Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
What I Know About Gardening
By Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900)
[Born in Plainfield, Mass., 1829. Died in Hartford, Conn., 1900. My Summer in a Garden. 1870.—Seventh Edition. 1888.]


MY mind has been turned to the subject of fruit and shade trees in a garden. There are those who say that trees shade the garden too much, and interfere with the growth of the vegetables. There may be something in this: but when I go down the potato-rows, the rays of the sun glancing upon my shining blade, the sweat pouring from my face, I should be grateful for shade. What is a garden for? The pleasure of man. I should take much more pleasure in a shady garden. Am I to be sacrificed, broiled, roasted, for the sake of the increased vigor of a few vegetables? The thing is perfectly absurd. If I were rich, I think I would have my garden covered with an awning, so that it would be comfortable to work in it. It might roll up and be removable, as the great awning of the Roman Coliseum was,—not like the Boston one, which went off in a high wind. Another very good way to do, and probably not so expensive as the awning, would be to have four persons of foreign birth carry a sort of canopy over you as you hoed. And there might be a person at each end of the row with some cool and refreshing drink. Agriculture is still in a very barbarous stage. I hope to live yet to see the day when I can do my gardening, as tragedy is done, to slow and soothing music, and attended by some of the comforts I have named. These things come so forcibly into my mind sometimes as I work that perhaps, when a wandering breeze lifts my straw hat, or a bird lights on a near currant-bush, and shakes out a full-throated summer song, I almost expect to find the cooling drink and the hospitable entertainment at the end of the row. But I never do. There is nothing to be done but to turn round and hoe back to the other end.

  Let us have peas. I have been a zealous advocate of the birds. I have rejoiced in their multiplication. I have endured their concerts at four o’clock in the morning without a murmur. Let them come, I said, and eat the worms, in order that we, later, may enjoy the foliage and the fruits of the earth. We have a cat, a magnificent animal, of the sex which votes (but not a pole-cat),—so large and powerful that, if he were in the army, he would be called Long Tom. He is a cat of fine disposition, the most irreproachable morals I ever saw thrown away in a cat, and a splendid hunter. He spends his nights, not in social dissipation, but in gathering in rats, mice, flying-squirrels, and also birds. When he first brought me a bird, I told him that it was wrong, and tried to convince him, while he was eating it, that he was doing wrong; for he is a reasonable cat, and understands pretty much everything except the binomial theorem and the time down the cycloidal arc. But with no effect. The killing of birds went on, to my great regret and shame.
  The other day I went to my garden to get a mess of peas. I had seen the day before that they were just ready to pick. How I had lined the ground, planted, hoed, bushed them! The bushes were very fine,—seven feet high, and of good wood. How I had delighted in the growing, the blowing, the podding! What a touching thought it was that they had all podded for me! When I went to pick them I found the pods all split open, and the peas gone. The dear little birds, who are so fond of the strawberries, had eaten them all. Perhaps there were left as many as I planted; I did not count them. I made a rapid estimate of the cost of the seed, the interest of the ground, the price of labor, the value of the bushes, the anxiety of weeks of watchfulness. I looked about me on the face of Nature. The wind blew from the south so soft and treacherous! A thrush sang in the woods so deceitfully! All Nature seemed fair. But who was to give me back my peas? The fowls of the air have peas; but what has man!  3
  I went into the house. I called Calvin. (That is the name of our cat, given him on account of his gravity, morality, and uprightness. We never familiarly call him John.) I petted Calvin. I lavished upon him an enthusiastic fondness. I told him that he had no fault; that the one action that I had called a vice was an heroic exhibition of regard for my interests. I bade him go and do likewise continually. I now saw how much better instinct is than mere unguided reason. Calvin knew. If he had put his opinion into English (instead of his native catalogue), it would have been, “You need not teach your grandmother to suck eggs.” It was only the round of Nature. The worms eat a noxious something in the ground. The birds eat the worms. Calvin eats the birds. We eat—no, we do not eat Calvin. There the chain stops. When you ascend the scale of being, and come to an animal that is, like ourselves, inedible, you have arrived at a result where you can rest. Let us respect the cat. He completes an edible chain….  4
  The pleasure of gardening in these days when the thermometer is at ninety, is one that I fear I shall not be able to make intelligible to my readers, many of whom do not appreciate the delight of soaking in the sunshine. I suppose that the sun, going through a man, as it will on such a day, takes out of him rheumatism, consumption, and every other disease, except sudden death—from sunstroke. But, aside from this, there is an odor from the evergreens, the hedges, the various plants and vines, that is only expressed and set afloat at a high temperature, which is delicious; and, hot as it may be, a little breeze will come at intervals, which can be heard in the tree-tops, and which is an unobtrusive benediction. I hear a quail or two whistling in the ravine; and there is a good deal of fragmentary conversation going on among the birds, even on the warmest days. The companionship of Calvin, also, counts for a good deal. He usually attends me, unless I work too long in one place; sitting down on the turf, displaying the ermine of his breast, and watching my movements with great intelligence. He has a feline and genuine love for the beauties of Nature, and will establish himself where there is a good view, and look on it for hours. He always accompanies us when we go to gather the vegetables, seeming to be desirous to know what we are to have for dinner. He is a connoisseur in the garden; being fond of almost all the vegetables, except the cucumber,—a dietetic hint to man. I believe it is also said that the pig will not eat tobacco. These are important facts. It is singular, however, that those who hold up the pigs as models to us never hold us up as models to the pigs.  5
  I wish I knew as much about natural history and the habits of animals as Calvin does. He is the closest observer I ever saw; and there are few species of animals on the place that he has not analyzed. I think that he has, to use a euphemism very applicable to him, got outside of every one of them, except the toad. To the toad he is entirely indifferent; but I presume he knows that the toad is the most useful animal in the garden. I think the Agricultural Society ought to offer a prize for the finest toad. When Polly comes to sit in the shade near my strawberry-beds, to shell peas, Calvin is always lying near in apparent obliviousness; but not the slightest unusual sound can be made in the bushes that he is not alert, and prepared to investigate the cause of it. It is this habit of observation, so cultivated, which has given him such a trained mind, and made him so philosophical. It is within the capacity of even the humblest of us to attain this.  6

