Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Where is horticulture going today? PART 1 - Early days.

  Things have pretty much finished in the garden for this year except for a few stragglers and the winter flowering shrubs, the garden is waterlogged in parts and it is no longer practical to do very much so I must turn from the physical to the more cerebral.

I recently read a post regarding the BBC's new series The Great British Garden Revival on the The Patient Gardener's Weblog which, although I have not found the series particularly inspiring so far, made me think of just where is gardening going now or for that matter where has it been going for the last 50 years.

I have been involved with plants from an early age, both plants and insects always fascinated me. Before the age of ten I remember my parent's suburban garden where my dad grew magnificent delphiniums although, much like many of today's garden owners, he wasn't really interested in the garden as a whole and in fact our November 5th bonfire was placed in the middle of the lawn, or grass as it was then, this was not uncommon as neighbours tended to do similar things. The people next door had chickens and also a vine house, I have no idea how this came about, but it was a half brick structure with the vine planted outside, you are talking lower middle class semi-detached housing here! Most people grew some vegetables as a habit gained from the war and there were thriving allotments just down the road. The plants that stick in my memory from this time was cat-mint, easy to grow and strangely scented, sweet peas because everyone seemed to grow them, lilac, privet hedges and the weeds Shepherd's Purse and Chickweed.

We moved out to a more rural setting when I was eleven years old and gained a much bigger corner plot, my parents being woken up at six in the morning by sounds from outside which turned out to be coming from one George Washington, the gardener which the previous owners had neglected to tell them about. The planting consisted of several pollarded trees spaced equidistantly round the perimeter, grass and several bits of overgrown, dead straight borders and a bit of rockery, the whole populated by asters, phlox, astrantia, aquilegia, London Pride, mossy saxifrages, Alchemilla mollis, forsythia,laburnum and roses, which was typical of many gardens at that time. The one anomaly was the Stag's horn sumach (Rhus typhina 'Laciniata') of which there were several specimens locally. Money was tight and garden centers where you could spend your non-existent disposable income didn't exist either.  

About this time, in fact for Christmas 1960, my parents bought me the Gardener's Golden Treasury which was a compendium of three volumes by A.G.L.Hellyer who was then the editor of Amateur Gardening, with this as my bible I could do no wrong!


No prizes for the name of the dominant plant stem.*

The local shop was a sort of pets and gardens mix and I started working there at weekends from the age of thirteen and loved every minute of it, one of the focal points was an artificial low level rockery terrace with a plastic dish water feature which although naff by today's standards was ideal for displaying house plants, particularly as it provided the necessary humidity to produce a beneficial micro-climate. Rochfords House Plants were the main supplier and I believe they are still going today but perhaps not in the same format. House plants were all the rage then, people had a glimpse into the rest of the world through television and exotic plants became almost affordable to everyday folk as opposed to being only available to the grand houses and botanical gardens, you could actually have a bit of exotica in your living room. Although the Victorians had been doing this with mainly foliage plants since the mid-eighteen hundreds, it was only the well to do who could actually afford them.

I gained a place at Horticultural College although I should have gone to university but had spent too much time at school looking out of the window wishing I was out there! My father was none too pleased as his chance was denied by his parents who had sent him out to earn money. I had to do a year's practical and, not living in a truly rural area with a handy grower just around the corner, I managed to get a job with Manchester Parks Department which was three bus rides from home, how many kids would take that on today? It taught me a great deal, from how to dig flower beds and maintain the proper camber to scrubbing clay pots in icy cold water and Jeyes Fluid every day for a month. Looking back now horticultural practice hadn't changed much since the Victorians and neither had gardening as a whole.

To be continued.......................................

*In case you didn't know it is Cardiocrinum giganteum.


  1. Fascinating how your horticultural upbringing mirrors my own. Same lower middle class semis, horticulturally naive parents and a years practical at local parks!
    I agree about Arthur Hellyer, Amateur Gardening was my first magazine. I loved reading his wonderful articles in the Financial Times- the rest of the paper did me very little good at all!

    1. The good thing about working for the parks was that I earned £7.14s.6d. a week classed as a labourer, whilst the apprentices earned £5 although we all did the same jobs!
      I have several old books and society journals and sometimes wonder how we appreciated plants we didn't know before the advent of colour printing.

  2. Hi Rick
    Enjoyed your background story. Reminded me of the 50s when I spent a lot of time at my grandparents. Happy new year and I hope 2014 brings you a lot of gardening pleasure..

    1. Hi Alistair.
      Great to hear from you again, I hope everything went well with the move and that you had a good Christmas. I look forward to seeing your posts again once you get started with the new garden. All the best for 2014.

  3. Hi Rick, I enjoyed the start of your story, although being from Norway and only resident here in Britain since the age of 35 (since 1999), some of the things here is a bit difficult to relate to. By the way, houseplants has never gone out of fashion in Norway, I think I read somewhere that Norwegians have the most houseplants in the world. Possibly because the summers are shorter than here and the winters colder so having a bit of a garden indoors helps with the winter blues.
    Looking forward to your next chapter!

    1. Thanks for your comment Helene, I am sure that you are correct in what you say about the Norwegians affinity for houseplants, I can imagine how they would be a boost on the long winter nights. I wonder if the same is true right across the more northerly regions?

  4. I remember the thrill of getting my first pay packet ( hope this comment appears in the right order)