Green Neighbors: Turn-of-the-(last) Century Gardening

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 10:12:00 AM

Joe gave me an antique garden book as a 36th anniversary present. A true antique, over a century old: The Garden Book of California, by Belle Sumner Angier, 1906, Paul Elder and Company. It does not have an ISBN number, nor does the publisher’s address have a ZIP code.  

Last month I read, somewhere, a question regarding an heirloom watch that was having battery trouble. Heirloom watches have batteries? This Ain’t Right, the way It Ain’t Right to walk into an antique shop and see a display of LPs that you remember having sex to.  

The book does have a few uncut pages, which are a truly tantalizing dilemma: Do I preserve the antique value by leaving them uncut, or do I screw up the soft deckled margin by inexpertly cutting them?  

Similarly, I’m wondering if I ought to try “the best general insecticide I know,” per Ms Angier: hellebore. Apparently it was available as a powder at the turn of the last century.  

She also recommends Bordeaux mixture, tobacco dust, and tobacco tea, still used by some of us; and kerosene emulsion: “One part of slightly sour milk, two parts of kerosene: churn together with a syringe or agitate with an egg-beater until a white jelly shows that the two liquids are united. Use one part of the jelly thus made to eighteen or twenty parts of water and spray thoroughly over every part of your plant.” Yikes.  

On the other hand, Ms Angier also fingers “poisonous gas” as a chief menace to houseplants—“Unhealthy houseplants are a vexation to the spirit”—and recommends ventilation of every house for the sake of its human as well as its plant inhabitants. Remember that this book dates from the trailing edge of the gaslight era; she’s using houseplants as coalmine canaries.  

The book has a strong Southern California flavor: “There is scarcely a day in the year in California when we may not enjoy God’s out-of-doors…” and some carrying-on about sunbathing and the difficulty of keeping greenhouses humid.  

I confess I was surprised to see photos of many huge and clearly at least middle-aged blue-gum eucalyptus, particularly after reading the calendar advice to “sow eucalyptus and cypress seeds, for hedges or street rows…” in boxes in September. You’d think the Spanish had been planting them en masse. Angier likes eucs, no surprise, and interestingly recommends them for roadside planting because they’re tall for their width. Roadside trees (streetside trees are a different chapter) for shade: not something foremost in CalTrans planning in the 21st century, I think.  

Some of Angier’s ideas have come ‘round again, though, if differently expressed: “There are qualities which parents desire to promote in the characters of their children, in the formation of which garden work is of great assistance.” Minus a few syllables, she could be promoting school or community gardens here and now.  

She includes a chapter on native plants, too, and suggests guerilla-planting of California poppies “in the vacant lot across the street.” The least current idea there is the presumed existence of vacant lots.