ANTIQUE PAGES – Gardening


ANTIQUE PAGES
I'm so happy you are here!

A couple of years
ago I met a fascinating woman in her sixties who had
made a career as an estate gardener. Working for an
assortment of wealthy clients, she spent years weeding,
dividing and deadheading her way through all kinds of
beds and borders. The work also provided her with opportunities
to pursue her interest in garden design. When I met
her, she was about to retire. Needless to say, she did
not elect to settle down in a planned community with
a full-time landscaping crew. She found a charming little
town, bought a rambling old house, and began renovating
its long overgrown garden. I have no doubt that when
the time finally comes, my friend will be buried with
a trowel in her hand. That probably will not happen
for years, however, because like all gardeners, she
has so much to do first.

When I asked this consumate
gardener how she learned her trade she replied with
three words-“old gardening books.” I felt an immediate
sense of kinship, as I have my own burgeoning collection
of aged volumes. Often full of great writing, they inform
me and make me feel connected with the great continuum
of gardeners, while reminding me that there is very
little new under the sun.

For Christmas my husband
gave me Flowers In Britain by the rather whimsically
named L.J.F. Brimble (MacMillan & Company Limited,
London, 1946). As is often the case with used books,
the first page provided a clue about the identity of
the volume’s initial owner. Though there is no name
on the flyleaf, the inscription reads: “From the Madison
Garden Club, April 1946. For a little talk on garden
design-with shrubs, bulbs, etc.”

Clearly the book’s owner
was no rank amateur. She was probably a local garden
designer, or at least a thoroughly seasoned club member
with enough expertise to teach others something about
design.

In Flowers In Britain,
Brimble categorizes common British plants by family,
dividing the members of those families into three groups:
ornamentals, wild plants, and those with economic importance
as sources of food, medicine or fiber. Members of each
plant family are portrayed on beautiful color plates
and in detailed line drawings. Brimble brought a lot
of erudition into the service of botany and horticulture,
but he also contributed an ecological perspective that
was ahead of its time. Modern environmentalists can
agree wholeheartedly with lines he borrowed from poet
John Drinkwater’s “Olton Pools: To The Defilers”:

“When you defile
the pleasant streams,

And the wild bird’s
nesting place

You massacre a million
dreams

And cast your spittle
in God’s face.”

There is less poetry,
but much practical information in Norman Taylor’s The
Permanent Garden
(D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.,
Toronto, New York and London, 1953). “Without trees
and shrubs,” says the author, “it is impossible to create
gardens.” This sounds obvious, but generations of gardeners
have ignored that wisdom and their gardens suffered
for it. Taylor’s book has lengthy discussions of how
to site trees, which trees to pick for specific purposes,
and how to avoid common mistakes. The author points
out things that many novice homeowners don’t think about,
such as the fact that a flowering, fruiting tree placed
too close to the house will gum up the gutters with
debris. He also warns against perils that are with us
still, saying,

“Don’t make the common
mistake of letting some landscape contractor put
in a lot of so-called ‘foundation planting.’ Examples
are too common of windows and porches being smothered
by shrubs and trees that have no place in such planting.”

Looking around my neighborhood,
I can see many reasons for reprinting Taylor’s fifty-year-old
volume.

As much as I love English
garden writers, one of the best books in my collection
of oldies is Old Time Gardens (MacMillan &
Company, New York and London, 1902) by prolific American
author Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911). Mrs. Earle, a
native of Worcester, Massachusett, was an authority
on Colonial America, producing books on customs, costumes,
and crime and punishment as well as gardens. Her research
was so thorough that many of those books are still in
print. Old Time Gardens is not among them, and
it is too bad, as her descriptions of significant gardens
all over America are well worth the price of the book.

Like all good garden
writers, Mrs. Earle is free in airing her prejudices.
She loves box hedges, blue gardens and Viola tricolor,
which she calls by one of its common names, “Ladies’
Delight.” She dislikes spotted plants such as Pulmonaria,
and states that “few persons would care for beds of
all white flowers.” The latter quote makes me wonder
what she would have thought of the white-flowered garden
masterpiece that another great writer, Vita Sackville-West,
created at Sissinghurst Castle later in the century.

Old Time Gardens
makes wonderful bedtime reading, especially in winter,
because each chapter can stand alone. History and poetry
are mixed into every chapter along with the plant lore
and traditions. The book is especially poignant because
many of the historic gardens that Mrs. Earle described
have long since disappeared.

So If your travels take
you to used bookstores or antique dealers during this
garden “off season”, find your way to the garden books.
You may discover some enlightening old ideas set forth
by authors who will become new friends.

 

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