This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
I think it was the younger Stephenson who was taught by nature herself the practical axiom, never to contend directly with nature, but to speak her fair and stroke her canny wi' the hair. In constructing one of his railways on the Welsh or Lancashire coast, he made his embankment too near the full force of the breakers, and had the mortification of seeing it repeatedly washed away, when, if it had been constructed a little more inland, the force would have been expended on an inclined plane of sand. A beach of soft sand will remain unchanged for centuries, while a great rock, like Hoy or Heligoland, is fast crumbling away. There are many more of nature's breakers which are quite as irresistible as those of the ocean, and it is just as hopeless to contend with them; but meet them half-way, present them with the principle of the inclined plane, and they exhaust themselves, or do a service even. All nature's forces are powerful to build or to destroy, and the more minute and quiet their action the greater seems the effect produced. Consider the result produced in one season by the growth of grass alone; it far exceeds the operation of the greatest of the earth's volcanoes.
The gardener has got entirely to deal with nature's minute forces, and he finds it always better to guide than to contend with them. For instance, one of nature's most powerful forces is the growth of vegetation, as we have just said: by allowing the branches of the fruit-tree to extend, we allow the rush of vital force to exhaust itself, breaker fashion, on the sand, and our aim is attained with more benefit to the cultivator and to the tree. Determined cutting is like Stephenson's building, it teaches a practical lesson in the long-run. Insect-life is one of nature's destructive forces, from the gardener's point of view. "We need not wander from home to instance the locust - we have abundance of the genus aphis attending the east winds in spring, and flies of various denominations and colours - red-spider and thrips, those spry and diminutive gentry, altogether more formidable than the corpulent and dignified green-fly. Then there is the armour-plated scale - there is really nothing new under the sun - and its woolly cousin the mealy bug, the most irrepressible of all. It is a wonder that, in those days of the division of labour, some enterprising individual does not start business in some horticultural centre as a mealy-bug catcher.
The war that is made on those multitudinous pests by the gardening fraternity is of a very savage character: we stifle them, as Lord Dun-donald proposed to do the Russians, by smoke or small dust; or we bathe them in some treacherous liquid, and half shirk ghastly blame by calling it an insecticide. Is there greater mischief still a-hatching for the enemy in the new and mysterious phytosmegama? the very name is terrible. We fear that, after all, we shall be beaten in the direct contest: even the best insecticide we are acquainted with, industry and plenty of clean water, will not prevail unless otherwise applied. Every gardener knows how difficult it is sometimes to battle with red-spider, thrips, scale, or fly even, with syringe and tobacco-smoke - how they will be put down to return again; the former involves much labour, the latter much expense.
We are satisfied the principle of health in the plant has altogether to do with parasites - the principle of the strong destroying the weak, one of nature's destructive forces. Alderman Mechi, some years ago, got laughed at for advising that all the borders of fields adjoining game covers should be highly manured, and better cultivated than even the central parts, as the best protection against rabbits and ground game. This advice being quite contrary to the usual practice, it was considered one of his agricultural eccentricities; but he was quite right. The rabbit cannot endure soft rank food - it thrives best on hard dry grass on sandy downs; sheep also suffer in spring on the soft young grass and turnip-tops, if they have not some dry hay or chaff to qualify it: even the ox and horse in the field is seen to avoid the rank coarse grass which has grown on a former deposit of manure, and will nibble at some bare sweet patches where there is scarce a mouthful in preference; and a certain way to protect a young plantation from game in winter is, to spread the lopped-off branches of trees about, which will be stripped of their bark in preference to the fresh plants.
Just the same principle holds good in insect-life - neither red-spider nor thrips will attack a plant if that plant be sufficiently supplied with water and food for its healthy growth; let the foliage get starved for a very short period from whatever cause, and those parasites appear directly, as if spontaneously. Get the suffering plant into healthy condition, and the pest is checked and the cleaning process easy; this is the true inclined plane to break the force of this formidable breaker.
Another instance where the gardener often contends with nature and finds disappointment is in the matter of training. Take fruit-trees: some Pears are almost fastigiate in their habit of growth; the branches shooting upright and close together, it is found more difficult to fill up a wall with those horizontally on walls or espaliers, while other varieties are spreading or even pendulous in habit, and are easy to train: of the first, Ne Plus Meuris, or Beurre de Capiaumont are good examples; of the second, Beurre Bose, Hessel, and Marie Louise; so that, naturally, some varieties are more adapted to fan training than to horizontal. The same thing occurs among the varieties of the Peach. It is in the case of flowering plants, however, where training is so much performed in defiance of nature's will. To our mind there is a failure in training an Allamanda, Bougainvilloea, or Cissus, in innumerable coils round a balloon; but trained espalier fashion, with the sprays at liberty to stretch themselves out on either side or over the roof of a house, and we have a specimen worth seeing.
Would it not be possible to adopt a standard of training that all could adhere to, having in view the natural capabilities of every individual plant, so as to introduce variety into exhibitions, and to get out of the old rut of training everything whatever into globes and pyramids? After all, cultivation is more or less a contention with nature on the one hand and an encouragement of her on the other. We court the sun himself in making an artificial climate, and immediately we contend with him by shading. The soil is put into a high state of cultivation for the production of vegetables, and those conditions are the most favourable for the growth of weeds. Fruit-trees and Roses, and many things besides, are grafted on hardy stocks for the encouragement of nature, but there must be a sharp lookout for suckers, else we are soon beaten - a suckerless Manetti is not yet patented. We improve the quality of fruits, and immediately the birds and wasps find them out, and good judges they are.
In all our dealings with nature, remember she is feminine, and remember Stephenson. The Squire's Gardener.