It’s been cold here, after days of warmth. Just like New York’s winter of 1877-1878, though without the symptoms of spring recorded by William Hoyt Coleman.
Christian Union 17 (9 Jan 1878): p. 44

They are all talking about the marvelous weather of this winter and printing reports of remarkable growths. Rhubarb is an inch high near New York, and dandelions are in bloom on Bostom Common; a grasshopper has appeared there likewise. Lilac buds are pushing in all parts of the country; potatoes are rotting in cellar and heap; and celery is hawked about the streets at quarter prices for fear it, too, will “suffer change” into something unpleasantly soft. The plows are briskly running in the furrow and the wide-awake farmers bid fair to get all their spring work done in advance. Only the oxen and horses complain of this; they are losing their winter vacation at the straw-stack with the prospect of extra jobs being laid out for the spring season. In the city the building of the elevated railroad goes merrily on, resulting in torn-up streets and clouds of dust that floating skyward cause the daily paragrapher to break forth in rapturous praise of “the stately beauty of our city in these Roman-winter days.” He says that the triturated refuse of the streets, rising in mid-air, changes into a dim, softening haze that mellows the harsh lines of our architecture and produces a series of harmonious pictures. He begs the traveled citizen to walk up Broadway from the Battery to Madison square between 1 and 2 P.M. (providing he hasn’t a note to meet at the bank) and confess (while he chokes in the dusty atmosphere) that only the magic of historic association has made the old world cities attractive to him. Whew! we hope the citizen has taken his walk, for as we write the thermometer has dropped to 14° above, a sharp north wind drives the dust-clouds sea-ward, and there’s now no fun in stopping to admire the aerial perspectives of Murray Hill and Central Park. The new year comes in keen and cold, but still clear and bright, and no snow. Snow to the north of us, snow to the south of us, snow to the west of us eddies and flurries—but not a flake falls in the city where we write. And every New Yorker (the small boy and the stableman excepted) prays that so it may continue.


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?

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.”

Thanks for gardens, 1877

November 26, 2014

My favorite gardener, William Hoyt Coleman, explores the benefits of gardening and gives thanks even for weeds.

Willie’s column is rich in details: how much rhubarb cost in 1877; how much a bookkeeper in Boston earned per year; that French Breakfast radishes weren’t available at the grocer; that even in 1877 market produce was raised to be profitable, not tasty. According to one online inflation calculator, the bookkeeper’s salary of $1200 per year would have been about $25,878 in 2013; the $100 per year that he saved was around $2156. The $1600 in consumables would have cost about $34504.

His assertion that “the feminine mind, as a rule, is averse to mathematics” is amusing. My interest in Willie stems from his participation in the letters column of Robert Merry’s Museum, where he was greatly popular. In 1855, an algebra problem was submitted to the Museum for him to solve. Submitted by a female subscriber.

That Problem” proved so difficult to solve (apparently it has more than one answer) that it actually changed the tenor of the letters column, as subscribers bonded over ridicule of each others’s efforts.  (It was, indeed, a different time.)  Willie’s solution was as disastrous as the others. The math problem created by a “feminine mind” shaped the Museums letters column into an early example of an online community.

“Thanksgiving in the Garden.” Christian Union 16 (28 Nov 1877): p. 486.

While fully agreeing with the President and the governors of the several states that it is highly proper for us all to assemble in our respective places of worship and return thanks for the mercies of the past year, we also feel moved to issue a sub-proclamation to all owners and workers of gardens to assemble therein—say, after their return from church—and tabulate the table blessings that were garden born.

Were we to preach a sermon on the subject we should take for a text the mention made by a writer in “The Cultivator,” of a Boston bookkeeper, who, on a yearly salary of $1,200 had by great economy saved up $100 yearly. Realizing the risk he ran of losing his health, situation and savings if he remained a clerk, he bought a small farm and moved on it. All the products from the same that his family consumed during a year he charged to himself at the same rate that he had formerly been obliged to pay in Boston, and to his great surprise at the end of the year he found that he had consumed $1,600 worth, besides having sold quite an amount of farm produce. With such a result he had no desire to return to his $1,200 position.

