Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The head-gardener


At the first glimpse, we should feel inclined to pronounce the post of head-gardener at a nobleman’s or other great country mansion, where the gardens were extensive and well-cared for, to be as delightful and healthful a situation as could fall to the lot of any man who has to work for his livelihood. In the first place, his temporal wants would be sufficiently provided for; for he would live rent free in a comfortable house, and he would have an annual income varying from two hundred to a thousand pounds. Then he would have under him a large staff of assistants who would do all the manual labour; he would purchase with his employer’s money everything that was needed for the gardens and green-houses; and all that he would have to do would be to walk about and give orders, and pass his time amid the loveliest flowers and most luscious fruits. On the first glimpse, therefore, such an occupation (more especially during the pleasant days of summer) would seem to offer unalloyed happiness and all that the heart could desire.

For, certainly, no more innocent recreation could be found than occupation in a garden, where we can look through Nature up to Nature’s God, and in the bright flowers see His glorious revelation written over the whole world.

“My God, my garden, and my grave is now all that I have to live for!” was once said by a pious Churchman who had spent a toilsome life and was ready to depart, with Simeon’s prayer upon his lips. In the quiet of his garden there was much to attune his heart to the great change through which he must soon pass; there was much to remind him of that which was written two hundred years ago by Milton’s friend, Andrew Marvell, when he thus addressed his garden,

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear?
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men.
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude
To this delicious solitude.

In his garden he would be surrounded by “floral apostles” (as Horace Smith called them) who could silently preach to him many lessons of truest wisdom; for, in the words of Allan Cunningham,

There is a lesson in each flower,
A story in each stream and bower;
In every herb on which you tread,
Are written words, which, rightly read,
Will lead you from earth’s fragrant sod,
To hope, and holiness, and God.

Indeed, the occupation that is to be found in a garden brings not only health to the body but to the mind also; and where, from the nature of the case, it is impossible to have even the smallest garden space close to one’s own doors, we should encourage the establishment of allotment grounds—those sworn foes to the public-house and gin-shop—where the working-man can profitably and healthfully employ his spare time, benefit himself and family, and be the head-gardener of the household. So salutary is the effect that a garden may produce on the morals, that, in the Eastern suburbs of London, a professional horticulturist has long since adopted the benevolent and praiseworthy scheme of giving employment in his gardens to those young thieves who wish to leave off their sinful course of life and take to honest labour—labour which no one feels disposed to give them, and the lack of which, therefore, throws them back into their old evil ways. This humane person comes to the rescue of these outcasts, and sets them to work in his gardens, where there is no sedentary occupation in a close and stifling atmosphere to repel them at the outset of their undertaking, but where there is plenty of fresh air, labour enough to procure an appetite for meals, sufficient society to be pleasant without being pernicious (for, there are wise rules on this point, to prevent the boys from herding and plotting together and keeping up the contaminations from which they have been rescued) and sufficient freedom to make them feel otherwise than prisoners. After a time of probation satisfactorily passed, they are entrusted upon errands, and sent to pay and receive bills; and there is scarcely an instance in which the trust reposed in them has been found to be misplaced; but, in the majority of cases, the judicious treatment and the gentle delights of the garden have completely humanised the little outcasts, and have fully reclaimed them from those “guilt gardens” in which their early years were passed. And who would not applaud their head-gardener for his truly valuable and Christian work!

But such a head-gardener as this is one of a thousand; although, certainly, every gardener has to deal with little thieves, and two-legged ones too; but they come chiefly in a feathered shape, and claim toll of fruit rather than flowers. With such thieves as these does the head-gardener wage war, coming out to battle, even as the Chinese do, with hideous “mawkins,” and other devices, wherewith to terrify and scare them from his enclosures; and, if these plans do not avail, he is compelled to deal with his enemies in a more summary manner. But, I began by speaking of the situation of a head-gardener at some mansion, hall, or castle, where there are what are commonly called “show gardens.”

Now, suppose yourself to be in the company of such a head-gardener, who is showing you over the spacious grounds entrusted to his care. Throughout the country there are many such gardens belonging to the nobility and landed gentry, to which, on certain days, people are allowed free access, and where many thousands of those whose lot is cast amid the toil and turmoil of great towns have thus the privilege of refreshing their eyes and senses with the floral and other treasures on which so much cost and care have been expended. The grounds over which the head-gardener is taking you are very extensive; and nature has given such a romantic diversity to the situation, and varied it with such beautiful slopes, soft lawns, deep valleys and bold hills, that it must have been a pleasing task to introduce art to give the crowning grace to Nature’s work. This task fell to the care of the head-gardener. His was the brain to plan; his was the experience to carry out the plans; his was the fostering care that crowned those plans with such complete success; and the satisfactory effect of the gardens must, in a great measure, be attributed to his cultivated taste and artistic eye for pleasing combinations of forms and judicious distribution of colours. Woods, lakes, pools, fountains, clumps of trees, single trees, masses of shrubs, all have to be duly arranged for, and, as it were, made to fall into their respective positions in the landscape; and no slight experience or imperfect knowledge of the harmonies of colours could lay out an upland undulating lawn of fifty or a hundred acres, so that the wood and water should be made to assume their most picturesque forms, and a million bright blossoms of every hue be gathered into their proper places. The head-gardener has to look to this, and to take full advantage of the capabilities of the ground; and the result of his labours is a triumph of landscape gardening, creditable alike to his fine taste and practical skill. And, thanks to the kindness of heart and uncommon liberality of the noble owners of such gardens, their beauties are freely shown to thousands of the industrious classes, whose long days of toil amid brick and smoke and steam make a visit to the fresh loveliness of the country a healthy medicine to mind and body.

