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Gardens - Front Yard Gardens

( Originally Published 1901 )



" There are few of us who cannot remember a front yard garden which seemed to us a very paradise in childhood. Whether the house was a fine one and the enclosure spacious, or whether it was a small house with only a narrow bit of ground in front, the yard was kept with care, and was different from the rest of the land altogether.

People do not know what they lose when they make way with the reserve, the separateness, the sanctity, of the front yard of their grandmothers. It is like writing down family secrets for any one to read ; it is like having everybody call you by your first name, or sitting in any pew in church."

Country Byways, SARAH ORNE JEWETT, 1881.

OLD New England villages and small towns and well-kept New England farms had universally a simple and pleasing form of garden called the front yard or front dooryard. A few still may be seen in conservative

communities in the New England states and in New York or Pennsylvania. I saw flourishing ones this summer in Gloucester, Marblehead, and Ipswich. Even where the front yard was but a narrow strip of land before a tiny cottage, it was carefully fenced in, with a gate that was kept rigidly closed and latched. There seemed to be a law which shaped and bounded the front yard ; the side fences extended from the corners of the house to the front fence on the edge of the road, and thus formed naturally the guarded parallelogram. Often the fence around the front yard was the only one on the farm ; everywhere else were boundaries of great stone walls ; ' or if there were rail fences, the front yard fence was the only painted one. I cannot doubt that the first gardens that our foremothers had, which were wholly of flowering plants, were front yards, little enclosures hard won from the forest.

The word yard, not generally applied now to any enclosure of elegant cultivation, comes from the same root as the word garden. Garth is another derivative, and the word exists much disguised in orchard. In the sixteenth century yard was used in formal literature instead of garden ; and later Burns writes of " Eden's bonnie yard, Where yeuthful lovers first were pair'd."

This front yard was an English fashion derived from the forecourt so strongly advised by Gervayse Markham (an interesting old English writer on floriculture and husbandry), and found in front of many a yeoman's house, and many a more pretentious house as well in Markham's day. Forecourts were common in England until the middle of the eighteenth century, and may still be seen. The fore-court gave privacy to the house even when in the centre of a town. Its readoption is advised with handsome dwellings in England, where ground-space is limited, — and why not in America, too ?

The front yard was sacred to the best beloved, or at any rate the most honored, garden flowers of the house mistress, and was preserved by its fences from inroads of cattle, which then wandered at their will and were not housed, or even enclosed at night. The flowers were often of scant variety, but were those deemed the gentlefolk of the flower world. There was a clump of Daffodils and of the Poet's Narcissus in early spring, and stately Crown Imperial; usually, too, a few scarlet and yellow single Tulips, and Grape Hyacinths. Later came Phlox in abundance— the only native American plant,—Canterbury Bells, and ample and glowing London Pride. Of course there were great plants of white and blue Day Lilies, with their beautiful and decorative leaves, and purple and yellow Flower de Luce. A few old-fashioned shrubs always were seen. By inflexible law there must be a Lilac, which might be the aristocratic Persian Lilac. A Syringa, a flowering Currant, or Strawberry bush made sweet the front yard in spring, and sent wafts of fragrance into the house-windows. Spindling, rusty Snowberry bushes were by the gate, and Snowballs also, or our native Viburnums. Old as they seem, the Spirćas and Deutzias came to us in the nineteenth century from Japan ; as did the flowering Quinces and Cherries. The pink Flowering Almond dates back to the oldest front yards (see page 39), and Peter's Wreath certainly seems an old settler and is found now in many front yards that remain. The lovely full-flowered shrub of Peter's Wreath, on page 41, which was photographed for this book, was all that remained of a once-loved front yard.

The glory of the front yard was the old-fashioned early red "Piny," cultivated since the days of Pliny. I hear people speaking of it with contempt as a vulgar flower, — flaunting is the conventional derogatory adjective, — but I glory in its flaunting. The modern varieties, of every tint from white through flesh color, coral, pink, ruby color, salmon, and even yellow, to deep red, are as beautiful as Roses. Some are sweet-scented ; and they have no thorns, and their foliage is ever perfect, so I am sure the Rose is jealous.

