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My Summer in a Garden

Written by Charles Dudley WarnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Charles Dudley Warner
Introduction by Allan GurganusAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Allan Gurganus

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gardening (16) essays (5)
gardening (16) essays (5)
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Oft quoted but seldom credited,Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden is a classic of American garden writing and was a seminal early work in the then fledgling genre of American nature writing. Warner—prominent in his day as a writer and newspaper editor—was a dedicated amateur gardener who shared with Mark Twain, his close friend and neighbor, a sense of humor that remains deliciously fresh today.

In monthly dispatches, Warner chronicles his travails in the garden, where he and his cat, Calvin, seek to ward off a stream of interlopers, from the neighbors’ huge-hoofed cows and thieving children, to the reviled, though “propagatious,” pusley weed. To read Warner is to join him on his rounds of his beloved vegetable patch, to feel the sun on his sore back, the hoe in his blistered hands, and yet, like him, never to lose sight of “the philosophical implications of contact with the earth, and companionship with gently growing things.”

This Modern Library edition is published with an extensive new Introduction by Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and The Practical Heart.

Excerpt

What I Know About Gardening

First Week Under this modest title, I purpose to write a series of papers, some of which will be like many papers of garden-seeds, with nothing vital in them, on the subject of gardening; holding that no man has any right to keep valuable knowledge to himself, and hoping that those who come after me, except tax-gatherers and that sort of person, will find profit in the perusal of my experience. As my knowledge is constantly increasing, there is likely to be no end to these papers. They will pursue no orderly system of agriculture or horticulture, but range from topic to topic, according to the weather and the progress of the weeds, which may drive me from one corner of the garden to the other.

The principal value of a private garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues,—hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning. I shall keep this central truth in mind in these articles. I mean to have a moral garden, if it is not a productive one,—one that shall teach, O my brothers! O my sisters! the great lessons of life.

The first pleasant thing about a garden in this latitude is, that you never know when to set it going. If you want any thing to come to maturity early, you must start it in a hot-house. If you put it out early, the chances are all in favor of getting it nipped with frost; for the thermometer will be 90° one day, and go below 32° the night of the day following. And, if you do not set out plants or sow seeds early, you fret continually; knowing that your vegetables will be late, and that, while Jones has early peas, you will be watching your slow-forming pods. This keeps you in a state of mind. When you have planted any thing early, you are doubtful whether to desire to see it above ground, or not. If a hot day comes, you long to see the young plants; but, when a cold north wind brings frost, you tremble lest the seeds have burst their bands. Your spring is passed in anxious doubts and fears, which are usually realized; and so a great moral discipline is worked out for you.

Now, there is my corn, two or three inches high this 18th of May, and apparently having no fear of a frost. I was hoeing it this morning for the first time,—it is not well usually to hoe corn until about the 18th of May,—when Polly came out to look at the Lima beans. She seemed to think the poles had come up beautifully. I thought they did look well: they are a fine set of poles, large and well grown, and stand straight. They were inexpensive too. The cheapness came about from my cutting them on another man’s land, and he did not know it. I have not examined this transaction in the moral light of gardening; but I know people in this country take great liberties at the polls. Polly noticed that the beans had not themselves come up in any proper sense, but that the dirt had got off from them, leaving them uncovered. She thought it would be well to sprinkle a slight layer of dirt over them; and I, indulgently, consented. It occurred to me, when she had gone, that beans always come up that way,—wrong end first; and that what they wanted was light, and not dirt.

Observation: Woman always did, from the first, make a muss in a garden.

I inherited with my garden a large patch of raspberries. Splendid berry the raspberry, when the strawberry has gone. This patch has grown into such a defiant attitude, that you could not get within several feet of it. Its stalks were enormous in size, and cast out long, prickly arms in all directions; but the bushes were pretty much all dead. I have walked into them a good deal with a pruning-knife; but it is very much like fighting original sin. The variety is one that I can recommend. I think it is called Brinckley’s Orange. It is exceedingly prolific, and has enormous stalks. The fruit is also said to be good; but that does not matter so much, as the plant does not often bear in this region. The stalks seem to be biennial institutions; and as they get about their growth one year, and bear the next year, and then die, and the winters here nearly always kill them, unless you take them into the house (which is inconvenient if you have a family of small children), it is very difficult to induce the plant to flower and fruit. This is the greatest objection there is to this sort of raspberry. I think of keeping these for discipline, and setting out some others, more hardy sorts, for fruit. Second Week Next to deciding when to start your garden, the most important matter is, what to put in it. It is difficult to decide what to order for dinner on a given day: how much more oppressive is it to order in a lump an endless vista of dinners, so to speak! For, unless your garden is a boundless prairie (and mine seems to me to be that when I hoe it on hot days), you must make a selection, from the great variety of vegetables, of those you will raise in it; and you feel rather bound to supply your own table from your own garden, and to eat only as you have sown.

