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An essay by George Washington Cable

Where To Plant What

Title:     Where To Plant What
Author: George Washington Cable [More Titles by Cable]

Often one's hands are too heavily veneered with garden loam for him to go to his books to verify a quotation. It was the great Jefferson, was it not, who laid into the foundations of American democracy the imperishable maxim that "That gardening is best which gardens the least"? My rendition of it may be more a parody than a quotation but, whatever its inaccuracy, to me it still sounds Jeffersonian--Joseph Jeffersonian.

Whether we read it "garden" or "govern," it has this fine mark of a masterful utterance, that it makes no perceptible effort to protect itself against the caviller or the simpleton; from men, for instance, who would interpret it as meaning that the only perfect government, or gardening, is none at all. Speaking from the point of view of a garden-lover, I suppose the true signification is that the best government is the government which procures and preserves the noblest happiness of the community with the least enthralment of the individual.

Now, I hope that as world-citizens and even as Americans we may bear in mind that, while this maxim may be wholly true, it is not therefore the whole truth. What maxim is? Let us ever keep a sweet, self-respecting modesty with which to confront and consort with those who see the science of government, or art of gardening, from the standpoint of some other equally true fraction of the whole truth. All we need here maintain for our Jeffersonian maxim is that its wide domination in American sentiment explains the larger part of all the merits and faults of American government--and American gardening. It accounts for nearly all our American laws and ordinances, manners, customs, and whims, and in the great discussion of Where to Plant What (in America) no one need hope to prevail who does not recognize that this high principle of American democracy is the best rule for American gardening. That gardening is best, for most Americans, which best ministers to man's felicity with least disturbance of nature's freedom.

Hence the initial question--a question which every amateur gardener must answer for himself. How much subserviency of nature to art and utility is really necessary to my own and my friends' and neighbors' best delight? For--be not deceived--however enraptured of wild nature you may be, you do and must require of her _some_ subserviency close about your own dwelling. You cannot there persistently enjoy the wolf and the panther, the muskrat, buzzard, gopher, rattlesnake, poison-ivy and skunk in full swing, as it were. How much, then, of nature's subserviency does the range of your tastes demand? Also, how much will your purse allow? For it is as true in gardening as in statecraft that, your government being once genuinely established, the more of it you have, the more you must pay for it. In gardening, as in government, the cost of the scheme is not in proportion to the goodness or badness of its art, but to its intensity.

This is why the general and very sane inclination of our American preferences is away from that intense sort of gardening called "formal," and toward that rather unfairly termed "informal" method which here, at least, I should like to distinguish as "free-line" gardening. A free people who govern leniently will garden leniently. Their gardening will not be a vexing tax upon themselves, upon others, or upon the garden. Whatever freedom it takes away from themselves or others or the garden will be no more than is required for the noblest delight; and whatever freedom remains untaken, such gardening will help everybody to exercise and enjoy.

The garden of free lines, provided only it be a real garden under a real government, is, to my eye, an angel's protest against every species and degree of tyranny and oppression, and such a garden, however small or extensive, will contain a large proportion of flowering shrubbery. Because a garden should not, any more than my lady's face, have all its features--nose, eyes, ears, lips--of one size? No, that is true of all gardening alike; but because with flowering shrubbery our gardening can be more lenient than with annuals alone, or with only herbaceous plants and evergreens.

[Illustration: "However enraptured of wild nature you may be, you do and must require of her _some_ subserviency about your own dwelling."

A front view of the three older buildings of Williston Seminary.]

