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

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Letters from a Little Garden

Letter III

“A good rule
Is a good tool.”

January is not a month in which you are likely to be doing much in your Little Garden. Possibly a wet blanket of snow lies thick and white over all its hopes and anxieties. No doubt you made all tidy, and some things warm, for the winter, in the delicious opportunities of St. Luke’s and St. Martin’s little summers, and, like the amusing American I told you of, “turned away writing resurgam on the gate-post.”

I write resurgam on labels, and put them wherever bulbs lie buried, or such herbaceous treasures as die down, and are, in consequence, too often treated as mere mortal remains of the departed, by the undiscriminating hand of the jobbing gardener.

Winter is a good time to make plans, and to put them down in your Garden-book. Have you a Garden-book? A note-book, I mean, devoted to garden memoranda. It is a very useful kind of commonplace book, and soon becomes as fascinating as autumn and spring catalogues.

One has to learn to manage even a Little Garden chiefly by experience, which is sure teaching, if slow. Books and gardeners are helpful; but, like other doctors, they differ. I think one is often slower to learn anything than one need be, from not making at once for first principles. If one knew more of these, it would be easier to apply one’s own experience, and to decide amid conflicting advice.

Here are a few rough-and-ready” first principles” for you.

Hardy flowers in hedges and ditches are partly fed, and are also covered from cold and heat, and winds, and drought, by fallen leaves and refuse. Hardy flowers in gardens have all this tidied away from them, and, being left somewhat hungry and naked in proportion, are all the better for an occasional top-dressing and mulching, especially in autumn. It is not absolutely necessary to turn a flower border upside down and dig it over every year. It may (for some years at any rate), if you find this more convenient, be treated on the hedge system, and fed from the top; thinning big clumps, pulling up weeds, moving and removing in detail.

Concentrated strength means large blooms. If a plant is ripening seed, some strength goes to that; if bursting into many blooms, some goes to each of them; if it is trying to hold up against blustering winds, or to thrive on exhausted ground, or to straighten out cramped and clogged roots, these struggles also demand strength. Moral: Plant carefully, support your tall plants, keep all your plants in easy circumstances, don’t put them to the trouble of ripening seed (unless you specially want it). To this end cut off fading flowers, and also cut off buds in places where they would not show well when they came out, and all this economized strength will go into the blossoms that remain.

You cannot grow everything. Grow what suits your soil and climate, and the best kinds of these, as well as you can. You may make soil to suit a plant, but you cannot make the climate to suit it, and some flowers are more fastidious about the air they breathe than about the soil they feed upon. There are, however, scores of sturdy, handsome flowers, as hardy as Highlanders, which will thrive in almost any soil, and under all the variations of climate of the British Isles. Some will even endure the smoke-laden atmosphere of towns and town suburbs; which, sooner or later, is certain death to so many. It is a pity that small florists and greengrocers in London do not know more about this; and it would be a great act of kindness to them and to their customers to instruct them. Then, instead of encouraging the ruthless slaughter of primroses, scores and hundreds of plants of which are torn up and then sold in a smoky atmosphere to which they never adapt themselves, these small shopkeepers might offer plants of the many beautiful varieties of poppies, from the grand Orientalis onwards, chrysanthemums, stocks, wall-flowers, Canterbury bells, salvias, oenotheras, snapdragons, perennial lobelias, iris, and other plants which are known to be very patient under a long course of soot. Most of the hardy Californian annuals bear town life well. Perhaps because they have only to bear it for a year. Convolvulus major—the Morning Glory, as our American cousins so prettily call it—flourishes on a smutty wall as generously as the Virginian creeper.

North borders are safest in winter. They are free from the dangerous alternation of sunshine and frost. Put things of doubtful hardihood under a north wall, with plenty of sandy soil or ashes over their roots, some cinders on that, and perhaps a little light protection, like bracken, in front of them, and their chances will not be bad. Apropos to tender things, if your Little Garden is in a cold part of the British Isles, and has ungenial conditions of soil and aspect, don’t try to keep tender things out of doors in winter; but, if it is in the south or west of the British Isles, I should be tempted to very wide experiments with lots of plants not commonly reckoned “hardy.” Where laurels flower freely you will probably be successful eight years out of ten. Most fuchsias, and tender things which die down, may be kept.

Very little will keep Jack Frost out, if he has not yet been in, either in the garden or the house. A “hot bottle” will keep frost out of a small room where one has stored geraniums, &c., so will a small paraffin lamp (which—N.B.—will also keep water-pipes from catastrophe). How I have toiled, in my young days, with these same hot-water bottles in a cupboard off the nursery, which was my nearest approach to a greenhouse! And how sadly I have experienced that where Mr. Frost goes out Mr. Mould is apt to slink in! Truly, as Mr. Warner says, “the gardener needs all the consolations of a high philosophy!”

It is a great satisfaction if things will live out of doors. And in a little garden a good deal of coddling may be done. I am going to get some round fruit hampers to turn over certain tender pets this winter. When one has one’s flowers by the specimen and not by the score, such cosseting is possible. Ashes and cinders are excellent protection for the roots, and for plants—like roses—which do not die back to the earth level, and which sometimes require a screen as well as a quilt, bracken, fir branches, a few peasticks, and matting or straw are all handy helps. The old gentleman who ran out—without his dressing-gown—to fling his own bed-quilt over some plants endangered by an unexpected frost, came very near to having a fine show of bloom and not being there to see it; but, short of this excessive zeal, when one’s garden is a little one, and close to one’s threshold, one may catch Jack Frost on the surface of many bits of rough-and-ready fencing on very cold nights.

