Special Articles

Back to the City!

This is the End of a Perfect (Growing Season

Stephen Leacock October 1 1917
Special Articles

Back to the City!

This is the End of a Perfect (Growing Season

Stephen Leacock October 1 1917

Back to the City!

Special Articles

This is the End of a Perfect (Growing Season

Stephen Leacock

Author of “Further Foolishness,” “Germany from Within,” etc.

I HAVE just come back — now in the third week of September—to the city. I have hung up my hoe in my study, my spade is put away behind the piaho. I have with me seven pounds of Paris Green that I had over. Anybody who wants it may have it I didn’t like to bury it for fear of its poisoning the ground. I didn’t like to throw it away for fear of its destroying cattle. I was afraid to leaVe it in my summer place for fear that it might poison the tramps who generally break in in November. I havo-rt^with me now. I move it from room to room, as 'I hate to turn my back upon it. Anybody who wants it, I repeat, can have it.

I should like also to give away either to the Red Cross or to any thing else, ten

packets of radish seed (the early curled variety, I think), fifteen packets of cucumber seed (the long succulent variety, I believe it says), and twenty packets of onion seed (the Yellow Danvers, distinguished, I understand, for its edible flavor and its nutritious properties). It is not likely that I shall ever, on this side of the grave, plant onion seed again. All these things I have with me.

My vegetables are. to come after me by freight They are booked from Simcoe County to Toronto: at pre6 sent they are, I believe, passing through Schenectady. But they will arrive later all right.

They were seen going through Detroit last week, moving west It is the first time that I ever sent anything by freight anywhere. I never understood before the wonderful organization çf the railroads.

But they tell me that there is a bad congestion of freight down South this month. If my vegetables get tangled up in that there is no felling whenthey will arrive.

T N other words, I am one A of the legion of men— quiet, determined, resolute men —who went out last spring to plant the land, and who are now back.

With me—and I am sure that I speak for all the others as well—it was not a question of mere pleasure; - it was no love of gardening for its own sake that inspired us. It was a plain national duty. What we said to ourselves was: “This war has got to stop. The men in the trenches thus far have failed to stop it. Now let MS try. The whole thing, we argued, is a plain matter of food production.

“If we raise enough food the Germans are bound to starve. Very good. Let us kill them.” .

I suppose there was never a more grimly determined set of men went out from the

cities than those who went out lasti May, as I did, to conquer the food probi« m. I don’t mean to say that each and eve -y one of us actually left the city. But 1 re all ‘went forth” in the metaphorical sense. Some of the men cultivated back gaidens; others took Vacant lots; some weit out into the suburbs; and others, like iqyself, went right out into the country.

We are now back. Each of^ hai with him his Paris Green, his hoe ahd thp rest of his radish seed.

THE time has, therefore, come lor a plain, clear statement of our ^experience. We have, as everybody k lows, failed. We have been beaten back all along the line. Our potatoes are bpried

in a jungle of autumn burdocks, radishes stand seven feet high, unea Our tomatoes, when last seen, were gkeener than they were at the beginnirg of August, and getting greener every ' reek. Our celery looked as delicate as a m; ¿den hair fern. Our Indian corn was nini feet high with a tall feathery spike on t p of that, but no sign of anything eatable about it from top to bottom.

I LOOK ’back with a sigh of regr&t; t at those bright, early days in April i rhen we were all buying hoes, and talking soil and waiting for the snow to be off the ground. The street cars, as we wen t up

and down to our offices were a busy

of garden talk. There was a sor ; of

farmer-like geniality in the air. One spoke freely to strangers. Everyman with a hoe was a friend. Men chewed straws in their offices, and kept looking out of windows to pretend to themselves that they were afraid it might blow up rain. “Got your tomatoes in?” one man .would ask another as they went up in the elevator. “Yes, I got mine in yesterday,” the other would answer, “but I’m just a little afraid that 'this east wind may blow up a little frost. What we need now is growing weather.” And the two men would drift off together frpm the elevator door along the corridor, their. heads together in friendly colloquy.

I have always regarded a lawyer as a man without a soul. There is one who lives next door to me to whom I have not spoken in five years. Yet when I saw him one day last spring heading for the suburbs in a pair of old trousers with a hoe in one hand and a box of celery plants in the other I felt that I loved the man. I used to think that stock brokers were mere sordid calculating machines. Now that I have seen whole firms of them busy at the hoe wearing old trousers that reached to their armpits and were tied about the waist with a polka dot necktie, I know that they are men.

I know that there are warm hearts beating behind those . trousers.

Old trousers, I say. Where on earth did they all come from in such a sudden fashion last spring? Everybody had them.

Wno would suspect that a man drawing a salar/ of ten thousand a year was keeping in reserve a pair of pepper and salt breeches, four sizes too large for him, just in case a war should break out against Germany ! Talk of German mobilization! I doubt whether the organizing x power was all on their side after all. At any rate it is estimated that fifty thousand pairs of old trousers were mobilized in Toronto in one week.