Now, my beloved brethren, do not make a premature application of my text by inferring that $1,600 results are to be expected from every ordinary garden. Of course the bookkeeper figured in the products of pigs and poultry which do not belong to the garden, though the producers are often found in it. But garden vegetables no doubt formed a large part of his city expenditure and garden vegetables as undoubtedly made a very large part of his country saving. Let us grant that the figures never mount into the hundreds and we still have goodly cause of thanksgiving for the garden.

Right here is the proper point for the production of our statistics, giving the exact number of radishes pulled, peas picked, strawberries gathered, and the long line of tomatoes, green corn, melons, cucumbers, and squashes, winding up with the cabbage, turnips, celery, etc., safely placed in the cellar. But alas, we haven’t them. We did once have a small book duly ruled and paged and provided with a string whereby it was to be hung in the woodshed and all garden products were to be entered therein as gathered, before passing to the kitchen. Three entries were made and then—the rest was silence. The feminine mind, as a rule, is averse to mathematics, and the fingers that patiently pick a peck of peas grow nervous at putting down the result in a book. The statistical reader will therefore be left at sea, and we must make our points with generalities which may not glitter, but are none the less pure gold.

That is to say—while the products cannot be reckoned by count or measure, we believe any fairminded garden owner who will sit down and think over what he has really raised and eaten during the past season will find cause for gratitude in the results of his garden work.

Has he forgotten those crispy radishes that with the help of a little glass swelled up so quickly during the latter days of April when the air grew warm and the appetite craved something green? That lettuce, too, that grew as fast as the radish, and made the beef and potatoes so much more toothsome than usual?

Then the rhubarbs came up at the same time, and you had something fresh for each meal. How many times did you cut and pull those beds, and how much would they come to at five or ten cents a bunch? These were successive crops, and they lasted till the dwarf peas grew fat in the pod, and you picked day after day, or perhaps every other day, until the bush peas began to yield, and then, why it was the Fourth of July almost before you knew it! Do you remember how much peas were a peck in your market? And you know you picked a great many pecks. By this time you had young beets and onions and potatoes and early cabbage, too, if you set out frame plants. In fact from this period down to frost time there has been an embarrassment of garden riches, more than you could eat, and I doubt not you have trundled more than one barrow load to your grocer. Tomatoes stewed every day for dinner and sliced raw for supper; green corn as often as you liked, and such a dessert of melons! A king might envy it—say rather the poor rich man of the city who must buy all his vegetables.

Then, too, the quality of this garden truck. Could you ever, anywhere, buy such delicious peas as those little gems, or such crisp radishes as the French Breakfast? They can’t be bought, for the very good reason that they are not raised outside of private gardens. Market vegetables must be big and prolific first of all, and quality comes in third. Only the amateur can have the choice things. Notice the exclamation of your city friends (who have the pick of the best markets at home) when they come to visit. “How delicious! Did you ever taste anything so fresh and nice? You can’t get such vegetables in the city.” Yes, then is the rural gardener’s hour of triumph. Many a backache those vegetables may have cost him but at this moment he feels well repaid.

But are vegetables the only crop you have gathered from your garden? There is the whole round of berries, grapes and other fruits that I have not mentioned, of which quite as much might be said, but I do not refer to them. In those ante-breakfast hours when you hoed your garden, and the dew sparkled in the red beams of the rising sun, and the birds sang and the chimney-smoke drifted out on the still air, did you not gather joy, comfort and health in your labor? Not alone did you carry away a lusty appetite for breakfast and fresh blood that swept you at flood tide through your day’s work in shop or office, but sweet pictures of nature’s own painting were hung on memory’s wall, new ideas of the life of plant, bird and insect were born, and, let us hope, there came deeper, larger, more reverent thought of the great Worker whose handiwork all these are. There were days of tough spading, too, and stout tugging under a hot sun with weeds that renewed their strength in a night, but this only developed the man in you, and taught you the lesson that we are all too slow to learn, too eager to skip: that no good thing is won without work, and that struggle always precedes triumph.

