Garden thoughts on New Year’s Day, 1878

January 2, 2015

William Hoyt Coleman muses on earthworms, the promise of seed catalogs, and 1878’s warm beginning.
“Garden Thoughts On New Year’s Day.” (Christian Union 2 January 1878; p. 20)

To a methodical writer on rural topics the weather of this winter is truly exasperating. We have several times closed our notes and comments on outdoor work, and sent the reader indoors with sundry remarks about the driving snow, the cheerful fireside glow, and other customary features of winter life, but all our well-rounded periods are made ridiculous by this unseasonable season. There is no snow; the soil lies soft and sodden, giving out a spring-like smell; instead of snuggling by fires people sit by open windows—an imprudent practice, by the way, but “they all do it.” And here we come to the brink of the New Year, and still there is no change. Sometimes we have bright sunshine, sometimes a brooding cloudiness that drops to rain and only softens the light and air, while the bare-boughed trees alone show wintry signs.

What shall we do this New Year’s morning? Go out and plant some early peas or potatoes? We feel very sure that an old Jersey gentleman of our acquaintance must have already done so. He was famous for “getting in” something long before his neighbors, and if a bit of bare garden soil appeared during a January or February thaw in would go the early peas. But what may be done on sandy soils is forbidden to heavy clays where repeated freezing and thawing would soon throw the seed on top of the ground.

At least we can chase our neighbor’s hens from the new strawberry patch. They seem to take a deep and calm delight (since we gave it a dressing of straw,) in parading back and forth over it, occasionally making the straw fly as though a dozen hay-tedders were in action, while they pick up choice tidbits of this, that and the other. We fear the green leaves of our strawberry plants come in as dessert, with the prospect of a meager fruit dessert of our own next summer. It is too bad after the trouble we have taken. The young plants were grown in pots last summer, set out with great care in a spot prepared for them in the old garden, and then removed to our new garden, being taken up in squares with a spade and loaded into a wagon. We had set our mind on having strawberries from that patch next summer and we haven’t given it up yet. But the hens do bother us wofully, and we see no way to help it at present.

It is laughable to look back and see how we—Mr. Murphy and I—worked and worried to get the garden small-fruits planted before frost should come. There were raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, etc., etc., to get in, and only a half day in which to do it; but we did it. The ground had not been plowed, though having been a potato patch it was moderately loose. A spade-thrust opened a hole, the plant was set in it, a shovelful of compost flung in, a stamp of the boot, and the deed was done. We finished at nightfall and the frost came the next day, but it did not stay long. Now we wish we had waited and taken more time. Let us make a New Year’s resolution. Never, never to hurry our garden work, for it never, never pays. Plan the work well, begin early, and push the work steadily.

But how many of us can plan well? How many of us can arouse a mid-winter interest in garden work that shall lead us to think out a plan for the coming season? Somehow we moon over the new catalogues when they come, and possibly make out a seed-list—always too long and too confusedly selected—but seed-time surely takes us by surprise, and we rush out with trowel in one hand and seed packet in the other, and scratch holes at haphazard. However, seeds will come up that way just as well as if they were classified with the system of a German philosopher.

Ah, now we have it! Let us imitate a recent German philosopher and study the manners and customs of the earth worm. Herr Von Hensen sat himself down by night and by day to watch what the squirmers did, and this is what he tells us: The adult worms come to the surface at night and go in quest of leaves, small twigs and other food material. These they heap up around the holes, drawing the leaves into the holes, where, when partially decomposed, they eat them. These worm-tubes have been traced to a depth of six feet. They contained very small stones, fruit kernels and masses of excreta. Some of the abandoned holes were filled up with black earth which gradually became diffused through the soil. In half of them were found the roots of plants following exactly the course of the tube. Observation led to the conclusion that only in this way could the roots of annual plants get down to a moist subsoil. Von Hensen put two worms in a glass vessel filled with sand which was strewed with autumn leaves. In six weeks the surface of the sand had a half inch of leaf mold on it, while some of the leaves had been carried down three inches. The worm-tube ran in all directions. A single earth-worm weighs about 36 grains and may produce in 54 hours 8 grains of excrement. Allowing 34,000 worms to an acre, weighing 2cwt., would give 37 lbs. of fine vegetable mold passed through their bodies, besides the work done in removing vegetable refuse from the surface and opening up passages through the soil for the admission of air and moisture.

Truly, here is a Diet of Worms to which all the Luthers of agriculture ought to be instantly summoned. The small boy, also, to whom earth-worms are attractive only as bait when a fishing tramp is in prospect, might take a deeper interest in the red wrigglers that he packs in his mother’s old pepper box could he be induced to study their habits with the patience of a Von Hensen. How little we all know of natural objects that have been familiar to us from our infancy! Angleworms are not attractive subjects of study, yet a good aunt of ours, in her small girlhood, used to make pets of them, filling her apron-front with a vermicular mass and her relatives with horror. But though we cannot all of us love the angleworm we may at least respect him, and all garden lovers must hereafter highly value A. W. He cultivates, aerates and fertilizes the soil. What more can any of us do with all our tools and skill? and it is pretty certain we cannot do it half as well.

In the light of scientific truth David’s cry, “I am a worm and no man,” is not as abased as it used to seem. The qualities of wormhood and manhood are not so far apart after all, and the honest, industrious worm may put to shame many a so-called man. There is, indeed, another species of worm that has long given its name to a certain species of man—we mean the bookworm. But in either case the application is limited, and the devouring of books does not call for high mental or moral power. But the angleworm we think we see the type of the literary man of the day. Especially the Newspaper Man. Like the worm, he works by night and by day, and gathers food from far and near. The great field of thought is worm-holed through and through. There are news tubes, and art tubes, and scientific tubes, and literary tubes. The latter are the oldest and are usually crammed with the choice excreta of past generations. Others have the pebbles of geology and the fruit kernels of social science, and are by no means full. The field is the wide world, and the busy worms never cease collecting, working over, and storing up this food for thoughts. Down the ramified tubing of the Press creep the rootlets of a nation’s mental life, ever seeking the nutriment that causes thought to bud and blossom in the sunlight of action and and the open air of deeds.

Fellow-workers on the Press of America, if you are ashamed to put the angleworm on your crest, at least remember that his work is honest, thorough, wholesome, and life-sustaining!

We wish our rural readers a Happy New Year on their farms and in their gardens. Won’t they do a little worm-work for us this coming year by sending the fruits of their observation and practice for storage in the Farm and Garden tube of the Christian Union?

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