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Gardens - Childhood In A Garden

( Originally Published 1901 )



" I see the garden thicket's shade
Where all the summer long we played,
And gardens set and houses made,
Our early work and late."

HOW we thank God for the noble traits of our ancestors ; and our hearts fill with gratitude for the tenderness, the patience, the loving kindness of our parents ; I have an infinite deal for which to be sincerely grateful ; but for nothing am I now more happy than that there were given to me a flower-loving father and mother. To that flower-loving father and mother I offer in tenderest memory equal gratitude for a childhood spent in a garden.

Winter as well as summer gave us many happy garden hours. Sometimes a sudden thaw of heavy snow and an equally quick frost formed a miniature pond for sheltered skating at the lower end of the garden. A frozen crust of snow (which our winters nowadays so seldom afford) gave other joys. And the delights of making a snow man, or a snow fort, even of rolling great globes of snow, were infinite and varied. More subtle was the charm of shaping certain things from dried twigs and evergreen sprigs, and pouring water over them to freeze into a beautiful resemblance of the original form. These might be the ornate initials or name of a dear girl friend, or a tiny tower or pagoda. I once had a real winter garden in miniature set in twigs of cedar and spruce, and frozen into a fairy garden.

In summertime the old-fashioned garden was a paradise for a child ; the long warm days saw the fresh telling of child to child, by that curiously subtle system of transmission which exists everywhere among happy children, of quaint flower customs known to centuries of English-speaking children, and also some newer customs developed by the fitness of local flowers for such games and plays.

The Countess Potocka says the intense enjoy-ment of nature is a sixth sense. We are not born with this good gift, nor do we often acquire it in later life ; it comes through our rearing. The fulness of delight in a garden is the bequest of a childhood spent in a garden. No study or possession of flowers in mature years can afford gratification equal to that conferred by childish associations with them ; by the sudden recollection of flower lore, the memory of child friendships, the recalling of games or toys made of flowers : you cannot ex-plain it; it seems a concentration, an extract of all the sunshine and all the beauty of those happy summers of our lives when the whole day and every day was spent among flowers. The sober teachings of science in later years can never make up the loss to children debarred of this inheritance, who have grown up knowing not when "the summer comes with bee and flower."

A garden childhood gives more sources of delight to the senses in after life than come from beautiful color and fine fragrance. Have you pleasure in the contact of a flower ? Do you like its touch as well as its perfume? Do you love to feel a Lilac spray brush your cheek in the cool of the evening? Do you like to bury your face in a bunch of Roses? How frail and papery is the Larkspur ! And how silky is the Poppy ! A Locust bloom is a fringe of sweetness; and how very doubtful is the touch of the Lily—an unpleasant thick sleekness. The Clove Carnation is the best of all. It feels just as it smells. These and scores more give me pleasure through their touch, the result of constant handling of flowers when I was a child.

There were harmful flowers in the old garden — among them the Monk's-hood; we never touched it, except warily. Doubtless we were warned, but we knew it by instinct and did not need to be told. I always used to see in modest homes great tubs each with a flourishing Oleander tree. I have set out scores of little slips of Oleander, just as I planted Orange seeds. I seldom see Oleanders now ; I wonder whether the plant has been banished on account of its poisonous properties. I heard of but one fatal case of Oleander poisoning — and that was doubtful. A little child, the sister of one of my playmates, died suddenly in great distress. Several months after her death the mother was told that the leaves of the Oleander were poisonous, when she recalled that the child had eaten them on the day of her death.

Oleander blossoms were lovely in shape and color. Edward Fitzgerald writes to Fanny Kemble : " Don't you love the Oleander ? So clean in its Leaves and Stem, as so beautiful in its Flower ; loving to stand in water which it drinks up fast. I have written all my best Mss. with a Pen that has been held with its nib in water for more than a fort-night— Charles Keene's recipe for keeping Pens in condition — Oleander-like." This, written in 1882, must, even at that recent date, refer to quill pens.

