Kellscraft Studio, 1999
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MEN are becoming so notoriously addicted to their own society that they miss a good many improving and pleasant companionships. They are forgetting what soil looks like, in the cities. Think of it! In Manhattan only a hundred homes or so are built in a year, and the number grows less and less, while tenements multiply by thousands. For the millions there is no ground: only asphalt and flagstones; and miles and miles of thoroughfare have not the shade or color relief of a tree. Some pathetic show of the primitive need and lingering instinct for good green earth is made in the window-box that we may see on the sill of a fourth-floor front, or in a geranium striving out of a tin can on the fifth-floor back. Nay, in summer I can show you where tomatoes are growing in soap boxes, on the fire-escapes: but this is where Italians inhabit, and they are thrifty.
Notwithstanding these hardships, the prediction of the scientists that in the year 2000 everybody will live in New York, and the last morsel of its soil will disappear under a load of masonry, is destined not to be fulfilled. A few positive atoms will continue to escape the magnetism of the metropolis and try to bear with life as it may have to be lived in suburbs like Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis and Hohokus, where, at this writing, it is still the fashion to occupy a house, and to have a yard. Much virtue in yards. It is for the moral and mental sanity, no less than for the bodily well-being of the citizen, that he shall go to the earth, now and frequently, to renew liking and confirm kinship with other and more delicate forms of life than his own. He may be slow to read the lessons that are published in the leaf and flower, and may not want to read them after he knows they are there; but in occupations under the sky he is taken away from a hundred artificial distresses that beset him under the ceiling; for happiness is largely dependent on the physical state, and that is never at the best in the shop, the office, or the drawing-room. It is, then, worth while to have a yard, and use it, if only to forget stocks and crimes and bills and government. If the victim is disposed to tempers, he can wreak them on the weeds, the time never having been, nor destined to be, when his yard will be free from these vegetable upstarts. And the cleaner he can keep it from these intruders, the more ample his self-complacency, and the more his enjoyment of its acquired and natural scenery.
And one can do a surprising deal with his yard if he will tend it with affection and humility. Why, if it came to a tussle with hard fortune he could partly outwit adversity by selling his flowers and raising vegetables. Don't cry out upon me. If you have ever farmed one, you know that I speak within bounds when I say that out of an ordinary city yard you could grow enough to keep a family for a month. The family might complain a little, and would probably desire to exchange some of the crop for eggs, dairy-products or champagne, yet there would be variety. You should have asparagus, lettuce, celery, tomatoes, corn, beets, peas, beans; for a warm day, a cucumber; for a cold one, a pepper; and quite likely, a few berries, with such dandelions as grew wild in the interstices of your yard for greens.
Again you say, Preposterous! No, for I can lead you to a yard behind an old house in the city that is occupied by a mechanic, and I can show his farm in operation. He will be glad to have you look at it, for it is a source of pride with him. He works in a shipyard, where they are raising only hob, at present, and he has only his evenings and early mornings for farming, yet not only has he all the green stuff he requires in the season, but he has some to give to the neighbors, and I testify to the excellence of his lettuce and his celery. His domain is something like fifty feet by twenty-five. But, then, he cultivates it like a Chinaman, and every foot of it is a possibility.
Which brings me to say that when you own a yard you need not devote it to cabbage, unless you are pinched by want and addicted to corned beef. On the contrary, you can make that yard a spot of such charm that the neighbors' boys will continually beset it, to gather of its opulence, and lovelorn cats will sing o' nights in its shrubberies, secure from observation and projectiles. And when I speak of yards I have in mind, not the spacious lawns and gardens of the country, but the strip behind the city house that is given over, on wash-day, for the sunning of the family linen, with the revelations of anatomy and thrift that pertain to that necessity. The yard in town is deplorably small, I admit, and grows smaller, for the canny builder, who used to apportion a house to every lot, has fallen into a habit of putting three houses on two lots, and there are rooms where a man does not carelessly stretch himself without peeling his knuckles against the wainscot on either side of him. As a distinguished observer has observed, you can always tell a Harlem dog from one brought up in Brooklyn, because the Brooklyn dog wags his tail from side to side, while the Harlem dog, bred to the restraints of flats, wags his up and down.
