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Soaking up gardening history on the last warm days of autumn

Soaking up gardening history on the last warm days of autumn

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“November is a hearth fire and apple cider and pumpkin pie with plenty of spice,” wrote Hal Borland in 1946. It holds true today and though we are a little south of Borland’s farm in the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut, the sweet smell of wood smoke wafts across our neighborhood on the autumn air. It is a good time to slow down and enjoy the peace of the season and the last of good days for the screened porch.

I have a collection of old seed catalogs, almanacs and gardening magazines dating from the 1850s to 1950s that satisfy my curiosity about gardening in earlier days and inspire my own gardening efforts — pitiful as they may be. They offer insight on the evolution of gardens and plant choices, as well as an occasional glimpse into the personalities of gardeners of old. I am especially interested in the native plants offered by nurseries of old. I share some of those with you here:

Jung’s Quality Seeds, printed in 1934, suggested Japanese Kudzu Vine. It is not a native, of course, and was described as “one of the fastest climbers having beautiful flowers like a wisteria but larger. The foliage is very luxuriant and where quick shade is wanted, this plant will prove of great value …” No exaggerated advertising there! A packet of seeds was 8 cents.

Jung’s also sold Stokesia laevis, Stoke’s Aster as a “beautiful hardy plant that will do well in any sunny position.” The seeds for this native were also offered for 8 cents per packet.

Kellog’s Garden Beauty Book of 1934 offered six Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens) plants for $1 each. These plants are native and reach up to 3 feet tall with attractive white flowers through the summer.

Success with Flowers, 1899, had a good article on sedums which are “always favorites with those who can see beauty in symmetry and exquisite nearness.” Sedum ternatum, or Woodland Stonecrop, grows all around us, making a care-free ground cover in sun or shade. It grows just a couple of inches tall, spreads easily but not aggressively, and can be trimmed back if it gets out of bounds.

Dreer’s Garden Calendar, 1874, offered from its 160-page pamphlet:

  • Lobelias (blue; likely L. siphilitica, Great Blue Lobelia) six for $1.50.
  • Stonecrop (sedum species), “neat little succulent plants for edging, rock work and rustic baskets. 25 cents each.
  • Fringe Tree, Chionanthus virginicus “adds materially to the beauty of the garden, furnishing a supply of fragrant flowers in spring.” $1 each.
  • Trumpet creeper, Bignonia radicans, a native climbing plant with large trumpet shaped flowers of reddish-orange. 25 cents each.

The Mayflower, November 1900, is a gardening magazine rather than a nursery catalog, with interesting articles and notes from readers. One gentleman, unnamed, advocated treating hawks with respect and admiration for their value to gardeners and farmers. His plea was that “even if a farmer loses a dozen chickens every year from the raids of this bird he has gained 10 times their value by the large number of destructive mice, snakes, frogs and insects which hawks destroy.”

Park’s Floral Magazine, 1906, included a note from Lizzie Mowen of Allen County, Ohio: “Ancient people had their Tutelary Trees just as they had their Tutelary Gods — the former being the altars and shrines of the latter. Among the Scandinavians the ash tree was held to be the most sacred tree. Serpents, according to their belief, dared not approach it. Hence the women left their children with entire confidence under its shade while they went on with their harvesting.”

Vick’s Magazine, 1891, a magazine of “literature, flower culture, and home interests” offers these tidbits from readers:

  • “Steep your lamp wicks in strong vinegar, dry them thoroughly, and they will not smoke but give better light.”
  • “Cross people do not live in sunny houses.”
  • “Married man desires to exchange a pair of wristers (knitted wrist warmers) for a glass of beer.”

Another item that caught my attention, this time from an old Farmers' Almanac, had advice for predicting weather for the coming winter — goose bone forecasting. It seems not too many years ago people who served goose at Thanksgiving saved the breastbone for weather forecasting. Once dried, the bone was examined for color: a light appearance at the front of the bone meant a mild winter; purple at the tips was a sign of a long winter; a bit of blue along the edge of the bone meant few storms until the new year, and a bone that was dark or blue all over foretold a severe winter ahead.

A little more searching provided an explanation, though I don’t know if it is any more accurate than goose bone forecasting: a dark color to the bone is an indication that the goose absorbed a lot of oil in its diet, which offered the goose some protection from the cold.

One more oddity I read while perusing one of Thoreau’s books: ground cracking. I know about rock-cracking, an interesting subject, so the mention of ground cracking caught my attention. We have all seen ground cracks, usually in dry summer weather. But the ground cracking of Thoreau and others is associated with freezing weather and causes a loud booming sound … loud enough to awaken a friend of Thoreau in the middle of the night.

Thoreau’s friend claimed to have seen a “crack running across the plain almost broad enough to put his hand into.” That was an exaggeration, but Thoreau did observe “a great many narrow cracks running across the road and also by our house in Concord the same day when I got home.”

According to scientists, ground cracking, or frost quakes, happen when rain penetrates the soil and freezes as the temperature drops. The frozen water expands, putting stress on the soil. If you think about water freezing in a bottle in the freezer, which bursts from the pressure, you get the idea. Enough energy is built up in the soil that when released it happens rapidly, causing a loud sound in much the same way as happens with an earthquake. In Canada, people have reported what they described as sonic booms coming from beneath the freezing ground.

I do not know if we get enough rapid freezing in our area to cause this phenomenon, but it may happen in the mountains.

Wishing each of you healthy, happy and peaceful holidays.

Kathy Schlosser is an author, lecturer, naturalist and conservationist. Kathy welcomes your comments and questions at kathyschlosser@triad.rr.com or 336-855-8022.

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