As we stroll through such gardens as these, and gaze upon the many flower-beds, each, for the most part filled with but one particular kind of flower, but all one blaze of beauty; and, as we admire the undulating ribbon-borders, as they are called, composed of thin lines of flowers, crimson, orange, blue, white, purple, and scarlet, all lying closely one behind the other, and, with their parti-coloured stripes, winding waving lines of floral loveliness between the level spaces of smooth turf and the dark masses of shrubs,—as we feast our eyes upon these glowing colours and rich masses, the head-gardener gives us some little idea of the quantity of bedding-plants that he has used to make this show. They are no less (he says) than one hundred and fifty thousand, and their very lowest cost would be seven thousand pounds; but they have nearly all been raised in the gardens. He also points out to the visitor valuable specimens of the Pine tribe, small plants of which have cost thirty pounds; and also of the Pinus macrocarpa, from the Rocky Mountains, and of the P. nobilis, in his quest for which Mr. Douglas, the collector, met with a more horrible death than could, perhaps, be conceived by the brain of a “sensation” novelist for the destruction of the villain of his romance—the falling into a pit in which wild oxen had been entrapped, who, savage by nature, and maddened by captivity and hunger, fell upon the unfortunate martyr of science and gored him to death.

Who loves a garden, loves a green-house too,

says the poet Cowper; and it is in the green-houses and conservatories that a chief portion of the head-gardener’s labours can receive their due meed of appreciation. Indeed his labour and skill are by no means at an end when the flowers have been raised and brought into bloom; for their effect may be marred by an injudicious arrangement. The “grateful mixtures of well-matched and sorted hues,” is indispensable; and such a labour “asks the touch of taste.” But, when the visitor views the perfected work, he can scarcely help thinking how delightful must be the office of that man whose daily duties are discharged amid all that is so bright and beautiful. And, certainly to one, who on a lovely summer’s day, looks upon the flower-knots, each filled with its own peculiar colour, and scattered like rainbow drops over the wide expanse of velvet lawn—to one who observantly rambles through such gardens, drinking in deep draughts of delight at every step, as the varied beauties of the spot pass before him—its pools and lakes and fountains, its rockeries and statuary, its clumps of giant timber, its stately chestnuts and swarthy copper-beeches, its thickets of rhododendrons and azaleas, its undulating ribbon-borders, its great conservatory crammed with bloom, with climbing plants wreathed around its pillars and girders, and swinging their festoons on high; the orange-house with its living bridal bouquets and golden globes; the green-houses, with their roses and heaths and begonias, and gloxinias, and camellias, and a thousand and one floral attractions; the vineries, and pineries, and peacheries, and orchard houses rich with luscious fruit; and the stoves, hot and damp, and overpoweringly fragrant with the odour of Cape jessamine and delicate exotics, with fairy-like ferns and rare lycopodiums, with water lilies and other aquaria floating in their hot tanks, with dwarf trees and tussock grasses, and prickly cactuses, and strange orchids with their curious blossoms like winged birds, butterflies and insects—to one who gazes with pleased surprise on all these beautiful objects, and sees how

All rare blossoms, from every clime,
Grow in that garden in perfect prime,

and finds everything so successful and complete, so neat and trim and orderly, no dead leaves or parasites, or

Killing insects and gnawing worms,
And things of obscene and unlovely forms,

(such as the lady of The Sensitive Plant would have removed in her basket of Indian woof,) to mar the perfect beauty of the plants—to one who sees this on a lovely summer’s day, the view of a head-gardener’s situation is tinged with a roseate hue. The idea harmonises with the odorous beauties around. To be daily among such an accumulated wealth of loveliness must be a privilege, and the proud possessor of that privilege is a man to be envied.

And, indeed, such an idea is in the main correct; but, a few minutes’ thought will reveal to our minds the various toilsome steps that must be surmounted before the pinnacle of success can be gained. What method, tact and skill must be required to drill so large a number of subordinates, and assign to each their several duties about the fruits and flowers! What care and thought must be bestowed ere those fruits and flowers can come to perfection! How many sleepless toilsome nights must be passed during the wintry frosts and snows, when an hour’s relaxation of vigilance, a single disobedience of orders, or a slight variation in the height of the thermometer, may undo the daily toil of many months. All these, and many other circumstances, combine to render the post of head-gardener at a large establishment, although in many respects an enviable and delightful situation, yet one that is fraught with much care and anxiety, and with great responsibilities. Well did the poet Cowper advise the wealthy to “grudge not the cost” of their gardens; for, said he,

The vigilance, the lYe little know the care,
The vigilance, the labour, and the skill
That day and night are exercised, and hang
Upon the ticklish balance of suspense.
Ten thousand dangers lie in wait to thwart
The process. Heat and cold, and wind, and steam,
Moisture and drought, mice, worms, and swarming flies,
Minute as dust, and numberless, oft work
Dire disappointment, that admits no cure,
And which no care can obviate.

In short, the post of a head-gardener is much the same as any other office where work and skill and responsibility are required; and there are thorns thickly set about the roses of his life, no less than about those that make his gardens so gay. Yet his lot has much in it that begets healthy contentment and innocent thoughts; and his daily occupations amid the lovely creations of God’s hand may aptly suggest to him the reflection contained in that verse of Montgomery,

If God has made this world so fair,
Where sin and death abound,
How beautiful beyond compare
Will Paradise be found!

Cuthbert Bede.