THE FRUIT GARDEN RAISON D'ETRE
Small fruits, to people who live in the country, are like heaven—objects of universal desire and very general neglect. Indeed, in a land so peculiarly adapted to their cultivation, it is difficult to account for this neglect if you admit the premise that Americans are civilized and intellectual. It is the trait of a savage and inferior race to devour with immense gusto a delicious morsel, and then trust to luck for another. People who would turn away from a dish of "Monarch" strawberries, with their plump pink cheeks powdered with sugar, or from a plate of melting raspberries and cream, would be regarded as so eccentric as to suggest an asylum; but the number of professedly intelligent and moral folk who ignore the simple means of enjoying the ambrosial viands daily, for weeks together, is so large as to shake one's confidence in human nature.
A well-maintained fruit garden is a comparatively rare adjunct of even stylish and pretentious homes. In June, of all months, in sultry July and August, there arises from innumerable country breakfast tables the pungent odor of a meat into which the devils went but out of which there is no proof they ever came. From the garden under the windows might have been gathered fruits whose aroma would have tempted spirits of the air. The cabbage-patch may be seen afar, but too often the strawberry-bed even if it exists is hidden by weeds, and the later small fruits struggle for bare life in some neglected corner.
Indeed, an excursion into certain parts of Hew England might suggest that many of its thrifty citizens would not have been content in Eden until they had put its best land into onions and tobacco. Through the superb scenery of Vermont there flows a river whose name, one might think, would secure an unfailing tide from the eyes of the inhabitants. The Alpine strawberry grows wild in all that region, but the puritan smacked his lips over another gift of nature and named the romantic stream in its honor. To account for certain tastes or tendencies, mankind must certainly have fallen a little way, or, if Mr. Darwin's view is correct, and we are on a slight up-grade, a dreadful hitch and tendency to backslide has been apparent at a certain point ever since the Hebrews sighed for the "leeks and onions of Egypt."
Of course, there is little hope for the rural soul that "loathes" the light manna of small fruits. We must leave it to evolution for another cycle or two. But, as already indicated, we believe that humanity in the main has reached a point where its internal organs highly approve of the delicious group of fruits that strayed out of Paradise, and have not yet lost themselves among the "thorns and thistles." Indeed, modern skill—the alchemy of our age—has wrought such wonders that Eden is possible again to all who will take the trouble to form Eden-like tastes and capacities.
The number who are doing this is increasing every year, The large demand for literature relating to out-of-door life, horticultural journals, like the fruits of which they treat, flourishing in regions new and remote, are proof of this. The business of supplying fruit-trees, plants, and even flowers, is becoming a vast industry. I have been informed that one enterprising firm annually spends thousands in advertising roses only.
But while we welcome the evidences that so many are ceasing to be bucolic heathen, much observation has shown that the need of further enlightenment is large indeed. It is depressing to think of the number of homes about which fruits are conspicuous only by their absence—homes of every class, from the laborer's cottage and pioneer's cabin to the suburban palace. Living without books and pictures is only a little worse than living in the country without fruits and flowers. We must respect to some extent the old ascetics, who, in obedience to mistaken ideas of duty, deprived themselves of the good things God provided, even while we recognize the stupidity of such a course. Little children are rarely so lacking in sense as to try to please their father by contemptuously turning away from his best gifts, or by treating them with indifference. Why do millions live in the country, year after year, raising weeds and brambles, or a few coarse vegetables, when the choicest fruits would grow almost as readily? They can plead no perverted sense of duty.
It is a question hard to answer. Some, perhaps, have the delusion that fine small fruits are as difficult to raise as orchids. They class them with hot-house grapes. Others think they need so little attention that they can stick a few plants in hard, poor ground and leave them to their fate. One might as well try to raise canary-birds and kittens together as strawberries and weeds. There is a large class who believe in small fruits, and know their value. They enjoy them amazingly at a friend's table, and even buy some when they are cheap., A little greater outlay and a little intelligent effort would give them an abundant supply from their own grounds.
In a vague way they are aware of this, and reproach themselves for their negligence, but time passes and there is no change for the better. Why? I don't know. There are men who rarely kiss their wives and children. For them the birds sing unheeded and even unheard; flowers become mere objects, and sunsets suggest only "quitting time." In theory they believe in all these things. What can be said of them save that they simply jog on to-day as they did yesterday, ever dimly hoping at some time or other "to live up to their privileges"? But they usually go on from bad to worse, until, like their neglected strawberry-beds, they are "turned under."
