1889 – My Handkerchief Garden – A City Farmer in the 1800’s
My Handkerchief Garden, 1889
By Barnard, Charles, 1838-1920
New York, Garden Publishing
At last it was found ; a six-room house with a mere handkerchief of a garden, measuring about one-thirtieth of an acre, or about as big as a city back yard. The soil was a wet, heavy clay, full of stones, and shaded by a number of tall trees growing on the next lot. In March, 1887, we moved to the place, and on the twenty-first we paid twenty-five cents for one ounce of Tennis Ball Lettuce seed. So it was the scrap of a garden began, and thereon does hang the more or less learned remarks that make this book.
A seed is potential wealth — bran new wealth that does not
exist, but waits the partnership of nature and the
gardener. Seeds are about the cheapest thing in the
world. At wholesale a cent will buy a hundred seeds
of lettuce. An acre of ground, if managed by a
man who knows his trade, will produce in one season
40,000 heads of lettuce. New York will calmly
eat every head at three cents each and cry for more.
You would probably pay at the store five cents a
head or $2,000 for the lot.
A garden is a good place to bury headaches. That settled the matter, and I decided to use all the available land for a flower and kitchen garden. There were two other reasons, beside the sanitary advantage, for having a garden. In suburban towns and villages the rent is for the house, and the lot of land on which it stands is practically thrown in free. It costs no more to have the house without the land than with it, for as soon as the land becomes too valuable, the houses cover all the land as in a city. If the land is used for a garden it will make a solid financial return, while a lawn pays nothing beyond the doubtful value
of looking pretty from the road.
Our table was supplied with vegetables for over four months, so
that no purchases (except one quart of onions) were
made at the stores for this time. Besides this, notwithstanding
a rather poor season, the vegetables were of a far better quality than could be purchased anywhere. As an illustration of this I may confess without a blush that I ate nine cucumbers a day for several weeks in entire safety and complete satisfaction. To buy so many for one person would demand considerable moral courage, not alone for the price,
but from the doubtful character of cucumbers two days old. Mine often reached the breakfast table in less time that it took to make the coffee — hence their beautiful innocence.
Suppose your garden is the usual city back yard, 25 feet wide and 60 feet long. Out of this bit of ground you must wring in one season all it is capable of producing. The ground must be stuffed with plants – not a foot, not an inch being wasted.
Such an arrangement of a city yard would give
three borders, one 6×25, and two, each 4×48 = 534
square feet. If the wash “is sent out,” more space
could be gained by making the two side borders each
two feet wider. It would not be well to make them
wider than this, as six feet is about as far as you can
conveniently reach with a hoe or rake while standing
on the grass. Many city yards that I have seen in
New York are arranged in this way, except that there
is a stone-covered walk eighteen inches wide around
the grass plot, and leaving a very narrow border,
often only a foot and a half wide, next the fence or
three sides. Such a walk is a waste of room, for the
grass plot can be used for a walk at a wonderful gain
in comfort. No man has yet invented a carpet equal
to grass for feet weary of city side-walks.
Did the home lot pay? Was the return sufficient
for the labor? It was, and the garden did pay, because
the time spent on it was odd time not available
for other work. Besides this, the work was a pleasure
and a sanitary measure, paying a big dividend in red
blood, sound sleep, a good appetite and a cheerful
spirit. If you have ever been sick and paid doctor’s
bills you will know just what these things are worth
in hard cash. The cost in money was $14.64 and
about thirty days’ labor between March and November.
The entire return, including new stock valued
at $15, was $69.79. Taking cash spent from this leaves
$55.15, or about $1.80 for each day’s labor spent in
the garden. Of course if the labor had all been hired
at the regular rate here of $2 the garden would have
been carried on at a loss.
If you consider health, fresh and superior vegetable food
worth anything, then a home lot will pay you, as it
did me, big dividends. For the great majority of
families, particularly where there are young people
who can help out-of-doors, a home lot will make just
the difference between profit and loss, between money
in the savings bank and unpaid bills at the stores.
The home lot is the one reliable asset in your little
property that will neither fail, fly away to Canada
nor pass its dividends—the one partnership in which
you will always hold a controlling interest.