Gardening in 1870, An Annual Test of Character

Gardening in 1870, An Annual Test of Character

The last frost date is upon us here in southern Wisconsin, and I have officially begun another garden season. Every spring I can’t wait to get out in the garden and by August, I’m wondering what I did with all that spare time I had all winter.

A few months ago, I discovered a free kindle book called My Summer in a Garden. It was written in 1870 and unlike many books from that period, it’s funny. The author had me laughing over his frustrations and perspectives on his vegetable garden. 150 years later, modern gardeners can completely relate to his garden tries from 1870. Here is how he introduces the subject of gardening.

“The principal value of a private garden is not understood.  It is not to give the possessor vegetables or fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy and the higher virtues, hope deferred and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation and sometimes to alienation. The garden thus becomes a moral agent, a test of character, as it was in the beginning.”

I can’t agree with him completely. I have to argue that my garden does give me produce and if not better, it’s definitely cheaper than market gardeners (or farmer’s markets) nowadays. However, along with fruits and vegetables, it definitely provides a healthy dose of character testing and building experiences…

Like last year when I harvested a whopping one sweet potato per plant, only to have them all freeze in my root cellar before I could use any.

Or when Japanese beetles covered my plum tree, threatening my first harvest. I went out three times a day to pick off those nasty things and drown them into a container of soapy water. (But the work paid off, because I got this harvest. And if you’ve never had canned plums, you’ve missed out on a treat!)

Or when the spinach that I hadn’t even started harvesting bolted and went to seed overnight.

Or when I planted hot summer crops, like okra, melons, and peanuts, only to have a record cold, rainy summer. (And you know what happened the years I focused on cool weather crops…)

But there are the surprises that somehow, make up for (most) of the frustrations…

Like one of my first gardens when I apparently sowed carrot seed with a heavy hand and every single one of them grew (this was not the entire harvest)–

Or the year when one potato fed several people–

Or finally, the year my tomato grew a terrific schnoz and a dimple. It was really hard to eat this fellow, let me tell you.

And so it begins, garden season 2021…deferred hopes, tests of character, blighted expectations, here we come!


  1. I had several plans for a garden this year, but due to this happening and that happening, it hasn’t occurred yet. However, I have been working on removing the world’s ugliest bushes in front of my front porch (Honestly, I have wondered at times just how DRUNK the person was who said one day, “Hey, these are HIDEOUS–let’s plant them as hedges in front of the house!). After two years, I am still working on this project, and I am finally seeing the end of my hard work. In the place of aforementioned monstrosities, I will plant several lavender and sage bushes. Also there is a small flower bed just under my bedroom window off the front porch. Once the bush project is done, I will put a cedar box around it and plant mint. I will just let it take over that entire area. I may not get ‘maters and taters’ this year, but I am making progress! Oh, look up a video for a song called Home Grown Tomatoes–I think you will enjoy it!

    1. I looked up the song–so true! (What do they do–or don’t do–to store-bought tomatoes that make them taste so awful???) Give me a vegetable garden any day; it’s my flower beds that are my nemesis–perennials I forgot were coming back, perennials that forgot to come back, weeds that take over my seedlings, it’s a losing battle that I insist on fighting every year.

    2. Evelyn, I laughed out loud about your ugly bushes and the possible drunk that put them there! We bought a brand new house with professional landscaping 20 yrs ago and had a similar head scratching experience. Thorny bushes were planted all around the faucet! Who does that?!?! They were gone lickety split after multiple painful scratches. Nice gentle hydrangeas took their place.

  2. My pending move this summer has prevented me from doing any gardening since I will not be in any one place long enough to tend to it, nor do I have the time to spend on it. But, a gardening magazine that I received for Mother’s Day from my kids (because I was very clear that I did not want any gifts that I would have to pack!) has all sorts of suggestions for fall plantings. I’ve dog-earred all those pages and am hopeful I may just get some in while I procrastinate on unpacking!

    1. Hey Friend! I’ve tried a few things fall gardening and they’ve worked. The hardest part is remembering to plant them. 🙂 (An update should be arriving in your inbox this week if I dare to be so optimistic!)

      1. Loving your scoop! My garden starts are still wee and microscopic but that never seems to deter me. Last year’s strawberry plant that I started from seed, and realized why people say to just buy the plant, was only about an inch tall in the fall. I kept it, just because, and this spring it has grown so well and I noticed while watering it last night that is has blooms! Yay – I may just get a strawberry out of it. All we ever need is some “room to bloom”! (My new series title…someday…when I get the room to bloom!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *