The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
In Praise of Gardens & Gardening.

by J. S. Turner.
Outdoor Superintendent, the Horticultural College, Swanley.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 845-851

A short fortnight is not a great time in which to turn out a gardener, and I have therefore thought it better to confine myself entirely to one branch of the subject, viz., Propagation. I might have chosen many others--the formation of gardens, the growing of particular families of plants, the injurious or beneficial insects of a garden, or many more, but I chose propagation, partly because we could show you the practical side of seed sowing, taking cuttings, runners, &c., at this time of year, and partly because I thought it dovetailed into general nature study better than any other I could choose. You can study natural propagation at any time during your country rambles; you can watch the propagation of wild plants by runners or suckers; you can note the various forms of seeds, the winged seeds carried by the wind, the hooked seeds which are transported by your clothes, or on the coats of animals; the seeds of edible fruits and berries sown by the birds which feed on them. You can watch the insects transporting pollen from one flower to another, and so ensuring that cross fertilization so necessary for the maintenance of vigorous species; or you can watch the sheep and cattle cropping the herbage close and so "stopping" the plants and causing them to "tiller" and form a closer and finer swath.

Propagation of the species is the main aim and object of all plants and animals in a state of nature, and you need never want an object for study if you keep your eyes open during your rambles. There are many things you will not understand, but of one thing you may be sure, the nearer you get to Nature the nearer you will get to understanding the great Root and Cause of all things. Tennyson once wrote:--

      "Flower in the crannied wall,
      I pluck you out of the crannies,
      And hold you root and branch in my hand,
      Little flower; but if I could understand
      What you are, root and all, and all in all,
      I should know what God and man is!"

And the more understanding you get of the laws of Nature the nearer you will get to understanding the first great Cause and Law. There have been few greater nature students than Tennyson; take any of his poems and you will see how accurate all his observations are. Do you remember when Launcelot or Percival, I forget now which, counts the years he has "seen the yew tree smoke," or when Sir Bedivere tells Arthur of the shivering of the reeds on the margin of the lake? No one but a thorough student of nature could have written his description of the fen and wold. It is my country and I know how his poems are a real breath of the home air. But I am not here to lecture on Tennyson, but in "Praise of Gardens and Gardening."

The old story tells us that God planted a garden and the Devil spoilt it. But did he really spoil it? The worst he is accused of is that he introduced work and death, and where would gardening be without them? Nothing in this world is worth much if it is not worked for, and though death is constantly in the garden as elsewhere, there too is constant renewal of life, and nowhere is that renewal more evident than there. I fancy the man who "makes the desert blossom like a rose" will be prouder and happier than Adam in his lotus garden; or that Adam himself would be prouder of the first small potato he raised, and took to Eve to cook, than of "all the fruits of the garden."

Gardening is a most ancient and respectable calling. The first men were probably hunters, men who lived on game and wild fruits; then came the shepherds and cattle herds, who tamed the sheep and oxen, but wandered in search of pasture; and then the farmer and gardener, the man who tilled the ground, and made not only two blades grow where one grew before, but raised forty, sixty or a hundred-fold from his seed.

Gardeners are said to be the most conceited men on earth, and if they are--I don't admit they are--but if they are, can you wonder? They create! They take a wild, even a poisonous plant, and by cultivation produce a useful edible variety, or one of increased beauty. Certainly, sometimes their passion for creation leads them to an extreme, and they produce flowers which are far from being "things of beauty" and, thanks goodness, are not "joys for ever," for good taste prevails sooner or later, and monstrosities cease to be cultivated.

Gardeners are like poets; they are born not made! You may take a boy or girl and give them a thorough gardening education--even send them here to Swanley--but if they are not born gardeners, they will remain hewers of wood and drawers of water, not fit to be trusted even to crock a pot unless the gardener's eye is on them.

