1952 Gardening Rule: “Display good taste and exercise restraint.”

1952 Gardening Rule: “Display good taste and exercise restraint.”
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At a used-book sale to benefit the local elementary school, I found two gardening books old enough to pique my interest. First up is the Home Owners’ Complete Garden Handbook “by “top-ranking authority John Hayes Melady,” whoever he was (book didn’t say).  But look – the book is actually “5 books in 1”.  It’s copyrighted 1952 and is divided into these sections: flowers, vegetables, lawns, fruits, and landscaping.

I see it’s available on Amazon in hardback starting at .01.  At $4, I guess I overpaid for my copy (though for a good cause.)

Some of my favorite bits:


The chapter heading screams that “Frequent Mowing is Essential,” followed by this: “One mowing a week is not enough; make it twice a week at least.” And this next bit may have caused middle-class homeowners to identify out: “If you have a hired man to do the mowing, let him use your mower rather than his, so that you can determine the height of the cut.”  Well, no one in my middle-class neighborhood in the ’50s had a hired man, so my petite-but-strong mom did the job.

These days we know better than to follow this bit of lawn-mowing advice: “A good length is 1.5 inches.”

Landscaping Section has RULES

First, the author tries to reassure the anxious reader with “Fixed Rules are Few” and this wise counsel: “It is important that you use shrubs and trees likely to grow in your part of the country.” And his recommended sources of information are still good ones today – catalogs, extension agents and “garden editors of your local newspapers” – though sadly those editors are long gone.

But let’s get down to the rules, shall we?

“1: Use varieties that will thrive.” Good one.

“2: Purchase plants from a reliable source.” Ditto.

“3: Make your planting look natural.” Oh, I’m really liking this, especially the further explanation that “It is difficult to improve upon nature…avoid straight lines, regular geometric curves, and uniform distances between plants.”
Reminds me of one of my first garden-design mistakes – planting a couple hundred daffodils equidistant across my entire back yard. Not a good look, probably because it looked so unnatural. Took me years of rearranging bulbs to even begin to like the effect. And these were big bulbs, not so easy to exhume and replant.

The author, after tipping us off to his own naturalistic preferences, does go on to say “Or you may prefer a formal design, or a combination,” though I’d add – “If you know what you’re doing.”

“4: Keep the center open.” Darn good advice for anyone’s first garden.

“5: Plant in masses.”  So I guess we didn’t have to wait for the so-called “New American Garden” to be told this important design principle.

“6: Avoid crowding.” Sorry, this one’s too general, and the text doesn’t offer any more guidance.

“7: Don’t hide dwarf subjects behind taller ones.” Yes, it has to be stated. Seems obvious but who hasn’t regretted ignoring this rule?

“8: Observe the plants’ requirements.” Again, examples might have fleshed out this essential point. “Right plant, right place” indeed.

The author saved for the last spot my favorite:

“9: Display good taste and exercise restraint.”  No explanation for that one. which might also serve to guide all social interactions in the ’40s and early ’50s.

Hmm, this has me wondering – Can gardening rules guide us in all of our life’s choices?

Posted by

Susan Harris
on October 2, 2014 at 8:15 am, in the category Books.


    • bittenbyknittin
    • 20th November 2016

    I interpret “Avoid crowding” to mean “Space plants with their mature size in mind.”

    • Drew Tracy
    • 9th December 2016

    Ha, gardeners showing restraint? Highly unlikely 😉

    • anne
    • 9th December 2016

    Tibs, does your book say anything about irises being popular? A friend and I have been dividing and salvaging irises from the ruins of an old homestead that seems to date back to the early 20th century (judging from the old stoves and other detritus, plus local history). There are some other plants we can’t identify there too that are obviously from the old garden.

    • anne
    • 9th December 2016

    Any particular types of iris mentioned? There is one in particular that we can’t identify; an orange and yellow bicolor, bearded type. Identifying irises is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack, there are so many now! I am hoping back in earlier days there were fewer, and maybe a few more popular than others.

    • Steve
    • 10th December 2016

    My grandmother, who would have been a child in the 1920s, largely grew up in a North Dakota hotel her family ran near the Canadian border. They couldn’t grow celery there, but they would occassionally get some shipped in. It would be served with pride in the restaurant in a special dish, a couple of unadorned stalks. Luxury on the Great Plains.

    • Weedyseedy
    • 10th December 2016

    I have The Complete Illustrated Book Of Garden Magic by Roy E. Biles first copyright date was evidently 1935, then 1940, apparently revised 1941, 1947, 1956, 1961, then in 1969 and .1970. I still use it. Plants are still plants, soil is still soil and you plant plants in soil. I pay no attention to trends. ——-Weedy

    • Beth
    • 10th December 2016

    I love vintage garden books! The photos are the best part for me, though. It’s like looking through a window into what the idealized garden was like at that point in time. Fascinating!

    • admin
    • 10th December 2016

    Hmmm…must have been the handbook used by Harriet Nelson… The whole good taste and restraint thing. :) ~Julie

    • Annie in Austin
    • 10th December 2016

    How fleeting is fame?

    • Garden Rant
    • 10th December 2016

    So interesting!@ And how do you happen to know of him? Susan

    • Annie in Austin
    • 11th December 2016

    Been an amateur genealogist for decades … I’ve worked on MayDreams Carol’s vintage book authors, too.
    As to how… if you every watch Finding Your Roots on PBS, you’ll notice that Henry Louis Gates does the big reveal but seldom tells how he got there!

    • Carol
    • 11th December 2016

    Oh yes, I am ever grateful to Annie in Austin for her genealogist skills and helping me find out about old garden writers… though, it is still distressing to think about the author of gardening books in the early 20th century who “suicided” when she was about to lose her house. But in regards to old gardening books, I’ve read several which provided rules or lists of “do’s and don’ts”. I even have “The Horticulturist’s Rule-Book: A Compendium of Useful Information for Fruit Growers, Truck-Gardeners, Florists, and Others” by Liberty Hyde Bailey in which he lists Loudon’s Rules of Horticulture which date way back to the 19th century. May favorite Loudon rule to break is rule no. 7, “Never pass a weed without pulling it.” (I paraphrase)…

    • Lindy
    • 11th December 2016

    I have a friend who collects old gardening books. I have never been interested in doing that even though I am a collector at heart. Your examples are the reason. Information changes and when “we know better, we do better.” I suppose there are always little nuggets of information we can glean from these older gardening books – but are they worth taking up space on our book shelves. For me, the answer is “no.”

    • Laura Bell
    • 11th December 2016

    “Can gardening rules guide us in all of our life’s choices?”

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