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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Old-Time Gardens

This volume explains itself. I was a little disappointed with the illustrations, which are small photos. I was hoping for some drawings.

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Old-Time Gardens
by Alice Morse Earle (1901)

And by every humble dwelling the homesick goodwife or dame, trying to create a semblance of her fair English home so far away, planted in her "garden plot" seeds and roots of homely English flowers and herbs, that quickly grew and blossomed and smiled on bleak New England's rocky shores as sturdily and happily as they had bloomed in the old gardens and by the ancient door sides in England.

What good cheer they must have brought! how they must have been beloved! for these old English garden flowers are such gracious things; marvels of scent, lavish of bloom, bearing such genial faces, growing so readily and hardily, spreading so quickly, responding so gratefully to such little care: what pure refreshment they bore in their blossoms, what comfort in their seeds; they must have seemed an emblem of hope, a promise of a new and happy home.

I rejoice over every one that I know was in those little colonial gardens, for each one added just so much measure of solace to what seems to me, as I think upon it, one of the loneliest, most fearsome things that gentlewomen ever had to do, all the harder because neither by poverty nor by unavoidable stress were they forced to it; they came across-seas willingly, for conscience' sake.

These women were not accustomed to the thought of emigration, as are European folk to-day; they had no friends to greet them in the new land; they were to encounter wild animals and wild men; sea and country were unknown--they could scarce expect ever to return: they left everything, and took nothing of comfort but their Bibles and their flower seeds.

So when I see one of the old English flowers, grown of those days, blooming now in my garden, from the unbroken chain of blossom to seed of nearly three centuries, I thank the flower for all that its forbears did to comfort my forbears, and I cherish it with added tenderness.

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I am as fond of the Peony as are the Chinese, among whom it is flower queen. It is by them regarded as an aristocratic flower; and in old New England towns fine Peony plants in an old garden are a pretty good indication of the residence of what Dr. Holmes called New England Brahmins. In Salem and Portsmouth are old "Pinys" that have a hundred blossoms at a time--a glorious sight. A Japanese name is "Flower-of-prosperity"; another name, "Plant-of-twenty-days," because its glories last during that period of time.

Rhododendrons are to the modern garden what the Peony was in the old-fashioned flower border; and I am glad the modern flower cannot drive the old one out. They are equally varied in coloring, but the Peony is a much hardier plant, and I like it far better. It has no blights, no bugs, no diseases, no running out, no funguses; it doesn't have to be covered in winter, and it will bloom in the shade.

No old-time or modern garden is to me fully furnished without Peonies; see how fair they are in this Salem garden. I would grow them in some corner of the garden for their splendid healthy foliage if they hadn't a blossom. The P├Žonia tenuifolia in particular has exquisite feathery foliage.

The great Tree Peony, which came from China, grows eight feet or more in height, and is a triumph of the flower world; but it was not known to the oldest front yards. Some of the Tree Peonies have finely displayed leafage of a curious and very gratifying tint of green.

Miss Jekyll, with her usual felicity, compares its blue cast with pinkish shading to the vari-colored metal alloys of the Japanese bronze workers--a striking comparison. The single Peonies of recent years are of great beauty, and will soon be esteemed here as in China.

Not the least of the Peony's charms is its exceeding trimness and cleanliness. The plants always look like a well-dressed, well-shod, well-gloved girl of birth, breeding, and of equal good taste and good health; a girl who can swim, and skate, and ride, and play golf. Every inch has a well-set, neat, cared-for look which the shape and growth of the plant keeps from seeming artificial or finicky. See the white Peony on page 44; is it not a seemly, comely thing, as well as a beautiful one?

No flower can be set in our garden of more distinct antiquity than the Peony; the Greeks believed it to be of divine origin. A green arbor of the fourteenth century in England is described as set around with Gillyflower, Tansy, Gromwell, and "Pyonys powdered ay betwene"--just as I like to see Peonies set to this day, "powdered" everywhere between all the other flowers of the border.

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