Childhood: The Garden of Pinks

Introduction | Exhibit Homepage | Credits

Liberty Hyde Bailey, Sr., at the Bailey homestead (where Liberty Hyde Bailey, Jr., was born and raised) in South Haven, Michigan, ca. 1900s. Direct digital scan from glass plate negative, photograph by Liberty Hyde Bailey [Jr.]. Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum & Gardens, South Haven, Michigan.

“From earliest boyhood the pinks have been my companions. Mounds and rings of Grass pinks were in the front yard, left there by my mother, so different in their delicacy from the weeds and brush of the forest from which the farm was cut that they seemed like tokens from another and remoter earth.” –LHBGC, p. 204

On March 15, 1858, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Jr. was born in the small frame house depicted above, on what many settlers then considered the “frontier” of western Michigan, outside the village of South Haven. Three years later, Bailey’s family experienced tragedy when his eldest brother Dana died from scarlet fever, followed the next year by his mother, Sarah Harrison Bailey, who succumbed to diphtheria.

Sarah did not leave her young son resourceless, however. As a way to help the four-year-old process the loss, his father, the elder Liberty Hyde Bailey (seen above, many years later), took his son out to the small garden patch in front of the house to tend the bed of grass pinks, or Dianthus plumarius, seen at left, that his mother had planted there. Every year from then on, Bailey kept a garden of some kind. He even experimented behind that same house with a system of sub-irrigation with copper pipes. He became an expert apple grafter, and an experimental tree in the backyard bore the results of his whimsy: a dozen apple varieties and even a couple pears, all growing from the same trunk.

The homestead today is preserved as the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum & Gardens, which continues to grow pinks in front of the house in honor of Sarah and of the man her youngest son would become. Archaeological excavations have even revealed the old copper piping in the backyard that Bailey likely laid there. As he describes above, the pinks grew in “mounds and rings […] in the front yard”—the mound visible in the background of Bailey’s photograph at the top of this page appears not to be Dianthus, but it gives a sense of how his mother may have grown them, and Bailey may have had the story in mind as he photographed his father on the old home place. We do know that, perhaps around the time he took that photo, he was also carrying roots from the pinks in his family’s gardens back to his home in Ithaca, where he transplanted them and thereby kept his birth mother’s Michigan flower garden going strong in New York. Indeed, the curious child-naturist of South Haven would never stop experimenting with new ways to grow and tend plants, even into his nineties…

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