This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V21", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
A couple of years ago I was walking through one of the Paris parks with a small party of friends when one of them dropped a piece of paper on the road. It was not long before an elderly man with a broad ribbon and several medals hanging therefrom, suspended from the lappel of his coat, approached, and very politely hoped Monsieur would not permit the walks to be disfigured. I could not help thinking of this incident as I took for a holiday once this season a tour through some of the Philadelphia public squares. It was at the end of June, at a season of the year when nature is in her neatest trim, and but very little effort from man is needed to keep a garden in good order. There were indeed no dead leaves from the trees, but bits of paper from provision baskets, letters and newspapers, banana skins and pea-nut shells, and dirt and filth of every description covered the smooth gravel walks, that in one small square of perhaps five acres, I am sure a dozen cartloads of dirt could have been swept up on that bright and clear June day, from the few walks alone. To reflect a little on the difference between a French and an American " square," I sought a seat.
I found at length a round post the top of which once had been about eighteen inches over, but which had now some four inches of its width split off on each side, exposing the nails which had once been on the dividing line, and the narrow piece of this once mushroom stool that was left was so racked and splintered by jack-knives, that some future antiquary might regard it as having had some remarkable meaning in a past age. With some care to keep the nail-heads from making work for my tailor, I commenced to take stock in the park ornaments. A huge "bird box" for the English sparrows first met my eye. It was made to represent some great building, but whether the Philadelphia Alms-house, Cherry Hill Prison, the State Lunatic Asylum, or the Capitol at Harrisburg, I could not well determine. However, the windows were very numerous, but had no glass, for the birds had to go in and out as if they were doors. Possibly in this house there were excellent kitchen and other arrangements, with the bed rooms and furniture to match, but I took only time to note that this pretty piece of architecture had given a good job to some poor dog of a carpenter and painter; but the point was marred by the reflection that after this much in charity had been done the money had probably run out, for a very light pole had been provided to set this pretty toy on without thought of its great weight, so four or five shores had to be provided to prop up the whole.
But the rough shores propping up the handsome house was ludicrous in the extreme, though all in keeping with the rest of the surroundings. On the other side of me was another tall post which at one time had some evident pretentions to artistic taste. It had a board nailed to it at the top, and on this a piece of rusty tin. The nails had drawn themselves out by age in one corner, and the tin turned up. In one or two places a little japanning was left, and the remainder of a few golden letters were seen here and there. In one case I made out these words, "dogs run,"but even here the g had part of its tail peeled off. Near the centre was an officer's watch-box, and around it a few bushes which had evidently been intended to screen disagreeable things, but they made no screen. Here in full sight was a pile of old iron; and there were old wheel-barrows, old ladders, heaps of dirt, rotten grass, and old lumber of every description. Dead trees had been taken out, and instead of the earth being neatly replaced and levelled, or better resodded, it remained as rough heaps which some charitable weeds had endeavored to ornament.
Wherever there was an opening between the trees, some one the Fall before had stuck in some score of Norway Spruces, and then to protect them from some fancied trouble had piled up several inches thick of fresh stable manure, the salt from which of course had killed them all; and there they were, these poor dead Norways, looking like brooms provided for the sweeping of the walks, but with none to make use of them. In the middle of this unfortunate " park " was a "fountain " and " basin," which had evidently cost some money in its time. In the basin at regular distances were four large black masses of earth as I supposed, and I was really glad, for I thought it was an attempt to introduce water lilies, and even this little show of care was pleasing; but imagine my disgust when I at length discovered that it was simply the accumulation of weeks of filth around waste pipes. Around this basin once on a time there was an attempt at gardening, and a rather neat iron fence kept off the trespasser. Now weeds of the vilest character occupied the ground.
A few Fellenberg roses were still struggling through the grass; there were also a few stocks of some old fashioned Flag, and there was one Geranium and one Lantana. Almost all the maple trees and the horse chestnuts had been skeletonized by the caterpillars of the Orgyia moth, though this insect deposits its eggs in large masses only on the rough bark of trees where they can be easily destroyed, and the ground filth of the caterpillars under these trees made the filthiness of the place hardly less disgusting than the tobacco stained flag stones on the side walks around the park. These flag stones were neat, being very smooth and all of one size; and the man who laid them had evidently prided himself on having all laid in exact line. It must have been a costly and nice job, but tobacco juice had caught the dust. In some places there were masses of dirt three inches thick in the places near the side wall where feet could not tread, and weeds were already getting a hold and covering up the pretty workmanship.
