By Greg Clark, April, 13, 1935
“This year,” said Jimmie Frise, “I’m going to have a real garden.”
“Me, too,” I admitted.
“A garden full of old-fashioned flowers,” declaimed Jimmie, his eye roving out the window. “Hollyhocks, zinnias, verbenas.”
“Stocks,” I said, “and phlox.”
“Sweet william,” added Jimmie, “and pinks and gillieflowers.”
“What is a gillieflower?” I enquired.
“Hanged if I know,” said Jim, “but I love the sound of them and I’m going to have them.”
“Dianthus,” I said. “There’s a swell name, Let’s have dianthuses.”
“But really,” said Jim, sitting forward and resting his elbows so that he could cuddle right down deep into the very heart of the thought of a garden scented with a hundred perfumes and glowing with color in a June evening, “really, I am going to have a garden. I’m going to put time and thought and labor on it. I’m going to plan it. I’m going to take my time about it. Usually, the way we all do is go out some evening, after supper, buy a couple of dollars’ worth of seeds and a few boxes of infant annuals, and stick them around the garden before dark. Now, this year…”
“Every year,” I interrupted, “I go through what you are going through now.”
“So do I,” confessed Jim, sadly. “But this year I am going to try and really do it. I’m going to hold grimly to my determination.”
“I remember that, too,” I remembered. “But always, some time between the fifteenth and thirtieth of April, a queer change came over me. And by the time the planting was to be done, my heart was In the Highlands or something.”
“This year,” said Jim, sitting back fiercely and crossing his arms tightly across his chest, “I’m going to do my garden in a practical and common sense way. For example, I will spend two or three long evenings digging and turning it over.”
“Like plowing.” I said.
“Precisely,” said Jim. “I was born and raised on the farm. I know the principles of agriculture. The farmer spends weeks plowing. He does not plow and plant all in one day.”
“No, indeed,” I agreed.
“So,” went on Jim, “I’ll spend maybe three long evenings spading and turning over my borders and beds. If the weather is rainy, I won’t desist merely because of the discomfort. I’ll carry right on. Rain or shine, cold or warm, I’ll spend three evenings, one after the other, spading over my garden, burying the top earth and revealing the rich undersoil, exposing it to the life-giving air and light.”
“Good man,” I said, admiringly.
“Then I’ll break it up with my hoe and rake,” said Jim. “I’ll break the lumps, disintegrating them, so that the soft living rain of April may nourish the soil. Why should a man, born and raised on the farm, be afraid of a little rain on him?”
“It’s ridiculous,” I agreed.
Violence is Necessary
“Then, with the spade work well and truly done,” said Jim, making notes on a piece of paper, “I will go out and buy a few boxes of the taller annuals. A few boxes only. It is a mistake to buy the whole works the one night. You have to hurry to get them in. No. Take your time, that is the secret. A few boxes of tall annuals, like zinnias, nicotine, and so forth, the first night. And at great leisure, in comfort and east, so that you can have time to reflect and put them where you want them, you plant them slowly and thoroughly.”
“You do, Jim,” I pointed out. “It is you we are talking about.”
“Quite,” said Jim. “Then the next night, if It is soft and pleasant for planting, get a few more boxes of the less tall annuals, stocks, verbenas, the old-fashioned marigolds.”
He pronounced it the English way, marry-golds.
“Jim,” I said, “you deserve a lot of credit. If everybody in Toronto were like you, what a city this would be!”
“Now, mind you,” declared Jim, “a garden does not consist merely of some plowing and some planting of few square yards of earth. There comes all the long and happy weeks of cultivation. The hoeing of the soil around the young plants. The watering, weeding. The regular spading up of the earth, so that water, air and light may penetrate down towards the roots. I intend, this year, to devote one hour to my garden every night, rain or shine.”
“It is noble of you,” I admitted. “If I hadn’t gone through just what you are going through so often that I have lost faith in myself, by George, I would be tempted to be inspired by you, and try to make the same resolutions.”
“One thing you might do,” said Jim, “just for your amusement, is to come over and watch me do some spading?”
“I certainly will,” I said heartily. “In fact, I might even do a little spading for you myself.”
Which accounts for the fact that two nights later, that particularly soft evening last week, I walked over to Jim’s and sat in the rustic bench while he, looking fresh and healthy, worked with a spade along his borders.
