The Gardener's Year

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From the internationally acclaimed Czech writer Karel Capek comes this beautifully written and marvelously apt account of the trials and tribulations of the gardener’s life. First published in Prague in 1929, The Gardener’s Year combines a richly comic portrait of life in the garden, narrated month by month, with a series of delightful illustrations by the author’s older brother and collaborator, Josef. Capek’s gardeners—all too human, despite their lofty aspirations—often look the fool, whether they be found sopping wet, victims of the cobralike water hose, or hunched over, hands immersed in the soil, “presenting their rumps to the splendid azure sky.” In their repeated folly, Capek gives us not only cause for laughter but also, in the end, “testimony of the imperishable and miraculous optimism of the human race.”

This Modern Library edition is published with a new Introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editorialist and the author of Making Hay and The Last Fine Time.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Gardener's Year

Chapter 1

How Little Gardens Are Laid Out

There are several different ways in which to lay out a little garden; the best way is to get a gardener. The gardener will put up a number of sticks, twigs, and broomsticks, and will assure you that these are maples, hawthorns, lilacs, standard and bush roses, and other natural species; then he will dig the soil, turn it over and pat it again; he will make little paths of rubble, stick here and there into the ground some faded foliage, and declare that these are the perennials; he will sow seeds for the future lawn, which he will call English rye grass and bent grass, fox-tail, dog's-tail, and cat's-tail grass; and then he will depart leaving the garden brown and naked, as it was on the first day of the creation of the world; and he will warn you that every day you should carefully water all this soil of the earth, and when the grass peeps out you must order some gravel for the paths. Very well then.

One would think that watering a little garden is quite a simple thing, especially if one has a hose. It will soon be clear that until it has been tamed a hose is an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water, and dives with delight into the mess it has made; then it goes for the man who is going to use it and coils itself round his legs; you must hold it down with your foot, and then it rears and twists round your waist and neck, and while you are fighting with it as with a cobra, the monster turns up its brass mouth and projects a mighty stream of water through the windows on to the curtains which have been recently hung. You must grasp it firmly, and hold it tight; the beast rears with pain, and begins to spout water, not from the mouth, but from the hydrant and from somewhere in the middle of its body. Three men at least are needed to tame it at first, and they all leave the place of battle splashed to the ears with mud and drenched with water; as to the garden itself, in parts it has changed into greasy pools, while in other places it is cracking with thirst.

If you do this every day, in a fortnight weeds will spring up instead of grass. This is one of Nature's mysteries-how from the best grass seed most luxuriant and hairy weeds come up; perhaps weed seed ought to be sown and then a nice lawn would result. In three weeks the lawn is thickly overgrown with thistles and other pests, creeping, or rooted a foot deep in the earth; if you want to pull them out they break off at the root, or they bring up whole lumps of soil with them. It's like this: the more of a nuisance the more they stick to life.

In the meantime, through a mysterious metamorphosis of matter, the rubble of the paths has changed into the most sticky and greasy clay that you can imagine.

Nevertheless, weeds in the lawn must be rooted out; you are weeding and weeding, and behind your steps the future lawn turns into naked and brown earth as it was on the first day of the creation of the world. Only on one or two spots something like a greenish mould appears, something thin like mist, and scanty, and very like down; that's grass, certainly. You walk round it on tiptoe, and chase away the sparrows; and while you are peering into the earth, on the gooseberry and currant bushes the first little leaves have broken forth, all unawares; Spring is always too quick for you.

Your relation towards things has changed. If it rains you say that it rains on the garden; if the sun shines, it does not shine just anyhow, but it shines on the garden; in the evening you rejoice that the garden will rest.

One day you will open your eyes and the garden will be green, long grass will glisten with dew, and from the tangled tops of the roses swollen and crimson buds will peep forth; and the trees will be old, and their crowns will be dark and heavy and widely spread, with a musty smell in their damp shade. And you will remember no more the slender, naked, brown little garden of those days, the uncertain down of the first grass, the first pinched buds, and all the earthy, poor, and touching beauty of a garden which is being laid out.