In cities not a hundred miles from my farm there are abodes of wealth with spacious grounds, where, in many instances, scarcely any place is found for small fruits. "It is cheaper and easier to buy them," it is said. This is a sorry proof of civilization. There is no economy in the barbaric splendor of brass buttons and livery, but merely a little trouble (I doubt about money) is saved on the choicest luxuries of the year. The idea of going out of their rural paradises to buy half-stale fruit! But this class is largely at the mercy of the "hired man," or his more disagreeable development, the pretentious smatterer, who, so far from possessing the knowledge that the English, Scotch, or German gardeners acquire in their long, thorough training, is a compound of ignorance and prejudice. To hide his barrenness of mind he gives his soul to rare plants, clipped lawns, but stints the family in all things save his impudence. If he tells his obsequious employers that it is easier and cheaper to buy their fruit than to raise it, of course there is naught to do but go to the market and pick up what they can; and yet Dr. Thurber says, with a vast deal of force, that "the unfortunate people who buy their fruit do not know what a strawberry is."
In all truth and soberness it is a marvel and a shame that so many sane people who profess to have passed beyond the habits of the wilderness will not give the attention required by these unexacting fruits. The man who has learned to write his name can learn to raise them successfully. The ladies who know how to keep their homes neat through the labors of their "intelligent help," could also learn to manage a fruit garden even though employing the stupidest oaf that ever blundered through life. The method is this: First learn how yourself, and then let your laborer thoroughly understand that he gets no wages unless he does as he is told. In the complicated details of a plant farm there is much that needs constant supervision, but the work of an ordinary fruit garden is, in the main, straightforward and simple. The expenditure of a little time, money, and, above all things, of seasonable labor, is so abundantly repaid that one would think that bare self-interest would solve invariably the simple problem of supply.
As mere articles of food, these fruits are exceedingly valuable. They are capable of sustaining severe and continued labor. For months together we might become almost independent of butcher and doctor if we made our places produce all that nature permits. Purple grapes will hide unsightly buildings; currants, raspberries, and blackberries will grow along the fences and in the corners that are left to burdocks and brambles. I have known invalids to improve from the first day that berries were brought to the table, and thousands would exchange their sallow complexions, sick headaches, and general ennui for a breezy interest in life and its abounding pleasures, if they would only take nature's palpable hint, and enjoy the seasonable food she provides. Belles can find better cosmetics in the fruit garden than on their toilet tables, and she who paints her cheeks with the pure, healthful blood that is made from nature's choicest gifts, and the exercise of gathering them, can give her lover a kiss that will make him wish for another.
The famous Dr. Hosack, of New York City, who attended Alexander Hamilton after he received his fatal wound from Burr, was an enthusiast on the subject of fruits. It was his custom to terminate his spring course of lectures with a strawberry festival. "I must let the class see," he said, "that we are practical as well as theoretical. Linnaeus cured his gout and protracted his life by eating strawberries."
"They are a dear article," a friend remarked, "to gratify the appetites of so many."
"Yes, indeed," replied the doctor, "but from our present mode of culture they will become cheap."
It is hard to realize how scarce this fruit was sixty or seventy years ago, but the prediction of the sagacious physician has been verified even beyond his imagination. Strawberries are raised almost as abundantly as potatoes, and for a month or more can be eaten as a cheap and wholesome food by all classes, even the poorest. By a proper selection of varieties we, in our home, feast upon them six weeks together, and so might the majority of those whose happy lot is cast in the country. The small area of a city yard planted with a few choice kinds will often yield surprising returns under sensible culture.
If we cultivate these beautiful and delicious fruits we always have the power of giving pleasure to others, and he's a churl and she a pale reflection of Xantippe who does not covet this power. The faces of our guests brighten as they snuff from afar the delicate aroma. Our vines can furnish gifts that our friends will ever welcome; and by means of their products we can pay homage to genius that will be far more grateful than commonplace compliments. I have seen a letter from the Hon. Wm. C. Bryant, which is a rich return for the few strawberries that were sent to him, and the thought that they gave him pleasure gives the donor far more. They are a gift that one can bestow and another take without involving any compromise on either side, since they belong to the same category as smiles, kind words, and the universal freemasonry of friendship. Faces grow radiant over a basket of fruit or flowers that would darken with anger at other gifts.
