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

Spread the love

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.

Article Categories:


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

    bittenbyknittin 2nd June 2017 5:36 am
  • Ha, gardeners showing restraint? Highly unlikely 😉

    Drew Tracy 5th July 2017 1:57 am
  • Sounds like a good book if you have a ranchburger and want to know period landscaping. I have an early ’20’s house and have collected many garden books from the early teens. The advice I found most confusing was to put road scrapings on your vegetable garden. Huh? Pre car pre paved streets meant lots of horse manure, sawdust (used to keep dust down) and dirt. Road maintenance was pretty much limited to horse drawn grader. Celery was the vegetable of the moment. Like kale is now. One writer had a 20 x 30′ plot of nothing but celery. Roasted, braised, creamed, and even canned.

    admin 6th July 2017 1:04 pm
  • 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 6th July 2017 6:49 pm
  • Oh yes, iris were very popular.

    admin 7th July 2017 9:06 am
  • 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.

    anne 7th July 2017 12:22 pm
  • Very few pictures and written descriptions that I find confusing. Take a picture and send it to Old House Gardens. An heirloom bulb and rhizomes company. They might be able to identify it.

    admin 7th July 2017 1:39 pm
  • 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.

    Steve 7th July 2017 2:40 pm
  • 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

    Weedyseedy 8th July 2017 10:50 am
  • 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!

    Beth 8th July 2017 12:26 pm
  • Hmmm…must have been the handbook used by Harriet Nelson… The whole good taste and restraint thing. 🙂 ~Julie

    admin 8th July 2017 1:02 pm
  • How fleeting is fame?

    Annie in Austin 8th July 2017 4:14 pm
  • So interesting!@ And how do you happen to know of him? Susan

    Garden Rant 9th July 2017 11:03 am

Leave a Comment