I am as fond of the Peony as are the Chinese, among whom it is flower queen. It is by them regarded as an aristocratic flower; and in old New England towns fine Peony plants in an old garden are a pretty good indication of the residence of what Dr. Holmes called New England Brahmins. In Salem and Portsmouth are old " Pinys " that have a hundred blossoms at a time —a glorious sight. A Japanese name is " Flower-of-prosperity " ; another name, " Plant-of-twenty-days," because its glories last during that period of time.

Rhododendrons are to the modern garden what the Peony was in the old-fashioned flower border ; and I am glad the modern flower cannot drive the old one out. They are equally varied in coloring, but the Peony is a much hardier plant, and I like it far better. It has no blights, no bugs, no diseases, no running out, no funguses ; it doesn't have to be covered in winter, and it will bloom in the shade. No old-time or modern garden is to me fully furnished without Peonies ; see how fair they are in this Salem garden. I would grow them in some corner of the garden for their splendid healthy foliage if they hadn't a blossom. The Paeonia tenuifolia in particular has exquisite feathery foliage. The great Tree Peony, which came from China, grows eight feet or more in height, and is a triumph of the flower world ; but it was not known to the oldest front yards. Some of the Tree Peonies have finely displayed leafage of a curious and very gratifying tint of green. Miss Jekyll, with her usual felicity, compares its blue cast with pinkish shading to the vari-colored metal alloys of the Japanese bronze workers — a striking comparison. The single Peonies of recent years are of great beauty, and will soon be esteemed here as in China.

Not the least of the Peony's charms is its exceeding trimness and cleanliness. The plants always look like a well-dressed, well-shod, well-gloved girl of birth, breeding, and of equal good taste and good health ; a girl who can swim, and skate, and ride, and play golf. Every inch has a well-set, neat, cared-for look which the shape and growth of the plant keeps from seeming artificial or finicky. See the white Peony on page 44 ; is it not a seemly, comely thing, as well as a beautiful one ?

No flower can be set in our garden of more distinct antiquity than the Peony; the Greeks believed it to be of divine origin. A green arbor of the fourteenth century in England is described as set around with Gillyflower, Tansy, Gromwell, and " Pyonys powdered ay betwene " — just as I like to see Peonies set to this day, " powdered" everywhere between all the other flowers of the border.

I am pleased to note of the common flowers of the New England front yard, that they are no new things; they are nearly all Elizabethan of date — many are older still. Lord Bacon in his essay on gardens names many of them, Crocus, Tulip, Hyacinth, Daffodil, Flower de Luce, double Peony, Lilac, Lily of the Valley.

A favorite flower was the yellow garden Lily, the Lemon Lily, Hemerocallis, when it could be kept from spreading. Often its unbounded luxuriance exiled it from the front yard to the kitchen door-yard, as befell the clump shown facing page 48. Its pretty old-fashioned name was Liricon-fancy, given, I am told, in England to the Lily of the Valley. I know no more satisfying sight than a good bank of these Lemon Lilies in full flower. Below Flatbush there used to be a driveway leading to an old Dutch house, set at regular inter-vals with great clumps of Lemon Lilies, and their full bloom made them glorious. Their power of satisfactory adaptation in our modern formal gar-den is happily shown facing page 76, in the lovely garden of Charles E. Mather, Esq., in Haverford, Pennsylvania.

The time of fullest inflorescence of the nineteenth century front yard was when Phlox and Tiger Lilies bloomed ; but the pinkish-orange colors of the latter (the oddest reds of any flower tints) blended most vilely and rampantly with the crimson-purple of the Phlox; and when London Pride joined with its glowing scarlet, the front yard fairly ached. Nevertheless, an adaptation of that front-yard bloom can be most effective in a garden border, when white Phlox only is planted, and the Tiger Lily or cultivated stalks of our wild nodding Lily rise above the white trusses of bloom. These wild Lilies grow very luxuriantly in the garden, often towering above our heads and forming great candelabra bearing two score or more blooms. It is no easy task to secure their deep-rooted rhizomes in the meadow. I know a young man who won his sweetheart by the patience and assiduity with which he dug for her all one broiling morning to secure for her the coveted Lily roots, and collapsed with mild sunstroke at the finish. Her gratitude and remorse were equal factors in his favor.

