"I'll take the showers as they fall, I will not vex my bosom; Enough if at the end of all A little garden blossom."
Courage is wanted to write a book about Town-gardening. Is there such a thing? Some would say "No; cats, fogs, and smuts forbid." Yet how inseparable from London is the thought of flowers! Can we picture the West End on a summer's day without them? The dust-laid, freshly sprinkled squares and streets, where behind half-drawn blinds there is the fragrance of many blossoms; the bright harness of horses jangling as they champ the bit, a knot of flowers at every bridle; flower-sellers with baskets at all convenient corners, and along the roadway carts of Palms and growing plants bending and waving in the wind every man one meets has got his button-hole, and every maiden wears her posy; even the butcher-boy holds a bud between his thumb and finger, twirling it and smelling at it as he goes.
The love of flowers and an almost passionate delight in cultivating them has ever been a feature of English life, and of late years the old taste has been renewed and strengthened: no mere whim of fashion's fancy is it, but the outcome of a nation's feeling, deep and true; and what the English people love and long for, that they will have, despite all difficulties. Thus it comes about that London's heart is gay with flowers. They strew our parks and open spaces, they fill the cheerful window-box and seed-sown area, and make the cold grey balcony to blossom as the rose; even where London's traffic roars the loudest, one lights upon the pathetic back-yard garden, hemmed in by church and factory walls, the high-hung garden of the roof and parapet, the little beau-pot of the window-sill, the poetic window-plant, that shares its owner's only living-room, - everywhere flowers, flowers, for rich and poor, especially for the rich.
"There's never a delicate nursling of the year, But our huge London hails it, and delights To wear it on her heart or at her ear, Her days to colour and make sweet her nights."
Buying flowers is easy enough, it is the growing of them in big towns that is so difficult; but the struggle is not a hopeless one, there is much that may encourage. When we hear of what others have done, still more, when we have seen their successes for ourselves, despair gives way to animation and activity.
No one will deny for a moment that there is more real joy to be felt over one plant that we have grown for ourselves than over ninety and nine bought ones; and this is not only because attending to its needs has made us love the flower as we love children and other pets and dear dependents - there is another reason. In shop-flowers the method of growth (one of a plant's greatest beauties) is a charm left out. Sweet Peas, for instance; we buy them squeezed up in tight bunches, all pink ones massed together, or all white or purple. Where is the grace of the clinging tendril, the tender poising of the dainty blooms?
I have seen these beauties where Sweet Peas were blowing and growing in the depths of a London area along with white Pinks, Candytuft, and the gold-flowered Canary Creeper, but never have I beheld them in the shop: bunches of Cornflowers and even Roses, will be laid against a trail of Smilax, or something else that does not belong to either of them, such as the ever-present "French Fern" or New Zealand grass. Flower-artists of Japan, who willingly spend hours in coaxing each separate twig and flower to show its natural grace and habit, would not much care to arrange the cut flowers we buy in towns, that have been divorced completely from the stems and branches where they grow; and to say this is not to grumble at the florists, who cannot do impossibilities, but to accentuate the fact that cut flowers cannot take the place of growing ones.
Double And Single Pyrethrums
Happily for the town gardener, many plants and flowers do well among the chimney-pots. Annuals less so than some, perhaps, but many of these flower satisfactorily if thinly sowed. Nasturtiums, Virginia Stock, Coreopsis, Marigold, Scabious, Sunflower, Lupin, Love-in-a-mist, Candytuft and Larkspur never fail us, nor Sweet Pea, if we can keep the sparrows from eating the seeds. Some town-folk tell me they think Carnations really like smoke, so well they thrive in it. Pyrethrums, both single and double, are among our best town flowers, and will grow almost anywhere and in any ordinary garden soil. The one drawback to their well-being is slugs, who find the young growths too enticing; but we can circumvent this enemy if in autumn we sprinkle ashes, soot, or lime around the crowns. In London it is never difficult to get soot, though, oddly enough, every chimney-sweeper considers our own home-made soot his perquisite, and makes us pay for it. The really best way to get rid of slugs is to catch them in orange-peel traps, made of empty half-oranges, under which they crawl, and can then be killed. Sliced potatoe is another good bait, or beet-root. The drawback of using traps is the danger of attracting the enemy.
On the other hand, ashes, soot, and lime are unsightly, and may spoil our plants if allowed to touch them. A pail of salt and water we find the least unpleasing medium when culprits must be executed.