A robin singing and a man spading in April – what more lovely moment is there in all the year?
“Dig deeper,” I said, after watching Jim a few minutes.
“It is the top six inches,” said Jim, pausing in his labor. “There is no need to dig deeper.”
“I disagree,” I said, lighting a new cigarette and signaling to one of the girls in the house to bring me a cushion. “What is true of farming is not necessarily true of city gardening. The open fields of the country are subjected to violence. The great rains pound down, Gales blow across the land. The ice in spring causes great cracks deep into the earth. The freshets belabor and smash the soil. But a city garden, protected by walls and fences and houses, gets no such essential disturbance.”
“Gardening,” replied Jim, delicately spading the earth, “at its best, should be a leisurely pastime.”
“You’re just tickling the earth,” I declared. “Just titivating it, dabbing at it like a lady applying cosmetics. Dig it, man!”
“It is the top six inches,” repeated Jim.
“Now I know the reason,” I said, “why city gardens are such poor, fragile things. They last a week or two: then they are burned up in the first heat of summer. Why? Because you have just dibbled or fiddled the top few inches. You don’t get down deep, the way nature does in the open fields. To make a garden fertile, we have to tear it loose.”
Jim stood leaning on the spade.
“Sail into it,” I admonished him. “Give it what November gives the farms. What March does. Knock hell out of it.”
Jim began to dig with more resolution. He began to enjoy it. He began hurling earth in all directions.
“Now you’re shouting,” I shouted. “Whale the stuffing out of it.”
Jim paused. He jabbed the spade into the earth and came over and sat on the rustic bench beside me. I lent him the cushion.
“I believe you’re right,” he said, “I honestly think what a garden needs is a real shaking up. I never thought of that before. We shelter our garden from nature, and then expect nature to make it bloom as healthy as nature itself.”
“What a garden needs,” I assured him, “is a steam shovel.”
Jim sat up and slapped me on the back.
“Great,” he cried. “Great. I know a guy who owns a steam shovel. And it’s unemployed.”
“Swell,” I exclaimed. “All my life …”
“He was saying a few weeks ago that he wished there was some place he could dig with it just to keep it in shape. It needs exercise.”
“Get him to come up,” I cried. “You could pull it through this back gate.”
“Get him nothing,” said Jim. “I’ll run it myself.”
“Why not?” I admitted. “Go and telephone him.”
And, in five minutes, Jim came out radiant, to inform me that for $2 paid to the caretaker for bringing it up, Jim could borrow the steam shovel any day.
“I said Friday,” Jim exulted, gazing around his garden. “It is one of those self-contained steam shovels. It has its own tractor tread. It’s not one of those great big steam shovels, you know?”
“All my life, Jim,” I said, “I have wanted to run a steam shovel. Just once.”
“Every man does,” agreed Jim. “Why do men stand by the hour watching a steam shovel down in an excavation? A steam shovel is the most fascinating thing in the world. It has power, might, strength. It is power, rude power, all in the hands of one man.”
“Could I help you?” I asked.
“Certainly,” said Jim.
So Friday after early supper I came over to Jim’s in a suit of overalls I borrowed from the garage. One of my boys owned a cap such as engineers wear, and my wife put a gusset in the back of it so it would fit me. Even Jim was astonished and delighted with my appearance.
“Boy,” he said, “you look like the real thing.”
“All I need,” I said, “is a chew of tobacco,”
“We can pretend,” said Jim, shooting an imaginary squirt to one side. “Now let’s look her over.”
The steam shovel, which Jim said was a small one, just about filled the yard. It had a cabin mounted on caterpillar trends. From its top was suspended a giant rusty iron arm on the end of which was a bucket as big as a roadster.
“She works,” said Jim. “The man that brought her banked the fire for me, and I turned it on a few minutes ago. We’ll have a head of steam in ten minutes.”
Jim showed me inside, where, in a little boiler, a fire gleamed brightly and there was a sizzling and a hissing. The steam gauge trembled. There was an air of excitement in the little cabin.
Jim showed me the various levers, throttle and handles, one for hoisting, one for lowering and opening the massive jaws of the shovel. And by this time, the hot and hissing little fire had set the steam gauge trembling at the necessary figure.
