Vanity Fair, June 1916
A TIMELY CHAT ABOUT GARDENS
Showing How Easily the Tired City Man May Cultivate a Little Plot on the Roof
By P. Brooke-Haven
SUMMER is here. (If I had been writing a lyric for musical comedy I should have added the words Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, but in a serious and technical article these would, of course, be out of place.) Summer is here. All over the city wives are dragging husbands away from the shop-windows, where they would fain linger and gaze at straw hats. The open cars are with us. Soon the policeman on the corner will be shedding his winter plumage like a snake—or rather a bird. Six million people are preparing to utter the words, “Is it hot enough for you?” The Ice Trust is wondering how high it will be able to raise its prices this time. Eight clubs are proclaiming that they have the National League pennant cinched. And—this is what I have been working round to all the time, though you did not know it—the thought of the garden is uppermost in every mind.
The garden! What music there is in the word. We all love some kind of a garden, whether it be a Dutch, an Italian, a suburban, a Madison Square, a roof, a Winter or a Mary. Every editor knows that at this season of the year the safest card he can play is an article on “Growing Young and Beautiful in My Onion Bed,” “How I Make My Half Acre Support My Little Ones,” “Beets, Radishes and Happiness,” or some kindred subject. There is no surer way to the heart of the great public than by dragging in something about a garden. George M. Cohan laid the foundations of his substantial fortune by waving the American flag at selected moments of his dramas. If he had waved a lawn-mower or a tomato plant, the audiences would be cheering still.
OF all kinds of gardens, I think the one that appeals to me least is that of the rich man. It produces little but photographs in the Sunday papers, and I resent the substitution of a page of views of the Long Island estate of G. Whatawad for the page of photographs of chorus girls which I have come to look upon as a Sabbath necessity. There is a grim amusement to be derived from the sight of these photographs, for one knows perfectly well that, however beautiful the garden may be, G. Whatawad himself, though paying the ruinous bills, is not permitted to get any satisfaction out of it. He may be a superman in his office, but in his garden he is a mere worm, trembling before the autocrat imported at enormous expense from Scotland to look after it, not daring to pluck a flower, and knowing that if he so much as sets foot on the five-hundred-year-old turf, imported at enormous expense from England, bang goes his chance of retaining the services of Angus MacGregor. The best he can do is to sit in the marble temple imported at enormous expense from Italy; and even there his pleasure is spoiled by the fact that he may not drop ashes on the floor. A miserable life for a garden lover!
O, poverty, where is thy sting?
FAR better is the lot of the humble commuter. There is a man who gets the most out of life. In him the tending of a garden fosters all the virtues, from patience to preparedness. To see such a one dealing with an invasion of slugs is to know that the heart of the country is sound and that the problem of national defence may be looked upon as settled. I should not care to be a member of an invading army faced by a horde of commuters roused to the defence of their gardens. A forty-two centimetre gun may be all very well in its way, a tolerably serviceable minor league weapon, but what chance would it have against a few earnest commuters armed with rakes and garden hoses? Anyone who has ever seen the owner of a garden making a frontal attack on a chicken which has been scratching his young lettuces shudders when he thinks what would happen to an alien army which proposed to come and trample all over the place with heavy military boots. An hour after such troops landed you would only be able to use them as fertilizer.
Heaven, according to one school of theology, is a place where things come up looking like the pictures on the cover of the seed-catalogues. It is true that in this world there is an element of uncertainty; and therein lies perhaps the only objection to the garden as cultivated by the majority of Americans.
A TIP FOR GARDEN LOUNGERS
As the new gardens are all being decorated by “modernist” or “futurist” types of statuary, people should be careful to choose a point somewhat removed from these new art statue-busts. For instance, gaze upon these busts of Hermes and Diana. No, those legs and arms are not a part of the god and goddess. They belong to Clarence and Muriel, a pair of plighted lovers.
TO the metropolitan reader, of course, it is the roof variety of garden which makes the greatest appeal. Of the rich man’s garden and the suburban garden he knows only by hearsay, but every summer he can see the roof garden blooming all around him. I have been fortunate enough to induce Mr. Isadore Reigelheimer, perhaps the most successful of all operators in this line, to talk for publication on the subject of his hobby. So successful has Mr. Reigelheimer been that he is now able to charge visitors no less than two dollars for the privilege of entering his garden, exclusive of the ransom of their hats.
“I think,” said Mr. Reigelheimer, thoughtfully fingering the priceless diamond that illumines his shirt-front like a searchlight, “that there must be something peculiar about the soil of a roof-garden, for I have found no difficulty in producing peaches in mid-winter and asparagus during the months when the sight of asparagus has the effect of being an optical delusion. In fact, you may say that there is no fruit, however exotic, which cannot be grown on my estate. Lemons have been plucked there all the year round. I think the fact that I rely on artificial light may have something to do with it.”
I was privileged to inspect Mr. Reigelheimer’s garden in the company of its proprietor, and it was pretty to watch the enthusiasm with which he pointed out its varied attractions. The air, as we strolled through this wonderful pleasaunce, was heavy with a hundred perfumes, and full of the strange, haunting music of a New York summer night. The shrill note of the cabaret artist calling to her mate sounded intermittently as we walked, blending tunefully with the low plunk-plunk-plunk of the black banjoist, perched on some near-by eminence. In the depth of the foliage could be heard the incessant chattering of wakeful night-birds. The Ukulele bird was chirping on a distant knoll.
“Ain’t Nature wonderful?” murmured my host reverently, pausing before a superb specimen of the Chorine Broadwayensis, which sprang from a rustic table close at hand and twined itself about a sturdy Diamond Jim Splendidus like some rare Brazilian orchid round a sturdy oak.
HE was indeed right. As far as the eye could reach the garden was a glittering mass of many-colored flowers. incessantly sprinkled with vintage champagnes by the assiduous gardeners. A necessary precaution, my host informed me, for without this attention they were apt to wilt and wither. How right he was I could see for myself, for before my very eyes there took place the restoration of a magnificent night-blooming tango worm which had been neglected and seemed on the point of death. Scarcely had the gardener ministered to this shrub when it was in full bloom once more, revived as if by magic.
Such is a typical roof-garden. It is the nearest thing to Paradise that you can expect—for two dollars. Maud, if in funds, would hardly have hesitated even for an instant had she been invited to come into such a garden as Mr. Reigelheimer’s. Incidentally, the tango worm is the most dangerous of all garden pests. The kind with the pomaded hair being particularly hard to suppress.
P. Brooke-Haven is one of the many names that P. G. Wodehouse used in the 1910s when he wrote several articles each month for Vanity Fair. After Wodehouse’s marriage in September 1914, he and Ethel took a house at Bellport, Long Island, New York, a hamlet within the town limits of Brookhaven.