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AN OLD-FASHIONED GARDEN
THE world at large is a most intricate machine, and parts viewed separately give no hint of their importance to what appear quite independent objects. Man may dissociate without destroying, but, when he does so, his constant attention must then take the place of the acts that Nature designed other conditions of life should perform. The isolated plant, for instance, is destroyed by insects unless we protect it by a glass covering or a poison-bath: Nature gave it to the birds to protect the plant, and in so doing find food for themselves. This law of interdependence is made very plain in the case of a modern garden or the trim lawns of a large city, and in less degree applies to towns and villages. The caterpillar nuisance that requires the collaring of shade-trees with cotton-wool to protect their foliage illustrates this; and what an example is a modern garden filled to overflowing with exotic plants! An all-important feature is wanting, — birds; for, except English sparrows, we have none, and these are worse than useless.
It was not always so, and the cause of the deplorable change is not hard to find. Whenever we chance, in our wanderings, to come upon some long-neglected corner of colonial times, there we will find the bloom and birds together. I have said "neglected;" not quite that, for there was bloom, and the birds are excellent gardeners.
Let me particularize. My garden is a commonplace affair, with the single innovation of a tub sunk in the ground to accommodate a lotus, — so commonplace, indeed, that no passer-by would notice it; and yet during a single summer afternoon I have seen within its boundaries fifteen species of birds. At that hottest hour of the midsummer day, two P.M., while looking at the huge pink blossoms of the classic lotus, my attention was called to a quick movement on the ground, as if a rat ran by. It proved to be an oven-bird, that curious combination of thrush and sand-piper, and yet neither, but a true warbler. It peered into every nook and corner of the shrubbery, poised on the edge of the sunken lotus-tub, caught a wriggling worm that came to the surface of the water, then teetered along the fence and was gone. Soon it returned, and came and went until dark, as much at home as ever in the deep recesses of unfrequented woods. As the sun went down, the bird sang once with all the spring-tide ardor, and brought swiftly back to me many a long summer's day ramble in the country. It is something to be miles away from home while sitting on your own door-step.
Twice a song-sparrow came, bathed in the lotus-tub, and, when not foraging in the weedy corners, sang its old-fashioned song, now so seldom heard within town limits. The bird gave me two valuable hints as to garden management. Water is a necessity to birds as well as to any other form of life, and shelter is something more than a mere attraction. Was it not because the birds happened to be provided with them to-day that I had, as I have had the summer long, more birds than my neighbors?
How seldom do we see the coral honeysuckle, and how generally the trumpet-creeper has given place to exotic vines of far more striking bloom, but, as will appear, of less utility! If the old-time vines that I have mentioned bore less showy flowers, they had at least the merit of attracting hummingbirds, that so grandly rounded out our complement of summer birds. These feathered fairies are not difficult to see, even though so small, and, if so inclined, we can always study them to great advantage. They become quite tame, and in the old-fashioned gardens were always a prominent feature by reason of their numbers. They are not forever on the wing, and when preening their feathers let the sunshine fall upon them, and we have emeralds and rubies that cost nothing, but are none the less valuable because of this. In changing the botanical features of our yards we have had but one thought, gorgeous flowers; but was it wise to give no heed to the loss of birds as the result? I fancy there are many who would turn with delight from formal clusters of unfamiliar shrubs, however showy, to a gooseberry hedge or a lilac thicket with song-sparrows and a cat-bird hidden in its shade. We have been unwise in this too radical change. We have abolished bird-music in our eagerness for color, gaining a little, but losing more. We have paid too dear, not for a whistle, but for its loss. But it is not too late. Carry a little of the home forest to our yards, and birds will follow it. And let me here wander to an allied matter, that of the recently-established Arbor Day. What I have just said recalls it.
To merely transplant a tree, move it from one spot to another, where perhaps it is less likely to remain for any length of time than where it previously stood, is, it seems to me, the very acme of folly. The chances are many that the soil is less suitable, and so growth will be retarded, and the world is therefore not one whit the better off. There is far too much tree-planting of this kind on Arbor Day. In many an instance a plot of ground has been replanted year after year. I fancy we will have to reach more nearly to the stage of tree appreciation before Arbor Day will be a pre-eminent success.
