Thoreau's Gardening Expenses: Reflections on the History of Gardening and Gardeners

A look at Henry David Thoreau's gardening expenses at Walden Pond sets this grower off on an ambling tour of horticultural history.

| January/February 1990

  • Burpee Seed Catalog 1876
    The Burpee annual seed catalog from 1901 celebrated the catalog's first quarter-century in publication.
  • Gardens at Versailles
    Gardens of yesteryear reflect a diversity of priorities: romance (Hampton Court was noted for King Henry VIIl's courting), raising food, and upper class ostentation—as this 19th-century bird's-eye view of the gardens of Versailles captures vividly.

  • Burpee Seed Catalog 1876
  • Gardens at Versailles

It all started over a year ago when we read Becky Rupp's Blue Corn and Square Tomatoes (Garden Way Publishing). Rupp's text, which traces the history and lore of America's favorite garden vegetables, didn't help us grow a single plant, but it was so finely written and such fascinating fun to read that our office copy repeatedly disappeared. Since the whole staff had become Rupp fans, we finally persuaded Becky to take time out from her many projects to write the following essay, providing us with some enjoyable food for thought to help start this new gardening year. 

Henry David Thoreau, during Walden Pond's balmy spring of 1845, laid out $14.72 1/2 for garden supplies. The price included, he admitted shamefacedly, the hire of a neighboring farmer with team to do his plowing, but he got all his seed corn for free, so things seem to have averaged out. In view of this, our projected family garden expenditures—to include, in the wishful planning period, heirloom apple and fig trees, wine grapes, wisteria, lilac bushes, six colors of day lilies and (what the hell) a new rotary tiller attachment for the tractor—add up to a truly appalling total, a figure that can be contemplated, like the national debt, only in humiliated silence. Thoreau could have survived for years on it.

It doesn't help to turn a page or two and find Thoreau announcing smugly that his 1845 food bill was $8.74 and that the entire cost of his house (with windows, closet, brick fireplace and two trapdoors) was $28.12 1/2.

Now don't get me wrong; I admire Thoreau. I, too, believe in respect for the planet, in the duty of civil disobedience, and in stepping to the music that you hear, no matter how measured or far away. I, too, believe that it is better to sit on a pumpkin and have it all to yourself than to be crowded on a velvet cushion. But when it comes to gardening and the kind of economy Thoreau both practiced and advocated (Walden, Chapter One), I have a hard time coming up to scratch. I read seed catalogs and crave blackberry lilies, Spanish bluebells and the kind of irises that cost $6.75 apiece.

Seed catalogs. One of the few pleasures in the chilly and debt-ridden weeks after Christmas is the arrival of the seed catalogs of which we rake in some 30 or more, ranging from a 200-page full-color encyclopedic production on glossy paper down to a postcard from somebody in Ohio who raises nothing but Gilfeather turnips. It's a pleasure Americans have enjoyed for over a century. The earliest of our seed catalogs is generally attributed to a Mr. B.K. Bliss of Springfield, Massachusetts, which publication, enticingly illustrated, first fell into the eager paws of American gardeners in 1853.

Mr. Bliss has long since vanished from the seed-selling scene, but many of his contemporaries vociferously survive. Prominent among them is W. Atlee Burpee, whose firm in Warminster, Pennsylvania, gives us the "Garden Book." The W, for those of you who fret over such minor mysteries, stands for Washington; W. Atlee was named for his maternal grandfather, who was probably named for George. (The original Atlees, family legend has it, descended from a 12th century Sir Richard Atlee, friend of Robin Hood and father of Maid Marian.) W. Atlee went into the seed business at an age when most of us are flounderingly emerging from high school, publishing in 1876 his first catalog: a four-page poultry-dominated folder titled "Catalog of High Class Land and Water Fowls." It had a black-and-white picture of ducks on the cover. Three years later the "Catalog" had become the "Farm Annual" and was increasingly vegetable. Included among the Land and Water Fowls, the Scotch Colly Dogs and the Thoroughbred Pigs was the fabulous Surehead Cabbage: "No other cabbage," gloated the catalog of 1888, "has elicited so many voluntary expressions of praise." Also featured were the Celestial pepper from China, the dauntingly named Ironclad watermelon, and Persian Rose Muscatelle tobacco, which came, said Mr. Burpee, to Philadelphia from Hungary and to Hungary straight from the garden of the Shah of Persia, where it grew monstrous leaves large enough to cover the body of a fair-sized man.

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