From the Archive — From the September 2016 issue

Tend Your Garden

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If we were writing for a prince with ready millions at command, we might take Lord Bacon’s estimate, and say that thirty acres are not too much for a prince-like garden, without including the forest-park or farm. His four acres of green in the entrance, with two long walks in covered alleys on either side, would be a dismal affair without trees or shrubs to cheer the eye and relieve the loiterer from the necessity of hiding under the covering of carpenter’s-work to escape the glare and heat of the summer sun. His heath of six acres in the rear, which he would have “framed as much as may be to a natural wildness,” is more to our modern taste; and the only trouble with this portion is that, instead of our having all the wild beauty by itself, and all the regular beauty by itself, the two should be intermingled, and the broad lawn should border on charming flower-beds, of various growths, and romantic shrubbery in studied freedom; and art and nature should do their best to help each other.

The case with us, however, is that we are not to devise princely methods of magnificence, but republican plans of economy; and the garden that we have in mind must be one that comes within the average means of lovers of nature in America. Any man of moderate means may own a few acres, and treat it according to the most approved principles of economy and taste. We who are not farmers wish, of course, to do as much as we can with our little domain, and expect, if possible, to unite the advantages of park and orchard — flowers for the eye and vegetables for the table. We wish to have the largest crop of market value and landscape beauty. Our rule of utility may be summed up in a single sentence, and be said to be that method of gardening which secures the most products of the best quality suited to our needs through the year, and so produced as to draw out, without exhausting, the various and alternate powers of the soil. To carry out this rule, even in a kitchen-garden of half an acre, will be no small study and discipline to the shrewdest calculator and economist.

span class=”init-cap”>The economics of the beautiful I am more free to speak of, and am quite sure that beauty is far nearer to us, if we will seek it, than is commonly supposed. The great secret is to follow the lead of nature, and try not to overlay nature by ambition, and not to fall into poor artifice in our search for art. The idea of God in nature is obvious: the great universe, our solar system, our earth, or any large prospect on its surface, or, if we specify particular objects, we may say that a tree, a bird, an animal, or, above them all, a human body, these manifest wonderful diversity of parts in unity of aim — and the study of creation opens an inexhaustible school of beauty. The nearer the garden comes to the variety and unity of nature, so much the better for its completeness. There, as in nature, the lines of beauty and utility should be mingled; and while we should not be ashamed to plant our esculents and even our fruit trees in straight rows, we should study to secure the curve of grace wherever we can consult taste, and allow the generous eye and the easy foot to move in the line of beauty. He is happy who can have enough of flowing or living water in his grounds to help him dream of the lake, the river, and the ocean; enough of rise and fall on the surface to relieve the scene from monotony, if not to suggest the images of the hills and cliffs of his romantic rambles or reveries; enough of lawn and grove to unite the charms of the open meadow with the forest shrubs; flowers, shrubbery, and orchard enough to present the useful and the beautiful in judicious harmony.

From “Garden Philosophy,” which appeared in the July 1865 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.

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