If, in the circle of our acquaintance, there are those shut up to the weariness and heavy atmosphere of a sick-room, in no way can we send a ray of sunlight athwart their pallid faces more effectually than by placing a basket of fragrant fruit on the table beside them. Even though the physician may render it "forbidden fruit," their eyes will feast upon it, and the aroma will teach them that the world is not passing on, unheeding and uncaring whether they live or die.
The Fruit and Flower Mission of New York is engaged in a beautiful and most useful charity. Into tenement-houses and the hot close wards of city hospitals, true sisters of mercy of the one Catholic church of love and kindness carry the fragrant emblems of an Eden that was lost, but may be regained even by those who have wandered farthest from its beauty and purity. Men and women, with faces seemingly hardened and grown rigid under the impress of vice, that but too correctly reveal the coarse and brutal nature within, often become wistful and tender over some simple flower or luscious fruit that recalls earlier and happier days.
These are gifts which offend no prejudices, and inevitably suggest that which is good, sweet, wholesome and pure. For a moment, at least, and perhaps forever, they may lead stained and debased creatures to turn their faces heavenward. There are little suffering children also in the hospitals; there are exiles from country homes and country life in the city who have been swept down not by evil but the dark tides of disaster, poverty, and disease, and to such it is a privilege as well as a pleasure to send gifts that will tend to revive hope and courage. That we may often avail ourselves of these gracious opportunities of giving the equivalent of a "cup of cold water," we should plant fruits and flowers in abundance.
One of the sad features of our time is the tendency of young people to leave their country homes. And too often one does not need to look far for the reason. Life at the farm-house sinks into deep ruts, and becomes weary plodding. There are too many "one-ideaed" farmers and farms. It is corn, potatoes, wheat, butter, or milk. The staple production absorbs all thought and everything else is neglected. Nature demands that young people should have variety, and furnishes it in abundance. The stolid farmer too often ignores nature and the cravings of youth, and insists on the heavy monotonous work of his specialty, early and late, the year around, and then wonders why in his declining years there are no strong young hands to lighten his toil. The boy who might have lived a sturdy, healthful, independent life among his native hills is a bleached and sallow youth measuring ribbons and calicoes behind a city counter. The girl who might have been the mistress of a tree-shadowed country house disappears under much darker shadows in town. But for their early home life, so meagre and devoid of interest, they might have breathed pure air all their days.
Not the least among the means of making a home attractive would be a well-maintained fruit garden. The heart and the stomach have been found nearer together by the metaphysicians than the physiologists, and if the "house-mother," as the Germans say, beamed often at her children over a great dish of berries flanked by a pitcher of unskimmed milk, not only good blood and good feeling would be developed, but something that the poets call "early ties."
There is one form of gambling or speculation that, within proper limits, is entirely innocent and healthful—the raising of new seedling fruits and the testing of new varieties. In these pursuits the elements of chance, skill, and judgment enter so evenly that they are an unfailing source of pleasurable excitement. The catalogues of plant, tree, and seed dealers abound in novelties. The majority of them cannot endure the test of being grown by the side of our well-known standard kinds, but now and then an exceedingly valuable variety, remarkable for certain qualities or peculiarly adapted to special localities and uses, is developed. There is not only an unfailing pleasure in making these discoveries, but often a large profit. If, three or four years ago, a country boy had bought a dozen Sharpless strawberry plants, and propagated from them, he might now obtain several hundred dollars from their increased numbers. Time only can show whether this novelty will become a standard variety, but at present the plants are in great demand.
The young people of a country home may become deeply interested in originating new seedlings. A thousand strawberry seeds will produce a thousand new kinds, and, although the prospects are that none of them will equal those now in favor, something very fine and superior may be obtained. Be this as it may, if these simple natural interests prevent boys and girls from being drawn into the maelstrom of city life until character is formed, each plant will have a value beyond silver or gold.
One of the supreme rewards of human endeavor is a true home, and surely it is as stupid as it is wrong to neglect some of the simplest and yet most effectual means of securing this crown of earthly life. A home is the product of many and varied causes, but I have yet to see the man who will deny that delicious small fruits for eight months of the year, and the richer pleasure even of cultivating and gathering them, may become one of the chief contributions to this result. I use the words "eight months" advisedly, for even now, January 29, we are enjoying grapes that were buried in the ground last October. I suppose my children are very material and unlike the good little people who do not live long, but they place a white mark against the days on which we unearth a jar of grapes.