In a town garden where there is room for them, no plants do better than the Star-worts or Michaelmas Daisies. They are so easy of cultivation and so comforting late in the season, when the "bedders" of every public and private garden have succumbed to cold and wet. Later there are Chrysanthemums.
Lilies and all bulbous plants show unexpected hardiness. Our parks both east and west familiarize us with Snowdrop, Crocus, Jonquil, Narcissus, and Daffodil; and to see how happy Valley-lilies can make themselves within earshot of the bustling Strand, we need only turn our footsteps towards the dim green gardens of the Temple, where banks and parterres of them unfold their verdant cloaks beneath every April sky. Farther west, if eyes could pierce the trees and shrubs that guard the gardens of the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, or those round Marlborough House, they would see Lilacs, Laburnums, Pinks, and Roses; and from the knife-board of a Bays-water omnibus, if our field of vision were a little broader, we should catch glimpses of Lord Ilchester's fair gardens about Holland House, where languorous Lilies of Japan luxuriate in all their native splendour, and much of their native wildness; and this but a stone's throw from the Great Western Railway Station and the World's Fair of William Whiteley.
Among the gardens of the suburbs most of our town difficulties disappear; the many nursery, and market, and Rose, and Rock, and Daffodil gardens that flourish in London's outskirts abundantly prove this. Once away from fog and smoke, there are few limitations except those that come of want of space; but land is dear, and there is little ground to spare, except for public and general gardens, where again individual joys are lost.
The suburban garden, in spite of all the hard things that have been said of it, is really not so much to be despised, and so large a part does it play in the social life of the twentieth century, that it is worth a moment's thought.
Suburban gardens are of many kinds; there are all manner of notes in the scale. The squalid ones - alas! some are squalid - we see in London's shabbiest borderlands. They often belong to houses filled with many different families, and are a kind of no man's land. Hardly can we call them gardens; little enough is grown in them, though sometimes among the straggling Runner-beans and rubbish-heaps there will be a tree, a beautiful spreading tree, like a green-winged angel. Then there are the tidy patches of the fairly well-to-do workman; some made hideous by mounds of shells and grottoes, others filled with useful and pretty plants. So we go upwards, step by step, to the good-sized strip or more ambitious villa garden. Wonders are done in these. Many a busy City man, whose garden is not far from the Marble Arch, knows all about Roses, and might give lessons on Grape-growing and Orchid-forcing to his relations in the real country.
Suburban gardens naturally have not the same good chances as are enjoyed by country gardens, but they do know some joys that may be envied. One is the birds. It is not that there are more of them, but those there are, are such a pleasure. When a new bird of a rarer kind than ordinary is coaxed into the precincts of one's own domain, how great the interest, and how many friendly traps are laid for him in the way of food, water, and material for building. And wild flowers; when unfamiliar seedlings appear, one knows not whence, here is another joy. Few people in country gardens know every leaf and blade by heart as do the owners of the small suburban garden, so carefully watched, so tenderly made the most of.
There is many a quaint touch about these gardens of the suburbs. They are often, like blouses and children's frocks after sale-time, made of remnants. Some large old holding is cut into blocks. Block A gets bits of orchard; Block B, a piece of garden-ground with Roses and blossoming trees, Block C may have nothing but Briars and Blackberries. Or in another place a stately avenue has been cut down for building, and some magnificent Elm or Oak or Cedar has been spared, and is stranded, a forlorn-looking prisoner, in the back garden of some modern villa. Well, he is a blessing to somebody; little children may still play about beneath his sheltering arms, where the rooks yet cling to their old haunts, croaking cheerfully as ever.
Nor is it altogether unpleasing to have a garden near the busy haunts of men; the roar and rattle of the streets, that sound like the humming of innumerable bees, the strange glow of lights in the distance, the pealing of bells and the striking of many clocks, the thunder and whistle of the trains that link us with friends far off, the stir and throb of human life, that chimes in, not inharmoniously with the calmer life of Nature - all these things combine in making up the unexpressed enjoyments of the dwellers in gardens that lie close to the heart of towns.
"Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love. News from the humming city comes to it, In sound of funeral or marriage bells."
My own belief is, that ever such a small garden is better than none, and that life without its flowers is not worth living. Should this little book be found a help or encouragement to any town-dwellers who love plants and "Yet sun and wind, what can ye do But make the leaves more brightly show?"