So, then, our problem, Where to Plant What, may become for a moment, Where to Plant Shrubbery; and the response of the free-line garden will be, of course, "Remember, concerning each separate shrub, that he or she--or it, if you really _prefer_ the neuter--is your guest, and plant him or her or it where it will best enjoy itself, while promoting the whole company's joy." Before it has arrived in the garden, therefore, learn--and carefully consider--its likes and dislikes, habits, manners and accomplishments and its friendly or possibly unfriendly relations with your other guests. This done, determine between whom and whom you will seat it; between what and what you will plant it, that is, so as to "draw it out," as we say of diffident or reticent persons; or to use it for drawing out others of less social address. But how many a lovely shrub has arrived where it was urgently invited, and found that its host or hostess, or both, had actually forgotten its name! Did not know how to introduce it to any fellow guest, or whether it loved sun or shade, loam, peat, clay, leaf-mould or sand, wetness or dryness; and yet should have found all that out in the proper blue-book (horticultural dictionary) before inviting the poor mortified guest at all.

"Oh, pray be seated--anywhere. Plant yourself alone in the middle. This is Liberty Garden."

"It is no such thing," says the tear-bedewed beauty to herself; "it's Anarchy Garden." Yet, like the lady she is, she stays where she is put, and gets along surprisingly well.

New England calls Northampton one of her most beautiful towns. But its beauty lies in the natural landscape in and around it, in the rise, fall, and swing of the seat on which it sits, the graceful curving of its streets, the noble spread of its great elms and maples, the green and blue openness of grounds everywhere about its modest homes and its highly picturesque outlook upon distant hills and mountains and intervening meadows and fields, with the Connecticut winding through. Its architecture is in three or four instances admirable though not extraordinary, and, as in almost every town in our vast America, there are hardly five householders in it who are really skilled flower-gardeners, either professional or amateur.

[Illustration: "Plant it where it will best enjoy itself."

These wild roses are in two clumps with a six-foot open way between them. They are a wild rose (_Rosa Arkansana_) not much in use but worthy of more attention, as indeed all the wild roses are. The sunlit tree farthest on the right is Sol Smith Russell's linden.]

As the present century was coming in, however, the opportunity, through private flower-gardening, to double or quadruple the town's beauty and to do it without great trouble or expense, yet with great individual delight and social pleasure, came to the lively notice of a number of us. It is, then, for the promotion of this object throughout all our bounds, and not for the perfection of the art for its own sake, that we maintain this competition and award these "Carnegie" prizes. Hence certain features of our method the value and necessity of which might not be clear to the casual inquirer without this explanation.

May I repeat it? Not to reward two or three persons yearly for reaching some dizzy peak of art unattainable by ordinary taste and skill, nor to reward one part of the town or one element of its people for gardening better than another, nor to promote the production of individual plants or flowers of extraordinary splendor, nor even to incite children to raise patches of flowers, is our design; but to make the modest and democratic art of Where to Plant What (an art, nevertheless, quite beyond the grasp of children) so well known and so valued that its practical adoption shall overrun the whole town.

To this end we have divided our field into seven districts, in each of which the number of gardens is about the same. In each of these seven districts only three prizes (out of twenty-one) may be taken in any one season. Consequently three prizes _must_ fall to each district every year. Yet the best garden of all still carries off the capital prize, the second-best may win the second, and cannot take a lower than the third, and the lowest awards go into the district showing the poorest results. Even this plan is so modified as further to stimulate those who strive against odds of location or conditions, for no district is allowed to receive two prizes consecutive in the list. The second prize cannot be bestowed in the same district in which the first is being awarded, though the third can. The third cannot go into the same district as the second, though the fourth may. And so on to the twenty-first. Moreover, a garden showing much improvement over the previous season may take a prize, as against a better garden which shows no such improvement. Also no garden can take the capital prize twice nor ever take a prize not higher than it has taken before. The twenty-one prizes are for those who hire no help in their gardening; two others are for those who reserve the liberty to employ help, and still another two are exclusively for previous winners of the capital prize, competing among themselves. In each of the five districts a committee of ladies visits the competing gardens, inspecting, advising, encouraging, sometimes learning more than they teach, and reporting to headquarters, the People's Institute. At these headquarters, on two acres of ground in the heart of the city, we have brought gradually into shape, on a plan furnished by Frederick Law Olmsted's Sons, Landscape Architects, of Boston (Brookline), a remarkably handsome garden of flowers and shrubbery designed as a model for the guidance of those in the competition who seek to combine artistic beauty with inexpensiveness. From time to time we have given at these headquarters winter courses of lectures on practical flower-gardening.

