Observations Of A Roving Gardener – Migration, Soil, Water, Air and Sun


It is fashionable to think of November as a dark and unpleasant month, somber, sad and gloomy. Personally, I like the month very much. Its short days, rains and low skies, that sometimes need the taller trees to prop them up like poles do the canvas of a tent, come as a welcome relief. I am tired of the hot weather, of drought and dust and buzzing bugs – tired too of so much sunshine. And, be it heresy or not, I am tired of gardening. Consider the past months!

Along in mid-Winter, we contracted a fever from the seed catalogs and that fever reached dangerous heat when we first dug our hands into the soil. We literally took off our coats and went to labor in May – labor that continued without rest all the next six months. Every day brought its chores – sometimes more than could be done. Now, it is over. The garden has gone to sleep – and so can we.

There’s work still to be done, of course – cleaning-up, Winter-covering, pruning, mending fences and so on. But there is no hurry about it. The last of the Spring-flowering bulbs are tucked away, the new lilies are in and the fallen leaves are all on the compost pile. So we can sit at case and hear the rain drum against the windows and watch the fog drift through the bare trees. It is a peaceful time of year, November. The year has turned its cycle and plants have completed their work and retired to their rest.

Sometimes, I think I would like to have a good-sized greenhouse so I could grow flowers the year around but, after all, gardening like all other human interests, can do with an annual period of rest, too. I think that Spring comes all the brighter when one has been all Winter without flowers. Meanwhile, there is the fire on the hearth, drawn curtains, books, tobacco and the satisfaction of rest after long labor faithfully sustained.

The first snow of the year – there is magic in it. Up here in the hills, it. usually conies soon after the first of the month and by Thanksgiving the world is white to stay through Mardi. Plants and trees snuggle down gratefully under the blanket and farmers wait. eagerly until the crystals accumulate to two feet or so – because then both house and barn are banked above the sills and cold, no matter how severe, is kept outside.

Soon, of course, we grow tired of the white stuff and long for the green tide of April ? but the first snow is universally welcomed. Sometimes it comes quietly in the night and one wakes in the morning to a serene clarity of soft light that comes only from sunlight reflected from white fields. We like snow best when it comes along about noon.

At such times, the morning sun is pale and soon disappears in grey clouds which cover the sky with a smooth, unbroken pewter-grey. Often there is no wind, just a stillness and a damp cold that bites through the heaviest clothes. Then, without warning, a vagrant flake drifts down, slanting in from the East. Before long, the air is filled with them and, soon, as the wind awakens, the snow comes in earnest, driving past the house in smoky swirls.

The dark ground greys and then turns white and soon the grass and then the weeds vanish, leaving only shrubs and trees to be seen. Finally, drifts start shaping themselves and by dark they have arched over the stonewalls along the road. Winter has come. The face of the world is different ?and humans are different, too. In a few hours, the year has ended and we are facing into four or five months of cold and storm. But beyond them, we know, is Spring, coming the nearer with every storm.

Migration of plants is a fascinating subject. For years, every time in the Fall when I went south on the Pennsylvania Railroad out of New York City, I used to watch, when the train crossed those horrid marshes just south of the tunnel entrance, for the gorgeous and graceful fields of the grass I know as Eulalia, properly Alf iscanthus sinensia.

They are plants taller than a man, with great plumes waving in the wind. Native to eastern Asia, they are rarely cultivated in American gardens and have become naturalized in the Northeastern United States. For years, the Jersey marsh was the only place I knew them. About two years ago, I saw them beside the New Haven Railroad tracks in Westchester County, New York, and just the other day I saw them for the first time so far north, in a marsh in Revere, just east of Boston.

This particular marsh was filled in about 10 years ago by pumping in mud from the harbor. For years it has been a saline waste of sun-hard mud. Now, behold, a fine stand of Eulalia is prospering there. Where did it come from? I think I know every garden in the neighborhood for miles around and not one has the grass in it. Here is a real mystery – for I am sure no one planted the seed in a sandy, salt pan given over only to salt-wort, Spartina and a very few sea lavender plants.

It amazes me how out of the same soil, with the same water, air and sun, different species of plants can produce such tremendously different substances. My wonder is pointed by the recent announcements of the discovery of the presence in Strophanlus sarmentoaus of the miracle drug, cortisone – a substance which promises new hope to humans suffering from rheumatism and arthritis and, maybe, other ills.

About the same time, there was the announcement that the tropical yam, Discorea, may be a good source of a related drug. The new science of chemurgy has certainly made remarkable strides of late years in the application of unknown or unused plant products. It seems to me that we are only making a good beginning, for there must be many unknown plant products of infinite value to humanity waiting to be put to work.


Going about the country, I see various enthusiasts working with many kinds of plants, laboring, often for love of the job, to make them better. I know that gardeners are certain to be greatly. enriched soon with new, improved plant material.

Rose specialists, day lily enthusiasts, and other fans of particular plants may not like what I have to say but, from what I have seen the past three years in all parts of the country, the most interesting developments are taking place in garden lilies. Not only are there new colors, stronger plants and new varieties but there seems to be a special progress made in breeding disease resistant stocks.

Of course, the ills to which lilies are heir have been a limiting fault in their popularity. If sonic of the new strains bear out their promise, lilies tomorrow will be as easy to grow as well as, say chrysanthemums. Incidentally, there arc new and good mums coming along, too.

Few humans have much of a sense of smell; we lost it long ago. Yet there are odors which force themselves upon us. One of the pleasant ones is that of apples. We brought in a few bushel of Macs for apple sauce making and put them in the back kitchen where it would be cool.

We were too busy to do any canning for several days but when we went out into the room to get them, the air was drenched with the odor of the fruit. It was almost as good as the scent of a wet south wind coming warmly through the orchard in May. Still speaking of scents, how pleasant the whole house is when pickles are being made. For real fragrance, however, there is nothing that can beat the way the kitchen welcomes you when a great kettle of mince-meat is bubbling on the range. That is real smelling!

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