We will take the Brooklyn, rather than the Harlem measure for the human habitation, and consider, briefly, what may be done with its pleasance. Let us, then, suppose a space of ground in the usual row, divided from the other spaces by a board fence six feet high, overlooked by hundreds of windows in the row of which your house is part, and in the other row, on the next street. If there are breaks in the enclosing wall of residences, that let your eye escape toward fair or misty horizons, so much the better for you, and so much the more likely that a speculator will fill them, presently, with taller and more obstructive mansions. Your yard measures, say, twenty-five feet by sixty feet, and in that space we can not look for much variety of soil or climate, although a yard of less than that dimension, that I cultivated for a while, had the most various soil that I ever worked in. It was a joy to the archaeologist, for it contained hoop-skirts, false teeth, bird-cages, bones, rocks, tin-ware, indeed, I hoped to reach mastodons, but I came no nearer to that discovery than to upturn a pet turtle who had buried himself in a bed of cannas, and had overlooked his customary day for resurrection in the spring.
And so long as variety in topography and natural products is denied to your yard, I would take the hint: conform to circumstances and try not to make it too excitingly variegated. Don't attempt an Italian garden on twenty-five feet by sixty. Don't build terraces, or flights of steps, unless the land slopes, or plant all the different things that the seedsmen's catalogues offer. Keep to a simple scheme. Indeed, it is a mighty pleasant yard that has just grass in the middle, and roses all around. The trouble is that roses will not bloom forever; and again, most folks do want a little versatility in their crops. And all the same, I grow more and more to believe in a certain amount of formality in a garden. Proper division of the space at your disposal gives the best results, because you practise economy. The wild garden is a joy when there is enough of it; but a back yard left to whatever happens to grow there is unsightly, and if you throw about a quantity of seed of wild flowers, and let them come up without tending, the result is not much better. There will be no color harmony in your arrangement, for there can be no arrangement, and the plants will choke one another. We may enjoy wild life, but we do not decivilize our homes for that reason. We would not fill our parlors with the lumber of the woods, precious as it might be to us in the camp, or even the country cottage. The garden is a part of the house, and a part of us.
Let us, then, agree that we can not represent all outdoors in the oblong behind our house; hence, we will lay it off in a way to please the eye and nose and understanding. We have, of course, to consider sun and shade. If the house is on the north side of the street, the yard will be more constantly in shadow than if it were on the south side. (I am humbly supposing that this Work is not circulating in the southern hemisphere.) The shadow cast by the house may spread half across the yard; hence, the flowers that like the sun will not do their best close to the building, but will ask to be bedded as far from it as possible; yet this does not mean that you are doomed to have no vegetation near the house. Why, it would be worth while merely to raise ferns and moss.
If yours is the usual city yard, and not shaded by monster hotels, flats, factories or shops, it should have the sun, however, in the summer, when you need it least and your plants need it most. And a plant that can have, say, five or six hours of bright sunlight, has nearly all it needs for health. It must have a good soil, and if your garden-to-be is caked over, you must spade it up. Many yards in town have a hard and leathery surface, like that of the plains in the days of the overland trail. The plains had been crusted by the beating feet of buffalo. They were almost as if asphalted, and no vegetable life appeared there except sage and cactus, with grass and cottonwoods only in the river-bottoms. When these desert lands were broken by the plow they proved to be rich in phosphates. It may be that the like will happen in your yard. But it was no buffalo that pounded your soil into the semblance of clay: it was wilder and more fearsome beings--the boys next door, and Mary Ann. We have to consider these dynamic forces in devising our garden, but we have first to spade and fertilize, cut the sod to pieces, throw out the stones and tomato cans, prepare strings or trellises for vines, and plan the beds. Drainage, too, and prevailing temperatures must be thought upon. By drainage is meant such as results from the porousness or heaviness of the ground, and the natural slope of it. You can not do much in respect of artificial drainage in a yard, because it is just like the folks next door to complain, i~ you pipe your rain and melted snow into their premises. Nor is it usually so wet in the East as to require the services of an engineer in laying out a yard. So long as rain-water or thawed ice do not lie in pools on the surface, there is no occasion to trouble yourself about this matter. If your yard has a solid rock foundation at a depth of only a few feet, or if it is stiff and clayey and sheds moisture, then it will probably be necessary to have in an expert. Your vegetable is a thirsty creature, and commonly your yard will not only drink all that the heavens provide, but will ask an occasional showering at your hands, but this supposes that it is growing in a light and fertile soil; not in one that is covered by stagnant puddles for days after a shower. Beware of these puddles. Mosquitoes breed in them, and mosquitoes carry malaria. If the soil is stiff it is easily possible to give a wee slant to the surface of the yard, trenching it slightly at the center, or at one side, or toward a far corner, and where the water is deepest to install a connection with the drainage system of the house, or with the sewer, direct. Indeed, modern builders provide this, and you will doubtless find, in a hollow, somewhere about the premises, the head of an iron pipe, grated or colandered, to prevent the escape through it of stones, leaves and grass. Keep this free at all times, unless you find that your plants appropriate and need all the moisture they can get, for in that case, the less of the precious water that flows away, the better.
