranging them for a room, who can’t abide to handle a fork or meddle with mother earth. Others again, amongst whom I number myself, love not only the lore of flowers, and the sight of them, and the fragrance of them, and the growing of them, and the picking of them, and the arranging of them, but also inherit from Father Adam a natural relish for tilling the ground from whence they were taken and to which they shall return.

With little persons in little gardens, having also little strength and little leisure, this husbandry may not exceed the small uses of fork and trowel, but the earth-love is there, all the same. I remember once coming, among some family papers, upon an old letter from my grandmother to my grandfather. She was a clever girl (she did not outlive youth), and the letter was natural and full of energy and point. My grandfather seems to have apologized to his bride for the disorderly state of the garden to which she was about to go home, and in reply she quaintly and vehemently congratulates herself upon this unpromising fact. For—“I do so dearly love, grubbing.” This touches another point. She was a botanist, and painted a little. So were most of the lady gardeners of her youth. The education of women was, as a rule, poor enough in those days; but a study of “the Linnean system” was among the elegant accomplishments held to “become a young woman”; and one may feel pretty sure that even a smattering of botanical knowledge, and the observation needed for third or fourth-rate flower-painting, would tend to a love of variety in beds and borders which Ribbon-gardening would by no means satisfy. Lobelia erinus speciosa does make a wonderfully smooth blue stripe in sufficient quantities, but that would not console any one who knew or had painted Lobelia cardinalis, and fulgens, for the banishment of these from the garden.

I think we may dismiss Ribbon-gardening as unfit for a botanist, or for any one who happens to like grubbing, or tending his flowers.

Is it ever “fit” in a little garden?

Well, if the owner has either no taste for gardening, or no time, it may be the shortest and brightest plan to get some nurseryman near to fill the little beds and borders with Spring bedding plants for Spring (and let me note that this Spring bedding, which is of later date than the first rage for ribbon-borders, had to draw its supplies very largely from “herbaceous stuff,” myosotis, viola, aubretia, iberis, &c., and may have paved the way for the return of hardy perennials into favour), and with Tom Thumb Geranium, Blue Lobelia, and Yellow Calceolaria for the summer and autumn. These latter are most charming plants. They are very gay and persistent whilst they last, and it is not their fault that they cannot stand, our winters. They are no invalids till frost comes. With my personal predilections, I like even “bedding stuff” best in variety. The varieties of what we call geraniums are many and most beautiful. I should always prefer a group of individual specimens to a band of one. And never have I seen the canary yellow of calceolarias to such advantage as in an “old-fashioned” rectory-garden in Yorkshire, where they were cunningly used as points of brilliancy at corners of beds mostly filled with “hardy herbaceous stuff.”

But there, again, one begins to spend time and taste! Let us admit that, if a little garden must be made gay by the neighbouring nurseryman, it will look very bright, on the “ribbon” system, at a minimum cost of time and trouble—but not of money!

Even for a little garden, bedding plants are very expensive. For you must either use plenty, or leave it alone. A ragged ribbon-border can have no admirers.

If time and money are both lacking, and horticulture is not a hobby, divide what sum you are prepared to spend on your little garden in two. Lay out half in making good soil, and spend the rest on a limited range of hardy plants. If mother earth is well fed, and if you have got her deep down, and not a surface layer of half a foot on a substratum of builder’s rubbish, she will take care of every plant you commit to her hold. I should give up the back of the borders (if the aspect is east or south) to a few very good “perpetual” roses to cut from; dwarfs, not standards; and for the line of colour in front it will be no great trouble to arrange roughly to have red, white, blue, and yellow alternately.

One of the best cheap bedders is Pink Catchfly (Silene pendula). Its rosy cushions are as neat and as lasting as Blue Lobelia. It is a hardy annual, but the plants should be autumn sown of the year before. It flowers early and long, and its place might be taken for the autumn by scarlet dwarf nasturtiums, or clumps of geranium. Pink Catch-fly, Blue Forget-me-not, White Arabis, and Yellow Viola would make gay any Spring border. Then to show, to last, and to cut from, few flowers rival the self-coloured pansies (Viola class). Blue, white, purple, and yellow alternately, they are charming, and if in good soil, well watered in drought, and constantly cut from, they bloom the whole summer long. And some of them are very fragrant. The secret of success with these is never to leave a flower to go to seed. They are not cut off by autumnal frosts. On the contrary, you can take them up, and divide, and reset, and send a portion to other little gardens where they are lacking.

All mine (and they have been very gay this year and very sweet) I owe to the bounty of friends who garden non sibi sed toti.

Lastly, if there is even a very little taste and time to spare, surely nothing can be so satisfactory as a garden full of such flowers as (in the words of John Parkinson) “our English ayre will permitt to be noursed up.” Bearing in mind these counsels:

Make a wise selection of hardy plants. Grow only good sorts, and of these choose what suit your soil and climate. Give them space and good feeding. Disturb the roots as little as possible, and cut the flowers constantly. Then they will be fine as well as fit.

Good-bye, Little Friend,

Yours, &c.

[a] “Stalled on” = tired of. “T’ feast” = the village feast, an annual festival and fair, for which most houses in that district are cleaned within and whitewashed without.    [back]

Mary’s Meadow    |    Letter II

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