As a result we have improved, and are still improving, the aspect of entire streets and are interesting the whole city.

But to return to our discussion. Here is a short story of two ladies. They are not in our competition, though among its most ardent well-wishers. A friend had given one of them a bit of green, woody growth some two feet high and half an inch thick. She had a wee square bit of front grass-plot something larger than a table-cloth, but certainly not large enough for a game of marbles. In the centre of this bit of grass she planted her friend's gift. Then came our other lady, making a call, and with her best smile of humorous commendation, saying:

"My dear, you have violated the first rule of gardening. You've planted your bush where you wanted it."

The delighted gardener went in the strength of that witticism for forty weeks or at least until some fiend of candor, a brother, like as not, said:

"Yes, truly you have violated the first rule of gardening, for you have put your willow-tree--that's what it is--where a minute's real reflection would have told you you'd wish you hadn't."

Where to Plant What! Plant it where you--and your friends--your friends of best gardening taste--will be glad you planted it when all your things are planted. Please those who know best, and so best please yourself. Nevertheless, beware! Watch yourself! Do so specially when you think you have mastered the whole art. Watch even those who indisputably know better than you do, for everybody makes mistakes which he never would have dreamed he could make. Only the other day I heard an amateur say to a distinguished professional gardener:

"Did you plant those shrubs of gorgeous flower and broad, dark leaf out on your street front purely as a matter of artistic taste?"

"I did," he replied. "I wanted to put my best foot foremost. Wouldn't you?"

"Why should I?" asked the amateur. "I wouldn't begin a song with my highest note, nor a game with my strongest card, nor an address with my most impassioned declaration, nor a sonnet with its most pregnant line. If I should, where were my climax?"

Certainly the amateur had the best of it. A garden is a discourse. A garden is a play. See with what care both the dramatist and the stage-manager avoid putting the best foot foremost. See how warily they hold back the supreme strength of the four or five act piece for the last act but one. There is a charmingly instructive analogy between a garden and a drama. In each you have preparation, progress, climax, and close. And then, also, in each you must have your lesser climaxes leading masterfully up to the supreme one, and a final quiet one to let gratefully down from the giddy height.

In Northampton nearly all of our hundreds of gardens contesting for prizes are plays of only one or two acts. I mean they have only one or two buildings to garden up to and between and around and away from. Yet it is among these one-act plays, these one-house gardens, that I find the art truth most gracefully emphasized, that the best foot should not go foremost. In a large garden a false start may be atoned for by better art farther on and in; but in a small garden, for mere want of room and the chance to forget, a bad start spoils all. No, be the garden a prince's or a cottager's, the climaxes to be got by superiority of stature, by darkness and breadth of foliage and by splendor of bloom belong at its far end. Even in the one-house garden I should like to see the climaxes plural to the extent of two; one immediately at the back of the house, the other at the extreme rear of the ground. At the far end of the lot I would have the final storm of passion and riot of disclosure, and then close about the rear of the house there should be the things of supreme richness, exquisiteness and rarity.

This soft-voiced echo answering back out of the inmost heart of the whole demesne gives genuineness of sentiment to the entire scheme. To plant a conflagration of color against the back fence and stop there would be worse than melodramatic. It would be to close the play with a bang, and even a worthy one-act play does not close with a bang. The back of the lot is not the absolute end of the garden-play. Like the stage-play, the garden-play brings its beholder back at the very last, by a sweet reversion, to the point from which it started. The true garden-lover gardens not mainly for the passer-by, but rather for himself and the friends who come to see him. Even when he treads his garden paths alone he is a pleased and welcome visitor to himself, and shows his garden to himself as to a visitor. Hence there is always at last a turning back to the house or to the front entrance, and _this_ is the play's final lines, the last grouping of the players, the relief of all tension and the descent of the curtain.

