Christmas Letter To Gardeners


Christmas is a wonderful time of year. As the north wind blows, as snows drift ever deeper, and as the cold strengthens, human hearts beat all the more vigorously. Under the sparkling stars, white, blue, red and yellow, that grim tension we all suffer far too much seems to relax. Gratefully, we push away all ugly and sordid things as being of no importance and enter, for the moment, a world of warmth and brightness.

Thus, this becomes a time when it is permissible to speak freely out of one’s inmost convictions. It is a time when it is not necessary to weigh one’s words, not so much for fear of offending someone or of being found ridiculous, as of being accused of sentimentality.

Perhaps it is the miserable time in which we live that has caused the world to be afraid of sentiment. With things the way they are, we should all of us be on our toes every instant lest something terrible should happen. Personally, I have never been able to understand why it should be bad to be sentimental. If we rule sentiment out, what have we left of the lives of most of us? The wide and pillard avenues of science and philosophy down which I have traveled, somewhat reluctantly and all too often idly, have been chiefly characterized for me by their distressing coldness and emptiness. One smile, one laugh, one hand to hold in the cold and the dark, is worth multitudes of sober facts and solemn pronouncements.

bromeliad christmas tree

I think it is silly, this business of attempting to be always rational and mathematical – just as if we could be, really. In this absurd world, what have we humans to do with truth? I doubt if we would recognize the thing if we stumbled over it. With things the way they are, I am sure that sentiment is precisely as valid as science with most of us.

What has all this to do with gardening? Everything!

Perhaps I might declare my Christmas message to gardeners very simply in these words; we take gardening too seriously.

Of course you remember the Frenchman who said that all positive statements are false, including this one. That is the trouble when you try to be simple; you cannot be accurate. Thus I do not mean that gardening is not a serious thing. It certainly is! It cannot be done in carefully pressed trousers and a white shirt, or the feminine equivalents thereof. It is a strenuous affair of slacks for the ladies and dungarees for the men, dirty hands, sunburned necks and creaking backbones. What I mean is just that we Americans are all too apt to go to extremes. Who ever in the world first established the idea that the amateur gardener had to be an expert, a specialist?

That way of thinking has done more harm to gardening than all the cutworms that ever wiggled and all the mildew that ever powdered. Certainly there must be landscape architects, and agronomists, and taxonomists and that sort of thing. A man or a woman can touch the fringes of creation by specializing in iris (as I do) or daylilies, or roses or whatever. That is all to the good – wonderful!

What I meant by saying that we arc apt to take gardening too seriously is that we forget to maintain our amateur standing. We need not be professionals unless we seek to earn our livings by and through gardening. That is something else.

I am trying in this Christmas letter to urge the average gardener to forget any feelings of inferiority and to garden as pleasantly as he wishes. In a word, to grow what he wants, the way he wants to do it.

Who has authority to tell anyone that he must garden this way, plant this and plant that? Certainly, information is welcomed by everyone but there is no need of striving for perfection. Instead, gardening should be always carried along for what pleasure there may be found in it – and that is plenty! In a few words, we should stop trying to make a business out of gardening. Leave that for the professionals. Instead, let us enjoy our plants and our plantings.

And to my mind, the best way to enjoy gardening is to be just as sentimental about it as one wishes. If you want to be tenderhearted in your garden, why then be tender-hearted. I mean it! Let your bushes sprawl as they will, if you want it that way. Of course you can prune and transplant and keep your place looking like a public park or an arboretum if you wish. That is your privilege as an American gardener. But, to my mind, a garden should be otherwise – and if you think so, have your plantings the way you want them. Certainly you must learn how to grow things, but let the learning come naturally. Let it be as natural as the growth of the plants themselves and not merely the practice of what someone told you should be done.

Some gardens are as carefully planned as the blueprints for a battleship. That is one way to garden and, a good way, no doubt of that. But gardens can grow through the years too, in a happy: careless, haphazard way – and it is a wiser man than most of us who can say which way is the better. It is a choice you can make, if you so desire.

Then again, authorities will tell you not to have this plant near that; some will say that certain colors will clash with others. Perhaps so. I adore the great heads of Oriental poppies and I have lots of them. Perhaps they do clash with other things; perhaps a knowing person will smile at my ignorance. Let them. That is what I like and it is what I will have.


Probably, in the ultimate analysis, the sentimental gardener finds his greatest enjoyment in the associations his plants have for him alone. For instance, I have a rose bush, it must be fully 50 years old, which was my mother’s. She called it Lady Stuart. I really do not know what it is. It is not available in any present-day catalog. The flowers are small and nothing much compared to what I could be growing but that bush will have its place in my garden as long as I am on deck – because of the memories it supports. Then, I have a certain grouping of wild, blue violets and the narcissus, Horace. It was first established by a certain person and it will be continued as long as I garden.

The nub of the whole matter is this. There are many activities of life where a man must bow to regimentation. There are some activities where he must be as precise and as careful as he may be. But, these are not amateur gardening. We plant and cultivate for pleasure. We have no obligation when we take a piece of ground in our hands and make it bear flowers and fruits. Of course learning to garden better is a pleasure too and we will all enjoy that pleasure, year by year. But above all, garden as you please and in the piece of ground that is your own, indulge your sentiments as you wish. Hither all, it is your garden.

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