1952 Gardening Rule: “Display good taste and exercise restraint.”


IMG_1730At a used-book sale to benefit the local elementary school, I found two gardening books old enough to pique my interest. First up is the Home Owners’ Complete Garden Handbook “by “top-ranking authority John Hayes Melady,” whoever he was (book didn’t say).  But look – the book is actually “5 books in 1”.  It’s copyrighted 1952 and is divided into these sections: flowers, vegetables, lawns, fruits, and landscaping.

I see it’s available on Amazon in hardback starting at .01.  At $4, I guess I overpaid for my copy (though for a good cause.)

Some of my favorite bits:


The chapter heading screams that “Frequent Mowing is Essential,” followed by this: “One mowing a week is not enough; make it twice a week at least.” And this next bit may have caused middle-class homeowners to identify out: “If you have a hired man to do the mowing, let him use your mower rather than his, so that you can determine the height of the cut.”  Well, no one in my middle-class neighborhood in the ’50s had a hired man, so my petite-but-strong mom did the job.

These days we know better than to follow this bit of lawn-mowing advice: “A good length is 1.5 inches.”

Landscaping Section has RULES

First, the author tries to reassure the anxious reader with “Fixed Rules are Few” and this wise counsel: “It is important that you use shrubs and trees likely to grow in your part of the country.” And his recommended sources of information are still good ones today – catalogs, extension agents and “garden editors of your local newspapers” – though sadly those editors are long gone.

But let’s get down to the rules, shall we?

“1: Use varieties that will thrive.” Good one.

“2: Purchase plants from a reliable source.” Ditto.

“3: Make your planting look natural.” Oh, I’m really liking this, especially the further explanation that “It is difficult to improve upon nature…avoid straight lines, regular geometric curves, and uniform distances between plants.”
Reminds me of one of my first garden-design mistakes – planting a couple hundred daffodils equidistant across my entire back yard. Not a good look, probably because it looked so unnatural. Took me years of rearranging bulbs to even begin to like the effect. And these were big bulbs, not so easy to exhume and replant.

The author, after tipping us off to his own naturalistic preferences, does go on to say “Or you may prefer a formal design, or a combination,” though I’d add – “If you know what you’re doing.”

“4: Keep the center open.” Darn good advice for anyone’s first garden.

“5: Plant in masses.”  So I guess we didn’t have to wait for the so-called “New American Garden” to be told this important design principle.

“6: Avoid crowding.” Sorry, this one’s too general, and the text doesn’t offer any more guidance.

“7: Don’t hide dwarf subjects behind taller ones.” Yes, it has to be stated. Seems obvious but who hasn’t regretted ignoring this rule?

“8: Observe the plants’ requirements.” Again, examples might have fleshed out this essential point. “Right plant, right place” indeed.

The author saved for the last spot my favorite:

“9: Display good taste and exercise restraint.”  No explanation for that one. which might also serve to guide all social interactions in the ’40s and early ’50s.

Hmm, this has me wondering – Can gardening rules guide us in all of our life’s choices?

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Sounds like a good book if you have a ranchburger and want to know period landscaping. I have an early ’20’s house and have collected many garden books from the early teens. The advice I found most confusing was to put road scrapings on your vegetable garden. Huh? Pre car pre paved streets meant lots of horse manure, sawdust (used to keep dust down) and dirt. Road maintenance was pretty much limited to horse drawn grader. Celery was the vegetable of the moment. Like kale is now. One writer had a 20 x 30′ plot of nothing but celery. Roasted, braised, creamed, and even canned.

    • Tibs, does your book say anything about irises being popular? A friend and I have been dividing and salvaging irises from the ruins of an old homestead that seems to date back to the early 20th century (judging from the old stoves and other detritus, plus local history). There are some other plants we can’t identify there too that are obviously from the old garden.

        • Any particular types of iris mentioned? There is one in particular that we can’t identify; an orange and yellow bicolor, bearded type. Identifying irises is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack, there are so many now! I am hoping back in earlier days there were fewer, and maybe a few more popular than others.

          • Very few pictures and written descriptions that I find confusing. Take a picture and send it to Old House Gardens. An heirloom bulb and rhizomes company. They might be able to identify it.

    • My grandmother, who would have been a child in the 1920s, largely grew up in a North Dakota hotel her family ran near the Canadian border. They couldn’t grow celery there, but they would occassionally get some shipped in. It would be served with pride in the restaurant in a special dish, a couple of unadorned stalks. Luxury on the Great Plains.