The lines of Mary Howitt's, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, ring to me so true ; there is in them no mock sentiment, it is the real thing,—" the garden thicket's shade," little " cubby houses " under. the close-growing stems of Lilac and Syringa, with an old thick shawl outspread on the damp earth for a carpet. Oh, how hot and scant the air was in the green light of those close " garden-thickets," those " Lilac ambushes," which were really not half so pleasant as the cooler seats on the grass under the trees, but which we clung to with a warmth equal to their temperature.

Let us peer into these garden thickets at these happy little girls, fantastic in their garden dress. Their hair is hung thick with Dandelion curls, made from pale green opal-tinted stems that have grown long under the shrubbery and Box borders. Around their necks are childish wampum, strings of Dandelion beads or Daisy chains. More delicate wreaths for the neck or hair were made from the blossoms of the Four-o'clock or the petals of Phlox or Lilacs, threaded with pretty alternation of color. Fuchsias were hung at the ears for eardrops, green leaves were pinned with leaf stems into little caps and bonnets and aprons, Foxgloves made dainty children's gloves. Truly the garden-bred child went in gay attire.

That exquisite thing, the seed of Milkweed (shown on page 328), furnished abundant playthings. The plant was sternly exterminated in our garden, but sallies into a neighboring field provided supplies for fairy cradles with tiny pillows of silvery silk.

One of the early impulses of infancy is to put every-thing in the mouth; this impulse makes the creeping days of some children a period of constant watch-fulness and terror to their apprehensive guardians. When the children are older and can walk in the' garden or edge of the woods, a fresh anxiety arises ; for a certain savagery in their make-up makes them regard every growing thing, not as an object to look at or even to play with, but to eat. It is a relief to the mother when the child grows beyond the savage, and falls under the dominion of tradition and folk-lore, communicated to him by other children by that subtle power of enlightenment common to children, which seems more like instinct than instruction. The child still eats, but he makes distinctions, and seldom touches harmful leaves or seeds or berries. He has an astonishing range : roots, twigs, leaves, bark, tendrils, fruit, berries, flowers, buds, seeds, all alike serve for food. Young shoots of Sweet-brier and Blackberry are nibbled as well as the branches of young Birch. Grape tendrils, too, have an acid zest, as do Sorrel leaves. Wild Rose hips and the drupes of dwarf Cornel are chewed. The leaf buds of Spruce and Linden are also tasted. I hear that some children in some places eat the young fronds of Cinnamon Fern, but I never saw it done. Seeds of Pumpkins and Sunflowers were edible, as well as Hollyhock cheeses. 'There was one Slippery Elm tree which we know in our town, and we took ample toll of it. Cherry gum and Plum gum are chewed, as well as the gum of Spruce trees. There was a boy who used sometimes to intrude on our girl's paradise, since he was the son of a neighbor, and he said he ate raw Turnips, and some-thing he called Pig-nuts — I wonder what they were.

Those childish customs linger long in our minds, or rather in our subconsciousness. I never walk through an old garden without wishing to nibble and browse on the leaves and stems which I ate as a child, without sucking a drop of honey from certain flowers. I do it not with intent, but I waken to realization with the petal of Trumpet Honeysuckle in my hand and its drop of ambrosia on my lips.

Children care far less for scent and perfection in a flower than they do for color, and, above all, for desirability and adaptability of form, this desirability being afforded by the fitness of the flower for the traditional games and plays. The favorite flowers of my childhood were three noble creatures, Hollyhocks, Canterbury Bells, and Foxgloves, all three were scentless. I cannot think of a child's summer in a garden without these three old favorites of history and folk-lore. Of course we enjoyed the earlier flower blooms and played happily with them ere our dearest treasures came to us ; but never had we full variety, zest, and satisfaction till this trio were in midsummer bloom. There was a little gawky, crudely-shaped wooden doll of German manufacture sold in Worcester which I never saw else-where ; they were kept for sale by old Waxler, the German basket maker, a most respected citizen, whose name I now learn was not Waxler but Weichsler. These dolls came in three sizes, the five-cent size was a midsummer favorite, because on its feature-less head the blossoms of the Canterbury Bells fitted like a high azure cap. I can see rows of these wooden creatures sitting, thus crowned, stiffly around the trunk of the old Seckel Pear tree at a doll's tea-party.