The air bites keenly to-day, the withered vines and weeds are all that is left of the summer glory, and the ground is hardened by frost; but down on your knees upon it this Thanksgiving Day, ye garden workmen, and thank God for your gardens!

Winterizing a garden in 1877

November 14, 2014

Fortunately, the weather around here hasn’t completely mirrored the weather in New York in 1877. Yes, it was bright and warm November 11 and 12 (and weren’t the crickets happy!); and, yes, the prediction is for a coating of snow the night of November 13, but at least the snow waited a few days longer than it did in 1877. We take our comfort where we can.

Besides recording the weather, William Hoyt Coleman describes how to winterize a nineteenth-century garden, tells a funny story on himself, and evokes a cozy fireside with a gardener dreaming of spring.

“The Breath of Winter.” Christian Union 16 (14 November 1877), page 434.

Please to remember
The sixth of November
Snapping cold weather and frost.

Guy Fawkes’s little corner in gunpowder under the Parliament buildings was not half so worthy of an embalming ditty as the remarkable weather of this remarkable season. Hardly had we ceased to chant the praise of the frostless fall when quick and sharp from his hiding place old Winter blew an icy breath, and the astonished world awoke this morning to see his white mantle flung over the earth and every tender thing grown rigid in death. No gentle preliminary droppings of the thermometer, with crispy white frosts on the low meadows, but out of the balmy air and brilliant fires of a splendid autumn we are tossed into the ice and snow of winter!

Happy they who can flee unto stoves and radiators! Even pigs and chickens can do what majestic trees cannot—run from the frost. There they stand, bravely lifting their boughs to heaven, but their beautiful garmenture of leaves has dropped suddenly to their feet at the touch of the frost-king, and like fair captives before a conqueror they seem to shiver and shrink from his gaze.

What a litter of leaves under every horse-chestnut tree! Be they brown or green all have dropped at once to the earth and the walks are carpeted with them. Now shall the nut-burrs fly wide open and the long deferred nut harvest begin, save where impatient boys have already thrashed the trees. Sometimes other things fly open besides burrs. We once went up a tall walnut to thrash it. It was “pay-day” for the nursery hands and we had the money drawn and in a pocket-book. It was quite bulky and interfered with a free clambering about the limbs. Calling to some one below to catch it we tossed the wallet down, without thinking that it was unfastened. The flaps flew open, the greenbacks flew out and fives tens and twenties [sic] went sailing off on the breeze. Nut gathering was at once suspended and all hands did their best to contract this suddenly expanded currency. We remained at our post to watch the flying notes and mark their final places of deposit. Under the tree and over the fence, and under bushes and along the hedge they dropped, but eager seekers went after them till all that were visible were caught and counted. One five was missing and then a long search ensued and at last it was found in the next yard nestled snug in the grass. But we shall never throw anything but specie from the top of a hickory tree again, and not even that if we are wise enough to leave it below.

But this wintry air is a sharp reminder to hurry up what work remains to do in yard and garden. The geraniums and tomato vines can be pulled up and hung in the cellar; the first to keep for spring planting (if you like big plants to set out) and the last in hope of some more ripe fruit before Christmas. It is a good time to transplant any hardy shrubs that you would like to have in new places and combinations. They will have masses of fibrous roots and will start off and grow finely next spring. Herbaceous perennials, both roots and bulbs, that have been long blooming in the same place, can be taken up and divided to good advantage, either to reset, or, what is better, to give away to your neighbors who have none. Large trees can also be moved if carefully done, but it were better a month ago. As soon as the leaves are all off the trees, and the wind has blown them into the fence corners, go to work and mulch everything. Even the hardiest things will thank you for it if we have light snow this winter, and tender, half hardy plants will live through rejoicing. Bed the roots of the vines about the porch, and the plot of fancy evergreens. Even tender roses can be carried safely through in this way; the tops will be killed but the leaves will save an inch or two of wood that will throne the blooming shoots of next year. Put them over the grapevines and around the raspberries. On the strawberry beds too, but very, very lightly, or the green leaves will be blackened by spring. Indeed we are not sure but that a sedging of earth is better, leaving the leaves exposed. Give the asparagus beds and the rhubarb plants a generous dressing.