In drought, one good soaking with tepid water is worth six sprinklings. Watering is very fatiguing, but it is unskilled labour, and one ought to be able to hire strong arms to do it at a small rate. But I never met the hired person yet who could be persuaded that it was needful to do more than make the surface of the ground look as if it had been raining.

There is a “first principle” of which some gardeners are very fond, but in which I do not believe, that if you begin to water you must go on, and that too few waterings do harm. What I don’t believe is that they do harm, nor did I ever meet with a gardener who complained of an odd shower, even if the skies did not follow it up. An odd sprinkling does next to no good, but an odd soaking may save the lives of your plants. In very hot weather don’t grudge a few waterings to your polyanthuses and primroses. If they are planted in open sunny borders, with no shade or hedge-mulching, they suffer greatly from drought.

Flowers, like human beings, are, to some extent, creatures of habit. They get used to many things which they can’t at all abide once in a way. If your Little Garden (like mine) is part of a wandering establishment, here to-day and there to-morrow, you may get even your roses into very good habits of moving good-humouredly, and making themselves quickly at home. If plants from the first are accustomed to being moved about,—every year, or two years,—they do not greatly resent it. A real “old resident,” who has pushed his rootlets far and wide, and never tried any other soil or aspect, is very slow to settle elsewhere, even if he does not die of nostalgia and nervous shock! In making cuttings, consider the habits and customs of the parent plant If it has been grown in heat, the cuttings will require beat to start them. And so on, as to dry soil or moist, &c. If somebody gives you “a root” in hot weather, or a bad time for moving, when you have made your hole pour water in very freely. Saturate the ground below, “puddle in” your plants with plenty more, and you will probably save it, especially if you turn a pot or basket over it in the heat of the day. In warm weather plant in the evening, the new-comers then have a round of the clock in dews and restfulness before the sun is fierce enough to make them flag. In cold weather move in the morning, and for the same period they will be safe from possible frost. Little, if any, watering is needed for late autumn plantings.

Those parts of a plant which are not accustomed to exposure are those which suffer from it. You may garden bare-handed in a cold wind and not be the worse for it, but, if both your arms were bared to the shoulders, the consequences would probably be very different. A bundle of rose-trees or shrubs will bear a good deal on their leaves and branches, but for every moment you leave their roots exposed to drying and chilling blasts they suffer. When a plant is out of the ground, protect its crown and its roots at once. If a plant is moved quickly, it is advantageous, of course, to take it up with as much earth as possible, if the roots remain undisturbed in their little plat. Otherwise, earth is no better than any other protection; and in sending plants by post, &c. (when soil weighs very heavily), it is better to wash every bit of soil out of the roots, and then thoroughly wrap them in moss, and outside that in hay or tow, or cotton-wool. Then, if the roots are comfortably spread in nice mould at the other end of the journey, all should go well.

I reserve a sneaking credulity about “lucky fingers.” Or rather, I should say, a belief that some people have a strange power (or tact) in dealing with the vegetable world, as others have in controlling and coaxing animals.

It is a vivid memory of my childhood that (amongst the box-edged gardens of a family of eight) that of my eldest brother was almost inconvenienced by the luck of his fingers. “Survival of the fittest” (if hardiest does mean fittest!) kept the others within bounds; but what he begged, borrowed, and stole, survived, all of it, conglomerate around the “double velvet” rose, which formed the centre-piece. We used to say that when the top layer was pared off, a buried crop came up.

An old friend with lucky fingers visited my Little Garden this autumn. He wanders all over the world, and has no garden of his own except window-boxes in London, where he seems to grow what he pleases. He is constantly doing kindnesses, and likes to do them his own way. He christened a border (out of which I had not then turned the builders’ rubbish) Desolation Border, with more candour than compliment. He said it wanted flowers, and he meant to sow some. I suggested that, sown at that period of the summer, they would not flower this season. He said they would. (They did.) None of my suggestions met with favour, so I became gratefully passive, and watched the lucky fingers from a distance, fluttering small papers, and making mystic deposits here and there, through the length and breadth of the garden. I only begged him to avoid my labels. The seeds he sowed ranged from three (rather old) seeds of bottle gourd to a packet of mixed Virginian stock. They all came up. He said, “I shall put them in where I think it is desirable, and when they come up you’ll see where they are.” I did.

For some days after his departure, on other country visits, I received plants by post. Not in tins, or boxes, but in envelopes with little or no packing. In this way came sea lavender in full bloom, crimson monkey plant from the London window-box, and cuttings of mesembryanthemum. They are all alive and thriving!

The bottle gourd and the annuals have had their day, and it is over; but in the most unexpected places there still rise, like ghosts, certain plants which completely puzzle me. [a] They have not blossomed, but they grow on in spite of frost. Some of them are nearly as tall as myself. They almost alarm me when I am dividing violas, and trifling with alpines. They stand over me (without sticks) and seem to say, “We are up, you see where we are! We shall grow as long as we think it desirable.”

Farewell for the present, Little Friend,

Yours, &c.


[a] When fully grown these plants proved to be the Tree-Mallow, Lavateva arborea; the seeds were gathered from specimens on the shores of the Mediterranean.    [back]

Mary’s Meadow    |    Letter IV

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