“There are a number of ways of laying out a garden. The best is by taking on a gardener.” So opens a delightful book on gardens by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. Published in Prague in 1929 with illustrations by his brother Josef, it was first translated into English in 1931.
Normally gardening books from that era are, let’s be honest, worthy but dull, good for a bit of period feel, quaint photos or funny adverts but otherwise not much use and cratinly not widely read any more. The Gardener’s Year is different. It is both timely and timeless and worth reading every word, and smiling at every drawing.
Karel Čapek [pronounced Chupek] was born in 1890 and was the most celebrated Czech writer of his generation, across a wide range of genre but notably science fiction and he was nominated seven times for the Nobel prize for literature although never awarded it. He worked as a journalist, becoming intensely political and fiercely opposed to the fascism and communism that was emerging in post-1918 Europe, but died in 1938 before they took over the world stage.
He was three years younger than Josef who became an artist but also wrote poetry, plays, sometimes in collaboration with Karel. He too was politically liberal and was to end up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he died just before the war ended in 1945. The brothers grew up in Czechoslovakia, a new country, carved out of the ruins of the Austrian Empire on its collapse in 1918. They lived through the first two decades of its existence which were a golden age for Czech culture before the Nazi takeover in 1938/9 and then the Communist one in 1945.
The Gardener’s Year grew directly out of Karel’s journalism. He was asked to write a monthly column about gardens for Lidové noviny or The People’s Newspaper, and the first of these was published as “The Gardeners December” in 1927, with the others months following until November 1928. When publication became an option he added in some other garden-related pieces that he’d written for the paper and a couple more he wrote specially.
The Gardener’s Year is definitely not a gardening manual. His readers wouldn’t find notes on the cultivation of dahlias our how to prune roses or deal with vine weevil. Although its chapters have titles like The Gardener’s February or The Gardener’s September and they do loosely cover the main tasks or likely sights for the month, they are just an excuse for Čapek to muse or offer a few thoughts on the whole process of gardening and why we do it, and then for his brother to add some timelessly evocative cartoons.
That doesn’t mean that Karel knew little or nothing about gardening – like Germaine Greer writing as Rose Blight – he could write as well and as knowledgeably as he did because his knowledge was wide and based on his own experience.
He and Josef owned a house together and built the garden there from scratch. They became keen growers of alpine plants and Karel urged his readers to make a rockery because not only are the plants beautiful but “a man building a rockery feels like a Cyclops when he piles boulder upon boulder with elemental strength, builds hills and valleys and marks out rocky cliffs.” Of course the reality is somewhat different because “When, broken-backed, he has then completed his gigantic work, he finds it somewhat different from the romantic mountain range which he had envisaged.”
Later, after his marriage, Karel was offered the use of a country house by his brother-in-law he worked hard to turn the grounds there into a proper park too. Another of this hobbies was photography and his archive contains lots of photographs of both gardens. Sadly as far as I can see they are not available digitally.
The book is quite short and an easy read, full of amusing asides and little comments on man’s attempts to get to grips with the garden. On the very first page, for example, he starts a little aside about watering a newly seeded lawn. “One would think that watering a garden was an absolutely simple affair, especially if one has a hose. It soon becomes apparent that, until it has been domesticated, a hose is an uncommonly wily, dangerous creature…
It writhes, jumps, springs, makes lots of water underneath itself and plunges lustily into the mud it has created; whereupon it hurls itself at the person intending to do the watering and entwines itself around his leg. You have to tread on it and then it rears up and twists itself around your waist and neck. While the afflicted person is wrestling with it as though with a python, the monster turns its brass nozzle upwards and spouts a powerful stream of water at the window onto your freshly hung curtains. You have to seize it by the head, vigorously, and stretch it as long as possible. The beast rages with pain and starts spraying water not from the head but from the hydrant, and from somewhere in the middle of its body. At the first attempt you need three people to restrain it to any degree….”
The next paragraph gives the quiet denouement . “If you do this every day after a fortnight weeds will start to spring up instead of grass.”
Later in The Gardener’s July he extends the humour further when he explains that the main concern that month is watering. “If the gardener waters with a watering can, he counts the canfuls like a motorist miles. Oof, he declares with the pride of a record breaker, today I have carried forty-five canfuls….[but] with a hydrant and a hose it is possible to water faster and sometimes en masse; in a relatively short time we can spray not only the flowerbed, but the turf, a neighbouring family having tea, pedestrians in the street, the inside of the house, all the members of our family, and, most all, ourselves.
Spraying from a hydrant is amazingly potent, almost like a machine gun; in an instant you can hollow out a crater in the earth, mow down perennials, and tear the tops of trees. If you spray the hose against the wind, it will provide you with superb refreshment…A hose moreover has a special predilection for developing a hole somewhere in the middle, where you least expect it; and so you stand like a water god in the middle of gushing jets of water with a long water snake coiled at your feet; it is an overwhelming sight. Then when you are wet through you declare with satisfaction that the garden has had enough and you go and dry off. In the meantime your garden has said Oof, has slurped down your jets of water without even batting an eyelid and is as dry and thirsty as it was before.”
