September 1989

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 20

A Garden in Montacute

I believe I was recurring to the rapidity with which our first winter in the wilds slipped away. We found that when the spring came we were not half prepared to take advantage of it; but armed with the "American Gardener," and quantities of choice seeds received in a box of treasures from home during the previous autumn, we set about making something like a garden. It would seem that in our generous soil this could not be a difficult task; but our experience has taught us quite differently. Besides the eradication of stumps, which is a work of time and labor anywhere, the "grubs" present a most formidable hindrance to all gardening efforts in the "oak-openings." I dare say my reader imagines a "grub" to be a worm, a destructive wretch that spoils peach trees. In Michigan, it is quite another affair. Grubs are, in western parlance, the gnarled roots of small trees and shrubs, with which our soil is interlaced in some places almost to a solidity. When these are disturbed by the immense "breaking up" plough, with its three or four yoke of oxen, the surface of the ground wears everywhere the appearance of chevaux-de-frise; and to pile in heaps for burning, such of these serried files as have been fairly loosened by the plough, is a work of much time and labor. And after this is done in the best way, your potagére will still seem to be full of grubs; and it will take two or three years to get rid of these troublesome proofs of the fertility of your soil. But your incipient Eden will afford much of interest and comfort before this work is accomplished, and I sincerely pity those who lack a taste for this primitive source of pleasure.

On the opening day of our first spring, the snow had scarcely disappeared ere the green tops of my early bulbs were peeping above the black soil in which they had been buried on our first arrival; and the interest with which I watched each day's development of these lovely children of the sun, might almost compare with that which I felt in the daily increasing perfection of my six months' old Charlie, whose rosy cheeks alone, could, in my view at least, outblush my splendid double hyacinths.

Whatever of a perennial kind we could procure, we planted at once, without waiting until our garden should be permanently arranged. All that we have since regretted on this point is that we had not made far greater efforts to increase our variety; since one year's time is well worth gaining, where such valuables are in question.

On the subject of flowers, I scarcely dare trust my pen with a word, so sure am I that my enthusiastic love for them would, to most readers, seem absolutely silly or affected. But where the earth produces spontaneously such myriads of splendid specimens, it would seem really ungrateful to spare the little time and pains required for their cultivation. This is a sin which I at least shall avoid; and I lose no opportunity of attempting to inspire my neighbors with some small portion of my love for everything which can be called a flower, whether exotic or home-bred.

The ordinary name with us for a rose is "rosy-flower;" our vase of flowers usually a broken-nosed pitcher, is a "posy pot;" and "yaller lilies" are among the most dearly-prized of all the gifts of Flora. A neighbor after looking approvingly at a glass of splendid tulips, of which I was vain-glorious beyond all justification, asked me if I got "them blossoms out of these here woods." Another cooly broke off a spike of my finest hyacinths, and after putting it to his undiscriminating nose, threw it on the ground with a "pah!" as contemptuous as Hamlet's. But I revenged myself when I set him sniffing at a crown imperial—so we are at quits now.

A lady to whom I offered a cutting of my noble balm geranium, with leaves larger than Charlie's hand, declined the gift, saying, "she never know'd nobody make nothin' by raisin' sich things." One might have enlightened her a little as to their moneyed value, but I held my peace and gave her some sage-seed.

Yet, oddly enough, if anything could be odd in Michigan—there is, within three miles of us, a gardener and florist of no mean rank, and one whose aid can be obtained at any time for some small consideration of "rascal counters;" so that a hot-bed, or even a green-house is within our reach.

I have sometimes thought that there could scarcely be a trade or profession which is not largely represented among the farmers of Michigan, judging from the somewhat extensive portion of the state with which we have become familiar. I was regretting the necessity of a journey to Detroit for the sake of a gold filling; when lo! a dentist at my elbow, with his case of instruments, his gold foil, and his skill, all very much at my service.