Very well, but now you must water and weed, and pick the stones out of the soil.

How a Man Becomes a Gardener

Odd as it may appear, a gardener does not grow from seed, shoot, bulb, rhizome, or cutting, but from experience, surroundings, and natural conditions. When I was a little boy I had towards my father's garden a rebellious and even a vindictive attitude, because I was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the unripe fruit. Just in the same way Adam was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, because it was not yet ripe; but Adam-just like us children-picked the unripe fruit, and therefore was expelled from the Garden of Eden; since then the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has always been unripe.

While one is in the prime of youth one thinks that a flower is what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents to a girl; one somehow does not rightly understand that a flower is something which hibernates, which is dug round and manured, watered and transplanted, divided and trimmed, tied up, freed from weeds, and cleaned of seeds, dead leaves, aphis, and mildew; instead of digging the garden one runs after girls, satisfies one's ambition, eats the fruit of life which one has not produced oneself, and, on the whole, behaves destructively. A certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary for a man to become an amateur gardener. Besides, you must have your own garden. Usually you have it laid out by an expert, and you think that you will go and look at it when the day's work is over, and enjoy the flowers, and listen to the chirping of the birds. One day you may plant one little flower with your own hand; I planted a house-leek. Perhaps a bit of soil will get into your body through the quick, or in some other way, and cause blood-poisoning or inflammation. One claw and the whole bird is caught. Another time you may catch it from your neighbours; you see that a campion is flowering in your neighbour's garden, and you say: "By Jove! Why shouldn't it grow in mine as well? I'm blessed if I can't do better than that." From such beginnings the gardener yields more and more to this newly awakened passion, which is nourished by repeated success and spurred on by each new failure; the passion of the collector bursts out in him, driving him to raise everything according to the alphabet from Acaena to Zauschneria; then a craze for specialization breaks out in him, which makes of a hitherto normal being a rose-dahlia-or some other sort of exalted maniac. Others fall victims to an artistic passion, and continually alter and rearrange their beds, devise colour schemes, move shrubs, and change whatever stands or grows, urged on by a creative discontent. Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart.

I will now tell you how to recognize a real gardener. "You must come to see me," he says; "I will show you my garden." Then, when you go just to please him, you will find him with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials. "I will come in a moment," he shouts to you over his shoulder. "Just wait till I have planted this rose." "Please don't worry," you say kindly to him. After a while he must have planted it; for he gets up, makes your hand dirty, and beaming with hospitality he says: "Come and have a look; it's a small garden, but-- Wait a moment," and he bends over a bed to weed some tiny grass. "Come along. I will show you Dianthus musalae; it will open your eyes. Great Scott, I forgot to loosen it here!" he says, and begins to poke in the soil. A quarter of an hour later he straightens up again. "Ah," he says, "I wanted to show you that bell flower, Campanula Wilsonae. That is the best campanula which-- Wait a moment, I must tie up this delphinium." After he has tied it up he remembers: "Oh, I see, you have come to see that erodium. A moment," he murmurs, "I must just transplant this aster, it hasn't enough room here." After that you go away on tiptoe, leaving his behind sticking up among the perennials.

And when you meet him again he will say: "You must come to see me; I have one rose in flower, a pernetiana, you have not seen that before. Will you come? Do!"

Very well; we will go and see him as the year passes by.

The Gardener's January

"Even January is not a time for idleness in the garden," say the handbooks on gardening. Certainly not; for in January the gardener


There is something peculiar about the weather; it is never quite right. Weather always shoots over the mark on one side or the other. The temperature never reaches the hundred years' normal; it is either five degrees below or five degrees above. Rainfall is either ten millimetres below the average or twenty millimetres above; if it is not too dry, it is inevitably too wet.

