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An essay by George Washington Cable

The Cottage Gardens Of Northampton

Title:     The Cottage Gardens Of Northampton
Author: George Washington Cable [More Titles by Cable]

Adam and Eve, it is generally conceded, were precocious. They entered into the cares and joys of adult life at an earlier age than any later human prodigy. We call them the grand old gardener and his wife, but, in fact, they were the youngest gardeners the world has ever seen, and they really did not give entire satisfaction. How could they without tools?

Let it pass. The whole allusion is prompted only by the thought that youth does not spontaneously garden. If it was actually necessary that our first parents should begin life as gardeners, that fully explains why they had to begin it also as adults. Youth enjoys the garden, yes! but not its making or tending. Childhood, the abecedarian, may love to plant seeds, to watch them spring, grow, and flower, and to help them do so; but that is the merest a-b-c of gardening, and no more makes him an amateur in the art than spelling words of one letter makes him a poet. One may raise or love flowers for a lifetime, yet never in any art sense become a gardener.

In front of the main building of a public institution which we must presently mention again there is a sloping strip of sward a hundred feet long and some fifteen wide. A florist of fully half a century's experience one day halted beside it and exclaimed to the present writer, "Only say the word, and I'll set out the 'ole len'th o' that strip in foliage-plants a-spellin' o' the name: 'People's Hinstitute!'" Yet that gentle enthusiast advertised himself as a landscape-gardener and got clients. For who was there to tell them or him that he was not one?

Not only must we confess that youth does not spontaneously garden, but that our whole American civilization is still so lingeringly in its non-gardening youth that only now and then, here and there, does it realize that a florist, whether professional or amateur, or even a nurseryman, is not necessarily a constructive gardener, or that artistic gardening, however informal, is nine-tenths constructive.

Yet particularly because such gardening is so, and because some of its finest rewards are so slow-coming and long-abiding, there is no stage of life in which it is so reasonable for man or woman to love and practise the art as when youth is in its first full stature and may garden for itself and not merely for posterity. "John," said his aged father to one of our living poets, "I know now how to transplant full-grown trees successfully. Do it a long time ago." Let the stripling plant the sapling.

Youth, however, and especially our American youth, has his or her excuses, such as they are. Of the garden or the place to be gardened, "It's not mine," he or she warmly says; "it's only my father's," or "my mother's."

Young man! Young maiden! True, the place, so pathetically begging to be gardened, may not be your future home, may never be your property, and it is right enough that a feeling for ownership should begin to shape your daily life. But let it not misshape it. You know that ownership is not all of life nor the better half of it, and it is quite as good for you to give the fact due recognition by gardening early in life as it was for Adam and Eve.

It is better, for you can do so in a much more fortunate manner, having tools and the first pair's warning example. It is better also because you can do what to them was impossible; you can make gardening a concerted public movement.

That is what we have made it in Northampton, Massachusetts, whose curving streets and ancient elms you may have heard of as making it very garden-like in its mere layout; many of whose windows, piazzas, and hillside lawns look on across the beautiful Connecticut, winding broadly among its farmed meadows and vanishing southward through the towering gateway made for or by it millenniums ago between Mounts Tom and Holyoke.

There Smith College is, as well as that "People's Institute" aforementioned, and it is through that institute, one of whose several branches of work is carried on wholly by Smith College students, that we, the Northampton townspeople, established and maintain another branch, our concerted gardening.

[Illustration: "You can make gardening a concerted public movement."

A gathering on My Own Acre in the interest of the Flower Garden Competition.]

One evening in September a company of several hundred persons gathered in the main hall of the institute's "Carnegie House" to witness and receive the prize awards of their twelfth annual flower-garden competition.

The place was filled. A strong majority of those present were men and women who earn their daily bread with their hands. The whole population of Northampton is but twenty thousand or so, and the entire number of its voters hardly exceeds four thousand, yet there were one thousand and thirteen gardens in the competition, the gardens of that many homes; and although children had taken part in the care of many of them, and now were present to see the prizes go to their winners, not one was separately a child's garden. By a rule of the contest, each garden had been required to comprise the entire home lot, with the dwelling for its dominating feature and the family its spiritual unit.

