Sunday, June 24, 2012


I've culled down my collection of books, but one I'd never let go of is An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

The island she refers to is Appledore, one of the Isles of Shoals that shimmer six miles off the New Hampshire coast where I was raised. As kids, of a summer weekend the old man would say, "Who wants to go for a ride?" and we'll all shout, "I do, I do!" for a ride meant a ride "down to the beach," and north along the coast, and to Nana's house in Rye where we'd scoot across Ocean Boulevard, splash in the tide pools, and whip ropes of seaweed around our heads like lariats. We judged the clearness of the day by the visibility of the Isles of Shoals, a Shangri-La which always appeared to hover slightly above the water.

Celia grew up on the islands, where her father was a lighthouse keeper, and became hostess of his hotel, the Appledore House. Here she met and befriended the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the painters William Morris Hunt, and Childe Hassam, who did the watercolors for An Island Garden. There were tragedies on the Isles: an infamous murder on Smuttynose; the death (possibly a suicide) of the painter William Morris Hunt after a long depression; an emotionally distant marriage. Celia herself would die "a sudden death" at 59, mere months after the publication of this book, on the island she loved.

One of the supreme joys of her life was the garden she cultivated over the years near her house on Appledore. In minute detail, she describes bringing the seedlings over by boat each early spring from Portsmouth, the planning, the planting, the insect depredations, the salt spray and early morning dew, the picking, snipping, and arranging of the flowers.

You don't have to be a gardener to understand and to be moved by what drove her.

We visited the Isles of Shoals a couple of times when I was a kid, but even then I preferred to view them from afar, and now to remember them through this ageless book.



OF all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and result thereof. Take a Poppy seed, for instance: it lies in your palm, the merest atom of matter, hardly visible, a speck, a pin's point in bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description.

The Genie in the Arabian tale is not half so astonishing. In this tiny casket lie folded roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, seed-vessels,--surpassing color and beautiful form, all that goes to make up a plant which is as gigantic in proportion to the bounds that confine it as the Oak is to the acorn. You may watch this marvel from beginning to end in a few weeks' time, and if you realize how great a marvel it is, you can but be lost in "wonder, love, and praise." All seeds are most interesting, whether winged like the Dandelion and Thistle, to fly on every breeze afar; or barbed to catch in the wool of cattle or the garments of men, to be borne away and spread in all directions over the land; or feathered like the little polished silvery shuttlecocks of the Cornflower, to whirl in the wind abroad and settle presently, point downward, into the hospitable ground; or oared like the Maple, to row out upon the viewless tides of the air. But if I were to pause on the threshold of the year to consider the miracles of seeds alone, I should never, I fear, reach my garden plot at all!

Small shallow wooden boxes are ready, filled with mellow earth (of which I am always careful to lay in a supply before the ground freezes in the autumn), sifted and made damp; into it the precious seeds are dropped with a loving hand. The Pansy seeds lie like grains of gold on the dark soil. I think as I look at them of the splendors of imperial purples folded within them, of their gold and blue and bronze, of all the myriad combinations of superb color in their rich velvets. Each one of these small golden grains means such a wealth of beauty and delight! Then the thin flake-like brown seeds of the annual Stocks or Gillyflowers; one little square of paper holds the white Princess Alice variety, so many thick double spikes of fragrant snow lie hidden in each thin dry flake! Another paper holds the pale rose-color, another the delicate lilacs, or deep purples, or shrimp pinks, or vivid crimsons,--all are dropped on the earth, lightly covered, gently pressed down; then sprinkled and set in a warm place, they are left to germinate. Next I come to the single Dahlia seeds, rough, dry, misshapen husks, that, being planted thus early, will blossom by the last of June, unfolding their large rich stars in great abundance till frost. They blossom in every variety of color except blue; all shades of red from faint rose to black maroon, and all are gold-centred. They are every shade of yellow from
sulphur to flame,--king's flowers, I call them, stately and splendid. All these and many more are planted. For those that do not bear transplanting I prepare other quarters, half filling shallow boxes with sand, into which I set rows of egg-shells close together, each shell cut off at one end, with a hole for drainage at the bottom. These are filled with earth, and in them the seeds of the lovely yellow, white, and orange Iceland Poppies are sowed. By and by, when comes the happy time for setting them out in the garden beds, the shell can be broken away from the oval ball of earth that holds their roots without disturbing them, and they are transplanted almost without knowing it. It is curious how differently certain plants feel about this matter of transplanting. The more you move a Pansy about the better it seems to like it, and many annuals grow all the better for one transplanting; but to a Poppy it means death, unless it is done in some such careful way as I have described.

