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

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Letters from a Little Garden

Letter II

The tropics may have their delights; but they have not turf, and the world without turf is a dreary desert. The original Garden of Eden could not have had such turf as one sees in England.

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“Woman always did, from the first, make a muss in a garden.

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“Nevertheless, what a man needs in gardening is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it.”

Pusley; or, My Summer in a Garden.—C. D. WARNER.

Do you know the little book from which these sayings are quoted? It is one you can laugh over by yourself, again and again. A very good specimen of that curious, new-world kind of wit—American humour; and also full of the truest sense of natural beauty and of gardening delights.

Mr. Warner is not complimentary to woman’s work in the garden, though he displays all the graceful deference of his countrymen to the weaker sex. In the charming dedication to his wife, whilst desiring “to acknowledge an influence which has lent half the charm to my labour,” he adds: “If I were in a court of justice, or injustice, under oath, I should not like to say that, either in the wooing days of spring, or under the suns of the summer solstice, you had been, either with hoe, rake, or miniature spade, of the least use in the garden.” Perhaps our fair cousins on the other side of the Atlantic do not grub so energetically as we do. Certainly, with us it is very common for the ladies of the family to be the practical gardeners, the master of the house caring chiefly for a good general effect, with tidy walks and grassplots, and displaying less of that almost maternal solicitude which does bring flowers to perfection.

I have sometimes thought that it would be a good division of labour in a Little Garden, if, where Joan coddles the roses and rears the seedlings, Darby would devote some of his leisure to the walks and grassplots.

Few things in one’s garden are pleasanter to one’s own eye, or gain more admiration from others, than well-kept turf. Green grass is one of the charms of the British Isles, which are emerald isles throughout, though Ireland is so par excellence. It is so much a matter of course to us that we hardly realize this till we hear or read what foreigners say about it, and also our own American and colonial cousins. We go abroad and revel in real sunshine, and come home with glowing memories to abuse our own cloudy skies; but they come from burnt-up landscapes to refresh their eyes with our perpetual green.

Even a little grassplot well repays pains and care. If you have to make it, never use cheap seed. Buy the very best from seedsmen of repute, or you will get a conglomeration of weeds instead of a greensward of fine grasses and white clover. Trench the ground to an even depth, tread it firm, and have light, finely-sifted soil uppermost. Sow thickly early in April, cover lightly, and protect from birds. If the soil is good, and the seed first-rate, your sward will be green the first season.

Turfs make a lawn somewhat quicker than seed. The best are cut from the road-side, but it is a hateful despoiling of one of the fairest of travellers’ joys. Those who commit this highway robbery should reckon themselves in honour bound to sow the bare places they leave behind. Some people cut the pieces eighteen inches square, some about a yard long and twelve inches wide. Cut thin, roll up like thin bread-and-butter. When they are laid down, fit close together, like bits of a puzzle, and roll well after laying. If they gape with shrinking, fill in between with finely-sifted soil, and roll again and again.

Strictly speaking, a grassplot should be all grass, grass and a little white clover. “Soldiers” (of the plantain type) are not to be tolerated on a lawn, but I have a weak corner for dog-daisies. I once owned a little garden in Canada, but never a dog-daisy grew there. A lady I knew had one—in a pot—sent from “Home.” But even if you have a sentimental fondness for “the pretty things” (as their botanical name signifies), and like to see their little white faces peeping out of the grass, this must not be carried too far. In some soils dog-daisies will soon devour the whole lawn.

How are they, and “soldiers,” and other weeds to be extirpated? There are many nostrums, but none so effectual as a patient digging up (with a long “daisy fork”) of plant after plant by the roots. The whole family party and any chance visitors will not be too many for the work, and, if each labourer is provided with a cast-iron back with a hinge in it, so much the better. A writer in the Garden seems to have been very successful with salt, used early in the season and with great care. He says: “After the first cutting in the spring put as much salt on each weed, through the palm of the hand, as will distinctly cover it. In two or three days, depending on the weather, they will turn brown. Those weeds that have escaped can be distinctly seen, and the operation should be repeated. The weeds thus treated die, and in about three weeks the grass will have grown, and there will not be a vestige of disturbance left. Two years ago I converted a rough pasture into a tennis-ground for six courts. Naturally the turf was a mass of rough weeds. It took three days to salt them, and the result was curiously successful.”

Another prescription is to cut off the crowns of the offending plants, and dose them with a few drops of carbolic acid.

Grass will only grow dense by constant cutting and moisture. The scythe works best when the grass is wet, and the machine when it is dry. Sweep it and roll it during the winter. Pick off stones, sticks, or anything that “has no business” on it, as you would pick “bits” off a carpet.

If grass grows rank and coarse, a dressing of sand will improve it; if it is poor and easily burned up, give it a sprinkling of soot, or guano, or wood ashes (or all three mixed) before rain. “Slops” are as welcome to parched grass as to half-starved flowers. If the weather is hot and the soil light, it is well occasionally to leave the short clippings of one mowing upon the lawn to protect the roots.