Horticultural education is good; it will enable you to pass examinations, even to take the gold medal, but if you are not a born gardener--well, impart your knowledge to others, you can do that, you know all about it, but don’t try to grow a plant! Born gardeners are of all ranks. One of the best I have known was an old labourer who grew "calcies, cinnies, and pellies," but every plant was a specimen and he could not be beaten in vegetables.

Watch an old woman--a born gardener--over her window plant, and you will get an idea of the secret. She probably violates every canon of correct pot culture; her pot, instead of being clean and porous, has its pores clogged with red raddle, if not with red or green paint, or she may even have chosen a highly glazed and decorated teapot which has lost a spout or handle. Her compost is anything she can get, possibly a spadeful of earth from the roadside or nearest field; she knows nothing of roots, root hairs, or growing points, and so is sublimely indifferent to variety in soils, but watch her handle her plant. Every dead leaf and flower is snipped off with sharp scissors, not torn off or sawn off with a blunt knife. The pot is turned constantly so that every leaf may get its fair share of light. She picks over the surface soil, usually with her dinner fork, touching each particle as though afraid of hurting it, and when it wants water she lets it have it as much like natural rain as possible. I have seen an old woman holding an umbrella over the blooms of a pelargonium while she held the pot slantwise that the roots might receive the rain, utterly regardless of the shower bath she herself was receiving. The fact is she loves her plant and is constantly thinking what it would like, and plants are sufficiently like animals to respond to the treatment. Try and understand what your plants want; study the language of flowers in a practical not a sentimental way, and you will be able to grow them. Plants don't want coddling any more than children do--I fancy they often get too much of it even from professional gardeners, but they do want, and will respond to reasonable treatment.

There has been a great boom lately in gardening for ladies. I don't mean women gardeners who are taking up the profession seriously, but for ladies who like to potter about in a garden hat or sun-bonnet, with an apron and pair of scissors. Mrs. Earl, Miss Jeckyll, Dean Hole, and others wrote on gardening, wrote of what they understood and produced charming books, interesting, amusing and instructive, but they were followed by a host of others who caught an echo, a very faint echo in most cases, of their style, but knew no more than the cat of what they were writing about. Men and women who, to spin out their copy, enthused, as Punch put it, over slugs and snails, and dandelions and pigweed, and broke off to tell you how to boil a potato or paint a drain tile to hold grasses.

For anyone really fond of gardening, and willing to learn--for even natural gardeners must learn practical details--there is no more healthy and pleasant occupation. The mere smell of the newly turned earth in spring is a better tonic than any the doctor’s shop supplies; and if you turn it yourself, putting in honest spade work and not merely scratching the surface, you will need no gymnastics to open your chests and bring up your muscles; and, though your butcher’s bills may increase, the chemist may put up his shutters as far as you are concerned.

If you hanker after science, look what you can get from a garden! Botany, geology, chemistry, physics, biology, physiology, entomology, meteorology, are only some of the 'ologies you may study there, and greatest of all, sociology, for in spite of what Sir John Cockburn said, I still maintain that the "proper study of mankind is man," only take him bye and large, and don't confine yourself to the Fleet Street variety. As a gardener you will probably be an employer of labour, even if only on the small scale of a sixpenny day lad; and you will have to understand, not only your rights, as an employer, to an equivalent in labour of that sixpence, but I advise you to study and understand your duties as employer towards that lad, who is as complex a human being as yourself and not a mere machine. I am no socialist; I don't believe that Jack is as good as his master, or he would not remain Jack, but I know there are no rights without corresponding duties, and I know too, by long experience, that no work will be well and properly done under an employer who does not understand this.

