I CANNOT HELP noticing that some people who have progressive notions about gardening are a trifle insane.
Increasingly, the "leave-it-to-God" school favors a loose, easy approach to weeds, and you can hear nowadays of the beauty of weed gardens, and of meadows, and of the "natural" way to garden, and it all sounds idyllic.
And it is true that a field of weeds can look fresh and good, and as for a meadow, that is a good thing, too, with or without cows.
But nature will mock the fool who supposes that "her way is the right way," because it is nothing of the sort.
Much can be done with mulches, much can be done by growing things that do well in one's climate and soil, and which flourish with the amount of labor one intends to give.
If that were all that was meant by the innocents, all would be well. But the notion of the "natural way" has gone farther, so that only the other day someone told me the right way to grow lettuce was to just sprinkle the seeds and forget it.
This sort of notion - that weeds do no harm, etc. - leads to disappointment. Lettuce will not grow - none that I ever planted - with plantains, orchard grass, goose grass, nut grass and so on through the hearty list of vitamin-packed weeds.
Nature's way is to cover the earth insofar as possible, and if you leave a garden alone you will soon have not merely the tangle of grass that requires a mattock to budge, but also a young forest of mulberries, altheas, elms, maples, oaks, dogwoods, poison ivy, honeysuckle and sumac.
Your chances of growing anything at all in the way of lilies, daffodils, peonies, chrysanthemums and so on are exactly zero, in such a field.
In trying to decide charitably how the notion of "leave it alone" got started. I think I now know. It springs from one season of inexperience, and it is true to a deceptive extent:
If land is ploughed or deeply dug in cold weather and planted with zucchini in the warm spring, then of course there will not be much weeding necessary in the summer, since the zucchini will shade out the weeds, and the happy and ignorant gardener may well say there is no problem from weeds and behold how easy it all is.
Even cotton - a crop that likes high living in the field - is not chopped after early July, and the weeds that come along do no great harm.
But surely everybody already knew that farmers do not go out every morning and scratch their acres with a hand cultivator.
The problem arises in the city garden (or country garden, for that matter) where something more than corn or cotton is attempted, and where the earth is not going to be ploughed in winter.
The yews and junipers, magnolias and camellias of gardens are permanent residents, or at least one may hope they will be, and the earth around them is undisturbed for years.
Nature, with her busybody ways, is not content to leave a box hedge or a yew screen alone, not at all. Pernicious grasses sprout, innocent enough the first year but almost immovable in the third. Birds dream of jungles and plant them in every shrub. Young trees like dogwoods spring up, and must be grubbed out gingerly without disturbing the young magnolias or hollies of the garden. How often the gardener wishes he could plough; there would be no problem then.
In a desert, weeds and trees do not take over, and in a climax forest, the result of some centuries of death as well as life, there is no such thing as a weed or sumac problem.
The trouble is that one does not aim for either type landscape in the small garden. Nature knows best, no doubt, but nature does not know, or care, what the gardener wants. In the long run, I have no objection to either a climax forest or a desert on the land that was once pine, but in my time, at least, it is going to bear a heavy mantle of the things I love, and to hell with nature's fondness for mulberries and altheas.
My irises see things precisely as I do.
No garden in the world is anything but transitory. How shocking is the ignorance of those who think any garden is very old. Sometimes people return from England and say (among the follies they have collected) that there one can see in perfection very old gardens. But there is hardly a garden in England that dates in its beauty from so far back as the regime of Chester Arthur.
Even the ones with Tudor stone-work, even the ones with old beeches, are merely graced and studded with occasional veterans, but the lovely borders, the drifts of gentians, the margins of gentle lakes, the flagstones with the arenarias in them, the immemorial China roses tangled with lavender - all these features rarely go more than 12 weeks without human labor.
The little avenue of lime trees, the thicket planted with primroses, the paving alive with sternbergias - these never last more than a few years, and all those years are full of sweat.
It is a question, of course, whether certain garden effects are worth the labor, and many, we think, are not. It depends on the gardener.
Rock gardens, iris beds, hybrid tea roses, delphinium borders and brick walks set on sand are among the numerous garden features unsuited to those who have no aptitude for slavery.
If, however, the gardener is mad for alpines and resigned to a great deal of grubbing about while balanced on a loose cobble, there is no reason not to have them.
But the notion that anything at all, even an avenue of old oaks, can just be left alone year after year, is great folly. Nature herself, as I say, will soon mock the one who fails to understand her abandoned ways, or who fails to tell her, "so far and no further."
All joy must rest, it is said, at last on clarity and sense, on observation and experience. On nature, if you please. In gardening no joy ever was founded on blood chemicals or good digestion. Nature on whom all things depend must be observed, not merely gushed at.
There will be gardens, and men sweating and cursing in them, with time off for awe and alleluia, forever. Long after idiots who think beauty is easy have turned to economics or politics or some other field more congenial to balderdash, less bound to springs of life.