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A PARADISE FOR A PENNY






From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II)

MADDENED BY THE CATALOGUES OF PEACE-TIME, ONE LOVER OF GARDENS YET
MANAGED TO BUILD A LITTLE EDEN, AND TELLS HOW HE DID IT FOR A SONG

By WALTER PRICHARD EATON

War-time economy (which is a much pleasanter and doubtless a more
patriotically approved phrase than war-time poverty) is not without its
compensations, even to the gardener. At first I did not think so.
Confronted by a vast array of new and empty borders and rock steps and
natural-laid stone, flanking a wall fountain, and other features of a
new garden ambitiously planned before the President was so inconsiderate
as to declare war without consulting me, and confronted, too, by an
empty purse--pardon me, I mean by the voluntarily imposed necessity for
economy--I sat me down amid my catalogues, like Niobe amid her children,
and wept. (Maybe it wasn't amid her children Niobe wept, but for them;
anyhow I remember her as a symbol of lachrymosity.) Dear, alluring,
immoral catalogues, sweet sirens for a man's undoing! How you sang to me
of sedums, and whispered of peonies and irises--yea, even of German
irises! How you spoke in soft, seductive accents of wonderful lilacs,
and exquisite spireas, and sweet syringas, murmurous with bees! How you
told of tulips and narcissuses, and a thousand lovely things for beds
and borders and rock work--at so much a dozen, so very much a dozen,
and a dozen so very few! I did not resort to cotton in my ears, but to
tears and profanity.

Then two things happened. I got a letter from a Boston architect who had
passed by and seen my unfinished place; and I took a walk up a back road
where the Massachusetts Highway Commissioners hadn't sent a gang of
workmen through to "improve" it. The architect said, "Keep your place
simple. It cries for it. That's always the hardest thing to do--but the
best." And the back-country roadside said, "Look at me; I didn't come
from any catalogue; no nursery grew me; I'm really and truly 'perfectly
hardy'; I didn't cost a cent--and can you beat me at any price? I'm a
hundred per cent American, too."

I looked, and I admitted, with a blush of shame for ever doubting, that
I certainly could not beat it. But, I suddenly realized, I could steal
it!

I have been stealing it ever since, and having an enormously enjoyable
time in the bargain.

Of course, stealing is a relative term, like anything else connected
with morality. What would be stealing in the immediate neighborhood of a
city is not even what the old South County oyster fisherman once
described as "jest pilferin' 'round," out here on the edges of the
wilderness. I go out with the trailer hitched to the back of my Ford,
half a mile in any direction, and I pass roadsides where, if there are
any farmer owners of the fields on the other side of the fence, these
owners are only too glad to have a few of the massed, invading plants or
bushes thinned out. But far more often there is not even a fence, or if
there is, it has heavy woods or a swamp or a wild pasture beyond it. I
could go after plants every day for six months and nobody would ever
detect where I took them. My only rule--self-imposed--is never to take a
single specimen, or even one of a small group, and always to take where
thinning is useful, and where the land or the roadside is wild and
neglected, and no human being can possibly be injured. Most often,
indeed, I simply go up the mountain along, or into, my own woods.

I am not going to attempt any botanical or cultural description of what
I am now attempting. That will have to wait, anyhow, till I know a
little more about it myself! But I want to indicate, in a general way,
some of the effects which are perfectly possible, I believe, here in a
Massachusetts garden, without importing a single plant, or even sowing a
seed or purchasing any stock from a nursery.

Take the matter of asters, for instance. Hitherto my garden, up here in
the mountains where the frosts come early and we cannot have anemone,
japonica, or chrysanthemums, has generally been a melancholy spectacle
after the middle of September. Yet it is just at this time that our
roadsides and woodland borders are the most beautiful. The answer isn't
alone asters, but very largely. And nothing, I have discovered, is much
easier to transplant than a New England aster, the showiest of the
family. Within the confines of my own farm or its bordering woods are at
least seven varieties of asters, and there are more within half a mile.
They range in color from the deepest purple and lilac, through shades of
blue, to white, and vary in height from the six feet my New Englands
have attained in rich garden soil, to one foot. Moreover, by a little
care, they can be so massed and alternated in a long border (such a
border I have), as to pass in under heavy shade and out again into full
sun, from a damp place to a dry place, and yet all be blooming at their
best. With what other flower can you do that? And what other flower, at
whatever price per dozen, will give you such abundance of beauty without
a fear of frosts? I recently dug up a load of asters in bud, on a rainy
day, and already they are in full bloom in their new garden places,
without so much as a wilted leaf.

Adjoining my farm is an abandoned marble quarry. In that quarry, or,
rather, in the rank grass bordering it, grow thousands of Solidago
rigida, the big, flat-topped goldenrod. This is the only station for it
in Berkshire County. As the ledges from this quarry come over into my
pastures, and doubtless the goldenrod would have come too, had it not
been for the sheep, what could be more fitting than for me to make this
glorious yellow flower a part of my garden scheme? Surely if anything
belongs in my peculiar soil and landscape it does. It transplants
easily, and under cultivation reaches a large size and holds its bloom a
long time. Massed with the asters it is superb, and I get it by going
through the bars with a shovel and a wheelbarrow.