[Illustration: " ... climaxes to be got by superiority of stature, by darkness and breadth of foliage and by splendor of bloom belong at its far end."

Everything in this photograph was planted by the amateur gardener except the pine-trees in perspective.]

One point farther in this direction and we may give our hard-worked analogy a respite. It is this: as those who make and present a play take great pains that, by flashes of revelation to eye and to ear, the secrets most unguessed by the characters in the piece shall be early revealed to the audience and persistently pressed upon its attention, so should the planting of a garden be; that, as if quite without the gardener's or the garden's knowledge, always, to the eye, nostril or ear, some clear disclosure of charm still remote may beckon and lure across easy and tempting distances from nook to nook of the small garden, or from alley to alley and from glade to glade of the large one. Where to Plant What? Plant it as far away as, according to the force of its character or the splendor of its charms, it can stand and beckon back with best advantage for the whole garden.

[Illustration: "Some clear disclosure of charm still remote may beckon and lure."

From a photograph taken on My Own Acre, showing how I pulled the lawn in under the trees. The big chestnuts in the middle are on the old fence line that stood on the very edge of the precipitously falling ground. All the ground in sight in the picture is a fill.]

Thus we generalize. And as long as one may generalize he is comparatively safe from humiliating criticism. It is only when he begins to name things by name and say what is best for just where, that he touches the naked eyeball (or the funny-bone) of others whose crotchets are not identical with his. Yet in Northampton this is what we have to do, and since the competitors for our prizes always have the Where before they are moved to get and place the What, we find our where-and-what problem easiest to handle when we lift it, so to speak, by the tail. Then it is "What to Plant Where," and for answer we have made a short list of familiar flowering shrubs best suited to our immediate geographical locality. We name only fourteen and we so describe each as to indicate clearly enough, without dictating, whereabouts to put it. We begin:

"Azalea. Our common wild azalea is the flowering bush best known as 'swamp honeysuckle.' The two azaleas listed here, _A. mollis_ and the Ghent varieties, are of large, beautiful and luxuriant bloom, and except the 'swamp honeysuckle' are the only azaleas hardy in western Massachusetts. Mollis is from two to six feet high, three to six feet broad, and blooms in April and May. Its blossoms are yellow, orange or pink, single or double. Its soil may be sandy or peaty, and moist, but any good garden soil will serve; its position partly shaded or in full sunlight. The Ghents are somewhat taller and not so broad in proportion. They bloom from May to July, and their blossoms are white, yellow, orange, pink, carmine, or red, single or double. Soil and position about the same as for mollis.

"Berberis. Berberis is the barberry, so well known by its beautiful pendent berries. It is one of the best shrubs to use where a thorny bush is wanted. _B. vulgaris_, the common sort, and one of the most beautiful, grows from four to eight feet high, with a breadth of from three to six feet. _B. Thunbergii_, or Thunberg's barberry, is the well-known Japanese variety, a dense, drooping bush from two to four feet high and somewhat greater breadth. Its pale-yellow blossoms come in April and May, and its small, slender, bright-red berries remain on the spray until spring. A dry soil is the best for it, though it will grow in any, and needs little shade or none. _B. purpurea_ is a variety of vulgaris and is as handsome as the common. It answers to the same description, except that its foliage is purple, which makes it very tempting to new gardeners, but very hard to relate in good artistic taste among the other shrubs of the garden. Few small gardens can make good use of purple foliage.

"_Deutzia gracilis._ The gracilis is one of the most beautiful of all the deutzias. Its delicate foliage of rather light green, its snowy flowers and its somewhat bending form, make it one of the fairest ornaments of the home grounds. Its height is three feet, its breadth from two to four feet. It blooms in May and June. Its soil may be any well-drained sort, and its position any slightly sheltered aspect."