Can we not, indeed, accommodate ourselves a little more to the trees growing where Nature planted them? I know a village well, where the houses are placed to accommodate the trees that stood there when the spot was a wilderness. The main street is a little crooked, but what a noble street it is! I recall, as I write these lines, many a Friends' meeting-house, and one country school, where splendid oaks are standing near by, and to those who gather daily or weekly here, whether children or grown people, the trees are no less dear than the buildings beside them. The wanderer who revisits the scenes of his childhood looks first at the trees and then at the houses. Tree-worship, we are told, was once very prevalent, and it is not to be regretted that in a modified form it still remains with us.
As a practical matter, let me here throw out the suggestion that he will be doing most excellent work who saves a tree each year. This is a celebration that needs no special day set forth by legislative enactment. How often I have heard farmers remark, "It was a mistake to cut those trees down"! Of course it was. In nine cases out of ten the value of the trees felled proves less than was expected, and quickly follows the realization of the fad that when standing their full value was not appreciated. Think of cutting down trees that stand singly or in little groups in the middle of fields because it is a trouble to plant around them, or for the reason that they shade. the crops too much! What of the crop of comfort such trees yield to both man and beast when these fields are pastures? "But there is no money in shade-trees." I cannot repress my disgust when I hear this, and I have heard it often. Is there genuine manhood in those who feel this way towards the one great ornament of our landscape?
It is not — more's the pity — within the power of every one to plant a tree, but those who cannot need not stand idly by on Arbor Day. Here is an instance where half a loaf is better than no bread. Many a one can plant a shrub. How often there is an unsightly corner, even in the smallest enclosure, where a tall tree would be a serious obstruction, whereon can be grown a thrifty bush, one that will be a constant source of pleasure because of its symmetry and bright foliage, and for a time doubly attractive because of its splendid blossoming! We know too little of the many beautiful flowering shrubs that are scattered through every woodland, which are greatly improved by a little care in cultivation, and which will bear transplanting. We overlook them often, when seen growing in the forest, because they are small, irregular, and often sparse of bloom, But remember, in the woods there is a fierce struggle for existence, and when this is overcome the full beauty of the shrub's stature becomes an accomplished fait.
Here is a short list of common shrubs, every one of which is hardy, beautiful in itself, and can be had without other cost or labor than a walk in the country, for I do not suppose any land-owner would refuse a "weed," as they generally call these humble plants. The spicewood (Lindera henzoin), which bears bright golden flowers before the leaves appear; the shad-bush (Amelanchier canadensis), with a wealth of snowy blossoms, which are increased in number and size by a little attention, as judicious trimming; and the "bush" of the wild-wood can be made to grow to a beautiful miniature tree. The well-known pinxter flower (Azalea nuclifaille) is improved by cultivation, and can be made to grow "stocky" and thick-set, instead of scragged, as we usually find it. Its bright pink blossoms make a grand showing in May. There is a little wild plum (Prunus spinosa) which only asks to be given a chance and then will rival the famous deutzias in profusion of bloom, and afterwards remains a sturdy tree-like shrub, with dark-green foliage that is always attractive. This, too, blooms before the foliage is developed, and hints of spring as surely as the robin's song. A larger but no less handsome bush is the white flowering thorn (Crategus ernsgalli), and there are wild spireas that should not be overlooked, and two white flowering shrubs that delight all who see them in bloom, the deer-berry (Vaccinium stamineum), and the "false-teeth" (Leucothoe racemosa). All these are spring flowers. And now a word about an August bloomer, the sweet pepper-bush (Clethra alnifolia). This is easily grown and is a charming plant.
It happens, too, that a place can be found for a hardy climber, and as beautiful as the coral honeysuckles of our grandmother's days is the climbing bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). The plant itself is attractive. Its vigorous growth soon covers the support provided for it, and in autumn and throughout the winter its golden and crimson fruit hangs in thick-set clusters upon every branch.