I hold that no man has a right (whatever his sex, of course) to have a garden to his own selfish uses. He ought not to please himself, but every man to please his neighbor. I tried to have a garden that would give general moral satisfaction. It seemed to me that nobody could object to potatoes (a most useful vegetable); and I began to plant them freely. But there was a chorus of protest against them. “You don’t want to take up your ground with potatoes,” the neighbors said: “you can buy potatoes” (the very thing I wanted to avoid doing is buying things). “What you want is the perishable things that you cannot get fresh in the market.”—“But what kind of perishable things?” A horticulturalist of eminence wanted me to sow lines of strawberries and raspberries right over where I had put my potatoes in drills. I had about five hundred strawberry-plants in another part of my garden; but this fruit-fanatic wanted me to turn my whole patch into vines and runners. I suppose I could raise strawberries enough for all my neighbors; and perhaps I ought to do it. I had a little space prepared for melons,—musk-melons,—which I showed to an experienced friend. “You are not going to waste your ground on musk-melons?” he asked. “They rarely ripen in this climate thoroughly, before frost.” He had tried for years without luck. I resolved to not go into such a foolish experiment. But, the next day, another neighbor happened in. “Ah! I see you are going to have melons. My family would rather give up any thing else in the garden than musk-melons,—of the nutmeg variety. They are the most grateful things we have on the table.” So there it was. There was no compromise: it was melons, or no melons, and somebody offended in any case. I half resolved to plant them a little late, so that they would, and they wouldn’t. But I had the same difficulty about string-beans (which I detest), and squash (which I tolerate), and parsnips, and the whole round of green things.

I have pretty much come to the conclusion, that you have got to put your foot down in gardening. If I had actually taken counsel of my friends, I should not have had a thing growing in the garden to-day but weeds. And besides, while you are waiting, Nature does not wait. Her mind is made up. She knows just what she will raise; and she has an infinite variety of early and late. The most humiliating thing to me about a garden is the lesson it teaches of the inferiority of man. Nature is prompt, decided, inexhaustible. She thrusts up her plants with a vigor and freedom that I admire; and, the more worthless the plant, the more rapid and splendid its growth. She is at it early and late, and all night; never tiring, nor showing the least sign of exhaustion.

“Eternal gardening is the price of liberty,” is a motto that I should put over the gateway of my garden, if I had a gate. And yet it is not wholly true; for there is no liberty in gardening. The man who undertakes a garden is relentlessly pursued. He felicitates himself, that, when he gets it once planted, he will have a season of rest and of enjoyment in the sprouting and growing of his seeds. It is a green anticipation. He has planted a seed that will keep him awake nights; drive rest from his bones, and sleep from his pillow. Hardly is the garden planted, when he must begin to hoe it. The weeds have sprung up all over it in a night. They shine and wave in redundant life. The docks have almost gone to seed; and their roots go deeper than conscience. Talk about the London Docks!—the roots of these are like the sources of the Aryan race. And the weeds are not all. I awake in the morning (and a thriving garden will wake a person up two hours before he ought to be out of bed), and think of the tomato-plants,—the leaves like fine lace-work, owing to black bugs that skip around, and can’t be caught. Somebody ought to get up before the dew is off, (why don’t the dew stay on till after a reasonable breakfast?) and sprinkle soot on the leaves. I wonder if it is I. Soot is so much blacker than the bugs, that they are disgusted, and go away. You can’t get up too early, if you have a garden. You must be early due yourself, if you get ahead of the bugs. I think, that, on the whole, it would be best to sit up all night, and sleep day-times. Things appear to go on in the night in the garden uncommonly. It would be less trouble to stay up than it is to get up so early.

I have been setting out some new raspberries, two sorts,— a silver and a gold color. How fine they will look on the table next year in a cut-glass dish, the cream being in a ditto pitcher! I set them four and five feet apart. I set my strawberries pretty well apart also. The reason is, to give room for the cows to run through when they break into the garden,—as they do sometimes. A cow needs a broader track than a locomotive; and she generally makes one. I am sometimes astonished to see how big a space in a flower-bed her foot will cover. The raspberries are called Doolittle and Golden Cap. I don’t like the name of the first variety, and, if they do much, shall change it to Silver Top. You never can tell what a thing named Doolittle will do. The one in the Senate changed color, and got sour. They ripen badly,—either mildew, or rot on the bush. They are apt to Johnsonize,—rot on the stem. I shall watch the Doolittles.
Allan Gurganus

About Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus - My Summer in a Garden

Photo © Becket Logon

Allan Gurganus lives in a small town in North Carolina. The title novella of this book won the National Magazine Prize. His other honors include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Southern Book Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Praise

Praise

“Warner’s book might have been written last week. The language feels timeless, direct to the point of seduction.” —Allan Gurganus

“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions. . . . Mudpies gratify one of our first and best instincts. So long as we are dirty, we are pure.” —Charles Dudley Warner

  • My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner
  • February 19, 2002
  • Gardening
  • Modern Library
  • $15.00
  • 9780375759468

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