So we hurry down the alphabet. The list is short for several good reasons, one being that it is well to give other lists from season to season. No doubt our inaccuracies would distress a botanist or scientific gardener, but we convey the information, such as it is, to our fellow citizens, and they use it. In the last ten years we have furnished to our amateurs thousands of shrubs and plants, at the same reduced rates for a few specimens each which we pay for them by the hundred.

But of the really good sorts are there shrubs enough, you ask, to afford new lists year after year? Well, for the campus of a certain preparatory school for boys, with the planting of which the present writer had somewhat to do a few years ago, the list of shrubs set round the bases of four large buildings and several hundred yards of fence numbered seventy-five kinds. To end the chapter, let us say something about that operation. On a pictorial page or two we give ourselves the pleasure of showing the results of this undertaking; but first, both by pictures and by verbal description let me show where we planted what. Of course we made sundry mistakes. Each thing we did may be vulnerable to criticism, and our own largest hope is that our results may not fall entirely beneath that sort of compliment.

This campus covers some five acres in the midst of a small town. Along three of its boundaries old maples and elms, in ordinary single-file shade-tree lines, tower and spread. On the fourth line, the rear bound, a board fence divides the ground from the very unattractive back yards, stables and sheds of a number of town residents. The front lies along the main street of the place, facing the usual "shop-row." The entire area has nearly always been grassed. Not what an Englishman would call so, but turfed in a stuttering fashion, impetuous and abashed by turns, and very easy to keep off; most rank up against the granite underpinnings of the buildings, and managing somehow to writhe to all the fences, of which those on the street fronts are of iron. Parallel with the front fence and some fifty feet behind it, three of the institution's buildings stand abreast and about a hundred feet apart. All three are tall, rectangular three-story piles of old red brick, on granite foundations, and full of windows all of one size, pigeon-house style. The middle one has a fairly good Greek-pillared porch, of wood, on the middle half of its front.

[Illustration: " ... tall, rectangular, three-story piles ... full of windows all of one size, pigeon-house style."

Middle Hall, Williston Seminary, facing the main street of the town.]

Among these buildings we began our planting. We had drawn, of course, a ground plan of the whole place, to scale, showing each ground-floor door and window, so that we might respect its customary or projected use. A great point, that, in Where to Plant What. I once heard of a school whose small boys were accused of wantonly trampling down some newly set shrubs on the playground. "Well," demanded one brave urchin, "what made 'em go and plant a lot of bushes right on first base?" And no one was ready with an answer, for there is something morally wrong about any garden that will rob a boy of his rights.

With this ground plan before us we decided indoors where to plant what outdoors and calculated arithmetically the number of each sort of shrub we should need for the particular interval we designed that sort to fill. Our scheme of arrangement was a crescendo of foliage and flower effects, beginning on the fronts of the buildings and rising toward their rears, while at all points making more of foliage than of bloom, because the bloom shows for only a month or less, while the leaf remains for seven or more. Beginning thus with our quietest note, the interest of any one looking in, or coming in, from the public front is steadily quickened and progressively rewarded, while the crowning effects at the rear of the buildings are reserved for the crowning moment when the visitor may be said to be fully received. On the other hand, if the approach is a returning one from the rear of the entire campus,--where stands the institution's only other building, a large tall-towered gymnasium, also of red brick,--these superlative effects show out across an open grassy distance of from two hundred to three hundred feet.