“O.K.,” cried Jim. “You get out and stand well over by the corner of the garden.”
Jim tried the various levers. The great arm rose slowly and dropped suddenly with a terrific crash. The cab rattled violently, and the huge creature took half a step forward.
The great bucket descended with a crash to the earth. It fumbled and groped on the ground. It scrabbled and opened and shut. It was like a prehistoric monster mumbling the earth in pursuit of a mole. The engine roared. Steam belched. The arm tightened. The bucket began slowly to rise, rise. It rose twenty feet in the air, slowly swung northerly, and paused, suspended over the middle of the back lawn. Then with another mighty roar of engine, the jaws of the bucket opened, the bucket crashed to earth, and a soup plateful of dirt deposited in the middle of the lawn.
“Hooroo!” yelled Jim, sticking his out of the cab.
In five minutes Jim had mastered the machine. It was a noble sight. One small man the god of the machine. Once he got a little hole dug, it was no time until Jim could sink that steel-toothed, iron-jawed monster into the soil, gouge a hunk as big as a piano, close the teeth on it, hoist it up and swing it into the middle of the yard and dump it. He began to get a big pile on the lawn.
“Why not put the dirt back,” I said, “as you go along?”
“I’ll put it back on the return journey,” hollered Jim, vanishing into the cab.
And with roarings and snortings, the great clumsy pachyderm waddled inch by inch down the border, and inch by inch Jim turned it back, and then, with increasing skill, grabbed scoopfuls of earth from the pile on the lawn and laid it into the border.
“Come on up,” he bellowed from the cab.
I got in. It was hot and steamy and tangled with levers and gears and wires and gadgets.
“Now, watch,” shouted Jim, over the hissing of the engine. “You take this lever, see? Now, slowly, slowly, see? That hoists her. Then this, see? That lowers her. Then you take this one, and it makes it open and grab, see?”
“All right, all right,” I cried, for it was fast growing dark outside.
“Take it slow and steady,” shouted Jim, swinging back out of the cab.
I shoved the second lever. The whole vast contraption began to shudder and stagger. I made a quick grab at what looked like a hand brake. I felt the colossal thing begin to lurch and move.
Jim’s face appeared whitely at the cab door, his mouth open wide. But I could not hear him. I snatched all the different levers and handles one after another. I saw a small dirty rope hanging from the roof. I thought it might be the ignition. I frantically yanked it, and a piercing whistle sounded above the din and drunken clamor of the vastly lurching and staggering machine. The giant arm rose and fell. I felt the cab turning dizzily, as each lever failed to quiet it. I heard crashings and felt crunchings. But in the fumes and the vapor and the staggerings, I dared not look out. My eyes, my soul, my brain were glued to the mass of levers glittering at me in the gathering gloom.
Then, in the midst of a more savage lurch than all, Jim came through the open door of the cab, flung me aside and in an instant all was still.
“Quick,” he gasped. “Get out.”
“What happened?” I asked, friendlily.
“We’re five doors north of my place gasped Jim. “Up a hill. Across five fences. Through one garage.”
“Jim, it went wrong,” I explained. “Suddenly it went wrong.”
“If only,” gasped Jim. “you hadn’t blown the whistle. Why did you blow that whistle?”
“I didn’t know it was a whistle,” I complained bitterly.
“People will be here,” said Jim breathlessly, “any minute.”
But mysteriously, despite all that tumult and crashing and screeching of whistles, nobody came. They must have all been at the movies. Jim had lost his nerve. He would not drive it back to his yard. He telephoned his friend, and, in half an hour, the caretaker came and drove the short away down the lane and off to New Toronto through the dark and shining streets.
“Now,” said Jim, “while I inspect the damage and make an estimate of the cost, the least you can do is shovel that heap of earth out of the middle of my lawn back into the border.”
And it was midnight before I got home, all dirty.
Editor’s Notes: A freshet is flooding caused by a spring thaw.
Titivating means to make small alterations to something.
To older readers, a steam shovel, might be recognized as a generic term for an excavator, but as can be seen in the story, it was a mechanical excavator that was really powered by a steam engine. Actual steam powered machines were being replaced by diesel ones by the time this story was written.
New Toronto was a separate town west of Toronto which was later merged into Etobicoke and eventually amalgamated into Toronto itself.