The ceremony of award began with the lowest cash prize and moved steadily up to the second and first, these two being accompanied by brilliantly illuminated diplomas, and as each award was bestowed, the whole gathering of winners and non-winners--for no one could be called a loser--sounded their congratulations by a hearty clapping of hands. They had made the matter a public, concerted movement, and were interested in its results and rewards as spiritual proprietors in a common possession much wider than mere personal ownership under the law.

This wider sentiment of community, so valuable to the whole public interest, was further promoted by the combining of nearly two hundred of these same gardens in "neighborhood garden clubs" of seven or more gardens each, every garden in each club directly adjoining another, and the clubs competing for prizes of so much a garden to the best and second-best clubs.

Yet none the less for all this, but much more, a great majority of the multitude of home gardeners represented by this gathering were enjoying also--each home pair through their own home garden--the pleasures of personal ownership and achievement.

Many of the prize-winners were young, but many were gray, and some were even aged, yet all alike would have testified that even for age, and so all the more for youth, artistic flower-gardening is as self-rewarding a form of unselfish work and as promptly rewarding a mode of waiting on the future as can easily be found; that there is no more beautifully rewarding way by which youth may

"Learn to labor and to wait."

Maybe that is why Adam and Eve were apprenticed to it so very young.

It should have been said before that in advance of the award of prizes some very pleasant music and song were given from the platform by a few Smith College girls, and that then the company were shown stereopticon pictures of a number of their own gardens as they looked during the past summer and as they had looked when, a few years ago,--although seemingly but yesterday,--their owners began to plan and to plant.

The contrasts were amazing and lent great emphasis to the two or three truths we have here dwelt on probably long enough. To wit: first, that, as a rule, all true gardeners are grown-ups; second, that therein lies the finest value of concerted gardening; third, that the younger the grown-up the better, for the very reason that the crowning recompenses of true gardening come surely, but come late; and fourth, that, nevertheless, gardening yields a lovely amplitude of immediate rewards.

For instance, this gathering in our People's Institute also, before the announcement of prizes, took delight in hearing reported the aggregate of the flowers, mostly of that season's planting, distributed by a considerable number of the competitors to the shut-in and the bereaved. This feature of the movement had been begun only the previous year, and its total was no more than some three thousand dozens of flowers; but many grateful acknowledgments, both verbal and written, prove that it gave solace and joy to many hearts and we may call it a good beginning.

A garden should be owned not to be monopolized, but to be shared, as a song is owned not to be hushed, but to be sung; and the wide giving of its flowers is but one of several ways in which a garden may sing or be sung--for the garden is both song and singer. At any rate it cannot help but be a public benefaction and a public asset, if only its art be true.

Hence one of the values of our gardening in Northampton: making the gardens so many and so artistically true and good, it makes the town, as a whole, more interesting and pleasing to itself, and in corresponding degree the better to live in. Possibly there may be some further value in telling here how we do it.

As soon as signs of spring are plain to the general eye the visiting for enrolment begins. A secretary of the institute sets out to canvass such quarters of the field as have not been apportioned among themselves individually by the ladies composing the committee of "volunteer garden visitors." At the same time these ladies begin their calls, some undertaking more, some less, according to each one's willingness or ability.

This first round consists merely in enrolling the competitors by name, street, and number and in sending these registrations in to the institute. Later, by the same ladies, the same ground is more or less gone over again in visits of observation, inquiry and counsel, and once a month throughout the season the ladies meet together with the president of the institute to report the conditions and sentiments encountered and to plan further work.

The importance of these calls is not confined to the advancement of good gardening. They promote fellowship among neighbors and kind feeling between widely parted elements of society. Last year this committee made nearly eleven hundred such visits.