I passed from here to New York. It was raining heavily, so I could only take a rapid ride through its famous Central Park. As the first to give a taste for public works of this character, and in some degree the result of life-long effort on the part of our great landscape gardening apostle Downing, I was particularly anxious to see how it looked after these many years of vast expenditures; but I could scarcely feel that it was very encouraging for other cities to go and do likewise. It is well known to those experienced in landscape gardening that the skilled artist is required much more seriously after a place has grown up somewhat than when it is first planted. If a designer were to arrange things only as they are to look in some twenty-five or fifty years time, no one would employ him. He has to make a picture that will look well at once, and yet must so arrange that as some are every year taken away as the mass grow, the balance remaining shall look only the more beautiful. To employ an expensive landscape gardener, and to spend largely on ornamentation, only to leave the whole in a few years to a set of ignoramuses, is money thrown away.
Far better would it be to take a piece of ground, throw stones freely over it, then plant a tree or bush where the stones fell, and in some half a dozen years employ a skilled landscape gardener to thin out and make something of the whole as the trees grow on the ground, than take the New York plan as it appeared to me now. Trees and masses of vegetation that were evidently intended to be but of temporary use, are now crowding out the rarer and more valuable material. Spots which were once beautiful have grown into deformities, and this will go on until the whole becomes a very commonplace affair. And yet this will not be perhaps strictly the fate of the Central Park. One may meet sometimes among the lowest of human kind, some few whose continuous dissipations during many years have still left some marks of beauty. The original design was too lovely for even the most destructive power wholly to efface. Central Park even in its old days will still be a handsome wreck, and I fancy will always have something left of its original glory for any one to admire. Even now it is an excellent school for the would-be landscape gardener.
Some one of its former managers has had a good eye for variety, and there is an immense amount of material here both in individual trees and shrubs and in their composite character, which can not be so well studied elsewhere. These points of beauty abound; and for those students who would perfect themselves in the details of landscape gardening, and who would like to know what beauty trees and shrubs are capable of affording in almost endless variety, could not do better than spend a whole month at least in an analysis of what is to be found in Central Park. I have now taken the reader with me through a small park belonging to a city which has great pretension to art and tast, and through a pretentious park of another great city. As I return I will take them for an October walk through another "square " or small park of the first proud city. As we enter the gate we come right on several cart loads of filth, apparently of several weeks collection, and around which we have to course before we can enter. It would appear from the contents of the heap, that for a while the falling leaves were gathered, but no sign of any sweepers are about now.
Indeed the little boys are gathering the bits of paper that lie about loose, and are lighting them, making little bonfires on the paths right before you. The paths themselves are only discernable from the places where the grass should be, by the grinding the leaves have received from the feet of passengers. Therein, in this trail, variegated by peach stones, apple cores, bananna skins, and the omnipresent remains of peanuts, the traveler may find his way out, if he keeps to the beaten path. Now, when it is remembered that one expert broomist with a long slender switch-like birch broom could go over every walk in one of these city squares once a day in ordinary times, needing only an assistant at the fall of the leaf, the innocent searcher after the truths of social science wonders why it is not done. But it is the same story all over. The same in the great Central Park or the little Philadelphia square. It is that the men who are employed to do the city work, don't know anything about the work they are called upon to do. The man who manages such city property at a salary of $1,500 or $3,000 a year, knows no more about it than the broom man he employs knows about his broom.
I have said that any one of these city squares could be broomed all over once a day by an expert broom hand, but not one of the men employed could probably do the work in a week or even in a month - it is not their trade. I believe that this city work is generally as honestly conducted as the average of work in private life would be under such a system. Indeed I regard the attacks on the men often unjust, considering how, and in what manner they get into their positions. They work very hard to get into the places and positions they occupy. It costs the commissioners many a hard day's work, many a sleepless night, and much money. Nor can they get these positions without much help from their less fortunate fellows. The poorer men go round among their fellows and talk for their patrons, and their only reward is to get work if their friend gets into the coveted office. I said to one of these city officers not long since, would it not be just as well if he employed men who knew something, to do this work? But he explained that he would rather have them if all other things were equal, but he " could not not go back on his friends." He admitted that he had been anxious to get the position he occupied.
It was one he said, of honor, and though the salary was but $1,500 a year, he could put his knowledge of men and things to such good ac-count that he had "made money fast;" but he "would defy any one to show that he had not made every dollar he had honestly".
It seems to me that the whole matter resolves itself to this, that those who work the hardest for offices get them", and that they then take care of those who help them along. If the man who "understands his business" happens to be in with this crowd, he has a chance of being the right man in the right place. If not, the wrong man gets there.
I would like to see the public parks and gardens of our country better. It is painful to see them so often in a condition that would disgrace a poverty stricken family in a back alley; but it seems to me the remedy lies not in abusing the poor wretches who, by dint of hard work have got into an " office," but we should rather blame that system which makes such a successful result to individual effort possible.