But perhaps it was not a case of mobilization, or deliberate preparedness. It was rather an illustration of the primitives instinct that is in all of us and that will out in “war time.” Any man worth the name would wear old breeches all the time if the world would let him. Any man will wind a polka dot tie round his waist in preference to wearing patent braces. The makers of the ties know, this. That is why they make the tie four feet long. And in the same way if any manufacturer of hats will put on the market an old fedora, with a limp rim and a mark where the ribbon used to be but is not—a hat guaranteed to be six years old, well weathered, well rained on, and certified to have been walked over by a herd of cattle—that man will make and deserve a fortune.

’Thèse at least were the fashions of last May. Alas, where are they now? The me» that wore them have relapsed again into tailor-made twèeds. They have put on hard new hats. They are shining their boots again. They are shaving again, not merely on Saturday night, but every

day. They are sinking back into civilization.

YET those were bright times and I cannot forbear to linger on them. Not the least pleasant feature was our rediscovery of the morning. My neighbor on the right was always up at five. My neighbor on the left was out and about by four. With the earliest light of day little columns of smoke rose along our street from the kitchen ranges where our wives were making coffee for us before the servants got up. By six o’clock the street was alive and busy with friendly salutations. The milkman seemed a late comer, a poor, sluggish fellow who failed to ap-

precíate the early hours of the day. A man, we found, might live through quite a little Iliad of adventure before going to his nine o’clock office.

“How will you possibly get time to put in a garden?” I asked of one of my neighbors during this glad period of early spring just before I left for the country. “Time!” he exclaimed. “Why, my dear fellow, I don’t have to be down at the warehouse till eight-thirty.”

Later in the summer I saw the wreck of his garden, choked with weeds. “Your garden,” I said, ‘Ms in poor shape.” “Garden !” he said indignantly. “How on earth can I find time1 for a garden? Do you realize that I have to be down at the warehouse at eight-thirty?”

WHEN I look back to our bright beginnings our failure seems hard indeed to understand. It is only when 1 survey the whole garden movement in

melancholy retrospect that I am able to see some of the reasons for it.

The principal one, I think, is the question of the season. It appears that the right time to begin gardening is last year. For many things it is well to begin the year before last. For good results one must begin even sooner. Here, for example, are the directions, as I interpret them, for growing asparagus. Having secured a suitable piece of ground, preferably a deep friable loam rich in nitrogen, go out three years ago and plough or dig deeply. Remain a year inactive, thinking. Two years ago pulverize the soil thoroughly. Wait a year. As soon as last year comes set out the young shoots. Then spend a quiet winter doing nothing. The asparagus will .then be ready to work at.this year.

Thi&/is the rock on which we werevwrecked. Few of us were men of sufficient means to spend several years in quiet thought waiting to begin gardening. Yet that is, it seems, the only way to begin. Asparagus demands a preparation of four years. ToTfit oneself to grow strawberries requires three years. Even for such humble things as peas, beans, and lettuce the instructions inevitably read, “plough the soil deeply in the preceding autumn.” This sets up a dilemma. Which is the preceding autumn? If a man begins gardening in the spring he is too late for last autumn and too early for this. On the other hand if he begins in the autumn he is again too late; he has missed this summer’s crop. It is, therefore ridiculous to begin in the autumn and impossible to begin in the spring.

THIS was our first difficulty.

But the second arose from the question of the soil itself. All the books and instructions insist that the selection of the soil is the most important part of gardening. No doubt it is. But if a man has already selected his own back yard before he opens the book, what remedy is there? All the books lay stress on the need of “a deep, friable loam full of nitroThis I have never seen. My own plot of land I found 'on: examination to contain nothing but earth. I -could see no trace of nitrogen/ I do not deny the existence of loam. /There may be such a thing. But I am admitting now in all humility of mind that I don’t know what loam is. Last spring my fellow gardeners and I all talked freely of the desirability of “a loam.” My own opinion is that none of them had any clearer ideas about it than I had. Speaking from experience I should say that the only soils are earth, mud and dirt. There are no others.

But I leave out the soil. In any case we were mostly forced to disregard it. Perhaps^a-'more fruitful source of failure even than the lack of loam was the attempt to apply calculation and mathematics to gardçning. Thus, if one cabbage will grow in one square foot of ground, how many cabbages will grow in ten square feet of ground? Ten? Not

at all. The answer is une. You will find as a matter of practical experience that however many cabbages you plant in a garden plot there will be only -one that will really grow. This you will presently come to speak of as the cabbage. Beside it all the others* (till.the caterpillers finally finish their experience) will look but noor, lean things. But the cabbage will be a source of pride and an object of display to visitors; in fact it would ultimately have grown to be a real cabbage, such as you'buy for ten cents at any market, were it not that you inevitably cut it and eat it when it is still only half-grown.