The more you read the more Karel plays on the comedy of man and in particular the idea that man can control nature by gardening actions. It swings in turn from the comic to the frustrated and the philosophical, with references back to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden where he was in control to a world where nature controls him. From the gardeners desires to the actual result of his effort, from self-deception to self-denial. Some of this comes from his academic background – he had a phD in philosophy relating to pragmatism. So often there are scenes where his gardener imagines something wonderful happening but forgets his past experience where it didn’t.
There is a real sense of seasonality to his writing too. He doesn’t bemoan winter weather but worries about it endlessly – “If the sun dares to shine in January the gardener clasps his head in his hands for fear it is going to bring his bushes into sap too early. If it rains he worries about his little alpine plants. If it is dry he thinks with pain of his rhododendrons… but the worst time for the gardener is when black frosts set in. Then the earth stiffens and dries to the bone deeper and deeper day by day, night by night. The gardener thinks of the roots which are freezing in the soil, dead and hard like stone…and of freezing buds into which the plant packed all its goods and chattels in the autumn. If I thought it would help I would dress my holly in my own coat, and put the juniper in my own trousers. For you Pontic Azalea I would take off my shirt. You Alum Root I would cover with a hat. And for you, Tickseed, there is nothing left but my socks; you can make do with those.”
Spring is heralded by the neighbours. “As soon as they turn out in their gardens with spades, hoes, shears, bast, paint for the trees and all sorts of powders for the soils, the experienced gardener will recognise that spring is approaching…he will put on some old trousers and turn out in the garden with a spade and hoe so that his own neighbours will unknown that spring is approaching and will convey the joyous news over the fence.”
Summer brings lawn care to the fore and after discussing alternative ways of keeping grass in order such as a goat or a sickle “the more expert gardener simply buys a lawn mower. This is a sort of thing on wheels, it rattles like a machine gun and when you go over the grass with it the grass simply flies. I tell you, it is a delight.
When a lawn mower comes into a home, all the members of the family, from the grandfather to the grandson, fight over who is going to cut the grass; that is how much fun it is to rattle round and mow luxuriant turf. Let go declares the gardener, I’ll show you how its done. Whereupon he moves across the lawn with the ceremoniousness of at once of the engineer and the ploughman. It’s my turn now implores another member of the family. Just a bit more , the gardener sticks to his prerogative and moves off again, rattling and mowing the grass until it flies about. This is the first festive haymaking.
Listen says the gardener after a while to another member of the family wouldn’t you like to take the mower out and cut the grass? It’s very pleasant work. I know says the other half-heartedly, but I don’t really have time today.
After waxing lyrical about the joys of transplanting to fill flower beds, the smell of manure and first frosts, Karel then suggests Even non-garden owners can pay tribute to the autumn by planting bulbs. “One goes about it like this: you buy the relevant bulbs and a bag of nice compost from the nearest garden centre; after which you look out all your old flower pots in the cellar or attic and put a bulb in each one. Towards the end you find you have still got some bulbs but no flowerpots. So you buy some more flowerpots, whereupon you discover you have not got any bulbs left now but you do have a surfeit of flowerpots and soil. Then you buy a few more bulbs, but because you have not got enough soil you buy a new bag of compost. Then you have got soil left over, which of course you do not want to throw away, and instead buy more flower pots and bulbs. You carry on like this until the people at home forbid you any longer. Then you fill the windows, tables, cabinets, pantry, cellar and loft with them and look forward to the approaching winter with confidence.”
But Karel isn’t just about making you smile. He tries to take a long-term view rather than tell your how to pot up dahlias or prune roses. There are deeper truths hidden away. The recall of Eden, the longing to be at one with nature and to lose oneself in the garden. And given the time he is writing his work is important because it marks the beginning of a trend to create a national gardening culture and style, apart from the purely utilitarian gardens, and much more in line with those of other longer established countries.
Who else says they “could write about the blazing colour of autumn, about wistful mists… about the last Asters and little red Rose which is still trying to bloom… but instead writes a short piece praising both pyramids of sugar-beet, then Czechoslovakia’s most important agricultural crop, and heaps of manure “the most slighted beauty of the autumn.”
According to Geoffrey Newsome his latest English translator Karel makes great play with Czech language and history, exploring linguistic games with plant names etc to make his fellows appreciate their new country’s culture more deeply. Above all though he is optimistic in the face of experience – and what gardener isn’t!
“In short for all most lightness of touch, The Gardener’s Year is …a profound book. For Capek gardening is both itself and an an almost infinite metaphor for human life. The Gardener’s Year is a picture of both the provincialism of man and his position within the largest natural, psychological, social, cultural and historical contexts.. It is a picture, assisted by his brother Josef’s drawings, which Karel creates with great intelligence, humour and charm.” I hope that’s stirred your interest enough to get yourself a copy and start smiling!