Some of you are teachers of science in schools and have the care of school gardens, and I am hoping that the teaching the children get in these gardens and in their observation lessons may turn out better labourers than we have had lately, and also encourage the younger men to stick to the land. The old men who could turn their hands to anything, are dying off, and the young men can tell you the Latin name for a cabbage or potato, but have no notion how to set a rig or make a potato clamp. They know all about their rights, but they care very little for their duties. They are eloquent on a "fair day's wage for a fair day's work," but, unless your eye is constantly on them, it's no fair day's work you will get in exchange for the highest day's wage you may give. And this is one reason why I think school gardens will be such a good thing for the children. Take them all round, gardeners scamp their work less than most men; they take a pride in it, and they do their best, and give their best, to make "my place" a success. When a man speaks of my garden, or my horses, or my cows and pigs, you may feel pretty sure there is no scamping going on; and if you can get the children interested you will be doing good work.

I believe there is no trade or profession which is so good for one as farming or gardening; for one thing it is less monotonous than most, if intelligently followed. A clerk in an office or bank does the same thing day after day in exactly the same way, and so does a mechanic, even a skilled one, who tends machinery. A gardener does the same thing over and over again no doubt, but never exactly in the same way. He has to allow for the weather and the state of the soil, and, though he may sometimes wish that the weather was less variable, still it saves him from monotony and from becoming a machine--he must use his brains.

If you doubt the benefit gardening is to men, you have only to consider the good being done by Lady Henry Somerset at Duxhurst, or General Booth in his Labour Colonies. They have their failures naturally, but there is no doubt of the good they are accomplishing. No man who gets back to the land, in close contact with his Mother Earth, can fail to be a better and cleaner man. Gardeners' language at times is startling and original, but its originality saves it from grossness, and it is generally followed by a half apology--"that I should say such a thing"-- or something of that sort. I have never heard a gardener use a meaningless string of oaths for ten minutes on end, as I have heard townsmen, and I don’t believe he could do it. If he tried he would be thoroughly ashamed of himself long before the ten minutes was up.

To turn from gardeners to gardens; consider how wonderfully the art and craft of gardening has improved and increased of late years. Good gardens, I suppose, there have always been here and there, but they were few and far between (read Evelyn's diary and see how he travelled in search of well-kept gardens). Now they are all over the country, from that belonging to the owner of a large estate, to a little villa garden as big as a respectable table cloth, and mostly well done.

I believe the Exhibition of '51 and the resulting much abused Crystal Palace had a lot to do with the revival of gardening. We are all agreed to abuse the terraces and steps and fountains and carpet bedding at Sydenham, but think what they meant. Thousands of people saw the blaze of colour, and were struck with it. They had no idea previously that so much could be done with flowers and foliage, and they went home and copied it as far as they could, sometimes with very funny results--an Italian garden or miniature Versailles in a plot 20 ft. square at the back of a suburban villa! But are we any better? Don't you think our herbaceous borders and our landscape gardening are apt to become equally ridiculous? Because an herbaceous border looks well in a large old garden, where it can be 20 ft. wide, it does not follow it is equally in place in a London suburb where it cannot exceed 3 ft. in width; and as to landscape gardening, how can you landscape, or whatever the correct term is, on a plot like a fisherman's walk, "three steps and overboard"? I passed a new house at Ealing not long since, with a garden plot the size of a fair dining-room, in which were two wire arches and a pepper-pot summer house, all coyly hiding behind a board, nearly as big as the plot, on which was painted, "These grounds laid out by Messrs. So & So, Landscape Gardeners, Plans and Estimates on Application"!

Still, in spite of these ridiculous excesses, the love of gardening is growing, and the very excesses are a proof of it; they are reaching after higher things. The workman who trains his runner beans on strings and so makes an arbour in which he can sit and smoke his pipe, instead of, as formerly, taking the air among groves of clothes props, whose fruit and foliage were fresh washed clothes, often very imperfectly washed, has made a great step in advance; and so too has the owner of a semi-detached house who lays out an herbaceous border instead of being contented with an arid waste ornamented with a water butt and given over to the cats of the neighbourhood as a play-ground. Nearly every weekly paper now contains a gardening column and one of answers to questions by anxious gardeners, and very well written they are as a rule. I have been much struck this summer when going up to town by the gardens by the line side. Some are mere backyards attached to small houses for labourers, others are probably owned by clerks and mechanics. There are rows and rows of them, some well done, some badly, some not touched at all, but where any attempt is made at gardening, there the house is always neater and better kept, the windows brighter and the steps cleaner, and I have not the slightest doubt, if we could see inside, we should find the same there. Some are evidently poor in the extreme, but I am certain that wherever an attempt has been made at gardening, no matter how poor, we should find a corresponding improvement inside.

