from Fruit Garden and Home
Thank God For a Garden
by Ellis Parker Butler
This will be published sometime in mid-winter, I suppose, but it is now October, and last night I seated myself at my radio and put the ear phones on my ears and pushed the Joojigger around until I was receiving entertainment from Station WJZ, which is at Newark, New Jersey. Sometimes, when I have been out in a strong wind and the breezes have been napping my ears back and forth violently, my ears are tender and sore, and the snug clasp of my radio ear phones causes my ears to ache in the joints, but yesterday was a calm day and the only joints in my anatomy that did not ache were my ear joints. As soon as I "got" Newark on my radio a lady with a nice soprano voice began to sing. I had worked all day and had moved several tons of soil, under which I had placed 517 tulip bulbs, then replacing the soil. Before that I had loosened and crumbled the soil, mixing into it the proper fertilizer. I had also untied all the bags containing my last year's tulips, assorted them, counted them and listed them. I had bought one hundred wired labels and one hundred galvanized iron rose stakes. As the rose stakes were merely straight pieces of very tough iron wire I had taken a heavy pair of pliers and bent the end of each stake into a loop, so that I could wire the name tags into the loop. All day long I dug and lifted baskets of earth from one place to another, buried bulbs, covered bulbs, staked bulbs and exercised 245 muscles that had been reposing in indolence theretofore. When the sunset and darkness came I had buried 517 bulbs and had 517 assorted aches and creaks and stiffnesses. I also had 1,010 more bulbs to put in. And when the soprano lady in Newark, N. J., began to sing she sang "Thank God for a garden, be it ever so small." This morning I would not care a cent if my garden was 1,010 tulip bulbs smaller than I have planned it.
I see now that when I have planted about 1,232 bulbs I am going to dig up a lot of square feet of sod over by the peonies. Then I will have to take that sod over where my wife's garden is and add it to the incomplete grass path there, and water it and pat it down and edge it neatly; and get some more soil and put it in the place from which I took the sod, and fertilize the new tulip bed, and dig and crumble the soil, and shovel it out six or seven inches deep, and put in the bulbs and put the soil all back on top of them, and write the label tags, and wire them to the stakes, and stick the stakes where they belong. By that time the weather will be freezing cold, and the ground will be as hard as a rock, and I won't be able to get at that job of getting rid of the crab grass in my lawn, which I meant to get at last April, and last May and June and July and August and September and this October. And last year, and the year before that. And I have not yet pruned the apple tree nor built the climbing rose trellis nor pruned the shrubs in the front yard, nor dug up the gravel path that goes around the west side of the house and is never used anyway and might as well be taken out and good soil put there and seeded with grass seed. Because the new path from the kitchen door to the driveway needs some gravel on it anyhow.
A bag of guaranteed grass seed has been standing in my tool room for months. The idea is that when I dig up the wads of crab grass I am going to fill the hole thus made with soft topsoil and spill a handful of grass seed there. In this way my lawn will soon be beautifully sweet and neat, and look less like the pasture where the circus is always located. At least it will when I have dug up a couple of million dandelions and a billion or two selfheal weeds and gotten rid of the galensoga and chickweed and the eighty-two other varieties of weed, and put in some lime, and spread a layer of sheep manure and rolled it early in the spring. This spring I was so busy pulling the early weeds out of the tulip beds that I did not get at rolling the lawn until it was so hard that the lawn made dents in the iron roller, instead of the iron roller smoothing the lawn.
As soon as I have a minute to spare I must cut the deadwood out of the climbing roses.
I would have got all these things done last spring, I think, if had not bought one (1) load of well-rotted horse manure and one (1) load of topsoil, which I had to wheel around and put in eighty-seven different places, and dig in and spade up and fix all neat and tidy, but that put me so far back with trimming the edges of the gravel paths and the grass paths that the five cans of weed-killer are still in the barn in the very crate the express man brought them in. The weed-killer will be quite as violently effective next year, I hope. Which reminds me that if I did not have time to kill the weeds the Bechtel flowering crab that was so beautiful this spring is dead now, and I must order another and get it in if I ever get around to ordering the spice bush and snow berry shrub.
And with every joint in me aching except the ear-joints the lady soprano in Newark N. J., sang "Thank God for a garden, be it ever so small"!
I believe that if the only garden I had was a four-inch flowerpot I would never get caught up with what I had to do to it.
And that, when you come to think of it, is one of the best things about a small garden in a back lawn, or anywhere else. There is always something interesting to do to it. Take a combination of lawn, garden and shrubbery, and do your own tree manicuring and weed eradicating and hair trimming and life is one continuous procession of interesting tomorrows.
Personally, I am a fiend for crab grass pulling. I am so fond of pulling crab grass that I would be miserable if I had a lawn that had no crab grass. I can say, with truth, that up to date my lawn has caused me no misery of that sort. It is one of the crab-grassingest lawns I ever knew. I could give my son one cent per bunch for all the crab grass he could pull out of my lawn and when he had earned $1,000,000 there would still be enough crab grass left to keep me busy thirteen months per annum.
Over here on Long Island crab grass is a sort of grass that grows in bunches. It comes along in the night, I think, and hollows out a little depression and gets down in it and nests there like a setting hen. It nestles flat and spreads out like a hundred-legged octopus, and everything underneath it gives up hope and commits suicide. Along about October it turns reddish brown. It does this in order that your lawn may look like the dickens and Mr. Boden can come over from next door and remark that you have a lot of crab grass. Then you say:
"Yes, I meant to dig it out this year but I have been too busy; I'm going to get at it next spring and dig it out," and he says, "The only way to get it out is to have the whole lawn plowed up and new topsoil spread on and the whole thing seeded," and you say, "Yes, but that's what the Morrisons next door did, and they haven't anything but crab grass now."
It is these little differences of opinion that make the gardening life so interesting.
It is, however, easy to get rid of crab grass if you follow the best authorities. One of my garden friends loaned me a garden book the other day. It is a splendid book and weighs four pounds net, and has pictures of neat little gardens that cost only $75,000, or $845,000 at the most. As soon as the book was in my hands I turned to the index and looked up "crab grass," and the directions for getting rid of it were simple and easily understood.
"The only way to get rid of crab grass," it said, "is to dig it up, being sure to dig up all the roots."
I don't know what crab grass is like in Oklahoma or South Carolina, but out here on Long Island it is one of the rootingest vegetables to which I ever had a formal introduction, not excepting the dandelion. A healthy dandelion seems to have the idea that its mission in life is to send a root downward as far as possible. A dandelion that could set up business in my lawn and send a root so far downward that its tip would tickle the bare feet of a Chinese coolie would be happy. But crab grass roots do not grow that way. Their root system is more like a map of the automobile roads of Northern New Jersey and Southern New York. An energetic bunch of crab grass getting a good start in the spring will spread its beautiful white roots toward every point of the compass, and others too numerous to mention, and -- beginning at point A -- will pass under the barn, twice around the apple tree and then strike off across country for Denver and points West. You can tackle a crab grass root up near the house and find the far end of it over in the petunia bed, and in the line of travel you will meet seven hundred junction points. Crab grass, as acclimated on Long Island, roots at the nodes, the ends, the middles, the joints and wherever it touches earth.
There is also, in my lawn, a kind of low-lying grass that resembles goat hair in consistency. It is meek and branching by habit and has a gentle demeanor, like the interior of a twenty-year-old felt mattress. When flat the lawnmower passes over it without suspecting it is there, and when combed up it becomes a wad which causes the lawnmower to stop with a sudden jolt, pushing its handle into my solar plexus and causing me to turn deathly pale and tremble like a swatted bullfrog.
Hither and yon, as the poet would say, arise also colonies of onion grass. This is a neat, dark green business that smells like garlic and has a small white wart on the underground terminus. When cut with a lawnmower this interesting grass smells like an onion sandwich. To get rid of this grass you dig a hole and remove all the little white bulbs, after which you refill the hole, wash your hands with peroxide or tar soap, and the onion grass arises from the same spot, but more prolifically.
On this day and date I am, I figure, just about three years behind schedule with my lawn and garden work. The result of this is that every morning, when I arise, I have something interesting and important to look forward to when my bread-and-butter work ends at three o'clock.
The man or woman who starts a garden has no good excuse for being dull and finding no interest in life. The person only has to start the garden and the garden will immediately set the pace, and after that it will keep well in the lead and the gardener will be loping along after it, about three weeks behind, like a pug dog trying to catch up with a speedy automobile, until winter comes and the garden sits down and takes a nap. The only time I ever gain a day on my garden is along about the twenty-eighth day of February. On leap years it is the twenty-ninth. Then, for one day, when the snow is two feet deep, the garden remains dormant and I gain a day by going through the seed and bulb catalogs. It is then, too, I make a pen and ink plot of next season's tulip beds. I figure this out carefully with a ruler, mark it "Planting Plan for Next Fall," and never use it. The next day the weather is one-eighth of a degree warmer and all weed seeds in the garden open one eye and yawn and turn over so that their business ends point upward, and the garden has gained another lap on me.
Early in the spring, long before you let the furnace go out, the weeds thrill with eagerness and begin to grow. From then on they thrill a couple of thrills of eagerness every minute, day and night, and grow. You can pull every weed out of a garden, sterilize the soil, lay down a concrete floor five inches thick, and the next day the concrete will crack and the weeds will leap up through the crack and make a mean face at you. From the time the frost is out of the ground until it is in the ground again you can pull weeds. If you pull all the big weeds it only gives the small weeds a chance to show up like red spots do on a white sheet of paper. If you pull the small weeds and turn your back for two days several million entirely new weeds will leap up and be there to guy you when you next look at the garden.
That is the sort of thing that makes a garden, with a lawn and shrub attachment, the greatest game in the world. Always you have perfection in your mind and grass among the iris roots. If you take a day to spray the roses the weeds choke the garden-pinks; if you take a day to weed the garden-pinks, the rose bugs eat the roses. There is always something important and interesting to do tomorrow. There is always something important and interesting to do next year. There is always something important and interesting that you wanted to do yesterday, but have to put off until year after next because you have to do something much more important and interesting.
Life, if you come to think of it, is a pitiful fizzle if it has nothing but things that are unimportant and uninteresting. It is not much of a life if it holds only things that are important but uninteresting. And you don't get the full zest of living if your life is made up of interesting things that are really unimportant -- such, for example, as crocheting woolen wristlets for the South Sea Islanders. But when you choose to have a garden, or a nice lawn, or a few fruit trees, or some graceful shrubs, or all of them, you know in your heart that you have chosen to have something that is really important. A garden is always important, for beauty is always important. And it is interesting because it is important. The work in it is the most delightful sort of work because it is like an artist's work -- it is creative work; it is making beauty grow.
So I think a lawn and a garden and a few groups of shrubs are the finest things a man or a woman can have. And the weeds and crab grass and aphis are blessings in disguise; it is so delightful to get rid of them!
I am at present about three years behind my lawn, one year behind my shrubs and vines, and thirty days behind my tulip beds, and all three are gaining on me. At that rate I can figure that I won't catch up with them if I live to be nine hundred and ninety-nine years old. I do not expect to live to be that old, however, so I can see ahead of me enough garden and lawn and shrubbery work to keep me interested until I am one hundred or, possibly, one hundred and ten. And that ought to satisfy me.