By the constant trampling of our childish feet the earth at the end of the garden path was hard and smooth under the shadow of the Lilac trees near our garden fence ; and this hard path, remote from wanderers in the garden, made a splendid plateau to use for flower balls. Once we fitted it up as a palace ; circular walls of Balsam flowers set closely together shaped the ball-room. The dancers were blue and white Canterbury Bells. Quadrilles were placed of little twigs, or strong flower stalks set firmly upright in the hard trodden earth, and on each of these a flower bell was hung so that the pretty reflexion of the scalloped edges of the corolla just touched the ground as the hooped petticoats swayed lightly in the wind.

We used to catch bumblebees in the Canterbury Bells, and hear them buzz and bump and tear their way out to liberty. We held the edges of the flower tightly pinched together, and were never stung. Besides its adaptability as a toy for children, the Canterbury Bell was beloved for its beauty in the garden. An appropriate folk name for it is Fair-in-sight. Healthy clumps grow tall and stately, towering up as high as childish heads ; and the firm stalks are hung so closely in bloom. Nowadays people plant expanses of Canterbury Bells ; one at the beautiful garden at White Birches, Elmhurst, Illinois, is shown on page I. I do not like this as well as the planting in our home garden when they are set in a mixed border, as shown opposite page 416. Our tastes in the flower world are largely influenced by what we were wonted to in childhood, not only in the selection of flowers, but in their placing in our gardens. - The Canterbury Bell has historical interest through its being named for the bells borne by pilgrims to the shrine at Canterbury. I have been delighted to see plants of these sturdy garden favorites offered for sale of late years in New York streets in springtime, by street venders, who now show a tendency to throw aside Callas, Lilies, Tuberoses, and flowers of such ilk, and substitute shrubs and seedlings of hardy growth and satisfactory flowering. But it filled me with regret, to hear the pretty historic name — Canterbury Bells — changed in so short a residence in the city, by these Italian and German tongues to Gingerbread Bells—a sad debasement. Native New Englanders have seldom forgotten or altered an old flower name, and very rarely transferred it to another plant, even in two centuries of everyday usage. But I am glad to know that the flower will bloom in the flower pot or soap box in the dingy window of the city poor, or in the square foot of earth of the city squatter, even if it be called Gingerbread Bells.

I think we may safely affirm that the Hollyhock is the most popular, and most widely known, of all old-fashioned flowers. It is loved for its beauty, its associations, its adaptiveness. It is such a decorative flower, and looks of so much distinction in so many places. It is invaluable to the landscape gardener and to the architect; and might be named the wallflower, since it looks so well growing by every wall. I like it there, or by a fence-side, or in a corner, better than in the middle of flower beds. How many garden pictures have Hollyhocks? Sir Joshua Reynolds even used them as accessories of his portraits. They usually grow so well and bloom so freely. I have seen them in Connecticut growing wild—garden strays, standing up by ruined stone walls in a pasture with as much grace of grouping, as good form, as if they had been planted by our most skilful gardeners or architects. Many illustrations of them are given in this book; I need scarcely refer to them ; opposite page 334 is shown a part of the four hundred stalks of rich bloom in a Portsmouth garden. There is a pretty semidouble Hollyhock with a single row of broad outer petals and a smaller double rosette for the centre ; but the single flowers are far more effective. I like well the old single crimson flower, but the yellow ones are, I believe, the loveliest ; a row of the yellow and white ones against an old brick wall is perfection. I can never repay to the Hollyhock the debt of gratitude I owe for the happy hours it furnished to me in my childhood. Its reflexed petals could be tied into such lovely silken-garbed dolls ; its " cheeses " were one of the staple food supplies of our dolls' larder. I am sure in my childhood I would have warmly chosen the Hollyhock as my favorite flower.