  Speaking of the philosophical temper, there is no class of men whose society is more to be desired for this quality than that of plumbers. They are the most agreeable men I know; and the boys in the business begin to be agreeable very early. I suspect the secret of it is that they are agreeable by the hour. In the driest days, my fountain became disabled: the pipe was stopped up. A couple of plumbers, with the implements of their craft, came out to view the situation. There was a good deal of difference of opinion about where the stoppage was. I found the plumbers perfectly willing to sit down and talk about it,—talk by the hour. Some of their guesses and remarks were exceedingly ingenious; and their general observations on other subjects were excellent in their way, and could hardly have been better if they had been made by the job. The work dragged a little,—as it is apt to do by the hour. The plumbers had occasion to make me several visits. Sometimes they would find, upon arrival, that they had forgotten some indispensable tool; and one would go back to the shop, a mile and a half, after it; and his comrade would await his return with the most exemplary patience, and sit down and talk,—always by the hour. I do not know but it is a habit to have something wanted at the shop. They seemed to me very good workmen, and always willing to stop and talk about the job, or anything else, when I went near them. Nor had they any of that impetuous hurry that is said to be the bane of our American civilization. To their credit be it said that I never observed anything of it in them. They can afford to wait. Two of them will sometimes wait nearly half a day while a comrade goes for a tool. They are patient and philosophical. It is a great pleasure to meet such men. One only wishes there was some work he could do for them by the hour. There ought to be reciprocity. I think they have very nearly solved the problem of Life: it is to work for other people, never for yourself, and get your pay by the hour. You then have no anxiety, and little work. If you do things by the job, you are perpetually driven: the hours are scourges. If you work by the hour, you gently sail on the stream of Time, which is always bearing you on to the haven of Pay, whether you make any effort or not. Working by the hour tends to make one moral. A plumber working by the job, trying to unscrew a rusty, refractory nut, in a cramped position, where the tongs continually slipped off, would swear; but I never heard one of them swear, or exhibit the least impatience at such a vexation, working by the hour. Nothing can move a man who is paid by the hour. How sweet the flight of time seems to his calm mind!

  A garden ought to produce one everything,—just as a business ought to support a man, and a house ought to keep itself. We had a convention lately to resolve that the house should keep itself; but it won’t. There has been a lively time in our garden this summer; but it seems to me there is very little show for it. It has been a terrible campaign; but where is the indemnity? Where are all “sass” and Lorraine? It is true that we have lived on the country; but we desire, besides, the fruits of the war. There are no onions, for one thing. I am quite ashamed to take people into my garden, and have them notice the absence of onions. It is very marked. In onion is strength: and a garden without it lacks flavor. The onion in its satin wrappings is among the most beautiful of vegetables; and it is the only one that represents the essence of things. It can almost be said to have a soul. You take off coat after coat and the onion is still there; and, when the last one is removed, who dare say that the onion itself is destroyed, though you can weep over its departed spirit? If there is any one thing on this fallen earth that the angels in heaven weep over more than another, it is the onion.
  I know that there is supposed to be a prejudice against the onion; but I think there is rather a cowardice in regard to it. I doubt not that all men and women love the onion; but few confess their love. Affection for it is concealed. Good New Englanders are as shy of owning it as they are of talking about religion. Some people have days on which they eat onions,—what you might call “retreats,” or their “Thursdays.” The act is in the nature of a religious ceremony, an Eleusinian mystery; not a breath of it must get abroad. On that day they see no company; they deny the kiss of greeting to the dearest friend; they retire within themselves, and hold communion with one of the most pungent and penetrating manifestations of the moral vegetable world. Happy is said to be the family which can eat onions together. They are, for the time being, separate from the world, and have a harmony of aspiration. There is a hint here for the reformers. Let them become apostles of the onion; let them eat, and preach it to their fellows, and circulate tracts of it in the form of seeds. In the onion is the hope of universal brotherhood. If all men will eat onions at all times, they will come into a universal sympathy. Look at Italy. I hope I am not mistaken as to the cause of her unity. It was the Reds who preached the gospel which made it possible. All the Reds of Europe, all the sworn devotees of the mystic Mary Ann, eat of the common vegetable. Their oaths are strong with it. It is the food, also, of the common people of Italy. All the social atmosphere of that delicious land is laden with it. Its odor is a practical democracy. In the churches all are alike; there is one faith, one smell. The entrance of Victor Emmanuel into Rome is only the pompous proclamation of a unity which garlic had already accomplished; and yet we, who boast of our democracy, eat onions in secret.  9
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