Montacute, half-fledged as it is, affords facilities that one could scarcely expect. Besides the blacksmith, the cooper, the chair-maker, the collar-maker, and sundry carpenters and masons, and three stores, there is the mantua-maker for your dresses, the milliner for your bonnets, not mine, the "hen tailor" for your little boy's pantaloons; the plain seamstress, plain enough sometimes, for all the sewing you can't possibly get time for, and "the spinners and the knitters in the sun," or in the chimney-corner, for all your needs in the winter hosiery line. Is one of your guests dependent upon a barber? Mr. Jenkins can shave. Does your husband get too shaggy? Mr. Jenkins cuts hair. Does he demolish his boot upon a grub? Mr. Jenkins is great at a rifacciamento. Does Billy lose his cap in the pond? Mr. Jenkins makes caps comme il y en a peu. Does your bellows get the asthma? Mr. Jenkins is a famous Francis Flute. Then there is Philemon Greenly who has been apprenticed to a baker, and he can make you crackers, baker's bread and round-hearts, the like of which—, but you should get his story. and I certainly can make long digressions, if nothing else. Here I am wandering like another Eve from my dearly beloved garden.

A bed of asparagus—I mean a dozen of them, should be among the very first cares of spring; for you must recollect, as did the Cardinal De Retz at Vincennes, that asparagus takes three years to come to the beginnings of perfection. Ours, seeded down after the Shaker fashion, promise to be invaluable. They grew so nobly the first year that the haulm was almost worth mowing, like the fondly-prized down on the chin of sixteen. Then, what majestic palm-leaf rhubarb, and what egg-plants! Nobody can deny that our soil amply repays whatever trouble we may bestow upon it. Even on the first turning up, it furnished you with all the humbler luxuries in the vegetable way, from the earliest pea to the most delicate cauliflower, and the golden pumpkin, larger than Cinderella's grandmother ever saw in her dreams. Enrich it properly, and you need lack nothing that will grow north of Charlestown.

Melons, which attain a delicious perfection in our rich sandy loam, are no despicable substitute for the peaches of the older world; at least during the six or seven summers which must elapse before the later can be abundant. I advise a prodigious melon-patch.

A fruit sometimes despised elsewhere, is here among the highly-prized treasures of the summer. The whortle-berry of Michigan is a different affair from the little half-starved thing which bears the same name elsewhere. It is of a deep rich blue, something near the size of a rifle bullet, and of a delicious sweetness. The Indians bring in immense quantities slung in panniers or mococks of bark on the sides of their wild-looking ponies; a squaw, with any quantity of papooses, usually riding à l'Espagnole on the ridge between them.

"Schwap? Nappanee?" is the question of the queen of the forest; which means, "Will you exchange, or swap, for flour;" and you take the whortle-berries in whatever vessel you choose, returning the same measured quantity of flour.

The spirit in which the Indians buy and sell is much the same now as in the days of the renowned Wouter Van Twiller, when "the hand of a Dutchman weighed a pound, and his foot two pounds." The largest haunch of venison goes for two fingers, viz. twenty-five cents, and an entire deer for one hand, one dollar. Wild strawberries of rare size and flavor, "schwap-nappanee," which always means equal quantities. A pony, whatever be his age or qualities, two hands held up twice, with the fingers extended, twenty dollars. If you add to the price an old garment, or blanket, or a string of glass beads, the treasure is at once put on and worn with such an air of "look at me." Broadway could hardly exceed it.

The Indians bring in cranberries too; and here again Michigan excels. The wild plum, so little prized elsewhere, is valued where its civilized namesake is unattainable; and the assertion frequently made that "it makes excellent saase" is undeniably true. But grapes! One must see the loads of grapes in order to believe.

The practical conclusion I wish to draw from all this wandering talk is that it is well worth while to make a garden in Michigan. I hope my reader will not be disposed to reply in that terse and forceful style which is cultivated at Montacute, and which has more than once been employed in answer to my enthusiastic lectures on this subject. "Taters grows in the field, and 'taters is good enough for me."

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
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