Do up the pruning now, also. It is cold work in winter and nasty sloppy work in spring. Then, too, if great snow banks bury your garden as it did ours last winter, you won’t be able to do it at all until late in the season. So prune out the grapevines, only leaving a little more wood than usual to allow for possible winter killing; cut out all the old wood and thin this year’s shoots of the raspberries and blackberries; thin the currant-wood (and by the way we should have said that currants and gooseberries ought to be planted in the fall as they start so early in the spring); thin out the fruit tree branches where they crowd or interlace each other, and prune back the dwarf trees to a few inches of this year’s wood.

No neat gardener requires a hint to clean up and burn or cart away all rubbish of weeds, dead vines, stalks, etc., and to put away all loose stakes and trellises. Then if he has been wise enough to have accumulated a good supply of fertilizing earth, as described in one of these papers, he cannot better conclude his season’s labors than by throwing a generous shovelful about the roots of every plant that he possesses. It will keep them warm through the winter, and they will jump next spring. Then may he retire with a good conscience to his fireside, and while the hickory snaps and the snow flakes sift on the window pane, he may drop into his easy chair and dream of the Garden of the Future.

A frostless autumn, 1877

October 31, 2014

The weather here appears to have mimicked weather in New York in 1877:  a surpassingly cool summer and astonishingly warm autumn.  (Here’s hoping we don’t get the rude awakening New Yorkers got in 1877 …)

In his column for the Christian Union, former Robert Merry’s Museum subscriber William Hoyt Coleman describes a frostless fall, with geraniums and tomatoes still blooming late in October.  That boys complained that nuts hadn’t yet fallen from the trees is a nice reminder that gathering nuts in autumn seems to have been an important activity for earlier generations.

“The Frostless Fall.” Christian Union 16 (31 Oct 1877): p. 384.

Nature is having her own Centennial this year. Not in the hundred years now gone can there have been a brighter, more beautiful succession of the months. Brief terms of sultry heat there were but they only made more refreshing the cool days and cooler nights which have blest us through the summer. But why did they not come last summer? Why could not Nature and Art have united to glorify the nation’s year of jubilee? What a boon it would have been to that perspiring, duster-clad throng of Philadelphia pilgrims! But they didn’t unite and Nature behaved herself utterly regardless of folks’ feelings. And this year she is as lovely as a lamb. We must take her as she comes.

It is the 23rd of October as we write and the freshness of June is still here. The grass is soft and green, the flowers grow and bloom luxuriantly, and many trees retain their deep mid-summer hue. Yet the brilliant dyes of Autumn are everywhere intermingled, and red and yellow leaves carpet the sidewalks—albeit there has been no frost. Scientific persons used to say that the frost colored the leaves but we have not heard any scientific person say so this fall, for the reason probably that the leaves have colored as usual but without the aid of any froxt—not even a white one. It grew cold one afternoon and anxious plant-owners covered their pots with papers, sheets and blankets. Our house plants were already under cover but the bed of scarlet geraniums was left to fight for itself. Early in the evening the grass stiffened and we trembled for all tender things; but Jack Frost reconsidered and went off before he could do any damage. Next morning not even a tomato drooped a leaf and the geraniums have gone on blooming to this day. Yes, the tomatoes are in blossom, also, and if Jack only continues to keep away we shall have a third crop of tomatoes. Clematis Jackmanni [sic] is putting out some purple blossoms, and honeysuckle blooms sweeten the air.

It may be allowed to the scientific person that frost hurries up the ripening of the leaves, for never before have we seen foliage so delightfully slow and irregular in changing its hues. A few of the soft maples have rapidly passed through the routine of change and are already lifting their bare branches to the heavens but others have scarcely turned color. In one yard we saw three horse chestnuts, two of which were a brilliant yellow while the third was still fresh and green. Apple trees know no change, neither do peaches. And so there is a wondrous intermingling of the hues of mid-summer and fall, and the sun shines warm, and one knows not whether it be June or October but drinks in the joys of both.

