Chapter XXII. Early April Gardening

Spring was coming on apace, and we all made the most of every pleasant hour. The second day after the auction proved a fine one; and leaving Winnie and Merton in charge of the house, I took my wife, with Bobsey and Mousie, who was well bundled up, to see the scientific grape-grower, and to do some shopping. At the same time we assured ourselves that we were having a pleasure-drive; and it did me good to see how the mother and daughter, who had been kept indoors so long, enjoyed themselves. Mr. Jones was right. I received better and clearer ideas of vine-pruning in half an hour from studying work that had been properly done, and by asking questions of a practical man, than I could ever have obtained by reading. We found that the old bay horse jogged along, at as good a gait as we could expect, over the muddy road, and I was satisfied that he was quiet enough for my wife to drive him after she had learned how, and gained a little confidence. She held the reins as we drove home, and, in our own yard, I gave her some lessons in turning around, backing, etc.

"Some day," I said, "you shall have a carriage and a gay young horse." When we sat down to supper, I was glad to see that a little color was dawning in Mousie's face.

The bundles we brought home supplemented our stores of needful articles, and our life began to take on a regular routine. The carpenter came and put up the shelves, and made such changes as my wife desired; then he aided me in repairing the out-buildings. I finished pruning the trees, while Merton worked manfully at the raspberries, for we saw that this was a far more pressing task than gathering wood, which could be done to better advantage in the late autumn. Every morning Winnie and Bobsey were kept steadily busy in carrying our trimmings to the brush heap, which now began to assume vast proportions, especially as the refuse from the grape-vine and raspberry bushes was added to it. As the ground became settled after the frost was out, I began to set the stakes by the side of such raspberry canes as needed tying up; and here was a new light task for the two younger children. Bobsey's little arms could go around the canes and hold them close to the stake, while Winnie, a sturdy child, quickly tied them with a coarse, cheap string that I had bought for the purpose. Even my wife came out occasionally and helped us at this work. By the end of the last week in March I had all the fruit-trees fairly pruned and the grape-vines trimmed and tied up, and had given Merton much help among the raspberries. In shallow boxes of earth on the kitchen table, cabbage, lettuce, and tomato seeds were sprouting beside Mousie's plants. The little girl hailed with delight every yellowish green germ that appeared above the soil.

The hens had spent their first few days in inspecting their quarters and becoming familiar with them; but one morning there was a noisy cackle, and Winnie soon came rushing in with three fresh-laid eggs. A week later we had all we could use, and my wife began to put some by for the first brooding biddies to sit upon.

The first day of April promised to be unusually dry and warm, and I said at the breakfast table: "This is to be a great day. We'll prove that we are not April-fools by beginning our garden. I was satisfied yesterday that a certain warm slope was dry enough to dig and plant with hardy vegetables, and I've read and studied over and over again which to plant first, and how to plant them. I suppose I shall make mistakes, but I wish you all to see how I do it, and then by next spring we shall have learned from experience how to do better. No doubt, some things might have been planted before, but we've all been too busy. Now, Merton, you go and harness old Bay to the cart I bought with the place, and I'll get out my treasure of seeds. Mousie, by ten o'clock, if the sun keeps out of the clouds, you can put on your rubbers and join us."

Soon all was bustle and excitement. Among my seeds were two quarts of red and two of white onion sets, or little bits of onions, which I had kept in a cool place, so that they should not sprout before their time. These I took out first. Then with Merton I went to the barn-yard and loaded up the cart with the finest and most decayed manure we could find, and this was dumped on the highest part of the slope that I meant to plant.

"Now, Merton, I guess you can get another load, while I spread this heap and begin to dig;" and he went off with the horse and cart, having an increased idea of his importance. I marked a long strip of the sunny slope, fifteen feet wide, and spread the manure evenly and thickly, for I had read, and my own sense confirmed the view, that a little ground well enriched would yield more than a good deal of poor land. I then dug till my back ached; and I found that it began to ache pretty soon, for I was not accustomed to such toil.

"After the first seeds are in," I muttered, "I'll have the rest of the garden plowed."

When I had dug down about four feet of the strip, I concluded to rest myself by a change of labor; so I took the rake and smoothed off the ground, stretched a garden line across it, and, with a sharp-pointed hoe, made a shallow trench, or drill.

