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Dear Friend and Gardener

The Root of Laughter in the Garden

Anne Cleveland illustration

Anne Cleveland illustration in Weeds Are More Fun by Priscilla Hovey Wright

Laughing in the garden doesn’t always come easy. But what can you do after gnashing your teeth over the squash borers, weeping over the discovery of leaf miners in the beet bed, growling at the Japanese beetles in  the roses, or pulling up garlic mustard for the umpteenth time?  I imagine the gods laughing at me. But those who are wise will laugh and stiffen our backs for the next onslaught. I thought of this when my friend Karen brought me Weeds are More Fun by Priscilla Hovey Wright and published in 1941.

Wright has imagined every disaster from weeds, rashes, the Women’s Garden Club and proper garden attire, and of course, pests. Attacked as my squash were by borers, I was in complete sympathy with Wright who suggests filling a sprayer with “whatever there is in the house . . . leftover chicken broth, hair tonic bought in a rash moment, or bath salts received at Christmas. The bugs accustomed to the usual line of sprays and more or less immunized to them are totally unprepared . . . They either die of shock immediately or depart for the neighbor’s gardens as soon as possible.”

I may spend ample time gnashing teeth, etcetera, but laughter comes soon enough. Among the books on my shelves about organic control of pests, how to create shade gardens, or wildflower gardens or fruit gardens I have a number of books that take a lighter view of garden trials.

Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) born in Plainfield, and resident of Charlemont during his childhood years wrote My Summer in a Garden in 1870 while he was working for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. His was a vegetable garden and his were the eternal problems, weeds that cover the garden when you go away for a week, the incessant battle against “pussley,” or finding his mess of peas decimated by the birds. “The dear little birds, who are so fond of strawberries, had eaten the peas.. . . I made a rapid estimate of the cost of seed, the price of labor, the value of the bushes, the anxiety of weeks of watchfulness. I looked about me at the face of Nature. The wind blew from the south . . . a thrush sang so deceitfully. All nature seemed fair, but who was to give me back my peas?”

He was never at a loss for the appropriate word. “What a man needs in gardening is a cast iron back – with a hinge in it.” Or “Lettuce is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp so sparkling you barely notice the bitter in it.” Or “No man but feels more of a man if he have a bit of ground to call his own. However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep, and that is a very handsome property.”

Illustration by Josep Capek

Illustration by Josef Capek

You would not think that the Czech brothers, Karel and Josef Capek, who wrote together and who invented the word “robot” for a science fiction novel would also be avid gardeners. Karel did most of the writing and Josef who was an artist provided the cartoons for The Gardener’s Year printed in 1931.  The brothers take us through the year to describe how a man becomes a gardener, his lust for compost, and the agonies of searching for the first bulbs of spring. As Warner complains about his aches so do the Capeks. However, they allow “But there is one moment when the gardener rises and straightens him up to his full height and administers the sacrament of water to his little garden. Then he stands straight and almost noble, directing the jet of water . . . So, and now it is enough the gardener whispers happily; he does not mean by ‘it’ the little cherry tree covered with buds, . . . he is thinking of the brown soil.”

Beverley Nichols in England was caring for his first garden at about that same time as the Capeks. Down the Garden Path was published in 1932. Nichols was a prolific author, writing novels, plays, children’s books and non-fiction, but Down the Garden Path and its sequels were among his best sellers.

It was a time when Nichols felt that “everything was cracking up” and he wanted a place to hide. He set out to buy a piece of property and plant a woodland where he could do just that, but of course, he did not know how to plant a woodland. He took himself to a nearby nursery and met Mr. Honey who spoke exclusively in Latin.

“The first thing I said to him . . . was I like that big bush with red berries over there.”

‘Crataegus pyracantha credulata yunnanensis’ crooned Mr. Honey.

I took a deep breath and was about to reply when Mr. Honey waved his arm to the right and murmured: ‘Ribes sanguineum splendens.’

This I felt was enchanting. One had a sense of being a young disciple walking by the side of his master.”

Nichols could barely speak. The only Latin that came to his mind was “Et tu, Brute” which he knew was not appropriate, but so began the planting of his wood.

I always say there are many paths in the garden leading us to history, myth, science – and I think – laughter.

Between the Rows   September 2, 2017

4 comments to The Root of Laughter in the Garden

  • This makes me want to reread some of those old favorites…maybe this winter!

  • I love Nichols. I have read and reread his books. The same with Henry Mitchell. I will have to try to find these people you spoke of.

  • Pat

    Leslie – Humor continues beyond those early writers. I was sorry I didn’t have room to mention the British book Yew or Non-Yew – Gardening for Horticultural Climbers who go around saying things like “Of course, these are not really flowers at all, they are bracts.” Or “I am going to have my trompe l’oeil redone this summer.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Henry Mitchell is one of my favorites, too.

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