Meanwhile a circular letter has been early mailed to the previous year's competitors, urging them to re-enroll by post-card. Last year hundreds did so. Meanwhile, too, as soon as the enrolment is completed, the institute's general secretary begins a tour of official inspection, and as he is an experienced teacher of his art, his inspections are expert. His errand is known by the time he is in sight, and, as a rule, the householder joins him in a circuit of the place, showing achievements, reciting difficulties and disappointments, confessing errors, and taking tactful advice.

And what room he finds for tact! He sees a grave-like bed of verbenas defacing the middle of a small greensward--a dab of rouge on a young cheek; a pert child doing all the talking. Whereupon he shrewdly pleads not for the sward but for the flowers, "You have those there to show off at their best?"

"Yes. Don't they do it?"

"Not quite." He looks again. "Nine feet long--five wide. If you'll plant them next year in a foot-wide ribbon under that border of stronger things along your side boundary they'll give you at least forty feet of color instead of nine, and they'll illuminate your bit of sward instead of eclipsing it."

In another garden he says, "Splendid sunburst of color, that big tub of geraniums!" and the householder is pleased to admit the fact. "If you'd sink the tub into the ground clear down to the rim they'd take up no more room and they'd look natural. Besides, you wouldn't have to water them continually."

"That's true!" says the householder, quite in the incredible way of an old-fashioned book. "I'll do it!"

"And then," says the caller, "if you will set it away off on that far corner of the lawn it will shine clear across, showing everything between here and there, like a lighthouse across a harbor, or like a mirror, which you hang not in your parlor door, but at the far end of the room."

"When you come back you shall see it there," is the reply.

Sometimes, yet not often, a contestant is met who does not want advice, and who can hardly hide his scorn for book statements and experts. The present writer came upon one last year who "could not see what beauty there was in John Smith's garden, yet we had given him and his wife the capital prize!"

Frequently one finds the house of a competitor fast locked and dumb, its occupants being at work in some mill or shop. Then if the visit is one of official inspection a card stating that fact and dated and signed on the spot is left under the door, and on its reverse side the returning householder finds printed the following:

"In marking for merit your whole place is considered your garden. It is marked on four points: (1) Its layout, or ground plan; (2) its harmonies--of arrangement as to color of blooms and as to form and size of trees, shrubs and plants; (3) its condition--as to the neatness and order of everything; and (4) its duration--from how early in the year to how late it will make a pleasing show.

"Mow your lawn as often as the mower will cut the grass, but also keep it thoroughly weeded. As a rule, in laying out your plantings avoid straight lines and hard angles; the _double_ curve, or wave line, is the line of grace. Plant all the flowers you wish, few or many, but set shrubs at their back to give stronger and more lasting effects when the flowers are out of season as well as while they are in bloom.

"Try to plant so as to make your whole place one single picture of a _home_, with the house the chief element and the boundary-lines of the lot the frame. Plant on all your lot's boundaries, plant out the foundation-lines of all its buildings; but between these plantings keep the space grassed only, and open. In these house and boundary borders let your chief plantings be shrubs, and so have a nine months' instead of a three months' garden."

The secretary's tour completed and his score of all the gardens tabulated, a list is drawn from it of the one hundred and fifty best gardens, and a second circuit of counsel and inspection, limited to this greatly reduced number, is made by the president of the institute, who marks them again on the same four points of merit.

These two markings, averaged, determine the standing of all prize-winning gardens except the leading four. Then the president calls in one professional and one amateur expert, visits with them as many of the most promising contestants as can be seen in an afternoon's drive, and with them decides the award of the four highest prizes.

[Illustration: "Plant on all your lot's boundaries, plant out the foundation-lines of all its buildings."

A secluded back corner of a prize-winner's garden which shows how slight a planting may redeem the homeliness of an old fence.]

[Illustration: "Not chiefly to reward the highest art in gardening, but to procure its widest and most general dissemination."

A cheap apartment row whose landlord had its planting done by the People's Institute.]

