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Advice for the gardener -- through the centuries

Time drags for gardeners who are waiting impatiently for spring. We watch eagerly for the new garden catalogs. We reread gardening books. Some of us even peruse the garden manuals of centuries ago for the pleasure of it.

Surprisingly, basic advice changes little. It is the quaint way it is presented that appeals.

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Consider, for example, the teachings of the great Gerard in his ''General Historie of Plants,'' first published in England in 1597. He reminds his followers that ''lettuce delighteth to grow in a manured, fat, and moist ground, especially at the very first spring, as soon as winter is done.''

Gerard stresses that onions, too, ''requireth a fat ground, well digged, and dunged.'' Of cucumbers, also called cowcumbers,m he states that certain long ones were first made by ''art and manuring.'' There he gives credit to certain innovators who endeavored to make those long-ago cucumbers straight by inserting them into hollow canes as they grew.

Jump ahead two centuries to Thomas Jefferson's time. In 1776, at age 23, he began a diary of planting and growing. In 1944 the accumulated papers were published by the American Philosophical Society as ''Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book.''

The book is informative and sometimes gently amusing. Such entries as ''Planted a bed of forwardest peas'' and ''Planted a bed of middling peas,'' plus references to ''Marrowfats,'' ''Tom Thumbs,'' and ''Black Eyes,'' make plain that peas were a favorite dish.

There is almost a pensive note to the entry, ''The last dish of peas.''

Jefferson's gardening enthusiasm had him trying vegetables, flowers, fruits, and trees from all over the world. The correspondence was voluminous with the famous and less famous.

At Monticello he tried olives, bush cranberries, figs, rice, and more, some not well suited to the climate of western Virginia. In 1797 a Mr. Giroud sent seeds of a ''bread-tree.'' Jefferson, doubtless envisioning a new and wonderful food supply, replied with the following: ''One service of this kind rendered to the nation is worth more than all the victories of the most splendid pages of history.''

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Jefferson supervised well his fields of grain, cotton, corn, and more. He raised sheep and cattle, mules and horses. He worked to improve the moldboard plow. He kept close watch of his nailery and sold the nails for a profit. Yet he had time to note in his diary the arrival of the first whippoorwill.

Jefferson also had time to pen this homespun observation: ''A quart of currant juice makes two blue teacups of jelly.''

Time spent away as governor of Virginia, on ambassadorial duties, and as the third president of the United States found him missing his second calling. ''No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,'' he wrote. And ''I have often thought that if Heaven had given me a choice of my position or calling, it should have been a rich spot of earth somewhere.''

''Retiring and feeling aged at only 45, he said: ''Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.''

Jefferson's diary reveals a steady correspondence with a seedsman named Bernard McMahon. A transplanted Irishman, McMahon had set up a seed business in Philadelphia and later wrote a large book entitled ''The American Gardener.'' He described it as a ''complete account of all the work to be done in the flower garden, orchard, pleasure ground, and more.''

McMahon wastes no time, starting off in January to ''make yourself busy with rubbing out and cleaning your seeds.'' Also, he admonished his readers to get the garden tools in repair, as well as ''produce from the woods a quantity of pea rods.''

Failure to be on time with these rods, fan-shaped at the top with the earth-end pointed, would find the pea crop greatly injured for lack of support.

McMahon early advised Jefferson to build wooden hotbeds and lights (glassed lids) and to ''at least once a fortnight plant in them small salading -- cresses , mustard, rape, radishes, and likewise lettuce to cut while young.'' Lettuce outside the beds ''may be defended against the cold with hoop arches and mats.''

McMahon suggests a border of parsnips, artichokes, and spinach. He recommends growing salsify for its fleshy roots and delicious tubers to eat with meat. Tomatoes are listed as love apples.

He wrote at length of growing the black mulberry tree to feed silkworms, and of the paper mulberry to make paper. But such departures are rare. McMahon was all business. With much practical advice he carried the reader faithfully and almost ruthlessly through the seasons.

McMahon provided good advise to countless gardeners, even as did Jefferson and Gerard.

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