"Now, Winnie and Bobsey," I said, "it is time for you to do your part. Just stick these little onions in the trench about four inches apart;" and I gave each of them a little stick of the right length to measure the distance; for they had vague ideas of four inches. "Be sure," I continued, "that you get the bottom of the onion down. This is the top, and this is the bottom. Press the onion in the soil just enough to make it stand firm, so. That's right. Oh, you're learning fast. Now I can rest, you see, while you do the planting."

In a few moments they had stuck the fifteen feet of shallow trench, or drill, full of onions, which I covered with earth, packing it lightly with my hoe. I then moved the line fourteen inches further down and made another shallow drill. In this way we soon had all the onion sets in the ground. Merton came back with his load in time to see how it was done, and nodded his head approvingly. I now felt rested enough to dig awhile, and Merton started off to the barn-yard again. We next sowed, in even shallower drills, the little onion seed that looked like gunpowder, for my garden book said that the earlier this was planted the better. We had completed only a few rows when Mr. Jones appeared, and said: "Plantin' onions here? Why, neighbor, this ground is too dry and light for onions."

"Is it? Well, I knew I'd make mistakes. I haven't used near all my onion seed yet, however."

"Oh, well, no great harm's done. You've made the ground rich, and, if we have a moist season, like enough they'll do well. P'raps it's the best thing, after all, 'specially if you've put in the seed thick, as most people do. Let 'em all grow, and you'll have a lot of little onions, or sets, of your own raisin' to plant early next spring. Save the rest of your seed until you have some rich, strong, deep soil ready. I came over to say that if this weather holds a day or two longer I'll plow the garden; and I thought I'd tell you, so that you might get ready for me. The sooner you get your early pertaters in the better."

"Your words almost take the ache out of my back," I said. "I fear we shouldn't have much of a garden if I had to dig it all, but I thought I'd make a beginning with a few early vegetables."

"That's well enough, but a plow beats a fork all hollow. You'll know what I mean when you see my plow going down to the beam and loosenin' the ground from fifteen to twenty inches. So burn your big brush-pile, and get out what manure you're goin' to put in the garden, and I'll be ready when you are."

"All right. Thank you. I'll just plant some radishes, peas, and beans."

"Not beans yet, Mr. Durham. Don't put those in till the last of the month, and plant them very shallow when you do."

"How one forgets when there's not much experience to fall back upon! I now remember that my book said that beans, in this latitude, should not be planted until about the 1st of May."

"And lima beans not till the 10th of May," added Mr. Jones. "You might put in a few early beets here, although the ground is rather light for 'em. You could put your main crop somewhere else. Well, let me know when you're ready. Junior and me are drivin' things, too, this mornin';" and he stalked away, whistling a hymn-tune in rather lively time.

I said: "Youngsters, I think I'll get my garden book and be sure I'm right about sowing the radish and beet seed and the peas. Mr. Jones has rather shaken my confidence."

When Merton came with the next load I told him that he could put the horse in the stable and help us. As a result, we soon had several rows of radishes and beets sown, fourteen inches apart. We planted the seed only an inch deep, and packed the ground lightly over it. Mousie, to her great delight, was allowed to drop a few of the seeds. Merton was ambitious to take the fork, but I soon stopped him, and said: "Digging is too heavy work for you, my boy. There is enough that you can do without overtaxing yourself. We must all act like good soldiers. The campaign of work is just opening, and it would be very foolish for any of us to disable ourselves at the start. We'll plant only half a dozen rows of these dwarf peas this morning, and then this afternoon we'll have the bonfire and get ready for Mr. Jones's plow."

At the prospect of the bonfire the younger children set up shouts of exultation, which cheered me on as I turned over the soil with the fork, although often stopping to rest. My back ached, but my heart was light. In my daily work now I had all my children about me, and their smaller hands were helping in the most practical way. Their voices were as joyous as the notes of the robins, song-sparrows, and bluebirds that were singing all about us. A soft haze half obscured the mountains, and mellowed the sunshine. From the springing grass and fresh-turned soil came odors sweet as those which made Eden fragrant after "a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground."

All the children helped to plant the peas, which we placed carefully and evenly, an inch apart, in the row, and covered with two inches of soil, the rows being two feet distant one from another. I had decided to plant chiefly McLean's Little Gem, because they needed no stakes or brush for support. We were almost through our task when, happening to look toward the house, I saw my wife standing in the doorway, a framed picture.

"Dinner," she called, in a voice as sweet to me as that of the robin singing in the cherry-tree over her head.

The children stampeded for the house, Winnie crying: "Hurry up, mamma, for right after dinner papa will set the great brush-pile on fire, and we're going to dance round it like Indians. You must come out, too."