And while upon this subject, let me urge you not to neglect the watering of your floral charges. Have a hose, or at least, a watering-can, against the droughts so usual to our summers, and refresh your garden in early morning or at evening. Nature's method is not to wet the earth when the sun shines. To that end, it over-spreads us with clouds when it rains. I do not actually know that watering in full daylight hurts a plant, though florists assure me that it does, but it is best to do the sprinkling toward dusk, for the reason that it is most economical to do so, the evaporation being less, and the plant getting the whole benefit of the ducking. It is better to water the yard once a week, and give a thorough drenching to it than to dribble a few quarts over the plants every evening. Gardeners all deplore light watering, and it has this disadvantage: that it does not give to a plant what it wants, any more than a spoonful of drink slakes thirst; that under a merely superficial moistening the roots that should strike deep, in search of moisture, thereby holding the plant firmly in its place and giving it lease of life through the winter, may turn to the surface, and thus give but a shallow foothold. So we must regard our plants as regular topers, whatever their simplicity of countenance. But I have found that a hasty trip about one's yard in town with a watering-can, if not a rapid turn with the hose, is good practise, for the reason that a city is a dusty place and the object of the sprinkle is not to give drink, but to wash the plants free from dust, that they may breathe the better. There is something pitiful, something wrong, in the aspect of a rose or lily powdered with grit or fragments or street droppings, and something unseemly in the covering of bushes with fragments of straw and spots of dirt. The retention of heat by the enormous spaces of brick and stone in a city, and the giving off of that heat through the night is inimical to the" falling" of the dew that so cleanses and refreshes vegetation in the country. Dew is merely the condensation of moisture in the air, and is caused by contact of the air with the cooled surfaces of the earth. As the dew is less in town, the evening sprinkle takes the place of it. But while watering should be copious once or twice a week, it must not be overdone. In a wet "spell" it is not necessary at all. If our plants exceed in food and drink, they will grow fat and not fine; that is, they will run to stem and leaf, and their blossoms will be few, or atrophied. What's that? They are like some human beings, then?
In his hunger for the soil, that develops when a man--or his wife--acquires a bit of yard, there is a tendency to demand more of it than it can give; to be overgood to it, expecting impossible returns; to spoil it, as we do some children. It is a real delight to play the hose over our garden at sunset and see it brighten under the mimic rain. How fresh and fair it looks, when we have done ! Yet it can be harmed with too much drink. Plants that are too much coddled grow dim and weak when the coddling is foregone for a while. One other item: Go over the ground with a rake, or a hoe, if it shows a tendency to harden and pack down, so that the water may reach the roots; even a spading or troweling may be necessary in resistant soils; but be careful not to cut the rootlets and not to heavily jar the plant, for that may shake off its flowers, or displace it, or at least break some of its stems or branches.