The Tiger Lily is usually thought upon as a truly old-fashioned flower, a veritable antique; it is a favorite of artists to place as an accessory in their colonial gardens, and of authors for their flower-beds of Revolutionary days, but it was not known either in formal garden or front yard, until after "the days when we lived under the King." The bulbs were first brought to England from Eastern Asia in 1804 by Captain Kirkpatrick of the East India Company's Service, and shared with the Japan Lily the honor of being the first Eastern Lilies introduced into European gardens.. A few years ago an old gentleman, Mr. Isaac Pitman, who was then about eighty-five years of age, told me that he re-called distinctly when Tiger Lilies first appeared in our gardens, and where he first saw them growing in Boston. So instead of being an old-time flower, or even an old-corner from the Orient, it is one of the novelties of this century. How readily has it made itself at home, and even wandered wild down our roadsides !

The two simple colors of Phlox of the old-time front yard, white and crimson-purple, are now augmented by tints of salmon, vermilion, and rose. I recall with special pleasure the profuse garden decoration at East Hampton, Long Island, of a pure cherry-colored Phlox, generally a doubtful color to me, but there so associated with the white blooms of various other plants, and backed by a high hedge covered solidly with blossoming Honey-suckle, that it was wonderfully successful.

To other members of the Phlox family, all natives of our own continent, the old front yard owed much; the Moss Pink sometimes crowded out both Grass and its companion the Periwinkle ; it is still found in our gardens, and bountifully also in our fields ; either in white or pink, it is one of the satisfactions of spring, and its cheerful little blossom is of wonderful use in many waste places. An old-fashioned bloom, the low-growing Phlox amena, with its queerly fuzzy leaves and bright crimson blossoms, was among the most distinctly old-fashioned flowers of the front yard. It was tolerated rather than cultivated, as was its companion, the Arabis or Rock Cress — both crowding, monopolizing creatures. I remember well how they spread over the beds and up the grass banks in my mother's garden, how sternly they were uprooted, in spite of the pretty name of the Arabis —" Snow in Summer."

Sometimes the front yard path had edgings of sweet single or lightly double white or tinted Pinks, which were not deemed as choice as Box edgings. Frequently large Box plants clipped into simple and natural shapes stood at the side of the door-step, usually in the home of the well-to-do. A great shell might be on either side of the door-sill, if there chanced to be seafaring men-folk who lived or visited under the roof-tree. Annuals were few in number ; sturdy old perennial plants of many years' growth were the most honored dwellers in the front yard, true representatives of old families. The Roses were few and poor, for there was usually some great tree just without the gate, an Elm or Larch, whose shadow fell far too near and heavily for the health of Roses. Sometimes there was a prickly semidouble yellow Rose, called by us a Scotch Rose, a Sweet Brier, or a rusty-flowered white Rose, similar, though inferior, to the Madame Plan-tier. A new fashion of trellises appeared in the front yard about sixty years ago, and crimson Boursault Roses climbed up them as if by magic.

One marked characteristic of the front yard was its lack of weeds ; few sprung up, none came to seed-time; the enclosure was small, and it was a mark of good breeding to care for it well. Some-times, however, the earth was covered closely under shrubs and plants with the cheerful little Ladies' Delights, and they blossomed in the chinks of the bricked path and under the Box edges. Ambrosia, too, grew everywhere, but these were welcome—they were not weeds.

Our old New England houses were suited in color and outline to their front yards as to our landscape. Lowell has given in verse a good description of the kind of New England house that always had a front dooryard of flowers.

" On a grass-green swell
That towards the south with sweet concessions fell,
It dwelt retired, and half had grown to be
As aboriginal as rock or tree.
It nestled close to earth, and seemed to brood
O'er homely thoughts in a half-conscious mood.
If paint it e'er had known, it knew no more
Than yellow lichens spattered thickly o'er
That soft lead gray, less dark beneath the eaves,
Which the slow brush of wind and weather leaves.
The ample roof sloped backward to the ground
And vassal lean-tos gathered thickly round,
Patched on, as sire or son had felt the need.
But the great chimney was the central thought.
It rose broad-shouldered, kindly, debonair,
Its warm breath whitening in the autumn air."