There is one more side where gardening and nature study come very close, and that is in the animal life of the garden. Animals, birds, and insects may all be found and studied, and until you work with and among them you have no idea how much there is to interest you. I don't believe there is anything in the garden, except caterpillars and other noxious insects, that you can't tame. I have tamed all sorts, birds, moles, bats, toads, frogs, hedgehogs, and spiders; most of them to come to call, but all to eat freely close to me and show not the least fear when I was examining their nests; birds and animals soon learn where there is sanctuary. Where I was in Scotland I had about 100 acres inside the garden fence; big trees, shrubs, a burn running through a deep dell and an orchard which I planted. The second year I was there there were five or six fresh kinds of birds breeding. No one carried a gun, except myself to keep down rabbits, and that was put away during the breeding season, and though the children wanted to see every nest and poke their fingers even under the sitting birds, I can't remember one that deserted. The curious thing was that I kept always one, often two or three cats, and they took toll of the young birds, but the parents seemed to look on that as inevitable and it never disturbed them. Children are all interested in living things, and often the bird and animal life in a garden attracts them before they have any love of flowers and plants. That generally comes later, but the living, moving thing they can handle and tame appeals to them more strongly at first. As Sir John told you, the phases of a child’s life correspond to the ages in the history of man, and the average boy is still in a very dark age; as a rule he is an unmitigated little savage, and so he ought to be. If he is not he is in advance of his age, and to outgrow the age of his mind is as bad as to outgrow the age of his body. Precocity of either mind or body is inimical to wholesome maturity. We all know those precocious, saintly infants, whom doting parents consider "too good for this world." Luckily, as a rule, they prove so and go, we hope, to adorn a brighter sphere, for they are no good in this wicked workaday world. Thank goodness, the average boy is not precocious and very far from being too good. I don't believe a boy or any other young animal is any good unless he is as full of mischief as an egg is full of meat. Check all cruel mischief sharply, but mischief that merely means dirt or trouble to yourself, take as all in the day’s work. Above all be tender towards "collections." I still cherish a grudge towards numerous nurses who made periodical raids on my treasures. Poor creatures! whose sole use in life was to mend our clothes and wash our faces (generally unnecessarily), what could they know of the value of an uncut pebble that might be--probably was--a diamond; or of a box of silk worms, fed on particular leaves to ensure their silk being sky blue, which silk was destined to form a gown in which our mother or the latest queen of our heart was to appear at court? No! collections should be sacred as long as the owner values them, and above all don't let the boy think you regard his affairs as silly and unimportant. They are not; they are as important to him as yours to you, perhaps more so, for you know by experience that if things go wrong to-day they may be right to-morrow, but a child can't look forward. The boy is in the hunter, or at most the herdsman age, but the taming and handling of animals, the quiet and self-restraint he must exercise before they will respond to his advances, all teach him that self-restraint he must exercise if he is to get on in life; and for that reason, if for no other, the nature study of animal life in the garden and fields should be as much a part of school gardening as digging or sowing seeds.

      "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot,
      Rose plot, fringed pool fern grot,
      A very school
      Of peace and yet the fool
      Contends that God is not!
      God not in gardens? When the eve is cool?
      Nay, but I have a sign.
      I'm very sure He walks in mine!"

Typed by Danielle Driscoll, Feb. 2024