1930s

Two books by Richardson Wright

Two Old Gardening Books and Mr. Grahame’s Little Joke

Specifically, The Gardener’s Bed-Book and The Gardener’s Day Book, both by Richardson Wright (1887-1961), originally published in 1929 and 1938 respectively, the decade between the stock market crash and the start of World War II. Like many books about gardening, they are based on the calendar, with a short essay for every day of the year and a longer one at the end of each month. They reminded me of blog posts. I found myself wanting to press a “Like” button and write comments!

Most of the essays, as expected, are about gardening. Each one is followed by a timely tip, such as when to order seeds, plants, or bulbs, and dates by which various tasks should be done. The basics of gardening haven’t changed that much in centuries, so I could relate to Wright’s thoughts about different plants and musings on gardening as pastime and passion. Despite being written almost a century ago, many of the daily tips are surprisingly apt. I’ll have to pay more attention to some of them.

It’s a different story when it comes to pest control. The differences between then and now are substantial. Toxic chemicals were all the rage then, such as Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime), Semesan (organomercury compounds), and Black Leaf 40 (nicotine sulphate). Next to advice to apply arsenate of lead to cabbages was a pencilled note — “Good Lord!” — I must have made the first time I read the book.

Wright’s attitudes and phraseology are of their time, and a few of his remarks are offensive by today’s standards, but there aren’t enough of those to make the book a complete turn-off. Some of his observations on “modern society,” like outrageously fast speeds on highways, seem a bit quaint. One essay includes an observation that Americans drink standing up rather than sitting down, gulping rather than sipping. He associates this habit with early death and suggests sitting down and savouring wine or beer. This sounds a lot like the recent “slow food” trend. The pleasures of food and wine are mentioned regularly, and there are even a few recipes.

I was amused by instructions such as “Check up on the the gardener to see if he has sharpened all edge tools,” and references to a “lawn boy.” Clearly, Wright was among the privileged folks who lived well during the Depression, although he could not afford to install a swimming pool due to “the wind that blew down Wall Street.” Frequent references to hot beds and cold frames made me wonder if these have been replaced by greenhouses, polytunnels, and similar structures.

I haven’t been able to find out much more about Richardson Wright besides his role as editor of House and Garden magazine. He appears to have been a respected figure, both as a promoter of gardening and as a writer, but as yet lacks a Wikipedia entry. In the preface to the Bed-Book, Allen Lacy describes him as “…a congenial soul with a good sense of humor and a well-furnished mind and the manners of a gentleman…” Wright’s garden was in the Silvermine area of Connecticut, a place he called “Sun House.” It must have been quite large, with space for luxuries such as nursery beds and those desirable features of great gardens, stone walls.

Dipping into these books is rather like a visit to a past time. Not that far back, though. I was surprised to read that cars had radios in the 1930s, and it appears that a certain type of book was called a “murder mystery” even in that pre-World War II era. Altogether, Mr. Wright’s books provided a pleasant and interesting diversion, just as they were intended to do almost a century ago.

I can’t remember when or where I bought these books. They’re reprints, not originals, published in 1989. A price of $23.95 appears on the jackets, but I don’t think I would have paid that much, so they probably came from a used bookstore. I recently rediscovered them with considerable delight. They’re chunky little books, about seven inches tall by five wide and more than an inch thick, a comfortable size for the bedside table.

Spines of two books by Richardson Wright

A Light-Bulb Moment

In the Day Book, Mr. Wright’s advice for March 30th is “Roll and rake the lawn.” This got me wondering why anyone would do that (aside from preparing an area for seeding a new lawn). Surely it’s the opposite of aerating, which one is now advised to do, with machines that remove small cores of soil and presumably let in air. Might frost-heaved areas need rolling? Or maybe mole runs? Indeed, on April 13th, one is advised to oil the mole traps. I’ve never lived in a place with moles, so have no experience of their activities.

Then I remembered something from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a favourite book of mine in past years. In the chapter titled “Dulce Domum,” Mole remembers the old home from which he departed in the middle of spring cleaning to seek wider horizons. When he and Rat revisit the place months later, Rat has a job of it to convince Mole that it’s really a nice little house and not a shabby, decrepit dump. Anyway, it seems Mole owns a lawn roller, because he doesn’t care for “animals” kicking up his lawn into little mounds. It’s taken me almost 60 years to discover and appreciate that little joke on Mr. Grahame’s part.

The garden roller at Hoveton Hall gardens, Hoveton, Norfolk
“A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other, a roller; for the Mole … could not stand having his ground kicked up by other animals into little runs that ended in earth-heaps.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Northmetpit dedicated to the public domain.)