The sixty-two folk names of the Foxglove give ample proof of its closeness to humanity ; it is a familiar flower, a home flower. Of these many names I never heard but two in New England, and those but once ; an old Irish gardener called the flowers Fairy Thimbles, and an English servant, Pops — this from the well-known habit of popping the petals on the palm of the hand. We used to build little columns of these Foxgloves by thrusting one within another, alternating purple and white ; and we wore them for gloves, and placed them as foolscaps on the heads of tiny dolls. The beauty of the Foxglove in the garden is unquestioned ; the spires of white bloom are, as Cotton Mather said of a pious and painful Puritan preacher, "a shining and white light in a golden candlestick improved for the sweet felicity of Mankind and to the honour of our Maker."

Opposite page 340 is a glimpse of a Box-edged garden in Worcester, whose blossoming has been a delight to me every summer of my entire life. In my childhood this home was that of flower-loving neighbors who had an established and constant system of exchange with my mother and other neighbors of flowers, plants, seeds, slips, and bulbs. The garden was serene with an atmosphere of worthy old age ; you wondered how any man so old could so constantly plant, weed, prune, and hoe until you saw how he loved his flowers, and how his wife loved them. The Roses, Peonies, and Flower de Luce in this garden are sixty years old, and the Box also ; the shrubs are almost trees. Nothing seems to be transplanted, yet all flourish ; I suppose some plants must be pulled up, sometimes, else the garden would be a thicket. The varying grading of city streets has left this garden in a little valley sheltered from winds and open to the sun's rays. Here bloom Crocuses, Snowdrops, Grape Hyacinths, and some-times Tulips, before any neighbor has a blossom and scarce a leaf. On a Sunday noon in April there are always flower lovers hanging over the low fences, and gazing at the welcome early blooms. Here if ever,

"Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring."

A close cloud of Box-scent hangs over this garden, even in midwinter ; sometimes the Box edgings grow until no one can walk between ; then drastic measures have to be taken, and the rows look ragged for a time.

I think much of my love of Box comes from happy associations with this garden. I used to like to go there with my mother when she went on what the Japanese would call "garden-viewing" visits, for at the lower end of the garden was a small orchard of the finest playhouse Apple trees I ever climbed (and I have had much experience), and some large trees bearing little globular early Pears ; and there were rows of bushes of golden " Honey-blob " Gooseberries. The Apple trees are there still, but the Gooseberry bushes are gone. I looked for them this summer eagerly, but in vain ; I presume the berries would have been sour had I found them.

In many old New England gardens the close juxtaposition and even intermingling of vegetables and fruits with the flowers gave a sense of homely simplicity and usefulness which did not detract from the garden's interest, and added much to the child's pleasure. At the lower end of the long flower border in our garden, grew " Mourning Brides," white, pale lavender, and purple brown in tint. They opened under the shadow of a row of Gooseberry bushes. I seldom see Gooseberry bushes nowadays in any gardens, whether on farms or in nurseries ; they seem to be an antiquated fruit.

I have in my memory many other customs of childhood in the garden ; some of them I have told in my book Child Life in Colonial Days, and there are scores more which I have not recounted, but most of them were peculiar to my own fanciful childhood, and I will not recount them here.

One of the most exquisite of Mrs. Browning's poems is The Lost Bower; it is endeared to me be-cause it expresses so fully a childish bereavement of my own, for I have a lost garden. Somewhere, in my childhood, I saw this beautiful garden, filled with radiant blossoms, rich with fruit and berries, set with beehives, rabbit hutches, and a dove cote, and enclosed about with hedges ; and through it ran a purling brook — a thing I ever longed for in my home garden. All one happy summer after-noon I played in it, and gathered from its beds and borders at will—and I have never seen it since. When I was still a child I used to ask to return to it, but no one seemed to understand ; and when I was grown I asked where it was, describing it in every detail, and the only answer was that it was a dream, I had never seen and played in such a garden. This lost garden has become to me an emblem, as was the lost bower to Mrs. Browning, of the losses of life ; but I did not lose all ; while memory lasts I shall ever possess the happiness of my childhood passed in our home garden.



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