Sarah Orne Jewett, in the plaint of A Mournful Villager, has drawn a beautiful and sympathetic picture of these front yards, and she deplores their passing. I mourn them as I do every fenced-in or hedged-in garden enclosure. The sanctity and re-serve of these front yards of our grandmothers was somewhat emblematic of woman's life of that day : it was restricted, and narrowed to a small outlook and monotonous likeness to her neighbor's; but it was a life easily satisfied with small pleasures, and it was comely and sheltered and carefully kept, and pleasant to the home household ; and these were no mean things.

The front yard was never a garden of pleasure ; children could not play in these precious little en-closed plots, and never could pick the flowers-front yard and flowers were both too much respected. Only formal visitors entered therein, visitors who opened the gate and closed it carefully behind them, and knocked slowly with the brass knocker, and were ushered in through the ceremonious front door and the little ill-contrived entry, to the stiff fore-room or parlor. The parson and his wife entered that portal, and sometimes a solemn would-be sweetheart, or the guests at a tea party. It can be seen that every one who had enough social dignity to have a front door and a parlor, and visitors thereto, also desired a front yard with flowers as the external token of that honored standing. It was like owning a pew in church ; you could be a Christian without having a pew, but not a respected one. Sometimes when there was a " vandue " in the house, reckless folk opened the front gate, and even tied it back. I attended one where the auctioneer boldly set the articles out through the windows under the Lilac bushes and even on the precious front yard plants. A vendue and a funeral were the only gatherings in country communities when the entire neighbor-hood came freely to an old homestead, when all were at liberty to enter the front dooryard. At the sad time when a funeral took place in the house, the front gate was fastened widely open, and solemn men-neighbors, in Sunday garments, stood rather uncomfortably and awkwardly around the front yard as the women passed into the house of mourning and were seated within. When the sad services began, the men too entered and stood stiffly by the door. Then through the front door, down the mossy path of the front yard, and through the open front gate was borne the master, the mistress, and then their children, and children's children. All are gone from our sight, many from our memory, and often too from our ken, while the Lilacs and Peonies and Flowers de Luce still blossom and flourish with perennial youth, and still claim us as friends.

At the side of the house or by the kitchen door would be seen many thrifty blooms: poles of Scar-let Runners, beds of Portulacas and Petunias, rows of Pinks, bunches of Marigolds, level expanses of Sweet Williams, banks of cheerful Nasturtiums, tangles of Morning-glories and long rows of stately Hollyhocks, which were much admired, but were seldom seen in the front yard, which was too shaded for them. Weeds grew here at the kitchen door in a rank profusion which was hard to conquer; but here the winter's Fuchsias or Geraniums stood in flower pots in the sunlight, and the tubs of Oleanders and Agapanthus Lilies.

The flowers of the front yard seemed to bear a more formal, a "company " aspect ; conventionality rigidly bound them. Bachelor's Buttons might grow there by accident, but Marigolds never were tolerated, — they were pot herbs. Sunflowers were not even permitted in the flower beds at the side of the house unless these stretched down to the vegetable beds. Outside the front yard would be a rioting and cheerful growth of pink Bouncing Bet, or of purple Honesty, and tall straggling plants of a certain small flowered, ragged Campanula, and a white Mallow with flannelly leaves which, doubtless, aspired to inhabit the sacred bounds of the front yard (and probably dwelt there originally), and often were gladly permitted to grow in side gar-dens or kitchen dooryards, but which were regarded as interloping weeds by the guardians of the front yard, and sternly exiled. Sometimes a bed of these orange-tawny Day Lilies which had once been warmly welcomed from the Orient, and now were not wanted anywhere by any one, kept company with the Bouncing Bet, and stretched cheer-fully down the roadside.

When the fences disappeared with the night rambles of the cows, the front yards gradually changed character ; the tender blooms vanished, but the tall shrubs and the Peonies and Flower de Luce sturdily grew and blossomed, save where that dreary destroyer of a garden crept in — the desire for a lawn. The result was then a meagre expanse of poorly kept grass, with no variety, color, or change, — neither lawn nor front yard. It is ever a pleasure to me when driving in a village street or a country road to find one of these front yards still enclosed, or even to note in front of many houses the traces of a past front yard still plainly visible in the flourishing old-fashioned plants of many years' growth.



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