If people who are not concerned with the weather have so many reasons for complaining about it, what should a gardener say! If too little snow falls, he grumbles that it reaches nowhere; if too much, he says that he is afraid that it will break his conifers and hollies. If there is no snow, he complains of pernicious black frosts; if the thaw sets in, he curses the mad winds which come with it, and have the damnable habit of upsetting his brushwood and other coverings in the garden, or perhaps, devil take them! will even break the trees. If the sun dares to shine in January the gardener is on tenterhooks lest the bushes will burst into bud too soon. If it rains, he fears for his little Alpine flowers; if it is dry, he thinks with pain on his rhododendrons and andromedas. And yet it would be so easy to satisfy him. It would be quite nice if from the first of January it were nine-tenths of a degree below zero, one hundred and twenty-seven millimetres of snow (light and, if possible, fresh), rather cloudy, calm, or with mild winds from the West; and all would be well. But nobody minds us gardeners, and nobody asks us what things ought to be. That's why the world is as it is.

The gardener is at his worst when the black frosts set in. Then the earth stiffens and dries to the bone, day after day, and night after night, deeper and deeper; the gardener thinks of roots which freeze in the soil, dead and hard as stone; of twigs chilled to the pith by the dry and icy wind; of the freezing bulbs, into which in autumn the plant packed all that it had. If I knew that it would help, I would wrap my holly in my own coat, and draw my pants over the juniper; I would take off my own shirt for you, Azalea pontica; I would cover you with my hat, Alum Root, and for you, Coreopsis, nothing is left but my socks: be thankful for them.

There are a number of tricks for deceiving the weather and making it change. If, for instance, I decide to put on the warmest clothes I possess, the temperature usually rises. And a thaw also sets in if some friends arrange to go to the mountains to ski. And also, when somebody writes an article for the paper, in which he describes the frosts, the healthy coloured cheeks, the crowds on the ice, and other such phenomena, the thaw comes just when this article is being set up in the composing-room, and people read it while outside a mild rain is falling, and the thermometer points to forty-six above zero; then, of course, the reader says that the papers are full of lies and bluff; bother the newspapers! On the other hand, cursing, complaints, swearing, snuffling, saying "burrr," and other incantations have no influence on the weather.

In January the best-known plants are the so-called flowers on the window-panes. To make them flourish your room must be fuggy with vapour; if the air is completely dry you will not raise one poor little needle, not to mention flowers. Then the window must not shut properly: where the wind blows into the window, flowers of ice will grow. They flourish more with poor people than with the rich, because the windows of the rich shut better.

Botanically the flowers of ice are distinguished by the fact that they are not flowers at all, but merely foliage. This foliage resembles endive, parsley, and the leaves of celery, as well as different members of the family of Cynarocephalae, Carduaceae, Dipsaceae, Acanthaceae, Umbelliferae, and so on; they may be compared with the genera: Onopordon or cotton thistle, Charlemagne's thistle, Cirsium, Notabasis, sea holly, globe thistle, woolly-head thistle, teasel, "saffron thistle," bear's breech, and with other plants with spiny, feathery, toothed, jagged, cut, clipped, or hackled foliage; sometimes they resemble ferns or palm leaves, and at other times the needles of the juniper; but they never have flowers.

Well, then, "even January is not a time for idleness in the garden," as-certainly only for comfort-the handbooks of gardening assert. First, it is possible to cultivate the soil because frost is supposed to make it crumble. Right! on New Year's Day the gardener rushes into the garden to cultivate the soil. He goes for it with the spade; after a prolonged struggle he succeeds in breaking the spade against the soil, which is as hard as corundum. Then he takes the hoe; if he tries hard he breaks the handle! He fetches the pickaxe, and manages at least to hack up a tulip bulb which he planted in autumn. The only method of tilling the soil is with a hammer and chisel, but this is a slow process which soon tires. Perhaps one may loosen the soil with dynamite, but this the gardener usually does not possess. Well, then, leave it alone till the thaw comes.

- About the author -

Karel Capek (1890–1938) was the leading Czech playwright, novelist, and columnist between the wars. He is best known for R. U. R. and his novel, War with the Newts.

More from Karel Capek

The Gardener's Year


The Gardener's Year

— Published by Modern Library —