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

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Letters from a Little Garden

Letter IV

“When Candlemas Day is come and gone,
The snow lies on a hot stone.”
Old Saw.

Among all the changes and chances of human life which go to make up fiction as well as fact, there is one change which has never chanced to any man; and yet the idea has been found so fascinating by all men that it appears in the literature of every country. Most other fancied transformations are recorded as facts somewhere in the history of our race. Poor men have become rich, the beggar has sat among princes, the sick have been made whole, the dead have been raised, the neglected man has awoke to find himself famous, rough and kindly beasts have been charmed by lovely ladies into very passable Princes, and it would be hard to say that the ugly have not seen themselves beautiful in the mirror of friendly eyes; but the old have never become young. The elixir of youth has intoxicated the imagination of many, but no drop of it has ever passed human lips.

If we ever do just taste anything of the vital, hopeful rapture, the elastic delight of the old man of a fairy tale, who leaves his cares, his crutches, and his chimney-corner, to go forth again young amongst the young,—it is when the winter is ended and the spring is come. Some people may feel this rising of the sap of life within them more than others, but there are probably very few persons whom the first mild airs and bursting buds and pushing flower-crowns do not slightly intoxicate with a sort of triumphant pleasure.

What then, dear little friend, must be the, February feelings of the owner of a Little Garden? Knowing, as we do, every plant and its place,—having taken just pride in its summer bloom,—having preserved this by cares and trimmings and proppings to a picturesque and florid autumn, though wildflowers have long been shrivelled and shapeless,—having tidied it up and put a little something comforting round it when bloom and outline were absolutely no more: what must we feel when we first detect the ruddy young shoots of our favourite paeonies, or perceive that the brown old hepaticas have become green and young again and are full of flower-buds?

The process of strolling, with bent back and peering eyes, by the side of the still frosty borders is so deeply interesting, and a very little sunshine on a broad band of crocuses has such a summer-like effect, that one is apt to forget that it is one of the cheapest ways of catching cold. The last days of the gardening year not unfrequently lead from the flower-bed to the sick-bed. But though there is for susceptible folk a noxious influence in the decaying vegetation of autumn, from which spring is free, there is bitter treachery in many a spring wind, and the damp of the ground seems to reek with the exuding chill of all the frosts that have bound it in mid-winter.

I often wonder that, for some exigencies of weather, the outdoor red-flannel knickerbockers which one wears in Canada are not more in use here. The very small children have all their clothes stuffed into them, and tumble safely about in the snow like little Dutchmen. Older wearers of petticoats cram all in except the outermost skirt. It is a very simple garment made of three pieces,—two (straight) legs and a large square. The square is folded like a kerchief, and the leg pieces attached to the two sloping sides. A broad elastic and small openings on each side and at the top enable these very baggy knickerbockers to be easily pulled on for going out (where they effectually exclude cold exhalations from snow or damp ground), and pulled off on coming in.

Short of such coddling as this, I strongly urge fleecy cork socks inside your garden boots; and I may add that if you’ve never tried them, you can have no idea of the warmth and comfort of a pair of boy’s common yellow-leather leggings, but the buttons will require some adjusting.

Of course, very robust gardeners are independent of these troublesome considerations; but the gardening members of a family, whether young or old, are very often not those vigorous people who can enjoy their fresh air at unlimited tennis or a real good stretching walk over the hills. They are oftener those weaker vessels who have to be content with strolls, and drives, and sketching, and “pottering about the garden.”

Now, pottering about the garden in spring and autumn has many risks for feeble vitalities, and yet these are just the seasons when everything requires doing, and there is a good hour’s work in every yard of a pet border any day. So verbum sap. One has to “pay with one’s person” for most of one’s pleasures, if one is delicate; but it is possible to do a great deal of equinoctial grubbing with safety and even benefit, if one is very warmly protected, especially about the feet and legs. These details are very tedious for young people, but not so tedious as being kept indoors by a cold.

And not only must delicate gardeners be cosseted with little advantages at these uncertain seasons, the less robust of the flowers gain equally by timely care. Jack Frost comes and goes, and leaves many plants (especially those planted the previous autumn) half jumped out of the ground. Look out for this, and tread them firmly in again. A shovel-full of cinder-siftings is a most timely attention round the young shoots of such as are poking up their noses a little too early, and seem likely to get them frost-bitten. Most alpines and low-growing stuff will bear light rolling after the frost has unsettled them. This is done in large gardens, but in a Little Garden they can be attended to individually. Give a little protection to what is too forward in growth, or badly placed, or of doubtful hardihood, or newly planted. Roses and hardy perennials can be planted in open weather.

But you will not really be very busy outside till March, and we are not concerning ourselves with what has to be done “in heat,” where a good deal is going on.

Still, in mild climates or seasons (and one must always remember how greatly the British Isles vary in parts, as to climate), the idea of seedlings and cuttings will begin to stir our souls, when February “fills dike,” if it is “with black and not with white,” i.e. with rain and not snow. So I will just say that for a Little Garden, and a mixed garden, demanding patches, not scores of things, you can raise a wonderfully sufficient number of half-hardy things in an ordinary room, with one or two bell-glasses to give the moist atmosphere in which sitting-rooms are wanting. A common tumbler will cover a dozen “seedlings,” and there you have two nice little clumps of half-a-dozen plants each, when they are put out. (And mind you leave them space to spread.) A lot of little cuttings can be rooted in wet sand. Hard-wooded cuttings may grow along slowly in cool places; little juicy soft ones need warmth, damp, and quick pushing forward. The very tips of fuchsias grow very easily struck early in wet sand, and will flower the same year. Kind friends will give you these, and if they will also give you “tips” of white, yellow, and blue Marguerites (this last is Agathea celestis), these strike as easily as chrysanthemums, and are delightful afterwards to cut from. They are not very tender, though not quite hardy.

For the few pots and pans and boxes of cuttings and seedlings which you require, it is well worth while to get a small stock of good compost from a nursery gardener; leaf mould, peat, and sand, whether for seedlings or cuttings. Always sink your pot in a second covering. Either have your pots sunk in a box of sand, which you can keep damp, or have small pots sunk in larger ones. A great-coat to prevent evaporation, in some shape, is invaluable.

Yours, &c.,


Mary’s Meadow

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