But we are getting a little ahead of our plants. We haven't them, yet. Our first work is to loosen the soil, and as you will have trouble in getting a horse and plow through the basement, the work will require to be done with a spade. By a fair output of profanity and industry, men have been able to spade up a yard in a day, and even to do a little work, between whiles. If you move in during the late summer you can not do much toward the improvement of your premises. Buy some showy things from the florist, set them out and let it go at that. Let the youngsters rollick over the ground. Heaven knows they have little enough of play space in the city! If you have children of the playful age, forego the garden, and occupy the yard with toys, swings, seesaws, and sand-heaps. If a garden is possible, however, prepare for it in the fall, with a spading, taking dry weather for the digging, and pulling out all the big and troublesome weeds before they go to seed. Be sure to do this work while the ground is dry: otherwise the soil can not be easily loosened up, and the weeds that you overturn will be less apt to strike their roots back into the earth than if they and the earth were wet. This rule holds in plowing and harrowing, where they are practical, quite as well as in spading. After the soil has been turned over, it is to be raked level, lawn grass-seed is to be sprinkled over it, and it is then to be rolled--you can hire the rolling and need not buy the machine to do it with--after which, the flower-beds are to be laid off in the spaces not assigned to grass; trees and shrubs, if any, are to be planted, and a little later, bulbs are to be set out for spring flowering.
As the chances are that the yard has been putting up vegetation, in the form of grass and weeds, for several thousand years without much encouragement to continue in the work, it behooves the thoughtful house owner to feed it with manures. He can, if he must, wait till the snow is about to fall, so that the sight and odor shall be quieted beneath the white of winter; yet it is better to be brave and endure. You can use phosphates, guano, poudrette, bone-dust and higher-sounding things than these, but there is nothing better than hennery and stable manure. Never use it fresh, for the ammonia is then overpowering, and will burn your plants, and put you out of favor with the family next door. It must be old and well rotted in the compost heap. The manure, of whatever kind, is to be stirred into the ground on a second spading or raking. If plants or trees are standing in the yard during this process no harm is likely to come to them from stable manure, but the chemical fertilizers are sometimes so sharp that moderation must be used in applying them, and it is well not to have them touch the roots of the plants. If the yard is so large, and so open to the street as to admit of plowing, the manure may be strewn over its surface after that operation, and then harrowed or raked in. Odorless manures are much in favor for city use, but for actual value they will never replace the stable sweepings and decayed leaf-mold from the woods. They are expensive, too, and they are sometimes adulterated with sand and plaster. As to special enrichments, for certain plants, I opine that there is much nonsense in that notion, and that the common manures are good enough for all the plants that grow. During the winter the roots will be absorbing food, and should show vigor in the spring, but if the soil is poor, if there is a time of darkness and sour weather, or if any disease of malnutrition takes hold on the roses and lilies, let them have a trifle of stimulant: a few drops of ammonia to a pail of water. Indeed, it is well to give a little of this at intervals, say, once a month, through the green season.
Your farm can be worked with very little machinery. You will need a hose, with a reel to wind it on, a rotary nozzle for spraying the grass, and the usual tip, which throws a fine mist or a strong stream, according as you adjust the cock. You will require a lawn-mower, which the comic papers assure us is held in abhorrence by male suburbanites, and not always without reason, for the woman, in a cool and gauzy dress who sits on the veranda while the slave of the lawn trundles about his Sisyphus burden, little realizes that by transforming the energy needed in "shaving the whiskers off the earth," as one victim described it, the defendant could get himself elected to a first-rate club or a second-rate board of aldermen--in neither of which positions does she wish to find him. I pushed a machine over a lawn in the country one morning, and was displeased to find that, hurry as I might, I could not finish before breakfast. I remarked that it was not a big lawn to look at, but it seemed to take a long time to get around it. "I've made a rough calculation of the distance it is around the lawn-mower course," observed the man who had not guided the implement that day, "and I find it is about five miles." Therefore, oh, dames, be tender of the suburbanite, for the comic papers are not. He has sorrows of which you little dream. But insist on his mowing the yard once in a week, at any rate. You are also to provide him with a spade, a trowel, a sickle, a rake, a hoe, a pair of garden shears, a sprayer for insect poisons and a dibble. Perhaps you do not know the dibble, and it sounds so like a divvle that you may think it is something wicked, but it is merely a pointed stick which you jab into the earth--that is, the husband does--and rotates, describing a widening circle with its handle, while the tip remains fast. This digs a pit in the shape of an inverted cone, and digs it in two or three seconds, hence the dibble is useful in planting and transplanting and in preparing places for sweet peas, flowering beans, and the like. An old shovel handle, cut off eight or ten inches below the grip, and sharpened, makes the best dibble. You can have it tipped with iron by the blacksmith.