  2. I have The Complete Illustrated Book Of Garden Magic by Roy E. Biles first copyright date was evidently 1935, then 1940, apparently revised 1941, 1947, 1956, 1961, then in 1969 and .1970. I still use it. Plants are still plants, soil is still soil and you plant plants in soil. I pay no attention to trends. ——-Weedy

  3. I love vintage garden books! The photos are the best part for me, though. It’s like looking through a window into what the idealized garden was like at that point in time. Fascinating!

  4. How fleeting is fame?

    John Hayes Melady was rather famous in the 1950s. Born London, England, had a wife Beatrice & a daughter Eva, occupation “Seedsman” in 1911; learned about turf in Great Britain; came to the US before the Great War. Lived in Hackensack. NJ and worked for Stumpp & Walter in NY City; later worked for Vaughan’s seeds. Apparently he was very well-known in the turf & lawn trade – guess that was before he became even more well-known by writing gardening books.

    I found mentions of the books in old newspapers – mostly libraries telling the public that a new book was ready or book store ads telling the public that his books were for sale. Here’s a quote from one Library Column author, “John H Melady, author of the “The Melady Garden Books” is one of America’s best-known garden authorities.”

    In addition to your book, other titles were
    “Better Lawns for Your Home”
    “Better Flowers for Your Home Garden”
    “Better Vegetables for Your Home Garden” and
    “Better Fruits for Your Home Garden” (each $1.50 around 1953)

    I’d like to see this one!

    “Better Landscaping for Your Home” which is now available at your Public Library. There are sections on lawns, foundation planting, climbing plants, patio, wild flower and water gardens. trees and shrubs, and suggestions for a tool house, treehouse and potting shed. The book is illustrated with drawings by Mr. Melady’s daughter.”

    I’m pretty sure he died in 1965 – wonder what John Hayes Melady would think about gardeners discussing his books in 2014?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. Been an amateur genealogist for decades … I’ve worked on MayDreams Carol’s vintage book authors, too.
    As to how… if you every watch Finding Your Roots on PBS, you’ll notice that Henry Louis Gates does the big reveal but seldom tells how he got there!


  6. Oh yes, I am ever grateful to Annie in Austin for her genealogist skills and helping me find out about old garden writers… though, it is still distressing to think about the author of gardening books in the early 20th century who “suicided” when she was about to lose her house. But in regards to old gardening books, I’ve read several which provided rules or lists of “do’s and don’ts”. I even have “The Horticulturist’s Rule-Book: A Compendium of Useful Information for Fruit Growers, Truck-Gardeners, Florists, and Others” by Liberty Hyde Bailey in which he lists Loudon’s Rules of Horticulture which date way back to the 19th century. May favorite Loudon rule to break is rule no. 7, “Never pass a weed without pulling it.” (I paraphrase)…

  7. I have a friend who collects old gardening books. I have never been interested in doing that even though I am a collector at heart. Your examples are the reason. Information changes and when “we know better, we do better.” I suppose there are always little nuggets of information we can glean from these older gardening books – but are they worth taking up space on our book shelves. For me, the answer is “no.”

    • If you have an older home and want the landscaping and plants to be authentic, the old landscape books are invaluable. The how to ones are just interesting to read.

  8. “Can gardening rules guide us in all of our life’s choices?”

    Yes, and I especially like the “Avoid crowding” rule. I was just discussing with a friend my intolerance for crowds and crowding. whether the subject be plants or people.

  9. As to number 8, I wish there was a sign on every tree and perennial that said, “Plant with Mature Size in Mind!”

    I almost hopped out of my car to tell a neighbor that they were planting their new Japanese Maple way too close to the foundation, but then I thought she might think I was completely insane, so I continued on my way. Would it be wrong for me to dig up the maple in the middle of the night and move it a few more feet away?

    Clearly, even 70 years later, very few people understand, “Right Plant, Right Place”.

    • We dug a too-big-tree out of my in-laws front yard, only to have them ask us to plant *the exact same kind of tree* in the same place again. Right plant, right place…….

  10. I have my mother’s gardening books from the 1950s. Big emphasis on foundation plants was the biggest difference from today’s gardening styles, I thought. But perfectly descriptive of the landscaping I remember from my childhood.

    (BTW If you bought the used book at Amazon, it would have tagged $3.00 shipping/handling onto the $0.01 price — so you paid the right price at your tag sale.)

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