Like the musician, the painter, the poet, and the rest, the true lover of flowers is born, not made. And he is born to happiness in this vale of tears, to a certain amount of the purest joy that earth can give her children, joy that is tranquil, innocent, uplifting, unfailing. Given a little patch of ground, with time to take care of it, with tools to work it and seeds to plant in it, he has all he needs, and Nature with her dews and suns and showers and sweet airs gives him her aid. But he soon learns that it is not only liberty of which eternal vigilance is the price; the saying applies quite as truly to the culture of flowers, for the name of their enemies is legion, and they must be fought early and late, day and night, without cessation. The cutworm, the wire-worm, the pansy-worm, the thrip, the rose-beetle, the aphis, the mildew, and many more, but worst of all the loathsome slug, a slimy, shapeless creature that devours every fair and exquisite thing in the garden,--the flower lover must seek all these with unflagging energy, and if possible exterminate the whole. So only may he and his precious flowers purchase peace. Manifold are the means of destruction to be employed, for almost every pest requires a different poison. On a closet shelf which I keep especially for them are rows of tin pepper-boxes, each containing a deadly powder, all carefully labeled. For the thrip that eats out the leaves of the Rosebush till they are nothing but fibrous skeletons of woody lace, there is hellebore, to be shaken on the under side of all the leaves,--mark you, the under side, and think of the difficulties involved in the process of so treating hundreds of leaves! For the blue or gray mildew and the orange mildew another box holds powdered sulphur,--this is more easily applied, shaken over the tops of the bushes, but all the leaves must be reached, none neglected at your peril! Still another box contains yellow snuff for the green aphis, but he is almost impossible to manage,--let once his legions get a foothold, good-by to any hope for you! Lime, salt, paris green, cayenne pepper, kerosene emulsion, whale-oil soap, the list of weapons is long indeed, with which one must fight the garden's foes! And it must be done with such judgment, persistence, patience, accuracy, and watchful care! It seems to me the worst of all the plagues is the slug, the snail without a shell...Every night, while the season is yet young, and the precious growths just beginning to make their way upward, feeling their strength, I go at sunset and heap along the edge of the flower beds air-slaked lime, or round certain most valuable plants a [pasteboard] ring of the same,--the slug cannot cross this while it is fresh, but should it be left a day or two it loses its strength, it has no more power to burn, and the enemy may slide over it unharmed, leaving his track of slime. On many a solemn midnight have I stolen from my bed to visit my cherished treasures by the pale glimpses of the moon, that I might be quite sure the protecting rings were still strong enough to save them, for the slug eats by night, he is invisible by day unless it rains or the sky be overcast. He hides under every damp board or in any nook of shade, because the sun is death to him. I use salt for his destruction in the same way as the lime, but it is so dangerous for the plants, I am always afraid of it. Neither of these things must be left about them when they are watered lest the lime or salt sink into the earth in such quantities as to injure the tender roots. I have little cages of fine wire netting which I adjust over some plants, carefully heaping the earth about them to leave no loophole through which the enemy may crawl, and round some of the beds, which are inclosed in strips of wood, boxed, to hold the earth in place, long shallow troughs of wood are nailed and filled with salt to keep off the pests. Nothing that human ingenuity can suggest do I leave untried to save my beloved flowers! Every evening at sunset I pile lime and salt about my pets, and every morning remove it before I sprinkle them at sunrise. The salt dissolves of itself in the humid sea air and in the dew, so around those for whose safety I am most solicitous I lay rings of pasteboard on which to heap it, to be certain of doing the plants no harm. Judge, reader, whether all this requires strength, patience, perseverance, hope! It is hard work beyond a doubt, but I do not grudge it, for great is my reward. Before I knew what to do to save my garden from the slugs, I have stood at evening rejoicing over rows of fresh emerald leaves just springing in rich lines along the beds, and woke in the morning to find the whole space stripped of any sign of green, as blank as a board over which a carpenter's plane has passed...

Often I hear people say, "How do you make your plants flourish like this?" as they admire the little flower patch I cultivate in summer, or the window gardens that bloom for me in the winter; "I can never make my plants blossom like this! What is your secret?" And I answer with one word, "Love."


  1. I loved the litany of garden-pest insects in that penultimate snippet of Miss Thaxter's prose! The pansy-worm, the thrip, the aphis, the mildew, forsooth! It's almost like a Christopher Smart poem.

    I've heard the name Sarah Orne Jewett often enough that I should perhaps remedy my ignorance of her work. And of course, Childe Hassam, known and loved by me for his Boston Common at Twilight!

    Thank you, Heather, for such a rich post! A better treat than the ice-cream and espresso I had yesterday afternoon!

  2. Adding this to my Amazon Wishlist -- what lovely prose! Echoes of Thoreau and Henry Beston -- there is something about New England that breeds writing about nature, the woods, and growing things...

  3. Charming illustrations. While unsuccessfully trying to find the book as an e-book I did come across this web page I believe it is complete via that source.

  4. ah Heather, thanks for the refreshing journey :))
    Celia's 'Island Garden' is a treasure on my bookshelf -- and I have an old, water-spotted 'Island Garden Daybook' from which I cut C.Hassam prints to make cards...
    But best of all -- the memories -- I worked at the hotel on Star Island for 4 years in the '70s, and met my beloved husband there :))


  5. I truly appreciate this post. I have been looking all over for this!


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