Landscaping a home in 1877

December 12, 2014

A detailed description of William Hoyt Coleman’s garden, as his family moves to another house. Whether it’s typical of 19th-century middle-class American landscaping, I don’t know. I have added modern spelling of one plant name in square brackets.

“Good By to the Garden.” Christian Union, 12 Dec 1877; p. 536.

Readers of these garden papers (which perhaps have had as much to do with lawns as gardens) may have found in them some flavor of the soil, marking them more as the product of daily experience than the result of work in the study. Such indeed has been their origin, and it is safe to say that without the garden these papers would not have been written. It has been the inspirer of thought and the suggester of action as well as the rewarder of toil and writing.

When, therefore, one is called to leave the scene of many pleasant labors it is like parting with an old friend, and the writer may be forgiven if he devotes this paper to a backward look over the garden labors of the past. True, he is only exchanging one garden for another and that in the same village, but the latter is new, raw, and undeveloped, while the other has been growing in beauty and value for several years past, and a crop of pleasant recollections is the product of time alone.

The homestead of which this garden is a part is a level lot 127 feet wide by 200 feet deep, situated on a small side street in a retired part of the village.

In the center stands a low, broad, white house, built of adobe or some dried brick, plain in appearance but snug and warm in winter and cool in summer. Two tall hickory trees cast a light shade in front aided by a linden and a cherry tree, while two horse chestnuts and a locust shield the southern side. A row of thrifty Norway spruce stands near the side fence, giving privacy to the kitchens on either side. On the north the space was filled by thrifty pear trees which latterly have succumbed almost entirely to the blight. At the west end is the garden, a strip of fifty feet across the lot. Besides two or three grape racks and a few goosebery bushes it had no permanent fruit plantations, though I found the remains of a strawberry bed that by coaxing and nursing made a very respectable yield. The garden took shape somewhat at hap-hazard. The first spring there chanced to be some dwarf apples left over in the nursery trenches, and these I set out in rows eight and ten feet apart and six feet in the row. Next year several rows of dwarf pears, a row of quinces and one of dwarf cherries were added, which filled all the available space. Plum trees were planted at the ends of several rows, currant bushes were set along the rows and the spaces between were used for vegetables and trial plants. Vacancies in the grape racks were filled up and one new row was set. So the garden began to grow. There was an absence of shrubbery in the front and an undue presence of cherry trees. These were gradually removed, one at a time, and two Norway spruces were transplanted, to the screen row, leaving an open lawn with large trees on the borders. Between two of these a shrubbery group was made of deutzias, spireas, etc., with a large Tartarian honeysuckle in the center. Another one was made on the north opposite the dining room, and crescent beds were cut in the angles of the gravel walk near the porch to be filled with house and bedding plants. One long bed was devoted to rare evergreens. From the screen of evergreens to the front fence was established a shrubbery border, which in addition to a few trees, like weeping birch, kolreuteria [koelreuteria] and scarlet oak, etc., abounded in all sorts of smaller shrubs and plants, forming a miniature nursery from which plants could be drawn to fill vacant places. Three large evergreens were among the hickories, and several weeping trees (cherry, sophora, poplar and kilmarnock) also a tamarix, a blood-leaved peach, and an evergreen or two were scattered around the lawn, but none were on the central spaces reserved for the free sweep of the mower.

A privet hedge bordered the northern line, with a ragged bank or ditch at its base. This was combed into shape and sodded, the turf from the beds cut in the lawn giving a sufficient supply. Along the front, on the street line, was planted a row of maples—sugar, scarlet, purple, cut-leaved and Norway—and a pig-nut hickory, that stood in the way of wagons driving up, was cut down,, or rather cut up, its roots being laid bare at the base and cut off. The stump, smoothly sawed off, has since made a very good horse-block, and sections of its trunk were converted into chopping blocks. Vines about the house and a leafy arch of intertwisted elms over the front gate completed the picture.

A cherry tree, a crab and a mulberry, with several large shrubs, were planted along the curve of the carriage road (though we kept no carriage) opposite the kitchen door, and gave privacy to that part of the grounds. This curve toward the house gave room for an ample grass plot next the hedge, where a revolving clothes line had full swing.

The grass was a coarse, ordinary sod, subjected only to occasional mowings by hand, but under the frequent clippings of the lawn-mower and liberal dressings of fine earth and compost it soon began to thicken at the roots and grow finer in spear, until in moist, growing weather it felt like plush and wore a rich emerald hue.

Well, four years and more have fled. The shrubs and small trees have grown in beauty. Under the window the redbud holds the pearls of morning on its shining leaves, tamarix sways its slender boughs before the door; the cut-leaved birch has shot quivery sprays fifteen feet in the air; the kolreuteria is broad-boughed and thick in trunk; the weeping cherry is like a small hay-cock poised on a pole; and the vines have wrapped the porch in bloom and foliage. The dwarf trees have grown stocky in trunk and thick in top and some of them have borne a fair amount of fruit. Strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries have yielded generously and even the plum trees have set a small crop.

New kinds of strawberries have been brought to the test, some to be approved and retained, others to be condemned and cast out. So of other fruits and many vegetables, though latterly these have had to struggle for existence under the increasing shade of the dwarf trees, and this fall I took out two alternate rows of trees.

But all this has taken much hard work, early and late, and frequently hours that ought to have been spent in social relaxation have been given to hoeing the beds, or weeding the walks, or mowing the grass. In fact, where one is busy elsewhere during the day and has only an hour or so to give to home work, such a place is too large. Either the garden or the ornamental grounds will give steady work all the week through, and both together will leave no time to sit down and enjoy it all. In the matter of enjoyment through the senses, hard work does not add to it, but rather detracts. The flower, the tree, the grass, give pleasure according to their own perfection, whereas we may value an inferior thing quite as much because our labor has produced it. “A poor thing,” says Touchstone, of Audrey, “but miner own.”

Yet, after all, it is the work spent upon it that gives value to house or to land and endears it to the worker. When the work is ended and the place is left unseen cords will draw him back. Quitting even a small spot of earth seems somewhat like quitting the round earth altogether—the place that once knew us shall know us no more. The trees will bud and bloom, the grass will grow, the fruits will ripen—but not for us. Strangers will tread the familiar ground, new plans will be projected, petted plants and points of arrangement will be tossed aside, and “the old order give place unto the new.” It is only a little more so when we die.

But why be sad? Life dawns again in the garden of the Lord, and for the minor changes in this world there are new gardens too. Already we have the vines and the berry plants set out on the new ground and the ornamentals snugly housed for the winter. In the new growths of the future we hope to find many a fact and thought for the readers of “Farm and Garden.”

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