Considering how frequently near the house there are unsightly objects, and how depressing it is to be forever looking upon ugliness, it is strange that the abundant means for beautifying waste places are so persistently neglected. With one or more of the plants I have named, an eyesore may be changed to a source of pleasure, and it was Beecher, I think, who said, "A piece of color is as useful as a piece of bread." He never spoke more truly.
And what of the old-time arbors, with the straggling grape-vine, and perhaps a rude wren-box perched at the entrance? Is there better shade than the grape-vine offers, a sweeter odor than its bloom affords, or more charming music than the song of the restless house-wren? Certainly there have been no improvements upon these features of the old-time garden: yet how seldom do we see them now! We must travel far, too, to find a martin-box. As a matter of fact, the bluebird, wren, and martin might, if we chose, be restored to the very hearts of our largest towns. People have no more terror for them than for the English sparrow, and they can all hold out against these piratical aliens, if we would consider their few and simple needs. The wrens need but nesting-boxes with an entrance through which the shoulders of a sparrow cannot pass; and the bluebirds and martins require only that their houses be closed during the winter and very early spring, or until they have returned from their winter-quarters. This is easily done, and when the birds are ready to occupy the accommodations provided for them they will take possession and successfully hold the forts against all intruders. This is not a fancy merely, suggested as the basis of experimentation, but is the result of the experience of several people in widely-separated localities. I vividly recall visiting at a house in a large town, where purple martins for more than fifty years had occupied boxes placed upon the eaves of a one-story kitchen.
While stress is laid upon the importance of regaining the presence in town of these birds, it must not be supposed that they are all that are available. There are scores of wild birds, known only to the ornithologist, that can be "cultivated" as readily as the wild shrubbery that under startling names figures in many a florist's catalogue. Give them a foothold, and they will come to stay. Orioles, -thrushes, vireos, fly-catchers, are not unreasonably afraid of man, and would quickly acquire confidence if they were warranted in so doing. How long would a scarlet tanager or a cardinal grosbeak remain unmolested if it appeared in any city street? Here is the whole matter in a nutshell: the birds are not averse to coming, but the people will not let them. This is the more strange, when we remember that hundreds of dollars were spent to accommodate the pestiferous imported sparrow, that is and always must be a positive curse. Hundreds for sparrows, and not one cent for a bluebird! While the mischief can never be undone, it can be held in check, if we will but take the trouble, and this is a mere matter of town-garden rearrangement; and why, indeed, not treat our ears to music as well as our eyes to color and our palates to sweetness? Plant here and there a bush that will yield you a crop of birds. That this may not be thought merely a whim of my own, let me quote from the weather record of Dr. John Conrad, who for forty years was the apothecary of the Pennsylvania Hospital, in Philadelphia. This institution, bear in mind, is in the heart of the city, not in its outskirts. Under date of March 23, 1862, he records, "Crocus and snow-drop came into bloom last week and are now fully out." Again, he says, "Orioles arrived on April 8, after the fruit-trees burst into bloom." Here we have a migratory bird in the city three weeks earlier than its usual appearance in the country, but I do not think the donor was mistaken. I have positive knowledge of the fact that he was a good local ornithologist. Under date of June, 1866, Conrad writes, "A very pleasant June. Fine bright weather, and only one week too warm for comfort. The roses bloomed well (except the moss-rose) and for the most part opened better than usual. The garden full of birds, and insects less abundant than usual. Many blackbirds reared their young in our trees, and as many as sixteen or twenty have been counted on the lawn at one time. Cat-birds, orioles, thrushes, wrens, vireos, robins, etc., abound and make our old hospital joyous with their sweet songs."
During the summer of 1892 I was twice in the hospital grounds, with which I was very familiar during my uncle's — Dr. Conrad's — lifetime, and I heard only English sparrows, although I saw two or three native birds. It was a sad change. Think of being able to speak of your garden as "full of birds," — as "joyous with their sweet songs." This, not long ago, could truthfully be done. Will it ever be possible to do so again?