This always happens to the one cabbage that is of decent size, and to the one tomato that shows signs of turning red (it is really a feeble green-pink), and to the only melon that might have lived to ripen. They get eaten. No one but a practised professional gardener can live and sleep beside a melon three-quarters ripe and a cabbage two-thirds grown without going out and tearing it off the stem.

EVEN at that it is not a bad plan to eat the stuff while you can. The most peculiar thing about gardening is that all of a sudden everything is too old to eat. Radishes change over night from delicate young shoots not large enough to^ put on the table into huge plants seven * feet high with a root like an Irish shillaleh. If you take your eyes off a lettuce bed for a week the lettuces, not ready to eat when you last looked at them, have changèd into a tall jungle of hollyhocks. Green peas are only really green for about two hours. Before that they are young peas; after that they are old peas. Cucumbers are the w’orst case of all. They change overnight from delicate little bulbs obviously too slight and dainty to pick, to old cases of yellow leather filled with seeds.

If I were ever to garden again, a thing

which is out of the bounds of possibility,*1 should wait until a certain day and hour when all the plants were ripe, and then go out with a gun and shoot them all dead, so they could grow no more.'

BU T calculation, I repeat, is the bane of gardening. I knew among our group of food producers, a party of young engineers, college men, who took an empty farm north of Toronto as the scene o f thfir summer operations. They took their coats off and applied college methods. They ran out, first, a base line AB, and measured off from it lateral spurs MN, OP, QR, and so on. From these they took side angles with a theodolite so as to get the edges of each of the separate plots of their land absolutely correct. I saw them working at it all through one Saturday aftern o o n in May. They talked as they did it of the peculiar ignorance of the socalled practical farmer. He never —so they agreed

— uses his head. He never—I think I have their phrase correct — stops to think. In laying out his ground for use, it never occurs to him to try to get the maximum result from a given space. If the man would only realize that the contents of a circle represent the maximum of space enclosable in a given perimeter, and that any one circle is merely a function of its own radius, what a lot of time he would save.

These young men that I speak of laid out their field engineerfashion with little white posts at even distances. They made a blue print of the w'hole thing as they planted it. Every corner of it was charted out. The yield was

calculated to a nicety. They had al owed for the fact that some of the stuff i light fail to grow by introducing what they called “a co-efficient of error.” By r lean* of this and by reducing the variati m of autumn prices to a mathematical ^ >urve those men not only knew already i i the middle of May the exact yield of their farm

to within half a bushel (they allowed, said, a variation of half a bushel per

acres), but they knew before hand mithin a few cents the market value thatthey would receive. The figures, as I rei nember them, were simply amazing. It se ‘med incredible that fifty acres could prodv ce so much. Yet there were the plain facts in front of one, calculated out. The thing amounted practically to a revolutie n in farming. At least itN ought to have. And it would have if those young men had come back again to hoe their field. But it turned out, most unfortunately, that they were busy. To their great *igret they were too busy to come. They had been working under a free and easj arrangement. Each man was to give ’ rhat time he could every ' Saturday. It was left to every man’s honor to do what he could. There was no compulsion. Lach man trusted the others to be there. In fact the thing was not only an experii tent in food production, it was also a new departure in social cooperation. The irst Saturday that those young men wo: ked there were,so I have been told, seve ltyfive of them driving in white stakes and running lines. The next Saturday there

were fifteen of them planting potatoes. The rest were busy. The week after that there was one man hoeing weeds. After that silençe fell upon the deserted garden, broken only by the cry of the chick-a-dee and the choo-choo feeding on the waving heads of the thistles.

Near to these young men in a similar field there operated, I am told, an assembled party of lawyers. They, too, failed. It was their claim that farming is done in too rogue a fashion without a proper understanding of the legal rights of the parties concerned. They organized themselves/ into a corporation. Everything was on a business footing.

The time of those who worked with their hands was rated at fifty cents an

hour and recorded. The time of those who gave advice was counted up at five dollars an hour—the lowest figure, they admitted, at which they could afford to do it. They failed. When the hot spell of weather came in June those who worked with their hands got out an injunction against anybody offering to give advice in the heat to a man working. The corporation ended.

BXJT these are only two or three of the ways of failing at food production. There are ever so many more. What amazes me is, in returning to the city, to find the enormous quantities of produce of all sorts offered for sale in the markets. It is an odd thing that last spring, by a queer oversight, we never

thought, any of us, of this process of increasing the supply. If every patriotic man would simply take a large basket and go to the market every day and buy all that he could carry away there need be no further fear of a food famine.

And, meàntime, my own vegetables are on their way. They are in a soap box with bars across the top, coming by freight. They weigh forty-six pounds, including the box. They represent the result of four months’ arduous toil in sun, wind, and storm. Yet it is pleasant to think that I shall be able to feed with them some poor family of refugees during the rigor of the winter. Either that or feed them to the hens. I certainly won’t eat the rótten things myself.