Yet do some complain. The boys say the nuts are hard to get. They miss the aid of the sharp frosts that long ere this used to open the burrs and send the nuts rattling to the sward below. They have to do an infinite deal of thrashing to get them off and as much more to get them open. But those that live in nursery towns can earn more money by the delay of this same frost. The leaves hold fast to the fruit-trees and more than usual stripping must be done. A sharp frost would enable the nurseryman to dispense with half his stripping force. But he, if anyone, has good cause to grumble at the fine weather which has made clay soils as hard as rocks, so that tree-digging, which began about the 20th of September, has been more difficult than for years past. It has not been digging, it has been picking with sharp picks, inch by inch, laying open deep trenches before the “big spade” could in any way loosen the roots. Now that digging is about over, there has been almost a week’s rain which has gone down where it was most wanted. But if it had only come about the 15th of September, how much expense of time and labor, wear of tools, and sweat of brow might have been saved. One of these days we shall know the reason why.

Readers of William Hoyt Coleman’s column in the Christian Union got a chatty—and patchy—report of the New York State Fair of 1877: no pie judging, no news of prize livestock. Coleman focused on developments in farm machinery, new grape varieties, and a surprisingly entertaining argument about flower-growing.

Some of the heat appears to have been generated after remarks by Mr. Vick (apparently the owner of a nursery), who took farmers to task for neglecting to grow flowers.  “But they were there to speak for themselves,” Coleman points out, “and they did.”  The rambling report that follows includes a sprinkling of delightful moments:  an 80-year-old farmer who “protested with great vehemence against the idea that farmers didn’t love flowers”; the casual mention of keeping a rose bush near the house for drying small bits of laundry; the contrast between farmers’ daughters forced to play croquet in a neglected yard and the sons “dashing about” in (presumably expensive) buggies.

Coleman credits the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry for the “remarkable discussion.”  It was at that time a new organization; it would make a major impact on American culture.

from “The New York State Fair at Rochester.” Christian Union 16 (3 Oct 1877): p. 286.

Wednesday evening there was a discussion on “Fruits and Flowers” at the Court House. Over one hundred and fifty farmers and fruit growers were present and the proceedings were very lively. … Mr. Vick read an essay on “Flower Growing,” in which he bore hard upon the farmers for not taking more interest in flowers. But they were there to speak for themselves and they did. A young farmer said he attended to his flowers as regularly as to his other crops, and he believed it paid. He had bought two dollars worth of seed of Mr. Vick and the same year had received twenty-five dollars in premiums for his flowers. When he sold his former farm the new owner plowed up the flower garden and put in potatoes as it was handy to the house in keeping off the bugs. His crop was three barrels of potatoes worth ten shillings per bl. He did leave one rosebush as it was handy for his wife to dry small things on. An old gentleman over seventy, who said he had been a farmer all his life, wanted Mr. Vick to tell him how he could learn to grow flowers; he had tried a great many times but failed. He had two sons who each had farms but they had both sold out and gone into other business. Somebody said, “Give your wife the money to buy seed and she’ll show you how.” Mr. Quimby thought farmers were buying flower seeds much more largely and that many took great pains to keep plants through the winter where they had only wood fires. An old man of eighty protested with great vehemence against the idea that farmers didn’t love flowers. He had been a farmer all his life, had observed many other farmers, and he knew better. When he was a boy his father used to bring wild flowers from the woods and carefully set them out. He and his neighbor would exchange flowers with each other. Mr. Barry said he knew many rich farmers in the Genesee Valley who paid little attention to the improvement of their dooryards. He had seen their daughters trying to play croquet in grass three feet high while their sons were dashing about in buggies. Mr. B. went on to plead for the elevation of the farmer with unusual force and eloquence. Altogether it was a remarkable discussion. The speakers made their points with great vigor, and the audience applauded lustily. And all about flowers! We could not help thinking that the grange must have a good deal to do with it. Farmers are getting broken in to speaking in public and to thinking on their feet. They have always had good ideas; now they are learning to put them in shape.