There is no more industrious, hard-working, or better class of men to be found anywhere than among the nurserymen of Florence. They get very little local encouragement, and the greater part of their trade is done for exportations; for Tuscany is considered the great market-garden of Italy. But there is very little knowledge and less science. If I grumble to my gardener when I find a plant dead, he is quite surprised at the unreasonableness of my complaint.“I planted it Signora,” he will reply. “Is it my fault if the plant died? Am I the good God to make it live? Have we not all got to die?” If I represent to him that his raison d’etre is to keep the plants alive, and that I pay him for that purpose, he goes away deeply aggrieved, and no doubt thinks these forestieri, and this Signora in particular, most unreasonable.
I have always found the gardener’s place the most difficult of all to fill, in the domestic economy. Perhaps, out of all the candidates, the only man that seems to you at all suitable, is one whose home is miles away, and that at once constitutes an insuperable difficulty. In this country storms get up so suddenly, that it is essential that the gardener be within call, or at least, at no great distance. Then it is customary for him to do a good many little things about the house, of a morning; and a man may be fit for garden work, but not suited for this kind of service. And to get honesty in domestic service, is, as Italians themselves tell you, so difficult, that if you get that, you must be prepared to sacrifice other desiderata. After our first gardener departed, I decided that, having now got all the preliminary hard work done, I would only have a man three days a week. The first one I had in this way came out of a good farming family, and was capable enough, but an utter scamp. I gave him some packets of seeds one morning, just before his dinner hour, and when I went into the garden after lunch, he came to me with about half of them in his hand, and said that when he returned from his dinner these were all he could find. I pointed out that we had counted over these packets together, and that he was responsible for them, whereupon he said that the whole place was so open, any one could come in and take things away. I rejoined that it was curious that the person who had abstracted the missing packets, should have known exactly which were the best and most expensive sorts, and that if they were not forthcoming I should be under the painful necessity of deducting the amount they had cost from his wages, which I did. The lesson was not forgotten.
For several years I was, practically, my own gardener, with a man or a boy to assist. An English friend with a property in our neighbourhood had a good head-gardener, who generally had two or three apprentices, and often had one to recommend. Of course, the drawback was, that as the youth “got on”, he wanted a settled place. I remember arranging, with the father of one of these, terms and conditions of service. The son, a great strapping fellow, stood by, and raised no objections whatever. When I went out into the garden he came to me and informed me that, if I did not at once agree to pay him so much more than the sum agreed upon, he was capable to taking up every pot in the place and throwing it out in the road. This was agreeable for a beginning. I thought it prudent to temporize, and said, if he would finish the job on which he was then engaged, I would consider the matter. I returned in about an hour and asked why he had not objected to the terms offered when he heard me arranging them with his father. He replied that respect for his progenitor had kept him silent. “Well”, I said, “please come this way”, and I adroitly got him down the courtyard, and out at the gate, which I immediately closed behind him, and recommended him to return home, adding that he need not again present himself on my premises.
Another of these youths came one morning to say that henceforth he meant only to serve the queen of England, and must depart at once. It was the first spring that Her Majesty was staying in the neighbourhood of Florence, and some extra hands were required temporarily at the Villa Palmiere.Another, an excellent young gardener, who was with me for some time, heard of a good permanent place in the south of Italy, and, to secure it, had to go in the very middle of some work we were doing. Later on he returned to Tuscany, and I would gladly have taken him back, but by that time I had a permanent gardener of my own. It is very strange that these young Tuscans never seem to thrive out of their own province. I have seen so many go away, and return in a few years with their health greatly impaired.