That is all. When we have given two or three lesser items our story is told--for what it is worth. It is well to say we began small; in our first season, fifteen years ago, our whole roll of competitors numbered but sixty. It is the visiting that makes the difference; last season these visits, volunteer and official, were more than thirty-one hundred.

Another source of our success we believe to be the fact that our prizes are many and the leading ones large--fifteen, twelve, nine dollars, and so on down. Prizes and all, the whole movement costs a yearly cash outlay of less than three hundred dollars; without the People's Institute at its back it could still be done for five hundred.

And now, this being told in the hope that it may incite others, and especially youth, to make experiments like it elsewhere, to what impulse shall we appeal?

Will it not suffice if we invoke that adolescent instinct which moves us to merge our individual life--to consolidate it, as the stock-manipulators say--in the world's one great life, our "celestial selfishness" being intuitively assured that our own priceless individuality will gain, not lose, thereby?

Or shall we make our plea to an "art impulse"? No? Is the world already artificial enough? Not by half, although it is full, crammed, with the things the long-vanished dead have done for it in every art, from cameos to shade-trees; done for it because it was already so fair that, live long or die soon, they could not hold themselves back from making it fairer.

Yet, all that aside, is not this concerted gardening precisely such a work that young manhood and womanhood, however artificial or unartificial, anywhere, everywhere, Old World or newest frontier, ought to take to naturally? Adam and Eve did, and they--but we have squeezed Adam and Eve dry enough.

Patriotism! Can you imagine a young man or woman without it? And if you are young and a lover of your country, do you not love its physical aspects, "its rocks and rills, its woods and templed hills"? And if so, do you love only those parts of it which you never see and the appearance of which you have no power to modify? Or do you love the land only and not the people, the nation, the government? Or, loving these, have you no love for the nearest public fraction of it, your own town and neighbors? Why, then, your love of the Stars and Stripes is the flattest, silliest idolatry; so flat and silly it is hardly worth chiding. Your patriotism is a patriotism for war only, and a country with only that kind is never long without war.

You see the difference? Patriotism for war generalizes. A patriotism for peace particularizes, localizes. Ah, you do love, despite all their faults, your nation, your government, your town and townspeople, else you would not so often scold them! Otherwise, why do you let us call them yours? Because they belong to you? No, because you belong to them. Beyond cavil you are your own, but beyond cavil, too, you are theirs; their purchased possession, paid for long, long in advance and sight-unseen.

You cannot use a sidewalk, a street-lamp, or a post-box, or slip away into the woods and find them cleared of savages and deadly serpents, without seeing part of the price paid for you before your great-grandfather was born. So, then, loving your town enough to scold it, you will also serve it!

Now this we say not so much to be preaching as to bring in a last word descriptive of our Northampton movement. We do not make that work a mere aggregation of private kindnesses, but a public business for the promotion of the town in sanitary upkeep, beauty and civic fellowship.

And so our aim is not chiefly to reward the highest art in gardening, but to procure its widest and most general dissemination. The individual is definitely subordinated to the community's undivided interest. Since gardening tends to develop in fortunate sections and to die out in others, we have laid off our town map in seven parts and made a rule that to each of these shall go three of the prizes.

Moreover, no two consecutive prizes can be awarded in any one of these districts. Where a competitor takes the capital prize no other can take a higher than the third, and if two in one district win the first and third prizes no one else there can take a higher than the fifth. So on through to prize twenty-one.

Still further, a garden taking any of these prizes can never again take any of them but a higher one, and those who attain to the capital prize are thenceforth _hors concours_ except to strive for the "Past Competitors' Prizes," first and second.

Thus the seasons come and go, the gardens wake, rise, rejoice and slumber again; and because this arrangement is so evidently for the common weal and fellowship first, and yet leaves personal ownership all its liberties, rights and delights, it is cordially accepted of the whole people. And, lastly, as a certain dear lady whom we may not more closely specify exclaimed when, to her glad surprise, she easily turned the ceremonial golden key which first unlocked the Carnegie House of our People's Institute, "It works!"

[The end]
George Washington Cable's essay: The Cottage Gardens Of Northampton