But a garden of goldenrod and asters would be somewhat dull from May to
mid-August, and somewhat monotonous thereafter. I have no intention, of
course, of barring out from my garden the stock perennials, and, indeed,
I have already salvaged from my old place or grown from seed the
indispensable phloxes, foxgloves, larkspur, hollyhocks, sweet william,
climbing roses, platycodons and the like. But let me merely mention a
few of the wild things I have brought in from the immediate
neighborhood, and see if they do not promise, when naturally planted
where the borders wind under trees, or grouped to the grass in front of
asters, ferns, goldenrod and the shrubs I shall mention later, a kind of
beauty and interest not to be secured by the usual garden methods.

There are painted trilliums, yellow and pink lady's slippers, Orchis
spectabilis, hepaticas, bloodroot, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, masses
of baneberries, solomon's seal, true and false; smooth false foxglove,
five-flowered and closed gentians, meadow lilies (Canadensis) and wood
lilies (Philadelphicum), the former especially being here so common that
I can go out and dig up the bulbs by the score, taking only one or two
from any one spot. These are but a few of the flowers, blooming from
early spring to late fall, in the borders, and I have forgotten to
mention the little bunch berries from my own woods as an edging plant.

Let me turn now for a moment to the hedge and shrubbery screen which
must intervene between my west border and the highway, and which is the
crux of the garden. The hedge is already started with hemlocks from the
mountain side, put in last spring. I must admit nursery in-grown
evergreens are easier to handle, and make a better and quicker growth.
But I am out now to see how far I can get with absolutely native
material. Between the hedge and the border, where at first I dreamed of
lilacs and the like, I now visualize as filling up with the kind of
growth which lines our roads, and which is no less beautiful and much
more fitting. From my own woods will come in spring (the only safe time
to move them) masses of mountain laurel and azalea. From my own pasture
fence-line will come red osier, dogwood, with its white blooms, its blue
berries, its winter stem-coloring, and elderberry. From my own woods
have already come several four-foot maple-leaved vibernums, which,
though moved in June, throve and have made a fine new growth. There will
be, also, a shadbush or two and certainly some hobble bushes, with here
and there a young pine and small, slender canoe birch. Here and there
will be a clump of flowering raspberry. I shall not scorn spireas, and I
must have at least one big white syringa to scent the twilight; but the
great mass of my screen will be exactly what nature would plant there if
she were left alone--minus the choke cherries. You always have to
exercise a little supervision over nature!

A feature of my garden is to be rock work and a little, thin stream of a
brooklet flowing away from a wall fountain. I read in my catalogues of
marvellous Alpine plants, and I dreamed of irises by my brook. I shall
have some of both too. Why not? The war has got to end one of these
days. But meanwhile, why be too down-hearted? On the cliffs above my
pasture are masses of moss, holding, as a pincushion holds a breastpin,
little early saxifrage plants. From the crannies frail hair bells dangle
forth. There are clumps of purple cliffbrase and other tiny, exquisite
ferns. On a gravel bank beside the State road are thousands of viper's
bugloss plants; on a ledge nearby is an entire nursery of Sedum acre
(the small yellow stone crop). Columbines grow like a weed in my mowing,
and so do Quaker ladies, which, in England, are highly esteemed in the
rock garden. The Greens Committee at the nearby golf club will certainly
let me dig up some of the gay pinks which are a pest in one of the high,
gravelly bunkers. And these are only a fraction of the native material
available for my rock work and bank. Many of them are already in and
thriving.

As for the little brook, any pond edge or brookside nearby has
arrowheads, forget-me-nots, cardinal flowers, blue flag, clumps of
beautiful grasses, monkey flowers, jewel-weed and the like. There are
cowslips, too, and blue vervain, and white violets. If I want a clump of
something tall, Joe-pye-weed is not to be disdained. No, I do not
anticipate any trouble about my brookside. It will not look at all as I
thought a year ago it was going to look. It will not look like an
illustration in some "garden beautiful" magazine. It will look
like--like a brook! I am tremendously excited now at the prospect of
seeing it look like a brook, a little, lazy, trickling Yankee brook. If
I ever let it look like anything else, I believe I shall deserve to have
my spring dry up.

Probably I shall have moments of, for me, comparative affluence in the
years to come, when I shall once more listen to the siren song of
catalogues, and order Japanese irises, Darwin tulips, hybrid lilacs, and
so on. But by that time, I feel sure, my native plants and shrubs will
have got such a start, and made such a luxuriant, natural tangle, that
they will assimilate the aliens and teach them their proper place in a
New England garden. At any rate, till the war is over, I am 100 per cent
Berkshire County!

* * * * *





Next: WANTED: A HOME ASSISTANT

Previous: THE CONFESSIONS OF A COLLEGE PROFESSOR'S WIFE



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