Most of the hay-crop in the yard will be gathered by the lawn-mower, but you will need the sickle and shears for trimming corners, borders and clumps of grass that spring up about the roots of trees and bushes. If the grass is suffered to grow long it will make troublesome snarls about the cogs and roller of the machine, which will tear it up by the roots, but, what is worse, your turf will be dry, harsh, stemmy and ragged, unless it is kept down; weeds, too, will gain a hold, sow themselves, and increase. By frequent cutting, the grass is kept tender, green and thick, because room is made for the young shoots, and it is prevented from going to seed. Be careful of your grass. It is the surest and handsomest crop your garden will yield. Flowers last for a little and are gone; leaves unfold, flourish, wither and fall, but grass smiles up at the first breath of spring; it often lasts until the beginning of December, and when comes a January thaw there it is, a trifle faded, yet still green, assuring us that winter is not the seal of death, but only a mask of life. Bright color has its cheer, and we plan our garden for it, but we prize it as an accent rather than a constancy. The blue of the sky and sea, and the green of the earth, are a delight forever.
There is another than esthetic reason for giving a part of the yard to grass; namely, Mary Ann. It may be that Mary Ann has the same delight in art and nature that other people ought to have, and often don't, but surely no other people can smash as many porcelains indoors and so many blossoms outdoors, in any given time. I have seen a garden after a single promenade of this virgin, once out and back, that reminded me of a Kansas farm after a cyclone. You would have said that nobody could do the things she did whose feet were smaller than dining-tables, and whose knees were unarmed with scythes, like those attached to the wheels of the Greek battle chariots. Yet she came back into the house chortling a come-allyez and serenely unconscious of injury. If Mary Ann has grass to roll her feet upon she may be willing to let the flowers alone, or at least, to maim, behead and uproot only those that are nearest; and in our own interest, if not in hers, it behooves us to yield this point. If you have a roof or a laundry in which clothes may be dried, so that the usual Monday rejoicings shall not be manifest to the vicinage, Mary Ann may be persuaded to remain indoors, and horticultural possibilities thereupon widen, cheerfully. An offer to let her receive her cousins in the kitchen, every night, if those importunate relatives will visit by platoons and in turn, instead of by divisions and in mass, and a willingness not to inquire where the last butter, sugar, tea, coffee, flour and cider went, will sometimes make Mary Ann amenable to petition. So it is best to give that part of the yard to grass which is nearest to the house, and you need not consider Mary Ann altogether in this; because the views from your back windows will be pleasanter if the flower-beds are at the back of the yard, where they can best be seen, and where they have the park-like preface of a lawn.
If Mary Ann's feet have made appreciable hollows in your grass-plot, in their goings and comings, they can be filled in with light earth, and the lawn may be rerolled. A smooth and velvety lawn is a delight to the eye, look we never so lovingly on nature in the wild. Perfect grass is not to be grown overnight. In England, where you see it at its best, they have a saying that, to make a lawn requires three or four centuries. We can make one in less time than that in our country, and you may see lawns of almost English beauty among the unvisited wilds of upper Manhattan. There are some estates in that forgotten quarter of the world, soon to be blasted and leveled and chopped and covered with flats, which recall the stately halls of England, not so much in their buildings as in the lovely settings of trees, vines, flower-beds and billowy or lake-like grass fields.
After planting your lawn you will put in your bulbs--your crocuses, hyacinths, freesias, jonquils, and tulips, and in placing them in the earth, as also in setting out your woody plants, your peonies and your fleur-de-lis, put a bit of old manure into each burial pit before placing your bulb or root there. After all is in place, it is well to cover your yard with a mulch of leaves or straw, if you live in the zone of long, cold winters, and in early spring, when frosts still threaten in our land, which has so little climate and so much weather, protect the young plants, if you observe a falling thermometer. This you may do by inverting pails, buckets or hardware over them, or by pegging down thick papers or paper bags, to be removed next day, or as soon as the sun shines. Still, plants are a deal tougher than they look, and the early ones, that the poets call fragile and tender, will defy weather such as will wilt a tramp. Your bulbs will throw up shoots while the nights are sharp, and will invite the insect with color and perfume while yet the insect is heavy with its chrysalis sleep. Then come the budding and the universal upspring, and from that time, through two-thirds of the year, your garden will be a place of beauty.
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