At 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?