I do not know if it becomes unmanageable, but, in moderation, I think camomile a very charming intruder on a lawn, and the aromatic scent which it yields to one’s tread to be very grateful in the open air. It is pleasant, too, to have a knoll or a bank somewhere, where thyme can grow among the grass. But the subject of flowers that grow well through grass is a large one. It is one also on which the members of our Parkinson Society would do kindly to give us any exceptional experiences, especially in reference to flowers which not only flourish among grass, but do not resent being mown down. The lovely blue windflower (Anemone Apennina) is, I believe, one of these.

There is no doubt that now and then plants prefer to meet with a little resistance, and despise a bed that is made too comfortable. Self-sown ones often come up much more vigorously through the hard path than when the seed has fallen within the border. The way to grow the parsley fern is said to be to clap a good big stone on his crown very early in the spring, and let him struggle out at all corners from underneath it. It is undoubtedly a comfort to rock-plants and creeping things to be planted with a stone over their feet to keep them cool!

Which reminds me of stones for bordering. I think they make the best of all edgings for a Little Garden. Box-edgings are the prettiest, but they are expensive, require good keeping, and harbour slugs. For that matter, most things seem to harbour slugs in any but a very dry climate, and there are even more prescriptions for their destruction than that of lawn weeds. I don’t think lime does much, nor soot. Wet soon slakes them. Thick slices of turnip are attractive. Slugs really do seem to like them, even better than one’s favourite seedlings. Little heaps of bran also, and young lettuces. My slugs do not care for cabbage leaves, and they are very untidy. Put thick slices of turnip near your auriculas, favourite primroses and polyanthuses, and Christmas roses, and near anything tender and not well established, and overhaul them early in the morning. “You can’t get up too early, if you have a garden,” says Mr. Warner; and he adds: “Things appear to go on in the night in the garden uncommonly. It would be less trouble to stay up than it is to get up so early!”

To return to stone edgings. When quite newly laid, like miniature rockwork, they are, perhaps, the least bit cockneyfled, and suggestive of something between oyster-shell borderings and mock ruins. But this effect very rapidly disappears as they bury themselves in cushions of pink catch-fly (v. compacta), or low-growing pinks, tiny campanulas, yellow viola, London pride, and the vast variety of rock-plants, “alpines,” and low-growing “herbaceous stuff,” which delight in squeezing up to a big cool stone that will keep a little moisture for their rootlets in hot summer weather. This is a much more interesting kind of edging than any one kind of plant can make, I think, and in a Little Garden it is like an additional border, leaving the other free for bigger plants. If one kind is preferred, for a light soil there is nothing like thrift. And the white thrift is very silvery and more beautiful than the pink. There is a large thrift, too, which is handsome. But I prefer stones, and I like varieties of colour—bits of grey boulder, and red and yellow sandstone.

I like warm colour also on the walks. I should always have red walks if I could afford them. There is a red material, the result of some process of burning, which we used to get in the iron and coal districts of Yorkshire, which I used to think very pretty, but I do not know what it is called.

Good walks are a great luxury. It is a wise economy to go round your walks after rain and look for little puddles; make a note of where the water lodges and fill it up. Keep gratings swept. If the grating is free and there is an overflow not to be accounted for, it is very possible that a drain-pipe somewhere is choke-full of the roots of some tree.

Some people advise hacking up your walks from time to time, and other people advise you not. Some people say there is nothing like salt to destroy walk weeds and moss, and brighten the gravel, and some people say that salt in the long run feeds the ground and the weeds. I am disposed to think that, in a Little Garden, there is nothing like a weeding woman with an old knife and a little salt afterwards. it is also advisable to be your own weeding woman, that you may be sure that the weeds come up by the roots! Next to the cast-iron back before mentioned, I recommend a housemaid’s kneeling mat (such as is used for scrubbing floors), as a gardener’s comfort.

I hope, if you have been bulb planting, that you got them all in by Lord Mayor’s Day. Whether bulbs should be planted deep or shallow is another “vexed question.” In a Little Garden, where you don’t want to disturb them, and may like to plant out some small-rooted annuals on the top of them later on, I should plant deep.

If you are planting roses, remember that two or three, carefully planted in good stuff that goes deep, will pay you better than six times the number stuck into a hole in cold clay or sand or builders’ rubbish, and left to push their rootlets as best they can, or perish in the attempt. Spread out these rootlets very tenderly when planting. You will reap the reward of your gentleness in flowers. Rose roots don’t like being squeezed, like a Chinese lady’s feet. I was taught this by one who knows,—He has a good name for the briar suckers and sprouts which I hope you carefully cut off from your grafted roses,—He calls it “the old Adam!”

Yours, &c.

Mary’s Meadow    |    Letter III

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