Wherefore--and here at last we venture to bring names of things and their places together--at the fronts of the northernmost and southernmost of these three "Halls" we set favorite varieties of white-flowering spireas (_Thunbergia, sorbifolia_, _arguta_, _Van Houttei_), the pearl-bush (_exochorda_), pink diervillas, and flowering-almonds. After these, on the southern side of the southernmost building, for example, followed lilacs, white and purple, against the masonry,--the white against the red brick, the lilac tint well away from it,--with tamarisk and kerria outside, abreast of them, and then pink and red spireas (_Bumaldi_ and its dwarf variety, _Anthony Waterer_). On the other side of the same house we set deutzias (_scabra_ against the brick-work and _Lemoynei_ and _gracilis_ outside). In a wing corner, where melting snows crash down from a roof-valley, we placed the purple-flowered _Lespedeza penduliflorum_, which each year dies to the ground before the snow-slides come, yet each September blooms from three to four feet high in drooping profusion. Then from that angle to the rear corner we put in a mass of pink wild roses. Lastly, on the tall, doorless, windowless rear end, we planted the crimson-rambler rose, and under it a good hundred of the red rugosas.

In the arrangement of these plantings we found ourselves called upon to deal with a very attractive and, to us, new phase of our question. The rising progression from front to rear was a matter of course, but how about the progression at right angles to it; from building to building, that is, of these three so nearly alike in size and dignity? To the passer-by along their Main Street front--the admiring passer-by, as we hope--should there be no augmentation of charm in the direction of his steps? And if there should be, then where and how ought it to show forth so as to avoid an anticlimax to one passing along the same front from the opposite direction? We promptly saw,--as the reader sees, no doubt, before we can tell it,--that what we wanted was two crescendos meeting somewhere near the middle; a crescendo passing into a diminuendo from whichever end you moved to the other--a swell. We saw that our loud-pedal effect should come upon "Middle Hall." So there, on its lucky bit of Greek porch, we bestowed the purple wistaria for spring, and for late summer that fragrant snowdrift, the clematis paniculata, so adapted as to festoon and chaplet, but never to smother, the Greek columns. On one of this structure's sides we planted forsythia, backed closer against the masonry by althaeas, with the low and exquisite mahonia (holly-leafed barberry) under its outer spread. On the other side of the house we placed, first, loniceras (bush honeysuckles); next, azaleas, in variety and profusion; then, toward the rear end, a mass of hardy hydrangeas (_Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora_), and at the very back of the pile another mass, of the flowering-quince (_Pyrus japonica_), with the trumpet-creeper (_Tecoma radicans_), to climb out of it.

About "North Hall," the third building, we planted more quietly, and most quietly on its outer, its northern, side where our lateral "swell" (rising effect) begins, or ends, according to the direction of your going, beginning with that modest but pretty bloomer the _Ligustrum ibota_, a perfectly hardy privet more graceful than the California (_ovalifolium_) species, which really has little business in icy New England away from the seashore.

I might have remarked before that nearly all the walls of these three buildings, as well as the gymnasium on the far side of the campus, were already adorned with the "Boston ivy" (_Ampelopsis Veitchii_). With the plantings thus described, and with the gymnasium surrounded by yet stronger greenery; with the back fence masked by willows, elders and red-stemmed cornus; and with a number of haphazard footpaths reduced to an equally convenient and far more graceful few, our scheme stands complete in its first, but only, please notice, its first, phase. The picture is submitted to your imagination not as it looked the day we ceased planting, but as we expected it to appear after a season or two, and as it does look now.

At present, rather tardily, we have begun to introduce herbaceous flowering perennials, which we ignored in the first part of our plan, because herbaceous plants are the flesh and blood and garments of a complete living and breathing garden; the walls, shrubs, trees, walks and drives are its bones. When this secondary phase has been more fully realized and we have placed bush-clumps and tree-clumps out on the open campus, and when our hundreds of cottage gardens are shaking off the prison irons of frost, we hope, if you cannot do us the honor to be with us bodily, your spirit may be near, aiding us on in the conquest of this ever beautiful Where-to-Plant-What problem, which I believe would make us a finer and happier nation if it could be expanded to national proportions.

[The end]
George Washington Cable's essay: Where To Plant What