This is a time when I always find it a little difficult to keep the conservatory next the drawing-room gay. The large Crinum is going off, and the Azaleas are rather a bad metallic colour, which kills everything else. Primula farinosa is a pretty thing if well grown; Cineraria cruenta is in full bloom, but I must get some fresh seed, as the flowers have all become one shade, which they were not at first. A charming, sweet little shrub which looks something like a white Daphne is Pittosporum tobira; it comes in usefully at this time. We have had in succession since January pots of Polygonatum (Solomon's Seals), and they all go out into the reserve bed to be taken up another time, so are not at all wasteful. I have never had Forsythia suspensa so good in the garden as this year. The shrub is one golden mass, and when picked in long branches and peeled it is quite admirable in water. I suppose its being so good is partly an accident of the weather, partly that after flowering last year it was cut back hard, and partly that we twisted black thread about it to prevent the birds eating the buds in February, which they invariably do here, both with this plant and with Prunus pissardi. Spirĉa thunbergi responds in the most delightful way to constant pruning. The more the dear little thing is cut, the better it seems to do. That is the real secret of all these early-flowering shrubs; they do not exhaust themselves then with leaf-making and growth. Under those shrubs where there are no Violets and no white Arabis, the common Lungwort (Pulmonaria) makes an exceedingly pretty ground-covering; for instance, under a Lilac bush or any deciduous shrub. This kind of spring gardening is only trouble, not expense, as all these plants divide into any numbers after flowering, and take away the bare look of a spring garden on light soils. When the leaves are out, the place they are in wants nothing and would grow nothing else. In fact, in these kinds of gardens the more the earth can be kept clothed and covered with light-rooting dwarf plants the better, as it saves weeding - always such a terrible business.
Nothing, I think, tempts me so much to neglect all duties and to forget all ties as gardening in early spring weather. Everything is of such great importance, and the rush of work that one feels ought to be done without a moment's delay makes it, to me at least, feel the most necessary thing in life. A friend wrote to me once: 'The best thing in old age is to care for nothing but Nature, our real old mother, who will never desert us, and who opens her arms to us every spring and summer again, warm and young as ever, till at last we lie dead in her breast.'
And another wrote: 'serenity, serenity, serenity and light! Surely this is the atmosphere of Olympus; and if we cannot attain to it in age, in vain has our youth gone through the passionate toil and struggle of its upward journey to the divine summits.'
These thoughts fit better the solitude of bursting woods in the real country than the cultivating mania in a small garden, where we are all tempted to fight against Erasmus's assertion: 'One piece of ground will not hold all sorts of plants.'
A great deal of pleasure is to be got by striking cuttings of Oleanders in heat, and growing them on in a stove or greenhouse till the small plant flowers. I saw the other day a cutting of double pink Oleander struck last summer, with the largest, finest blooms, both for colour and form, I have ever seen. It had been brought forward, of course, in considerable heat. Oleanders are now to be had of all colours, from the deepest red to palest pink and pure white. They strike easier in summer if the stalks of the cuttings are stuck in water for a few days before they are planted.
I have lately been able to procure a book called 'The Insects of Great Britain,' by W. Lewin, 1795 - an ambitious and comprehensive title indeed, and only one volume of the series ever appeared. But Mr. Lewin began with the most attractive and showy of the insects, viz. butterflies. His plates are most beautiful and careful, even for that excellent period of hand-coloured illustration. I suppose that everyone knows the easy way to distinguish between butterflies and moths. In butterflies the antennĉ, or what children call 'horns,' are always knobbed, and in moths they are the same thickness to the end. When I was in Florence I saw an old fireplace decorated with most lovely tiles. I am not knowing enough to say if they were Dutch or Italian, but they were very pretty. There were lines, brown and yellow, round each tile, the inner lines cutting off the corners; then a dainty little wreath of Olive branches and inside it a butterfly, the butterfly on every tile being different. The ground-colour of the tile was a creamy-white. This book would render the re-making of such tiles comparatively easy.
Last summer (1898) a little book appeared called 'Where Wild Birds Sing,' by James E. Whiting, published by Sydney C. Mayle, 70 High Street, Hampstead. The writer is a real Nature lover. The motto of the book is from a speech by Gladstone, who said: 'I think the neglect of natural history was the grossest defect of our old system of training for the young; and, further, that little or nothing has been done by way of remedy for that defect in the attempts made to alter or reform that system.' It is as a slight help in that direction that I name these charming modern natural history books, full of observation and love of Nature, told in the most simple way. This pretty little 'Invitation,' at the beginning of the book, seems to be written by a relative of the author, as it is signed 's. Whiting':
Come, leave the city's toil and din,
The weary strife, The cankering cares and sordid aims.
That deaden life.
Come, leave behind this restless rush,
This anxious strain; Dame Nature tenders healing balm
For tired brain.
Come, by yon grassy, shady lane
Rest tired eyes, On yonder meadows vernal green,
On cloudless skies.
Come to the woods, where Oak and Beech
Their shadows fling. Come, weary toiler, rest awhile
Where wild birds sing.